Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Becoming a Writer - Flannery O'Connor "Truth in Fiction"

Flannery's deskImage by marklarson via Flickr

Truth in Fiction

Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real—whether the writer is writing a naturalis­tic 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, reality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantastic be­cause it is so real, so real that it is fantastic. Graham Greene has said that he can't write, "I stood over a bottomless pit," because that couldn't be true, or "Running down the stairs I jumped into a taxi," be­cause 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 atten­tive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein-because the greater the story's strain on the credulity, the more convincing the prop­erties 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 ac­cepted 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 real­istic fashion that it is almost unbearable. The truth is not distorted here, but rather, a certain distortion is used to get at the truth. If we admit, as we must, that appearance is not the same thing as reality, then we must give the artist the liberty to make certain rear­rangements of nature if these will lead to greater depths of vision. The artist himself always has to re­member that what he is rearranging is nature, and that he has to know it and be able to describe it accu­rately 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 it­self, 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 Ph.D. 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 aver­age 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, 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 Ph.D. 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 con­nection from things he is shown. He may not even know that he makes the connection, but the connec­tion is there nevertheless and it has its effect on him. As the story goes on, the wooden leg continues to ac­cumulate 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 re­vealed her deeper affection 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 increases the story in every direction, and this is essen­tially 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 Ph.D. with a wooden leg, using the wooden leg as a symbol for another kind of afflic­tion." 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 Ph.D. 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 daugh­ter 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 in­evitable. This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is that it pro­duced a shock for the writer.
Now despite the fact that this story came about in this seemingly mindless fashion, it is a story that al­most no rewriting was done on. It is a story that was under control throughout the writing of it, and it might be asked how this kind of control comes about, 'Since it is not entirely conscious.
I think the answer 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 culti­vated like any other habit, over a long period of time, by experience; 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.
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