Ms. Flan in ink on card stock with gouache color


Illustration © 2009 Christine Marie Larsen


The strange, prickly ways of Flannery O’Connor [1], Anna Arco calls it.  I should be so strange and prickly!  Stranger even, and more prickly, forbidding, doctrinaire, witty and obsessed [2], especially if that group of words  that amounts to “odd” also amounts to knowing, through and through, that writing is all about meaning, about revealing as much of the mystery of existence as possible [3].

I’d dare say that anyone who cares deeply for the art of writing has tasted it, the occasional enlightened string of words that has dropped into their heads from “somewhere,” that shocked the bejeebers out of them when it hit, and meant some momentous thing to those who read it.  I’ve sampled some hors d’oeuvres that way and it’s left me starving for the whole meal of regularly delivering illumined meanings and mysteries in the most universally eloquent and brilliant way within and without my power to do so.

My intentions are good, but my data storage is limited.  So before I forget everything I’ve felt and professed here, before I go back to my, “Huh, what?” tendency to bull through life, all nervous, blind and brawny, I have the urge to scrawl on this blog wall, “Ms. Flan was here,” and to set down some things I learned from her recently.

I also have the urge to affix just the right associative image to accompany my scrawl, just in the slim chance and event that Ms. Flan’s essence does sink in and stick down.  And I found the image that is unlike any other, like Flannery O’Connor’s writing is unlike any other writing.  I clicked through a barrage of Google offerings that everyone already has in their fireside albums and landed on illustrator Christine Marie Larsen’s site, in the color illustrations department, for at least an hour.

I scrolled down through, studying each illustration that at first glance could be considered by some to be easy or simplistic, but they’re not at all.  The technique is fascinating, and in the eyes of every person, dog, or other animal, there is a live spirit looking out.  And sketch or no, the essence of each famous personality is there.  There is meaning and the vibrant and fun mystery of life loaded into every single one of these illustrations.  And the happiness in me built, illustration after illustration, into full-blown, glowing joy.  So be careful when you look for yourself.

Now then, along the lines of Kurt Vonnegut’s marvelous “Eight rules for writing fiction” list [4], from Ms. Flan’s “Writing Short Stories,” I made myself a “Strange and Prickly List” to get stuck into at least once per day: 


Strange and Prickly List

“A short story should be long in depth and should give us an experience of meaning,” or, put another way, “meaning is what keeps a short story from being short.”

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.  You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.”

Meaning over theme:  “When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one.  The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it.”

“The habit of art”:  more than just a discipline, “the habit of art…is a way of looking at the created world and of using the senses so as to make them find as much meaning as possible in things.”

Find a way to make the action you describe “reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible.”  There’s “only a short space to do it in and” you “can’t do it by statement.”  You have to “do it by showing, not by saying, and by showing the concrete…”  Find a way “to make the concrete work double time for” you.

“In most good stories it is the character’s personality that creates the action of the story….If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know what before you begin.  In fact it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin.  You ought to be able to discover something from your stories.  If you don’t, probably nobody else will.”

“A complete story is one in which the action fully illuminates the meaning.”

On what the form of a short story is:  “…the more you write, the more you will realize that the form is organic, that it is something that grows out of the material, that the form of each story is unique.  A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded.  A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you.”

“The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories is to write them, and then to try to discover what you have done.  The time to think of technique is when you’ve actually got the story in front of you.”

“Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real—whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy….Even when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantastic because it is so real, so real that it is fantastic.”

It is possible to deliver the goods to the intelligent reader as well as the average reader, “Good Country People,” a case in point: “The average reader is pleased to observe anybody’s wooden leg being stolen.  But without ceasing to appeal to him and without making any statements of high intention, this story does manage to operate at another level of experience, by letting the wooden leg accumulate meaning.…It operates in depth as well as on the surface.”


[1] Journalist Anna Arco’s title in “The Catholic Herald” of her review of Brad Gooch’s “Flannery: A life of Flannery O’Connor”

[2] From novelist Joy Williams’ “Stranger Than Paradise,” a book review of Brad Gooch’s “Flannery:  A life of Flannery O’Connor”

[3] From Flannery O’Connor’s “Writing Short Stories”

[4] A cool way to receive Vonnegut’s 8 from a blog on my roll—Chloe’s “The Froth”

7 responses to “Ms. Flan in ink on card stock with gouache color

  1. Well ok, school was supposed to be out for me Friday and tonight I found myself on google, looking up references, subscribing to two new blogs and copying down Vonnegut’s 8. I could have printed it but when I need something to stick, it helps me to write it out :) School is back in session :)

  2. DEE
    LOL! Yup, school’s never out for the human mind—we got to be knowing things even when we’re sleeping! Although I’d say you already get Vonnegut’s 8, along the lines of what I said about the mind, even if we get a concept, seems we like to get it more and better, like to take a look at it from all angles and chew on it quite some! I do the same as you, btw, when it comes to internalizing things, I write them out. Well, I’m happy to see you showed up for the Ms. Flan show and very glad you enjoyed Christine’s joyful art and Chloe’s cool blog : )

  3. Ms. Much: A lovely feast you have served up for us, here at the construction site: hard hats and peacocks and the Empress Pea-hen herself. She is a treasure trove, what with the fiction and the essays and the letters. I like all the items you’ve put on your S&P list, but S&P #3 is probably my favorite: words to the wise for most English teachers (not to mention, English textbooks). All very fine and very cool to watch you in your ongoing renovaré.

    But, just so’s you know, we also like your blind and brawny. You bluster with the best, cher…

  4. Thank you for this!
    I love to read about writing even though I’m always criticising myself when I write about it. :P
    I often remember Vonnegut’s rules when I’m writing (I also came across them on Chloe’s blog). But then if someone comes up with different rules I might also accept them.
    In fact I’m feeling a bit emotional just thinking about writing because I’m close to finishing my story and it’s been a trial. Well, no, not so bad, but it’s definitely not easy for me.

  5. ”I’ve sampled some hors d’oeuvres that way and it’s left me starving for the whole meal” Damn. Sounds like sex :-)
    I took a short story workshop, my first semester in University. I realized that I didn’t know how to write a story & keep it… short. It was a crazy challenge, that had me crying (in the privacy of my own home) after a story was criticized by my fellow classmates. As well, because everyone write in third person, I started writing that way as well. I began modifying my writing so that THEY like it. It was a dark time. When I broke through, I realized this: I write in first person narration. 1.It is my preference, it is my strength. 2. FUCK what others like, I know that first & foremost, i write for me; it’s the only way I can ease some clutter from my mind, the only art form that makes me feel like i’m contributing to the world. 3. Criticism is part of life; grow a thicker skin. 4. Surround yourself with authors that have a similar style, that you look up to, & that ‘made it’, at some point, they doubted/still doubt themselves. Lovely post, Miss Alister. I’ve heard about Flannery O’Connor before, is she really that good?

  6. Oh, & if you have time, check out my story ‘Tangerine’ on it’s in the ‘Fiction’ part of the magazine. Tell me what you thought of it. Honestly, with negative criticism, I can take it now :-)

    Oh, thank you all the way around, Mr. PB. Prolific (I see you’re enjoying your summer time). Brilliant (good DNA can not be beat). I especially loved your grey piece and will be over in awhile to reread it and leave you one of my awkward love notes.
    Ms. Flan, a treasure trove, yes, and how! And the articles by Arco and Williams were mini-troves. What hoots they were! What fun can be had with strange personalities, eh?! Like I said, I should be so strange.
    I agree with you on #3. At least you get that so all your wicks at the instituto will get lit and/or kept burning properly : )


    You are quite welcome, Ms. Mood! And it sure is good to see you around here again : )
    You know, slow-mo kinda gal that I am, I saw Vonnegut’s rules relatively late in life. Saw ‘em first on Chloe’s blog, and she delivered them in that special way of hers, so that’s why I linked to that post of hers here.
    About your story, I’m finding out good writing is not as easy as I thought it was, so the fact that you’re having such a time with it, might just be a good sign ; ) I hope you’ll be sharing it with us!


    LOL! I’ll leave that alone! Chicken? Yes ; )
    How cool to hear about your writing workshop experience! So far I get from people that writing classes have put them through hell, like I went through for awhile when I first started the class I’m taking. So of course now I see why! Writing is the person that writes. And anything that’s changed me for the better has felt like it was going to kill me. You walked away stronger, with four awesome rules! I tell you, so far I get those! And maybe in July when this class is over, and I sit down to lick my wounds, I may have some to add to it, maybe not. If I do, I’ll share them with you for grins, you know, like swapping war stories!
    And Flannery? I would just say that I do love her writing, that she’s one of the ones that knows the thing I know I want to know.
    I will make the time to read “Tangerine” today, my friend! And I’ll pass along my thoughts in an e-mail to you later on : )

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