" Fiction is Truth’s elder sister ... no one in the world
knew what truth was until some one had told a story."
Advice to a sister-in-law | Apprenticeship
Some early work | Working tools
At a conference in Vermont in 2013, David Alan Richards, Kipling’s bibliographer, spoke of Kipling as a short story writer, and gave some examples of what he had said about writing. Kipling's emphasis on writing as a craft echoes this stern warning from T. S. Eliot, a former Vice President of the Kipling Society:
The larger part of the labor of an author in composing his work is critical labor: the labor of sifting, combining, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing: this frightful toil is as much critical as creative.To Edward Lucas White in November 1893, using language he was later to employ for his sister-in-law Josephine Balestier, Kipling wrote:
Don’t go theorizing. Concreteness in expression is all very well if you happen to like it but consider how it may be a stumbling block to another make of mind. For myself I love not to hear a spade called a spade because there are so many varieties of spade; and so by preference I say when writing of such: a balance handle, cutting edge, Beaver Falls finishing or sod spade, as the case may be, but I can easily conceive how maddening that must be to a fellow who doesn’t care two damns for anything except agricultural implements in the mass. Every man is too apt to make the law of his temperament the fly wheel of all creation.To the readers of "How the Whale Got His Tiny Throat" in the December 1897 St. Nicholas Magazine, he wrote in his introduction:
‘Some stories are meant to be read quietly and some stories are meant to be told aloud.’To the Royal Academy in 1906, responding to the toast to ‘Literature’, he observed:
Witness, a thousand excellent, strenuous words can leave us quite cold or put us to sleep, whereas a bare half hundred words breathed upon by some man in his agony, or in his exaltation, or in his idleness, ten generations ago, can still lead whole nations into and out of captivity; can open to us the doors of the Three Worlds, or stir us so intolerably that we can scarcely abide to look at our own souls. It is a miracle – one that happens very seldom.To the Royal Society of Literature in 1926, when awarded the society’s Gold Medal, he said:
The art that I follow is not an unworthy one. For Fiction is Truth’s elder sister. Obviously, no one in the world knew what truth was until some one had told a story. So it is the oldest of the arts, the mother of history, biography, philosophy ... and, of course, of politics....[Y]ou can see writers raking the dumps of the English language for words that shall range farther, hit harder, and explode over a wider area than the service-pattern words in common use....Most of the Arts admit the truth that it is not expedient to tell everyone everything. Fiction recognizes no such bar. There is no human emotion or mood which it is forbidden to assault.there is no canon of reserve or pity that need be respected.in fiction.To Augusta Twedell of Simla in 1888, who had sent him poems and a manuscript, Kipling warned, first quoting from a poem by Longfellow
'That is best which lieth nearest/ Shape from that thy work of art':To the Canadian Authors’Association in 1933, he remarked on another aspect of the writer’s use of his personal experiences in writing stories, and quoted the French Canadian carpenter who had literally built Naulahka:
It is with us [authors] as with timber. Every knot and shake in a board reveals some disease or injury that overtook the log when it was growing. A gentleman named Jean Pigeon, who once built a frame house for me, put this in a nutshell. He said: ‘Everything which a tree she has experienced in the forest she takes with her into the house.’ That is the law for us [authors] all, each in his or her land.To his aunt Louisa Baldwin in 1895, who had sent him the manuscript of her book of ghost stories, and whom he bluntly accused of ‘padding’ and 'journalese':
The Lord he knoweth I would not counsel you to bring up your backgrounds too much (that’s my besetting sin) but only to elaborate them cleanly and clearly in a few well chosen words that bring air and light and perspective into the show, and that, I take it, is openly attained by considering every word of minor dialogue and description and most resolutely avoiding the set phrase. It’s a mistake we are all of us most prone to in our business.
Around the same time, in Vermont in the mid-1890s his wife Carrie's sister, Josephine asked him for advice on writing. This is what he gave her:
The Short Story
arranged for the use of Josephine Balestier
We have been grateful to be able to draw on the account by David Alan Richards of Kipling's advice on the writer's craft published in in KJ 355 for July 2014, where you can find references for all the quotations. Many other texts are to be found in "Writings on Writing—Rudyard Kipling", edited by Sandra Kemp and Lisa Lewis, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
From the age of twelve, as a schoolboy, Kipling was resolved to be a published writer, an ambition that became keener year by year. He wrote incessantly, mainly poems, some humorous accounts of school life, some more private poems about his feelings for a girl he had fallen for. He published a few of these later, but you will find many others, collected from scrapbooks, on this site.
Because he was no good at games his headmaster, Cormell Price, who was a friend of his father, encouraged his interest in literature:
He gave Beetle the run of his brown-bound, tobacco-scented library; prohibiting nothing, recommending nothing. There Beetle found a fat armchair, a silver inkstand, and unlimited pens and paper. There were scores and scores of ancient dramatists; there were Hakluyt, his voyages; French translations of Muscovite authors called Pushkin and Lermontoff; little tales of a heady and bewildering nature, interspersed with unusual songs—Peacock was that writer’s name; there was Borrow’s Lavengro; an odd theme, purporting to be a translation of something called a ‘Rubáiyát,’ which the Head said was a poem not yet come to its own; there were hundreds of volumes of verse—Crashaw; Dryden; Alexander Smith; L.E.L.; Lydia Sigourney; Fletcher and a purple island; Donne; Marlowe’s Faust; and—this made M‘Turk (to whom Beetle conveyed it) sheer drunk for three days—Ossian; The Earthly Paradise; Atalanta in Calydon; and Rossetti—to name only a few. Then the Head, drifting in under pretence of playing censor to the paper, would read here a verse and here another of these poets, opening up avenues. And, slow breathing, with half-shut eyes above his cigar, would he speak of great men living, and journals, long dead ...In his last term the Head made him Editor of the school magazine, the United Services College Chronicle.
A world of work
In November 1882, at the age of sixteen he became Assistant Editor of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, in India, and found himself writing for his living. His Editor, a professional of the old school, was not interested in poems or creative writing, he made Rudyard learn the hard graft of sub-editing to put a newspaper together under pressure. As Kipling writes in Something of Myself (Ch. III, 'Seven Years Hard'):
My Chief took me in hand, and for three years or so I loathed him. He had to break me in, and I knew nothing. What he suffered on my account I cannot tell; but the little that I ever acquired of accuracy, the habit of trying at least to verify references, and some knack of sticking to desk-work, I owed wholly to Stephen Wheeler. I never worked less than ten hours and seldom more than fifteen per diem; and as our paper came out in the evening did not see the midday sun except on Sundays ... Our native Foreman, on the News side, Mian Rukn Din, a Muhammedan gentleman of kind heart and infinite patience, whom I never saw unequal to a situation, was my loyal friend throughout ...Very quickly though, Rudyard had shown his capacity to keep his head down, learn fast, and deliver. When he had only been in post a few weeks and Wheeler had a riding accident, he had to take over the paper at Christmas time. Before long he was sent out on reporting assignments, and here again he delivered clear vivid well-written copy which could be fitted, under pressure, into the columns of the day's edition.
He thrived in India, and was fascinated by the marvellous panorama of places and people, the sights and sounds and smells, despite the fearsome working conditions. He lived with his family, talking endlessly to his father, a trained artist and craftsman, an expert on Indian art, and a writer himself, author of Beast and Man in India.
He also played literary games with his young sister, with whom he wrote parodies and sketches, and he revelled in times on leave in the hills at Simla. The Indian Government made its headquarters there in the summer months, there was a round of parties and entertainments and rides in the mountains, and a constant flow of gossip, official and unofficial—great scope for satire.
There was no space or opportunity for creative writing for the CMG, so this had to be done in such leisure as he had outside office hours. But he had immense energy and determination, and also found in his reporting work good opportunities for experimenting with language, observing and describing new scenes and peoples, writing of relationships and feelings, and finding his own voice - or several voices. He wrote under several different pen-names. His first stories were published privately at the end of 1885 and were followed by many more. He was also writing verse in a light satirical tone of voice, which was not always as light-hearted as it seemed.
In June 1886 he published twenty-six Departmental Ditties about Anglo-Indian life. In the same month a new Editor, Kay Robinson, was appointed to the CMG, with a brief to give the paper more 'sparkle'. Robinson had a high opinion of Kipling's literary ability, and encouraged him to contribute stories to the paper, which grew into his first collection of short stories, Plain Tales from the Hills, which were anything but plain. He was contracted in January 1888 by an Indian publisher for six paperbacks of short stories to be sold on railway bookstalls, which were a big success. All this time his journalism continued in a stream of articles and reports.
Elections take place in the early morning, and, long before the hour of opening the poll, the ground is covered with a swaying many-voiced crowd, eagerly discussing each candidate’s chances, and impartially accusing everyone concerned in the matter of flagrant bribery and corruption. At one ward election I noticed that every circle of talkers had a gay-turbaned, deep-voiced centre man, and by this centre man the movements of the circle were regulated — a faint adumbration, hereafter to be made perfect, of the ‘boss’ system in ward politics. He looked after the wavering among his followers, as a mother hen might guard her brood from the machinations of a kite, and secured them good places in the crowd. The appearance of a white face on the ground was the signal for a volley of complaints from Young India — aghast at the audacity of a mob which had dared to disregard his claims, and clamourous in denunciation of So and So’s ‘base tricks’. ‘Let us,’ cried one gentleman, clad in robes as snowy as his principles, ‘let us lay aside our personal feelings and vote for an able man. But the mass of the people are not sufficiently educated for this.’ And they weren’t. They could understand voting for a man, be he Hindu, Mahomedan, or Sikh, who, in time of need, might sanction the enlargement of their tharrahs and wink at the blockade of the drain below. Also they could understand food and four-anna pieces, and, in place of these things, young India offered them principles and patriotism, and they heeded him not. They were not sufficiently educated.
"The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows" (26 September 1884). (The speaker is Gabral Misquitta, an opium addict)
How did I take to it? It began at Calcutta. I used to try it in my own house, just to see what it was like. I never went very far, but I think my wife must have died then. Anyhow, I found myself here, and got to know Fung-Tching. I don’t remember rightly how that came about; but he told me of the Gate and I used to go there, and, somehow, I have never got away from it since. Mind you, though, the Gate was a respectable place in Fung-Tching’s time, where you could be comfortable and not at all like the chandoo-khanas where the niggers go. No; it was clean, and quiet, and not crowded. Of course, there were others beside us ten and the man; but we always had a mat apiece, with a wadded woollen headpiece, all covered with black and red dragons and things, just like the coffin in the corner.
At the end of one’s third pipe the dragons used to move about and fight. I’ve watched ’em many and many a night through. I used to regulate my Smoke that way, and now it takes a dozen pipes to make ’em stir. Besides, they are all torn and dirty, like the mats, and old Fung-Tching is dead. He died a couple of years ago, and gave me the pipe I always use now—a silver one, with queer beasts crawling up and down the receiver-bottle below the cup. Before that, I think, I used a big bamboo stem with a copper cup, a very small one, and a green jade mouthpiece. It was a little thicker than a walking-stick stem, and smoked sweet, very sweet. The bamboo seemed to suck up the smoke. Silver doesn’t, and I’ve got to clean it out now and then, that’s a great deal of trouble, but I smoke it for the old man’s sake. He must have made a good thing out of me, but he always gave me clean mats and pillows, and the best stuff you could get anywhere.
"The City of Dreadful Night" (10 September 1885).
A leper asleep; and the remainder wearied coolies, servants, small shopkeepers, and drivers from the hack-stand hard by. The scene—a main approach to Lahore city, and the night a warm one in August. This was all that there was to be seen; but by no means all that one could see. The witchery of the moonlight was everywhere; and the world was horribly changed. The long line of the naked dead, flanked by the rigid silver statue, was not pleasant to look upon. It was made up of men alone. Were the women-kind, then, forced to sleep in the shelter of the stifling mud-huts as best they might? The fretful wail of a child from a low mud-roof answered the question. Where the children are the mothers must be also to look after them. They need care on these sweltering nights. A black little bullet-head peeped over the coping, and a thin—a painfully thin—brown leg was slid over on to the gutter pipe. There was a sharp clink of glass bracelets; a woman’s arm showed for an instant above the parapet, twined itself round the lean little neck, and the child was dragged back, protesting, to the shelter of the bedstead. His thin, high-pitched shriek died out in the thick air almost as soon as it was raised; for even the children of the soil found it too hot to weep.
"The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes " (1 December 1885). (an Englishman has fallen into a sort of city of the dead. As one of them explains, there is no escape)
"In epidemics of the cholera you are carried to be burned almost before you are dead. When you come to the riverside the cold air, perhaps, makes you alive, and then, if you are only little alive, mud is put on your nose and mouth and you die conclusively. If you are rather more alive, more mud is put; but if you are too lively they let you go and take you away. I was too lively, and made protestation with anger against the indignities that they endeavored to press upon me. In those days I was Brahmin and proud man. Now I am dead man and eat”—here he eyed the well-gnawed breast bone with the first sign of emotion that I had seen in him since we met—"crows, and other things. They took me from my sheets when they saw that I was too lively and gave me medicines for one week, and I survived successfully. Then they sent me by rail from my place to Okara Station, with a man to take care of me; and at Okara Station we met two other men, and they conducted we three on camels, in the night, from Okara Station to this place, and they propelled me from the top to the bottom, and the other two succeeded, and I have been here ever since two and a half years. Once I was Brahmin and proud man, and now I eat crows."
"There is no way of getting out?"
"None of what kind at all."
"The Phantom Rickshaw" (1 December 1885).
Immediately opposite Peliti’s shop my eye was arrested by the sight of four jharnpanies in "magpie"livery, pulling a yellow-paneled, cheap, bazar ’rickshaw. In a moment my mind flew back to the previous season and Mrs. Wessington with a sense of irritation and disgust. Was it not enough that the woman was dead and done with, without her black and white servitors reappearing to spoil the day’s happiness? Whoever employed them now I thought I would call upon, and ask as a personal favor to change her jhampanies’ livery. I would hire the men myself, and, if necessary, buy their coats from off their backs. It is impossible to say here what a flood of undesirable memories their presence evoked.
"Kitty,"I cried, "there are poor Mrs. Wessington’s jhampanies turned up again! I wonder who has them now?"
Kitty had known Mrs. Wessington slightly last season, and had always been interested in the sickly woman.
"What? Where?"she asked. "I can’t see them anywhere."
Even as she spoke her horse, swerving from a laden mule, threw himself directly in front of the advancing ’rickshaw. I had scarcely time to utter a word of warning when, to my unutterable horror, horse and rider passed through men and carriage as if they had been thin air.
"What’s the matter?"cried Kitty; "what made you call out so foolishly, Jack? If I am engaged I don’t want all creation to know about it. There was lots of space between the mule and the veranda; and, if you think I can't ride——There!"
Whereupon wilful Kitty set off, her dainty little head in the air, at a hand-gallop in the direction of the Bandstand; fully expecting, as she herself afterward told me, that I should follow her. What was the matter? Nothing indeed. Either that I was mad or drunk, or that Simla was haunted with devils. I reined in my impatient cob, and turned round. The ’rickshaw had turned too, and now stood immediately facing me, near the left railing of the Comber-mere Bridge.
"Jack! Jack, darling!"(There was no mistake about the words this time: they rang through my brain as if they had been shouted in my ear.) "It’s some hideous mistake, I’m sure. Please forgive me, Jack, and let’s be friends again."
The 'rickshaw-hood had fallen back, and inside, as I hope and pray daily for the death I dread by night, sat Mrs. Keith-Wessington, handkerchief in hand, and golden head bowed on her breast.
A seasoned professional
Thus by the time he sailed for England from Calcutta, in March 1889, Kipling had kept himself by his pen for seven years, generated a prodigious output or articles, poems, and short stories, and published two major volumes and the makings of two further collections. On November 2nd 1889, less than a month after his return to England, he wrote to Caroline Taylor, to whom he was then engaged:
I did not come to England to write myself out at first starting - not by a very long sight. This seemeth to me the more perfect way. To go slowly and only do sufficient magazine work to enable me to rub along comfortably while I turn my attention to the novels and the books. A man can fritter himself away on piece work and be only but a little richer for it ... I have burned more than one solitary pipe over the question. Even regarding it from a business point of view the latter method pays better in the long-run. Wherefore I have refused in a brief poem of five stanzas the St. James's Gazette offer of a permanent engagement. Catch me putting my head into that old noose again –- and me hardly recovered from the constant surprises of seven years' journalism.£400 in 1889 was worth over £50,000 in 2020 values. He had found his voice, learned his trade by years of hard graft, and earned his independence. When he wrote about writing he knew what he was talking about. He was still only twenty-three.
From the final chapter of Something of Myself
written in his last years, forty-five years later:
Every man must be his own law in his own work, but it is a poor-spirited artist in any craft who does not know how the other man’s work should be done or could be improved. I have heard as much criticism among hedgers and ditchers and woodmen of a companion’s handling of spade, bill-hook, or axe, as would fill a Sunday paper ...
I forget who started the notion of my writing a series of Anglo-Indian tales, but I remember our council over the naming of the series. They were originally much longer than when they appeared, but the shortening of them, first to my own fancy after rapturous re-readings, and next to the space available, taught me that a tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know that the operation has been performed, but every one feels the effect. Note, though, that the excised stuff must have been honestly written for inclusion. I found that when, to save trouble, I ‘wrote short’ ab initio much salt went out of the work. This supports the theory of the chimaera which, having bombinated and been removed, is capable of producing secondary causes in vacuo.
This leads me to the Higher Editing. Take of well-ground Indian Ink as much as suffices and a camel-hair brush proportionate to the inter-spaces of your lines. In an auspicious hour, read your final draft and consider faithfully every paragraph, sentence and word, blacking out where requisite. Let it lie by to drain as long as possible. At the end of that time, re-read and you should find that it will bear a second shortening. Finally, read it aloud alone and at leisure. Maybe a shade more brushwork will then indicate or impose itself. If not, praise Allah and let it go, and ‘when thou hast done, repent not.’ The shorter the tale, the longer the brushwork and, normally, the shorter the lie-by, and vice versa. The longer the tale, the less brush but the longer lie-by. I have had tales by me for three or five years which shortened themselves almost yearly. The magic lies in the Brush and the Ink. For the Pen, when it is writing, can only scratch; and bottled ink is not to compare with the ground Chinese stick. Experto crede ...
I would not to-day recommend any writer to concern himself overly with reviews. London is a parish, and the Provincial Press has been syndicated, standardised, and smarmed down out of individuality. But there remains still a little fun in that fair. In Manchester was a paper called The Manchester Guardian. Outside the mule-lines I had never met anything that could kick or squeal so continuously, or so completely round the entire compass of things. It suspected me from the first, and when my ‘Imperialistic’ iniquities were established after the Boer War, it used each new book of mine for a shrill recount of my previous sins (exactly as C—— used to do) and, I think, enjoyed itself. In return I collected and filed its more acid but uncommonly well-written leaders for my own purposes. After many years, I wrote a tale (‘The Wish House’) about a woman of what was called ‘temperament’ who loved a man and who also suffered from a cancer on her leg—the exact situation carefully specified. The review came to me with a gibe on the margin from a faithful friend; ‘You threw up a catch that time!’ The review said that I had revived Chaucer’s Wife of Bath even to the ‘mormal on her shinne.’ And it looked just like that too! There was no possible answer, so, breaking my rule not to have commerce with any paper, I wrote to the Manchester Guardian and gave myself ‘out-—caught to leg.’ The reply came from an evident human being (I had thought red-hot linotypes composed their staff) who was pleased with the tribute to his knowledge of Chaucer ...
In respect to verifying one’s references, which is a matter in which one can help one’s Daemon, it is curious how loath a man is to take his own medicine. Once, on a Boxing Day, with hard frost coming greasily out of the ground, my friend, Sir John Bland-Sutton, the head of the College of Surgeons, came down to ‘Bateman’s’ very full of a lecture which he was to deliver on ‘gizzards.’ We were settled before the fire after lunch, when he volunteered that So-and-so had said that if you hold a hen to your ear, you can hear the click in its gizzard of the little pebbles that help its digestion. ‘Interesting,’ said I. ‘He’s an authority.’ ‘Oh yes, but’—a long pause—‘have you any hens about here, Kipling? ‘I owned that I had, two hundred yards down a lane, but why not accept So-and-so?’ ‘I can’t,’ said John simply, ‘till I’ve tried it.’
Remorselessly, he worried me into taking him to the hens, who lived in an open shed in front of the gardener’s cottage. As we skated over the glairy ground, I saw an eye at the corner of the drawn-down Boxing-Day blind, and knew that my character for sobriety would be blasted all over the farms before night-fall. We caught an outraged pullet. John soothed her for a while (he said her pulse was a hundred and twenty-six), and held her to his ear. ‘She clicks all right,’ he announced.
Like most men who ply one trade in one place for any while, I always kept certain gadgets on my work-table, which was ten feet long from North to South and badly congested. One was a long, lacquer, canoe-shaped pen-tray full of brushes and dead ‘fountains’; a wooden box held clips and bands; another, a tin one, pins; yet another, a bottle-slider, kept all manner of unneeded essentials from emery-paper to small screwdrivers; a paper-weight, said to have been Warren Hastings’ a tiny, weighted fur-seal and a leather crocodile sat on some of the papers; an inky foot-rule and a Father of Penwipers which a much-loved housemaid of ours presented yearly, made up the main-guard of these little fetishes.
My treatment of books, which I looked upon as tools of my trade, was popularly regarded as barbarian. Yet I economised on my multitudinous penknives, and it did no harm to my fore-finger. There were books which I respected, because they were put in locked cases. The others, all the house over, took their chances.
Left and right of the table were two big globes, on one of which a great airman had once outlined in white paint those air-routes to the East and Australia which were well in use before my death.
The craft of writing | Advice to a sister-in-law | Apprenticeship
Some early work | Working tools