Thursday, January 19, 2012

Flannery O'Connor Rules

Flannery O’Connor Rules
This is the name of the list of writing tips that came to me by way of a friend, but also a sentence.

Flanner O’Connor rules.

Yes, she does!

I discovered her collected letters, The Habit of Being, not long after I gathered up my courage to try my hand at writing a novel—a task for which I had no preparation, no training, nothing but the fact that I had been in love with novels from the first one I read when I was, maybe, seven.

I loved the matter-of-fact, suffer-no-fools voice in the letters, the way she wrote what she saw and felt and knew about life in the world and life of the spirit in language that was at the same time plain and complicated and deep. I loved her stories—the drudge and pain and horrors of the human condition rendered with a dark humor I’d never experienced before, except in my own heart.

It’s bad, I know—but when the Misfit shoots the grandmother and says to Bobby Lee, "She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” I laughed out loud and thought, ohmygod, yes.

Here’s that same voice in these “rules” about writing plucked from her letters.

1. “I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…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…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.”

2. “Try arranging [your novel] backwards and see what you see. I thought this stunt up from my art classes, where we always turn the picture upside down, on its two sides, to see what lines need to be added. A lot of excess stuff will drop off this way.”

3. “I can discover a good many possible sources myself for Wise Blood but I am often embarrassed to find that I read the sources after I had written the book.”

4. “I suppose I am not very severe criticizing other people’s manuscripts for several reasons, but first being that I don’t concern myself overly with meaning. This may be odd as I certainly believe a story has to have meaning, but the meaning in a story can’t be paraphrased and if it’s there it’s there, almost more as a physical than an intellectual fact.”

5. “That is interesting about your reading some Shakespeare to limber up your language before you start; though I think that anything that makes you overly conscious of the language is bad for the story usually.”

6. “It might be dangerous for you to have too much time to write. I mean if you took off a year and had nothing else to do but write and weren’t used to doing it all the time then you might get discouraged.”

7. “This may seem a small matter but the omniscient narrator never speaks colloquially. This is something it has taken me a long time to learn myself. Every time you do it you lower the tone.”

8. “I know that the writer does call up the general and maybe the essential through the particular, but this general and essential is still deeply embedded in mystery. It is not answerable to any of our formulas.”

So offbeat, practical, true.

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