Today is theft day here at 317am, but it’ll be theft with a warm acknowledgement, so I make no apologies. When I was wrapping up my short-story class last month, Laura, who’s been a student and a friend for awhile, loaned me a copy of This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, by Steve Almond. Half of the slim little paperback consists of short-short stories. If you flip it over, upside-down, the other half consists of little essays about writing fiction. That’s the part I’m going to steal from.
These words are worth stealing because they seem so true to me—so close to what I’m thinking when I try to compose characters on paper, my feelings toward them, my responsibility toward them—that I wish I’d been able to put it precisely this way for Laura and the others in my class. I certainly will read these to my next batch of new writers:
I still think of “love” as a pretty fuzzy word, routinely debased by pop stars and infomercial hosts. But as a writer, I’ve come to see love in more precise terms, as an act of sustained attention implying eventual mercy. There is nothing more disheartening to me than a story in which the writer expresses contempt for his characters. It’s the one failure I can’t abide, because it amounts to a conscious decision to shit on art, whose first and final mission is the transmission of love.
That’s what’s happening, by the way, when you read any great piece of literature: the love transmitted from the author to her characters is being transmitted to you, the reader. Which is why I continually exhort students to love their characters at all times.
I don’t mean by this that you should protect them. On the contrary, it is your sworn duty to send your characters barreling into the danger of their own desires. Nor do I mean to endorse some bland form of moral absolution. I mean something much more like what the authors of the New Testament ascribe to Jesus Christ. That you love people not for their strength and nobility but, on the contrary, for their weakness and iniquity. Your job is not to burnish the saint but to redeem the sinner.
I read those words and came to a sudden, grinning, delighted halt. I can’t add anything to improve them. But I’ll tell you what—oddly enough—sprang to mind. If you ever wondered why Molly Bloom says dreamily, “yes I will Yes” at the end of Ulysses, it is because James Joyce, for all the modernist folderol of his method, loved her. And, for that matter, loved her husband, too.
You may recall Steve Almond’s name from a pair of posts Ras wrote about one of Almond’s stories back in June. I couldn’t find This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey on Amazon, but you can order it from the Harvard Book Store.