How did the writer think of anything but writing? The voice, for example, that mystifying clue to what was as yet unspoken. How think of anything else? And if that eased off, and you had found this voice, and spoke in it as naturally as your own, there were the words and the characters, and the details to think about, and what, as you sat there, you found yourself reading. For the writer - the true fiction writer - does not write to say what he thinks or feels, but to discover what it is. What I discover I am thinking and feeling takes all the time and thought I am able to muster, and it is seldom enough.
In my own experience, the written and spoken "cliché" would often embody
the history of the American language and, unavoidably, the history of
our people, and speak in one breath from many sources. Gertrude Stein
testifies to this in The Making of Americans, and I believe my
own practice, at its best, confronts this truth in its deep reliance on
what is heard and felt when the language is spoken. I speak it to
myself, as I write it, in order to better estimate its heft and
rightness. In the vernacular it is the cliché that testifies to the
burden of meaning that words and phrases from the past bear to us at the
moment we speak in the present, where we hear, wherever the language is
well spoken, the echoes of the writers who first shaped it. In the
vernacular they speak with a familiar accent.
In interviews with the press the following day, I was frequently asked to what I attributed my memory of details of the past. What details? A few were quickly mentioned. Take, for example, the way the front wheel of a bike will continue to spin when the rider spills it on its side in the yard. Or take the way keys for tightening up skate clamps were invariably bent. It pleased me to be thought so clever, but there was nothing unusual in a bent skate key. Nor would any small, frozen-fingered boy soon forget the battle he had to tighten the clamps. As for that twirling bike wheel, I saw it clearly enough, but I would not say I remembered it, then wrote it. More than memory was at work in what I remembered. The effort and act of memory enabled me to see what I had often both observed, and ignored, until that moment when I actually described it. Thanks to the questions I was asked, I began to ask myself what I actually remembered, and what seemed to appear at the moment of writing - like the voices and actions in a séance.
"Reading your book brought it alll back!" one reader said, as if he saw it captured like the fly in amber, embalmed in time until someone's memory brought it back.
Since 1942 I had published ten novels, two books of photo-text, and one volume of criticism. What was it - in the absence of readers and, up until that spring, in the absence of money - that egged me on? Had I made myself into this creature that found both food and pleasure in the act of writing? Was it through writing that I made sense out of the non-sense outside my study window, and perceptibly diminished the quiet desperation common to those who were not writers? I accepted my calling as a form of living necessary to my own nature, requiring no more reason or persuasion than the flowers on bushes, or the leaves on trees. It did take some doing, but what I was doing came naturally. To cease to do it seemed an unnatural, destructive act. In May 1958 I saw that I was one of those determined to persist in this folly.