One Writes Out of One Thing Only—One’s Own Experience

James Baldwin? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to the prominent author and social critic James Baldwin the craft of writing depends fundamentally on channeling experience. He employed the metaphorical phrase “the last drop, sweet or bitter”. Would you please help me to find a citation for his statement?

Quote Investigator: In 1955 James Baldwin published “Notes of a Native Son” which began with a section titled “Autobiographical Notes” containing the following passage. Emphasis added: 1

One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.

Below are additional selected citations.

In 1962 “The Guardian” newspaper published an interview with Baldwin who had by that time achieved bestseller status. The interview was conducted in New York by W. J. Weatherby, and Baldwin spoke a variant of the passage above containing the phrase “drop of blood”: 2

One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop of blood. The only concern of the artist is to create out of the disorder of life the order of art.

In 1993 “My Soul Looks Back, ‘Less I Forget: A Collection of Quotations by People of Color” included an entry for the passage in the 1955 book “Notes of a Native Son”. 3

In 2001 “Random House Webster’s Quotationary” included an entry for the first two sentences of the passage while crediting Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”. 4

In conclusion, James Baldwin should receive credit for the words he wrote in 1955 and the words he said in 1962.

Image Notes: Illustration of a drop of water from ronymichaud at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Y who was inspired by these words and suggested that I add them to the QI website.)

Notes:

  1. 1964 (1955 Copyright), Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, Chapter: Autobiographical Notes, Quote Page 4 and 5, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1962 November 22, The Guardian, Native Son by W. J. Weatherby, Quote Page 8, Column 6, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1993, My Soul Looks Back, ‘Less I Forget: A Collection of Quotations by People of Color, Edited by Dorothy Winbush Riley, Topic: Experience, Quote Page 129, HarperCollins Publishers. New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 2001, Random House Webster’s Quotationary, Editor Leonard Roy Frank, Topic: Writers, Quote Page 951, Random House, New York. (Paperback edition; Verified on paper)