Andromeda: Some mid-week wisdom from Flannery O'Connor

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” And the less-quoted followup: “There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

That quote, too often printed without attribution, comes from Flannery O’Connor, the Southern writer who left many strong opinions and wonderfully ambiguous stories behind, though she didn’t live past the age of 39. On my little Southeast summer holiday, I’ve been reading her collection of lectures and essays, Mystery and Manners, one of those books I’d always meant to read. I was wondering what kind of blogpost I could write to honor this fascinating and complicated writer’s memory. Then I realized that nothing would stand up better than a simple collection of her underline-worthy quotes. And these are really only a few of the many.

On being slow, toward a good purpose…
“(T)here’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it….”

On most folks’ inability to write a short story…
 “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. Then they find themselves writing a sketch with an essay woven through it, or an essay with a sketch woven through it, or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral, or some other mongrel thing.”

And on the problem of too many people knowing, somewhat, how to write a short story…
“In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it….”

And especially on the modern short story…
“(People) think that a short story is an incomplete action in which a very little is shown and a great deal suggested, and they think you suggest something by leaving it out. It’s very hard to disabuse a student of this notion, because he thinks that he when he leaves something out he’s being subtle; and when you tell him that he has to put something in before anything can be there, he thinks you’re an insensitive idiot.”

On discovering first, and analysing and revising later…
“The time to think of technique is when you’ve actually got the story in front of you.”

On workshopping and writing teachers…
“I don’t believe in classes where students criticize each other’s manuscripts. Such criticism is generally composed in equal parts ignorance, flattery, and spite. It’s the blind leading the blind, and it can be dangerous. A teacher who tries to impose a way of writing on you can be dangerous too. Fortunately, most teachers I’ve known were too lazy to do this. In any case, you should be aware of those who appear overenergetic.”

3 thoughts on “Andromeda: Some mid-week wisdom from Flannery O'Connor”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    That last one made me laugh because I count myself as one of those "overenergetic" teachers. Some of the best quotes are ones I don't necessarily agree with, but they still make me smile and think.

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