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Blog

The Shape of Humility

Jean Hoefling

I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well.
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

A few years ago, in the interest of honing a short story that I considered decent (which it turned out not to be, particularly), I attended the legendary Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico—that annual summer gathering at St. John’s College of Christian (or not) poets, painters, musicians, and budding screenplay and fiction writers. That year, prolific novelist Bret Lott facilitated the fiction workshop. Every morning before our class began the round of shock therapy euphemistically called “peer critique,” Professor Lott offered short, helpful lectures on writing while we all drank coffee and breathed in the signature Santa Fe scent of burnt brick and piñon that wafted through the open windows of our classroom. All his teaching was good, but these years later I don’t remember much of what the good professor said.  

Except for that one imperative, offered off-handedly it seemed, or maybe not: Always remember that your reader is a little smarter than you are. Out of everything else he said, these are the words that stuck in my mind and wouldn’t leave? Well, yeah. I think it’s because this ironical exhortation takes the dark side of amateurish writing to task—that tendency we would-be writers have to get in the way of the story we are trying to tell by—let’s face it—showing off. In our lack of scope and experience too many of us, mostly unconsciously I’m convinced, wheel and deal in overcomplicated syntax and big words and any old fancy gimmick we can wring out of the air to dress up our writing, under the delusion that if readers are wowed with what wordsmiths we are, our story will miraculously impact them and they’ll beg for more. I’ve watched myself do this, trying so hard that I kill the potential magic in the writing had I been more simple, more human in the telling. And the truth is: (cringe) readers are not fooled by this nonsense.

Of course, Flannery O’Connor says it much better in her essay, "The Nature and Aim of Fiction."

This type of writer will put down one intensely emotional or keenly perceptive sentence after the other, and the result will be complete dullness. The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.

If you scorn getting yourself dusty… Here is the freedom to revel in that fact that we can build something great because of our modest, dusty origin, not in spite of it. It’s best if writing is human, and no one would accuse O’Connor of not being so. Something warm and real is what readers want, not fancy word work. The humble writer can blush with childlike pleasure at readers’ praise yet not be overly offended at criticism. She’s willing to accept that less is more where the dust of the earth is concerned, because it’s the story that counts, not the author. She remembers that learning to glue that dust into some semblance of miracle is a “grand job” indeed.