Tag Archives: Flannery O’Connor

Making your vision apparent

Promotional still of Mia Farrow

Last week’s post featuring Lin Carter‘s observation about H.P. Lovecraft got me to thinking about Rosemary’s Baby.

Carter found it fascinating that Lovecraft, a thorough materialist, could enthrall the world with his terrifying tales of “evil and fallen gods.” Carter’s take was that Lovecraft utilized his firm grasp of science and materialist outlook to craft stories made believable with concrete details and methodical precision.

Ira Levin, the author of Rosemary’s Baby and Veronica’s Room, used an approach similar to Lovecraft’s. Like HPL, Levin was an atheist, yet his horror tales make supernatural evil seem frighteningly real, even palpable. In both the novel and Roman Polanski’s excellent screen adaptation, Rosemary’s Baby draws you in with odd but apparently mundane details. The realtor who helps Rosemary and her husband Guy find an apartment is missing fingers. When Rosemary and Guy move a dresser from the wall, they realize it hides a secret room — but it’s only an empty closet.

Nothing to see there, right?

As the truth about these seemingly innocent details slowly comes out, you’re fascinated by the inescapable conclusion that there’s something sinister going on, and it’s impossible to turn away. Like Rosemary, you’re in this thing now and there’s no turning back.

So why are confirmed materialists such as Lovecraft and Levin drawn to supernatural subjects? And what enables them to be so convincing?

Both men knew that writing depends on exaggeration and metaphor. I like the way Flannery O’Connor put it: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways 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.”

Of course, O’Connor was a traditional Catholic who aimed to make readers perceive supernatural evil by vividly presenting earthly evil.

Words – just words

Words just words

One of my coping mechanisms when stuck on a manuscript is to read outstanding posts on writing I’ve saved over the years. This morning, I revisited this advice from K.M. Weiland:

One of the best rules of thumb for showing instead of telling is to never name an emotion. Love, hate, happiness, sadness, frustration, grief—they all might be easily recognizable emotions. They might even all be emotions that will immediately get a point across to a reader. But by themselves the words lack the ability to make a reader feel what we are trying to convey.

This insight shook the mental cobwebs that had been holding me back. Weiland’s right — the most stirring and uplifting prose succeeds obliquely, rousing the reader to silent awe or trembling fear. A few examples:

“Some nights in the midst of this loneliness I swung among the scattered stars at the end of the thin thread of faith alone.”Wendell Berry

“The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.”Flannery O’Connor

“I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside in back of my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there.”Ernest Hemingway

Not only do these examples evoke intense reactions, they do so indirectly. As Weiland advises, the best writing shows rather than tells. Emily Dickinson was on the same track when she proposed that we tell the truth, but tell it slant.

I believe these passages soar for us because they appeal to more than just our logical selves. The neocortex, that is, the rational brain, processes language, but it connects to other parts of the brain as well. The limbic system interprets facts as emotions, and triggers the reptilian brain, which in turn shoots reactions to the body. So if you read Stephen King alone at midnight, you start peeking outside the window and maybe sweat a little. That’s the three parts working together. And we love it.

Good writing, then, achieves unity of mind and body, a sorely needed experience in an age that fractures and alienates.

A Good Couple

 A Good Couple
Idle Ink has published my latest flash story, “A Good Couple.” It pays tribute to Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite authors. Like the Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the characters in “A Good Couple” are so busy condemning the sins of others that they cannot see their own.

This is one of my rare literary pieces. I enjoyed writing it, even though I had to chase down the muse to capture the story on paper.

Idle Ink is the perfect home for this story. This lively magazine publishes fiction “too weird to be published anywhere else” as well as “articles that poke fun at modern life.” After you’ve read my story, treat yourself to the book and movie reviews, the challenging opinion pieces, and intriguing artwork.

PS – Fellow Idle Ink and Hexagon contributor Ioanna Papadopoulou has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her story “The Drowned King.” Congratulations, Ioanna!

A Writer’s Guide to Understanding People

Understanding People

There’s always worthwhile reading over at K.M. Weiland’s writing blog, but her latest post is a real find. In it, she argues that the key to creating and describing believable characters is to understand what makes real people tick. And the first step in understanding others is to understand oneself.

That path begins by coming to grips with what Weiland calls recognizing and examining the “four corners” of one’s personality, the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual components that define us. I agree that the physical should come first. Writing can be a cerebral activity, but language, the medium of writing, is grounded in the body. In fact, the science of Embodied Cognition tells us that all language is metaphor, and the building blocks of metaphor are physical sensations. Magnetic resonance imaging scanners reveal that when we read about a physical action, we activate the same areas of our brains as when we actually perform those actions.

Awareness and sensitivity enable us to detect vital details, and physical activity, especially activity spiced with a little danger, sharpens our powers of perception.

Weiland also outlines a lifelong path of study that includes literature, drama, history, and philosophy as a program for enhancing our understanding of human motivation. But she also argues that the very act of writing offers the best means of learning about ourselves, which in turn opens us to better comprehending others. Yes — writing and learning create a continuous feedback loop. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Quote of the day

Flannery O'Connor

“Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong even though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances.” – Flannery O’Connor

Best fiction and writing blogs

Flannery O'Connor

The best fiction and writing blog posts from around the ‘net, all guaranteed to make you a literary legend. Compiled by flannery.

D. Wallace PeachWriters’ Critique Groups
Cathleen TownsendPinterest–Tips to Get Started
Sean P. CarlinFoundations of Storytelling: The Logline
Annabelle TroyFiction Gets Brainy
Dave AstorIt’s Earth Day in Some Parts of Literature
Nicola AlterGetting The Last Line
J. C. Wolfe16 Redundant Phrases You Should Simplify in Your Writing
Jay Dee ArcherGenres Helping Other Genres

What Is A ‘Southern Writer’?

HowardRobert E. Howard

Laura Cooper makes the case that we can better understand and appreciate Marcel Proust if we consider him in the Southern literary tradition. She begins by offering a handy introduction to what constitutes Southern writing:

Eudora Welty thought it came from the cultural habit of tight, specific focus, on the land and the people close at hand:

“The Southerner is a local person – to a degree unknown in other sections of the United States. The Southerner always thinks of himself as being from somewhere, as belonging to some spot of earth.”

Then there’s our collective past, what Willie Morris called the “burden of memory and [the] burden of history” we all carry “in our bones.” We’re the writers we are, [Flannery] O’Connor explained, because we have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence – as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country.

In Walker Percy’s blunter terms, Southerners write like we do because “we lost the War.”

I occasionally hear the argument that regional styles are confining, but I disagree. You can’t write without having something to say, and nothing propels a story forward like a clear and urgent worldview. The acknowledgement of human limitations is a much-needed brake on a society racing down the dead-end road of conquering and re-engineering nature through gene splicing, Frankenfoods, and Posthumanism.

Walker Percy’s assertion that Southerners write the way we do because “we lost the War” not only ties in with O’Connor’s point about accepting human limitations, but also recognizes what gives Southern fiction its universal appeal. The history of the rest of the world includes the bitterness of losing a war and being occupied; the North never experienced that.

Identifying and embracing the local is not limiting at all, but the starting point for discovery and learning. As George Eliot once observed, “A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge … The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.”