Archives For Flannery O’Connor

“…my fellow writers in the SUNY Albany writing program…
pushed me over the ledge into a free fall where I found my voice,
which involves treating every new story as a brand new thing
which deserves its own brand new way of being told.”


Ron MacLean is author of the novels Headlong (2013) and Blue Winnetka Skies (2004) and the story collection Why the Long Face? (2008). His fiction has appeared in GQ, Fiction International, Best Online Fiction 2010, and elsewhere.

He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He teaches at Grub Street in Boston.

Web site:

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing now includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is an excerpt of Ron’s most recent TW essay, “Literary Criticism Is Dead“:

I love literature and believe it has a future. I hope serious criticism does, too. But we’ll only be able to attain that future by accepting the reality of the present.

The study of literature is dying, partly because of self-inflicted wounds. I’m happy to debate all the reasons why: the dominance of an elite school of mostly white, male academics; increased theoretical abstraction; easy-to-mock “littray” pronouncements.

But my focus here is more basic: Literary criticism has become irrelevant—the neglected lima beans on the cultural dinner plate. In order for criticism to matter, literature has to matter. It doesn’t, and it won’t again soon, at least not in the same way it did for a hundred-plus years of its history. [Read the rest here at Talking Writing.]

41OjyYGtpSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Read more by and about Ron:

Novel/Literary Thriller: Headlong

Stories: Why the Long Face

A cowboy-movie novel: Blue Winnetka Skies

Story: “The Night Dentist”

Essay: “Is Fiction Empathy’s Best Hope” at Talking Writing

Essay: “Literary Criticism Is Dead” at Talking Writing

How Ron MacLean Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Ron for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

As far back as I can remember, stories have been the way I’ve understood the world. Reading stories gave me insights I craved, and writing them gave me a way to understand my own perceptions and experiences.

I started out as a journalist. And I love journalism. Especially investigative journalism. But I probably should have recognized my fate back in high school, when I told a friend as I complained about an assignment for journalism class, “the story would have been much better if I wasn’t limited to the facts.”

cover-blue-skies_large2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

In the beginning I was self-educated, and that’s continued to be a huge aspect of my learning. I read a lot, and I re-read work that moves me. Again and again. I’d puzzle at it trying to figure out what made it touch me. I’d trace an evocative sentence at the end of a short story back through the text, looking for where its power originated. And then I’d try to do the same.

Once I left journalism, I applied to grad school and ended up getting a Doctor of Arts from SUNY Albany. The community of writers and teacher I met there finally made me a writer. We formed each other.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

Wow. So, so many. I could go on forever. I’ll focus on a few.

Writers whose work I’ve read and studied, whose words now live in me and helped shape me. I’ll name some, but there are many more: Flannery O’Connor, Rick Bass, Jeanette Winterson, Donald Barthelme, Gertrude Stein, Marilynne Robinson. Four books that literally changed my life: Robinson’s Housekeeping, Stein’s Tender Buttons, Barthelme’s 40 Stories, and O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners.

Teachers and mentors who not only taught me aspects of the craft, but taught me through their commitment to the work (the joy of it, the value of it) and to their fellow writers: Gene Garber, Judy Johnson, Don Schatz.

cover-long-face_largeMaybe most significantly for me were my fellow writers in the SUNY Albany writing program, where we learned, and taught each other, that we are part of the same tribe, and that we each only thrive as we help each other thrive. They gave me permission to stop trying to hew to a “classic” short story style that didn’t match the stories I wanted to tell. Another way to put it was they pushed me over the ledge into a free fall where I found my voice, which involves treating every new story as a brand new thing which deserves its own brand new way of being told. I’ll always be grateful for the community that held me safe as I explored that new territory (especially Lori Anderson Moseman and Jan Ramjerdi), and for the learning that we are each other’s best resource. That’s something I try to live everywhere I go; it’s part of what I value now at Boston’s Grub Street.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Absolutely. While it’s a tossup between O’Connor and Stein, I’ll go with Flannery. Writing did not come easily to her. It mattered enough to her to persist through physical (as well as emotional) pain and illness. And it was, for her, a means to grope toward an understanding of the mystery that lies beyond daily life. She always sought to convey an experience of mystery in her stories, and at the same time was ruthless about the necessity of representing life in honest and real physical detail. That desire, that commitment, has been a major inspiration for me. She and I work differently in many ways, but we share a desire to get beyond the daily to explore what we would both define as the mystery at the heart of human experience.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Love what you do. Delight in the work, and let that be your primary joy. Don’t let the business side of it discourage you. If writing matters to you, do it with everything you’ve got, and don’t worry about how many people read it.

I knew dozens and dozens of actors, a few playwrights, but nobody who wrote fiction. “What do you think?” I’d say. “Um, cool,” they’d answer. “Very nice.” No one, with the exception of my husband, was able to give me feedback. So I decided I needed some lessons.
Rilla Askew, author photo
Rilla Askew received a 2009 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Askew is the author of four award-winning novels and a collection of stories. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in World Literature Today, Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and elsewhere  A PEN/Faulkner Finalist and two time recipient of the Western Heritage Award, Askew is member of the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame, has received three Oklahoma Book Awards, the Violet Crown Award from the Writers League of Texas, and the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. Her latest novel, Kind of Kin, is published in January 2013 by Ecco Press.
Read more by and about Rilla:

Novel: Kind of Kin

Novel: Harpsong

Essay: Passing: The Writer’s Skin and the Authentic Self

Video Interview (link)

How Rilla Askew Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Eric Bosse for the recommendation, and thanks to Rilla for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I didn’t set out to become a writer, I set out to become an actress, and along the way discovered that I am a writer. The process was at first a gradual awakening, and then a slow, reverberant boom that settled deep in my gut as recognition. I’d moved to New York  in my late twenties to “become” a famous actress, spent three or four years waiting tables, studying acting, scrounging for parts.  Probably it took no more than a quarter of that time, though, for me to realize that I hated the business of acting. Not the acting itself, but the business. I hated standing on a tacky tile floor in a nondescript room hearing the dispassionate “Thank you” from the casting director, hated poring over casting calls in Backstage, hated the hungriness and personal-ness of it all. More than anything, I hated that I had to have the job first before I could practice my art. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, of course, and in time a good friend, the actress Beth Broderick, and I decided we would put on our own production of Jean Genet’s The Maids—an ambition that fizzled behind the realities of how much it cost to rent Manhattan rehearsal space—but the notion of taking the pursuit of art into my own hands led me very soon to writing plays. Not long after that, I turned to fiction. Then came the boom of recognition: sitting in a theatre district restaurant one night, talking with my husband for hours, trying to let go of the dream of becoming an actress in order to allow myself to be the writer I am. At some point the release happened—I felt it viscerally, in my chest, like the firing of a distant cannon, followed by a kind of lightness, a sense of recognition, release. By closing time, the deed was done. I’ve never looked back. So it wasn’t ever a question of “wanting” to be a writer but the slow and then sudden realization, the aha experience: “Ah, so that’s it.”

books2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I never had the self-consciousness about my writing that I’d had as an actor,  I would show my stories to anyone: “Here!” I’d say, slapping the pages in front of the other waiters at the mid-town restaurant where I worked, the busboys and bartenders, Broadway actors and techies. I knew dozens and dozens of actors, a few playwrights, but nobody who wrote fiction. “What do you think?” I’d say. “Um, cool,” they’d answer. “Very nice.” No one, with the exception of my husband, was able to give me feedback. So I decided I needed some lessons. I saw an ad in the New York Review of Books: “New York’s Best Kept Literary Secret: the MFA Writing Program at Brooklyn College.” I applied, was accepted, enrolled right away. Turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I found community, validation, craft. I found good mentors in Jonathan Baumbach and Peter Spielberg and a terrific lifelong writing friend in fellow MFA student Jessica Treat. It was Jessica who taught me by example not to say “I want to be a writer” but “I am a writer,” and this was well before we were both seeing our work appear in print. It’s a vital first step, that internal affirmation. We’re writers if we’re writing—whether we’re getting published yet or not.

But yes, so, the process: I began getting stories published in literary journals, finished my thesis, a collection of short fiction, sent out stories and got them back with rejections, and sent them out again, collecting enough rejection slips to satisfy any writer’s early sad tale and just enough acceptances to keep me going. I kept revising my thesis, wrote a couple more stories to add to it, and sent out that collection, which eventually was accepted by Viking. That was my first book, Strange Business. So I came up through the usual route, I guess—or the route many hope for, the route MFA programs are designed to help apprentice writers achieve. All I can say is, in my case, it worked.

Aske3823-2103. Who helped you along the way, and how?

There are so many who have helped, including all my writing friends who’ve shared work over the years, that it would take more space than we have here to credit them all. A few of the more significant ones: RC Davis-Undiano, Executive Director of World Literature Today and a big supporter for many years, has provided literary friendship, the chance to present my work in China, a fine writer-in-residence teaching gig at the University of Oklahoma that gave me freedom to write for a few years. I completed my fourth novel Harpsong there.

My best friend Constance Squires and her husband Steve Garrison—both wonderful fiction writers, terrific teachers, outstanding critics—are my first readers, along with my husband Paul Austin. For years Paul and Connie and Steve and I have all shared our work with each other, which makes for these great literary feast nights: three of us giving detailed feedback on the fourth one’s new novel or play or poem, talking for hours with knowledge not only of craft but of the writer’s entire body of work and backstory. It’s a terrific four-way writing friendship.

Above all, though, most important, has been the support of my husband, Paul Austin. He’s a man of the theatre, an actor, director, acting teacher, but he’s also a poet and playwright and essayist. Long ago, when I was still that aspiring young actress and he and I were newly engaged, we had a bad fight. I was afraid we were going to break up, that the relationship was finished, but I couldn’t articulate in spoken words all that I felt and thought. So I wrote him a five-page single-spaced typed letter that was essentially a short story, written in third person, about our fight (“his thick longshoreman arms” is one not-very-felicitous phrase I remember), trying to explain all that was in my heart. When I finally gave it to him, three days later, I watched his face intently as he read, thinking, Now he’ll understand me. He put the pages down, looked over at me and said, “You know, kid, you really can write.” He’s been my greatest supporter, sounding board, critic, ever since. He supported me financially while I went to school to get my MFA, continues to give me space and freedom to write; he goes with me to my public readings and gives me such helpful feedback it amounts to free acting lessons. For real. Paul believed in me before I believed in myself—long before I embraced Jessica Treat’s model phrase. It was my husband’s patience and belief in me that made all the difference that night at the restaurant years ago, when I segued from my long-held ambition about “becoming” an actress to that low, resonant boom of recognition: I am a writer.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Flannery O’Connor’s tenacity to write and her abiding Catholic faith in the midst of her debilitating illness (“sickness is a place,” she said, “…where nobody can follow”) have been an inspiration. Even as her lupus worsened and she became bedridden much of the time, she still worked as many hours a day as she had strength to write. I’m also inspired by the way William Faulkner remained on his “little postage stamp of native soil” and wrote about the people and the landscape around him. Faulkner’s biography is where I first came to understand that the people and the land I come from are worthy subjects for fiction.

Flannery O'Connor (photo linked from This Recording)

Flannery O’Connor (photo linked from This Recording)

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

This is adapted from a letter to an aspiring writer that I actually did write—a note to a former student, Zachary Rupp, a very talented writer who’d just completed his MFA at the University of Central Oklahoma and wrote to ask me, what next? I answered him first with one word: Write.

Later, in a second note, I expounded a bit: “My advice to simply write is all I really know to say. A writer writes. And the biggest challenge we all face is finding a way to live while we’re writing. Almost no literary writers make a living from writing. A few do, but it’s rare. This is why many of us end up in academia—teaching is a good gig, for those who like it. Biggest challenge there is to remain more writer than teacher. I’ve seen talented writers get drawn so deeply into academic careers that their writing shrinks and shrinks and finally disappears altogether.

On the other hand, there’s a certain financial security in teaching that can provide a sense of freedom to write, and with summers off and more vacation time than many professions, it works well for some. Quite a few famous and successful American writers do it this way. Other good jobs include working in the book biz, maybe as book seller or editor. Those jobs take a lot from you—but then, so does working at Burger King.

The two main things are to trust your writing, keep doing it, keep getting better, keep sending out, keep collecting rejections until they turn into acceptances, and know that this thing you love and absolutely must do probably won’t support you.”

I would add one other one-word bit of advice to an aspiring writer  (which I didn’t need to put in the note to Zach, since he’d heard me say it so many times in workshop): Persevere.

In the long haul, perseverance counts way more than talent. “Talent is long patience,” Flaubert said, “and originality an effort of will and intense observation.” “The writer is the one who stays in the room,” Ron Carlson says.

So: Write. Persevere.

Oh—and read.

Read. Read. Read. Read.

Sarah Domet
is the author of 90 Days to Your Novel (Writer’s Digest Books). Her fiction and nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in Talking Writing, New Delta Review, Cincinnati Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Potomac Review, Harpur Palate, and Many Mountains Moving.  She holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and fiction from the University of Cincinnati, and teaches in the Department of Writing & Linguistics at Georgia Southern University.

Visit her web site:

Read more by and about Sarah:

Sarah’s Five-Star Story, “To Write a Romance”
Talking Writing: Library Love Letter
Writer’s Digest Author Q&A
Story, “The Shape of a Heart” at New Delta Review

How Sarah Domet Became a Writer

This is the first installment in the new How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer will answer the same 5 questions that Sarah answers here. Many thanks to Sarah Domet for being my first victim!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

As a kid, I was extremely shy—so shy, in fact, that in first grade or so, my teacher sent me to the school’s speech therapist to see if she could tap into the underlying “problem.”  I vividly recall sitting next to this stranger on the plaid couch in her office (her “office” was actually in a trailer in the school’s parking lot).  She smelled like cigarettes.

“Why won’t you talk in class?” she asked me in that soft adult-speaking-to-child voice.  I looked at her, shrugged my shoulders.  Quite simply, I enjoyed observing the details in the world around me.  I was shy not because I didn’t have anything to say—but because I sometimes had too much to say.

Writing, back then, was my outlet—my way of interpreting and understanding my own experiences. (Of course, I didn’t tell her that. My shrug seemed to suffice for the moment.) And though in class I could barely find my voice to stammer the “Pledge of Allegiance” when it was my turn to lead, in my fiction I could be anyone and do anything.  Writing empowered me.

Flannery O'Connor becoming a writer

Flannery O’Connor once said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”  This idea really resonates with me—but not because I want to write about my childhood.  Rather, there seems to be a distinct parallel between my reasons for wanting to become a writer and the curiosity that prompts a child (or, at least, prompted me as a child) to ask questions about the world:  Where do I fit in?  Why do good people sometimes do bad things?  What is the nature of love? Why the heck are we here?   These were the questions I explored as a kid through my first attempts at writing—and ones I still, to some extent, address in my fiction.

In the end, I suppose I want to write because I’m curious about the world.  I want to explore subjects I find interesting. I want to imagine what it’s like to be someone else—what’s the psychology involved?  What makes people tick?

Or, maybe I have an extra self-indulgence gene (somewhere next to my hypersensitivity gene) in my DNA. Growing up, my parents always taught me to do what I love—and so I do.  (A real rule follower, I am.)

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I’ve always been a bit impractical.  And, luckily, impracticality can go a long way toward helping a young writer sustain the notion that her love of literature can pay the bills.  A bit of self-delusion goes a long way.  I somehow convinced myself that my writing was strong enough to warrant all those gratuitous years of graduate school while my more practical friends were building careers and families.

Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman

I originally applied to graduate school based almost entirely on my love of reading.  I was an idealist of the highest order in regards to what I thought literature could “do” for the world.  More than anything, I loved reading and analyzing what I’d read.  I loved picking apart texts, or trying to figure out why the author made the particular choices he or she did.  I loved the wisdom some of my favorite novels or stories or poems imparted—like a riddle the reader had to figure out, line by line. [Editor’s note: Check out the images for some of Sarah’s favorite reads.]

I went about becoming a writer by becoming a reader first.  Really, I don’t think the two activities—writing and reading—can be separated.  When I first entered graduate school, I did so without a clue that I’d end up studying creative writing.  (At that point, writing was still my dirty little secret—what I did in the privacy of my tiny apartment.)

Little by little, I learned from the writers I studied; I began to mimic what I liked best in the work of authors I admired the most.  Some of it was awful—but apprentices first learn through the art of imitation.  Then I enrolled in my first fiction writing workshop.  There I was, suddenly out in the open talking about my own writing, my choices, my craft. I understood the first step toward becoming a writer was admitting it. I found it difficult to take those first teetering steps toward calling myself a writer.  But it was liberating when I finally did.

Italo Calvino, "The Distance of the Moon"

Graduate school also provided me my first experience teaching writing—though I had no clue that I even wanted to teach.  (Luckily it was a requirement, not a choice.) The law of kinetics, the one that says something like “a body in motion stays in motion,” applies here: Teaching writing lead to more thinking about writing, which lead to conversations with others about writing, which lead to more writing, and so on.

Grad school helped me with the forward momentum necessary for my work.  However, it’s easy to be a writer in graduate school when you’re living in a cloistered environment of writers, where all the cool kids are doing it.  It’s more difficult to be a writer in the real world.  There, you’re more accountable to yourself.  You have to find your own forward momentum and self-discipline.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

Although I absolutely do not believe one must go to graduate school to be a writer, I do believe that such an experience helps one find an instant community of writers that’s really quite invaluable.  What an asset—a true indulgence—to constantly talk about the craft of writing, writers, novels, poetry, etc.

I was lucky to have the mentorship of some amazing professors, one in particular, who took my writing seriously, and, in turn, caused me to take my own writing seriously.  You don’t know how much it meant to be asked questions about my fiction, to have entire conversations about my writing and my ideas. Those early words of encouragement were huge for me.

Lorrie Moore, Self-Help

I also give my “writer friends” serious credit for teaching me how to balance my writing life and my life-life.  I’m continually impressed by friends who juggle jobs, children, pets, social lives, gardening, intramural kick-ball leagues, and a hundred other things with writing. They’ve taught me that it’s not easy to be responsible for kids or do laundry or grade student work all day—then get back to the writing desk. It takes a lot of self-discipline and will power.  I don’t think this aspect of “the writing life” is discussed often enough.  How do you sustain creativity while shopping for toothpaste or folding laundry?

Meeting emerging and established writers over the years has also given me some perspective.  It’s easy to cast writers as a “type” and then try to live up to this typecasting.  The writers I’ve met weren’t these chaotic, moody, destructive beings.  They didn’t all wear horn-rimmed glasses and jackets with elbow patches (though some did).  Mostly they were normal folks with rather mundane, predictable, consistent writing routines.  In the end that’s a writer’s main responsibility: to write.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I’ve long been fascinated with the life and history of Victoria Woodhull who, though not a creative writer, penned many speeches, articles, essays, and treatises in her day.  She was a flamboyant feminist, an advocate of free love, the first female stockbroker, and the co-founder (with her sister) of the influential and controversial newspaper Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly (best known today for printing the first English version of The Communist Manifesto).

Victoria Woodhull was in no uncertain terms, and even by modern understanding of the phrase, a true bad ass.  She is perhaps most famously known for trying to run for president in 1872, with Frederick Douglas as her running mate, on the Equal Rights Party ticket.  I’m always amazed at how Woodhull, a widely known woman in her day, has somehow fallen out of the historical imagination of most Americans. This woman rubbed elbows with many important people of her time:  She testified before Congress; she was romantically involved with Cornelius Vanderbilt; and she helped to uncover a sex scandal involving Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother, causing a life-long rivalry between the two women.  This woman brought controversy wherever she went—yet she was banished to the backburner of history.

I’ve been working on a Victoria Woodhull side project for some time—one that I hope to return to in the coming year.  It’s difficult to do justice to a woman so interesting, so complex, and so ahead of her time.  If the project of a fiction writer is to create dynamic, compelling characters, that work has already been done by this historical figure. Without a doubt, she receives my vote for 19th Century Woman I’d Most Like to Meet.  (I bet she’d dish on Harriet Beecher Stowe, too.)

For more about Victoria Woodhull: SymonSez, My Hero Project

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Keep writing.  Keep writing.  Keep writing. Giving up is the worst mistake you can make.