Flannery O’Connor on Writing

flannery desk typewriter

Once one gets through the hesitancy and uncertainty of her youthful  scholarship student ruminations at the Iowa’s Writers Workshop in  THE HABIT OF BEING, the view broadens, the pace quickens and the takeaway for a writer scouring the book for useful tips and affirmation grows exponentially.

I can only quote briefly here in short snatches because of the Fair Use clause in the Copyright Law and merely allude, summarize and suggest a bit more of what she has to say, but I’ll do what I can and encourage you to mine the letters further on your own.  They are a motherlode for fiction writers with literary aspirations, simply inexhaustible.

So begging the publisher’s (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) indulgence and forebearance if I slip up and overdo, I’ll toss out some randomly chosen passages as food for thought (too many to choose from, all good).


“…any criticism at all which depresses you to the extent that you feel you cannot ever write anything worth anything is from the Devil and for you to subject yourself to it is for you an occasion of sin. . . you are expected to use it [the talent you have].  Whether the work is completely successful, or whether you ever get any worldly success out of it, is a matter of no concern to you.” P.419

“The human comes before the art. You do not write the best you can for the sake of art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use as he sees fit.” Ibid.

“It is my considered opinion that one reason you are not writing is that you are allowing yourself to read in the time set aside to write. You ought to set aside three hours every morning in which you write or do nothing else; no reading, no talking, no cooking, no nothing, but you sit there. If you write all right and if you don’t all right, but you do not read; whether you start something different every day and finish nothing makes no difference; you sit there.  It’s the only way, I’m telling you. . . . And get in a room by yourself. If there are two rooms in that house, get in the one where nobody else is . . . .” p.418

“I find that one story a year is a good average, for me, anyway. You can’t put one out right after another. Just write every day whether you know what you’re doing or not . . . . This is something you can’t force.” p. 403

“ . . . this particular story was discovered in the process of finding out what I could make live.” P.387

“Even if one were filled with the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost would work through the given talent.  You see this in Biblical inspiration, so why think it would be different in a lesser kind of inspiration? If the Holy Ghost dictated a novel, I doubt it would be all flow. I doubt the writer would be relieved of his capacity for taking pains (which is all technique is in the end); I doubt he would lose the habit of art. I think it would be perfected. The greater the love, the greater the pains he would take.”

“I suppose half of writing is overcoming the revulsion you feel when you sit down to do it.  All through the middle section of this last novel [THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY] I had to wade through tides of revulsion every day. It’s a curse of a long piece of work.” P.368

“There is nothing like being pleased with your own efforts—and this is the best stage—before it is published and begins to be misunderstood . . .” p.339

[More to come and for days to come, as time allows.]

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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3 Responses to Flannery O’Connor on Writing

  1. Reblogged this on Michele Marie's Poetry By The Fireside… and commented:
    Interesting ‘reasons’ we’re not actually writing to our full potential, by a prolific writer-


  2. 1WriteWay says:

    My favorite: “There is nothing like being pleased with your own efforts—and this is the best stage—before it is published and begins to be misunderstood . . .”


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