You Don’t Have to be Good to Write Well

In my last post, I shared part of a letter Flannery O’Connor wrote to “A,” but I didn’t give you all that was worth noting. I intend to do that here.

I suppose it is true, however, that one’s personal affection for people or lack of it carries over and colors the work. Henry James (actually) could write better about vulgar people than any writer I can think of, and this I take it was because there was very little vulgarity in him and he must have hated it thoroughly. James said the morality of a work of fiction depended on the felt life that was in it; and St. Thomas said that art didn’t require rectitude of the appetite. When you start thinking of a phrase like felt life, you can get beyond your depth in a minute. But St. Thomas’s remark is plain enough: you don’t have to be good to write well. Much to be thankful for …

When I call myself a Catholic with a modern consciousness I don’t mean what might be implied in the phrase “modern Catholic,” which doesn’t make sense. If you’re Catholic you believe what the Church teaches and the climate makes no difference. What I mean is that I am conscious in a general way of the world’s present historical position, which according to Jung is unhistorical. I am afraid I got this concept from his book, Modern Man in Search of a Soul—and am applying it in a different way.

I did a google search of “felt life Henry James” and found this paragraph in a post of writing advice from a fellow named Nick Harrison:

Another way of looking at what I’m calling my secret is to borrow a phrase from Henry James. He talked about the need for “felt life” in good writing. What is “felt life?” Does anyone reading this want to try defining it for us? I know what it means, but I know it intuitively, and it’s hard to explain things one knows intuitively. And yet “felt life” is, to my mind, that very thing that reaches out from your heart to the heart of your reader. It is the secret.

In previous paragraphs, Harrison writes (and I’m copying it down here because I like the advice he gives):

But one vital element, it seems to me, is to come to the blank page full. You can’t give out what you don’t have. Come with your own internal passion, and come prepared to spill out that passion on the page. Another Maugham quote occurs to me here. He said, “I’ve always liked to let things simmer in my mind for a long time before setting them down on paper.” Depth doesn’t come in a single sitting. The best writing comes from brewing, stewing, and waiting.

Then as you write, write from the depths, not the shallows of your life. Reflect on your work. Come at it from different angles. Learn to feel your story before and as you write it. To be honest, most manuscripts I see tell a story, but it’s a passionless story. In such cases, I suspect the author has no passion for the story either—or they’ve not yet learned how to tap their passion and make it come out their fingertips and onto the keyboard.

One suggestion I’ve offered to writers who write without passion is to stop writing to a faceless entity you’re calling the reader. Instead, pretend you’re sitting across the table from your target reader at Starbuck’s. This person has come to you either asking advice or for a story that will move them. Envision your reader and warm up to them. Give the person a name, if necessary. And then talk to them on the page as if they’re your dearest friend.

I find it somewhat ironic that Harrison is a Christian writer, as in he writes books about Christianity, because I was just about to include something that Madeleine L’Engle wrote on the subject (and I’ve shared it previously):

A sad fact that needs to be faced is that a deeply committed Christian who wants to write stories or paint pictures or compose music to the glory of God simply may not have been given the talent, the gift, which a non-Christian, or even an atheist, may have in abundance. God is no respecter of persons, and this is something we are reluctant to face. …

We live by revelation, as Christians, as artists, which means we must be careful never to get set into rigid molds. The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men.

Unamuno might be describing the artist as well as the Christian as he writes, “Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.”

I don’t really have much to write this go-round. I’m mostly just adding all this to my collection, if you will.

Yet, the more I think about it, the more I can see what James was getting at. He was talking about integrity, serving the work, finding cosmos in chaos.  Again, from the post I just linked back to:

In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, L’Engle quotes an Eastern Orthodox theologian, Timothy Kallistos Ware, who wrote:

[A]n abstract composition by Kandinsky or Van Gogh’s landscape of the cornfield with birds … is a real instance of divine transfiguration, in which we see matter rendered spiritual and entering into the “glorious liberty of the children of God.” This remains true, even when the artist does not personally believe in God. Provided he is an artist of integrity, he is a genuine servant of the glory which he does not recognize, and unknown to himself there is “something divine” about his work. We may rest confident that at the last judgment the angels will produce his works of art as testimony on his behalf.

It seems pretty clear that Ware’s caveat, “provided he is an artist of integrity,” refers to the artistic process. In other words, the artist is faithful to the work and where it leads him.

Flannery is saying the same (albeit in a much more straightforward way) when she tells her correspondent, “you don’t have to be good to write well.”

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