Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Morning Reading: Katherine Anne Porter: "a commotion in my mind"



from the Paris Review:

excerpt:

INTERVIEWER
You once said that every story begins with an ending, that until the end is known there is no story.

PORTER
That is where the artist begins to work: with the consequences of acts, not the acts themselves. Or the events. The event is important only as it affects your life and the lives of those around you. The reverberations, you might say, the overtones: that is where the artist works. In that sense it has sometimes taken me ten years to understand even a little of some important event that had happened to me. Oh, I could have given a perfectly factual account of what had happened, but I didn’t know what it meant until I knew the consequences. If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it. I know where I’m going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God’s grace.

INTERVIEWER
That’s a very classical view of the work of art—that it must end in resolution.

PORTER
Any true work of art has got to give you the feeling of reconciliation—what the Greeks would call catharsis, the purification of your mind and imagination—through an ending that is endurable because it is right and true. Oh, not in any pawky individual idea of morality or some parochial idea of right and wrong. Sometimes the end is very tragic, because it needs to be. One of the most perfect and marvelous endings in literature—it raises my hair now—is the little boy at the end of Wuthering Heights, crying that he’s afraid to go across the moor because there’s a man and woman walking there.

And there are three novels that I reread with pleasure and delight—three almost perfect novels, if we’re talking about form, you know. One is A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, one is A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, and the other is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Every one of them begins with an apparently insoluble problem, and every one of them works out of confusion into order. The material is all used so that you are going toward a goal. And that goal is the clearing up of disorder and confusion and wrong, to a logical and human end. I don’t mean a happy ending, because after all at the end of A High Wind in Jamaica the pirates are all hanged and the children are all marked for life by their experience, but it comes out to an orderly end. The threads are all drawn up. I have had people object to Mr. Thompson’s suicide at the end of Noon Wine, and I’d say, “All right, where was he going? Given what he was, his own situation, what else could he do?” Every once in a while when I see a character of mine just going towards perdition, I think, Stop, stop, you can always stop and choose, you know. But no, being what he was, he already has chosen, and he can’t go back on it now. I suppose the first idea that man had was the idea of fate, of the servile will, of a deity who destroyed as he would, without regard for the creature. But I think the idea of free will was the second idea.

INTERVIEWER
Has a story never surprised you in the writing? A character suddenly taken a different turn?

PORTER
Well, in the vision of death at the end of “Flowering Judas” I knew the real ending—that she was not going to be able to face her life, what she’d done. And I knew that the vengeful spirit was going to come in a dream to tow her away into death, but I didn’t know until I’d written it that she was going to wake up saying, “No!” and be afraid to go to sleep again.

INTERVIEWER
That was, in a fairly literal sense, a “true” story, wasn’t it?

PORTER
The truth is, I have never written a story in my life that didn’t have a very firm foundation in actual human experience—somebody else’s experience quite often, but an experience that became my own by hearing the story, by witnessing the thing, by hearing just a word perhaps. It doesn’t matter, it just takes a little—a tiny seed. Then it takes root, and it grows. It’s an organic thing. That story had been on my mind for years, growing out of this one little thing that happened in Mexico. It was forming and forming in my mind, until one night I was quite desperate. People are always so sociable, and I’m sociable too, and if I live around friends . . . Well, they were insisting that I come and play bridge. But I was very firm, because I knew the time had come to write that story, and I had to write it.

INTERVIEWER
What was that “little thing” from which the story grew?

PORTER
Something I saw as I passed a window one evening. A girl I knew had asked me to come and sit with her, because a man was coming to see her, and she was a little afraid of him. And as I went through the courtyard, past the flowering Judas tree, I glanced in the window and there she was sitting with an open book on her lap, and there was this great big fat man sitting beside her. Now Mary and I were friends, both American girls living in this revolutionary situation. She was teaching at an Indian school, and I was teaching dancing at a girls’ technical school in Mexico City. And we were having a very strange time of it. I was more skeptical, and so I had already begun to look with a skeptical eye on a great many of the revolutionary leaders. Oh, the idea was all right, but a lot of men were misapplying it.

And when I looked through that window that evening, I saw something in Mary’s face, something in her pose, something in the whole situation, that set up a commotion in my mind. Because until that moment I hadn’t really understood that she was not able to take care of herself, because she was not able to face her own nature and was afraid of everything. I don’t know why I saw it. I don’t believe in intuition. When you get sudden flashes of perception, it is just the brain working faster than usual. But you’ve been getting ready to know it for a long time, and when it comes, you feel you’ve known it always.

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To read the interview in its entirety, click here.

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1 comment:

Robbi said...

Intriguing. I think it explains a lot about writing.

 
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