“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.” – Flannery O’Connor
As a little boy, I spent a lot of time by the creek that ran through our woods. The waters seemed mostly empty—only a minnow here or there—as they moved peacefully across the dull mossy rocks. But this was not true. If you stirred up the bottom, the calm water turned into a flurry of muddy swirls. This mud both obscured and revealed the creek as strange new creatures scattered forth: grotesque crawdads, fluorescent newts, and tadpoles swimming in uncanny swarms.
Muddy water features prominently in Flannery O’Connor’s masterful—although when is she ever not masterful?—short story “The River.” It in, a young boy is taken by his babysitter to a revival and baptized. He decides to baptize himself again and, in an unsettling ending, throws himself into the “shimmering reddish yellow” and drowns.
I was equal parts unsettled and fascinated by O’Connor’s stories when I encountered them in high school. Most fiction I’d read before then felt safe. Either it was an escape into an impossible world of heroes and villains, or else it seemed like an attempt to reflect the world as we already see it. O’Connor, however, did not escape from or reflect the world. She unsettled it.
In Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, the rug is constantly pulled out from beneath both the characters and the reader. The nice preacher boy is a swindler who steals prosthesis. The family road trip turns into a bloodbath. The man who finally finds God runs to show his devout wife, only to be beaten bloody with a broom. O’Connor plumbs the muddy depths of humanity, showing us the strangeness and darkness that most of us try to ignore. Her stories are unsettling, but they are unsettled in the way of a stirred-up creek: it is this violence that reveals a new version of the world.
Writers create their voices by stealing bits and pieces of other writers and assembling them, Frankenstein-like, into a new whole. Then we pray it comes alive on the page. Since this essay is part of an important series on female literary influence, perhaps here is a good place to say that if a writer only reads men (or only reads white writers or only reads Americans, etc.) then their writing monster is going to be missing some important parts. For myself, good chunks of my writing monster are borrowed from O’Connor. I undoubtedly took parts of her dark humor, her deployment of the grotesque, and her willingness to be a bit nasty.
(O’Connor is a great antidote to the current attitude that says every character—especially if written by a woman—should be “likable” and that every writer—especially if they are female—should be endlessly positive. Is there a single likable character in the Good Country People” or “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”? What would the Twitter world make of a contemporary writer saying, “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” Or, “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.”)
However, being nasty is not enough. Writers who are attracted to the darkness and the mud often feel the need to shock people. I had this problem as a juvenile writer, no doubt. Shocking is not unsettling though. The main lesson that I took—and continue to take—from O’Connor is that fiction should enhance the strangeness of the world. It should unsettle us in a way that creates a new sense of life.
O’Connor: “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”
(It is so tempting to make this essay just a string of O’Connor quotes. Few sentence writers can rival her combination of caustic wit and aphoristic power.)
For O’Connor, this mystery is a Catholic one, and her stories are illustrations of God’s grace. This is not how her stories touch me—a boy who was called “Doubting Thomas” by church teachers while in elementary school, left, and never looked back. But another lesson that I learned from O’Connor is that good fiction is about ambiguity—“[the artist] can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists”—and although you might be the one stirring up the mud of the reader’s mind, you can never know exactly what strange creatures will appear.
Recommended reading: All of her short stories.
Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, Unstuck, NOON, and elsewhere. His debut collection, Upright Beasts, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction. He tweets at @thelincoln.