In last week’s episode of The Habit Weekly I introduced The Fondue Pot Principle, which states that you can only give what you have—and that’s just fine. I discovered The Fondue Pot Principle when I put out a call on Facebook asking to borrow a fondue pot. Only one friend was able to come through for me…and yet that was enough. My delight at the one friend’s having what I needed was unsullied by the fact that a hundred or more friends didn’t have what I needed.

At the end of last week’s episode I promised to apply The Fondue Pot Principle to two specific writing-related questions that recently arose in my Writing with Flannery O’Connor online class. Three seemingly unrelated question elicited the same response from me. So either I’m a one-trick pony, or there’s a principle at work here. 

Question 1 arose in a discussion of this very well-known passage from one of Flannery O’Connor’s essays:

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 large and startling figures.

Here’s what Corey, one of the writers in the class, had to say about this idea:

I have no doubt that O’Connor wrote in this shouting, startling fashion, but I’m not sure I agree with her reasons for doing so. It assumes quite a lot to think that my audience is hard of hearing and I am wise enough to point it out to them. I know that I am blind and deaf in all sorts of ways. Perhaps we’re all blind and hard of hearing in our own way, so we ought to all be shouting at one another?

It had never occurred to me to view these remarks by Flannery O’Connor as possibly arrogant; indeed, I am disinclined to have any bad thoughts about Flannery O’Connor. But now that Corey points it out, I can see how this could be a concern. What makes me so sure that I see things the reader hasn’t seen or heard things they haven’t heard? 

I think the Fondue Pot Principle helps sort this out. As a writer, you’re just called to give what you have to give, to give an account of what you have seen in the world. O’Connor puts it in terms of shouting and drawing large and startling figures, but tere’s a gentler way to say the same thing: When you write, you say to a reader, “Here’s something I see that you might not have seen.”  Then you put it in terms that your reader can receive. That should be an act of generosity, not arrogance. 

If a friend is looking for his keys and I happen to be able to see his keys from where I’m sitting, I’m not assuming anything about my superior wisdom when I tell him I know where his keys are. When my friend Matthew lent me his fondue pot, there was no hint of arrogance, even though it was clear he had a fondue pot and I didn’t.

Question 2, from a writer named Renee, appears at first to be unrelated: 

Do we focus on where our audience is or where we are? If I’m only thinking about the audience, I’m afraid I’ll fall into “give them what they want,” but if I focus on myself, then isn’t a commitment to self-expression equally off-base? There’s a ditch on both sides of this road!

Once again, the Fondue Pot Principle comes to the rescue. If you just focus on giving the reader what you have to give, you improve your chances of navigating between Renee’s two ditches. Hopefully we’re all shooting for more than merely giving the reader what she wants. Truth to tell, if your reader is just looking to get what she already knows she wants, Netflix may be the better option. The hope is to give the reader something she didn’t know she wanted, or, even better, to give her something she needs. 

But it can be hard to know what the reader needs. So here’s what I recommend: Just give what you have to give, and trust that somebody needs it. 

The other ditch Renee mentioned is a self-expression…or perhaps self-absorption. Giving the reader what you have to give is indeed a kind of self-expression, but it’s a kind of self-expression that looks and feels a lot like friendship. I love my friend Thomas because he acts like Thomas, and I love my friend Rebecca because she acts like Rebecca. They don’t act anything like one another.

As for self-expression, whether or not Thomas and Rebecca are thinking about self-expression, everything they do expresses self…I dare say, the less they think about self-expression, the more authentically they express self.

In most situations, neither Thomas nor Rebecca is thinking about giving me what I want or need, and yet I need what they’re bringing. That, it seems to me, is a pretty good model for steering between the ditches of self-indulgent self-expression on the one hand and pandering to an audience on the other.

Question 3 isn’t a question, but an observation from a writer named Lindsay. 

As I write, I want to take seriously the fact that I am a human being within in particular context and culture, used to all sorts of “normal” that are not normal at all… I want to learn how to better capture this reality in my own writing.

I love this observation. Your culture and context create blind spots, but at the same time they give you a unique perspective. We all accept as normal things that aren’t normal. Also, when we actually pay attention, we all begin to see as abnormal things that others accept as normal. One of your most important jobs of a writer is to slow down and think about things that you normally take for granted. When you do, you’ve suddenly got something new to give to your readers, who likely have been too busy living their own lives to sit down and think deeply about this thing that you’ve thought about.

So there you go. The Fondue Pot Principle can give you a way of thinking through all sorts of writing-related questions. You can only give what you have to give. That’s all your readers want and expect from you.

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