"One of the most common and saddest spectacles is that of a person of really fine sensibility and acute psychological perception trying to write fiction by using these qualities alone," Flannery O'Connor writes in Mystery and Manners. "This type of writer will put down one intensely emotional or keenly perceptive sentence after the other, and the result will be complete dullness."
I bought Mystery and Manners because I thought it was a short story collection, and because of the red snake on the cover. It's actually a series of essays focused mainly on the writing process. Even though I had recently started writing short stories (this was about five years ago), back then I wouldn't have paid good money for that type of book on purpose. But reading the passage quoted above, I felt as if O'Connor had aimed it straight at me after thumbing through my writing notebooks and deciding I could use a good talking-to.
Up to then, what little reading I'd done on the craft of fiction writing was halfhearted at best. I believed you either had it or you didn't, that reading a book on how to write was best left to the Future Mediocre Writers of America. O'Connor's essay (in a chapter called "The Nature and Aim of Fiction") made me cop to my tendency to struggle over every line I wrote while shrugging off the import of the bigger picture. It was time to admit that I was a sentence writer, not a story writer.
O'Connor brought the tough love, and John Gardner did the hand-holding in The Art of Fiction, where he talks about good narrative as presenting a "vivid and continuous dream" for the reader. I learned that my most glaring flaw as a writer was that the dream stayed in my head. As I wrote sentences, read them over, and revised them, my mind would fill in the many wide gaps in the "story" that never made it from my head to the page. I'd see the dream for myself because it was mine; meanwhile I wasn't giving the reader a decent shot at even glimpsing it. I had to learn to stop living and dying one line at a time, and to focus on the methodical presentation of a story.
If you're in love with writing, you spend a lot of time on slippery ground. Going it alone may work for some people, but I suspect it's more of a default setting than a measured decision. It took me a lot longer than I wish it had to realize I was in the weeds when it came to truly crafting a story, and to admit that I could do with some guidance. After some internal kicking and screaming, I found it through books like Gardner's and countless others, then in writing workshops. I started to see the cluttered universe of things I hadn't even considered, let alone mastered. I got to work, and real growth followed.
If I have any advice to offer new writers, it's this: Even if you're convinced you have no use for guidance (formal or informal) on the writing process, seek it out anyway, even if those steps lead you outside of your comfort zone. You'll be a better writer for it.
It probably bears mentioning that "The Nature and Aim of Fiction" is a composite of notes O'Connor prepared for a talk in front of a class that had been hearing from a different writer each week. To open the chapter, O'Connor writes, "The only parallel I can think of to this is having the zoo come to you, one animal at a time; and I suspect that what you hear one week from the giraffe is contradicted the next week by the baboon." So, consider this the view from my cage.