How Writing Achieves Grace

The author Mary-Beth Hughes discusses how Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Blue Flower showed her that words can dance.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Years ago, Mary-Beth Hughes, the author of the novel The Loved Ones, studied dance at the studio of the pioneering choreographer Merce Cunningham. The unorthodox dancing methods Hughes learned were a revelation. But it wasn’t until she discovered Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels that she saw how Cunningham’s core principles—his embrace of chance and randomness in creating form, for example—might be applied to fiction. In her interview for this series, Hughes discussed how Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower furthered an artistic awakening that began on the studio floor. She explained why she writes daily, embraces chance, and focuses on process instead of product—all in pursuit of those rare, fleeting moments when everything comes into focus.

The Loved Ones is a fractured family portrait: The Devlin family has lost its youngest son, Cubbie, and readers witness their various attempts to process the loss. Hughes’s unflinching, fly-on-the-wall narrative depicts a family in freefall, trying to hold it together while indulging their most self-destructive impulses.

Mary-Beth Hughes is the author of the story collection Double Happiness and another novel, Wavemaker II. Her stories have appeared in A Public Space, Granta, and The Paris Review. She spoke to me by phone.

Mary-Beth Hughes: My dancing life in New York and my time studying at the Merce Cunningham studio had already ended when I first read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower. This was in 1997, when Mariner Paperbacks began issuing the first American editions of her books. At the time, I was trying to write the early pieces of my first novel. When I read The Blue Flower, I thought how much I wanted to be able to write in the way that she does.

It’s really an unbelievable novel—all of her books are great, but this was her last and her masterpiece. The story is about the 18th century German poet Novalis as a young man, Fritz von Hardenburg, before he became famous. Fitzgerald drew from his diaries, letters, and surviving work—published in five volumes by V. Kohlhammer Verlag—and, it seems, recast his language for her novel. I imagine she immersed herself enough to take on the vision of this young poet, then planted that vision in a very particular human life of loss and complex affections. It’s an incredible act of receptivity.

In the story Fritz falls in love with a young girl, Sophie von Kuhn, only 12 when they first meet, and he courts her to the dismay of his own family—he is of noble birth; she is not—and the friendly acceptance of hers. Fritz must first learn to become a salt-mine inspector to earn a living and intends to wait until Sophie is of age to marry, but she falls ill long before. The book surrounds what happens to her and what happens to him, as a result of her illness and death. My first novel also concerned the illness of a very young person, so this struck a chord with me. Fitzgerald manages to achieve an almost physical empathy for her characters that I deeply admire.

There is a passage I love toward the end of The Blue Flower, which occurs when Fritz has decided at last to leave Sophie’s deathbed and go home. He’s heartsick, and he writes himself a note in his diary. The paragraph begins, “As things are, we’re enemies of the world and foreigners to this earth. Our grasp of it is a process of estrangement.” His desire is to be the opposite: not to be an enemy of the world, not to be estranged, but to be very much in it. I think he’s exhorting himself to see the world more fully in spite of, or even in response to, his grief.

The passage continues:

I go further than this, much further and say this is waking, that is a dream, this belongs to the body, that to the spirit, this belongs to space and distance, that to time and duration. But space spills over into time, as the body into the soul, so that the one cannot be measured without the other. I want to exert myself to find a different kind of measurement.

In this passage, Fritz is at a moment when his formative vision as a poet meets terrible experience. And within the difficulty, an exquisite thing is coming into being. He doesn’t wish to extinguish his sorrow, or transport himself beyond it—instead, he seeks “a different kind of measurement.”

This openness, this strong desire to see things in a new way, is so characteristic of Fitzgerald. I felt I recognized this quality when I encountered it in her work. It seemed the literary incarnation of something I’d experienced, for the first time, as a young dancer in the Merce Cunningham studio.

Some dancers, like Merce, become extraordinary, ready channels for grace. Even as an old man, he could lift his arm and captivate a room. Whatever he was looking for just charged through him. Fitzgerald has the same presence on the page—that deep immersion in what she’s seeing, what she’s understanding, and a beautiful ability to convey it.

In the Cunningham studio sometimes it seemed that the whole approach was to watch and wait for those moments of clarity and grace. When the effort falls away, and it becomes people doing something just as they should be. Not estranged from this world. That lovely un-estrangement.

When dancers learn a dance it is always through watching and imitating another dancer. Body and sometimes soul. There is a lot of theory around Merce, certainly, but it begins there. That transfer from one dancer to another. In class, there would be a set of steps given—a portion of a dance, a counted phrase. Merce, or whoever was demonstrating, would show it, and the dancers would mark it: Rather than just looking, you would make light gestures as if you were tip-toeing through the dance with your whole body.

Because Merce’s dances were difficult to do—he liked balletic legs and a flexible torso on top —people were less likely to relax into their strengths. As the dancing would begin, dancers would struggle to get various aspects of the sequence. But, sometimes there would come a point when that struggle would be suspended. The dancer would drop into the movement and the dance would sort of manifest itself. When that happens, it communicates profoundly: The dancer becomes all of a piece. Often—at least to my perception—the most extraordinary dancing happened in class, or in rehearsal, or in the warm up before a performance. There is no capturing dance really, and his approach honored that.

Merce, even in a crowded classroom, would be attentive to those moments. He was often present in the studio—watching, curious. Even when he was working at his wooden table in the back, he seemed tuned for when a dancer dropped into that ephemeral something. That phrase, that dancer, that instant. It couldn’t be grabbed and saved: Okay, this works, I’ll put it here. Instead—I’m guessing, by observation—those moments must have informed him somehow and helped shape his thinking and understanding.

For me, that kind of open engagement was revelatory. And when I first read The Blue Flower, I thought I recognized it in Fitzgerald. I’d never seen anyone put a novel together that way before. I imagined her composing somewhat like Merce Cunningham—devising all the delicate beautiful lines of writing and imagery that will then come up in different patterns far into the book. There’s a compositional instinct that felt very liberating to me. Reading Fitzgerald, I felt it was possible to write as I’d experienced dancing. That writing that way was feasible. It was thrilling to read her. It still is.

I feel I was very lucky to be a dancer first. I learned not to be results-oriented, and I’m not sure I would have had the ability, as a young person, to find that for myself in writing. I learned over years and years that the most gorgeous things pop up unannounced, and the whole project is to be there when it happens.

For me, writing a story can be a lot like marking a dance. I reenter a story I’m working on by lightly writing into it, or around it, or just rereading it. Often, I’ll spend hours I can’t really account for, making only very small adjustments—but somehow relying on a sense of what it is I’m watching for.

I think daily practice is helpful as much as possible, and it’s not always possible. Writing is hard to pick up and put down, and it’s easier when it’s a routine. The widely held idea—belief—that showing up regularly is the only way to develop is a great gift of being a young dancer, and just being in a place—a studio—where the work is valued. Because I spent so many years as a dancer, I understand in every part of me how slow it all is. The zillion hours dancers put in so that they can do three steps across the floor.

Patience. Curiosity. Repetition. Looking again and again. Not imposing a story line. Letting composition emerge through pattern, rhythm, shape, sound, movement. Occasionally, like Fritz von Hardenberg in the middle of his salt inspection, you hit upon a moment of grace. You can’t plan for it. You just have to practice enough so that you’re ready when it comes.