Katherine Anne Porter At Work

Katherine Anne Porter 1931

Excerpted from Writers and Writing by Robert van Gelder, 1946, an interview conducted with Porter in 1940: Katherine Anne Porter stated with evident surprise that her papers are now in order and in her own house.

Formerly she traveled a great deal with a suitcase for personal effects and a steamer trunk filled with manuscripts and notes. “Always I was up to my chin in paper.”

Now she has burned numerous short stories and four novels that she decided not to publish. But the material that she kept to work over is enough to occupy her well into her eighties. There are notes for novels, for a biography of Cotton Mather, and for some forty short stories.

Miss Porter’s books are long anticipated. Each season Harcourt, Brace & Co. hopefully announce the coming publication of her study of Cotton Mather. Each season publication is postponed. Now she has completed eleven of the twenty chapters. And more, she expects to have a novel finished in June.


She requires absolute privacy when writing

One difficulty is, she explained last week — when she came here from her home in Baton Rouge, La., to receive a gold medal in recognition of her work — that she requires absolute privacy when she does her writing, and as she likes people very much and throughly enjoys living, she finds the gift of privacy not much to her taste. 

Her neighbor in Baton Rouge, Robert Penn Warren — poet and author of the novel Night Riders — amazes Miss Porter with his ability to make full use of thirty minutes of free time.

“He simply goes to his typewriter, picks up where he left off, and pounds ahead. ‘Night Riders’ was a tremendously complicated book to write. He went through it as though he was simply making notes in a journal. 

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Katherine Anne Porter stamp

6 Quick Writing Tips from Katherine Anne Porter
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Oranges, coffee, and solitude

Miss Porter is generally thought of as a stylist — her writing as a “connoisseur’s product.” Actually she is not much interested in writing for connoisseurs, and certainly she does not strive as a maker of phrases or wielder of rhythms.

To write a story she goes through a long “brooding period,” then stocks a room — preferably a rented room in a place where she is a stranger — with oranges and coffee, and goes to work, writing as rapidly as possible. Each of her three novelettes, Old Mortality, Noon Wine, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider, was written in a week. 

“I was just back from Europe and had no ties, no immediate responsibilities. Carl Van Doren told me of an inn at Doylestown, Pa., and I went there and took a room and started writing on a Saturday.

I worked all week and on the next Saturday that first story was finished. I immediately commenced the second story and finished it on the Saturday after. Then it was necessary for me to return Baton Rouge. I took a room in New Orleans on a Monday and finished the third story on the next Monday.”

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Katherine Anne Porter quote

Forthright Quotes by Katherine Anne Porter
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Never shows her work until it’s ready for publication

In the interest of speed she works on a typewriter, has evolved a kind of typewritten shorthand. When the first version is down she revises by interlining the script, makes more changes in a clear copy, and that is all. The crystal clearness of her style, the perfect imagery, are achieved at white heat.

Miss Porter never shows her manuscripts to any one until they are ready for publication. “If you go about showing what you do and asking advice and perhaps taking it, then the work isn’t yours any more, isn’t entirely your own.”


A long apprenticeship as a writer

Through her long apprenticeship she said nothing about her work. She earned her living by writing — but that was writing done on order. Once on order she wrote an entire Mexican issue for a magazine. That issue was continued to sell for eleven years, according to Paul Crume, who wrote on Miss Porter recently in The Southwest Review. Miss Porter hadn’t heard of this record sale.

During her apprenticeship Miss Porter made a living for a time here in New York as a book reviewer. She also “ghosted” books and articles. While she was ghosting books, she said, she was bewildered and even a little frightened. “It seems perfectly incomprehensible to me that any one should want to sign a book that some one else had written. I think it a kind of insanity. I hated to be alone with people like that. 

Miss Porter is a Texan, the descendant of soldiers and scholars. One of her ancestors was a colonel on Washington’s staff and she is “quite proud of him; it seems that he went where he was needed and did the best he could. There is nothing in the record to suggest that he was a careerist or politician.” Other ancestors established Porter Academics in various parts of the country.


Always writing the best she could 

Miss Porter started work as a newspaper reporter in Dallas — “but they let me go after a brief time.” She had more success on a newspaper in Denver, but the influenza epidemic of the armistice year brought her so close to death that she believes she learned that it is true that the moment of death holds something like revelation. Pale Horse, Pale Rider is an attempt to record that experience; Miranda looks over the precipice that she recognizes as death:

“There it is, there it is at last, it is very simple; and soft, carefully shaped words like oblivion and eternity are curtains hung before nothing at all. I shall not feel or remember.

Why can’t I consent now; I am lost; there is no hope for me. Look, she told herself, there it is, that is death and there is nothing to fear. But she would not consent, still shrinking stiffly against the granite wall that was her childhood dream of safety, breathing slowly for fear of squandering breath, saying desperately, Look, don’t be afraid, it is nothing, it is only eternity.”

Miss Porter believes that this is the best story she has yet written. But she never has written anything that was not “the best I could do at the time.”       

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Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

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More about Katherine Anne Porter

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