Flannery O'Connor's book of essays, Mystery and Manners, has been much more of a bible to me in my writing life than anything else, even moreso than Strunk and White. I first read it almost twenty years ago, when writing my first stories (I'm old!), and return to it every now and then for encouragement and inspiration. I love her grumpy, modest arrogance and absolutely clear vision. One essay in particular, "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," never fails to sweep away my (ever-recurring) confusion and despair. I thought I would repeat here some of her rather casually tossed-off bits of wisdom, but if you are serious about writing fiction, I strongly suggest you read the whole thing yourself.
"I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. They are interested in publishing something, and if possible, making a "killing." They are interested in being a writer, not in writing.... And they seem to feel that this can be accomplished by learning certain things about working habits and markets and about what subjects are currently acceptable."
But, she says, "The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less. St. Thomas said that the artist is concerned with the good of that which is made; and that will have to be the basis of my few words on the subject of ficion."
And a few pages on:
"The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.... The world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are very loath to create.... The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction."
She goes on to talk about the novel versus the short story, the role of theme, etc. Then this, "People without hope don't write novels, and what is more to the point, they don't read them. They don't take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage."
And then this: "Fiction should be both canny and uncanny. In a good deal of popular criticism, there is the notion operating that all fiction has to be about the Average Man, and has to depict average, ordinary everyday life, tht every fiction writer must produce what used to be called 'a slice of life.' But if life, in that sense, satisfied us, there would be no sense in producing literature at all."
Oh, Flannery, you make it sound so easy and sensible!
She goes on to express strong opinions about the worth of writing classes and universities and what a writing teacher can and can't do for a student, but I won't repeat what she says in hopes that I might encourage those MFA-obsessed folks to go find this marvelous book.