There may never be anything new to say, but there is always a new way to say it…

There may never be anything new to say, but there is always a new way to say it…

-From Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p. 76

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Speaking Against Takes More Skill Than Speaking for and With

The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision, and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that the limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees. This is another thing which in these times increases the tendency toward the grotesque in fiction.

Those writers who speak for and with their age are able to do with a great deal more ease and grace than those who speak counter to prevailing attitudes…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p. 47

To speak against the culture takes more skill than to speak for it.

 

Using All Means and Helps Towards the Understanding of the Scriptures

If we thus ask the guidance and teaching of the Holy Spirit, it will follow, dear friends, that we shall be ready to use all means and helps towards the understanding of the Scriptures. When Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch whether he understood the prophecy of Isaiah he replied, “How can I, unless some man should guide me?” Then Philip went up and opened to him the word of the Lord. Some, under the pretense of being taught of the Spirit of God refuse to be instructed by books or by living men. This is no honouring of the Spirit of God; it is a disrespect to him, for if he gives to some of his servants more light than to others—and it is clear he does—then they are bound to give that light to others, and to use it for the good of the church. But if the other part of the church refuse to receive that light, to what end did the Spirit of God give it? This would imply that there is a mistake somewhere in the economy of gifts and graces, which is managed by the Holy Spirit. It cannot be so. The Lord Jesus Christ pleases to give more knowledge of his word and more insight into it to some of his servants than to others, and it is ours joyfully to accept the knowledge which he gives in such ways as he chooses to give it. It would be most wicked of us to say, “We will not have the heavenly treasure which exists in earthen vessels. If God will give us the heavenly treasure out of his own hand, but not through the earthen vessel, we will have it; but we think we are too wise, too heavenly minded, too spiritual altogether to care for jewels when they are placed in earthen pots. We will not hear anybody, and we will not read anything except the book itself, neither will we accept any light, except that which comes in through a crack in our own roof. We will not see by another man’s candle, we would sooner remain in the dark.” Brethren, do not let us fall into such folly. Let the light come from God, and though a child shall bring it, we will joyfully accept it.

-Charles Spurgeon, from his sermon, How to Read the Bible

About My Posts on Writing

My posting on the blog is lagging. The reason for this is that I’ve generally posted on the blog about theological and cultural-theological issues, while at the moment I am reading a lot of fiction and don’t have the time to summarize everything I read. I am working full-time now as a pastor but I am also in a writing workshop and reading a bunch of good short stories and things about writing. I am not particularly interested in getting in conversations on the blog about writing, so I have not been posting most of it.

With that said, I have said from the beginning that the purpose of this blog is mostly selfish. I write things here to store them so that I can use them in the future (mostly in sermons, but not always). So, I’ve decided to start making some posts on the books on writing I’ve been reading so that I’ll have the stuff for easy future-reference. You’d be surprised how much this kind of stuff shows up in my preaching as illustrations and the like.

My point in raising this is simple – I am not making statements about writing that I want to debate, nor do I consider myself a great writer. I am a preacher who also writes and is trying to learn about writing. Pretty much everything good I take away from books on writing has some sort of application to preaching. I save them and share them because I find them useful. I just want to share that to say where I’m coming from since these posts are going to start popping up regularly for the next few weeks.

Obscene

…The great acts of classical brutality (Oedipus gouging his eyes out; Clytemnestra slitting her husband’s throat) are never portrayed but rather reported by the characters or chorus – told but not shown. These days, tell is a bad word. But in the golden age of Athenian drama, telling was a celebrated technique. Acts of violence in Greek tragedy were rendered ob skene (literally ‘offstage’), from which comes the present day word obscene.

-Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, p. 52

The worst things happen offstage. This includes real life – what happens in our minds.

Bodies in the Basements of our Minds

Fiction writers believe in total depravity.

Evil is banal. And the point is emphasized through the use of the obscene: when the violence occurs offstage, the reader creates it and becomes a perpetrator. Goethe famously said, ‘There is no crime of which I do not deem myself capable,’ and O’Connor and Oates imply the same is true of us. You are a molester, I am a murderer. We have, each and every one of us, bodies in the basements of our minds.

-Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me: Essays in Fiction, p. 54

 

Widowed Images

I like the phrase and agree with the idea:

Charles Baxter says that we write to make sense of the widowed images in our lives. Widowed images. Startling images. Haunting images. Whatever you want to call what ends up clogged in our imaginative filter. We don’t always know why they’re important, but for whatever reason, our mind won’t release them.

-Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, p. 41

Place and Abstraction

The older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of ‘place.’ It matters in life, in preaching, and in writing. I’m with Percy. I’m not a fan of abstraction:

Place matters. That’s what so many people seem to have forgotten.Is it because they spend most of their time indoors or online – so that they’ve lost touch with their environment? is it because every city contains the same neon-and-concrete gauntlet of Targets, Little Caesars, Subways, Great Clips – so that ever place looks like every other place?

Someone once told me, ‘I want my work to feel like it could happen anywhere.’

To which I responded, ‘Huh.’ That’s like saying you want your character to seem like she could be anyone, Margaret Thatcher or Pippi Longstocking, or you want your story to seem like it could happen anytime, a thousand years ago or a thousand years in the future. Abstraction Sucks. Good writing relies on the particulars.

-Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, pp. 117-118

On Finding Your Voice

On ‘finding’ your voice or the voice of a character in writing. This could apply to preaching and real life as well:

Though you shouldn’t consciously work on your voice as you write, there is a way to encourage it when you get to the self-editing stage. Start by rereading a  short story, scene, or chapter as if you were reading it for the first time…Whenever you come to a sentence or phrase that gives you a little jab of pleasure, that makes you say ‘Ah, yes,’ that sings – highlight that passage in a color you like, or underline it. Then go through and read aloud all  the sentences you highlighted or underlined. Don’t analyze them for the moment, just try to absorb their rhythm or fullness or simplicity or freshness or whatever made them sing to you. What you’ve been reading aloud will represent, for now, your voice at its most effective. And making yourself conscious of it in this mechanical way will strengthen it.

Now read through the same section again, and when you come to those passages that make you wince – or just leave you cold – highlight the passage in a color you dislike, or draw a wavy line under the uninspired sentences. Go back and read consecutively all the passages you didn’t like, and this time try to analyze what makes them different from the passages that sang to you. Is the writing flat? Strained? Awkward? Obvious? Pedestrian? Forced? Vague or abstract?…

If you do this exercise often enough, you will develop a sensitivity to your own voice that will gently encourage the development of the confidence and distinction that you want. And this is as true of a character voice as it is of a narrative voice…

– Browne and King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, pp. 178-179