Advice

Learning to Write From Uncle Ben

Brian Taylor

January 18, 2011

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is perhaps the first American self-help book. It has been selling like crazy for centuries and has been one of the most downloaded free e-books on Amazon since the Kindle came out.

There has long been generational fickleness about how to respond to the book. Now that the economy is in the toilet, is it the time to remind ourselves that frugality and industry are virtues we want to inculcate? In this post-postmodern age, do we sneer at the idea of sincerity and justice?

Whatever. I love Ben Franklin's autobiography.

It's an essential part of American history and was instrumental in establishing a certain definition of the "American character." But it's also something else. It's a great book about writing.

Franklin attributes much of his professional success to being able to write well. He realized, early on, the importance of making an effort with the language, and he describes his own techniques of improving his writing.

Like all good writers, Franklin started out as a reader. "From a child I was fond of reading," he says, "and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books." One of his favorite books was Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan, from whom he cribbed a prose style that has led to much of what we now call creative nonfiction: "Honest John was the first that I know of who mix'd narration and dialogue; a method of writing very engaging to the reader, who in the most interesting parts finds himself, as it were, brought into the company and present at the discourse."

While indentured to his brother as an apprentice printer, Franklin took a fancy to poetry. He wrote some verses, which his brother printed, and wee Ben went around town selling them. They sold well. Flattery ensued. And then his father stepped in, ridiculing his performances and warning him that "verse-makers were generally beggars."

"So," Franklin writes, "I escaped being a poet, most probably a very bad one."

But he did realize the value of a deft literary style: "As prose writing has been of great use to me in the course of my life, and was a principal means of my advancement, I shall tell you how, in such a situation, I acquired what little ability I have in that way."

There was in town, he says, another "bookish lad" named John Collins. "We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of argument, and very desirous of confuting one another." This, he says, was not such a good thing: It is "apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice; and thence, besides souring and spoiling the conversation, is productive of disgusts and, perhaps enmities where you may have occasion for friendship. I had caught it by reading my father's books of dispute about religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinborough."

Franklin and Collins embarked on an exchange of letters about the education of women. Franklin argued for it—though he admits that his position was perhaps a little "for dispute's sake." His father found the letters and, not commenting on the content, pointed out that while Franklin was good at mechanics (due, in part, he says, to his work in the printing business), Collins had the better of him in terms of form. So Franklin set out to become a more elegant stylist.

He did that, as with many things in his life, systematically and programmatically. At that time he happened on an issue of Addison and Steele's Spectator, whose aim was "to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality ... to bring philosophy out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffee-houses."

Franklin was so taken with the work that first he read it for pleasure, and then, like any serious neophyte artist, he sought to imitate it. He would read an essay, make little notes about it, put it aside for a few days, and then attempt to reproduce it in his own words. He realized that he sometimes wanted for a good stock of words—something he believed he would have acquired if he had pursued poetry, "since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it."

He turned some of the essays into verse, and then, after a while, wrought them back into prose. He also did exercises in which he jumbled the order of the ideas, and then had to find a way to make a sound and methodical argument. In doing so, he says, "I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious."

As Franklin worked on his prose, he also worked on argumentation. He came across an English grammar book and learned about the Socratic method. "I was charm'd with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter." He became increasingly annoying by drawing people into complex Socratic dialogues and "gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such ... reasons."

He claims that habit led to his persuasive success: "If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix'd in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire."

One of the most famous parts of Franklin's autobiography is his list of 13 virtues. In truth, I'm not much interested in temperance, liking to drink to excess and eat until I have to go lie down. Having survived as a freelance writer and graduate student, and now flush with a regular day job and no children to support, I'm done with frugality.

My motto for moderation is an adaptation of Nike's slogan: Why just do it, when you can overdo it? So most of what Franklin considered virtuous is lost on me. (As, indeed, it was on him in his later years.) But he had me at humility. Or rather, his deployment of the appearance of it.

Like many of those who dare to put their opinions in print for all to read and rip into, I suffer from a certain stubborn pridefulness. As a gadfly type of gal, I can't help but tell people when I think they're dead wrong, and like Franklin, I find nothing so delightful as the pleasure of direct contradiction. But as Franklin points out, humility is a useful rhetorical strategy: He was able to find some spot where he could agree with an opponent—and then go on to show how that person was wrong.

While I find Franklin's stance appealing, I think perhaps many contemporary academics may have become a little too Franklinesque in their argumentative style, hesitant and timid—though polite reticence seems to evaporate when given the option of commenting anonymously.

If we were to use Ben as a model, to learn to sharpen our prose by imitating writers we admire, paying close attention to style, and making arguments knowing the limitations and quirks of our own personalities, we might be more likely to have an influence on the real world. Me, I want to be like Ben. Plus, he's funny as all get-out. He concludes his list of virtues with the following:

"In reality there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history. For, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility."

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University, in Spokane. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.