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.

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