Writing Lessons

The Zen of Short-Story Writing

By Stephen Goodwin | November 4, 2013


In another century, I took a writing class from Peter Taylor, a master of the short story. He distrusted blanket advice, but a lesson that he often repeated was from Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer and author of what is still one of the best books about the short story, The Lonely Voice.

O’Connor was not a fan of the stories of James Joyce. The trouble with them, he said, was that Joyce never let the stories talk back to him. Peter seized on this observation, and always cited O’Connor when he told us, “You have to let the story take over.”

Let the story take over? How do you do that? This was like the method of the Zen master who declines to teach an archer how to shoot an arrow. Somehow, if the archer can achieve the right state of mind, he will release the string at the right moment and the arrow will hit the bull’s-eye. The challenge for the archer is to relinquish conscious control.

Peter’s advice sounded vague and mystical until one fine day, years after leaving his class, it happened—a story did take over. It really did seem to have a will of its own. Inspiration is a dangerous word so I will say only that I wrote something far better than I thought that I could, and I have sought that experience ever since. I look for that quality in the work of others. Reading or writing fiction, you want the bristle hair to stir at the back of the neck.

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