If I could Teach One Thing About Writing…

… this is what it would be. I don’t know how I can really teach this, or rather, impart it. I do not know even if I have grasped this myself really.

“Wouldn’t it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you.” – Flannery O’Connor

source: theatalantic.com

source: theatalantic.com

I had a conversation the other day with someone asking my opinion about Ayn Rand. Suppressing an (involuntary) shudder, I replied that if you’re vocation is propaganda, go into advertising, not novel-writing.

But Ms. Rand is just an extreme example of what most bad writers do. They come at a work with an “idea” they wish to impart– a “meaning”– or, much worse, a “moral“. You see this especially in bad fiction, but also in bad essay writing where the essay is supposed to be concerned with drawing out the meaning of a poem or work, and instead imposes a meaning upon it like a straightjacket.

You hear it in the worst English classes: “water means baptism, renewal. the sun means energy, new life. green always means X, and red Y, and this that, and blah blah blah….”

I want to tell my students: life just isn’t like that. Stop trying to impose your own patterns on it and let the God of all patterns show you His strange and forever-suprising designs. They might not be what you think. And if He doesn’t show them to you, so be it. It is okay. You don’t have to know.

It’s better to say, “I don’t know” than to pretend like you do.

Even in essay writing. Even in English class.

Some of my favorite essays I have ever read express an honest uncertainty– not a cop-out-I’m-too-lazy-to-think-about-anything– but rather a truthful and painful acknowledgement of inadequacy before the truth: “It seems like Dickinson could be saying … although it is possible that she … and ultimately this ambiguity shows the reader that …”

Flannery got it right when it comes to fiction. As much as she was (and is) an opinionated and ornery Southern lady, she was also a humble Christian and knew when to shut her own mouth and let the mystery speak for itself–whatever it meant to say.

The hard thing is literature is like life–and tells us about life. Life, too, is far beyond our silly pattern-making. I know several people (including myself) who love to “discover” patterns in their lives and thus ascribe different meanings and morals and oh now I get its, but these are just silly.

How do I tell you that writing reveals the secret?

It is better–far better– to discover a meaning in your writing, in your reading, in your life than to impose one.

And, as Flannery says, don’t be afraid. Nothing you write–or live– will lack meaning, because the meaning is in you.

There is the Holy Spirit, who “breathes in us sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

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3 Comments

Filed under Catholicism, Christ, Education, Fiction, Flannery O'Connor, Literature, Teaching

3 responses to “If I could Teach One Thing About Writing…

  1. Pingback: 7 Quick Takes Friday (3/7/14) | Mysteries and Manners

  2. Pingback: “It’s Really Baffling” | Mysteries and Manners

  3. Pingback: On Teaching Writing in High School – Or, Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong | Mysteries and Manners

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