Famous Literary Battles: Flannery O’Connor versus Charles Bukowski

Here’s a battle every writer faces: What do you do when you can’t find your muse? We’ve all been stuck when the words just won’t come. What to do? Even when we consult the experts, we can’t get a definitive answer. Here are two extreme approaches to the problem, each from an accomplished author. First, let’s hear from one of the greatest voices in Southern literature, and one of my favorites, Flannery O’Connor:

Flannery O'Connor

“I must do do do and yet there is the brick wall that I must kick over stone by stone. It is I who has built the wall and I who must tear it down. I must force my loose mind into its overalls and get going.” – Flannery O’Connor

Then there’s this from poet, novelist, and literary bad boy Charles Bukowski:

Bukowski

“You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more.” – Charles Bukowski

So – when you’re hit with a bad case of writer’s block, should you damn the torpedoes and do SOMETHING, ANYTHING, or do you wait for inspiration?

Bukowski felt that a writer shouldn’t ruin a perfectly good piece of paper with overworked, forced attempts at self-expression, advising instead to let the psychic pressure build within until the words “come bursting out of you.” On the other hand, farm owner Flannery O’Connor saw writing like any other chore, which required rolling up one’s sleeves and wading into the task and not quitting until it was done.

I think the real lesson here is that writing, like any other artistic endeavor, is a craft and calling defying all formulas. Effective personal expression demands a personal approach, and discovering your own requires dedication and effort and plenty of wrong moves. As for myself, I can go for agonizing weeks researching and plotting and outlining before I dare put down the first word. Even then, it takes a while until I gain insights into characterization, setting, and crucial plot points. Then, gradually, momentum builds, and, when it works, I’m absorbed in a half-formed world that slowly reveals what I must do to help finish it.

Bottom line? Until the writing lifestyle helps you discover your own particular approach, remember the counsel of author Elissa Schappell: “The muse only shows up when you put your ass in the chair.”

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Wellbeing enhanced more by places than objects

Cabin

What poets and mystics have taught for centuries has been confirmed in a study at Surrey University: We experience deep connections to beloved physical spaces that cannot be replaced by abstractions or symbols. From The Guardian:

The poet WH Auden is credited with first coining the word “topophilia” to describe a strong emotional pull to a special place.

Now scientific research, using cutting-edge brain imaging, suggests Auden was on to something. According to a study commissioned by the National Trust, people experience intense feelings of wellbeing, contentment and belonging from places that evoke positive memories far more than treasured objects such as photographs or wedding rings.

A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study commissioned by the NT set out to “understand this visceral but intangible feeling more deeply”.

The power of special places exerts a magnetic pull on us. What would motivate people to labor for generations to construct Stonehenge, or the Cahokia Indian Mound? What strange fire spurs warriors to defend their homeland against invaders against impossible odds? Even in this age of global mobility, there burns in all of us a need to connect with the sacred and the sentimental. It’s basic to our identity.

Ecology activist and writer Charlene Spretnak has this to say about the vital role natural places play in the human psyche:

Even children who have been schooled in modernity’s radical discontinuity between humans and nature often have a profound engagement with a natural place — a summer camp, a grandparent’s farm, or a hideaway spot near home. Throughout their lives they carry in their minds that sense of place, a place they came to know with a child’s deep capacity for personal response …

In the modern worldview, the sense of place was no longer to be important. After all, modern society lives on top of nature. Modern furniture and modern architecture (the International style) are liberated from any “constraining” references to community, tradition, or place. Yet the importance of place, both for its subtle influences on the human and for its relevance as an ecosocial frame of reference, is now making itself felt. The resurgence of place is also behind hundreds of thousands of community-based alternatives to the dominance of the global economy. p. 27, The Resurgence of the Real

Certain locales acquire meaning from our cherished memories of the people and events of which we were once a part. No wonder we’re able to rediscover contentment, a sense of belonging, and wellbeing from them — those memories are an essential part of who we are. MRI scans reveal that returning to these places affects the same part of the brain that processes deep emotions. This research confirms old truths we have too long denied or ignored.

How Wolves Change Rivers

Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of wolves? With those nasty predators gone, nature would be perfect — the forests and grasslands would be serene homelands. Gentle herbivores wouldn’t have to worry about being eaten.

So in many areas, the wolf was hunted down almost to extinction. But over time, subtle, unhealthy changes took place in the wilderness no one could understand. The above video tells the story of what happened when wolves were reintroduced into the northern Rocky Mountains. Turns out the big, bad wolf is an essential part of the greater ecosystem. By killing off diseased elk, wolves forced the overall elk population to adapt, making the elk faster, stronger, and healthier. And without the elk fearlessly eating their way through valleys and gorges, plants that help maintain riverbank integrity flourished once again. This in turn enabled greater biodiversity as other animals returned.

What appears frightening and brutal can be the source of beauty and wonder. That’s the mystery nature continues to teach us. Growing up on a farm, I read Jack London and Robert E. Howard, whose severe yet captivating visions of nature made perfect sense to me. In college, I discovered Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and E. O. Wilson, who popularized the science that examined the role aggression plays in shaping animal behavior and ensuring the survival of the strong and beautiful. Without the yin and the yang, there is no viable whole. Each needs the other.

“Siberian Khatru,” a classic Yes song by Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman, and Steve Howe, could be the wolf’s theme song:

Sing, bird of prey;
Beauty begins at the foot of you. Do you believe the manner?

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