Writing Like A Chair: José Saramago


After riding the train from the village where we are staying to Lisbon and after having lunch with three locals who not only welcomed us to their table but later took us to see a church that survived a fire and to drink sweet and potent cherry liquor with them, Michael and I went to the Foundation José Saramago, the museum in tribute to the great writer.

On a wall amidst paragraphs of moving text I found this: “Writing is like building a chair that has to fit, steady on the floor and, if possible, also be beautiful.” So when we write, all four legs of our poem or story need to offer the reader a secure place to land. What I especially love about Saramago’s quote is how utilitarian it makes story, how basic and purposeful.

In his Nobel address, Saramago, demonstrated his point, writing about his beloved grandparents, Josefa and Jerónimo, two illiterate country people who made their lives on the land. In the winter when it was particularly cold they would take the most vulnerable piglets into their own bed. Saramago writes, “Under the coarse blankets, the warmth from the humans saved the little animals from freezing and rescued them from certain death. Although the two were kindly people, it was not a compassionate soul that prompted them to act in that way; what concerned them, without sentimentalism or rhetoric, was to protect their daily bread…”

When Saramago’s grandfather, “swineherd and storyteller” was close to death he “said goodbye to the trees in the yard, one by one, embracing them and crying because he knew he wouldn’t see them again.”

Having come all the way to Portugal for a “vacation,” I have found myself overcome, nearly undone, over the loss of my father, a man who never hugged a tree but one who knew well the utility of story. No matter where Michael and I go and what we do, my father walks beside me, old, yes, and frail, but full of story.

I live with a maker of chairs. When I teach in our living room, I sit near the fireplace in the Shaker rocking chair Michael made long ago. In a couple of weeks when I sit there again, I will read Saramago to the assembled writers and we will do our best to make not only stories reliable in their sturdiness but places readers may choose because of their flourished backs and worn velvet cushioned seats upon which to pause in the labor of their lives.