Flannery O’Connor

Welcome back, loyal listeners! This week we take a look at some of Flannery O’Connor’s advice from Mystery and Manners. I maintain this is a book every writer should have on their shelf. She’s one of my favorite authors, and she’s crazy smart. As always, show notes are beneath the audio and YouTube embeds. Don’t forget to Like the video and share with your friends!



Flannery O’Connor

  1. Don’t forget to grab your free copy of The Hand of Adonai: The Book of Things to Come. There’s not a lot of time left to snatch it up. https://bookgrabbr.com/books/3450
  2. First Line Friday Winner –“Everything was impossibly loud when London regained consciousness.” Katie Osburn
  3. Congratulations to Jenny Snow for winning July’s First Line Friday’s competition!
  4. Publishing term of the week — Tricolon
  5. —Flannery’s Chicken
    1. —When she was six, Flannery O’Connor had trained a chicken to walk backward. It made the local news, and she very much enjoyed her brush with fame.
    2. —Later, she pointed to the chicken as the defining element that fascinated her with the grotesque and bizarre.
  6. —Mystery and Manners
    1. —A collection of Flannery O’Connor’s academic writings and lectures on fiction.
    2. —One of my most influential writing books.
    3. —Some fantastic advice, though you may disagree with some of her philosophies.
  7. The Redemptive Act
    1. —“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”
    2. —For our characters to experience a redemptive act, they must first be fallen.
    3. —Good fiction allows our characters to get a little messy.
    4. —When our characters make mistake, it’s important for them to have a chance for redemption.
    5. —This applies not only to our heroes, but to our villains as well.
  8. —Intrusion of Grace
    1. —Along with the redemptive act, O’Connor asserts there must be an “intrusion of grace.”
    2. —Often called a “moment of grace,” this is an opportunity for a character (usually the villain) to change his/her evil ways and accept grace.
    3. —This then becomes the redemptive act (if taken).
    4. —If not taken, at least they had the opportunity.
      1. —A Good Man is Hard to Find
      2. —The Life You Save May Be Your Own
    5. —“Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.”
    6. —“I do not want to equate the Misfit with the Devil. I prefer to think that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that’s another story.”
  9. —Perception is Reality
    1. —“The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses without abstractions.”
    2. —Abstractions like:
      1. Power, —Hate, —Love, —Fear, —Justice, —Righteousness
    3. —We experience our world physically
      1. —Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch
    4. —Our emotions arise as responses to external (and sometimes internal) stimuli.
    5. —For our readers to experience the emotions we intend, we must appeal to their senses, their sense of physicality, and create a three-dimensional world that appeals to all five senses.
    6. —Emotion will arise from good description.
  10. —Fiction is Messy
    1. —“Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction.”
      1. —We are fallen people, and our characters must reflect this state of fallenness.
      2. —The too-good-to-be-true characters are exactly that.
      3. —Our characters must make mistakes, and they must pay for them.
      4. —We shouldn’t shy away from violence, disease, poverty, etc. Such is the human condition.
      5. —Instead, we should embrace it, and also show the light that can come with it.
  11. —The World Within the Object
    1. —“The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene.”
      1. —Each object retains a portion of something larger, it suggests more than itself.
      2. Consider a water bottle:
        1. —Condensation settling on the plastic (water cycle)
        2. —Screw-top cap (intelligent design, functionality, order)
        3. —Blue label (marketing, color, emotion)
        4. —Bar code (economy, technology)
      3. —Our job as writers is to tease it out, to tempt it into revealing its full implications.
      4. —A simple bottle may play a vital role, may stand as a symbol, may suggest the world within the object, the world within your character, the world within your novel.
  12. —The Habit of Art
    1. —“…teaching any kind of writing is largely a matter of helping the student develop the habit of art. I think this is more than just a discipline, although it is that; I think it is a way of looking at the created world and using the senses so as to make them find as much meaning as possible in things.”
    2. ——Writing is an act of discipline.
    3. —Should be done, even when you don’t want to do it. It must be habit.
      1. —Observing the world with all five senses
      2. —Using intellect to evaluate the world, using the senses to interpret stimulus into meaning.
      3. —Turning our senses into abstractions, marrying the concrete and the abstract to create theme, symbol, meaning.
  13. —Character and Discovery
    1. —“In most good stories it is the character’s personality that creates the action of the story…. If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know what before you begin. In fact it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin. You ought to be able to discover something from your stories. If you don’t, probably nobody else will.”
      1. —Good plots come from characters.
      2. —We often think of a cool plot, then contrive a character to “fit.” This is a backward way of thinking (much like the chicken strutting backward)
      3. —Consider the backward chicken. This is a unique characteristic. The action of the story then can revolve around this character.
      4. —Though others promote outlines, O’Connor champions “discovery” writing.
      5. —As long as story comes from character, author and reader can both learn something.
  14. —Unexpected but Inevitable
    1. —“I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity.”
      1. —Works very well to end stories
      2. —Feel like “twist” endings, but aren’t.
        1. —Think “Sixth Sense”
      3. —Examples:
        1. —A Good Man is Hard to Find
        2. —The Life You Save May Be Your Own
        3. —Good Country People
        4. —Everything that Rises Must Converge
        5. —An Affair to Forget (pardon the shameless self-promotion)
  15. —Christian Fiction for Non-Christians
    1. —“My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. …I think that more often the reason for this attention to the perverse is the difference between their beliefs and the beliefs of their audience. Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.”
    2. —“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.”
      1. —O’Connor took much criticism for the violence of her stories.
      2. —The criticism came not from secular outlets, but from the church.
      3. —A devout Catholic, O’Connor had to defend her work from over-zealous Christian critics.
      4. —Her defense? To get the attention of the world, to have them understand the need for redemption and salvation and grace, the grotesque and the perverse characters must play prominent roles.
      5. —Hyperbole became her avenue for social criticism.
      6. —To explain the depravity of her society, she crafted characters that embodied personal problems and hyperbolized them.
      7. —Those who’d become desensitized to the violence and hate etc. of the world could see with new eyes how deeply the problem is rooted in the culture.
    3. —“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”
  16. Next week: 100th Episode Extravaganza!!

1 Comment on Flannery O’Connor

  1. This was, I think, one of my most favorite podcast episodes. I think that is because you assigned me to read Mystery and Manners as the first craft book when you started mentoring me. Also, because she had a love of peacocks, wrote Southern grotesque mysteries, and she was a most fluent writer and speaker. Definitely someone I would model my public life after.

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