Tag Archives: Flannery O’Connor

Love Your Work

If we love our work, we will treat it with profound respect.

Flannery O’Connor was one of the great originals. She could be honest, profound and outrageous all at once. So I value her opinion more than most people’s.

In Mystery and Manners, a book of her essays, she proposes, “If writing is your vocation, then, as a writer, you will seek the will of God first through the laws and limitations of what you are creating; your first concern will be the necessities that present themselves in the work.”

O’Connor explains, “If the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”

O’Connor contented that writers ought to push their talents to the outermost limit of the kind of talent they have.

Modern writers, she argues, “…are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself…. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God.”

We need to love our work for its own sake, to take it to the outer limits of our current talent and ability, but not beyond.

And we need to disallow the temptation to use it as a vehicle for preaching or propagandizing except insofar as the stories themselves call us to.

“The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art,” O’Connor maintains. “He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.”

She would have us Christians realize that Christian stories are not necessarily about Christians and their concerns but are simply fiction “…in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by.”

Get Real

I’ll turn this thought over to a couple fellows brighter than I’ll ever be.

SØren Kierkegaard wrote, “A person with originality comes along, and consequently does not say: one must take the world as it is, but: whatever the world may be, I remain true to my own originality, which I do not intend to change according to the good pleasure of the world. The moment that word is heard, there is as it were a transformation in the whole of existence, as in the fairy story–when the word is said the magic castle, which has been under a spell for a hundred years, opens again, and everything comes to life. In the same way existence becomes all eyes. The Angels grow busy, look about with curiosity to see what is going to happen, for that is what interests them. On the other side, dark and sinister demons, who have sat idle for a long while gnawing their fingers, jump up, stretch their limbs: ‘This is something for us,’ they say.

“This is what the apostle means when he says that the Christian’s fight is not merely against flesh and blood but with principalities and powers.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, whom I consider the most influential philosopher of the modern age, contends that while peoples’ most common and dominant quality is laziness their second most common and dominant quality is a kind of nervous fear. He argues that what they fear most is the trouble refusing to conform and exposing who they truly are would cause them. So, he admonishes, become who you are. And, he warns us, creators must be hard and courageous, because the artist’s task is to show how unique people really are, what a wonder each of us is. To encourage the hesitant, Nietzsche offers, “The secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously.

In his work on myth, Joseph Campbell advises us to follow our bliss and promises that if we do so without fear, doors will open where we didn’t even know doors existed. He reminds us that in the story of Sir Galahad, “the knights agree to go on a quest, but thinking it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group, each ‘entered into the forest, at one point or another, where they saw it to be thickest, all in those places where they found no way or path.’”

Where we see a path, it’s someone else’s path. So: “Each knight enters the forest at the most mysterious point and follows his own intuitions. What each brings forth is what never before was on land or sea: the fulfillment of unique potentialities, which are different from anybody else’s.”

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In church, Olga Savitsky reads poems of hers she feels God wants us to hear. She believes God gave her the poems, as did William Blake and no doubt vast numbers of us writers too afraid of appearing ridiculous to admit that belief.

Olga’s poems are rough. She hasn’t studied poetry writing or even read much poetry beyond what she got in school, and she didn’t major in literature or writing. Yet inspired lines leap out of her poetry and grab us. I suspect the spirit enters her poems because above all, she means them to be honest expressions of her heart.

When I was 13, my dad told me, “If you want a girl to fall for you, don’t try to impress her, just be yourself.”

Each of us is more unique than we have ever suspected. But we’ve been taught to conform, in actions, language, ideas, and even daydreams. If there exists on earth a culture that isn’t structured toward creating conformity I’d like to know about it.

Now and then, someone breaks through the programming, discovers who she is and lives as her real self, and we either view her with amazement, or with suspicion, or we send the police or the church ushers to restrain her.

A few writers impress me as being so original we have reason to wonder if they came from another planet or another reality. Franz Kafka, SØren Kierkegaard, Flannery O’Connor, and Olga come to mind as such masters at being themselves.

Though I may never find my original self to the degree they did, or even dare to expose what parts of me I do find, I’m convinced that to the extent I can be real, honest and true to myself, at least while writing, people will read and value my stories.

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By the way, an ebook copy of Writing and the Spirit makes a swell (and mighty inexpensive) Christmas gift?

 

Write What and Why?

In the context of advising a friend about what kinds of books to read, Franz Kafka asserted, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

K’s assertion offers us writers plenty to think about, no matter if we agree. Whatever we believe books should be, or can be, we ought to know what we’re aiming for. Clarity about what we hope our books can accomplish may inspire us with direction, help us set boundaries, or give our work what writing teachers refer to as unity.

Some of us may respond to the Kafka quote (see a longer version here): “So what if I write not to awaken anybody with a blow to the head but to commend and strengthen their faith, which is constantly threatened by messages and temptations the world throws at them?”

That’s swell. You have a purpose, and a goal. But I’m betting most of us aren’t yet clear about our purpose for spending countless hours wrestling with ideas, or plots, or characters. So we ought to resolve to get that clarity.

Reading the journals or letters of a writer you admire might deliver some clues about what you are up to. Aside from Kafka’s, Flannery O’Connor’s letters come to mind. Or, since you read the Bible, how about praying for a clue from that most worthy and reliable source. Say you’re a romance novelist aiming to help people lift their spirits and keep hope alive. Then consider this line from the prophet Isaiah. “The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue to know the word that sustains the weary.”

Aristotle, in his Poetics, noted and described three “unities” he considered crucial to the success of a dramatic work: unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action. I would suggest that more important than any of these is unity of purpose, which derives from the author knowing and applying what on earth he or she hopes to accomplish through all this time and effort.

What I mean to offer here is an admonition to go beyond the sense that you were called to write and ask yourself “So what exactly am I called to write? And, why?”