You Can’t Wait for Inspiration. You Have To Go After It With a Club

Jack London? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I belong to a great group for writers in Florida, and a recent announcement message on our mailing list included a motivational quotation attributed to the author and journalist Jack London:

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

Since London died in 1916 I thought I would be able to find a citation before that date, but I am having difficulty obtaining one. Did London actually say this or something similar?

Quote Investigator: Yes, London did express this thought. But the original wording he used was more picturesque and perhaps less intelligible to the modern reader. He referred to loafing and said “light out after it” instead of “go after it”: 1

Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.

London was a prolific writer who depended on his literary skills for his livelihood. This saying is from a 1905 essay of instruction that he wrote titled “Getting Into Print” which appeared in several publications under different titles and was reprinted multiple times over the years.

Below are the first two paragraphs revealing London’s early emphasis on achieving story sales to magazines:

As soon as a fellow sells two or three things to the magazines or successfully inveigles some publisher into bringing out a book, his friends all ask him how he managed to do it. So it is fair to conclude that the placing of books and of stories with the magazines is a highly interesting performance.

I know it was highly interesting to me; vitally interesting, I may say. I used to run through endless magazines and newspapers, wondering all the time how the writers of all that stuff managed to place it. To show that the possession of this knowledge was vitally important to me, let me state that I had many liabilities and no assets, no income, several mouths to feed, and for landlady a poor widow woman whose imperative necessities demanded that I should pay my rent with some degree of regularity. This was my economic situation when I buckled on the harness and went up against the magazines.

The internet and electronic books are causing an ongoing upheaval in the publishing industry. London’s absorbing disquisition is from another era. Here is a longer excerpt containing the quotation under investigation:

Don’t dash off a six-thousand-word story before breakfast. Don’t write too much. Concentrate your sweat on one story, rather than dissipate it over a dozen. Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will none the less get something that looks remarkably like it. Set yourself a “stint,” and see that you do that “stint” each day; you will have more words to your credit at the end of the year.

Study the tricks of the writers who have arrived. They have mastered the tools with which you are cutting your fingers. They are doing things, and their work bears the internal evidence of how it is done. Don’t wait for some good Samaritan to tell you, but dig it out for yourself.

In conclusion, Jack London did express the view ascribed to him in the mailing list message, and his words of advice are still referenced today in major publications. A June 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal accurately reprinted the quotation sentence given above: 2

Want to be a writer? Then Jack London is your man. Though best known as the author of “The Call of the Wild” (1903), he was a veritable writing machine, producing 50 books before his premature death at age 40. …

He was highly disciplined, churning out 1,000 words a day. Procrastination was not in his vocabulary. “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club,” he advised newcomers, “and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”

Thanks for your question.

Notes:

  1. 1905, Practical Authorship, Edited by James Knapp Reeve, “Getting Into Print” by Jack London, Start Page 140, Quote Page 143, The Editor Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 2011 June 18, Wall Street Journal, Call of the Tough, Tireless Writer by Joseph McAleer, New York. (Accessed at wsj.com on 2011 September 21, Wall Street Journal online) link