Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Writing Advice from Flannery O'Connor: The Role of Education in Developing Writers

Flannery O’Connor died young, but she made full use of the years she had. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose is a collection of essays and lectures on writing that was published after her death. One of her themes is the role of education in developing writers, and her position is controversial. Here are some passages from a lecture on the nature and aim of fiction.

[T]here is no technique that can be discovered and applied to make it possible for one to write. If you go to a school where there are classes in writing, these classes should not be to teach you how to write, but to teach you the limits and possibilities of words and the respect due them. . .

I believe the teacher’s work should be largely negative. He can’t put the gift into you, but if he finds it there, he can try to keep it from going in an obviously wrong direction.

. . .

Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

. . .

Presuming that the people left have some degree of talent, the question is what can be done for them in a writing class. I believe the teacher’s work is largely negative, that it is largely a matter of saying “This doesn’t work because . . .” or “This does work because . . .” The because is very important. The teacher can help you understand the nature of your medium, and he can guide you in your reading. [Ellipses and emphasis in original.]

We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.

If you are interested in reading more of Flannery O’Connor’s opinions about writing, check out Mystery and Manners.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Writing Advice from Ernest Hemingway: Make Fiction True

Ernest Hemmingway needs no introduction, and his advice on writing is widely quoted. Even so, some of it bears repeating. The following advice on making a story ring true comes from Ernest Hemingway on Writing.

You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not to just depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides—3 dimensions and if possible 4 that you can write the way I want to. [From a 1925 letter to Dr. C. E. Hemingway.]


What I’ve been doing is trying to do country so you don’t remember the words after you read it but actually have the Country. It is hard because to do it you have to see the country all complete all the time you write and not just have a romantic feeling about it. [From a 1924 letter to Edward O’Brien.]


Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen.

That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best—make it all up—but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way. [From a 1934 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald.]


When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. If a writer can make people live there may be no great characters in his book, but it is possible that his book will remain as a whole; as an entity; as a novel. If the people the writer is making talk of old masters; of music; of modern painting; of letters; or of science then they should talk of those subjects in the novel. If they do not talk of those subjects and the writer makes them talk of them he is a faker, and if he talks about them himself to show how much he knows then he is showing off. [From Death in the Afternoon, emphasis in original.]

Ernest Hemingway on Writing is easy reading and appropriate for all writers. If you want to learn from a master, get a copy for your own library.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Writing Advice from Madeleine L'Engle: Writing for Children is the Same as Writing for Adults

Madeleine L’Engle was a children’s writer who died in 2007. She is best known for A Wrinkle in Time and other children’s fantasies. The advice in this post is taken from Walking on Water, which combines writing advice with reflections on her life as a writer.

The passage below comes from a chapter called “Names and Labels,” where L’Engle tries to dispel the idea that writing for children is different than writing for adults.

Nancy Berkowitz, long a great friend of children’s books and their writers, told me last year that I’d given her the best definition of a children’s book that she’d heard. Having completely forgotten ever giving such a definition, I asked eagerly, “What was it?”

“A children’s book is any book a child will read.”

First my children and now my grandchildren are proof of this, moving from children’s books marketed for their own age range—the girls are ten and eleven years old—to any grown-up novel I think would appeal to them. All they require is a protagonist with whom they can identify (and they prefer the protagonist to be older than they are), an adventure to make them turn the pages, and the making of a decision on the part of the protagonist.

. . .

One summer I taught a class in techniques of fiction at a midwestern university. About half way through the course, one of the students came up to me after class and said, “I do hope you’re going to teach us something about writing for children. That’s really why I’m taking this course.”

“What have I been teaching you?”


“Don’t you write when you write for children?”

“Well—but isn’t it different?”

No, it is not different. The techniques of fiction are the techniques of fiction. They hold as true for Beatrix Potter as they do for Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Characterization, style, theme, are as important in a children’s book as in a novel for grown-ups. Taste, as always, will differ. . . A child is not likely to identify with the characters in Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Books like A Wrinkle in Time may seem too difficult to some parents. But if a book is not good enough for a grown-up, it is not good enough for a child.

So what, then, are the differences?

Most of them are minor, and apparent. A child wants to read about another child, a child living in and having adventures in a world which can be recognized and accepted. As long as what the protagonist does is true, this world can be unlimited, for a child can identify with a hero in ancient Britain, darkest Africa, or the year two thousand and ninety-three.

When I was a child I browsed through my parents’ books when I had finished my own. What was not part of my own circumference of comprehension I simply skipped; sex scenes when I was eight or nine had little relevance for me, so I skipped over them. They didn’t hurt me because they had no meaning for me. In a book which is going to be marketed for children it is usually better to write within the child’s frame of reference, but there is no subject which should, in itself, be taboo. If it is essential for the development of the child protagonist, there is nothing which may not be included. It is how it is included which makes its presence permissible or impermissible. Some books about—for instance—child abuse, are important and deeply moving; others may be little more than a form of infant porno. [Emphasis in original.]

Later in this same section, L’Engle decries the practice of “writing down” to children, which she equates with substandard writing. Then she sums up this way:

So a children’s book must be, first and foremost, a good book, a book with a young protagonist with whom the reader can identify, and a book which says yes to life. [Emphasis in original.]

Walking on Water isn’t for everyone. Madeline L’Engle was a dedicated Christian, and the book is filled with religious and philosophical concepts. However, writers with the same beliefs may want to read it for insight into L’Engle’s view of her calling.

And we can all learn from her comments on writing for children.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Writing Advice from Anne Lamott: Take It a Little at a Time

The second of our living authors is Anne Lamott, who writes both fiction and nonfiction. The advice in this post comes from her classic writing book, Bird by Bird.

Writing a novel is a huge job, and it can seem overwhelming. Lamott deals with this problem by viewing her task through a one-inch picture frame. As she describes it:

 [A]ll I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car—just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

In the next paragraph, Lamott tells the wonderful story that gave her the book’s title:

[T]hirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

As with King’s On Writing, there is much more to Bird by Bird than what is quoted in this post. For more of Lamott’s advice, pick up a copy of the book.

And take your writing bird by bird.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Writing Advice from Stephen King: Find Time to Read

Several years ago we did a series called "Writing with the Masters," which quoted advice from five well-known writers who lived during or before the Nineteenth Century. That series was well-received, so we are "updating" it this month. The May posts will provide advice from five successful Twentieth Century novelists, two of whom are alive and still active.

The first living author is Stephen King. The following advice comes from his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Some “writers” claim that they don’t have time to read. King disagrees. He even describes “read a lot, write a lot” as the Great Commandment. Here are some quotes about the importance of reading to the writing process.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

. . .

So we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles.

. . .

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

This is just a sample of King’s excellent advice in On Writing. If you don’t own a copy, buy one.

But more importantly, find time to read.