Lately, due in part to the amazing short story class I’m currently taking led by my friend and teacher Ruth Moose, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about the responsibility of the writer. Is the writer supposed to merely entertain? Or is she supposed to teach the reader something as well?
The reason I’m pondering is because I’m in the middle of writing a short story about a middle-aged man who is the self-appointed captain of a city softball team. Entertaining the reader is easy enough as humor abounds in the circumstances. But the teaching part is a little daunting because if true, it implies that the writer should have a little wisdom of her own to share. Shouldn’t entertaining be enough?
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve embarked on an independent study of Flannery O’Connor, one of my most favorite authors. She died at the too-young age of 39 which makes her musings on the subject of writing all too brief. However, those that exist are all the more poignant because of their paucity. So, when I need a little help, I turn to Mystery and Manners, a collection of prose cobbled from Flannery’s lectures and the like.
The book is chock-full of wisdom but today I’m drawn to this statement in an essay titled The Nature and Aim of Fiction.”If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than can ever be to his reader.”
What I take from this pithy sentence is that yes, the writer may start with an aim to entertain, but the story that emerges may end up instructing the writer. In the same essay she writes: “It’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene. For him, the bomb dropped on Hiroshoma affects life on the Oconee River, and there’s not anything he can do about it.”
As I ponder further, Flannery’s comments strike at the heart of what it is like to be writer. It explains a lot about why we do what we do. Sure, we wish to record our impressions of a softball-obsessed control freak, but we also long to write stories that give meaning to such impressions and in our own way, make sense of the world. This is why, as Flannery also concludes, that writing is so difficult to teach; it’s constantly evolving, even in the best of writers. It’s not easy work but the pay-off is every bit as rewarding as hitting that elusive grand slam!