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Flannery Teaches Writing, Part I.

The very first thing Flannery said to me about writing was, "Damn if. I can't teach anyone how to write. You've either got it, or you've not." She went on, "Good writers, like teachers, are born and not made. Even those born to write need polish," and need to employ "basic English skills, fiction writing rules, practice to develop any natural ability to write and some logic to develop a meager ability to think," which was, she said, "so rare in today's world. I can only give you some suggestions to help you improve whatever the hell it is you've got as we find if you have any ability."

If, after she had read some of my work, she felt I had some ability to write, she said she would be pleased to advise or tutor me on writing from whatever she knew and practiced. However, she said, what she knew was limited. But my attitude was, whatever she knew, she knew more than I did, so the limit of her knowledge was not a pressing concern.

Flannery stressed that before any writer diverted from the rules of English and writing, that writer should know just what rules he or she was changing or breaking and why. A writer should be able to discuss the reason and for what purpose or effect he or she is creatively manipulating the rules of written English. A writer should also understand grammar and have a wide vocabulary and, then and only then, should the rules be broken.

So, she said, if you are going to be a writer, you must know some things, then think things out before you change them. She said she had acted fast and loose with many writing rules, but she had thought out why to do so first. Then she experimented until she got the right effect. (Practical translation: Flannery was a reasonable conservative in her writing method who thought twice before breaking the rules, and then she often had to experiment several times until the desired purpose was achieved, if ever.)

So a good writer, she emphasized and reemphasized, must first learn the conventional rules of good English and traditional good writing, period. Look at it this way, she said: "In order to break the Ten Commandments you should first know what they are. Common sense, huh?" I laughed at this. She said it always surprised her how many youngish students of writing simply did not want to master the first steps in language before they tried to take another step. She said skipping steps was how you fall down stairs.

If a writer wanted to write like e.e. cummings, who wrote poetry without capital letters, he or she should at least have a reason for doing it. (The practical translation of this to me, a college student, was: Pay attention to your English teachers, however dull they may seem. Allow yourself to be taught the basics of good and proper English as a necessary foundation for writing.) Her attitude was, "Don't waste my time if you aren't going to do the basics first. We have to have something to nail to." You can't nail to rotten wood, she said, and rotten wood is ignorance.

After learning basic rules, the next thing any potential writer should do is decide if he or she wants to attempt serious or commercial writing. She said she did serious writing. Flannery said she understood the motives of writers who did not want to do serious writing but chose commercial writing to make money. She sympathized with the money makers. But, she said, "I am not able to teach you how to make money in writing."

Commercial writers might make lots of money and become very well known as popular writers of shallow, "romance novels," "agony columns," writers of shallow, obscene and cheap television shows, or writers of "ugh" advertising. But she personally had no desire to sell her talent so lightly. She said that, as a Catholic, she felt if you had real talent, commercial writing was a form of "mortal sin." It was prostituting your gift, if you had a gift. However, if you had no gift, hack away to Dixie Land.

It was obvious to me that Flannery considered commercial writers to be the "white trash" and "rich carpetbaggers" of the writing set. I quickly commented to her that I had no interested in commercial writing, and she nodded agreeably and smiled. I was being quite honest with her. I had no interest in commercial writing, but from her attitude towards it, I would have evaded saying so if I had. She had a very highly developed moral sense about writing.

From that day on, Flannery continued off and on in person, but at times by mail, to help me develop my writing skills. Because of this, I decided she must have felt I had some writing talent to justify her spending time on me. But as I knew her better, I realized she was kindness and courtesy itself and would probably have helped me anyway. Her bark was worse than her bite. (Being too kind to bite, however, did not apply to literary criticism. She would unhesitatingly send back some of my efforts with "Flush it" written across the top. "Flush it" was one of her favorite terms of expression.)

One of the things she said I had to do was practice, practice writing. I remember an early second-rate effort and her editing and blazing, comments telling me how to write it over. As I recall, her usual remarks at the top of my stories, poems and spiritual essays were, "Flush it!" "Re-write at least three times" or "Cheers. Good work." Other longer and memorable quotes included:

"I see WHAT you have written, okay, but why have you written it? Who cares?"

"This COULD be very good if you would do it right. Struggle with it until you feel it's right. You will know it is right when, if, you get it right."

"I am trying to form your tastes on some things, but I seem to be failing here. But we can't all be perfect."

"Very good. Proud of you. Cheers."

"FLUSH this. Just flush it!" and, "To say too little is far better than saying too much."

"Restraint, Highland laddie, restraint. This is Georgia. Don't let the bloodhounds loose until the end."

Actually, the way Flannery taught reminded me of an Oxford tutorial. At Oxford, the students must write often and meet with their tutors to discuss their efforts. In that way undergraduates' tastes are shaped by the steady criticism of the tutors. Flannery was big on this method. She often used it to help far-away writers, sending them letters on how to improve. The big difference for me was that, although I sent a few letters, I usually met her personally on the veranda at Andalusia to talk and go over my recent efforts submitted to her.
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Title Annotation:60th Anniversary - Flannery O'Connor Issue
Author:MacLeod, James L.
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
Previous Article:Forewarned is Forearmed.
Next Article:Flannery Teaches Writing, Part IV.

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