Letters to a Young Catholic Writer

I’ve been making one of my regular sojourns lately through the letters of Flannery O’Connor. If you haven’t already, I urge you to get “aholt” of them immediately (to use backwoods slang O’Connor loves to employ in the letters). They’re a sublime joy. I read them in the Library of America’s edition of her Collected Works, but you can also find them in The Habit of Being.

I feel deep kinship with these letters, not least because many written in the early 1960s were addressed to Thomas Stritch, a friend of my parents who taught at the University of Notre Dame and a man of whom O’Connor in the letters professes to be “inordinately fond.” I find endearing the fact that the diminutive, baritone-voiced Tennessean who recited birthday-party doggerel in my parents’ living room was such a close friend of that remarkable woman who produced, by her untimely death from lupus at the age of thirty-nine, two novels and two collections of short stories that stand as monumental works of American fiction.

More significantly, O’Connor’s letters are important to me because they serve as a kind of vocational examination of conscience. Loaded as they are with insightful and often hilarious observations about what it means to be a Catholic writer of fiction in the contemporary world, O’Connor’s letters never fail to correct my failures of vision and to lead me back to a supernatural perspective on what I do when I attempt to practice this deeply demanding craft.

I am not the first to think that O’Connor’s letters are a better introduction to the craft of fiction than what can be found in most writing courses, especially if combined with O’Connor’s essays posthumously collected by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald in Mystery and Manners. A young Catholic writer could do far, far worse than take O’Connor’s letters as his or her Vade mecum. Older, more experienced writers will benefit, too, of course. But for the aspiring young Catholic writer wondering how to get started, O’Connor’s letters can be especially helpful in eliminating mistakes, misapprehensions, and wasted time.

Beginning with the most practical considerations: “I’m a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical or mental habits or it dries up and blows away” (Letter to Cecil Dawkins, 22 September 1957).

In the same letter, O’Connor goes on to say that she writes only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy she has, “but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. . . .This doesn’t mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think of that as time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact is if you don’t sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won’t be sitting there.”

Flannery O'Connor seated beneath her iconic self-portrait
Flannery O’Connor seated beneath her iconic self-portrait with peacock

On the question of whether writers should work out their plots beforehand or simply find a character and plunge in, O’Connor comes down firmly on the latter method: “You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply with a character or anything that you can make come alive, when you have a character he will create his own situation and his situation will suggest some kind of resolution as you get into it” (Letter to A., 11 December, 1956).

Fiction, for O’Connor, is “the concrete expression of mystery” (Letter to Eileen Hall, 10 March, 1956), and she never lost sight of both poles in that definition. A good story will always be persuasive on the literal level, while at the same time depicting the offering of grace.

A character’s response to that offering is O’Connor’s overriding concern as an author. “I don’t think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times” (Letter to John Hawkes, 13 September, 1959).

In order to make that “attraction for the Holy” plausible in our increasingly nihilistic age, O’Connor uses elements of the grotesque and of violence to help us see the strangeness and awesome power of the Incarnation. “Charity is hard and endures,” she writes in a letter to Cecil Dawkins (9 December, 1958). Sentimentalism is the bane of her imagination: “I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see [my] stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer has hold of the wrong horror” (Letter to A., 20 July, 1955).

The letters also make clear the importance to O’Connor’s writing of philosophy and theology. She cut “her aesthetic teeth” on Jacques Maritain’s Art & Scholasticism –though, she cautions wryly, “even some of the things he says get soft at times” (Letter to A., 20 April, 1957).

So, young Catholic writers (and avid Catholic readers), take this as an hors d’oeuvre of the delights that await you in Flannery O’Connor’s letters. If you find yourself hesitating, her descriptions of a television adaptation of her short story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” is alone worth the price of admission: “a tap-dancer by the name of Gene Kelly is going to make his tellyvision debut in it. . . .They must be going to make a musical out of it.” And that’s just for starters.

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.