Very frequently the writer’s aim is to take apart the world where you have very little control, and replace it with language over which you can have some control. Destroy and then repair. I once wrote a passage in which I had the narrator say, “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.” But there are many motives for writing. Writing a book is such a complicated, long-term, difficult process that all of the possible motives that can funnel in will, and a great many of those motives will be base. If you can transform your particular baseness into something beautiful, that’s about the best you can make of your own obnoxious nature.
An idiom characterizes a society, and when you ignore 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 anything meaningful about the mystery of a personality unless you put that personality in a believable 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 contemptuously that she has a mule that is older than 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, because 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.
From Flannery O’Connor’s lecture “Writing Short Stories.” Republished in Mystery and Manners.
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 concrete 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 experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.
From Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Writing Short Stories.” Collected in Mystery and Manners.
From “American Writing Today: A Diagnosis of the Disease,” a manifesto William T. Vollmann published in the Spring ’90 issue of Conjunctions. The image here, along with the image of Vollmann in his press flak jacket (1992), are from the anthology Expelled from Eden.
From “Obscenity and the Law of Reflection,” collected in Henry Miller on Writing.
Salon has posted a new interview with Lydia Davis. From the interview:
I can’t write incorrectly. I find it very difficult to just relax and have spelling mistakes and grammar mistakes and punctuation – I cannot do that. But I can’t do that even if I write a shopping list, so that’s not surprising. I can’t be casual, so it’s more correct. Sometimes I have fun writing it nicely – doing parallel constructions or, you know – but of course it’s more relaxed than a formal story, but it’s still a piece of writing that has an effect whether it’s a really good friend or a business email so I’m still quite conscious. It’s amazing how you can write something quickly and when I reread it – I always reread my emails – I make mistakes and I’m confusing and you’d think after all this time I could write a quick email that would be absolutely perfect, but I can’t.
No literary quality can be attained by reading writers who possess it: be it, for example, persuasiveness, imagination, the gift of drawing comparisons, boldness or bitterness, brevity or grace, facility of expression or wit, unexpected contrasts, a laconic manner, naïveté, and the like. But if we are already gifted with these qualities—that is to say, if we possess them potentia—we can call them forth and bring them to consciousness; we can discern to what uses they are to be put; we can be strengthened in our inclination, nay, may have courage, to use them; we can judge by examples the effect of their application and so learn the correct use of them; and it is only after we have accomplished all this that we actu possess these qualities. This is the only way in which reading can form writing, since it teaches us the use to which we can put our own natural gifts; and in order to do this it must be taken for granted that these qualities are in us. Without them we learn nothing from reading but cold, dead mannerisms, and we become mere imitators.
From Arthur Schopenhauer’s essay “On Reading and Books.”
When Skizzen first became aware of it, he laughed, for he had miss-spelled “spell.” Well, not exactly. The additional l was a typo. “Spelll.” It was a machine-mad error, but the extra l could be easily deleted. That was one of the great virtues of this new invention. If words magically appeared on the screen (he was often unaware he was typing his fingers flew so fast, so briefly did they need to light upon the keys), they could be sent away just as readily. Not like a note that would leave of its own accord yet could not be erased and could not be said to have disappeared. He had been saying that a spell had been put upon mankind. Writing, not saying. He had been writing that a spell had been put upon our race. As if Circe had changed us into swine so that our little noses were wrinkled by concealed snouts, and inside those of us who possessed a male member a hog’s reproductive implement curled—a pig’s … sexual implement—a memoir of the moment of enchantment. Anyway, we did not see how foolish, how absurd, how wicked we were being. That was the gist.
Joseph had pursued a request for some books that he had asked the library to acquire as far as the library entrance, where a smilling young man had greeted him with this suitcase fulll of magic. We ordered some of these computers, he said with some excitement, and they just came. Want to play? The Music Department had been threatened with digitization, but their three-person claim on modernity was weak. So Professor Skizzen dutifullly sat at one end of a long library table and began pecking away: It is as if a spelll had been put upon mankind. How quickly the spelll enveloped the screen. We oinked and thought it singing, he wrote. The young man approached bearing his grin like a tidbit on a salver, so Skizzen hit DELETE and saw nothing more, neither his practice sentence nor the grin. Go on, the young man said, take it for a spin. Our new system will make it easy for us to keep records, he boasted. The bursar is out of his mind with delight. We rolled in the mud and believed we were bathing, Skizzen wrote, with his best hunt-and-peck. He knew Grin was grinning again, over his shoulder. Let the piker peek, Skizzen thought, I shall complete my edifying lines about the spelll that been put upon mankind. “We fought one another and afterward celebrated the carnage” soon materialized. With writing, he said aloud, the writing inscribes the letters, letters build the words, and, subsequently, the thought arrives—handmade like kneaded bread. With typewriting, you get letters by hammering them into existence. Or out, with x’s, if you don’t like them. With this sweet machine here, you issue a requisition. Well, now, I hadn’t thought about it that way, the Grinner said. With pen and ink, before we write, we think, because we hate the sight of corrections. With the computer we write first and think later, corrections are so easy to perform. I like the delete key best; it has a good appearance, Skizzen said, typing furiously. “We ate our farrow and supposed it was a splendidly healthy, indeed toothsome, way to dine.” Joseph determined to leave something behind as an animal might to signal its presence, so he keyed: “We eagerly awaited our own slaughter, as though we were receiving an award.” Now he spoke it as he played it. “Our haunch would hang in the smokehouse to season, and those of us who remained to feel would feel, like parvenus, that we had Arrived.” I’m glad you got these, he said to the Grin, though the young man didn’t seem to have any more grins to spend. I wonder how many unordered books these cost me. He slid his words the length of the long table where they disappeared over its edge into delete. Then Skizzen took his goatee away where it would be better appreciated.
From William H. Gass’s novel Middle C.
The problem of education is twofold: first to know, and then to utter. Every one who lives any semblance of an inner life thinks more nobly and profoundly than he speaks; and the best of teachers can impart only broken images of the truth which they perceive. Speech which goes from one to another between two natures, and, what is worse, between two experiences, is doubly relative. The speaker buries his meaning; it is for the hearer to dig it up again; and all speech, written or spoken, is in a dead language until it finds a willing and prepared hearer. Such, moreover, is the complexity of life, that when we condescend upon details in our advice, we may be sure we condescend on error; and the best of education is to throw out some magnanimous hints. No man was ever so poor that he could express all he has in him by words, looks, or actions; his true knowledge is eternally incommunicable, for it is a knowledge of himself; and his best wisdom comes to him by no process of the mind, but in a supreme self-dictation, which keeps varying from hour to hour in its dictates with the variation of events and circumstances.
From Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay “Lay Morals.”
When one considers how vast and how close to us is the problem of existence—this equivocal, tortured, fleeting, dream-like existence of ours—so vast and so close that a man no sooner discovers it than it overshadows and obscures all other problems and aims; and when one sees how all men, with few and rare exceptions, have no clear consciousness of the problem, nay, seem to be quite unaware of its presence, but busy themselves with everything rather than with this, and live on, taking no thought but for the passing day and the hardly longer span of their own personal future, either expressly discarding the problem or else over-ready to come to terms with it by adopting some system of popular metaphysics and letting it satisfy them; when, I say, one takes all this to heart, one may come to the opinion that man may be said to be a thinking being only in a very remote sense, and henceforth feel no special surprise at any trait of human thoughtlessness or folly; but know, rather, that the normal man’s intellectual range of vision does indeed extend beyond that of the brute, whose whole existence is, as it were, a continual present, with no consciousness of the past or the future, but not such an immeasurable distance as is generally supposed.
From The Art of Literature by Arthur Schopenhauer.
Style is the physiognomy of the mind, and a safer index to character than the face. To imitate another man’s style is like wearing a mask, which, be it never so fine, is not long in arousing disgust and abhorrence, because it is lifeless; so that even the ugliest living face is better. Hence those who write in Latin and copy the manner of ancient authors, may be said to speak through a mask; the reader, it is true, hears what they say, but he cannot observe their physiognomy too; he cannot see their style. With the Latin works of writers who think for themselves, the case is different, and their style is visible; writers, I mean, who have not condescended to any sort of imitation, such as Scotus Erigena, Petrarch, Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, and many others. An affectation in style is like making grimaces. Further, the language in which a man writes is the physiognomy of the nation to which he belongs; and here there are many hard and fast differences, beginning from the language of the Greeks, down to that of the Caribbean islanders.
To form a provincial estimate of the value of a writer’s productions, it is not directly necessary to know the subject on which he has thought, or what it is that he has said about it; that would imply a perusal of all his works. It will be enough, in the main, to know how he has thought. This, which means the essential temper or general quality of his mind, may be precisely determined by his style. A man’s style shows the formal nature of all his thoughts—the formal nature which can never change, be the subject or the character of his thoughts what it may: it is, as it were, the dough out of which all the contents of his mind are kneaded. When Eulenspiegel was asked how long it would take to walk to the next village, he gave the seemingly incongruous answer: Walk. He wanted to find out by the man’s pace the distance he would cover in a given time. In the same way, when I have read a few pages of an author, I know fairly well how far he can bring me.
Every mediocre writer tries to mask his own natural style, because in his heart he knows the truth of what I am saying. He is thus forced, at the outset, to give up any attempt at being frank or naïve—a privilege which is thereby reserved for superior minds, conscious of their own worth, and therefore sure of themselves. What I mean is that these everyday writers are absolutely unable to resolve upon writing just as they think; because they have a notion that, were they to do so, their work might possibly look very childish and simple. For all that, it would not be without its value. If they would only go honestly to work, and say, quite simply, the things they have really thought, and just as they have thought them, these writers would be readable and, within their own proper sphere, even instructive.
From The Art of Literature by Arthur Schopenhauer.