James Joyce on Writing: “write dangerously”

“The important thing is not what we write,” Joyce tells Arthur Power in Conversations with James Joyce, “but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously” (95).

Though I’ve several books written by people who knew Joyce, I’d never read Power’s book. Menand mentioned it in his “Silence, Exile, Punning: James Joyce’s chance encounters” (New Yorker, 2 July 2012), and I was able to find a cheap copy. [Menand’s title is itself a kind of pun on something Stephen tells his friend Cranly toward the end of Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “And I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning” (247)].

Menand questions whether what we read in Power’s book are the actual words of Joyce or the “gist” of a conversation that took place decades prior to the book’s publication. Would Menand have the same complaint if Richard Ellmann, Joyce’s highly regarded biographer, was the one recalling the conversations? It seems Menand thinks Power belongs, if he should be mentioned at all, in a footnote somewhere, his “renown” based on a single book, and while I agree with Menand that Power misread Joyce’s comment regarding the birth of a grandson, I don’t think Power should be dismissed based on Menand’s “gist” complaint. [An argument ensues, as Gordon Bowker, whose new biography Menand is reviewing, responds, timely, for the question of the journalistic practice of approximating quotes is in the air].

And Arthur Power was a journalist of sorts, an art critic, but he seems to have had skill and talent enough to closely observe and record [he said he wrote daily in his notebook, so the conversations were fresh in his mind when he recorded them], and we certainly have no reason to think that he had motive to misquote Joyce. In any case, Power’s book is full of pearls, and whether the gems contain the exact words of Joyce or simply the “gist,” I found them worth reflection.

But that business I quoted above, Joyce saying, “The important thing is not what we write…,” does he qualify that with this: “A writer’s purpose is to describe the life of his day, and I chose Dublin because it is the focal point of the Ireland of today, its heart-beat you may say, and to ignore that would be affectation” (97). In other words, Joyce seems to be saying that what we do write should come from what we know, what we have experienced.

There’s no doubt Joyce had a sense of humor, and could be an acerbic wit. An illustration of humor: “Yes, said Joyce, I met him [Proust] once at a literary dinner and when we were introduced all he said to me was: ‘Do you like truffles?’ ‘Yes’, I replied, ‘I am very fond of truffles.’ And that was the only conversation which took place between the two most famous writers of their time, remarked Joyce – who seemed to be highly amused at the incident” (79). And an example of Joyce’s acerbic wit: upon hearing of the sad suicide of the socially bumbling and difficult and “irritating” portrait painter, Patrick Tuohy, Joyce had hired to paint his father and later his immediate family, Joyce said, “I am not surprised. He nearly made me commit suicide too” (105).

But reading Power’s book I found my focus going to Joyce’s comments on writing: “A book should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality” (95). Joyce seems to have preferred emotion over intellect. I suppose it takes an intellectual giant to argue this: “I know when I was writing Ulysses I tried to give the colour and tone of Dublin with my words; the drab, yet glistening atmosphere of Dublin, its hallucinatory vapours, its tattered confusion, the atmosphere of its bars, its social immobility – they could only be conveyed by the texture of my words. Thought and plot are not so important as some would make them out to be. The object of any work of art is the transference of emotion; talent is the gift of conveying that emotion” (98).

Joyce employed humor in his writing: “In Ulysses I tried to keep close to fact. There is humour of course, for though man’s position in this world is fundamentally tragic it can also be seen as humorous. The disparity of what he wants to be and what he is, is no doubt laughable, so much so that a comedian has only to come on to the stage and trip and everyone roars with laughter” (99). Joyce says, “Out of this marriage, this forced marriage of the spirit and matter, humour is created, for Ulysses is fundamentally a humorous work” (89). As for who is to say what any writing “fundamentally” is, Joyce clarifies, for critic, writer, and reader at once: “Though people may read more into Ulysses than I ever intended, who is to say that they are wrong: do any of us know what we are creating?…Which of us can control our scribblings? They are the script of one’s personality like your voice or your walk” (89).

An example of good writing Joyce found in Hemingway’s short story “A Clean Well Lighted Place”: “He [Hemingway] has reduced the veil between literature and life, said Joyce, which is what every writer strives to do…It is masterly…I think it is one of the best short stories ever written; there is bite there.” Yet Joyce’s enthusiasm at the time for Hemingway is tempered and foreshadows so much of what was to come, both for Hemingway and for literature in general: “I admit to his merit, of course, that he is very much of our time. But in my opinion he is too much of our time, in fact his writing is now more the work of a journalist than that of a literary man” (107).

But by literary man Joyce wasn’t referring to the PhD, the academic, the professional scholar, whose polite conversations transpire in private behind the rood screen of the contemporary paywall, but to something more real and immediate and accessible to all: “What is really imaginative is the contrary to what is concise and clear…Most lives are made up like the modern painter’s themes, of jugs, and pots and plates, back-streets and blowsy living-rooms inhabited by blowsy women, and of a thousand daily sordid incidents which seep into our minds no matter how we strive to keep them out. These are the furniture of our life” (75).

Power, Arthur. Conversations with James Joyce. The University of Chicago Press. 1974. Phoenix edition 1982. Edited with Foreword by Clive Hart. Reprint. Originally published London: Millington, 1974.

Lilliput Press eBook (Feb. 2012) at Barnes and Noble.


  1. Daniela says:

    Brilliant! Enjoyed reading it very much indeed.

    Thank you,

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thank you, Daniela, for reading and taking the time to comment. Joe

  2. Fascinating stuff Joe, it makes me want to read Joyce. I’ve always been intimidated by such a towering intellect and such strength in writing, but you introduce him so well that I know I will have to make the attempt one day.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks for reading and comment, Deb. Anything in Joyce’s short story book “Dubliners” is a good starting place. The stories are accessible on their own. That book ends with a short story titled “The Dead,” which John Huston directed as a wonderful movie Listening to Joyce is also a good experience. Frank Delaney is currently recording on podcast segments of “Ulysses,” and he briefly introduces each segment. All the podcasts are up on his blog, here. Edna O’Brien wrote a short biography of Joyce . Joe

  3. Thank you for an enjoyable enlightenment! Well done sir. And thank you doubly for providing a serendipitous literary rationale to The Fool Abides.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Hey, thanks for stopping by. Good luck with the drawings and witticisms over at The Fool Abides. That Joyce was a courageous writer is sometimes overlooked. Dubliners a very gutsy book.

  4. philipparees says:

    Timely as encouragement! Joyce so multifaceted, impenetrable but good to hear it was emotion and atmosphere that told for him, but so too it did for Proust. I must try both harder. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Hi, Philippa! Thanks for stopping by. Am very interested in “A Shadow in Yucatan.”

      1. philipparees says:

        Get it for free as an ebook here https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/454809 ( Sw100 code at checkout) or in print at Amazon. Would be very interested in your views!

        1. Joe Linker says:

          Got it! Will let you know. Thanks.

  5. philipparees says:

    Enjoyed this exhortation to write dangerously- most admonitions to me say the opposite but somehow obedience to safety never was my forte. You never did tell me what you thought of Yucatan which this revisit reminded me you’d ordered. I suppose it did not appeal so we can both draw a veil. Do drop into the court case again. Maybe be called as a witness at some point?

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Hi, Philippa… Was just thinking of you and Involution as I was reading this 3am article (via berfrois) this morning. A key question Murchadha tries to answer is this one: “Is a key to this the claim that as Karl Barth said, Christianity has no cosmology? This would make much of the contemporary debate between religion and science pointless wouldn’t it, but wouldn’t it weird out many Christians too?” I thought you might enjoy the interview with Murchadha over at 3am. … Re Yucatan, I unfortunately could not seem to get the e-book download working, and I’m not sure I read the whole book. In any case, the poetry is more to my reading style – that I like. I’ve been meaning to get back to it. I renewed interest by your recent references to Dylan and Joan Baez. I would like to get a hard copy, though. Will look into that. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. dunelight says:

    I’ve enjoyed both writers however I had a friend who loathed Hemingway. Hemingway has made me wince once or twice but I do not consider time spent reading his works wasted.

  7. Brilliant piece, Joe. I wasn’t expecting something so profound to be found on a personal WordPress site; glad that I was wrong.

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