Monday, February 18, 2008

I'm getting a little behind...

At least in the writing department, that is.

In the reading department I'm doing fine. So maybe I'll just post a quick note with some thoughts on the books I've read recently...

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens -

Wow. Seriously. This is why I love to read the classics. The scope of this book... the range... the characters... the depth of insight and emotion. It was really wonderful. Throughout the book I kept asking myself "Why am I reading this again?" It was so dark, so depressing. But so human, which is why I kept at it. Flannery O'Connor, in Mystery and Manners, describes giving some of her stories to an old woman in Georgia to read. When she asked what the woman thought of them, her response was, "Well them stories just gone and showed you how some folks would do."

And that's the point - that great fiction, great writing does get to the heart of what people (like us) would do. Not what we ought to do, or might do, or wish we would do... but what we would do. And that's often heartbreaking and sometimes inspiring, but always rings true in great writing.

So I was inspired by David Copperfield. As it relates to my study - to the questions of Authenticity, Voice, and Vocation, I was moved to deeper thinking on subjects about which I often resist thinking, like Mortality, Family, Suffering, Poverty, Redemption. And I was inspired to think that life matters... ultimately it matters. As it begins, as it is lived and tried and suffered and failed and succeeded at; and as it ends, sometimes in glory and sometimes in defeat. It always matters and it is always wondrous.

I could write for days about that book.


Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O'Connor

I've read some of O'Connor's writing. Not much, but some. I think I read "Everything That Rises Must Converge" a few years back, and it seems like I may have read "A Good Man is Hard to Find" at some point. I remember being most affected by a short story of hers about a boy and his mother (or grandmother) on the bus. But I can't remember the title now.

Anyway, this book is sort of a memoir... it's a compilation of her writing about writing. Essays she wrote, speeches and talks she gave to college classes and small groups of aspiring writers. It's often filled with her saying, in essence, that you can't describe good writing, you just do it or you don't. But she spends a lot of time describing what she can't describe.

There is some great wisdom in here. Some quotes:

P. 33 - "The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw larger and startling figures."

I think this is true of the writer of spiritual or greater human concerns in general. Not just the Christian writer. Any writer with a vision of society that does not represent its current state, is doomed to be translating his concepts to what she calls a "hostile audience." This is true for the environmental writer; for the Buddhist or Sufi writer; for the vegetarian or alternative health writer... for any writer who's concerns are not represented as a general concern in the society at large this would be true.

P. 34 - "Unless we are willing to accept our artists as they are, the answer to the question, "Who speaks for America today?" will have to be: the advertising agencies.

P. 35 - "To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks."

P. 59 - "The writer operates at a particular crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location."

She's speaking here about the necessity of being specific. Of creating characters and settings and stories that are specific - that are about real people and real events. In other words, " some folks would do."

I'm a fan of her writing, but I must confess that her non-fiction is a bit tedious. The rambling style of her prose is wonderful for stories of people and places and things, especially in her native south where the loquacious drawl seems to reflect truth like the sun off a car's back window. But in writing about the craft of writing, and her understanding of it, this style just wears the reader out. You get caught up in the language and forget about the meaning. In fiction, that's fine, because in writing like hers, the language is the meaning. It's just another part of the setting. Here, it's often just a hindrance. I'd like to leave off reading about her writing, and read some more of her writing.

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