The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
Simply stated, maybe too simply, it is the writer’s business first to have something of his own to say; second, to say it in his own language and style. You must have heard this many times before; but I think it is one of the primary rules to keep in mind. The great thing is to convey to you, in this saying, a sense of the reality and the truth of what he tells you, with some new light thrown upon it that gives you a glimpse into some wider world not built with hands. It is like the dizzying blue in the upper right-hand corner of some of Brueghel’s paintings. I remember especially the two versions of the fall of Icarus. The lower left-hand corner is real, no doubt about it: we have all seen such fields, such figures of men, such furrows and animals; but the upper right-hand corner is true too, though it is this vast transfiguration of blue such as we may never have seen in the sky over us, but it exists for us because Brueghel has made it. Artists create monsters and many different sorts of landscapes; and they are true, if the artists are great enough to show you what they have seen. Matisse has said: the painter should paint the thing he knows. So far as it goes, this is good advice. The question is, how much more does any artist know imaginatively than factually? That is his test; for Dante knew both heaven and hell without ever having seen them; and described them for us so that we know them too: and Shakespeare, taking legends and his own great fertility, created for us countries which did not exist until then: but they exist now, and we may travel in them when we please. Only yesterday, I was looking again at some of Dürer’s scenes representing St. John’s revelations, and I am glad Dürer chose not to stick by the thing he knew with the eye of the flesh even though that was an exceptionally clear and magical eye too. But I have his view of the Apocalypse, and it is mine: I was there.
So the reader, whether with pleasure, pain, or even disgust (it is not necessary for you always to be pleased), must still find himself in the atmosphere created for him by the artists, and the artists do not always create a pleasant world, because that is not their business. If they do that, you will be right not to trust them in anything. We must leave all that to people whose affair it is, to smooth our daily existence a little. Great art is hardly ever agreeable; the artist should remind you that, for some, experience is a horror in this world, and that the human imagination also knows horror. He should direct you to points of view you have not examined before, or cause you to comprehend, even if you do not sympathize with predicaments not your own, ways of life, manners of speech, even of dress, above all of the unique human heart, outside of your normal experience. And this can better be done by presentation than by argument. This presentation must be real, with a truth beyond the artist’s own prejudices, loves, hates; I mean his personal ones. The outright propagandist sets up in me such a fury of opposition I am not apt to care much whether he has got his facts straight or not. He is like someone standing on your toes, between you and an open window, describing the view to you. All I ask of him to do is to open the window, stand out of the way, and let me look at the view for myself. Now truth is a very tall word, and we are rather apt to tag our pet theories and beliefs with this abused word. Let me reconsider a moment and say, the writer must have honesty, he should not wilfully distort and obscure. Now I have said always that honesty in any case is not enough, but it is an indispensable element in the arts. No legend is ever true, but I believe all of them are founded on some germ of truth; and even these truths appear in different lights to every mind they are presented to, and the legend is that work of art which goes on in the human mind, adding to and arranging, harmonizing and rounding out, making larger or smaller than life, and holding the entire finished product in a good light and asking you to believe it. And it is true. No memory is really faithful. It has too far to go, too many changing landscapes of the human mind and heart, to bear any sort of really trustworthy witness, except in part. So the truth in art is got by change. In the work of art, nothing can be accidental: the sprawling, chaotic sense of that word as we use it in everyday life, where so many things happen to us that we by no means plan, it takes craftsmanship quite often beyond our powers to manage by plan even a short day for ourselves. The craftsmanship of the artist can make what he wishes of anything that excites his imagination. Craftsmanship is a homely, workaday thing. It is a little like making shoes, or weaving cloth. A writer may be inspired occasionally: that’s his good luck; but he doesn’t learn to write by inspiration: he works at it. In that sense the writer is a worker, a workingman, a workingwoman. Writing is not an elegant pastime, it is a sober and hardworked trade, which gives great joy to the worker. The artist is first a worker. He must roll up his sleeves and get to work like a bricklayer. The romantic notion of the artist—persons who live their romances, those who depend on the gestures, the dress, the habits, of what they hope is genius—hoping by presenting the appearance of genius, genius would be added to them.
It is not a career, it is a vocation; it is not a means to fame and glory—it is a discipline of living—and unless you think this, it is better not to take it up. It is not the sort of thing one “takes up” as one might take up knitting and put it down again.
All this you can learn about the mechanics, the technique, and it is all to the good for your education. It cannot make you an artist. But it will make of you a better reader, a cleverer critic, it will make of you some one the artist must look out for, and it will make for him an audience that he can’t trifle with even if he would.
“I MUST WRITE FROM MEMORY. . .”
From the Notebooks
Paris, Fall, 1936
Perhaps in time I shall learn to live more deeply and consistently in that undistracted center of being where the will does not intrude, and the sense of time passing is lost, or has no power over the imagination. Of the three dimensions of time, only the past is “real” in the absolute sense that it has occurred, the future is only a concept, and the present is that fateful split second in which all action takes place. One of the most disturbing habits of the human mind is its willful and destructive forgetting of whatever in its past does not flatter or confirm its present point of view. I must very often refer far back in time to seek the meaning or explanation of today’s smallest event, and I have long since lost the power to be astonished at what I find there. This constant exercise of memory seems to be the chief occupation of my mind, and all my experience seems to be simply memory, with continuity, marginal notes, constant revision and comparison of one thing with another. Now and again thousands of memories converge, harmonize, arrange themselves around a central idea in a coherent form, and I write a story. I keep notes and journals only because I write a great deal, and the habit of writing helps me to arrange, annotate, stow away conveniently the references I may need later. Yet when I begin a story, I can never work in any of those promising paragraphs, those apt phrases, those small turns of anecdote I had believed would be so valuable. I must know a story “by heart” and I must write from memory. Certain writing friends whose judgments I admire, have told me I lack detail, exact observation of the physical world, my people hardly ever have features, or not enough—that they live in empty houses, et cetera. At one time, I was so impressed by this criticism, I used to sit on a camp stool before a landscape and note down literally every object, every color, form, stick and stone before my eyes. But when I remembered that landscape, it was quite simply not in those terms that I remembered it, and it was no good pretending I did, and no good attempting to describe it because it got in the way of what I was really trying to tell. I was brought up with horses, I have harnessed, saddled, driven and ridden many a horse, but to this day I do not know the names for the different parts of a harness. I have often thought I would learn them and write them down in a note book. But to what end? I have two large cabinets full of notes already.
NO PLOT, MY DEAR, NO STORY
This is a fable, children, of our times. There was a great big little magazine with four and one half million subscribers, or read
So the editors thought up something beautiful and sent out alarms to celebrated authors and the agents of celebrated authors, asking everybody to think hard and remember the best story he had ever read, anywhere, anytime, and tell it over again in his own words, and he would be paid a simply appalling price for this harmless pastime.
By some mistake a penniless and only semi-celebrated author got on this list, and as it happened, that was the day the government had threatened to move in and sell the author’s typewriter for taxes overdue, and a dentist had threatened to sue for a false tooth in the very front of the author’s face; and there was also a grocery bill. So this looked as if Providence had decided to take a hand in the author’s business, and he or she, it doesn’t matter, sat down at once and remembered at least one of the most beautiful stories he or she had ever read anywhere.* It was all about three little country women finding a wounded man in a ditch, giving him cold water to drink out of his own cap, piling him into their cart and taking him off to a hospital, where the doctors said they might have saved their trouble for the man was as good as dead.
The little women were just silly enough to be happy anyway that they had found him, and he wasn’t going to die by himself in a ditch, at any rate. So they went on to market.
A month later they went back to the hospital, each carrying a wreath to put on the grave of the man they had rescued and found him there still alive in a wheelchair; and they were so overcome with joy they couldn’t think, but just dropped on their knees in gratitude that his life was saved; this in spite of the fact that he probably was not going to be of any use to himself or anybody else for a long time if ever. . . . It was a story about instinctive charity and selfless love. The style was fresh and clear as the living water of their tenderness.
You may say that’s not much of a story, but I hope you don’t for it would pain me to hear you agree with the editors of that magazine. They sent it back to the author’s agent with a merry little note: “No plot, my dear—no story. Sorry.”
So it looks as if the tax collector will get the author’s typewriter, and the dentist the front tooth, and the crows may have the rest; and all because the poor creature was stupid enough to think that a short story needed first a theme, and then a point of view, a certain knowledge of human nature and strong feeling about it, and style—that is to say, his own special way of telling a thing that makes it precisely his own and no one else’s. . . . The greater the theme and the better the style, the better the story, you might say.
You might say, and it would be nice to think you would. Especially if you are an author and write short stories. Now listen carefully: except in emergencies, when you are trying to manufacture a quick trick and make some easy money, you don’t really need a plot. If you have one, all well and good, if you know what it means and what to do with it. If you are aiming to take up the writing trade, you need very different equipment from that which you will need for the art, or even just the profession of writing. There are all sorts of schools that can teach you exactly how to handle the 197 variations on any one of the 37 basic plots; how to take a parcel of characters you never saw before and muddle them up in some difficulty and get the hero or heroine out again, and dispose of the bad uns; they can teach you the O. Henry twist; the trick of “slanting” your stuff toward this market and that; you will learn what goes over big, what not so big, what doesn’t get by at all; and you will learn for yourself, if you stick to the job, why all this happens. Then you are all set, maybe. After that you have only to buy a pack of “Add-a-Plot” cards (free ad.) and go ahead. Frankly, I wish you the luck you deserve. You have richly earned it.
But there are other and surer and much more honest ways of making money, and Mama advises you to look about and investigate them before leaping into such a gamble as mercenary authorhood. Any plan to make money is a gamble, but grinding out “slanted” stuff takes a certain knack, a certain willingness to lose all, including honor; you will need a cold heart and a very thick skin and an allowance from your parents while you are getting started toward the big money. You stand to lose your youth, your eyesight, your self-respect, and whatever potentialities you may have had in other directions, and if the worst comes to the worst, remember, nobody promised you anything. . . . Well, if you are going to throw all that, except the self-respect, into the ash can, you may as well, if you wish to write, be as good a writer as you can, say what you think and feel, add a little something, even if it is the merest fraction of an atom, to the sum of human achievement.
First, have faith in your theme, then get so well acquainted with your characters that they live and grow in your imagination exactly as if you saw them in the flesh; and finally, tell their story with all the truth and tenderness and severity you are capable of, and if you have any character of your own, you will have a style of your own; it grows, as your ideas grow, and as your knowledge of your craft increases.
You will discover after a great while that you are probably a writer. You may even make some money at it.
One word more: I have heard it said, boldly and with complete sincerity by persons who should know better, that the only authors who do not write for the high-paying magazines are those who have not been able to make the grade; that any author who professes to despise or even disapprove of such writing and such magazines is a hypocrite; that he would be too happy to appear in those pages if only he were invited.
To such effrontery I have only one answer, based on experience and certain knowledge. It is simply not true.
“WRITING CANNOT BE TAUGHT. . .”
(recorded on tape)
In full summer, eighteen years ago, during a short return from Paris, where I was then living, I stood up before my first group of student writers at a Writers’ Conference in a small midwestern college, Olivet College, Olivet, Michigan, 1936. The students, a mixed audience of all ages and sorts of persons, gazed at me with what I took to be challenging if not hostile expectancy; I gazed back, stricken. The full rather awful meaning of our gathering there, confronting each other, had just dawned upon me for I confess I had not taken the invitation to speak there to beginning writers very seriously. I still took it for granted that any writer worth taking seriously would naturally be at home where he belonged doing his work by himself under his own power. Why in this world should he be asking advice from me or any other writer, and what could he get from talk that he could not better find in the published books of those he wished to study? Yet, I told myself, it cannot possibly harm anyone to spend two weeks in a year reading and talking about great literature, even trying his hand at putting words and phrases together to discover what the work really is; at least it will help to do away with careless reading, as the study of music makes for good listening; whoever tries to paint never just glances carelessly at a canvas or a statue again. Or so I wish to believe. Lightheartedly I had come there, happy at the chance to see some of my old friends who were writers, to enjoy the human sociability, and to talk a little about writing, which I then liked to do. I don’t anymore, and it is the Writers’ Conferences which have cured me.
So I stood there frozen under the weight of a responsibility I had assumed so easily it seems now, remembering, almost to have been frivolity on my part. These people sitting there were expecting something from me that I had been engaged to deliver without knowing what I had promised. They had come, many of them, from teaching jobs, from o
Whatever my carefully prepared opening line was to be, it disappeared. I said: “If you came here hoping for a miracle, there can be none. If you believe that you have paid to receive here a magic formula, a secret you may use at will, you have done no such thing. Writing, in any sense that matters, cannot be taught. It can only be learned, and learned by each separate one of us in his own way, by the use of his own powers of imagination and perception, the ability to learn the lessons he has set for himself. That is, if your intention is to try yourself out, to find whether or not you have the makings of an artist. If you have come to make this test on yourself, then this place might be a very good trial field for you—or better, a workshop, like a silversmith’s or a cabinetmaker’s. I mention these two because they are two of many fine crafts in which trickiness, dishonesty or just poor sense of form cannot be disguised, any more than they can be in writing; and you may properly expect here professional instruction in the working of what Henry James calls your ‘soluble stuff.’ The good artist is first a good workman, and yet you may become a very good workman without ever becoming a master. Nothing else is worth aspiring to, and we all run the risk of never arriving at it. If you have the vocation, it is very well worth spending a lifetime at it by living in the love of your work, you cannot be wasted. After all it is a lovely thing to live in the light and the presence of the great arts, and by this light and this presence to practice your own to the farthest reach of your own gift. So I am here to read your manuscripts and talk to you about them, so that in talking to me you may perhaps be able better to clear up your own doubts and difficulties. A working artist myself trying hopefully to do better someday, I shall show you as well as I can such technical devices as may have worked for me—eventually you must find your own. It is a good thing to know all the rules, but remember they are not the wings of Pegasus, but mere step-ladders, stilts, or even crutches, if you rely on them as such. The great works of literature come first, remember, and all rules, devices, techniques, forms, are founded on them, made out of their tissues, and every true genius creates new ones, or gives us imaginative (and workable) variations on the old. The familiar knowledge of this continuous, changing, bountiful life of the human imagination is something not to be missed, should be valued for its own sake, even if no one in this room ever writes another line.”