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“Electronic aids, particularly domestic computers, will help the inner migration, the opting out of reality. Reality is no longer going to be the stuff out there, but the stuff inside your head. It’s going to be commercial and nasty at the same time.”
― J.G. Ballard

Invasion Car Show Deep Ellum Dallas, Texas

Invasion Car Show
Deep Ellum
Dallas, Texas

The Action of Grace in Territory Held Largely by the Devil

I have been working my way through the stories in Knockemstiff, a collection by Donald Ray Pollock. The characters in the tales are unrelenting losers – it’s harrowing. You would never want to meet these people and shouldn’t care when they meet their inevitable doom. The stories are not for the faint of heart (I’ll write about the book itself in a few days).

Yet, you do care. The stories do work.

In researching the literature I came across a quote from Flannery O’Connor. This make sense, she was a master of the grotesque and the sacrificial outsider. Knockemstiff is in Ohio, not the South of O’Connor’s milieu – but there is a kinship.

The piece I read had a quote:

From my own experience in trying to make stories “work,” I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable, and I have found that, for me, this is always an action that indicates that grace has been offered. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace. This is not a piece of knowledge that I consciously put into my stories; it is a discovery that I get out of them. 

And this is it in a nutshell. That’s some of the best advice on fiction I’ve read in a long time.

The quote came from a book, Mystery and Manners – Occasional Prose, Selected and Edited by Sallay and Robert Fitzgerald.

An expanded selection reads:

To insure our sense of mystery, we need a sense of evil which sees the devil as a real spirit who must be made to name himself, and not simply to name himself as vague evil, but to name himself with his specific personality for every occasion. Literature, like virtue, does not thrive in an atmosphere where the devil is not recognized as existing both in himself and as a dramatic necessity for the writer. 

We are now living in an age which doubts both fact and value. It is the life of this age that we wish to see and judge. The novelist can no longer reflect a balance from the world he sees around him; instead, he has to try to create one. It is the way of drama that with one stroke the writer has both to mirror and to judge. When such a writer has a freak for his hero, he is not simply showing us what we are, but what we have been and what we could become. His prophet-freak is an image of himself. 

In such a picture, grace, in the theological sense, is not lacking. There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment. 

Story-writers are always talking about what makes a story “work.” From my own experience in trying to make stories “work,” I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable, and I have found that, for me, this is always an action that indicates that grace has been offered. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace. This is not a piece of knowledge that I consciously put into my stories; it is a discovery that I get out of them. 

I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. 

I have also found that what I write is read by an audience which puts little stock either in grace or the devil. You discover your audience at the same time and in the same way that you discover your subject; but it is an added blow.

There is another sentence in there that I had to think about, think about hard….

There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment. 

And there is the lesson for a writer. Even in the most terrible of circumstances and even with the most degenerate of characters there is a moment where grace is offered, and the story happens in the next split second… when the offer is accepted or rejected.

I have been digging through stories that I have read, looking for that moment… and usually finding it.

I have added, right at the top, of the notes I use to develop a story idea, “Where is the grace offered, how is it felt, and why is it accepted or rejected.”

There is always more to be learned. That’s why we get out of bed in the morning.