How Reading James Baldwin Can Make You a Better Writer


It’s probably fitting that most of the discussion, both past and present, surrounding the work of James Baldwin is about the content of his writing rather than the art of his writing. After all, he wrote very important things—he was both a civil rights leader as well as a writer. Although this myopia on the content of Baldwin is fitting in one sense, it’s also a bit of a shame because he was one of the great prose stylists of 20th century. It’s my belief that however laden with moral gravity, a truly great piece of writing stands or falls by its force of invention. The difference between a thing said and a thing well said isn’t moral acuity but genius. James Baldwin just happened to have both.

On the Painter Beauford Delaney is a short and obscure piece of writing but I think a great example of an imaginative essay. Like many of Baldwin’s essays, it is autobiographical, but it’s also a reflection on art, a love letter to a friend, and a narrative unto itself—all in the space of less than 800 words. But unlike many of Baldwin’s essays, it is a celebration. Baldwin describes, in the first paragraph, his acquaintance with Delaney as being taught how to see:

I learned about light from Beauford Delaney, the light contained in every thing, in every surface, in every face. Many years ago in poverty and uncertainty, Beauford and I would walk together through the streets of New York City. He was then, and is now, working all the time, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he is seeing all the time; and the reality of his seeing caused me to begin to see. Now, what I began to see was not, at that time, to tell the truth, his painting; that came later; what I saw, first of all, was a brown leaf on black asphalt, oil moving like mercury in the black water of the gutter, grass pushing itself up through a crevice in the sidewalk. And because I was seeing it with Beauford, because Beauford caused me to see it, the very colours underwent a most disturbing and salutary change. The brown leaf on the black asphalt, for example—what colors were these, really? To stare at the leaf long enough, to try to apprehend the leaf, was to discover the many colours in it; and though black had been described to me as the absence of light, it became very clear to me that if this were true, we would never have been able to see the colour; black: the light is trapped in it and struggles upward, rather like that grass pushing upward through the cement. It was humbling to be forced to realize that the light fell down from heaven, on everything, on everybody, and that the light was always changing. Paradoxically, this meant for me that memory is a traitor and that life does not contain the past tense: the sunset one saw yesterday, the leaf that burned, or the rain that fell, have not really been seen unless one is prepared to see them every day. As Beauford is, to his eternal credit, for our health and hope.

The sentences, like the brown leaf careening towards the gutter, adhere to reality by winding and twisting. Baldwin’s best paragraphs are like this; he is the king of the unqualified generalization. Meandering from light, to a painting of a brown leaf, to color, to the infinite properties of color, then—for no other reason than force of association—to the color black. How does he get from the many colors of a leaf to black? He describes for instance when “it became very clear,” upon hearing black described as the absence of light, “that if this were true, we would never have been able to see the colour; black: the light is trapped in it and struggles upward, rather like that grass pushing upward through the cement.” What could he possibly mean by this?

Perhaps I am so struck by the light in Beauford’s paintings because he comes from darkness—as I do, as, in fact, we all do. But the darkness of Beauford’s beginnings, in Tennessee, many years ago, was a black-blue midnight indeed, opaque, and full of sorrow. And I do not know, nor will any of us ever really know, what kind of strength it was that enabled him to make so dogged and splendid a journey. In any case, from Tennessee, he eventually came to Paris (I have the impression that he walked and swam) and for a while lived in a suburb of Paris, Clamart. It was at this time that I began to see Beauford’s painting in a new way, and it was also at this time that Beauford’s paintings underwent a most striking metamorphosis into freedom. I know this sounds extremely subjective; but let it stand; it is not really as subjective as it sounds. There was a window in Beauford’s house in Clamart before which we often sat—late at night, early in the morning, at noon. This window looked out on a garden; or, rather, it would have looked out on a garden if it had not been for the leaves and branches of a large tree which pressed directly against the window. Everything one saw from this window, then, was filtered through these leaves. And this window was a kind of universe, moaning and wailing when it rained, light of the morning, and as blue as the blues when the last light of the sun departed.

Notice the parallelism in the first sentences of each paragraph: “light contained in every thing, every surface, in every face,” and “he comes from darkness—as I do, as, in fact, we all do.”

In other words, Baldwin is using seeing as a metaphor for being. Beauford Delaney’s seeing has an origin just as his being did, in Tennessee, out of which he came—from that “black-blue midnight”—, to Paris. Baldwin then, without abandoning his double meaning, touches on the real purpose of art, and perhaps personhood. It was in Clamart that Beauford’s painting became free. Is it a coincidence that a black man’s painting became free once he left America? Maybe. Baldwin—himself an émigré to France—doesn’t say. He prefers to let the two things sit next to one another without explanation, like in a painting.

Well, that life, that light, that miracle, are what I began to see in Beauford’s paintings, and this light began to stretch back for me over all the time we had known each other, and over much more time than that, and this light held the power to illuminate, even to redeem and reconcile and heal. For Beauford’s work leads the inner and the outer eye, directly and inexorably, to a new confrontation with reality. At this moment one begins to apprehend the nature of his triumph. And the beauty of his triumph, and the proof that it is a real one, is that he makes it ours. Perhaps I should say, flatly, what I believe—that he is a great painter, among the very greatest; but I do know that great art can only be created out of love, and that no greater lover has ever held a brush.

James Baldwin, in this short essay on Beauford Delaney, writes the best definition of art I have ever comes across, and I have looked for a long time. He writes of Delaney’s paintings, that they lead to “a new confrontation with reality.” That is what real art does. And a good reader will notice Baldwin practicing what he preaches. These three paragraphs taken together are a sort of picture, without a straightforward argument, but with a commitment to describing experienced truth.

Writers like James Baldwin make me wonder if ‘easier said than done,’ is really a cliché in certain contexts. Sometimes (it seems to me, anyway) telling the truth in its fullness is more like painting a masterpiece than uttering a simple truism. The writer as truth teller—if they are human, and they know their canvas and audience—will most likely bring out something surprising, yet familiar. This is impossible to fake, which is why Baldwin talks about love at the end. To pluck something from the unconscious mind and bring it into the light can be traumatizing unless it is performed with love. If done in anger, the audience will reject the message or be damaged by it. Or (and this is more often the case) if the message is only what the audience wants to hear, only a reiteration of the conscious mind, it isn’t art but pacification. Nothing surprising can be made familiar because, in this tiny universe, nothing brought out is truly new, nor is it too old to have been forgotten.


Interested in the work of James Baldwin?

Check out his Collected Essays on Amazon:


5 thoughts on “How Reading James Baldwin Can Make You a Better Writer

  1. Hi Daniel. Interesting stuff. Thanks for dropping by the other day. I would say that reading anything will make you a better writer because it will help you find your own style. For me recently, in terms of fiction, it has been David Mitchell showing me the way things can be done / don’t always have to be done.

    Liked by 1 person

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