How is Fiction Writing a Form of Folly?

In order to understand the features of fiction, it is helpful to examine the features of an opposite type of writing: the academic essay.

I taught Academic English to overseas students at the University of New South Wales in Sydney for many years. Since retiring, I’ve become more interested in exploring the features of fictional writing. This form of writing has become a sort of passion for me. The expository writing I taught to undergraduates was, basically, the essay.

The academic essay has a fairly rigid structure that can be unpacked and taught, and is on the whole impersonal, and veers towards the abstract. An essay has an introduction, a body and a conclusion, and each paragraph, as well as each body part, follows on logically from the previous one. Within this genre there are explanatory essays, argument essays and comparison essays. Students are encouraged to be controversial, dialectical, rationalistic and argumentative.

cover-of-mystery-and-mannersWith fiction, the writer needs to develop other skills. According to Flannery O’Conner in Mystery and Manners, the fiction writer needs “a certain grain of stupidity“. Being able to stand back and listen is key to being a fiction writer. “Show don’t tell” is one of the main adages taught to creative writing students. If you can dramatise an event in words, you are half way there. That is, be the opposite of the declarative essayist. Write in scenes, rather than in logical paragraphs. Be concrete, not abstract.  In the scene, the writer can capture the nuances of character, passion and conflict basic to good story-telling.

Flannery writes: “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. Then they find themselves writing a sketch with an essay woven through it, or an essay with a sketch woven through it, or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral, or some other mongrel thing.” (Mystery and Manners p.66)

The writer’s job is to recreate the sounds, sights, smells, textures, feelings and tastes of the world through the characters. The narrator should stand back and allow the characters to move the story forward.

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Flannery O’Connor

Do you agree with  Flannery O’Connor, or do you think that there can be overlap between opposite forms? Say, between expository writing and narrative?  The answer, if you think about it, might be yes, especially for the future.

However, I certainly agree that a little folly serves the fiction writer well. Like childbirth and parenting, we’d surely think twice about taking on the writing life if we weren’t “a little mad”.