Eudora Welty's On Fiction


I'm working on a paper that basically asks the question: What can the designer learn from the novelist? Design theory does not typically draw on literature--though it often draws from art and science--and the idea behind the paper is to make connections between the writer and the designer, between the act of writing and the act of designing. A working analogy: the designer is to the user as the writer is to the reader.

And so, I have been reading and re-reading an assortment of books on writing. Some of my favorites from grad school as well as a few new ones. Tonight, I read On Writing, by Eudora Welty, a book that has been recommended to me time and time again, and I can't believe it is only now that I have picked it up. Oh my, what a wonderful, brilliant, little book. In an hour I learned more from this book than I probably learned during my entire MFA. I have been desperately missing literature this semester, and cannot wait for the time (May 9 to be precise!) when I will have time to read fiction again. In On Writing, Welty explores form, place, time, words, and style and I'm just filled up with inspiration by her perfectly spot-on analysis of the craft. A few highlights:

"The sixteen-thousand-word sentence in "The Bear" races like a dinosaur across the early fields of time. It makes us realize once again the prose is a structure in its every part, that the imagination is engineered when we write. A sentence may be in as perfect control as a church or a bridge." (25)

"Being shown how to locate, to place, any account is what does most towards making us believe, not merely allowing us to, may the account be the facts or a lie; and that is where place in fiction comes in. Fiction is a lie. Never in its inside thoughts, always in its outside dress." (43)

"What can place not give? Theme. It can present theme, show it to the last detail--but place is forever illustrative: it is a picture of what man has done and imagined, it is his visible past, result. Human life is fiction's only theme." (54)

"We start from scratch, and words don't; which is the thing that matters--matters over and over again. For though we grow up in the language, when we begin using words to make a piece of fiction, that is of course as different from using even the same words to say hello on the telephone as putting paint on canvas is." (60)

"Real life is not wished, it is lived; stories and novels, whose subject is human beings in relationships with experience to undergo, make their own difficult way, struggle towards their own resolutions. Instead of fairy immunity to change, there is the vulnerability of human imperfection caught up in human emotion, and so there is growth, there is crisis, there is fulfillment, there is decay. Life moves toward death. The novel's progress is one of causality, and with that comes suspense. Suspense is a necessity in a novel because it is a main condition of our existence. Suspense is known only to mortals, and its agent and messenger is time." (96)