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Eudora Welty on the Poetics of Place and Writing as an Explorer’s Map of the Unknown

“No art ever came out of not risking your neck.”

Eudora Welty on the Poetics of Place and Writing as an Explorer’s Map of the Unknown

“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.

Welty adds to history’s wisest meditations on art and echoes Tolstoy’s notion that art is a bridge of mutual understanding and argues that no form of art is better able to touch us than fiction:

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.

Inevitably, we get to the g-word: Place, Welty insists, plays into genius, for place helps us focus and focus helps us love, much like attention anchors us to reality:

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.


Gobble You Up: Ancient Indian Women’s Folk Art, Reimagined as Stunning Modern Storytelling

A heartening adaptation of an age-old mother-daughter art form, adapted visionary modern storytelling.

For nearly two decades, independent India-based publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a collective of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautiful books based on regional folk traditions, producing such gems as Waterlife, The Night Life of Trees, and Drawing from the City. A year after I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail — one of the best art books of 2012, a magnificent 17th-century British “trick” poem adapted in a die-cut narrative and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe — comes Gobble You Up (public library), an oral Rajasthani trickster tale adapted as a cumulative rhyme in a mesmerizing handmade treasure, illustrated by artist Sunita and silkscreened by hand in two colors on beautifully coarse kraft paper custom-made for the project. What makes it especially extraordinary, however, is that the Mandna tradition of tribal finger-painting — an ancient Indian art form practiced only by women and passed down from mother to daughter across the generations, created by soaking pieces of cloth in chalk and lime paste, which the artist squeezes through her fingers into delicate lines on the mud walls of village huts — has never before been used to tell a children’s story.

And what a story it is: A cunning jackal who decides to spare himself the effort of hunting for food by tricking his fellow forest creatures into being gobbled up whole, beginning with his friend the crane; he slyly swallows them one by one, until the whole menagerie fills his belly — a play on the classic Meena motif of the pregnant animal depicted with a baby inside its belly, reflecting the mother-daughter genesis of the ancient art tradition itself.

Indeed, Sunita herself was taught to paint by her mother and older sister — but unlike most Meena women, who don’t usually leave the confines of their village and thus contain their art within their community, Sunita has thankfully ventured into the wider world, offering us a portal into this age-old wonderland of art and storytelling.

Gita Wolf, Tara’s visionary founder, who envisioned the project and wrote the cumulative rhyme, describes the challenges of adapting this ephemeral, living art form onto the printed page without losing any of its expressive aliveness:

Illustrating the story in the Meena style of art involved two kinds of movement. The first was to build a visual narrative sequencing from a tradition which favored single, static images. The second challenge was to keep the quality of the wall art, while transferring it to a different, while also smaller, surface. We decided on using large sheets of brown paper, with Sunita squeezing diluted white acrylic paint through her fingers.

Gobble You Up, released in a limited edition of 7,000 numbered handmade copies, is unspeakably enchanting — the sort of treat we’ve come to expect from Tara’s repertoire of treasures, without ever ceasing to be surprised and awestruck by the creative bravery with which Gita Wolf bridges the timeless dignity of Indian folk traditions with the boundless inventiveness of modern experimental storytelling.

Page images courtesy of Tara Books; interior photographs by Maria Popova


How Our Minds Mislead Us: The Marvels and Flaws of Our Intuition

“The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.”

Every year, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman summons some of our era’s greatest thinkers and unleashes them on one provocative question, whether it’s the single most elegant theory of how the world works or the best way to enhance our cognitive toolkit. This year, he sets out on the most ambitious quest yet, a meta-exploration of thought itself: Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (public library) collects short essays and lecture adaptations from such celebrated and wide-ranging (though not in gender) minds as Daniel Dennett, Jonathan Haidt, Dan Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson, covering subjects as diverse as morality, essentialism, and the adolescent brain.

One of the most provocative contributions comes from Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman — author of the indispensable Thinking, Fast and Slow, one of the best psychology books of 2012 — who examines “the marvels and the flaws of intuitive thinking.”

In the 1970s, Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, self-crowned “prophets of irrationality,” began studying what they called “heuristics and biases” — mental shortcuts we take, which frequently result in cognitive errors. Those errors, however, reveal a great deal about how our minds work:

If you want to characterize how something is done, then one of the most powerful ways of characterizing how the mind does anything is by looking at the errors that the mind produces while it’s doing it because the errors tell you what it is doing. Correct performance tells you much less about the procedure than the errors do.

One of the most fascinating examples of heuristics and biases is what we call intuition — a complex cluster of cognitive processes, sometimes helpful but often misleading. Kahneman notes that thoughts come to mind in one of two ways: Either by “orderly computation,” which involves a series of stages of remembering rules and then applying them, or by perception, an evolutionary function that allows us to predict outcomes based on what we’re perceiving. (For instance, seeing a woman’s angry face helps us predict the general sentiment and disposition of what she’s about to say.) It is the latter mode that precipitates intuition. Kahneman explains the interplay:

There is no sharp line between intuition and perception. … Perception is predictive. . . . If you want to understand intuition, it is very useful to understand perception, because so many of the rules that apply to perception apply as well to intuitive thinking. Intuitive thinking is quite different from perception. Intuitive thinking has language. Intuitive thinking has a lot of word knowledge organized in different ways more than mere perception. But some very basic characteristics [of] perception are extended almost directly to intuitive thinking.

He then considers how the two types of mental operations established by modern cognitive science illuminate intuition:

Type 1 is automatic, effortless, often unconscious, and associatively coherent. . . . Type 2 is controlled, effortful, usually conscious, tends to be logically coherent, rule-governed. Perception and intuition are Type 1. … Type 2 is more controlled, slower, is more deliberate. . . . Type 2 is who we think we are. [And yet] if one made a film on this, Type 2 would be a secondary character who thinks that he is the hero because that’s who we think we are, but in fact, it’s Type 1 that does most of the work, and it’s most of the work that is completely hidden from us.

Type 1 also encompasses all of our practiced skills — for instance, driving, speaking, and understanding a language — which after a certain threshold of mastery enter autopilot mode. (Though this presents its own set of problems.) Underpinning that mode of thinking is our associative memory, which Kahneman unpacks:

You have to think of [your associative memory] as a huge repository of ideas, linked to each other in many ways, including causal links and other links, and activation spreading from ideas to other ideas until a small subset of that enormous network is illuminated, and the subset is what’s happening in the mind at the moment. You’re not conscious of it, you’re conscious of very little of it.

This leads to something Kahneman has termed “associative coherence” — the notion that “everything reinforces everything else.” Much like our attention, which sees only what it wants and expects to see, our associative memory looks to reinforce our existing patterns of association and deliberately discounts evidence that contradicts them. And therein lies the triumph and tragedy of our intuitive mind:

The thing about the system is that it settles into a stable representation of reality, and that is just a marvelous accomplishment. … That’s not a flaw, that’s a marvel. [But] coherence has its cost.

Coherence means that you’re going to adopt one interpretation in general. Ambiguity tends to be suppressed. This is part of the mechanism that you have here that ideas activate other ideas and the more coherent they are, the more likely they are to activate each other. Other things that don’t fit fall away by the wayside. We’re enforcing coherent interpretations. We see the world as much more coherent than it is.

Put another way, our chronic discomfort with ambiguity — which, ironically, is critical to both our creativity and the richness of our lives — leads us to lock down safe, comfortable, familiar interpretations, even if they are only partial representations of or fully disconnected from reality.

The Type 1 modality of thought gives rise to a System 1 of interpretation, which is at the heart of what we call “intuition” — but which is far less accurate and reliable than we like to believe:

System 1 infers and invents causes and intentions. [This] happens automatically. Infants have it. . . . We’re equipped … for the perception of causality.

It neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt and … exaggerates coherence. Associative coherence [is] in large part where the marvels turn into flaws. We see a world that is vastly more coherent than the world actually is. That’s because of this coherence-creating mechanism that we have. We have a sense-making organ in our heads, and we tend to see things that are emotionally coherent, and that are associatively coherent.

But the greatest culprit in the failures of our intuition is another cognitive property Kahneman names “what you see is all there is” — a powerful and persistent flaw of System-1 thinking:

This is a mechanism that takes whatever information is available and makes the best possible story out of the information currently available, and tells you very little about information it doesn’t have. So what you get are people jumping to conclusions. I call this a “machine for jumping to conclusions.”

This jumping to conclusions, Kahneman adds, is immediate and based on unreliable information. And that’s a problem:

That will very often create a flaw. It will create overconfidence. The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence [but] of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct. Quite often you can construct very good stories out of very little evidence. . . . People tend to have great belief, great faith in the stories that are based on very little evidence.

Most treacherous of all is our tendency to use our very confidence — and overconfidence — as evidence itself:

What’s interesting is that many a time people have intuitions that they’re equally confident about except they’re wrong. That happens through the mechanism I call “the mechanism of substitution.” You have been asked a question, and instead you answer another question, but that answer comes by itself with complete confidence, and you’re not aware that you’re doing something that you’re not an expert on because you have one answer. Subjectively, whether it’s right or wrong, it feels exactly the same. Whether it’s based on a lot of information, or a little information, this is something that you may step back and have a look at. But the subjective sense of confidence can be the same for intuition that arrives from expertise, and for intuitions that arise from heuristics. . . .

In other words, intuition, like attention, is “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator [that] asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that” — a humbling antidote to our culture’s propensity for self-righteousness, and above all a reminder to allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.

Thinking is excellent and mind-expanding in its entirety. Complement it with Brockman’s This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, one of the best psychology books of 2012.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons


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