Put on the Tennis Skirt

Years ago, my wife Lou Alice took up tennis. She played two or three times a week, went to the clinics, jumped in on the Saturday round-robins. By any reasonable definition, she was a tennis player. But she was reluctant to buy a tennis skirt. It too much like a declaration. More than that, it seemed presumptuous to her. There was always that chance that somebody might say, “Why are you wearing a tennis skirt? You’re not an expert tennis player.”

Eventually I just went up to the sporting goods store, bought a tennis skirt, and brought it home to my wife. Because if you play tennis, you’re a tennis player. You can have a skirt.

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Mystery and Manners

“There are two qualities that make fiction,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. “One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners.” Since yesterday was Flannery O’Connor’s birthday (she would have been ninety-four), I thought this would be a good week to think about mystery and manners.

Mystery and Manners, as you may know, is the title of a collection of O’Connor’s “occasional prose.” It contains some of the most insightful writing about writing that you can ever hope to read. I commend it to you.

But what does O’Connor mean by those terms “mystery” and “manners”? The gist is that the fiction writer is always looking to approach the deepest mysteries through the surfaces of things. A storyteller may be interested in big, abstract ideas about ultimate meaning—love, hatred, sin, judgment, grace, etc.—but those big ideas are not the raw material of a story. The raw materials of a story are found in manners, not mystery. Manners are what we see with our eyeballs when we look out at the world of human interaction. “You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you,” writes O’Connor.

The quotes above come from “Writing Short Stories” in Mystery and Manners. So does this remarkable passage:

Fiction operates through the senses, and I think one reason that people find it so difficult to write stories is that they forget how much time and patience is required to convince through the senses. No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel, the story is going to believe anything the fiction writer merely tells him. The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.

The essay is a form that allows a writer to go straight to the big idea (though I encourage even essay writers to be as concrete as possible). Fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t give the writer nearly so much leeway. Fiction demands that we deliver meaning through experience—through manners.

O’Connor was never shy about the moral dimension of storytelling. She could be judgmental in her stories; but more to the point, she expected her readers to exercise moral judgment. The fiction writer’s job, according to O’Connor, is to present to the reader a sequence of experiences that will engage his (the reader’s) moral judgment.

The [inexperienced writer] thinks that judgment exists in one place and sense-impression in another. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them.

It is hard to resist the urge to tell the reader what to think. It is so easy for a writer to pass judgment and hope that the reader falls in line. But unless a reader agrees with you already, he is rarely so cooperative. As O’Connor said, if the reader doesn’t experience a story, doesn’t feel it, he isn’t going to believe anything the writer tells him.

And yet…when you present the right images to the reader, those images are persuasive in ways that mere persuasion can never be. Judgment doesn’t exist in a separate place from sense-impression. If you can believe that, it will transform your storytelling. The sensory experience of a story isn’t window-dressing; it’s the story’s truest machinery. (I have discussed this idea at length in an earlier issue of The Habit, so I will refer you to it rather than go through it all again).

Do you believe that the world is shot through with meaning? If so, you can trust that all you have to do is to give a true account of the world as you have experienced it. You just tend to the manners. The mysteries will take care of themselves. This should give you freedom and hope in your writing.

Bonus Quotation:
This idea of mystery and manners, by the way, is important not just for writers, but for readers as well. If you feel insufficiently literary to “get” serious fiction, consider what O’Connor says on the subject:

The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.

Yes and amen.

“I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve rocked them all.”

When I was in high school, Bon Jovi had song called “Wanted Dead or Alive.” I’m sure you know it: “I’m a cowboy. On a steel horse I ride…”

Even when I was seventeen years old and spang in the middle of the target demographic, that claim always struck me as odd: Jon Bon Jovi, this Jersey boy with enormous, teased hair, announces that he’s a cowboy. It seems to me a person should have to choose: you can either be the front man for New Jersey’s greatest glam rock band, or you can be a cowboy, but you can’t be both. 

But that’s not even the most remarkable claim in this remarkable song. In the last verse, Jon Bon Jovi sings,

I’ve seen a million faces,
And I’ve rocked them all.

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Connecting in Real Time: Some Thoughts on Sentence Structure

One of my favorite paintings is Landscape with Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Breughel. In the foreground is a farmer’s field on a seaside cliff, and a farmer plowing the field behind a horse. In the middle ground, on the right, a big merchant ship is sailing on a beautiful blue-green sea in the direction of a crowded port city. In the background, other tall ships sail across the sea.

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Five Lessons on Writing from Jerry Seinfeld

This NY Times video of Jerry Seinfeld explaining his joke-writing process has been floating around the Internet for years, so you may have seen it already. But it’s well worth revisiting, especially on Fat Tuesday, a day devoted to jollity.

Watching this (for the umpteenth time), I’m struck by how many of Seinfeld’s lessons for joke-writing apply to writing of all kinds. Here are a few: 

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Writing Hospitably

A while back one of my online writing students asked the following question:

I’m finding that I’m having trouble striking a balance between too much scene-setting (delaying the really important action) and too little scene-setting or detail (so that the reader has difficulty knowing why the main action is important). Do you have any advice on either how to mentally frame things when starting to write so that there’s room for the complete action to unfold, or for how to approach the editing/revising to more clearly see what’s lacking and why?

I love this question because it gets at a core principle of good writing: you are forever balancing some tension (and usually more than one tension at a time). This writer is struggling with the tension between the need to set the scene–both literally, showing the reader where the action is taking place, and figuratively, giving the reader why some context for why this action is happening and why it’s important–and the need to get on with the action.

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Painting the Alligator Green

In the book club I’m running over at Field Notes for Writers, the topic of childhood creativity came up. When you put crayons and a piece of paper in front of a small child, she knows exactly what to do with them. She doesn’t get artist’s block. She doesn’t perseverate over whether or she has enough skill or whether she’s talented or whether she has earned the right to call herself an artist. She just puts crayon to paper and gets busy.

As we get older, almost all of us lose most of that creative freedom. We grow in self-consciousness, we learn self-doubt, and our exuberance in the mere act of making dissolves as we start to compare, as we are subjected to criticism.

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The Terrible, Horrible Blog Post

My biography of Flannery O’Connor is titled The Terrible Speed of Mercy. I borrowed the phrase from O’Connor’s second novel, The Violent Bear It Away. I was always struck by that odd juxtaposition of terrible and mercy; I chewed on it for about twenty years, never suspecting that I would one day be able to use it as a book title.

The possibility of a terrible mercy obviously has a lot to say about Flannery O’Connor’s understanding of sin and grace and judgment, but it also points up a peculiar pattern in the development of the English language.

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Facts and Non-Fiction

A former online student wrote with a question about facts and non-fiction:

When I write, I make it a serious aim to be truthful and honest. I don’t want to force meaning into something, but bring out what’s already there, as you taught me years ago. But in order to tell something in an interesting and compelling way, sometimes you have to bring it together in an artful way that might not be 100 percent accurate. The heart of the truth is preserved—sometimes even better than it would be if you confused the issue with useless (to the reader) information … So as long as I’m concerned for the truth and kindness toward everyone I write about, is it okay to not be totally accurate? 

This writer had written up a non-fiction account of an event involving a few friends. When she showed it to one of the friends who had been there, the friend was bothered by the fact that she had telescoped several hours’ worth of events into a short scene and changed a few other details. The writer, on the other hand, was bothered by the fact that her friend was bothered.

So, how much are you “allowed” to monkey with the facts of a piece that purports to be non-fiction? At what point have you crossed the threshold from non-fiction into fiction—or into lying? I get this kind of question relatively often.

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Talk to Strangers: Everybody Has a Story

In a recent episode of the Radiolab podcast, producer Latif Nasser shares some of his techniques for finding stories to research and write about. The episode grows from this article, in which Nasser offers even more techniques, which range from setting Google alerts to rummaging around in library collections of personal papers and oral histories to repeatedly clicking the “random article” button on Wikipedia. 

I won’t list all of Nasser’s techniques, since you can click over to the article or podcast more easily than I can summarize them. His techniques are helpful, and I commend them to you. The most helpful thing about Nasser’s remarks, however, is his approach to story-finding almost as a lifestyle, or perhaps a philosophy. 

We all need to be in the habit of noticing, of keeping our eyes open to the marvels that surround us every minute of every day.

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