Lydia Davis


“Can you say the same thing in radically different ways?”

One should write from a single truth, urged E. B. White in his essays and Ernest Hemingway in his novels. Meanwhile poet Wendell Berry confesses “I lack the peace of simple things.”

Whatever the genre, writers often stick language on a lathe and turn it until it’s smooth and simple.

Short-short story writer Lydia Davis (born July 15, 1947) does this better than most.

Her Birthday

105 years old: she wouldn’t be alive today even if she hadn’t died.

From Lydia Davis’ Can’t and Won’t

But Davis is anything but pithy. Her writing is finely edited and, as we see in Essays1 one link in a long chain of writers who have pressed and stretched literary genres.

The traditional literary forms – the novel, the short story, the poem – although they evolve, do not disappear. But there is a wealth of less traditional forms that writers have adopted over the decades and centuries, forms that are harder to define and less often encountered, either variation on the more familiar, such as the short-short story, or intergeneric – sitting on a line between poetry and prose, or fable and realistic narrative, or essay and fiction and so on. I would like to discuss some of these more eccentric forms, and specifically some of the ones I have read and thought about over the years as my own writing has evolved.

Rune stone, 1100-1150 Sweden
Rune stone, 1100-1150, Sweden. The carving reads ‘Lidsmod had this stone carved in memory of Julbjörn [his] father.’ Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Davis began her writing profession by reading traditional short stories, but was most intellectually and creatively led by the work of Samuel Beckett.

Back in my early teens I first laid eyes on a page of Beckett. I was startled….[Here] was a book – Malone Dies – in which the narrator spent a page describing his pencil, and the first plot development was that he had dropped his pencil. I had never imagined anything like it.

Davis is very exact about the qualities of Beckett which she admired: his Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, his tangled yet correct syntax, his deft handling of image and humor and so on. Qualities that Davis would also use in her work (although Davis’ language is a bit less tangled.)

I Ask Mary About Her Friend, the Depressive, and His Vacation

One year, she says ‘He’s away in the Badlands.’ The next year, she says ‘He’s away in the Black Hills.’2

Like many artists whose work is ostensibly simple, Davis’ boundary-pushing, or rather, form collapsing into what she calls “fragments” rewards the viewer with delightful richness if he applies patience.

Lydia Davis' "The Dog Hair" from Can't & Won't in the Examined Life Library.
“The Dog Hair” taken from Davis’ short-short story collection Can’t and Won’t.

Most stories are taken from the truth of Davis’ life, or at least the “emotional reality” of her life, a form of writing for which she found permission in other authors like Kafka.3

To characterize the fragmentary piece of writing is not easy: in the case of each writer who seems to me to write something like a fragment, the qualities would be a little different, so that there are more particular definitions than general definitions, though one can sometimes find at least a few common elements, pieces of a more general definition.

Does the fragment finish the thought? Is it complete? Is it a complete thought for the author and therefore, the viewer?

When we consider a piece like this:

Can’t and Won’t

I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.

From Lydia Davis’ Can’t and Won’t

We might turn the page to see more. But there is nothing more. What then? We reread to see what we have missed.

Slowly the emotional truth emerges; is the writer lazy for using too few words? Is Davis lazy?

Almada Negreiros - Portrait of Fernando Pessoa - 1954, featured in Fernando Pessoa's "I Have More Souls Than One" in the Examined Life Library.
José de Almada Negreiros’ “Portrait of Fernando Pessoa” in 1954. “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves.” wrote Pessoa in his extraordinary poetry of the creative self.

Or, as Davis asks: Can you say the same thing in radically different ways?

In a House Besieged

In a house besieged live a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. “The wind,” said the woman. “The army,” said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.

This short-short story delivers as much intensity as any that might stretch over a few more pages. It does not lack narrative either.

Davis’ writing delivers exactly what she seeks: the unanswered questions.4

My favorite section of Essays is where Davis walks us through a physical encounter with Joan Mitchell’s abstract painting Les Bluets.

It was what it was, shapes and colors, white and blue. Then I was told by Joan or someone else that it referred to the landscape here in Vétheuil, specifically to the cornflowers. Whatever I had known or not known about painting before this was a surprise to me, even a shock. Apparently I had not known before that an abstract painting could contain references to concrete, objective, identifiable subject matter. Two things happened at once: the painting abruptly went beyond itself, lost its isolation, acquired a relationship to fields, to flowers; and it changed from something I understood into something I did not understand, a mystery, a problem.


I like to understand things and tend to ask questions of myself or another person until there is nothing left that I do not understand. At the time, in the midst of a period when I was training myself so hard in another kind of representation and seeing more and more clearly into the subtler workings of my language, I was confronted with this experience of opacity.

"Les Bluets", 1973 by Joan Mitchell.
“Les Bluets”, 1973 by Joan Mitchell. “The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost.” writes Rebecca Solnit in her study of getting lost. Photograph from Centre Pompidou.
The experience of Davis reading Beckett, or standing in front of Mitchell’s abstracts, is the same I feel when I open the pages of Can’t and Won’t. There is tremendous space in Davis’ words. In the margins, on the page, but also between the lines. The unspoken ambles alongside the more tangible like a small pup on a lead.

As Davis writes of Mitchell, “after a time I did not feel the need for complete answers, because I saw that part of the force of the painting was that it continued to elude explanation,” one could say of Davis. To sit “in the questions” as Rilke put it, in contemplation of the work, with the scant words and the looming ivory page, that is enough.

Enjoy Davis’ study of language, literature and her own incredibly textured development of craft in tandem with Rollo May’s exploration of our creative fragility, Margaret Atwood on the writer’s duality, Ursula Le Guin’s sensitive exploration of the universal realities of fictional language, George Orwell’s use of writing as a means to fight single-mindedness, and certainly do not miss Dorothea Brande’s timeless advice on teaching genius.