FlanneryOConnorsAdvice

FlanneryOConnorsAdvice - Q W1 7W1 61 («Wm—m- 3 d¢...

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Unformatted text preview: Q W1 7W1 61 («Wm—m- 3 d¢ p45£~~m--W (irate- 1) :2. Wk" F’Wl {pelican-e VI 1- 2‘} fl" J _. r rate-an ' I: t l" 2>$axa~u2¢2 PatWM—t E [716. u.) E? Asian. J-. A: l qug Writing Short Stories FLANNERY O’CONNOR Writing class. I believe the teacher’s work is largel negative, that it is largely a matter of saying “This doesn’t work because . . .” or “This does work be- cause . . .” The because is very important. u teacher can help you understand the nature of yo I medium, and he can guide you in your reading. don’t believe in classes where students criticize each other’s manuscripts. Such criticism is generally it posed in equal parts of ignorance, flattery, and spite; It’s the blind leading the blind, and it can be dangerv ous. A teacher who tries to impose a way of writing on you can be dangerous too. Fortunately, most teach- ers I‘ve known were too lazy to do this. In any case,-I you should beware of those who appear overenerk getic. In the last twenty years the colleges have been emu phasizing creative writing to such an extent that you, almost feel that any idiot with a nickel’s worth of tal- ent can emerge from a writing class able to write a. competent story. In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a me dium is in danger of dying of competence. We competence, but competence by itSelf is deadly. '- HAVE HEARD PEOPLE SAY THAT THE SHORT STORY one of the most difficult literary forms, and I’ve ;_'always tried to decide why people feel this way about 'what seems to me to be one of the most natural and fundamental ways of human expression.”F After all, In another mood on another occasion Fiannery O’Connor :. as follows: “I have very little to say about short-story “g. It’s one thing to write short stories and another thing talk about writing them, and I hope you realize that your ' g me to talk about story-writing is just like asking a fish _ lecture on swimming. The more stories I write, the more ' rious I find the process and the less I find myself capable ' analyzing it. Before I started writing stories, I suppose I d have given you a pretty good lecture on the subject, but I g produces silence like experience, and at this point I - very little to say about how stories are written.” get this from a writing class. 87 FLANNERY O’CONNOR you begin to hear and tell stories when you’re a child, and there doesn’t seem to be anything very compli- cated about it. I suspect that most of you have been telling stories all your lives, and yet here you sit— come to find out how to do it. Then last week, after I had written down some of these serene thoughts to use here today, my calm was shattered when I was sent seven of your manuscripts to read. After this experience, I found myself ready to ad- mit, if not that the short story is one of the most diffi- cult literary forms, at least that it is more difficult for some than for others. I still suspect that most people start out with some kind of ability to tell a story but that it gets lost along the way. Of course, the ability to create life with words is essentially a gift. If you have it in the first place, you can develop it; if you don’t have it, you might as well forget it. But I have found that the people who don’t have it are frequently the ones hell-bent on writing stories. I’m sure anyway that they are the ones who write the books and the magazine articles on how-to—write— short-stories. I have a friend who is taking a corre- spondenCe course in this subject, and she has passod a few of the chapter headings on to me——such as, “The Story Formula for Writers,” “How to Create 88] Writing Short Stories Characters,” “Let’s Plot!” This form of corruption is costing her twenty-seven dollars. I feel that discussing story-writing in terms of plot, character, and theme is like trying to describe the ex- pression on a face by saying where the eyes, nose, and mouth are. I’ve heard students say, “I’m very good with plot, but I can’t do a thing with character,” or, “I have this theme but I don’t have a plot for it,” and once I heard one say, “I’ve got the story but I don’t have any technique.” Technique is a word they all trot out. I talked to a writers’ club once, and during the question time, one good soul said, “Will you give me the technique for the frame-within-a—frame short story?” I had to admit I was so ignorant I didn’t even know what that was, but she assured me there was such a thing because she had entered a contest to write one and the prize was fifty dollars. But setting aside the people who have no talent for it, there are others who do have the talent but who flounder around because they don’t really know what a story 15. I suppose that obvious things are the hardest to de- fine. Everybody thinks he knows what a story is. But if you ask a beginning student to write a story, you’re liable to get almost anything—a reminiscence, an episode, an opinion, an anecdote, anything under the [89 FLANNERY O’CONNOR sun but a story. A story is a complete dramatic action -—and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is mean- ing that derives from the whole presented experience. I myself prefer to say that a story is a dramatic event that involves a person because he is a person, and a “particular person—that is, because he shares in the general human condition and in some specific human situation. A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality. I lent some stories to a country lady who lives down the road from me, and when she returned them, she said, “Well, them sto- ries just gone and shown you how- some folks would do,” and I thought to myself that that was right; when you write stories, you have to be content to start exactly them—showing how some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything. Now this is a very humble level to have to begin on, and most people who think they want to write sto- ries are not willing to start there. They want to write about problems, not people; or about abstract issues, not concrete situations. They have an idea, or a feel- ing, or an overflowing ego, or they want to Be A Writer, or they want to give their wisdom to the world in a simple-enough way for the world to be able to absorb it. In any case, they don’t have a story and 90] Writing Short Stories they wouldn’t be Willing to write it if they did; and in the absence of a story, they set out to find a theory or a formula or a technique. Now none of this is to say that when you write a story, you are supposed to forget or give up any moral position that you hold. Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing. For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually in- volves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it. It involves judgment. Judgment is something that begins in the act of vi- sion, and when it does not, or when it becomes sepa- rated from vision, then a confusion exists in the mind which transfers itself to the story. Fiction operates through the senses, and I think one reason that people find it SO difficult to write sto- ries is that they forget how much time and patience is required to convince through the senses. No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel, the story is going to believe anything the fiction writer merely tells him. The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched. Now this is something that can’t be learned only in [91 FLANNERY O’CONNOR the head; it has to be learned in the habits. It has to become a way that you habitually look at things. The fiction writer has to realize that he can’t create com- ' passion with compassion, or emotion with emotion, or thought with thought. He has to provide all these things with a body; he has to create a world with weight and extension. I have found that the stories of beginning writers usually bristle with emotion, but whose emotion is often very hard to determine. Dialogue frequently proceeds without the assistance of any characters that you can actually see, and uncontained thOught leaks out of every corner of the story. The reason is usually that the student is wholly interested in his thoughts and his emotions and not in his dramatic action, and that he is too laZy or highfalutin to descend to the concrete where fiction operates. He thinks that judg- ment exists in one place and sense-impression in an- other. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them. 1 Fiction writers who are not concerned with theSe concrete details are guilty of what Henry James called “weak specification.” The eye will glide over their words while the attention goes to sleep. Ford Madox Ford taught that you couldn't have a man appear long enough to sell a newspaper in a story un- less you put him there with enough detail to make the reader see him. 92] Writing Short Stories I have a friend who is taking acting classes in New York from a Russian lady who is supposed to be very good at teaching actors. My friend wrote me that the first month they didn’t speak a line, they only learned to see. Now learning to see is the basis for learning all the arts except music. I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things. Fiction writing is very seldom a matter of saying things; it is a matter of showing things. However, to say that fiction proceeds by the use of detail does not mean the simple, mechanical piling—up of detail. Detail has to be controlled by some overall purpose, and every detail has to be put to work for you. Art is Selective. What is there is essential and creates movement. Now all this requires time. A good short story should not have less meaning than a novel, nor should its action be less complete. Nothing essential to the main experience can be left out of a short story- All the action has to be satisfactorily accounted for in terms of motivation, and there has to be a beginning, a middle, and an end, though not necessarily in that order. I think many people decide that they want to write short stories because they’re short, and by short, they mean short in every way. They think that a short story is an incomplete action in which a very [93 FLANNERY O’CONNOR little is shown and a great deal suggested, and they think you suggest something by leaving it out. It’s very hard to disabuse a student of this notion, be- cause he thinks that when he leaves something out, he’s being subtle; and when you tell him that he has to put something in before anything can be there, he thinks you’re an insensitive idiot. Perhaps the central question to be considered in any discussion of the short story is what do we mean by short. Being short does not mean being slight. A Kr’s/hort story should be long in depth and should give u us an experience of meaning. I have an aunt who ' thinks that nothing happens in a story unless some- body gets married or shot at the end of it. I wrote a story about a tramp who marries an old woman’s idiot daughter in order to acquire the old woman’s au~ tomobile. After the marriage, he takes the daughter 0E on a wedding trip in the automobile and abandons her in an eating place and drives on by himself. Now that is a complete story. There is nothing more relat- ing to the mystery of that man’s personality that could be shown through that particular dramatiza- tion. But I’ve never been able to convince my aunt that it’s a complete story. She wants to know what happened to the idiot daughter after that. Not long ago that story was adapted for a televi- sion play, and the adapter, knowing his business, had the tramp have a change of heart and go back and 94] Writing Short Stories pick up the idiot daughter and the two of them ride away, grinning madly. My aunt believes that the story is complete at last, but I have other sentiments about it—which are not suitable for public utterance. When you write a story, you only have to write one story, but there will always be people who will refuse to read the story you have written. And this naturally brings up the awful question of what kind of a reader you are writing for when you write fiction. Perhaps we each think we have a per- sonal solution for this problem. For my own part, I have a very high opinion of the art of fictiOn and a very low opinion of what is called the “average” reader. I tell myself that I can’t escape him, that this is the personality I am Supposed to keep awake, but that at the same time, I am also supposed to provide the intelligent reader with the deeper experience that he looks for in fiction. Now actually, both of these readers are just aspects of the writer’s own perSQnal- ity, and in the last analysis, the only reader he can know anything about is himself. We all write at our own level of understanding, but it is the peculiar characteristic of fiction that its literal surface can be made to yield entertainment on an obvious physical plane to one sort of reader while the selfsame surface can be made to yield meaning to the person equipped to experience it there. Meaning is what keeps the short story from being [95 ERY O’CONNOR short. I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction. When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made con- crete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experi- enced meaning, and the purpose of making state— ments about the meaning of a story is only to help you _ to experience that meaning more fully. Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real—whether the writer is writing a naturalis- tic story or a fantasy. I mean that we always begin with what is or with what has an eminent possibility of truth about it. Even when one writes a fantasy, re- 96] Writing Short Stories ality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantastic be- cause it is so real, so real that it is fantastic. Graham Greene has said that he can’t write, “Lstood over a ‘- bottomless pit,” because that couldn’t be true, or “Running down the stairs I jumped into a taxi,” be- cause that couldn’t be true either. But Elizabeth Bowen can write about one of her characters that “she snatched at her hair as if she heard something in it,” because that is eminently possible. I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly atten- tive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein—because the greater the story’s strain on the creduiity, the more convincing the prop- erties in it have to be. A good example of this is a story called “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka. This is a story about a man who wakes up one morning to find that he has turned into a cockroach overnight, while not discarding his human nature. The rest of the story concerns his life and feelings and eventual death as an insect with human nature, and this situation is ac- cepted by the reader because the concrete detail of the story is absolutely convincing. The fact is that this story describes the dual nature of man in such a real- istic fashion that it is almost unbearable. The truth is _ not distorted here, but rather, a certain distortion is [97 FLANNERY O’CONNOR appearance is not the same thing as reality, then we must give the artist the liberty to make Certain rear- rangements of nature it these will lead to greater depths of vision. The artist himself always has to re- member that what he is rearranging is nature, and that he has to know it and be able to describe it accu~ rater in order to have the authority to rearrange it at all. The peculiar problem of the short-story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible. He has only a short space to do it in and he can’t do it by statement. He has to do it by showing, not by saying, and by showing the concrete—so that his problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him. In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the action of the story it- self, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work. I once wrote a story called “Good Country People,” in which a lady PhD. has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman whom she has tried to seduce. Now I’ll admit that, paraphrased in this way, the situation is simply a low joke. The aver- age reader is pleased to observe anybody’s wooden leg being stolen. But without ceasing to appeal to him and without making any statements of high intention, uls‘ednto get aththewtrnhthm, If we admit, as we must, that 98] Writing Short Stories this story does manage to operate at another level of experience, by letting the wooden leg accumulate meaning. Early in the story, we‘re presented with the fact that the PhD. is spiritually as well as physically crippled. She believes in nothing but her own belief in nothing, and we perceive that there is a wooden part of her soul that corresponds to her wooden leg. Now of course this is never stated. The fiction writer states as little as possible. The reader makes this con- nection from things he is shown. He may not even know that he makes «the connection, but the connec- tion is there nevertheless and it has its efiect on him. As the story goes on, the wooden leg continues to ac- cumulate meaning. The reader learns how the girl feels about her leg, how her mother feels about it, and how the country woman on the place feels about it; and finally, by the time the Bible salesman comes along, the leg has accumulated so much meaning that it is, as the saying goes, loaded. And when the Bible salesman steals it, the reader realizes that he has taken away part of the girl’s personality and has re- vealed her deeper affiiction to her for the first time. If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first, and as a wooden leg it is absolutely neCessary to the story. It has its place on the literal level of the story, but it operates in depth as well as on the surface. It in- [99 FLANNERY O’CONNOR creases the story in every direction, and this is essen- tially the way a story escapes being short. Now a little might be said about the way in which this happens. I wouldn’t want you to think that in that story I sat down and Said, “I am now going to write a story about a PhD. with a wooden leg, using the wooden leg as a symbol for another kind of afflic— tion.” I doubt myself if many writers know what they are going to do when they start out. When I started writing that story, I didn’t know there was going to be a PhD. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two Women that I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daugh- ter with a wooden leg. As the story progressed, I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was in- evitable. This is a story that produces a shock for the I reader, and I think one reason for this is that it pro- ‘ duced a shock for the writer. I Now despite the fact that this story came about in this seemingly mindless fashion, it is a story that al- most no rewriting was done on. It is a story that was under control throughout the writing of it, and it 100] Writing Short Stories might be asked how this kind of control comes about, since itis not entirely conscious. “I theuans-wer to this is what Maritain calls “the habit of art.” It is a fact that fiction writing is something in which the whole personality takes part -—the conscious as well as the unconscious mind. Art is the habit of the artist; and habits have to be rooted deep in the whole personality. They have to be culti- vated like any other habit, over a long period of time, by esperience; and "teaching any kind of writing is largely a matter of helping the student develop the- habit of art. I think this is more than just a discipline, although it is that; I think it is a way of looking at the . created world and of using the senses so as to make them find as much meaning as possible in things. Now I am not so naive as to suppose that most people come to writers’ conferences in order to hear what kind of vision is necessary to write stories that will become a permanent part of our literature. Even if you do wish to hear this, your greatest concerns are immediately practical. You want to know how you can actually write a good story, and further, how you can tell when you’ve done it; and so you want to know what the form of a short story is, as if the form were something that existed outside of each story and could be applied or imposed on the material. Of course, the more you write, the more you will realize [101 FLANNERY O’CONNOR that the form is organic, that it is something that grows out—oi the material, that the form of each story is unique. A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it 1', can only be expanded. A story is good when you con- tinue to see more and more in it, and when it con— ! tinues to escape you. In__fi__c__t_ion two two always more. than four. The only way, I think, to learn to write short sto- ries is to write them, and then to try to discover what you have done. The time to think of technique is when you’Ve actually got the story in front of you. The teacher can help the student by looking at his individual work and trying to help him decide if he has written a complete story, one in which the action fully illuminates the meaning. Perhaps the most profitable thing I can do is to tell you about some of the general obserVations I made _ about these seven stories I read of yours. All of these observations will not fit any one of the stories exactly, but they are points nevertheless that it won’t hurt anyone interested in writing to think about. The first thing that any professional writer is con- scious of in reading anything is, naturally, the use of language. Now the uSe of language in these stories Was such that, with one exception, it would be diffin cult to distinguish one story from another. While I can recall running into several cliches, I can’t re- 102] Writing Short S taries member one image or One metaphor from the seven stories. I don’t mean there weren‘t images in them; I just mean that there weren’t any that were effective enough to take away with you. In connection with this, I made another observa- tion that startled me considerably. With the eXCeption of one story, there was practically no use made of the local idiom. Now this is a Southern Writers’ Confer- ence. All the addresses on these stories were from Georgia or Tennessee, yet there was no distinctive sense of Southern life in them. A few place-names were dropped, 'Savannah or Atlanta or Jacksonville, but these could just as easily have been changed to Pittsburgh or Passaic without calling for any other alteration in the story. The characters spoke as if they had never heard any kind of language except what came out of a television set. This indicates that some; thing is way out of focus. There are two qualities that make fiction. One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners. You get the manners from the texture of ex- istence that surrounds you. The great advantage of being a Southern writer is that we don’t have to go anywhere to look for manners; bad or good, we’ve got them in abundance. We in the South live in a society that is rich in contradiction, rich in irony, rich in con- trast, and particularly rich in its speech. And yet here [103 FLANNERY O’CONNOR are six stories by Southerners in which almost no use is made of the gifts of the region. Of course the reason for this may be that you have seen these gifts abused as often that you have become self-conscious about using them. There is nothing worse than the writer who doesn’t use the gifts of the region, but wallows in them. Everything becomes so Southern that it’s sickening, so local that it is unintel- ligible, so literally reproduoed that it conveys noth- ing. The general gets lost in the particular instead of being shown through it. However, when the life that actually surrounds us is totally ignored, when our patterns of speech are ab- solutely overlooked, then something is out of kilter. The writer should then as]: himself if he is not reach- ing out for a kind of life that is artificial to him. An idiom characterizes a society, and when you ig- nore the idiom, you are very likely ignoring the whole social fabric that could make a meaningful character. You can’t cut characters off from their society and say much about them as individuals. You can’t say any- thing meaningful about the mystery of a personality unless you put that personality in a belieVabIe and significant social context. And the best way to do this is through the character’s own language. When the old lady in one of Andrew Lytle’s stories says con- temptuously that she has a mule that is older than 104] Width: g Short Stories Birmingham, we get in that one sentence a sense of a society and its history. A great deal of the Southern Writer’s work is done for him before he begins, be— cause our history lives in our talk. In one of Eudora Welty’s stories a character says, “Where I come from, we use fox for yard dogs and owls for chickens, but we sing true.” Now there is a whole book in that one sentence; and when the people of your section can talk like that, and you ignore it, you’re just not taking advantage of what’s yours. The sound of our talk is too definite to be discarded with impunity, and if the writer tries to get rid of it, he is liable to destroy the better part of his creative power. 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 fea- tures. You feel in the end that no personality is re- vealed 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 usu- [105 FLANNERY O’Connor. ally be more successful if you start the other way around. If you start with a real personality, a real character, then songething 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. 106] A Reasonable U se of the Unreasonable LAST FALL" 1 RECEIVED A LETTER FROM A STUDENT who said she would be “graciously appreciative” if I would tell her “just what enlightenment” I expected her to get from each of my stories. I suspect she had a paper to write. I wrote her back to forget about the enlightenment and just try to enjoy them. I knew that was the most unsatisfactory answer I could have given because, of- course, she didn’t want to enjoy them, she just wanted to figure them out. “ I.e., in 1962. These remarks were made by Flannery O‘Connor at Hollins College, Virginia, to introduce a reading of her story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” on October 14, 1963. 107 ...
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This note was uploaded on 10/22/2009 for the course VIS 262 taught by Professor Keithj.sanborn during the Spring '08 term at Princeton.

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FlanneryOConnorsAdvice - Q W1 7W1 61 («Wm—m- 3 d¢...

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