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Flannery O'Connor on Writing

Although I do not read much fiction and write even less of it, I am interested in learning what has made certain famous writers (even fiction writers) successful. Surely something they've done to be so well received is applicable to my own writing, albeit nonfiction. My objective was to find it.

One of my recent writing projects focused on a select group of Southern writers, so I sought advice from an acclaimed Southern author, although she was not a member of the group about which I was writing. Although Flannery O'Connor was a Roman Catholic, whereas I am Protestant, I thought that perhaps I could learn something from her advice to writers. I did.

I found her words of advice in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, a compilation of notes and manuscripts she had used, or had intended to use, in speeches to various groups of writers and students of writing. Following are a few poignant nuggets of wisdom for all writers, but they are especially applicable to Christian and Southern writers.

Concerning Writing as a Gift from God

"The Christian writer particularly will feel that whatever his initial gift is, it comes from God; and no matter how minor a gift it is, he will not be willing to destroy it by trying to use it outside its proper limits." (p. 27)

"The writer, in order best to use the talents he has been given, has to write at his own intellectual level. For him to do anything else is to bury his talents." (p. 186)

"It is always difficult to get across to people who are not professional writers that a talent to write does not mean a talent to write anything at all." (p. 215)

Concerning the Dilemma for a Christian Writer in a Non- or Anti-Christian World

"The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural. . . ." (p. 33)

"Today's audience is one in which religious feeling has become, if not atrophied, at least vaporous and sentimental." (p. 161)

"The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point. . . . Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin. . . . [A]ny character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself. The novelist doesn't write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is a general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, a total experience of human nature at any time. . . . [T]he greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama. The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. . . . [N]ot as sickness or an accident of environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God. . . ." (pp. 167-68)

"[T]he chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn't mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater." (p. 175)

Concerning the Importance of a Sense of Place

"When we talk about the writer's country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him." (p. 34)

"It is a great blessing, perhaps the greatest blessing a writer can have, to find at home what others have to go elsewhere seeking." (p. 54)

"The best American fiction has always been regional. The ascendancy passed roughly from New England to the Midwest to the South; it has passed to and stayed longest wherever there has been a shared past, a sense of alikeness, and the possibility of reading a small history in a universal light." (p. 58)

"Behind our own history, deepening it at every point, has been another history. . . . In the South we have, in however attenuated a form, a vision of Moses' face as he pulverized our idols. This knowledge is what makes the Georgia writer different from the writer from Hollywood or New York. It is the knowledge that the novelist finds in his community. When he ceases to find it there, he will cease to write, or at least he will cease to write anything enduring." (p. 59)

"A great deal of the Southern writer's work is done for him before he begins, because our history lives in our talk." (p. 105)

Concerning Prejudice Against Southern Writing

"I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic." (p. 40)

Her answer to the assumption of outsiders that "Southern writers have a penchant for writing about freaks": "because we are still able to recognize one. . . . [I]n the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological." (p. 44)

Concerning the Quality of One's Writing

"[V]ery few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. . . . They are interested in being a writer, not in writing." (p. 64)

"The novelist . . . , if he is any good, . . . selects every word for a reason, every detail for a reason, every incident for a reason, and arranges them in a certain time sequence for a reason. " (p. 75)

"There may never be anything new to say, but there is always a new way to say it, and since, in art, the way of saying a thing becomes a part of what is said, every work of art is unique and requires fresh attention." (p. 76)

Now, my next task is to see how O'Connor applied these principles to her own writing by reading some of her fiction. (Yes, I must read some of her fiction!)

By the way, I did just finish reading a non-Southerner's autobiography, or perhaps it would be more accurately categorized as humor or creative nonfiction: James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times.

Hey, at least I'm venturing to read beyond my traditional comfort zone. Are you?

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