For the last several years I’ve kept a notebook with passages from my favorite books, something to look at when I’m feeling clouded or sluggish. They’re not always inspiring—some are pretty dark—but they’re all written with the kind of brain-puncturing clarity that makes it feel like the author is sitting next to you, speaking—something to aspire to. The following is from Richard Wright’s essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” an essay about the process of writing his novel Native Son (1940).
With the whole theme in mind, in an attitude almost akin to prayer, I gave myself up to the story. In an effort to capture some phase of Bigger’s life that would not come to me readily, I’d jot down as much of it as I could. Then I’d read it over and over, adding each time a word, a phrase, a sentence until I felt that I had caught all the shadings of reality I felt dimly were there. With each of these rereadings and rewritings it seemed that I’d gather in facts and facets that tried to run away. It was an act of concentration, of trying to hold within one’s center of attention all of that bewildering array of facts which science, politics, experience, memory, and imagination were urging upon me. And then, while writing, a new and thrilling relationship would spring up under the drive of emotion, coalescing and telescoping alien facts into a known and felt truth. That was the deep fun of the job: to feel within my body that I was pushing out to new areas of feeling, strange landmarks of emotion, cramping upon foreign soil, compounding new relationships of perceptions, making new and—until that very split second of time!—unheard-of and unfelt effects with words. It had a buoying and tonic impact upon me; my senses would strain and seek for more and more of such relationships; my temperature would rise as I worked. That is writing as I feel it, a kind of significant living.