Tennessee Williams: The literary factory

In l937, when Tennessee Williams was twenty-six and just beginning to write plays as well as poems and stories, he and a friend named Clark Mills, who grew up to be a professor of French and poetry, set up what they called a "literary factory" in the basement of Mills' parents' home in St Louis. They would retire to their sanctuary and pound away at their typewriters.

Mills later described Williams' unique method of writing: 

"I could never imagine anyone writing as he did. He would do, say, a half page or two pages, and it was fast — he was fast on the typewriter — he would be operating as if blindly. He was never sure if he knew where he was going, but when he got there — when he finished that passage and it might not be right — he'd toss it aside and start all over again. While he would do the whole business over, it would go in a different direction. It was if he was throwing dice — as if he was working toward a combination of some kind of result and he wouldn't have any idea what the result might be but he would recognize it when he got there. You know, usually one sits down to write and writes page one, two, three, four, and so on — but he would write and rewrite and even in the middle of a passage, he'd start over again and slant it in another way." 

Because Williams was at the time writing poetry as well as plays, Mills had a chance to compare them. 

I think he has more poetry in his plays than in his poetry. And, in fact, I would say there is a quality that I think is unique to him. It has to do with the flow of his language and dialogue: It has some kind of of a poetic quality to it. I don't know of any other American playwright, living or dead, who has it. That quality was present even in the early days when he would come to my house and write, banging out page after page and throwing them on the floor. I'd pick up and read what he'd discarded, and there still would be his magic quality to the dialogue — it wasn't the language or the words or the sentences or the way they were put together; it was the "sound" of the words that came through somehow. He seemed to "hear" the voice as much as he heard the words. And I think when you hear a voice like that, you're in the realm of poetry." 

[from Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, by Lyle Leverich, Crown Publishers, New York, N.Y. l995, 644 pages, pp206-207]


Williams did write some good poems — at an early age, one was accepted by America's best journal of verse, Poetry, an astonishing feat for a then unknown writer — but surely Mills had it right.  

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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