Originality may be the most overrated of the writerly virtues. Much more important is the skill of seeing what’s in front of you and rendering it faithfully. The world is a varied place; every person in it is a miracle; every setting is unusual; every event, every encounter is a thing that has never happened in the long history of the world. On top of all that variety is the fact that every observer’s vision is unique. If you will allow yourself to see what you see, and then write what you have seen, you can be sure that originality will take care of itself.
That’s not an easy thing to do. Few people write what they have seen. More often, they write what they think they ought to have seen, or they shoehorn experiences and people into familiar categories. It’s a hard habit to break; categorizing and sorting the firehose-blast of experiences and ideas that come our way is a necessary survival skill. But writing is different. Writing is a chance to release experience from man-made categories and say, “Look at this—this thing that exists in the real world.” Writing comes alive when you do that. Oddly enough, faithful imitation is the front door to originality.
Fifty summers ago, Flannery O’Connor was thirty-nine years old. She had battled lupus for most of her adult life, managing the disease with massive doses of corticosteroids, which themselves had serious side effects. As she wrote to a friend, “So far as I can tell, the medicine and the disease run neck & neck to kill you.” In the spring of 1954, a major surgery reactivated O’Connor’s dormant lupus; the tell-tale “lupus rash” broke through the protective steroid barrier, signaling that the disease was back in earnest. O’Connor spent a month in Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital–from May 21 to June 20.
A prodigious letter-writer, O’Connor kept up her correspondence from her hospital bed. Through her many hospital stays, she almost always kept up her letter-writing. But she tended to put off fiction-writing until she could get back to her typewriter. The fact that she wrote much of “Parker’s Back” in Piedmont Hospital, in longhand, suggests a sense of urgency that was unusual for this most deliberate writer.
The other day my sister, a teacher, was trying to help a student fill out some form or other. The form asked for Date of Birth. The girl knew her birthday, but the idea of a birth date, a specific day of a specific year, had her baffled. “The day you were born,” my sister said, a little exasperated, “what year was that?” The little girl was exasperated herself. She gave my sister a squint and, teeth clenched, said, “A little baby don’t know what year it is.”
When I sat down to write The Charlatan’s Boy, the first sentence I wrote turned out to be the first sentence of the finished product: “I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born.” Grady, the narrator, is grappling with the same epistemological dilemma that was troubling my sister’s student. Anything you think you know about your birth, your origins, is something you got second-hand. Somebody has to tell you where you came from and how you got here. Grady’s troubles stem from the fact that the one person he knows who might be able to tell him anything about his origins is a liar and a fraud.
It’s Ash Wednesday. Yesterday my friend Father Thomas, an Anglican priest, burned the palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday to make the ashes to rub on people’s foreheads today. “Remember that you are dust,” he will say to them, “and to dust you shall return.”
I didn’t grow up observing Ash Wednesday or Lent, but I have to say, at this age it helps to be reminded that I am dust and returning to dust. It’s not just a help, but a comfort. This world is forever demanding that we take it as seriously as it takes itself, and it tempts us to take ourselves too seriously too. Ash Wednesday says, “No, no, no, dear sinner. You’re just dust, living in a world that’s just dust, and you and the world both are returning to dust. And you are dear to God nevertheless.”
lawnjockey Happy Wednesday, FOC summer reading clubbers, and forgive my tardiness in posting this week. I haven’t relished the thought of having the “n-word” prominently displayed on my blog for […]