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Posts Tagged ‘Flannery O’Connor’

As I looked over my class roster for my summer Intro to Fiction course, I noted two things.

First, ten of the twelve students were male.

Second, seven of those twelve students were seniors, and thus at most three years younger than me.

I was not intimidated.

I was a bit intimidated to face a classroom one third full of grown men.

Now, I am not all that good at judging ages, I’ll admit. But I’m fairly certain that four of these guys are my age or older. (Two I am definitely certain.) And while I don’t tend to have anxiety about maintaining authority in the classroom, I am nonetheless aware that I am a somewhat diminutive female with a dorky sense of humor. (Cool doesn’t work. I’ve tried it. Embrace the dorkiness, that’s what teaching’s taught me.)

I mentally evaluated my opening statements. Those precious ten minutes you have to grab the attention, interest, and enthusiasm of a new class.

They were not geared towards these guys.

I did something I never had before. I put myself forward as a student among students. I acknowledged that yes, I am choosing the material and giving the grades; but I am not a Writing Goddess. I am, myself, a student of writing, and am here to learn with them more than dispense wisdom from on high.

(I don’t remember exactly how I said this, although I do remember I did say I wasn’t a Writing Goddess. Really. Dorky sense of humor.)

And you know what? Tonight went really well. I’m a bit concerned about filling three hours twice a week, but these guys talk, and they respond and build off of each other. And those who didn’t talk were still mentally checked in, which is enough to make me happy, for now.

Going to be thinking a lot about authority in the classroom (particularly the writing classroom) and what it looks like this session. Sometimes I perform weird verbal double-takes, folding my sentences back on themselves as I realize that as the teacher, when I contradict something someone’s said, it carries a LOT of weight, a heft that I didn’t anticipate. Even in a room of guys my age. Like when someone disagrees with something Flannery O’Connor said, and I say that I think they’ve misinterpreted her, and then say something else to reassure them they don’t have to hold Flannery O’Connor in the same high esteem as I do and that they can think she’s wrong if they want to … I wonder what that’s like from the student side of things, if it’s as obvious on the other side of the words what awkward acrobatics are going on.

Either way, though, I am looking forward to this session.

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For Your Enjoyment

Yes, I ought to be writing and/or grading essays. But I had to share this blog post by author David Abrams about his visit to Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home. Hilarious.

(And hey, it’s been far too long since I used that Flannery O’Connor tag.)

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The week before last my Readings class read Didion’s essay “The White Album,” the first line of which is a famous quote of hers: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I have seen this quote pretty often, and have probably used it more than once. It stirred me in the deepest places; it rang as true. It’s always presented as inspiring, affirming–which, standing there by itself, it is.

However, “The White Album” is one dang depressing essay. At the risk of being too reductive, the feeling it leaves you with is that the stories we make of our lives are largely meaningless and artificial. Although she is a writer, and thus always creating stories and attempting to impose meaning on events, she ends the essay by saying:

Writing had helped [Paul Ferguson], he said, to “reflect on experience and see what it means.” Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions and on Ramon Novarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”

Although I’ve gotten better at reading stories as they are, I occasionally struggle with projecting a tone or atmosphere on them and rejecting them for something that isn’t there. For example, when I first read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, I didn’t realize it was funny. I thought it was horribly depressing. Then I saw Smoke Signals and thought that perhaps I shouldn’t have written a long letter to my cousin complaining about how awful the book was. When I reread parts of it they make me laugh.

So it is quite possible that when I say I sense this meaninglessness in Didion’s prose, I could be reading it into the stories myself. I sense a searching, a struggle, a determination to try and make meaning anyway; but in the end the best you can do is make yourself feel a little better. And it makes reading Didion unpleasant for me, unless I really zero in on the craft of her sentences, her dialogue, what a marvelous talent she has.

This week one of our readings is Flannery O’Connor’s “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Joel asked me to present it–whether by intuition, perception, or chance, I don’t know, but I am very grateful–and in fact, I am a little stuck, because she lays things out so clearly there’s not much more to be said.

This presentation is actually what I should be working on right now.

It’s due tomorrow evening.

BUT. This post is relevant.

One of the things Flannery explains is that she does not write “to make the reader see what I see,” and that writing is not “a missionary activity.” This is very different from Joan Didion’s statement that writing is a hostile act, “of saying I, of imposing upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.

But this springs from an even more fundamental difference in their views of writing and what it does. O’Connor sees stories as aiming after truth. Not truth as an abstract concept, but as expressed and embodied in reality. This is what makes writing art. She explains:

[…] all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in manner and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.

(See? How am I supposed to talk about this, when she’s already explained it all so beautifully?)

Flannery O’Connor believed in the vision of truth her stories presented. Joan Didion, it seems, didn’t believe such a vision was possible. I admire Didion for continuing to write nonetheless, for looking chaos in the eye and staring it down. But whose stories are more powerful?

To search for truth seems one of the fundamental marks of being human. To believe what you’re searching for isn’t possible is madness.

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While using Amazon to look up the publication date of a book I didn’t have on hand, I came across this collection of Flannery O’Connor’s work. My first reaction: …… yellow flowers? Why ….?

I am well-trained in following whatever rabbit trails the internet throws at me, so of course I clicked on the book and looked inside.

The first thing I noticed: half of the time the collection calls her first novel Wise Blood. The other half of the time: The Wise Blood.

What?

And then there was “A Good man is hard to find” [sic].

Something was off about the back cover blurb as well. Although it expresses a love of Flannery’s work–I can appreciate that–it is weirdly personal and a bit awkward, like someone blogging about a book. (“Ms. O’Connor writes in simple, startling sentences. And most of the stories are no more than 20 or 30 pages long. I found it hard to read one story right after the other however.” etc)

One of two customer reviews talks about the horrendous typographical errors and the fact that the book has no table of contents and no page numbers, like “a Word document that has been hurriedly typed and bound in order for someone to make a fast buck.”

My guess, seeing as this edition was published through CreateSpace, is that this is exactly the case.

I’ve spent a couple hours looking into copyright laws and such because of this–which is perhaps a bit extreme on my part?–and while ordinarily the copyright on these works would be expired, as far as I can tell from the official U.S. Copyright Catalog these works were renewed in the 80’s and 90’s, some by Flannery’s mother Regina, and some by Sally Fitzgerald.

In other words … this is illegal, right? If I’m wrong and her works are in the public domain, it wouldn’t surprise me; I would be a little sad, and a little offended by the poor quality, but I guess I’d shrug this book off.

But if it’s illegal … that makes me mad. Mad enough to do something. But what do you do? Who do you contact? I’ve tried finding the author’s contact info but it’s been impossible.

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How do you deal with failure as a writer?

David Huddle tackles this question in a chapter of The Writing Habit called “Let’s Say You Wrote Badly This Morning.” In some ways this book is pretty dated–my copy was published in 1991–but the necessity for a writing habit isn’t something that goes away … and neither does failure. Huddle compares artists to athletes, which, I will admit, is not the most exciting comparison. (Not to me, at least.) But the idea of putting failure to some use is interesting.

To be honest, I very often feel like I’ve written badly this morning. (And when I don’t, someone usually comes along to tell me I have.) Usually when I’m satisfied after a writing session, it’s at having written more than because I’m impressed with what I’ve written. Maybe I’m weird this way.

But what Huddle says at the end of this chapter, before his string of epilogues, about achieving “a circumstance of ongoing work,” reminded me of some of the things I’ve been thinking since last semester.

I know that I’ve talked a lot about Flannery O’Connor here. But the reasons for this are that 1) she is awesome, and 2) her writing has really helped solidify a lot of things for me. Reading this chapter from Huddle and thinking about dealing with failure reminded me of two quotes, the first of which comes from a letter to a friend of hers experiencing a dry spell in writing:

“You ought to set aside three hours every morning in which you write or do nothing else … but you sit there. If you write all right and if you don’t all right, but you do not read; whether you start something different every day and finish nothing makes no difference; you sit there. It’s the only way, I’m telling you. If inspiration comes you are there to receive it, you are not reading.”

She also said this about herself:

“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.”

To her failure is not speed bump in the work of writing; it is part of it. Failed writing is not wasted writing, even if it ends up in the garbage can (or the recycle bin on your desktop).

I guess this isn’t exactly comforting. It doesn’t make me feel good about those “failed” mornings—like the past two mornings, mostly spent poking about in word documents and wondering how on the earth I thought these things would fit together and made a story.

But it is nonetheless encouraging, in the sense that it gives me courage. I feel that it teaches me plainly what I’m supposed to do. It makes me feel like more of a writer. Like I’m actually doing the work that belongs to writing, and not just daydreaming about “the muse.” (Which is what I did in high school and first started writing For Real.) That writing badly is just as much a part of that work as inspiration and doing well. I guess this relates to Huddle’s idea of putting failure to use—those failed mornings are part of the success, when it comes.

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The first time I was asked to do a reading, I was ridiculously nervous. It was in front of about 80 people, most of whom were strangers (was that better or worse?). I had chopped up my story because it was too long to read all of it, and wasn’t sure if it was going to work. The reading was part of a larger end-of-the-semester English ceremony, a combination Sigma Tau Delta induction and Rock Writing release party. The reading came near the end, and I was nervous and dry-mouthed through most of the ceremony.

But when I stood up and faced everyone and started to read, the nerves went away. It was like the words belonged in my voice. At least, words and voice certainly knew what to do with each other. The words carried me, and my story came off of the page and lived.

Since then I was invited to read at Your Inner Vagabond coffee shop (now closed, sadly) and Pitt’s MFA reading series. It is much the same experience, and always begins with nervousness, with a feeling of the inadequacy of my writing. But the words always carry me as I read. They open out into the world and it is beautiful.

I’m pretty sure this is not because my writing is breathtakingly brilliant. Perhaps it is because words are meant to be spoken. Perhaps because we write stories to share them, and reading them aloud is much more immediate and intimate.

All this because I have found a recording of Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and her lecture, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” This has made my month.

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“A young man am I, twenty-nine, but I am as full of dreams as an ancient.”

I really want to see this.

I have been teaching a chapter from Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle to my college freshmen for two semesters now, and it wasn’t until around October that I realized he was a novelist. My cousin, who is finishing her associate’s degree at Franciscan University, was reading one of his books for class.

Since then I’ve been learning more and more about him without seeking anything out. Flannery O’Connor talks about The Moviegoer in her letters, and even wrote to him (although I don’t believe they had a regular correspondence). Maud Newton, from whose blog I snagged this video, has posted about him a couple times. The more I hear, the more interested I become, and The Moviegoer is currently pretty high on my to-read list.

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