Florence James and journalism, 1940

Florence James, with Dymphna Cusack, wrote one of Australia’s most successful novels set in World War 2, Come In Spinner. She was also a literary agent and journalist – and wrote regularly for The ABC Weekly which I referred to in a post a few days ago. In the 23 March 1940 issue was her article titled “Writing for profit doesn’t always pay”. Like Zelda Reed, from my first post on the topic, she refers to women’s ambition to be journalists, but she takes quite a different tack. She commences with:

It seems that there is only one thing standing in the way of half my friends becoming journalists, and that is Cruel Fate.

She then lists how Cruel Fate has quashed her friends’ ambitions. There’s

  • Jean who “has always had journalism in her bones” but for whom the social round and her work in a beauty parlour have stopped her “get[ting] down to it”;
  • Margaret who writes tediously long letters but believes that she could write a book as against “those little articles of yours” that “can’t take much time to dash off” but doesn’t recognise the time taken in “writing and rewriting, cutting and altering and writing all over again”;
  • Anne who once read testimonials from people who had learnt journalism in two months from a correspondence college and thus wondered how James “could spend a whole day at so simple a job which was so clearly only a pastime for the more gifted”; and
  • the friend who beat her in English at school and who, if she didn’t have her 9-5 job as private secretary to an important businessman, could easily “lead the charming carefree, money-for-jam life of a freelance journalist”.
Writing (from Churl @ Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial No Derivative License 2.0)

Writing (from Churl @ Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial No Derivative License 2.0)

None of these friends, she says, will believe that as a freelance journalist she cannot write what she likes, when she likes. They don’t see the times a journalist must miss out on a special event like the ballet or a friend’s wedding because a job suddenly comes in from the editor who is her bread-and-butter. They don’t know the pain of having “your beautiful story … cut down to a quarter of its original size because a cable has just come describing the contents of Lady Muck Tuck’s 39 wardrobe trunks that she is bringing to Australia”. They don’t realise that no matter how good your essays were at school or how much your friends love your letters or how many poems or plays you have in your head, “you have got to write down your inspiration in a form which someone will think is good enough for them to buy”.

There’s the rub [she says]. Believe it or not few journalists are born, and most of them are made by the sweat of their brows. The only way to learn to write is to write and write and write, not at your own sweet will as Margaret writes her letters, not between cooking and serving dinner, not at the call of elusive inspiration, but regularly and faithfully, working towards a standard of publication day in and day out as regularly as you would have to practise the piano if you wanted to be a concert performer.

I like this. It makes me feel it’s okay to keep writing here. Not that I intend to be a journalist but I would like to improve my style. By writing here and by reading other blogs, surely I’ll get better. Better enough that people will want to buy – not with money, but with hits on my page!

6 thoughts on “Florence James and journalism, 1940

  1. Oh very good — I like this.

    Ironically, journalism is not about writing but about fact-gathering and asking questions (occasionally, brutal and impolite ones) of people that often do not want to talk to you! It’s a lot of chasing, chasing and chasing. Fortunately, our methods of contacting people have broadened, so the days of only being able to do face-to-face interviews are long over: now it’s the phone or email or text messaging or online forums and Twitter etc etc.

    You also need very thick skin – for so many different reasons, including the fact that half your work will get spiked or chopped or messed up by a meddling sub-editor!!

    How you could be a journalist in between the cake baking and working in a beauty parlour I do not know! That bit made me laugh out loud!

  2. I thought you might. I hope her friends didn’t take offence. 🙂 This weekly is gorgeous. I plan to read more if I can in coming weeks – I want to read lots of each issue but there’s just not enough time. There are regular columns by Vance Palmer too – but I just couldn’t read them all.

    Ah yes, I suppose you are right – journalism is about that isn’t it? I guess she’s talking about the days when women didn’t get to do much of that but perhaps wrote opinion columns etc??

  3. A veyr interesting post. You write perfectly well and your blog although new, gives the impression of having been around for some time.

    We write because we have to I suppose. Self-publishing by blogging gives “instant gratification” and no editor!

    • Thanks Tom. You’re right, we write because we have to, but I still feel vaguely self-conscious about it which is why I only started this recently. It is such fun though isn’t it?

  4. Fascinating – I’ve never heard of it, although I read Canadian authors. I shall watch out for the longlist.

    Thanks for visiting mine by the way and sorry for delay in replying – its that time of year! In answer to your question about Manguel’s History of Reading, yes, I own it and have read it – highly recommended in my view.

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