Friday, January 30, 2015


By Susan

"Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you." ~ Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor with one of her "obsessions."
She raised over 50 peafowl at her home in Georgia.
I've been home from my third MFA residency for the past two weeks. Deciding to get a strong jump-start on the term, I've spent the past 14 days in a state that I can only call immersion, which is to say that anything that doesn't have to do with my reading or study has been put on the back burner and set to simmer.
There is something incredibly powerful about spending days on end in the deep end of a study pool. For me, my topic is Flannery O'Connor—and this immersion has been incredibly eye-opening. I've not only read The Complete Stories (all 550 pages) and her essay collection, Mystery and Manners, I'm also tackling her first novel, Wise Blood, and am beginning her second and final novel, The Violent Bear it Away. I'm waiting on the arrival of her 2013 published collection of letters and journals, The Prayer Journal of Flannery O'Connor. I've not only spent the past two weeks reading her work, I've annotated it, made pages of notes, and have begun the formulation of a thesis regarding her wide influence on American literature. I've loved every moment of it.
Writer Steve Almond, who was a guest speaker at the University of Tampa for the January residency, might call this immersion obsession. And good writing, he notes, comes from obsession. How else can we motivate ourselves to tackle a puzzle as large as a novel? Or complete a non-fiction title on an obscure topic? We allow the obsession to become our work. Simply put: 

Our obsession justifies the madness that consumes us when we take on a new project.

That's how I currently feel about Flannery O'Connor.
I'm charged this term with writing my critical essay in addition to writing another 80-100 pages of fiction, and in the beginning I was daunted by the task of simply choosing a topic. Flannery O'Connor and her influence and illumination of religion in American fiction came to me from a deep sense of whom I am as a writer: a Southern woman with a deeply religious history. I didn't know that I'd be seized with a literary passion and that I'd take in her collected works like liquid. I didn't know that I'd become immersed.
Immersion as a reader becomes much deeper than skating atop the ice, of course. Immersion requires diving in. In doing so, I've found a way to build bridges between the stories. I've seen threads of characters as they re-weave themselves through her work. I've studied the grotesque with a quiet fascination, and I've marveled at her ability to create rich characters that not only experience brutality and bigotry, but perpetrate it.
Immersion as a writer is a similar process. I'm looking at my novel in progress through O'Connor's filter, and I see glaring character and plot flaws. Yet I started this novel—I remind myself—out of the obsession to tell a tale of character and place. As I stare down the latest draft of my own work, I know that my obsession with it will translate to another type of immersion. And there, I can find the heart of my own words.

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