Daily Writing Tip 43 of 100, The Meaning of Fiction

For one hundred days, I’m going to post a writing tip each day. I have a whole bookshelf full of writing books and I want to do some reading and increased studying of this valuable resource. This will help me keep track of anything I’ve learned, and help motivate me to keep going. If anyone has a favorite tip of their own to add, contact me. I’d love to put it up here.

Today’s tip – The Meaning of Fiction

Source – “Writing Short Stories” from Mystery and Manners, by Flannery O’Connor

I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

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.

This is such a truth about writing and reading. I know a few literature instructors I have met over the decades that need to read this carefully and take it to heart.

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 19 – A Good Man is Hard to Find

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day nineteen – A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor

Read it online here:

A Good Man is Hard to Find

When I was a little kid and we had to go on a long driving trip I would calculate the odds of us not arriving at our destination alive. That’s not normal for a little kid – but somehow the actual act of doing the calculations were a comfort to me. I knew the terrible stuff was there and my thinking, research, and ciphering gave me solid evidence that there was at least a possibility of getting through alive and uninjured.

In A Good Man is Hard to Find Bailey and his family, especially his monster of a mother, don’t do a very good job of calculating the odds – and pay for it.

What a great story. What horror.

I don’t know what is worse – the thought of the murderous Misfit and his henchmen out there waiting for you, shirtless, armed, merciless. Or the thought of being cooped up in a car for hours and hours with that Grandmother.

She didn’t want to go to Florida. In the end, she didn’t have to. Be careful of what you don’t wish for.

This is a story about the two sides of evil – real, horrible evil… and the small evil of self-centred ignorance. It is a story about grace – which seems to always come too late. And it is a story about the world and the doom that it presents.

Above all, it is a story.

They stopped at The Tower for barbecued sand- wiches. The Tower was a part stucco and part wood filling station and dance hall set in a clearing outside of Timothy. A fat man named Red Sammy Butts ran it and there were signs stuck here and there on the building and for miles up and down the highway saying, TRY RED SAMMY’S FAMOUS BARBECUE. NONE LIKE FAMOUS RED SAMMY’S! RED SAM! THE FAT BOY WITH THE HAPPY LAUGH. A VETERAN! RED SAMMY’S YOUR MAN!

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.