Images and Harmony

"Art begins," wrote Tolstoi, "with the wee bit." Often the young writer will strike off a single magic
sentence, an image, a page of images, a line of poetry, that would enrich even a great novel,
like the image of Petya's last moment in War and Peace. Perhaps the young writer cannot
trace the spark of the sudden creative blaze that illuminated his thought and set fire to his
words. Yet there must be a conscious mastery of the craft, beginning with the "wee bit," the
luminous phrase and the architecture of the sentence, before the writer can hope to direct and
conserve the stream of his creative energy, or sustain the magic touch of his first tiny creation.
As Milton knew the epic similes of Homer, touching them with a unique Miltonic strain, so the
young writer must relearn the classical arrangement of images, enriching the classic
techniques with the unmistakable impress of a new creative personality. The classic skills of
description and narration are after all only a recognition of the reader's need for an orderly
arrangement of ideas, images, scenes: the spring before the lilac, the gloomy walls before the
gray face, the frame of man before his countenance. In a hundred places Dickens uses a
blending element to set a mood of place or person and give his images an emotional
consistency: the sun's glare, smoke, mud, rain, moonlight. A writer neglects this classic
resource at his peril. First he must master it, then give the resource of the masters a new
grace or poignancy of effect. Each writer, it is true, is his own structure. But why should the
author's own way of meeting the reader's needs not encompass the rich resources of his
great predecessors? "If you do not have a talent," said Flaubert to Maupassant, "you must build
one." One way to build a talent is consciously to attempt the theories and techniques of the
great stylists from Homer to Conrad.

It is a delusion difficult to dispel that some genetic magic separates the amateur from the
professional writer. The real difference is that the professional writer is able to achieve with
relative regularity those effects that the amateur achieves, consciously or not, only at rare
moments. The sketches that follow represent genuine creative achievement in the "wee bit,"
an achievement preceded by years or months of labor to blend the classic skills with the
author's unique way of looking at life.

From American Scene: New Voices
Edited by Don M. Wolfe, Lyle Stuart Inc., New York, 1963   
                             Where Is My Father?

                                         by Lily Poritz

I SAW HIM only that morning, my father, when I brought in from the garden the new
September roses, the dewdrops shimmering like tears on their petals, and placed them in the
vase beside his bed. He lay asleep as I climbed onto the black leather stool and drew up the
canvas shade, heavily drenched in sickness, allowing a soft ray of Cape Town sun to
shadow the yellow crust on his face. And the lifeless blue eyes of my father opened to the
light.
   "Daddy? Can I massage you now?"
   He looked down at me, with eyes determined not to close, and his dried mouth stretched
in a tired smile.
   "My child!"
   I had seen him only that morning, as I strengthened his unused limbs, gently rubbing the
palm of my hand into them, moistened and invigorated by eau de cologne. How proud he had
been as he stretched forth his wrinkled hand to reach my own, his head lifting from the
pillow, upright as the weight of my hand fell away. And the words of my mother last night
rang true: God had come - father was well!
   He had awakened suddenly at sundown the night before. He had awakened hungry, and
we heard his voice asking for food. He drew himself upwards on the bed, unflinchingly, and
parted his dry mouth to the thin liquid my mother nursed to coolness and fed him with a
child's spoon. He had asked for more and still more until the household came alive and we all
surrounded him, my brothers and sisters, in withheld wonder. "Bring down Leah and Jean
and Harry and Joseph!" my father proclaimed as the warm broth colored him. "Bring them all
to our house, and we will celebrate."
  Just the night before we had a houseful of people, just the night before we heard him
laughing, laughing as he had not laughed for more than three years. And the yellowness - the
deathly mustard veil - was gone from his face. His skin took on a luminous glow, the blue
eyes radiant in rebirth. He was a child now, proudly recalling the names of his children on
each of his fingers. And we came around him, my sisters and brothers, and rose onto his
thick rumpled bed, permeated by the stuffy smell of sickness.
   Our shrill voices, broken in collision, hammered on about school and teachers as though
with the moment's passing our words would go in vain. And we told him about our marks
and report cards and that the next day was the last day of school.
.      "Last year you brought your teachers presents," he said. "This year it will be the same."
   He could not take us to select the candies this year, but his trembling hand persisted as it
wavered, weak and childlike, on the sheet of paper addressed to the confectioners.
   I can see my father smiling as he wrote the note, aloof to the trembling fingers.
   I took the box up on the platform and presented it to my teacher. Her smile was sweet as
honeysuckles; her delicate white hands unfastened the silver-speckled wrapping.
   "It's beautiful," she sighed, as she bent over the polished mahogany box, her hands
caressing the mauve velvet. "Who selected this beautiful present?"
   "My father."
   "Tell your father I shall keep my most precious jewels in it and treasure it always."
   I ran home through the fields, the wind laughing in my ears, dancing, suspended in a
cloud of love. I breathed the sweet smell of green grass after the rainfall, the sweeping trees
encircling me like a mass of embroidery. "Daddy! Daddy, listen what my teacher said!"
   A long car stood in front of our house. Two men in festive dark suits were coming down
the stairs, softly joking. Breathless, I met them at the gate and stood gazing up at them.
   "My father? Where is my father?"
   A hand caressed my hair, and the two men swept by me and descended into the long,
shiny limousine.
   I raced up the stairs. The shutters in our house were barred, the windows shut. I tore at
the front door, and it swung open wildly. The mirrors were turned - darkness met me.
   "Mommy! Daddy!" I ran through the house - everywhere! Everywhere but into the dark
room of sickness. "Mommy! Daddy!"
   But I reached the end of the silent house and turned and walked slowly back to my
father's room. And there I saw them - my mother, my brothers and sisters - their faces cast
in stone, silenced, their eyes unmoving from the stiff white sheet.