Thursday, April 19, 2012

Work in Progress: Re-Reading Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners

From “Writing Short Stories”~~

“Another thing I observed about these stories is that most of them don’t go very far inside a character, don’t reveal very much of the character.  I don’t mean that they don’t enter the character’s mind, but they simply don’t show that he has a personality.  Again this goes back partly to speech.  These characters have no distinctive speech to reveal themselves with, and sometimes they have no really distinctive features.  You feel in the end that no personality is revealed because no personality is there.  In most good stories it is the character’s personality that creates the action of the story.  In most of these stories, I feel that the writer has thought of some action and then scrounged up a character to perform it.  You will usually be more successful if you start the other way around.  If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know what before you begin.  In fact it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin.  You ought to be able to discover something from your stories.  If you don’t, probably nobody else will.”

From “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”~~

“The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest.  Fiction is about everything human and we are made of our dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction.  It’s not a grand enough job for you.”

From “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”~~

“But it is from the kind of world the writer creates, from the kind of character and detail he invests it with, that a reader can find the intellectual meaning of a book.  Once this is found, however, it cannot be drained off and used as a substitute for the book.  As the late John Peale Bishop said: ‘You can’t say Cezanne painted apples and a tablecloth and have said what Cezanne painted.’  The novelist makes his statements by selection, and if he is any good, he selects every word for a reason, every detail for a reason, every incident for a reason, and arranges them in a certain time-sequence for a reason.  He demonstrates something that cannot possible be demonstrated any other way than with a whole novel.”

And for any beleaguered writing students, this gem, also from “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”~~

“I don’t believe in classes where students criticize each other’s manuscript.  Such criticism is generally composed in equal parts of ignorance, flattery, and spite.  It’s the blind leading the blind, and it can be dangerous.  A teacher who tries to impose a way of writing on you can be dangerous too.  Fortunately, most teachers I’ve known were too lazy to do this.  In any case, you should beware of those who appear overenergetic.”

If you’ve never read O'Connor's essays on writing, you must!  (Wow, I really hate this cover…so happy my edition has a peacock on it instead!)


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.