“I still suspect that most people start out with some kind of ability to tell a story but that it gets lost along the way. Of course, the ability to create life with words is essentially a gift. If you have it in the first place, you can develop it; if you don’t have it, you might as well forget it.
But I have found that people who don’t have it are frequently the ones hell-bent on writing stories. I’m sure anyway that they are the ones who write the books and the magazine articles on how-to-write-short-stories. I have a friend who is taking a correspondence course in this subject, and she has passed a few of the chapter headings on to me—such as, “The Story Formula for Writers,” “How to Create Characters,” “Let’s Plot!” This form of corruption is costing her twenty-seven dollars.”
I found it irresistible to engage with this quote so here’s my take on it. Feel free to chime in on either side of the debate below.
I agree entirely with Flannery O’Connor’s first paragraph. I’ve said for years that most people are born hardwired to tell stories. When my daughter, now a successful journalist, was just about tall enough to stretch her arm to the fullest and reach the keyboard of my computer with her fingers, she wrote this: Today Violet went to school. The teacher played with the children in class, then the children played together outside, then they came home and went to sleep. and the next morning they woke up.
That’s not just a story, it suggests a sequel. It was fascinating that several other kids just post-toddler stage, 4 and 5 year olds, also ended a short account of their activities with waking up the next day, unconsciously reflecting the cyclical nature of life. Many agree, that the evolution of myths and fairytales began in the same way. Sitting around the fire after the day’s hunting and growing and gathering was done, the group would gather, eat and tell tales filled with metaphors of how life can be. There was the hunt overlaid with the constant dread of meeting and being killed by mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers, descriptions of strong, brave men who overcame them and cowardly companions who saved themselves, abandoning their friends to danger. Models of right and wrong, good and bad are vividly set up. Dragons, witches, fairies, demons, benign supernatural creatures symbolised life’s hardships and bonuses. And in the caves and on the mountainsides, wonderful frescoes appeared to embed future epic journeys in the minds of the ancient people like illustrations of those fireside tales.
But Flannery O’Connor loses me in the last sentence of the paragraph and doesn’t get me back again. I had to ask, who decides ‘if you don’t have it’? and how do you decide when you haven’t tried it or worked on it? I know many excellent writers who thought they had no talent because they had this notion shoved down their throats by teachers and other ‘helpful’ adults – who turned out to be stupendously good writers. Think about Roald Dahl whose English teacher put him down mercilessly. And believe me, the ones who teach and write courses on writing are not no-hopers trying to make themselves feel better. Many teachers are practitioners of teaching or writing. Not Geography teacher is an intrepid explorer and not every every science tutor works in a science lab. They are teachers with specialties – they have chosen to teach and gone out and acquired the expertise. They just enjoy sharing their knowledge. Maybe some of them would like to be published – that doesn’t stop them being good teachers.
It still surprises me how so many people want desperately to write a book. They tell me uplifting stories, harrowing tales, about themselves and about others; episodes from history; dreams of the futures; fact, fiction, knowledge, how to help yourself, how to make flowers grow. My first impulse is to help them in any way I can. Most writers don’t have the power to ‘get someone published’ but I for one am delighted to offer the benefit of my experience and explain the way the industry works, how to get something written, how to choose and approach a publisher. Of course, the most important part is how to write the book to a standard that is acceptable to the author and the professionals who will make your dream come true as well as the reader who will buy it.
You’ll see from other pages on this site that I have had many books published, screenplays commissioned, TV proposals optioned – but I still find time to teach, mentor and now I’ about to launch courses on different aspects of writing so that people can start to make their dreams come true – without paying a fortune to do so.
Like any professional, be it in art, science, digital systems or anything else, we have to learn the skills, understand how things work, put in the effort and master the necessary skills. And let’s not denigrate the teachers and trainers who are willing to devote themselves to our success, possibly, at the cost of their own.