Wednesday, July 25, 2007

flannery o'connor: the habit of being

"In my own experience, everything funny I have written is more terrible than it is funny, or only funny because it is terrible, or only terrible because it is funny."
I was introduced to Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) the summer before my junior year of high school. Her collection of short stories A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955) was required summer reading. Her fiction is funny, violent, and exciting. She's one of those writers tagged "Southern Gothic." I had no first-hand knowledge of that world down in Georgia, but I felt at home there reading her stories. Her viewpoint was strictly Catholic, and of this collection, she said:
The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.
I wasn't much reading the Christian realism of it when I was sixteen. I can't say I read it now for her religious perspective, but rather with an awareness of her perspective. A good story is a good story. I dig anybody who writes a story about a women who gets seduced and then gets her prosthetic leg stolen. Some folks think her writing is strange. When I proposed writing a paper on Flannery O'Connor for my high school English class, my teacher responded: "I hate Flannery O'Connor!" Literally, she spoke the word "hate" in italics. No way I was going to get an "A" if I wrote about Flannery O'Connor, so I caved in a wrote a paper on Eudora Welty instead. Thanks for crushing my academic interest, public educator.

Lately, I've been reading Letters of Flannery O'Connor: The Habit of Being. She was a prolific correspondent in a addition to her fiction. She rarely left her mother's home in Milledgeville, Georgia due to illness (Lupus) and resorted to crutches due to chronic joint pain in her hips. She spent time writing letters to friends, fans, and just about any crank who wrote her a letter. But throughout this collection you get thoughts on her career, on writing, on day-to-day life in 1950s-60s Milledgeville. You get a first-hand sense of who she was. She inspires me to write more letters and take more care in my e-mails. If Flannery O'Connor were living today, she'd have an awesome blog. Here are some quotes from her correspondence. Most of them are on writing, but the first one makes me laugh. She was a duck smuggler.

* Last summer I went to Connecticut to visit the Fitzgeralds and smuggled three live ducks over Eastern Airlines for their children, but I have been inactive criminally since then.

* My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.

* I don't have the kind of mind that can carry such beyond the actual reading, i.e., total non-retention has kept my education from being a burden to me

* (on Nelson Algren) I have the impression page by page of a talent wasted by sentimentalism and a certain over-indulgence in the writing. In any fiction where the omniscient narrator uses the same language as the characters, there is a loss of tension and a lowering of tone. . . when you write about the poor, you have to be writing about yourself first, everybody else second, and the actual poor third.
* The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.
* I am very happy right now writing a story ["Greenleaf"] in which I plan for the heroine, aged 63, to be gored by a bull. I am not convinced yet that this is purgation or whether I identify myself with her or the bull. In any case, it is going to take some doing to do it and it may be the risk that is making me happy.

* What personal problems are worked out in stories must be unconscious. My preoccupations are technical. My preoccupation is how I am going to get this bull's horns into this woman's ribs is something more fundamental but I can't say I give it much thought. Perhaps you are able to see things in these stories that I can't see because if I did see I would be too frightened to write them. I have always insisted that there is a fine grain of stupidity required in the fiction writer.

* I think it must be easier on the nerves to publish poetry because it's not generally misunderstood as it is not generally read. Anyone who can read the telephone book thinks he can read a story or a novel.

* I am not one of the subtle sensitive writers like Eudora Welty. I see only what is outside and what sticks out a mile, such things as the sun that nobody has to uncover or be bright to see. When I first started to write, I was much worried over not being subtle but it don't worry me any more.

* 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. . . What offends my taste in fiction is when right is held up as wrong, or wrong as right. Fiction is the concrete expression of mystery - mystery that is lived.

* I was, in my early days, forced to take dancing to throw me into the company of other children and to make me graceful. Nothing I hated worse than the company of other children and I vowed I'd see them all in hell before I would make the first graceful move.

* (on her illness) In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies.

* You are right of course about not understanding the ordinary emotions any better than the extraordinary ones. But the writer doesn't have to understand, only produce.

* I certainly have no idea how I have written about some of the things I have, as they are things I am not conscious of having thought about one way or the other.

* I remember my own early stories - if anybody had told me actually how bad they were, I wouldn't have written any more.

* You don't write a story because you have an idea but because you have a believable character or just simply because you have a story.

* Around here it is not a matter of finding the truth but of deciding which lie you live with better.