National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Katherine Anne Porter, The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
First Woman to Win for Fiction, 1966

This undoubtedly has been, and still is, a very fine day for a good many of us—and especially

for me, perhaps. I don’t know why I’m so very happy about this, but the truth is, I’ve been

talking about myself and my work all day (it seems all day) and I’ve about said what I’ve got to

say, I think. I wanted to talk—well, it’s impossible to explain why anyone ever has this vocation

to write and I can’t explain why I was mad enough to follow it, except that I had no choice,

apparently. I’ve sworn a thousand times that I would never write another line, but I was always

writing—even that. I realized there was no escape and then I settled down to it. They have

said so many things—Mr. Dickey especially—his talk has pleased me immensely because

he is just a real, honest-to-goodness, working artist. And he does know what he is doing

about as well as any of us can know. None of us ever really knows; we spend our lives

speculating on just what we are doing and why—and how; which is the thing that is so

important. We have so much. We only say about a thousandth, I suppose, of what we think

and what we feel. We never get more than that on paper and I am always reminded in this

affair of Henry James’ father who had the theory of waste and education. You had to waste

ninety-nine percent of your material, your life, to get the other one percent expressed and

communicated. Sometimes I think that is true—maybe exaggerated a little, but not much. And

the thing about it is that we are the only people in the world I know who never have a vacation

or a day off, because we are perfectly insulated to the things that are going on in our heads

which are trying to form themselves and be and get out into the world through your means so

that you are never free. But it’s a good kind of servitude—if that’s what it is—and I wouldn’t

have done anything else. But I know this: Sometimes when I’m trying to work, I’m frightfully

interrupted by very good people—oh, not good friends, because I’m never interrupted by my

friends, but by friendly-meaning people, let us say. And I’ll say I can’t do anything at all

because I’m working. I’m really working and I can’t stop, I can’t go anywhere. They say, “Oh,

but you can’t work all the time; you’ve got to have a little amusement. Why, what a dull life you

lead.” And I think, how extraordinary, you know, because the most exciting part of my life,

when I am really in a wonderful ferment of every kind of emotion and every kind of feeling, is

when I’m working. If you just knew how little I need to be amused by anything or anybody, you

wouldn’t try. That’s one thing that is very hard to understand. And I’ve said many times that art

is not religion and it is not a substitute for religion, but I have a strange feeling that maybe it

springs from the same source in the human being that the religious spirit does, because it

has that perfectly fanatical tenacity of attention. It can’t be distracted or diverted. It can be

interrupted, it can be injured sometimes, but it cannot really be distracted. That, I think,

sometimes makes people think that artists are selfish or ingrown people. Not at all. I don’t

think so. What have we got but human beings—other human beings—to think about and to

feel for and to understand and try to tell about, really? Everybody is always incredibly

fascinating to meet because they are always mysterious and there are no two alike, and they

all are worth knowing, just for the sake of understanding. I’ve got out of the habit of using the

word “love” because it has been so bashed around. It doesn’t mean anything much, except

individually to you and to me and to each one of us. We all have, I am sure, our secret idea,

our secret feeling about it, but it has got something to do with love. It has got something to do

with love of humanity. And it has to do with love of all creation—everything that is

created—and yet there are things that are hateful and we must hate. I’ve always said that to

not hate certain things is criminal collusion. I was called—not very long ago, by a certain

magazine that I shan’t mention—I was called the grimmest misanthrope in American

literature. And I thought, “Why, that’s getting somewhere. This is going to make me famous.” I

never was so pleased, because my life has been literally a matter of my affections and my

heart and my relations with my friends and my family. But I’m a disappointed idealist, you

know. And every once in a while I look at these people and I say, “But really, you’re behaving

like swine.” And so I say so, and it makes people mad. And everybody thinks you’re aiming at

them, and you’re not at all. I’m just aiming at the one person I’m aiming at right there, and

there he is before you on the page and he’s not based on anybody except my general and

detailed observation of life of human beings as they have been before my eyes and in my

mind and in my heart all my life. And now, I think I’ve said enough. I did want to say about

Flannery O’Connor: I thought she was perfectly wonderful. She was a great loss. I didn’t know

her very well; I only saw her two or three times. I was once at a writer’s conference with her.

Then I visited her a couple of times at her home at Andalucia—that’s the name of her home in

Georgia—and her mother, who was perfectly wonderful, and I saw her there with her

peacocks, and I think I’ve told this somewhere. I don’t think anybody saw it; it was published

in a little magazine. She had bred some chickens. She had got some of the oddest-looking

Japanese chickens you ever saw, and then she got another odd-looking little American

chicken and she promoted a romance, and honestly, those babies, those chickens were the

funniest things I have ever seen. I can’t even describe them. They didn’t look like any bird I

have ever seen and I said, “No, I can’t think of a name for them.” She asked me to name them

and I’ve been thinking ever since. I wrote to her mother not very long ago, and I said, “I still

can’t think of a name for Flannery’s chickens.” She lived a simple life in the country with her

mother, and as you know she died untimely. She knew for years and years that her disease

was incurable and that her death was going to be early, and she faced it with such a

courage—as if she didn’t know it was courage. She never spoke of her illness nor her pains.

I have missed her. Her grandmother sent her on a little pilgrimage to Lourdes and she wrote

me a letter and she said, “The sight of faith and affliction combined is very impressive.” It is.

Thank you.