Sunday, May 27, 2012

Flannery O'Connor's Advice on Writing

Flannery O'Connor is my favorite short story author. Actually, I sometimes have the uncomfortable feeling that I've escaped from one of her stories. Anyhow, lately I've been reading Flannery's correspondence. I'd been reluctant to for a long time because it makes me feel intrusive. Now that I have read her letters I wish I could have corresponded with her, but also worry that I would have been one of the cranks she seems to have been a magnet for. At any rate, the advice she gave to aspiring writers encourages me . Some excerpts follow. These are all from her letters published in the American Library edition. Bold-facing is mine.
I am glad you see the belief in [my stories] because it is there. The truth is my stories have been watered and fed by Dogma. I am a Catholic (not because it's advantageous to my writing but because I was born and brought up one) and at some point in my life I realized that not only was I a Catholic but that this was all I was, that I was a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist but like someone else would be an atheist. If my stories are complete it is because I see everything as beginning with original sin, taking in the Redemption, and reckoning on a final judgment. I have heard people say that all this stifles a writer, but that is foolishness; it only preserves your sense of mystery.
[W]hen you present a pathetic situation, you have to let it speak entirely for itself. I mean you have to present it and leave it alone. You have to let the things in the story do the talking. I mean that, as author, you can't force it and I think you tend to force it in your story, every now and then. The first thing is to see the people at every minute. You get into the old man's mind before you let us know exactly what he looks like. You have got to learn to paint with words. Have the old man there first so that the reader can't escape him. This is something that it has taken me a long time to learn. Ford Madox Ford said you couldn't have somebody sell a newspaper in a story unless you said what he looked like. You have to learn to do this unobtrusively of course.
Your comments on how much of oneself one reveals in the work are a little too sweeping for me. Now I understand that something of oneself gets through and often something that one is not conscious of. Also to have sympathy for any character you have to put a good deal of yourself in him. But to say that any complete denudation of the writer occurs in the successful work is, according to me, a romantic exaggeration. A great part of the art of it is precisely in seeing that this does not happen… Everything has to be subordinated to a whole which is not you. Any story I reveal myself completely in will be a bad story.
About bad taste, I don't know, because taste is a relative matter… Fiction is supposed to represent life, and the fiction writer has to use as many aspects of life as are necessary to make his total picture convincing. The fiction writer doesn't state, he shows, renders. It's the nature of fiction and it can't be helped. If you're writing about the vulgar, you have to prove they're vulgar by showing them at it. The two worst sins of bad taste in fiction are pornography and sentimentality. One is too much sex and the other too much sentiment. You have to have enough of either to prove your point but no more.
Fiction is the concrete expression of mystery—mystery that is lived.
I don't believe that you can ask an artist to be affirmative, any more than you can ask him to be negative… I mortally and strongly defend the right of the artist to select a negative aspect of the world to portray and as the world gets more materialistic there will be more such to select from.
Experiment for but for heaven sakes don't go writing exercises. You will never be interested in anything that is just an exercise and there is no reason you should. Don't do anything that you are not interested in and that don't have a promise of being whole. This doesn't mean you have to have a plot in mind. You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply with a character or anything that you can make come alive, when you have a character he will create his own situation and his situation will suggest some kind of resolution as you get into it. Wouldn't it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you.
The artist dreams no dreams. This is precisely what he does not do, as you very well know. Every dream is an obstruction to his work.
This new ending is right. Just right. And as I stack the whole thing up in my head it seems to me that the whole thing must be just right now. I suggested sending two out at a time but reconsidering it I don't much see why you don't go on and send this one out by itself. I am not so sure that anyplace will take it because I think the Mass scene might scare them off; however, the purpose of sending it around would be to show various people that you CAN write stories. After reading this, they will remember you and be interested to see the next one. Somebody might even take it… This process of sending things out and getting them back depresses some people but it is necessary for a certain length of time. Don't send any letter with the manuscript, just a stamped self-addressed return envelope, and always when you get it back send it back out again the same day or the next. Practical advice from Practical Annie, the Writer's Friend.
I’m a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away. I see it happen all the time. Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that's all the energy I have, but I don't let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. This doesn't mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don't think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact that is if you don't sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won't be sitting there.
I always have an idea of what I want to do when I write a story, but whether I'll be able to remains always to be seen. I am writing a story now and have proceded at a regular rate of two pages a day, following my nose more or less. They have to work out some way or other, and I think you discover a good deal more in the process when you don't have too definite ideas about what you want to do.
You can't have a stable character being converted, you are right, but I think you are wrong that heros have to be stable. If they were stable there wouldn't be any story. It seems to me that all good stories are about conversion, about a character's changing.
[T]he meaning of a piece of fiction only begins where everything psychological and sociological has been explained.
I am much more interested in the nobility of unnaturalness than in the nobility of naturalness… [I]t is the business of the artist to uncover the strangeness of truth. The violent are not natural.
No matter how just the criticism, any criticism at all which depresses you to the extent that you feel you cannot ever write anything worth anything is from the devil and to subject yourself to it is an occasion of sin. In you, the talent is there and you are expected to use it. Whether the work itself is completely successful, or whether you ever get any worldly success out of it, is a matter of no concern to you. It is like the Japanese swordsmen who are indifferent to getting slain in the duel.
I think you ought to go on full speed ahead on this idea that has got you. Out of the head and onto the paper. That is the only way you can cope with its intricasies or discover what you are doing.


  1. Great post. I, too, look up to O'Connor as a person, writer, and in many ways a mental mentor. She causes me to think in ways I have never thought and she pushes me as a writer like no one else. Keep up the good work. If you ever have time, drop by my blog: Hope you enjoy it.

  2. Excellent post. Much-needed guidance from one of the greats. Thanks for compiling these quotes.