Indeed, learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.
I didn't hit other people or hit purposefully, I just hit. Some object would be at fault. My anger was at myself, every time, all vanity. As an adolescent I was a slammer of drawers and a packer of suitcases. I was responsible for scenes.Control came imperfectly to all of us: we reached it at different times of life, frustrated, shot into indignation, by different things - some that are grown out of, and others not.Of all my strong emotions, anger is the one least responsible for any of my work. I don't write out of anger. For one thing, simply as a fiction writer, I am minus an adversary - except, of course, that of time - and for another thing, the act of writing in itself brings me happiness.
It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they come from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them -- with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them ...
Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.
It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.
Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer's own life.
Both reading and writing are experiences--lifelong-- in the course of which we who encounter words used in certain ways are persuaded by them to be brought mind and heart within the presence, the power, of the imagination.
Since we must and do write each our own way, we may during actual writing get more lasting instruction not from another's work, whatever its blessings, however better it is than ours, but from our own poor scratched-over pages. For these we can hold up to life. That is, we are born with a mind and heart to hold each page up to, and to ask: is it valid?
For the source of the short story is usually lyrical. And all writers speak from, and speak to, emotions eternally the same in all of us: love, pity, terror do not show favorites or leave any of us out.
I learned from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to.
I painlessly came to realize that the reverence I felt for the holiness of life is not ever likely to be entirely at home in organized religion. It was later, when I was able to travel farther , that the presence of holiness and mystery seemed, as far as my vision was able to see, to descend into the windows of Chartres, the stone peasant figures of Autun, the tall sheets of gold on the walls of Torcello that reflected the light of the sea; in the frescoes of Piero, of Giotto; in the shell of a church wall in Ireland still standing on a floor of sheep-cropped grass with no ceiling other than he changing sky.
I've always been shy physically. This in part tended to keep me from rushing into things, including relationships, headlong. Not rushing headlong, though I may have wanted to, but beginning to write stories about people, I drew near slowly; noting and guessing, apprehending, hoping, drawing my eventual conclusions out of my own heart, I did venture closer to where I wanted to go.
Surely even those immune from the world, for the time being, need the touch of one another, or all is lost.
Through learning at my later date things I hadn't known, or had escaped or possibly feared realizing, about my parents - and myself - I glimpsed our whole family life as if it were freed of that clock time which spaces us apart so inhibitingly, divides young and old, keeps our living through the same experiences at separate distances. It is our inward journey that leads us through time - forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling. Each of us is moving, changing, with respect to others. As we discover, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intensely do we experience this when our separate journeys converge. Our living experience at those meeting points is one of the charged dramatic fields of fiction.
The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily - perhaps not possibly - chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.
The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, over time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.
Two by two, I read library books as fast as I could go, rushing them home in the basket of my bicycle. From the minute I reached our house, I started to read. Every book I seized on stood for the devouring wish to read being instantly granted. I knew this was bliss, knew it at the time. Taste isn't nearly so important; it comes in its own time. I wanted to read immediately. The only fear was that of books coming to an end.
What discoveries I made in the course of writing stories all begin with the particular, never the general. They are mostly hindsight: arrows that I now find I myself have left behind me, which have shown me some right, or wrong, way I have come. What one story may have pointed out to me is of no avail in the writing of another. But 'avail' is not what I want; freedom ahead is what each story promises - beginning anew. And all the while, as further hindsight has told me, certain patterns in my work repeat themselves without my realizing. There would be no way of knowing this, for during the writing of any single story, there is no other existing. Each writer must find out for himself, I imagine, on what basis he lives with his own stories.
It was not my intention - it never was - to invent a character who should speak for me, the author, in person. A character is in a story to fill a role there, and the character's life along with its expression of life is defined by that surrounding - indeed is created by its own story. Yet, it seems to me now, years after I wrote The Golden Apples, that I did bring forth a character with whom I came to feel oddly in touch. She derived from what I already knew for myself, even felt I had always known. What I have put into her is my passion for my own life work, my own art. Exposing yourself to risk is a truth that Mrs. Eckhart and I had in common. What animates and possesses me is what drives Mrs. Eckhart, the love of her art and the love of giving it, the desire to give it until there is no more left. Of course any writer is in part all of his characters. How otherwise would they be known to him, occur to him, become what they are? In the making of her character out of my most inward and most deeply felt self, I would say I have found my voice in my own fiction.
Learning stamps you with it's moments. Childhood's learning is made up of moments. It isn't steady. It's a pulse.
Evere since I was first to read, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line read that I didn't hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It wasn't my mother's voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the poem or the story itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers - to read as listeners - and with all writers, to write as listeners. It may be part of the desire to write. The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me. Whether I am right to trust so far I don't know. By now I don;t know whether I could do either one, reading or writing, without the other.
In real life I fell easily under the spell of all traveling artists. En route to New Orleans, entertainments of many kinds would stop over in those days for a single performance in Jackson's Century Theatre. Then, as now, my imagination was magnetized toward transient artists - toward the transience as much as the artists. I must have seen Acrobats in a Park at the time I wrote the story as exotic, free of any experience as I knew it. At the center of the little story is the Zorro's act: the feat of erecting a structure of their bodies that holds together, interlocked, and stands like a wall. Writing about the family act, I was writing about the family itself, its strength as a unit, testing its frailty under stress. I treated it in an artificial and oddly formal way; the stronghold of the family is put on view as a structure built each night; on the night before the story opens, the Wall has come down when the most vulnerable member slips, and the act is done for. But from various points within it and from outside it, I've been writing about the structure of the family in stories and novels ever since. In spite of my uncompromising approach to it, my fundamental story form might have been trying to announce itself to me.
On the train I saw that world passing my window. It was when I came to see it was I who was passing that my self-centered childhood was over. But it was not until I began to write, that I found the world out there revealing, because memory had become attached to seeing, love had added itself to discovery, and because I recognized in my own continuing longing to keep going, the need I carried inside myself to know - the apprehension, first, and then the passion, to connect myself to it. Through travel I first became aware of the outside world; it was through travel that I found my own introspective way into becoming a part of it. This is, of course, simply saying that the outside world is the vital component of my inner life. My imagination takes its strength and guides its direction from what I see and hear and learn and feel and remember of my living world. But I was to learn slowly that both these worlds, outer and inner, were different from what they seemed to me in the beginning.
She (my mother) stood always prepared in herself to challenge the world in our place. She did indeed tend to make the world look dangerous, and so it had been to her. A way had to be found around her love sometimes, without challenging that, and at the same time cherishing it in its unassailable strength. Each of us children did, sooner or later, in part at least, solve this in different, respectful, complicated ways.
Taking trips tore all of us up inside, for they seemed, each journey away from home, something that might have been less selfishly undertaken, or something that would test us, or something that had better be momentous, to justify such a leap into the dark. The torment and guilt - the torment of having the loved one go, the guilt of being the loved one gone - comes into my fiction as it did and does in my life. And most of all the guilt then was because it was true: I had left to arrive at some future and secret joy, at what was unknown, and what was no in New York, waiting to be discovered. My joy was connected with my writing; that was as much as I knew.
In children's art class we sat in a ring of kindergarten chairs and drew three daffodils that had just been picked out of the yard; and while I was drawing, my sharpened yellow pencil and the cup of the yellow daffodil gave off wiffs just alike. That the pencil doing the drawing should give off the same smell of the flower it drew seemed part of the art lesson - as shouldn't it be? Children, like animals use all their sense to discover the world. Then artists come along and discover it the same way, all over again. Here and there, it's the same world. Or now and then we'll hear from an artist who's never lost it.
Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it's an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from it's hole.
When one of us (children) caught measles or whooping cough and we were isolated in bad upstairs, we wrote notes to each other perhaps on the hour. Our devoted mother would pass them for us, after first running them in a hot oven to kill the germs. They came into our hands curled up and warm, sometimes scorched like toast.
All children in those small-town, unhurried days had a vast inner life going on in the movies. Children were allowed to go without chaperone in the afternoons. My sense of making fictional comedy undoubtedly first caught its spark from the antic pantomime of the silent screen, and from having a kindred soul to laugh with.
Great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel. Eventually, it may show us how to face our feelings and face our actions and to have new inklings about what they mean. A good novel of any year can initiate us into our own new experience.
Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction; in particular, the novel.
Fiction shows us the past as well as the present moment in mortal light; it is an art served by the indelibility of our memory, and one empowered by a sharp and prophetic awareness of what is ephemeral. It is by the ephemeral that our feeling is so strongly aroused for what endures, or strives to endure.
Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer's own life. This has been the case with me. Connections slowly emerge. Like distant landmarks you are approaching, cause and effect begin to align themselves, draw closer together. Experiences too indefinite of outline in themselves to be recognized for themselves connect and are identified as a larger shape. And suddenly a light is thrown back, as when your train makes a curve, showing that there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you've come, is rising there still, proven now through retrospect. Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is ever lost.
My father did not bring it up, but of course I knew that he had another reason to worry about my decision to write. Though he was a reader, he was not a lover of fiction, because fiction is not true, and for that flaw it was forever inferior to fact. If reading fiction was a waste of time, so was the writing of it. Why is it, I wonder, that humor didn't count? Wodehouse, for one, whom both of us loved, was a flawless fiction writer.
The fantasies of dying could be no stranger than the fantasies of living. Survival is perhaps the strangest fantasy of them all.
The camera was a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know. It had more than information and accuracy to teach me. I learned in the doing how ready I had to be. Life doesn't hold still. A good snapshot stopped a moment from running away. Photography taught me that to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was the greatest need I had. Making pictures of people in all sorts of situations, I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture, and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it. These were things a writer needed to know. And I felt the need to hold transient life in words - there's so much more of life that only words can convey - strongly enough to last me as long as I lived. The direction my mind took was a writer's direction from the start, not a photographer's or a recorder's.