Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Mystery of Writing: Thoughts from Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Joyce Carol Oates

When I write a short story or an essay, I hope it will strike a chord with my readers.

Earlier this week I received an e-mail from someone who had read one of my short stories and wrote to say she loved it.  Her e-mail made my day, not only because of her kind words, but also because she is a wonderful writer with a strong and compelling voice of her own.

I love writing and reading short stories, but I'm mystified when a story I thought wasn't my best work is one that has success. Then I'm disappointed when another story I believe will be heaped with praise doesn't make the cut. How does that happen?

I often question if there is a "magic formula" for what makes a story work. To find the answer to my question, I decided to dig deep. After hours of research, I uncovered what some of my favorite short story writers had to say about the mystery of writing.

When Flannery O’Connor was asked about what she thought makes a story work, she wrote: “. . . it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies."
 
According to O'Connor, the two qualities that make fiction are "a sense of mystery and a sense of manners." 

Eudora Welty also wrote about the mystery of writing. “The mystery lies in the use of language to express human life.” She also wrote, "In writing we rediscover the mystery.” and "Most good stories are about the interior of our lives . . .”
 
Katherine Anne Porter wrote about the importance of being honest in writing about the past. "Of the three dimensions of time, only the past is ‘real’ in the absolute sense that it has occurred . . . ." She went on to write, “One of the most disturbing habits of the human mind is its willful and destructive forgetting of whatever in its past does not flatter or confirm its present point of view.”

Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "The short story is a dream verbalized, arranged in space and presented to the world, imagined as a sympathetic audience . . . . the short story must also represent a desire . . . the most interesting thing about it is its mystery.”
 
I'm hoping to digest this information and incorporate some of the thoughts and beliefs of these master fiction writers into my own short stories. I've also reread some of their short stories to experience their masterful use of language and imagery.
 
How about you? What do you think makes a story work?

19 comments:

  1. I thinks there's always an element of mystery and/or magic as to why some stories and novels move us more than others. I might read a story that blows me away while someone else might read the same one and just find it okay. The story worked on a basic, general level for both of us but "something" about it affected me much more. Mystery? Magic? :)

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    1. Hi Madeline,
      You are so right about how stories affect us differently.

      I guess stories can be compared to perfumes. Just as perfumes have a unique scent and what might smell delicious on one person might not on another, stories have a unique voice that appeals to some but not others.
      Donna

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  2. I like twists and turns (well crafted ones, like the ones in Jodi Picoult and Sandra Dallas' novels). I like characters I can really "see." I like sad novels. (I know I'm in the minority on that point.)

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  3. Hi Sioux,
    I'm with you about characters. I like stories that make me laugh and cry or tap into strong emotions.
    Donna

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  4. I also like characters. I need to know enough about what makes them tick to cast actors or acquaintances to play them in the movie theater of my head.

    One perfume that I did not care for was Olive Kitteridge. I don't mean to criticize. It is unlikely that my opinion will do any damage to a Pulitzer Prize winner. I read the whole thing. I WANTED to like it. But I did not. Don't know why.

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    1. Hmmm. I've never heard of Olive Kitteridge perfume. I need to get out more.
      Donna

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  5. Interesting advice from some of the masters. In the end, though, we have to trust our own gut.

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    1. How true! Thanks for stopping by, Sean. Hope all is well with you.

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  6. I love Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty's thoughts on writing! I have well-thumbed copies of their books. I also think of Conrad's words (paraphrased) That story is about a heart in conflict with itself. (I think he said man, but I prefer to say heart.) Yup, he is the author of HEART OF DARKNESS.

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    1. Hi Clara,
      Very dark stuff from Conrad, but it is true about some of the best stories are about the heart being in conflict with itself. I believe "Apocalypse Now" (one of my hubby's favorite movies) was based on Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS.

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  7. A good story not only takes you on a visually descriptive journey, but a journey of all the senses. You're transported with the character - feeling everything they feel.

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  8. I think it could be a number of things in different stories. But most of all, I think it's a spark of "yes!" by the reader at the heart of the story.

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  9. Nice compilation of thoughts. I often wonder this, too. Even more than stories I write, I wonder why some blog posts are so popular while others that I imagined were my best, hardly garner a comment. I really never know what's going to strike a chord. But I feel that as a writer, I'd better figure that out!

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  10. Interesting post, Donna. While there is a certain subjectivity to what will appeal to readers, some works appear to transcend all lines. I don't think I've every heard anyone say they "just couldn't get into" To Kill a Mockingbird. That book is my gold standard of writing. It has characters as real as the neighbors next door, a strong sense of place and time, and a multi-layered storyline that completely draws in the reader. I can't count how many times I've read this book and never tire of it.

    Sigh. If only I could be infused with the writing ability of Harper Lee.

    Pat
    Critter Alley

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  11. Hi Carol,
    That's a good way of putting it, sparking a yes with the reader.

    Hi Browsingtheatlas,
    That's true about blogging as well.

    Hi Pat,
    So true. Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" does transcend all lines, and generations have come to love her characters.
    Donna

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  12. Great words from the masters, Donna. I recently purchased "The Oxford Book of American Short Stories" edited by Joyce Carol Oates to pursue exactly what your post is about today. Hopefully, I find some answers...

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    1. Hi Karen,
      The Oxford book sounds like I'll want to check out.
      Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you find the answers.

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  13. For me it's the characters, how real they are, and how well they interact. I'll put a book down if the dialogue is cheesy or just seems not true-to-life (or, more accurately, true to the world the author has created).

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