“No art ever came out of not risking your neck.”
By Maria Popova
“Longest way around is the shortest way home,” James Joyce wrote in one of the most memorable lines in literature — so memorable and impactful perhaps because it harnesses so exquisitely the ineffable yet enthralling role of place in writing. That’s precisely what Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909–July 23, 2001) explores in an extended 1956 meditation found in On Writing (public library) — an indispensable handbook on the art of mastering the most important pillars of narrative craft, from language to memory to voice, and a fine addition to the collected wisdom of great writers.
Welty begins by considering how place shapes the “goodness” of good writing:
As soon as we step down from the general view to the close and particular, as writers must and readers may and teachers well know how to, and consider what good writing may be, place can be seen, in her own way, to have a great deal to do with that goodness, if not to be responsible for it. How so?
First, with the goodness — validity — in the raw material of writing. Second, with the goodness in the writing itself — the achieved world of appearance, through which the novelist has his whole say and puts his whole case. … Third, with the goodness — the worth — in the writer himself: place is where he has his roots, place is where he stands; in his experience out of which he writes, it provides the base of reference; in his work, the point of view.
Mutual understanding in the world being nearly always, as now, at low ebb, it is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another, if the other can hear at all. 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, indeed, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction; in particular, the novel.
She offers a beautiful metaphor, delightful in its object’s datedness yet timeless in its sentiment, for how fiction works its illuminating magic:
Some of us grew up with the china night-light, the little lamp whose lighting showed its secret and with that spread enchantment. The outside is painted with a scene, which is one thing; then, when the lamp is lighted, through the porcelain sides a new picture comes out through the old, and they are seen as one. A lamp I knew of was a view of London till it was lit; but then it was the Great Fire of London, and you could go beautifully to sleep by it. The lamp alight is the combination of internal and external, glowing at the imagination as one; and so is the good novel. Seeing that these inner and outer surfaces do lie so close together and so implicit in each other, the wonder is that human life so often separates them, or appears to, and it takes a good novel to put them back together.
This fusion of the separateness of human life, she argues, is the core responsibility of the writer, who upholds it by separating the meaningful from the meaningless through a series of choices — a concept curiously similar to French polymath Henri Poincaré’s assertion that “to invent is to choose” in his 1908 description of how the inventor’s mind works. Welty writes:
This makes it the business of writing, and the responsibility of the writer, to disentangle the significant — in character, incident, setting, mood, everything — from the random and meaningless and irrelevant that in real life surround and beset it. It is a matter of his selecting and, by all that implies, of changing “real” life as he goes. With each word he writes, he acts — as literally and methodically as if he hacked his way through a forest and blazed it for the word that follows. He makes choices at the explicit demand of this one present story; each choice implies, explains, limits the next, and illuminates the one before. … What tells the author his way? Nothing at all but what he knows inside himself: the same thing that hints to him afterward how far he has missed it, how near he may have come to the heart of it. In a working sense, the novel and its place have become one: work has made them, for the time being, the same thing, like the explorer’s tentative map of the known world.
In noting that “establishing a chink-proof world of appearance” is the primary responsibility of the writer, Welty returns to the power of place, which she argues is the writer’s best way of reconciling the quest for truth with the awareness of the deliberate construction of this world of appearance:
Place being brought to life in the round before the reader’s eye is the readiest and gentlest and most honest and natural way this can be brought about, I think; every instinct advises it. The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animated the whole of his work.
Feelings are bound up in place, and in art, from time to time, place undoubtedly works upon genius. . . . It may be that place can focus the gigantic, voracious eye of genius and bring its gaze to point. Focus then means awareness, discernment, order, clarity, insight — they are like the attributes of love. The act of focusing itself has beauty and meaning; it is the act that, continued in, turns into mediation, into poetry. Indeed, as soon as the least of us stands still, that is the moment something extraordinary is seen to be going on in the world.
Place, above all, is an instrument of the imagination, which at once shrouds things in fruitful illusion and strips them to their bare essence:
Place, to the writer at work, is seen in a frame. Not an empty frame, a brimming one. Point of view is a sort of burning-glass, a product of personal experience and time; it is burnished with feelings and sensibilities, charged from moment to moment with the sun-points of imagination. It is an instrument — one of intensification; it acts, it behaves, it is temperamental. … The writer must accurately choose, combine, superimpose upon, blot out, shake up, alter the outside world for one absolute purpose, the good of his story. To do this, he is always seeing double, two pictures at once in his frame, his and the world’s, a fact that he constantly comprehends; and he works best in a state of constant and subtle and unfooled reference between the two. It is his clear intention — his passion, I should say — to make the reader see only one of the pictures — the author’s — under the pleasing illusion that it is the world’s; this enormity is the accomplishment of a good story. I think it likely that at the moment of the writer’s highest awareness of, and responsiveness to, the “real” world, his imagination’s choice (and miles away it may be from actuality) comes closest to being infallible for his purpose. For the spirit of things is what is sought. No blur of inexactness, no cloud of vagueness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose.
Welty adds to this a point of advice to aspiring writers:
One of the most important things the young writer comes to see for himself is that point of view is an instrument, not an end in itself, that is useful as a glass, and not as a mirror to reflect a dear and pensive face. Conscientiously used, point of view will discover, explore, see through — it may sometimes divine and prophesy. Misused, it turns opaque almost at once and gets in the way of the book.
And so we return to the chief responsibility of art and the artist, which swings reader and writer into an intimate dance of believing and being believed:
Making reality real is art’s responsibility. It is a practical assignment, then, a self-assignment: to achieve, by a cultivated sensitivity for observing life, a capacity for receiving its impressions, a lonely, unremitting, unaided, unaidable vision, and transferring this vision without distortion to it onto the pages of a novel, where, if the reader is so persuaded, it will turn into the reader’s illusion. How bent on this peculiar joy we are, reader and writer, willingly to practice, willingly to undergo, this alchemy for it!
This alchemy, Welty argues, is the alchemy of place:
The sense of place is as essential to good and honest writing as a logical mind; surely they are somewhere related. It is by knowing where you stand that you grow able to judge where you are. Place absorbs our earliest notice and attention, it bestows on us our original awareness; and our critical powers spring up from the study of it and the growth of experience inside it. It perseveres in bringing us back to earth when we fly too high. It never really stops informing us, for it is forever astir, alive, changing, reflecting, like the mind of man itself. One place comprehended can make us understand other places better. Sense of place gives equilibrium; extended, it is sense of direction too. Carried off we might be in spirit, and should be, when we are reading or writing something good; but it is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and in every sense of the word to bring us home.
Since place is always bound up in our boundaries, Welty echoes Anaïs Nin’s timeless wisdom on embracing the unfamiliar and cautions:
For the artist to be unwilling to move, mentally or spiritually or physically, out of the familiar is a sign that spiritual timidity or poverty or decay has come upon him; for what is familiar will then have turned into all that is tyrannical.
Indeed, this vital willingness to move toward the unfamiliar is entwined with our willingness to take risks, which is what keeps us moving, if not spatially, then at least spiritually. Welty ends with a beautiful reflection:
No art ever came out of not risking your neck. And risk — experiment — is a considerable part of the joy of doing, which is the lone, simple reason all [writers] are willing to work as hard as they do.
The open mind and the receptive heart — which are at last and with fortune’s smile the informed mind and the experienced heart — are to be gained anywhere, any time, without necessarily moving an inch from any present address.
On Writing is a must-read in its entirety and a superb addition to these favorite books on writing. Complement it with more advice on the craft from great writers, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.