One of the singular pleasures of my life is laying up in bed with the lamp on, reading a book.
I’ll read anywhere I’m put.
But my first instinct when I have a book in my hand is to get horizontal— floor, bed, couch— any flat surface will do me.
I’ll even take a bench if that’s all there is, and I’ll tuck my elbow behind my ear to keep from getting one of those hard bench headaches.
Two or three days ago, I found myself horizontal and sideways on the bed and reading— with a stomachache. I pulled up my knees and yanked up the sheets. One hand absently rested above my abdomen.
The book on the bed that day was Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.
I don’t know what you’ve read by O’Connor, but she’s an American writer from the South— one of the writers who got lumped in with the New Gothic Fiction crowd back in the 1940s.
As a further insult, she got lambasted for about everything you can think of that doesn’t sound useful.
Critics took her down for being too Southern, too grotesque, too darkly comic, too religious (She was Catholic.), not religious enough, too accessible, and too inaccessible.
Oh— and mean. The critics loved to call her mean.
Nobody was thrilled with the fact that she was a woman, writing, either, but in those days, being a woman was an ongoing insult no matter what you did.
Besides putting up with critics, O’Connor had lupus, early, hard and young. (She died at the age of 39.)
That gal really couldn’t win for losing.
She could write. Better than me, anyway. Better than most people, living or dead.
It’s the one thing O’Connor could do, and she did it well, and she was quite sick from her twenties onward and that’s all there is to it.
When she was called upon to speak about writing around where she lived (she couldn’t travel much when the lupus progressed), O’Connor wasn’t about to waste her time or yours making you feel good about your sloppily constructed story.
She honestly didn’t care what you thought. She was going to tell you what she knew. And that takes sure aim.
This book I was reading? Basically, it’s a collection of speeches where Flannery O’Connor goes on a tour nailing every writer to the wall like she was collecting the pelts of any ink jockey who overused passive tense verbs.
Good for her. Time is short. And art is long.
As I lay up there in the bed, I found myself laughing so hard my stomach hurt bad-awful. But, y’all, I couldn’t help it.
All I could think as I alternated between laughing and gasping from the pain, is that O’Connor was no different than any of my mentors.
I don’t know what it is about me, but I have always had real teachers, the kind that won’t mess around, the kind that could, and did, say, “This is not good enough. There’s more in you than what you’ve got right here. And now I’m going to tell you why.”
The true mentors I have in my life, I think we picked each other, and they knew— and know— that when I’m in, I’m all in. No going back. And I know this about them, too.
O’Connor wanted writing more than she wanted anything else. And she wanted it to be good writing. She didn’t want to fool around with folks who were trying to make a quick buck off a bad story, or as she put it in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”—
They are interested in being a writer, not in writing. They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what. And they seem to feel that this can be accomplished by learning certain things about working habits and about markets and about what subjects are currently acceptable.
And that’s one of her nicer statements.
I was born with a furrow between my light brown brows. It’s only gained depth and width over the years. I didn’t have much of what I’d call a childhood— I had dreams and I had a family who helped me get to those dreams as quick as I could because I had a lot of work in front of me. A life like that will deepen any furrow.
The furrow used to bother me, but that set of vertical lines stands for something I knew from a young age.
Real art? It is play and a ton of work. If you’re a messing ’round type, you get a messing ’round art.
I want to think that you (that I, that O’Connor) bathed in fire of our own making to put this story on the page in front of you, of me, of us all.
The stomachache shuffled off by the evening, but what I read that afternoon stayed in my gut.
I’ve been writing and laughing for two days because Flannery O’Connor gave me a talking-to about what I love most, which is writing and making art. In that same essay, she rounds out her wallop by saying—
Now in every writing class you find people who care nothing about writing, because they think are already writers by virtue of some experience they had. It is fact that if, either by nature or training, these people can learn to write badly enough, they can make a great deal of money, and in a way it seems a shame to deny them this opportunity; but then, unless the college is a trade school, it still has its responsibility to truth, and I believe myself that these people should be stifled with all deliberate speed.
I told you the first excerpt was one of her nicer statements. Now you believe me.
That furrow between my light brown brows? That furrow means I’m paying attention. That furrow means I earned it the hard way. I got that furrow from laughing, too.
But, mostly, I earned that furrow by bathing in the flames of the fire I built. I’m building that fire right now.
And if I do it right, do it as a deliberate, meaningful act— it will crackle and pop for the both of us.