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Writers, watchers and short stories

23 January, 2009

Author Joseph O’Connor writes about the nature of writers and the short stories they write. You can read his article here. (After reaching the website, scroll down to his article.)

Writers as stupid watchers

  • O’Connor stresses the importance of writers being good observers,  keeping their eyes open to look at the ‘everyday world’ and find its ‘extraordinary magic’. Their perceptions and responses shape their writing because they respond to what they see:  They are  ‘. . . knocked out by it.  Stopped in their tracks. Startled. Gobsmacked.’
  • He quotes two famous American writers who also describe this kind of looking.
    • Raymond Carter writes that  ‘writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks’. What they do need is the ability to ‘just stand and gape at this or that thing—a sunset, or an old shoe—in absolute and simple amazement.’
    • Flannery O’Connor suggests that fiction writers cannot do without a ‘certain grain of stupidity’, which she defines  ‘the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once.’

Writers don’t take days off

To nurture and strengthen this sense of looking  at the world to find its amazing qualities, a writer needs to keep writing. Even when ‘you’re not actually sitting with a pen in your hand,’ Joseph  O’Connor writes,  ‘You don’t take days off. You don’t go on holiday from writing . . . . If you’re serious about writing then you’re a writer twenty-four hours a day, in the office, in school, doing the dishes and in your dreams.’

What is a short story?

A short story is a ‘glance at the miraculous’:  It concentrates on the particular but says something about the universal. Good short stories tend to focus on or hint at a ‘moment of profound realization’. When this moment is shown, the story acts on the reader like a ‘quiet bomb’ or a  ‘little earthquake’.

Short stories are hard to write

O’Connor believes the short story is one of the most challenging  literary forms for writers. Short stories seem like they should be easy to write–after all, compared to a novel they are short, with fewer characters and less plot development. However, good short stories don’t appear written at all but seem as if they ‘simply grew on the page’, with every element just right, i.e., each sentence, image and line of dialogue.

Try writing a good short story and you will discover  how truly hard it is. In a small space you must present a memorable tale. But the higher aim, which you may or may not reach, is to convey something ‘worthwhile about the human condition’, something that hit a ‘reverberating note’ with readers.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 February, 2009 3:42 am

    “Re-engage with non-computer activities.”
    Good advice! 🙂


  2. Marsha permalink
    8 February, 2009 12:52 pm

    Hi Gabriel, I like to listen as much as watch. Sometimes I hear provocative dialogue at the next table, or phrases that would make an unusual story title or writing prompt. Marsha


  3. 8 February, 2009 6:42 am

    I definitely agree with writers being observers. Sometimes when I’m stumped, I like to go out in public and just sit and watch the people around me. Their interactions, the way they move, their style of dress or haircut. Details like that have a way of creeping into my stories, and they add so much.


  4. vikas permalink
    24 January, 2009 5:00 am

    Informative stuff for the beginners. I am doing some research on how to write story as I am going through interesting time which would like to pen down.

    Any more tips

    Regads Vikas


    • Marsha permalink
      24 January, 2009 9:56 am

      Hi Vikas,
      * You could try writing down everything first–capturing your experiences rather than prematurely processing them into a finished piece. Focus on the 5 senses, which is part of what O’Connor means by ‘watching’ the world as a writer.
      * Alternatively, you could put your experience in a blog. The possibility of an audience makes you selective about what you choose to write, and how.
      * At some point, you’ll decide if your experiences work best as non-fiction or whether you’ll use them as the basis for fiction. If you go for fiction, you may want to put your material aside for a few weeks or months so that you can get the emotional distance to write fiction rather than fact thinly disguised as fiction.
      * Whichever choice you make, look for exemplars–works that deal with similar subjects and writers whose style you enjoy.
      Good luck!


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