O'Connor on recognizing (and writing) good stories

Flannery O’Connor at home in Milledgeville, 1962

Flannery O’Connor at home in Milledgeville, 1962

This morning I made it a point to track down the exact wording of a line from Flannery O’Connor that has stuck with me for years. After some digging around I finally uncovered it. The line comes from “Writing Short Stories,” a lecture for writing students collected in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. For context, here’s the full paragraph in which the line appears:

A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you.
— Flannery O'Connor, "Writing Short Stories"

Now I am not so naive as to suppose that most people come to writers’ conferences in order to hear what kind of vision is necessary to write stories that will become a permanent part of our literature. Even if you do wish to hear this, your greatest concerns are immediately practical. You want to know how you can actually write a good story, and further, how you can tell when you’ve done it; and so you want to know what the form of a short story is, as if the form were something that existed outside of each story and could be applied or imposed on the material. Of course, the more you write, the more you will realize that the form is organic, that it is something that grows out of the material, that the form of each story is unique. A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.

All the books that have had lasting meaning for me, that have kept on teaching me things, and have only grown with the years rather than diminishing and falling away, have precisely this quality—of offering you more and more out of a well that is in no danger of running dry. There’s more where this came from, somewhere down below.

There is also a wonderfully anti-Platonic emphasis on the particular and organic in that paragraph—fitting for a woman who described herself as a “hillbilly Thomist” (a label I have been trying to appropriate for years). I have definitely seen form emerge from my own work more often than I have imposed form on it. Each story has a way it wants—needs—to be told. The writing of it will reveal it.

On that note, a final thought: Immediately after the above passage, O’Connor writes:

The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories is to write them, and then to try to discover what you have done. The time to think of technique is when you’ve actually got the story in front of you.

This is, in fact, some of the best advice she offers in the lecture. (A footnote at the beginning of the text in Mystery and Manners quotes her elsewhere saying that “Before I started writing stories, I suppose I could have given you a pretty good lecture on the subject, but nothing produces silence like experience, and at this point I have very little to say about how stories are written.”) Learn by doing. Tinker and figure it out. What stops us—what stops me—from simply writing a story is aiming at perfection the first time through.

While I was writing Dark Full of Enemies some years ago, friends in a writing group encouraged me to complete what they called a “get-words-on-paper draft.” That proved immensely helpful, and helped me better understand a line from Chesterton that has always nagged at and bothered the perfectionist that hunches in one tidy corner of my soul: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Do, and you will eventually do well.

The fine art of minor characters

Kathy Lamkin as “Desert Aire Manager” in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of  No Country for Old Men

Kathy Lamkin as “Desert Aire Manager” in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men

I just finished reading a fine novel called This Dark Road to Mercy, by North Carolina novelist Wiley Cash. It’s a worthwhile read, but as I was entering the homestretch last night I read a scene that got me thinking about the great but often untapped potential in minor, incidental characters in fiction—the kind of characters who appear for only one or two scenes and may not even have names.

The context:

This Dark Road to Mercy tells the story of Easter and Ruby Quillby, young girls living in a foster home in Gastonia, North Carolina after their mother overdoses. Their estranged father, failed minor league baseball player Wade Chesterfield, discovering some principle and responsibility late in life, decides that he should take them in even though he signed away his parental rights years ago. He convinces them to run away with him. They are pursued by two implacable men: Brady Weller, a disgraced former detective with Gastonia PD who now works as an ad litem advocate for the girls, and Pruitt, a bouncer on a mission to recover cash that Wade stole from his boss. Pruitt also has a personal score to settle with Wade.

The scene:

Having made a grisly discovery that indicates Pruitt is very close to catching them, Wade takes the girls to a convenience store and has Easter, the older of the two, go inside to get the bathroom key so he can change clothes. Here’s the first appearance of the character(s) I want to look at:

The store was empty except for a fat blond-headed woman and a guy with a ponytail who were both standing behind the counter. When I walked in the woman was trying to light a cigarette, but she kept laughing at something the guy had said to her. I stood in front of the register until she’d lit her cigarette and tossed the lighter onto the counter.
“Can I help you?” she asked. The guy laughed again like he remembered what was so funny about what he’d said before I came in. He turned and walked back into a little office, and the woman watched him go. She looked at me again. “What do you need, baby?”
“I need to use the bathroom,” I said. “It’s locked.”
The woman reached under the counter and pulled out a long piece of wood with a key attached to the end of it. “Don’t leave this in there,” she said. “The door locks behind you.” I took the key and walked back to the bathroom.

Later, after Wade has changed, he sends Easter back inside to return the key.

The woman was alone behind the register when I went back into the store. I set the key on the counter.
“You okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine.”
“You were in there a long time,” she said. “I almost came looking for you.”
“I’m sick,” I said. “Sorry.”
“I hope you feel better,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said. “I hope so too.”

So far so good. A realistically rendered but mundane series of exchanges. Anyone who has grown up in the South has had this interaction, right down to the “baby” (or perhaps “honey” in other circumstances, as “baby” is reserved for children).

But then the scene I’m about to describe came along and I appreciated the craft Cash had put into these characters. Pruitt, following not long after, snookers a cop into revealing the likely place he can find Wade and reaches the same convenience store. He goes inside to pursue his own investigation and we meet these employees again:

The closest gas station had a pay phone in the corner of the parking lot. The girl’s picture was somewhere in the glove compartment, and my hands riffled through the papers looking for the same face that had been stapled to the cafeteria wall back in Gastonia.
Inside the station, a skinny kid with a ponytail and an older woman stood behind the counter and stared while the picture was unfolded on the counter in front of them. My finger pointed down at the photo. “Have you seen this girl?”
The kid with the ponytail took his eyes off the photo and looked at me, but the woman put on a pair of glasses that hung from a string around her neck and stretched her neck until her face was close to the picture. She took her glasses off and looked up. “And who are you?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter. Have you seen this kid or not?”
“It certainly does matter,” the woman said, leaning her hip into the counter and folding her arms across her chest. “Are you the police, or are you just some kind of weirdo?”
“Well,” she said. “I’d like to see a badge.”
Both the kid’s and the woman’s eyes followed my hand as it reached for my back pocket. They waited, expecting to see a badge, but instead they saw five twenties laid out on the counter. “Have you seen her or not.”
The kid looked at me, and then he looked down at the money. He reached out and scooped it up and folded it into his pocket. “She was in here,” he said. “It wasn’t even twenty minutes ago.”
“Damn it, Cody,” the woman said. She smacked his arm.
Cody raised his finger and pointed out the door behind me. “They went across the street.”

And away we go.

For comparison’s sake:

The scene reminded me, upon reflection, of a favorite from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, another cat-and-mouse story of pursuit across the margins of the South. In this passage, the ruthless cartel hitman Anton Chigurh has just finished searching protagonist Llewelyn Moss’s trailer. He suspects Moss has fled but, just to be sure, decides to get more information. He stops at the trailer park office. McCarthy:

He drove down and parked in front of the office and went in. Yessir, the woman said.
I’m looking for Llewelyn Moss.
She studied him. Did you go up to his trailer?
Yes I did.
Well I’d say he’s at work. Did you want to leave a message?
Where does he work?
Sir I aint at liberty to give out no information about our residents.
Chigurh looked around at the little plywood office. He looked at the woman.
Where does he work.
I said where does he work.
Did you not hear me? We cant give out no information.
A toilet flushed somewhere. A doorlatch clicked. Chigurh looked at the woman again. Then he went out and got in the Ramcharger and left.

All stories have minor characters, so what makes these stand out? Why do they feel like real people—one can certainly imagine these being distant cousins, or maybe attending the same women’s Bible study—when so many authors’ minor characters are flat, interchangeable, and immediately forgotten?

Two standout traits:

Look back at these two passages and see how Cash and McCarthy craft these characters. A few things stand out to me:

First and foremost—the language they use. McCarthy’s trailer park manager is informal but, when Chigurh presses her, adopts a terse, official tone (“aint at liberty” is a wonderfully suggestive blend of everyday dialect and the language of pronouncement). She gives as good as she gets and—remarkably—is the only person in the novel to resist Chigurh and live.

The gas station cashier in Cash’s book is more fully developed and we also benefit from a binocular view of her—we see her in two different situations, which gives her depth. With Easter she is informal and sweet in the way of Southern ladies to children. She freely expresses concern and wishes Easter well. She uses simple interrogative or declarative sentences (“And who are you?” and “It certainly does matter” and “I’d like to see a badge”) and pushes back against every move Pruitt makes. She has him sized up the moment he enters the store and tries to ice him out.

Which brings me to the second thing that stands out—body language. As much or as little as each author gives us, you can see these characters. McCarthy’s woman gets no direct physical description but we do read this: “She studied him.” This comes before she has even spoken a word. If you’re paying attention, you know Chigurh is in trouble the moment you read that line. (A side note: Where would the South be without the obstructive middle aged ladies who act as our gatekeepers?) This one line of action gives us all we need to know to understand what she’s about to do.

Cash includes more detail. The cashier is fat, blonde, smokes, and is old enough not just to use reading glasses but to wear them around her neck. The telling bit of body language comes when Pruitt shows her his stolen photo of Easter: “the woman put on a pair of glasses that hung from a string around her neck and stretched her neck until her face was close to the picture. She took her glasses off and looked up.” Cash does something subtle here, suggesting her slow, drawn out movements (notice the repetition of “neck”) which heighten the message she’s transmitting: sarcastic dismissal. She’s not going to cooperate.

So Cash and McCarthy present us with a pair of nicely drawn minor characters. So what?

The use of minor characters:

There’s a few important things I think writers can take away from these examples. In no particular order, here are some of the uses I see of the well-realized minor character:

  • Characterizing the major characters—Cash’s gas station cashiers offer a particularly fine example, and it all comes down to perspective. We see these characters two ways—first, Easter, a young girl, sees them as “a fat blond-headed woman and a guy with a ponytail,” the kinds of attributes a kid would notice. Pruitt, when he arrives, thinks of them dismissively as “a skinny kid with a ponytail and an older woman.” At this point in the novel we’re already two-thirds of the way in, but Cash is still characterizing his narrators by showing us how they perceive the same minor characters differently.

  • Obstructing the major characters—I’ve already used the word obstructive in this post, and intentionally so. No real-life plan or story proceeds on a perfectly straight line, just jokes and Reader’s Digest anecdotes. Things get in the way. Most of the great action movies excel at throwing physical obstacles in front of their heroes: in The Guns of Navarone the commando team’s explosives are sabotaged, Ethan Hunt’s team in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol deal with repeated equipment failure, and in Raiders of the Lost Ark Indy has to travel, avoid assassination, disguise himself and sneak into a Nazi camp, knock down walls, steal a horse, chase and take over a truck, and fight or kill snakes, a giant airplane mechanic, and a host of other enemies before he can get the Ark. What Cash and McCarthy offer us here are character-driven versions of those obstacles, which complicate and intensify the plot—even if only for a few pages or lines—and, again, reveal things about the major characters who encounter them.

  • Making the world feel real—I’ve slowly developed a loathing for the term world-building and I’m not fond of the word realistic any more; what I prefer to emphasize is truth or at least truthfulness. Introducing well-realized minor characters makes your story feel true. Because of their speech, their gestures, the shifts in their attitudes that reveal their priorities, the ladies in This Dark Road to Mercy and No Country for Old Men seem to have their own lives that we, along with the characters, have blundered into. We get the sense that we’re just seeing a slice of them. And the upshot for the main characters—and the rest of the story—is that such minor characters make it feel like they have a more spacious world to move around in.

  • Surprising the reader—A lot of fiction features obliging minor characters who show up just to convey information to or do things for the main characters. When an antagonist like Pruitt or Chigurh is suddenly stopped and has to reckon with an unexpected obstacle—especially one so unassuming—it should be a jolt to the reader as well. Running across someone like the cashier or the trailer park manager is a nice surprise.

There are plenty of other reasons to give minor characters a bit of depth, to make them feel real or true, but these are a few good ones to start with.

A final thought on method—and a bit of a warning:

Cash and McCarthy brought these characters to life through the details they selected to present us. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, writes that “vivid detail is the life blood of fiction.” Elsewhere in the same book he writes of “closely observed detail,” “concrete detail,” “authenticating detail,” and warns against “insufficient detail.”

This is not to advocate the Victor Hugo kitchen sink style, including everything. Note the adjectives: vivid, closely observed, concrete, authenticating detail. Carefully, precisely chosen from life. We do not need every gesture a character makes, just the ones that show us what we need, the ones that tell us who this person is in the two or three pages in which we get to know them. (See again that Ciardi line about poetry being “the art of knowing what to leave out.”)

Read both of these books if you haven’t. I’ve just dwelt at a little length on two minor characters. But these minor characters are excellent case studies of what a good, careful, purposeful writer can do with material that not everyone takes the time to develop.

Leaving things out

Last year I wrote a short post about proportion in the arts, inspired by an offhand answer Jerry Seinfeld gave about turning down $5 million per episode for one more season of “Seinfeld.” There, I quoted the great poet, critic, and translator of Dante John Ciardi, who in the notes to his Inferno wrote that:

Poetry is, among other things, the art of knowing what to leave out.
— John Ciardi

A side note: Is there another phrase that evokes quite what “leaving things out” does? It suggests making things manageable—in all kinds of ambiguous ways. What I’m driving at in this post, of course, is leaving things out to get at the true shape of something, rather as I’m leaving things out of my diet right now to return to what I hope is a truer shape of me.

When I learned that the great historian of modern Europe and Churchill biographer John Lukacs had died a few weeks ago, I revisited a short book—a bound essay, really—he wrote for ISI’s Student Guide series, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History. There, in a passage describing the simple version of the historian’s process of preparing and gathering material, I read this footnote:

No matter how detailed and assiduous, your research will never be complete. The nineteenth-century monographic ideal was that certifiable historian who, having read every document and every writing related to his topic, is able to produce a complete and definitive history of it. This is no longer possible—because of the possibility that new documents, new treatments, and more publications about his topic, many in different places and languages of the world, may yet appear. (Of course some histories are more “definitive” than others. But never absolutely so.)

And then, on the next page, as Lukacs begins to explain the triage of sorting the material an historian has collected, he includes this wonderful parenthetical:

It is a great mistake to use everything.
— John Lukacs

Precisely because everything is not up to the same standard, is not relevant, is not part of the story you’re trying to tell. This is a succinct warning away from the kitchen sink approach, which every one of us has encountered at least once in some 800-page book, fiction or non-fiction.

Which brings me back to Ciardi: the art in poetry and history, as in so much of life, from cookery and dieting (see above) to marriage, is in choosing. This entails constraint (adherence to form), restraint (rejection of self-indulgence), and commitment (sticking with it even though you’ve just made it harder on yourself), and these in turn entail a certain amount of courage (say what you mean!) and discipline (mean what you say!).

Leaving things out—choosing—shapes both you and your art and will create order. And contrary to the modern suspicion that order only crushes creativity, it will in reality “give room for good things to run wild.”

Take a moment to read this detailed LA Times obit for Lukacs. He led a remarkable life, from surviving the Holocaust in Hungary to working as an historical adviser on Darkest Hour. And pick up one of his books sometime. I recommend The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler, which I’ve recommended here before along with a few of his other books.

Weaver, Chesterton, and the inside of history


I’ve been revisiting a few passages from past reading that have meant and continue to mean a lot to me, bridging as they do the two things to which I’ve devoted my life: history and writing fiction.

From GK Chesterton’s 1925 book The Everlasting Man, a passage I’m almost certain I’ve shared here before:

No wise man will wish to bring more long words into the world. But it may be allowable to say that we need a new thing; which may be called psychological history. I mean the consideration of what things meant in the mind of a man, especially an ordinary man; as distinct from what is defined or deduced merely from official forms or political pronouncements. I have already touched on it in such a case as the totem or indeed any other popular myth. It is not enough to be told that a tom-cat was called a totem; especially when it was not called a totem. We want to know what it felt like. . . . That is the sort of thing we need touching the nature of political and social relations. We want to know the real sentiment that was the social bond of many common men, as sane and as selfish as we are. What did soldiers feel when they saw splendid in the sky that strange totem that we call the Golden Eagle of the Legions? What did vassals feel about those other totems, the lions or the leopards upon the shield of their lord? So long as we neglect this subjective side of history, which may more simply be called the inside of history, there will always be a certain limitation on that science which can be better transcended by art. So long as the historian cannot do that, fiction will be truer than fact. There will be more reality in a novel; yes, even in a historical novel.

That parting shot is there to keep us historical novelists humble. It’s also hilarious.

From Richard Weaver’s essay “Up from Liberalism,” published in Modern Age in 1958:

In the meantime, I had started to study the cobwebs in my own corner, and I began to realize that the type of education which enables one to see into the life of things had been almost entirely omitted from my program. More specifically, I had been reading extensively in the history of the American Civil War, preferring first-hand accounts by those who had actually borne the brunt of it as soldiers and civilians; and I had become especially interested in those who had reached some level of reflectiveness and had tried to offer explanations of what they did or the manner in which they did it. Allen Tate has in one of his poems the line “There is more in killing than commentary.” The wisdom of this will be seen also by those who study the killings in which whole nations are the killers and the killed, namely, wars. To put this in a prose statement: The mere commentary of a historian will never get you inside the feeling of a war or any great revolutionary process. For that, one has to read the testimonials of those who participated in it on both sides and in all connections; and often the best insight will appear in the casual remark of an obscure warrior or field nurse or in the effort of some ill-educated person to articulate a feeling.

Weaver isn’t directly concerned with fiction here, but his sentiments broadly parallel those of Chesterton above. I’m reminded as well of the late great Sir John Keegan’s introduction to The Face of Battle, his seminal examination of that “more in killing,” a heavy influence on my own grad work at Clemson:

Historians, traditionally and rightly, are expected to ride their feelings on a tighter rein than the man of letters can allow himself. One school of historians at least, the compilers of the British Official History of the First World War, have achieved the remarkable feat of writing an exhaustive account of one of the world’s greatest tragedies without the display of any emotion at all.

Per Weaver and Keegan, you can get a bone-deep understanding from a memoir like Sledge’s With the Old Breed, Fraser’s Quartered Safe out Here, or Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier that you can’t from top-down histories of the campaigns those authors lived through. They are less concerned with how these things happened but are blistering hot answers to the central question: What was it like?

From Cass Sunstein’s 2015 Atlantic essay “Finding Humanity in Gone With the Wind”:

Nonetheless, Gone With the Wind should not be mistaken for a defense of slavery or even the Confederacy. Mitchell is interested in individuals rather than ideologies or apologetics. She parodies the idea of “the Cause,” and she has no interest in “States’ Rights.” She is elegiac not about politics, but about innocence, youth, memory, love (of all kinds), death, and loss (which helps make the book transcend the era it depicts). . . .

Gone With the Wind is a novel, not a work of history, and what it offers is only a slice of what actually happened. But as Americans remember the war and their own history, they have an acute need for novels, which refuse to reduce individual lives to competing sets of political convictions. That is an important virtue, even if one set of convictions is clearly right and another clearly wrong. In fact that very refusal can be seen as a political act, and it ranks among the least dispensable ones.

To tie these disparate commentators loosely together, Keegan—a great military historian who, because of a childhood illness and resulting disability, never personally saw combat—writes in The Face of Battle that “the central question” of the military historian is “What is it like to be in a battle?” A corollary question is “its subjective supplementary, ‘How would I behave in a battle?’” This question moves the discussion immediately from facts to imagination. While both the rigorous histories—Chesterton’s “official forms and political pronouncements,” Weaver’s “mere commentary of a historian,” Sunstein’s “ideologies [and] apologetics”—and the “psychological” ones built “to get you inside the feeling” of a time and place are both concerned with conveying truth through narrative, one is better at outlining events from on high and the other will convey Keegan’s “central question”: What was it like?

This tension runs right through both academic historical work, especially narrative history, and the creation of fictional or based-on-a-true-story narratives set in the past. Compare what I’ve written here before about the perspective war movies take.

The crucial thing all four of these writers drive at is understanding. They want us to get into—in Chesterton’s wonderful phrase—“the inside of history.” Good fiction performs that role heroically, enlivening the imagination and bringing the reader into a lost world the way nonfiction rarely can.

Note that I’ve chosen to describe this as understanding and not the milquetoast modern virtue of empathy, with its hints of uncritical acceptance, tolerance, and fundamental relativism. This is a fine distinction, but an important one, one that could carry the weight of quite a long essay. Perhaps someday. Understanding is critical; understanding is discriminating; and understanding is compassionate. It can be all of these things because it turns willingly toward what it looks at and receives it as knowledge. It is not the apathetic blind eye of empathy. Look no further than Sunstein’s essay on Gone With the Wind, in which he critiques the novel and its author at length while still holding it up as a window into understanding a different time and place—two different times and places, in fact, viewing the novel as an artifact of Margaret Mitchell’s time.

To understand all may not be to forgive all, but it is to touch brains and to see a shared humanity—common weaknesses, foibles, and, just occasionally, virtues—with people who are deeply unlike us, people we are tempted to dismiss. That applies to both the living and the dead. And if, as I’ve written earlier this semester, bigotry is ultimately a failure of imagination, we need all the good historical fiction we can get.

LOL—Leonard, Orwell, and Lewis on writing


While I’m always reading about writing, or trying to learn about writing by reading, I have most benefited and gotten the most food for thought from the lists of personal rules and guidelines great writers have set for themselves. While it’s possible to divine a writer’s personal rules simply by reading their work—who didn’t realize, before his Oprah interview, that Cormac McCarthy wouldn’t touch a semicolon?—I’m always interested to see a writer lay out his or her rules for others.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve finally gotten around to reading some Elmore Leonard. I recall reading Leonard’s celebrated ten rules for writing in college, when I didn’t even know who he was, and I recall objecting to several of them. Older and wiser now, and finally familiar with his work—in the last month I’ve read Valdez is Coming, Freaky Deaky, Last Stand at Saber River, Hombre, Out of Sight, and the short story “Three-Ten to Yuma”—I can see the wisdom of his rules and the way he used them to form his writing. I also appreciate, based on interviews I’ve watched with him before he died, how undogmatic he was about the ten rules—a trait that we’ll see he has in common with these other two writers.

Leonard’s rules were originally published in The New York Times as “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle” in 2001. You can read the whole article online at the NYT—or the Guardian if that’s paywalled—but here are the ten rules themselves:

  1. Never open a book with weather.

  2. Avoid prologues.

  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

“My most important rule,” Leonard goes on, “is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Again, I appreciate how unassuming Leonard is about his rules—they’re his rules, he reiterates, not universally applicable Newtonian laws of good writing. “There are certain writers,” he says in this interview from 2002, “who can write all the weather they want.” It’s all about proportion, achieving a desired effect, and getting out of your own way.

To move from fiction to non-fiction, George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” which I’ve blogged about a couple times before, similarly concludes with a list of six rules that should govern any writing that aims at arguing a point and telling the truth, particularly in the political essays Orwell mastered.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Again, a final law that sums up the rest, and again, an insistence that “one could keep all of [these rules] and still write bad English.” Rules are important, but the rules won’t save your writing.

Finally, to turn to a writer superbly skilled at both fiction and non-fiction, CS Lewis actually provided guidelines or rules on a couple of occasions, two of which are collected in this 2010 post from Justin Taylor. From a letter to a young American fan in 1956:

  1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

  2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

  3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

  4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”

  5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

And from his final interview in the spring of 1963:

The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that.

The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him.

I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.

You can see a variety of concerns in these lists of ten, six, and five respectively, but what do Leonard, Orwell, and Lewis share?

First, I see a particular concern with clarity. Several rules relate to this, from Lewis’s insistence on concrete rather than abstract to Orwell’s warning against foreign vocabulary. I’ve heard Orwell accused of being a “linguistic chauvanist” because of this; what he’s concerned with is clarity, concreteness, and the avoidance of abstraction. Bureaucratese and journalistic flimflam tend to shroud things in a luminous fog of latinate jargon. Lewis’s example of “mortality rose” is a good example of what Orwell, who had plenty of experience with socialist and Communist verbal shenanigans, had in mind.

Second, I also see a related concern with directness. Leonard, as an author of fiction, is perhaps the best on this point. Whether avoiding clumsy, amateurish dialogue tags—one of the surest marks of the hack—or not bogging down the narrative in stylistic frippery or elaborate descriptions, his rules are all about his “attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing,” which extends even to the rules of grammar: “if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can't allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” Orwell seconds that motion, explicitly advising the writer to “break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Orwell gives some of the most precisely mechanical advice in these three sets of rules, down to the old active-passive voice debate. Perhaps the biggest weakness of passive voice is that it doubles the grammatical logic of a sentence back on itself—in other words, it’s indirect. In Lewis’s deceptively simple formulation, write “exactly” what you want to say.

Third, all share a concern with what I’ll call liveliness. Orwell warns us away from cliche; Leonard shoos us away from long descriptions, unnecessary details about weather or setting, and any “part that readers tend to skip.” Not for nothing are cliches, in what is now a bit of a cliche itself, called “dead metaphors.” Clear, direct writing will have a living quality to it—the images will simply appear in your mind without coaxing. Witness Lewis’s image of driving sheep down a road.

Finally, I see these three writers, in the lack of dogmatism I’ve already noted on their part, trying to give advice but leaving open space for art. Despite their emphases on clarity and directness, all three are aware of the subjectivity of language and all three urge their readers to take care. They realize that all the sweat and blood a writer can possible pour out in pursuit of precision can still result in failure, and so they all conclude by saying: drop the rules when you need to. And you will need to.

Perhaps more later, and perhaps I could gloss a few of these things from examples of where I’ve tried—tried—to implement them in my own writing. For now, read these three lists of rules, read these three writers to see where their rules led them, and learn.

Most of What Follows is True

Fisherman drying cod in St. Johns, Newfoundland, c. 1900.

Fisherman drying cod in St. Johns, Newfoundland, c. 1900.

I’ve posted before about the CBC Ideas Podcast, a series I discovered when they devoted two episodes to the Icelandic sagas. I hope they do more of those, but in the meantime I’ve listened to some very good episodes. One of the latest covers a topic near to my heart: historical fiction.

The talk, “Most of What Follows is True,” takes its name from the opening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film much loved by author Michael Crummey, the lecturer. Crummey, now a writer and an author of several historical novels, describes catching documentary on TV about the real Butch and Sundance, and his disappointment at the pair’s real-life fate: no Bolivian army, no glorious final moment, guns blazing, but a murder-suicide after being cornered in a miserable hovel. Which raises the question of what most means when you say that “most of what follows is true.”

Crummey, a native of Newfoundland on the Atlantic coast of Canada, considers several novels that purport to be historical but mangle the time and place in which they take place, and presents his own approach to some of his own writing. How much, he asks, does the historical novelist owe the past? How far should the historical novelist go in massaging history to make a compelling story? These are questions I’ve been thinking about for years and, with Griswoldville freshly released and still very much on my mind, I appreciated Crummey’s sensitive and thoughtful discussion, especially as it applied to accurately depicting a specific place and authentically evoking another time. Place and time are, of course, connected, since the past itself is a foreign country.

I’ve embedded Crummey’s talk in the post, above. It’s well worth your while to listen to! And do check him out on Goodreads. I’ll be looking for some of his work. River Thieves sounds particularly interesting.

Seinfeld and Dante on art

The New York Times as a fun, interesting Q&A with Jerry Seinfeld to promote the latest season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It's short and worth reading for its own sake, but I wanted to draw attention to this passage.

New York Times: You turned down an offer from NBC of $5 million an episode to do one more season of “Seinfeld.” Nobody in TV has ever made even close to that money before or since. Did you ever second-guess that decision? 

The most important word in art is ‘proportion.’

Jerry Seinfeld: No. It was the perfect moment, and the proof that it was the right moment is the number of questions you’re still asking me about it. The most important word in art is “proportion.” How much? How long is this joke going to be? How many words? How many minutes? And getting that right is what makes it art or what makes it mediocre.

That's dynamite artistic advice right in the middle of his answer. Proportion. No matter what your field or medium, proportion is key. He's absolutely right and, as he points out, his show has the legacy to prove it. 

Consider my own favorite sitcom, The Office, which outlasted its best material by several years. What was funny in small doses early on dominated the show by the middle of its run and could only get wilder in its quest for more laughs, with diminishing returns. By season six, the characters were wildly out of proportion, Flanderized caricatures, and the plots spent disproportionate time on ludicrous side stories. And it lasted another three seasons. 

Seinfeld's insight jibes with something I read long, long ago and have returned to many times to guide and correct my own work. In explaining Dante's art in constructing the Comedy, translator John Ciardi wrote that "Poetry is, among other things, the art of knowing what to leave out." Throwing in the kitchen sink, stuffing your work, can be the equivalent of white noise unless you have a good sense of proportion. It's hard to think of a literary locale more crowded than Dante's hell, but thanks to his gift of proportion you never lose sight of his purpose as an artist. Like Dante—like Seinfeld—have to develop a good sensibility of what does and doesn't belong. See also "Omit needless words" and "Murder your darlings." 

And of course, art being art, there are always good reasons to violate these rules—again, in the interest of maintaining proportion. To give Orwell the last word on this topic: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous." Don't let even grammar throw you out of proportion.

Chesterton (and Orwell) on careless language

From "New Religion and New Irreligion," an April 4, 1908 piece in the Illustrated London News:

It is difficult to believe that people who are obviously careless about language can really be very careful about anything else.

In its fuller context: 

Our generation professes to be scientific and particular about the things it says; but unfortunately it is never scientific and particular about the words in which it says them. It is difficult to believe that people who are obviously careless about language can really be very careful about anything else. If an astronomer is careless about words, one cannot help fancying that he may be careless about stars. If a botanist is vague about words, he may be vague about plants. The modern man, regarding himself as a second Adam, has undertaken to give all the creatures new names; and when we discover that he is silly about the names, the thought will cross our minds that he may be silly about the creatures. And never before, I should imagine, in the intellectual history of the world have words been used with so idiotic an indifference to their actual meaning. A word has no loyalty; it can be betrayed into any service or twisted to any treason. 

Chesterton goes on to give examples, 110 years old now, of one of my least favorite moves in the political rhetoric playbook: claiming one's position is the truer form of one's opponents' position, e.g. this recent op-ed asserting that supporting abortion is more pro-life than opposing it. This is surely an iteration of "no true Scotsman," but if it's been named I'm unaware of it. "Of all the expressions of our current indifference to the meaning of the words," Chesterton writes later, "I think that the most irritating is this cool substitution of one kind of definition for another." That, as it happens, does have a name

Before moving on to the religious controversy surrounding the "New Theology" of R.J. Campbell, Chesterton concludes:

The fact is, that all this evasive use of words is unworthy of our human intellect.

"Mr. Campbell has excellent brains," Chesterton continues, "but thinks it more advanced and modern not to use them. . . . He is guided in his choice of phrases by mere aimless sentimentalism." We cheat ourselves when we cheat with our language. We were made for finer things. Our minds are precision instruments.

Chesterton here anticipates some of the arguments in Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" by almost forty years. Writing in 1946, Orwell argued that "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," and devoted the bulk of his essay to examples which he surgically dissects. Compare: 

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Slovenliness is a good word for it. Not chaos, not anarchy, but an utter "you know what I mean" indifference to good order–a linguistic dorm room. A pervasive slovenliness degrades not just political discourse but all communication today. I'm not talking about emojis, slang, and memes, but rather the intellectual path of least resistance onto which all of us route our thoughts, "gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug." The appeal, Orwell writes, is that this mode of communication, this way of thinking, is easy.

But will it lead us to truth?

Quick: What is the difference between a country and a nation? Between enhanced interrogation and torture? Between racism, prejudice, and bigotry? Between faith and a faith? What is love? What is violence? What does the word free mean in free speech, free country, free love, free willfree with any purchase?

A good visit with The Front Porch Show

Last week I had the pleasure of joining Aaron, Tombstone, and Just Jeff for two segments of their Front Porch Show, the weekly podcast about everything. Click through to listen at their website, or one of the several podcasting services they air on including Spotify and iTunes, or see the embedded Stitcher link below. We talked about historical movies—what makes them good, what makes them bad—my books, and especially what the life and death of Cicero can teach us about virtue in politics today (with all due caution, of course). Had a great time. Thanks for having me on the show!

Eliot on offensive content

In his essay "Dante" from The Sacred Wood, T.S. Eliot responds to people who object to Dante's vivid descriptions of the vile and disgusting, especially throughout Inferno:

The contemplation of the horrid or sordid or disgusting, by an artist, is the necessary and negative aspect of the impulse toward the pursuit of beauty.

Goodness never looks so good as it does when contrasted with evil. I think this is, at least in part, why we respond so strongly to self-sacrifice, heroism, and love in terrible circumstances.