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Posts Tagged ‘Flannery O’Connor’

15 MAY, 2014

Writing for the Godless: Flannery O’Connor on Dogma, Belief, and the Difference Between Religion and Faith

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“For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction.”

As humans, we are wired to cling tightly to our beliefs, even the most delusional, and to automatically dismiss conflicting evidence. This is especially true in areas where our beliefs are particularly charged, such as politics and religion. For those of us skeptical of organized religion, who find transcendence in nature and spirituality in science, who fall closer to the atheism end of the belief spectrum, it’s especially challenging to consider perspectives on faith that come from the other end. But something magical happens when we allow the walls of the psyche to soften and become permeable, if only for a moment, to another’s experience of the world — little compares to the self-transcendence that such receptivity invites.

One of the most extraordinary meditations on religion and the role of spirituality in society comes from beloved author Flannery O’Connor, whose writing blended her Catholic faith with strong secular themes of ethics and moral philosophy, and nowhere does her singular spirit shine more luminously than in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (public library).

In July of 1955, when she was thirty, O’Connor received a letter from a young woman, initially unknown to her, who later chose to remain anonymous upon the publication of the letters. Both hungry for conversation and intrigued by the woman’s intensity of conviction, the author felt compelled to reply, and so began a nine-year epistolary friendship that continued until O’Connor’s death in 1964 from complications due to lupus. The letters to “A.” are among the most extraordinary in the collection, exploring with remarkable dignity and dimensionality matters of faith and religion, the difference between the two, and the role of spirituality in O’Connor’s writing and her personhood.

Flannery O'Connor by De Casseres

In her first letter to the young woman, dated July 20, 1955, O’Connor writes:

I am very pleased to have your letter. Perhaps it is even more startling to me to find someone who recognizes my work for what I try to make it than it is for you to find a God-conscious writer near at hand. The distance is 87 miles but I feel the spiritual distance is shorter.

I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement. However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty. To possess this within the Church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden for the conscious Catholic. It’s to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level. I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories.

Lamenting the triteness of reviews that call A Good Man Is Hard to Find “brutal and sarcastic,” O’Connor wryly notes:

The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. 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 these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.

In the next letter, dated August 2, O’Connor apologizes for responding so promptly that it forces a pace beyond her correspondent’s time budget, then arms up the conversation with a similarly sweet and self-deprecating remark about the creative life:

I myself am afflicted with time, as I do not work out on account of an energy-depriving ailment and my work in, being creative, can go on only a few hours a day. I live on a farm and don’t see many people. My avocation is raising peacocks, something that requires everything of the peacock and nothing of me, so time is always at hand.

Flannery O'Connor and her peacocks

She then resumes the question of “Christian realism,” about which her correspondent seems to feel particularly strongly:

I believe too that there is only one Reality and that that is the end of it, but the term, “Christian Realism,” has become necessary for me, perhaps in a purely academic way, because I find myself in a world where everybody has his compartment, puts you in yours, shuts the door and departs. One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.

In considering the misinterpretation and misapplication of dogma, O’Connor makes an allusion that would later inspire the title of the fantastic posthumous collection of her essays and writings, Mystery and Manners:

Dogma can in no way limit a limitless God. The person outside the Church attaches a different meaning to it than the person in. For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction. It preserves mystery for the human mind. Henry James said the young woman of the future would know nothing of mystery or manners. He had no business to limit it to one sex.

O’Connor has a way of letting her subtle wit slip in through the backdoor of even her most serious convictions:

I won’t ever be able entirely to understand my own work or even my own motivations. It is first of all a gift, but the direction it has taken has been because of the Church in me or the effect of the Church’s teaching, not because of a personal perception or love of God. For you to think this would be possible because of your ignorance of me; for me to think it would be sinful in a high degree. I am not a mystic and I do not lead a holy life. Not that I can claim any interesting or pleasurable sins (my sense of the devil is strong) but I know all about the garden variety, pride, gluttony, envy and sloth, and what is more to the point, my virtues are as timid as my vices. I think sin occasionally brings one closer to God, but not habitual sin and not this petty kind that blocks every small good. A working knowledge of the devil can be very well had from resisting him.

However, the individual in the Church is, no matter how worthless himself, a part of the Body of Christ and a participator in the Redemption. There is no blueprint that the Church gives for understanding this. It is a matter of faith and the Church can force no one to believe it. When I ask myself how I know I believe, I have no satisfactory answer at all, no assurance at all, no feeling at all. I can only say with Peter, Lord I believe, help my unbelief. And all I can say about my love of God, is, Lord help me in my lack of it. I distrust pious phrases, particularly when they issue from my mouth. I try militantly never to be affected by the pious language of the faithful but it is always coming out when you least expect it. In contrast to the pious language of the faithful, the liturgy is beautifully flat.

In another letter from a week later, O’Connor writes:

In the face of anyone’s experience, someone like myself who has had almost no experience, must be humble. I will never have the experience of the convert, or of the one who fails to be converted, or even in all probability of the formidable sinner; but your effort not to be seduced by the Church moves me greatly. God permits it for some reason though it is the devil’s greatest work of hallucination. Fr. [Jean] de Menasce told somebody not to come into the Church until he felt it would be an enlargement of his freedom. This is what you are doing and you are right, but do not make your feeling of the voluptuous seductive powers of the Church into a hard shell to protect yourself from her. I suppose it is like marriage, that when you get into it, you find it is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to make love work.

She adds:

I think most people come to the Church by means the Church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all. However, this is true inside as well, as the operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner; which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.

Cartoon by Flannery O'Connor. Click images for details.

O’Connor ends with an intimation that not only bespeaks her lucid, intelligent approach to the subject, but also calls to mind Buckminster Fuller’s scientific revision of The Lord’s Prayer with a sentiment that would’ve gladdened Carl Sagan:

I have some long and tall thoughts on the subject of God’s working through nature, but I will not inflict them on you now. I find I have a habit of announcing the obvious in pompous and dogmatic periods. I like to forget that I’m only a storyteller.

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor is a gorgeous and revelational read in its totality, emanating the timeless beauty of an inner life cut tragically short by an untimely death. Complement it with O’Connor on why the grotesque appeals to us and her little-known satirical cartoons.

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25 MARCH, 2014

Flannery O’Connor on Why the Grotesque Appeals to Us, Plus a Rare Recording of Her Reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

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“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”

Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925–August 3, 1964) is among the titans of twentieth-century literature (in addition to being a lesser-known satirical cartoonist). In 1960, O’Connor penned an essay titled “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” eventually included in the altogether fantastic posthumous collection of her unpublished lectures, essays, and critical articles, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (public library). While the essay focuses on Southern literature, it touches on a number of bigger questions in all literature, most crucially how the qualifiers and variables attached to a writer — in this case, religion and regional geography — affect the writerliness of the writer. (At the heart of the inquiry is the same concern Margaret Atwood had decades later in examining how and whether being a “woman writer” impacts being a writer.)

In this rare recording, taped at the Dorothy Lamar Blount Lecture Series at Wesleyan College the year the essay was published, O’Connor reads a portion of an early draft of the piece. Highlights from the full final version, including the passage O’Connor reads, below.

I think that if there is any value in hearing writers talk, it will be in hearing what they can witness to and not what they can theorize about. My own approach to literary problems is very like the one Dr. Johnson’s blind housekeeper used when she poured tea — she put her finger inside the cup.

These are not times when writers in this country can very well speak for one another. . . . Today each writer speaks for himself, even though he may not be sure that his work is important enough to justify his doing so.

[…]

When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic. But for this occasion, we may leave such misapplications aside and consider the kind of fiction that may be called grotesque with good reason, because of a directed intention that way on the part of the author.

In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected. It is this kind of realism that I want to consider.

All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.

[…]

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.

(More than half a century later, Neil Gaiman explored the grip of ghosts in a beautiful related meditation.)

O’Connor goes on to consider another explanation for the singular sensibility of the Southern writer:

There is another reason in the Southern situation that makes for a tendency toward the grotesque and this is the prevalence of good Southern writers. I think the writer is initially set going by literature more than by life. 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 presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.

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. . . .

For the kind of writer I have been describing, a literature which mirrors society would be no fit guide for it, and one which did manage, by sheer art, to do both these things would have to have recourse to more violent means than middlebrow subject matter and mere technical expertness.

She reflects on what amplifies the appeal of the grotesque in fiction:

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.

O’Connor offers a broader meditation on why we read:

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.

She follows this with a mirror-image question of why writers write and, echoing Eudora Welty on the poetic of place, ties this back to the regional roots of literature:

I am often told that the model of balance for the novelist should be Dante, who divided his territory up pretty evenly between hell, purgatory, and paradise. There can be no objection to this, but also there can be no reason to assume that the result of doing it in these times will give us the balanced picture that it gave in Dante’s. Dante lived in the thirteenth century, when that balance was achieved in the faith of his age. We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.

[…]

The problem for such a novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying, and in order not to destroy, he will have to descend far enough into himself to reach those underground springs that give life to big work. This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region.

And just for good measure, here is O’Connor reading the title story of her most celebrated collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, published in 1955. The recording, found on the Criterion Collection disc Wise Blood, was long believed to be the only recording of O’Connor reading, though the one above clearly disproves the case.

Mystery and Manners is a terrific tome in its entirety. Complement it with young O’Connor’s little-known satirical cartoons.

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12 DECEMBER, 2013

Flannery O’Connor’s Little-Known Cartoons

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“Everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.”

Provided how many famous creators had secret talents — including Richard Feynman’s drawings, Marilyn Monroe’s poetry, Rube Goldberg’s political art, and Liberace’s culinary powers — it comes as little surprise that one of the greatest twentieth-century authors was also a deft cartoonist, whose little-known and lovely drawings are collected in Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons (public library).

When she was about five, O’Connor began cartooning, creating small books, and writing comical sketches, which she illustrated with her own drawings. Like William Faulkner, whose little-known, gorgeous Jazz Age drawings graced his college newspaper, O’Connor also contributed artwork to school publications throughout high school and college, earning a reputation as a cartoonist before she became a famous writer. The latter she had tragically little time to enjoy — O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus at the very beginning of her career as a writer, when she was only twenty-five, and spent the remaining twelve years of her life on her mother’s farm in rural Georgia, writing feverishly and traveling to give more than sixty public lectures. But the artwork she began creating in the early 1940s, shortly before entering graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, exudes its own magic and reveals O’Connor’s remarkable talent as a diverse creator. Her cartoons, created mostly in pen and ink and linoleum cuts, poke humor at student life and comment on the profound impact of WWII. Underpinning her visual art is the same distinct blend of humor and uncompromising fierceness that makes her literary style so singular and so memorable.

Printmaker and illustrator Barry Moser writes in the introduction:

Later in her life O’Connor would say that the things that she worked on the hardest were usually her worst work. It is obvious that she did not work long and hard on these images and that is very much a part of their charm. She also said that a story — or a linoleum print, if you will — has to have muscle as well as meaning, and the meaning has to be in the muscle. Her prints certainly have muscle, and a lot of it.

What makes the artwork especially extraordinary is that O’Connor didn’t work from live models or use any other form of visual reference, and yet her figures maintain a consistent style from one print to another.

Like Sylvia Plath, who found her “deepest source of inspiration” in drawing, O’Connor knew how her visual art enriched her literary process. In the afterword, scholar Kelly Gerald reflects on O’Connor’s academic lectures and how her art shaped both her writing and her message to students:

If you were an aspiring writer at one of these lectures, what kind of advice could you expect to get? If you want to write fiction, stop looking for the right technique and just start looking.

“For the writer of fiction,” she said, “everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.” This way of seeing she described as part of the “habit of art,” a concept borrowed from the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. She used the expression to explain the way of seeing that the artist must cultivate, one that does not separate meaning from experience. And like any other habit, it has to be developed over time and through practice.

The visual arts became one of her favorite touchstones for explaining this process. Many disciplines could help your writing, she said, but especially drawing: “Anything that helps you to see. Anything that makes you look.” Why was this emphasis on seeing and vision so important in explaining how fiction works? Because she came to writing from a background in the visual arts, where everything that the artist communicates is apprehended, first, by the eye.

Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons is an absolute treasure from cover to cover. Pair it with Sylvia Plath’s drawings and J. R. R. Tolkien’s illustrations for The Hobbit.

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23 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Odd Habits and Curious Customs of Famous Writers

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Color-coded muses, rotten apples, self-imposed house arrest, and other creative techniques at the intersection of the superstitious and the pragmatic.

Famous authors are notorious for their daily routines — sometimes outrageous, usually obsessive, invariably peculiar. In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors (public library) — the more dimensional and thoroughly researched counterpart to Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals — Brooklyn-based writer Celia Blue Johnson takes us on a guided tour of great writers’ unusual techniques, prompts, and customs of committing thought to paper, from their ambitious daily word quotas to their superstitions to their inventive procrastination and multitasking methods.

As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:

One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.

Jack Kerouac's hand-drawn cross-country road trip map from 'On the Road'

Mode and medium of writing seem to be a recurring theme of personal idiosyncrasy. Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on slips of paper while walking — an activity he, like Maira Kalman, saw as a creative stimulant — then handed them to his secretary to type up. Edgar Allan Poe, champion of marginalia, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached into a running scroll with sealing wax. Jack Kerouac was especially partial to scrolling: In 1951, planning the book for years and amassing ample notes in his journals, he wrote On The Road in one feverish burst, letting it pour onto pages taped together into one enormously long strip of paper — a format he thought lent itself particularly well to his project, since it allowed him to maintain his rapid pace without pausing to reload the typewriter at the end of each page. When he was done, he marched into his editor Robert Giroux’s office and proudly spun out the scroll across the floor. The result, however, was equal parts comical and tragic:

To [Kerouac’s] dismay, Giroux focused on the unusual packaging. He asked, “But Jack, how can you make corrections on a manuscript like that?” Giroux recalled saying, “Jack, you know you have to cut this up. It has to be edited.” Kerouac left the office in a rage. It took several years for Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord, to finally find a home for the book, at the Viking Press.

James Joyce in his white coat

James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat, and composed most of Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. But this was a matter more of pragmatism than of superstition or vain idiosyncrasy: Of the many outrageously misguided myths the celebrated author of Ulysses and wordsmith of little-known children’s books, one was actually right: he was nearly blind. His childhood myopia developed into severe eye problems by his twenties. To make matters worse, he developed rheumatic fever when he was twenty-five, which resulted in a painful eye condition called iritis. By 1930, he had undergone twenty-five eye surgeries, none of which improved his sight. The large crayons thus helped him see what he was writing, and the white coat helped reflect more light onto the page at night. (As someone partial to black bedding, not for aesthetic reasons but because I believe it provides a deeper dark at night, I can certainly relate to Joyce’s seemingly arbitrary but actually physics-driven attire choice.)

Virginia Woolf was equally opinionated about the right way to write as she was about the right way to read. In her twenties, she spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-half-foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to look at her work both up-close and from afar. But according to her nephew and irreverent collaborator, Quentin Bell, Woolf’s prescient version of today’s trendy standing desk was less a practical matter than a symptom of her sibling rivalry with her sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell — the same sibling rivalry that would later inspire a charming picture-book: Vanessa painted standing, and Virginia didn’t want to be outdone by her sister. Johnson cites Quentin, who was known for his wry family humor:

This led Virginia to feel that her own pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality.

Pages from 'Virginia Wolf,' a children's book about Virginia Woolf's relationship with her sister, Vanessa Bell. Click image for more.

Woolf remained incredibly resourceful — an inventor of sorts, even. After she switched from standing to sitting, she created a contraption of which she was very proud: She used a piece of thin plywood as a writing board, to which she attached a tray for pens and ink so she wouldn’t have to get up and disrupt her flow of inspiration should she run out of materials. Driven by a similar fear of depletion of materials, John Steinbeck, who liked to write his drafts in pencil, always kept exactly twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. He used them so heavily that his editor had to send him round pencils to alleviate the calluses Steinbeck had developed on his hands from the traditional hexagonal ones.

Some habits, of course, were far less pragmatic, harking instead to creative superstition. Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday, would change hotel rooms if the room phone number involved the number 13, and never left more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray, tucking the extra ones into his coat pocket.

Many authors measured the quality of their output by uncompromisingly quantitative metrics like daily word quotas. Jack London wrote 1,000 words a day every single day of his career and William Golding once declared at a party that he wrote 3,000 words daily, a number Norman Mailer and Arthur Conan Doyle shared. Raymond Chandler, a man of strong opinions on the craft of writing, didn’t subscribe to a specific daily quota, but was known to write up to 5,000 words a day at his most productive. Anthony Trollope, who began his day promptly at 5:30 A.M. every morning, disciplined himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch. Stephen King does whatever it takes to reach his daily quota of 2,000 adverbless words and Thomas Wolfe keeps his at 1,800, not letting himself stop until he has reached it.

A minority, however, measured quantity as inversely proportional to quality. James Joyce proudly considered the completion of two perfect sentences a full day of work and Dorothy Parker, an obsessive reviser, even skewed to the negative, once lamented, “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”

Even more curious were the resourceful methods authors used to compel themselves to execute their daily quotas. In the fall of 1830, Victor Hugo set out to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame against the seemingly impossible deadline of February 1831. He bought an entire bottle of ink in preparation and practically put himself under house arrest for months, using a most peculiar anti-escape technique:

Hugo locked away his clothes to avoid any temptation of going outside and was left with nothing to wear except a large gray shawl. He had purchased the knitted outfit, which reached right down to his toes, just for the occasion. It served as his uniform for many months.

He finished the book weeks before deadline, using up the whole bottle of ink to write it. He even considered titling it What Came Out of a Bottle of Ink, but eventually settled for the less abstract and insidery title.

Flannery O'Connor and her peacocks

We already know how much famous authors loved their pets, but for many their non-human companions were essential to the creative process. Edgar Allan Poe considered his darling tabby named Catterina his literary guardian who “purred as if in complacent approval of the world proceeding under [her] supervision.” Flannery O’Connor developed an early affection for domestic poultry, from her childhood chicken (which, curiously enough, could walk backwards and once ended up in a newsreel clip) to her growing collection of pheasants, ducks, turkeys, and quail. Most famously, however, twenty-something O’Connor mail-ordered six peacocks, a peahen, and four peachicks, which later populated her fiction. But by far the most bizarre pet-related habit comes from Colette, who enlisted her dog in a questionable procrastination mechanism:

Colette would study the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, with a discerning eye. Then she’d pluck a flea from Souci’s back and would continue the hunt until she was ready to write.

But arguably the strangest habit of all comes from Friedrich Schiller, relayed by his friend Goethe:

[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room.

Goethe followed the odor to its origin, which was actually right by where he sat. It was emanating from a drawer in Schiller’s desk. Goethe leaned down, opened the drawer, and found a pile of rotten apples. The smell was so overpowering that he became light-headed. He walked to the window and breathed in a few good doses of fresh air. Goethe was naturally curious about the trove of trash, though Schiller’s wife, Charlotte, could only offer the strange truth: Schiller had deliberately let the apples spoil. The aroma, somehow, inspired him, and according to his spouse, he “could not live or work without it.”

(A semi-scientific hypothesis of an aside here: If left to rot long enough, decomposing biomass, such as apples, produces methane gas. Though methane is not toxic, it can displace oxygen in a closed space — like, say, an obsessive writer’s small den — and could eventually pose asphyxiation risk if the displacement runs rampant. In small doses, however, it can cause light-headedness — that pleasant near-tipsy feeling of slight dizziness one gets when in the grip of creative inspiration. It is possible, then, that the rotting apples were more than an odd olfactory stimulus for Schiller and actually had a biological effect on his mental state.)

Most authors, of course, didn’t let their food rot for inspiration, but they were no less particular about their preferred edibles for fueling the muse. Agatha Christie munched on apples in the bathtub while pondering murder plots, Flannery O’Connor crunched vanilla wafers, and Vladimir Nabokov fueled his “prefatory glow” with molasses.

Charles Dickens's manuscript for 'Our Mutual Friend.' Image courtesy of The Morgan Library.

Then there was the color-coding of the muses: In addition to his surprising gastronome streak, Alexandre Dumas was also an aesthete: For decades, he penned all of his fiction on a particular shade of blue paper, his poetry on yellow, and his articles on pink; on one occasion, while traveling in Europe, he ran out of his precious blue paper and was forced to write on a cream-colored pad, which he was convinced made his fiction suffer. Charles Dickens was partial to blue ink, but not for superstitious reasons — because it dried faster than other colors, it allowed him to pen his fiction and letters without the drudgery of blotting. Virginia Woolf used different-colored inks in her pens — greens, blues, and purples. Purple was her favorite, reserved for letters (including her love letters to Vita Sackville-West, diary entries, and manuscript drafts. Lewis Carroll also preferred purple ink (and shared with Woolf a penchant for standing desks), but for much more pragmatic reasons: During his years teaching mathematics at Oxford, teachers were expected to use purple ink to correct students’ work — a habit that carried over to Carroll’s fiction.

Gertrude Stein's famous Model T Ford. Click image for details.

Many authors were notorious multitaskers: Alexandre Dumas dedicated every spare moment to his craft, writing between errands and meals, and Gertrude Stein wrote during errands as her wife, Alice B. Toklas, drove the duo around in their famed Model T Ford, Aunt Pauline (named after Stein’s real aunt, because the car, like Pauline herself, “always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most of the time if she was properly flattered”). Johnson tells us:

In the privacy of an automobile, she could let her mind wander and jot down a few lines, no matter where she was. Stein was especially productive during errands. She’d sit in the car while her partner, Alice B. Toklas, dashed into a store. While she waited, Stein would pull out a pencil and a scrap of paper. She was particularly inspired by the traffic on busy Parisian streets. Automobiles stopped and started with a rhythm that thrummed right into her poetry and prose.

Stein, like Vladimir Nabokov, even liked to write in a parked car, which served as a perfectly contained bubble of stillness ideal for writing. But other authors’ relationships with transportation and the muse were decidedly less safe — Eudora Welty jotted down ideas during the long drives to her mother’s nursing home and Sir Walter Scott composed poetry on horseback.

Moving vehicles and motion, in fact, have a long history of stirring up inspiration. (I get the vast majority of my own ideas while riding my bike around the city or working out on the elliptical at the gym.) Joseph Heller arrived at some of his greatest ideas while riding the bus and even famously stated that the closing line of Catch-22 came to him on a bus. When he was sixteen, Woody Allen channeled his budding comedic genius on his daily crowded subway rides to the New York ad agency that had offered him an after-school job. Most impressive of all, however, was that he managed to write his ideas down without the luxury of a seat, standing and wobbling alongside irate commuters. Johnson cites Allen’s recollection:

Straphanging, I’d take out a pencil and by the time I’d gotten out I’d have written forty or fifty jokes … fifty jokes a day for years.

But lest we hastily surmise that writing in a white coat would make us a Joyce or drowning pages in purple ink a Woolf, Johnson prefaces her exploration with another important, beautifully phrased disclaimer:

That power to mesmerize has an intangible, almost magical quality, one I wouldn’t dare to try to meddle with by attempting to define it. It was never my goal as I wrote this book to discover what made literary geniuses tick. The nuances of any mind are impossible to pinpoint.

[…]

You could adopt one of these practices or, more ambitiously, combine several of them, and chances are you still wouldn’t invoke genius. These tales don’t hold a secret formula for writing a great novel. Rather, the authors in the book prove that the path to great literature is paved with one’s own eccentricities rather than someone else’s.

Odd Type Writers is both fascinating in its particular oddities and oddly assuring in its general testament to the grounding power of personal habit and the coexistence of creativity and quirk. Complement it with some more practical help from famous authors in their collected wisdom on writing.

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