There are fundamentally two kinds of writer, just as there are two kinds of monogamist: the immaculate and the fallible. For the immaculate every sentence must be perfect, every word the inevitable one. For them, getting it right is the point. For the fallible, ‘wrong’ is only the word for people who need to be right. The fallible, that is to say, have the courage of their gaucheness; they are never quite sure what might be a good line; and they have a superstitious confidence that the bad lines somehow sponsor the good ones.
Adam Phillips, Monogamy, quoted in Paris Review – The Art of Nonfiction No. 7, Adam Phillips
photo by Fredrik Ödman, with mirror image on the right.
Last night at midnight between January 31 and February 1, I woke at about five and heard you at the door of the room calling “Franz”, softly, but I heard it distinctly. I answered at once but nothing more happened. What did you want?
N.N. Glatzer ed. Letters to Ottla and the Family, Schocken 1982
Standing near me is a tall woman in a dark red dress. She has a dazed, rather blank expression on her face. She might be drugged, or this is simply her habitual expression. I am a little afraid of her. A red snake in front of me rears up and threatens me, at the same time changing form once or twice, acquiring tentacles like a squid, etc. Behind it is a large puddle of water in the middle of a broad path. To protect me from the snake, the woman in the red dress lays three broad-brimmed red hats down on the surface of the puddle of water.
Lydia Davis, The Woman in Red
Der mensch gesund und krank, menschenkunde 1940 . . . . Vol. 2
Zürich-Leipzig, 1939. Relief halftone. National Library of Medicine
This manipulated photo shows the effects of sunlight on the health of the body.
The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties. Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best. And almost nothing we are told remains the same when retold.
Janet Malcolm, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice
Now that I had read what my father wrote about the men bringing the coal in across the snow, I had no doubt these boards were put down for the coal delivery here too. I was excited to discover this.
I wrote back to my father about what I had discovered, knowing that for several reasons he would be less interested in my coal furnace than his memories of his own. It is natural for an old man to be more engrossed in his memories than the present. But he has also always been more interested in his own ideas than anyone else’s.
Although he likes to have conversations with other people and hear what they say, he does not know what to do with an idea of someone elses’s except to use it as a starting point from which to produce an even better idea of his own. His own ideas are certainly interesting, often the most interesting in a given situation. He has always been good company at a dinner party, even though as he aged, a time came when he would have to leave the table part of the way through and go lie down for a while.
Lydia Davis The Furnace
I told him the story of my life, most of it, a version of it, and he told me his, and in the telling both storytellers came to believe that their stories were true. I’m the person I’m describing, I thought, I really am! I knew that I was editing the story as I told it, but not to hide anything or to protect myself – I believed that I wanted Woodrow to know everything about me, no lies and no secrets that mattered. But I was telling my story to a man, not another woman, and therefore edited it accordingly. And I was revealing what I knew of myself to a black African, not a white American. .. and not to a neo-Marxist fugitive under indictment by her own government for acts of civil disobedience and suspicion of terrorism. I had no choice but to alter, delete, revise, and invent whole chapters of my story. Just as, for the same reasons, I am doing here, telling it to you. Russell Banks The Darling
Again, after much trying and failing, I’d seen that there was no way I could write directly about certain central parts of my own experience, my experience with my mom and my experience in my marriage. What made direct revelation impossible was partly my sense of shame and partly a wish to protect third parties, but it was mostly because the material was so hot that it deformed the writing whenever I came at it directly. And so, layer by layer, I built up the masks. Like with papier-mâché, strip after strip, molding ever more lifelike features, in order to perform the otherwise unperformable personal drama. Jonathon Franzen, The Paris Review interview