Extending Gaze Beyond the Surface

When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn’t just doing badly what has already been done to completion…

The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p. 45

Same goes for the preacher: don’t do what’s already been done to death, especially if you can’t do it as well as others who’ve done it. You’ll just end up being a bad copy of a bad copy. Extend your gaze beyond the surface always.

Speaking Against Takes More Skill Than Speaking for and With

The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision, and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that the limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees. This is another thing which in these times increases the tendency toward the grotesque in fiction.

Those writers who speak for and with their age are able to do with a great deal more ease and grace than those who speak counter to prevailing attitudes…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p. 47

To speak against the culture takes more skill than to speak for it.



Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

-from Flannery O’Connor, Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction (read it online HERE).

“Ghosts,” says O’Connor, “can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows…”

20 years ago at a party with a bunch of guys a few years shy of legal drinking age, emphasis on legal, I watched American History X. I can only see one thing about that movie in the screen made up by my neurons, and I’ll never watch it again on purpose. Not on purpose, on occasion, I’ll randomly see Ed Norton (whatever character he was playing) curb stomp somebody’s face teeth-first into the concrete. I don’t have to watch it again to prove that it happened. It haunts me.

There are images you can’t kill. There are words you can’t erase. There are stories you can’t unread. They haunt you. Though they are whispy, they are present. They can haunt you to the point of destruction, or they can serve for good.

All this because I’m studying Ecclesiastes 3, and it’s the only way I know to describe what it means that God has “put eternity into man’s heart.”

Always Learning

One thing that is always with the writer – no matter how long he has written or how good he is – is the continuing process of learning how to write. As soon as the writer ‘learns to write,’ as soon as he knows what he is going to find, and discovers a way to say what he knew all along, or worse still, a way to say nothing, he is finished.

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p.83

It’s interesting to me that so much of what Ms. O’Connor says about writing is applicable to preaching. You never really have it figured out. You are always learning. I suppose that could apply to almost anything that involves the intellect, imagination, and/or creativity in general.

Layers of Meaning

The medieval commentators on Scripture found three kinds of meaning in the literal level of the sacred text: one they called allegorical, in which one fact pointed to another; one they called tropological, or moral, which had to do with what should be done; and one they called analogical, which had to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. Although this was a method applied to biblical exegesis, it was also an attitude toward all of creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities, and I think it is this enlarged view of the human scene that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is ever going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent pat of our literature. It seems to be a paradox that the larger and more complex the personal view, the easier it is to compress it into fiction.

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, pp. 72-73

I don’t agree with medieval biblical interpretation for the most part. What a shocker.  But I never considered that such a method could be applied to nature and general experience. I knew that stories operated on a number of meaningful levels, but never thought of trying to quantify that in any way.

O’Connor is making the case that fiction-writing can contain layers of meaning. In this context, one story can have allegorical, moral, and spiritual dimensions; and they don’t necessarily have to be overt.

The Teacher’s Work Should Be Largely Negative

In any case, I believe the teacher’s work should be largely negative. He can’t put the gift into you, but if he finds it there, he can try to keep it from going in an obviously wrong direction. We can learn how not to write, but this is a discipline that does not simply concern writing itself but concerns the whole intellectual life. A mind cleared of false emotion and false sentiment and egocentricity is going to have at least those roadblocks removed from its path. If you don’t think cheaply, then there at least won’t be the quality of cheapness in your writing, even though you may not be able to write well. The teacher can try to weed out what is positively bad, and this should be the aim of the whole college.

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, pp. 83-84

Helpful as usual.

Neil Postman made the argument that the job of the teacher is to weed out stupidity: like a doctor, whose business is more the cure of illness than the positive advancement of help, the teacher’s job has to do with fighting against stupidity as much or more than actually cultivating pure intelligence. What is intelligence anyway?

You can’t make someone into a genius, but you can generally discourage them from being an idiot (especially if you catch stupidity early enough). Much of my own education has followed this pattern. Many lessons have slowly done away with a lot of my stupidity. I’m hoping to get rid of a lot more before my time is done.

But the main point is that learning what not to do if often as important as learning what to do.

They Don’t Stifle Enough of Them

Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, pp. 84-95

This could perhaps apply to more than just writers (as is the case with pretty much everything Ms. O’Connor says about writers).

Aiming for Truth with the Imagination

The basis of art is truth, both in matter and mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less. St. Thomas said that the artist is concerned with the good of that which is made…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p.65

This is pretty much in line with C.S. Lewis’ famous line that the imagination is the ‘organ of meaning.’ The imagination seeks to grasp for, and embody, truth through metaphors and story. The good stories still deal with the age-old issues relating to the truth of reality. This is a good quote to keep right next to Lewis.’

Are you cultivating an imagination bent on grappling with truth? Are you a metaphor-maker? Are you content to live with abstractions? The word, says Dorothy Sayers, always needs to become flesh.

Your Name at the Top of the Page

I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. They are interested in publishing something, and if possible in making a ‘killing.’ 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.

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p.64

I found a lot of Ms. O’Connor’s points to be applicable to preaching and preachers as well. This is only the first example. Everybody wants a paycheck; not everybody wants to work. Everybody wants notoriety; not everybody wants to take notes. Everybody wants a gimmick. Everybody wants to figure out the market and opt for the easy thing that evokes some sort of reaction.

I’m reading nothing these days on the internet other than tirades – from both sides – about a trans on a magazine cover. That’s way too easy. Write something that will change people’s lives. Write something that will make people think. But, wait, that would actually take some hard work.

I say this as a note to self, really.