Mystery and Manners

Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing. 

-from "Writing Short Stories," page 91


I just attended a workshop in which Rick Bass called Flannery O'Connor "a goddess." I honestly can't disagree with him. A word I've heard Rick use quite a bit is specificity. "Good writing is specific, specific writing is good." (Direct quote). O'Connor mentions it as well in Mystery and Manners. Much of this collection of essays focuses on the purpose of fiction, stories, and novels, and how such "art" should surface. Why should anyone sit down to write anything at all? 

[...] most people who think they want to write stories are not willing to start there. They want to write about problems, not people; or about abstract issues, not concrete situations. They have an idea, or a feeling, or an overflowing ego, or they want to Be A Writer, or they want to give their wisdom to the world in a simple-enough way for the world to be able to absorb it. In any case, they don't have a story and they wouldn't be willing to write it if they did... (90-91)

Whoa, Flannery. Let me take a step back. Not only does this section (again from "Writing Short Stories") ring true, but it takes on a double ring for me: I was recently told that a short story I'd written was too vague and compiled mostly of abstract ideas. What annoyed me (at the time) was that the story in my head was absolutely clear, but obviously I wasn't putting it onto the page. What I had not achieved was letting the story be a story. My writer's hand was too heavy, my intentions too well-known to me. 

This brings to the surface the idea of mystery, the untold deeper truth of a novel or story; the reader is meant to be left with questions that the story asks via the actions of its characters. For example, in O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, protagonist Hazel Motes cannot find redemption for himself through his father's version of God; seeking it for himself in his "Church Without Christ," he still fails to find it, but what else has he found? The reader must ask these questions for him/herself. 

In the Mystery and Manners' essay entitled "On Her Own Work," Flannery writes: 

A story really isn't any good unless. . . it hangs on and expands in the mind. Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it's equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already. . .(108).

It may be said that O'Connor's stories aren't always, um, enjoyable. Sometimes, as my mother told me recently, they're just. . . dark. What I think she means by that is that they oftentimes aren't uplifting. 

Flannery O'Connor may be best known for her book of short stories entitled "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Within it the reader will find stories about young women with various setbacks--pregnancy, a wooden leg, unwanted ugliness, innocence, etc. This begs the question, why did Flannery write the stories she did? What was her point? 

In the essay "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," O'Connor writes that when asked by a young student why she wrote stories, she responds to the student, "Because I'm good at it." O'Connor continues by saying that "there is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift. It is the nature of fiction not to be good for much unless it is good in itself." 

WHOA, stop again. What to do with this statement? I'm not quite sure, except to hear it, and consider it, and sit back and sip tea and go do something else so I don't dwell on it so long that I start to go crazy. Then I'll sit down later and see if the "muse," hits me like I want it to, and keep writing anyway and see what happens after that.

Writing is very hard work, though O'Connor doesn't say so in this book. She speaks to the concreteness of writing, the fact of story--that it is a complete dramatic turn of events--and that its bulk, its weight, lies in the fact of its specificity. A story is built upon characters who do things for certain reasons, and then suffer or rise from the action's consequences. Story is character. Characters are developed by observation, seeing, and describing the world through his or her body and in the five senses.

Basic stuff, really. Right? 

In total, Mystery and Manners is a collection of essays on theory. To many readers and writers, this type of book could be harder to swallow. There is much to consider in her essays, which include: "The Fiction Writer and His Country," "The Regional Writer," "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," "The Teaching of Literature," "Novelist and Believer," and "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South," among others. What can be taken away from these essays, however theory-ridden they may seem, is a sense that O'Connor is singular in her intent to write stories and novels of honest substance--not of fluff, nor of airy notions nor ideas about a pretty God or people who happily believe in such a God. Implicit in these essays is O'Connor's intention to persuade the reader (and writer) to approach literature/fiction in as humble an attitude as possible. No mystery worth unwinding in any work of fiction can be found without letting go, at least somewhat, of our own ambitions. 

"It is the business of fiction," she writes, "to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind" (124).


It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.


On the following page she continues: 

Not long ago a teacher told me that her best students feel that it is no longer necessary to write anything. She said they think that everything can be done with figures now, and that what can't be done with figures isn't worth doing. I think this is a natural belief for a generation that has been made to feel that the aim of learning is to eliminate mystery. For such people, fiction can be very disturbing, for the fiction writer is concerned with mystery that is lived. He's concerned with ultimate mystery as we find it embodied in the concrete world of sense experience. (125)

So here is the thing, readers: I am often afraid to consider myself a writer because so often the bulk of what I write does not make sense even to me, once I've written it. There have been a few authors in the eras gone by who have said that writing is the author's/writer's pursuit of knowing. "I write in order to understand," someone once said (or something like that). Well, it's very true. I do my best learning by rewriting the facts I have heard coming in both of my ears. I try to write the truths I witness with my eyes, reforming those sensory lessons into phrases and sentence-images so that my broken brain can start to comprehend. What I appreciate about Flannery O'Connor's thoughts, and about her stories, is this feeling I have that she cares about depicting life as it truly is. . .and through the lens of her beliefs. She is a woman of convictions--religous/spiritual ones, and literary ones. I take special pause at this statement she makes about her stories' characters, which so often happen to be poor. She references Kipling's notions about "not driving the poor from your doorstep," if you were wanting to write stories in the first place.

. . . The novelist will always have (the poor) with him because he can find them anywhere. Just as in the sight of God we are all children, in the sight of the novelist we are all poor, and the actual poor only symbolize for him the state of all men. (132)

It's rather deep. And I'm still thinking about it too. But I think that's good. It's getting onto this idea that our inner substance will always be lacking, and maybe that humanizes us, draws us down to an equal level with the common man, woman and child. What will we do with that equality? 

Readers, (writers?), I'm learning a lot through these fifty-two books. This will definitely be one of my eighteen finals that I will surely re-read. 

readers, keep reading. 


next week's book: Dakota, by Kathleen Norris