Thursday, June 1, 2006

More on writing

Over at the new Australian lit/culture/media blog Sarsaparilla, where Laura from Sills Bend has gathered together a team of us to blog the night away about all things antipodean or loosely related thereto, Wendy James has just posted a lovely quotation from Nabokov about the relationship between writer and reader. The post is headed 'Writers on Writing', which immediately reminded me of my own all-time favourite such book, The Eye of the Story by that incomparable chronicler of the American South, Eudora Welty.

I wrote my PhD thesis, back in the mists of time, on the representation of place in Australian fiction, so Welty's classic essay 'Place in Fiction' (1956), which appears in this book, was already familiar to me. But in it I found an image I had forgotten, and which I still think, even after all that has been said by critics and theorists over the last fifty years about fiction and representation and writing, is one of the best and most useful things about writing fiction that I have ever seen or heard anyone say:

'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.

The good novel should be steadily alight, revealing. ... 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.'


  1. And you see, this is why I would dearly love to study creative writing at university (yes, a PhD in creative writing). It is not about having someone teach me to write. It is about about robust and challenging thought, showing me how to learn, pointing the way. Like this. For 24 hours now, I have been thinking on this. Its resonance is hard to describe (but maybe if I studied creative writing someone could teach me how to describe it).

    It's hard to get that kind of thing cloistered away in my garret. And it's another reason to love blogging.

    That's the way I see it anyway. Now if I could just find a wealthy benefactor...

  2. She was quite a gal, the old Eudora. Have you read The Golden Apples? You would adore it. Also her story 'Why I Live at the P.O.'

    I've taught Creative Writing on and off for (*counts on fingers ... and toes ....*) oh my God almost 25 years, so have a great deal to say about it, and will write a long post about it somewhere or other sometime soon. My general advice to prospective students is that it depends ENTIRELY, but ENTIRELY, on who you have teaching/guiding/mentoring you. My favourite line on it is Auden's, which is that you can't teach people to be artists but you can most certainly teach them their craft.

  3. Oh. And about about learning to read my work properly and to not make silly mistakes.

    I would love to read your long post one day. I'm worn out of the constant 'look how many creative writing graduates we're churning out' doom, gloom, boom.