“(Writing is like) pushing a stone uphill with my nose.”
- Flannery O’Connor
One of my great pleasures after a long day is to spend an hour or two reading during the evening. On my book table there sits a pile of books, some put aside for later and several of them ongoing: Light Lifting, Alexander MacLeod; The Winter Vault, Anne Michaels; Elizabeth Bishop’s collected works, Bishop: Prose, Poems, and Letters; and a companion pair, Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories and her collected letters, The Habit of Being.
I’ve been making my way through O’Connor’s letters, which are as arresting and fascinating as anything I’ve ever read. Reading her comments on her own work, and then hopping over to the story collection to see what she’s talking about has given me a glimpse at how she pushed that stone uphill with her nose. It seems that when I need it, Flannery’s advice (written to another writer from another time, but really – to me) is there, waiting:
“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away.”
Words which apply to any of the artistic disciplines.
“… sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact is if you don’t sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won’t be sitting there.”
A lump thickens in my throat, catching me off-guard. It’s so familiar; I feel somehow chastened, ashamed by my own lack of discipline. What have I missed by not sitting there every day? I can’t bear to read it again, so I carry on reading. A few pages later:
“I have put up the novel for a short spell and am writing a short story and it’s like a vacation in the mountains.”
Now I feel somehow absolved, and the throat lump recedes. For months my own novel has been gathering dust on a shelf – stalled? Abandoned? Forsaken? But the writing of short stories has indeed been like a vacation in the mountains; and I have three new stories to show for it.
I continue reading, and am endlessly cheered by O’Connor’s thoughts on her peachickens (Flannery loved nothing more than observing the peafowl she kept on the farm where she lived):
“I am keeping my mind on important things, like peachickens. The season has been terrifyingly productive. I used to say I wanted so many of them that every time I went out the door I stepped on one. Now every time I go out the door, one steps on me.”
Flannery’s last word of advice for the evening:
“… all writing is painful and… if it is not painful then it is not worth doing.”
I find her words a comfort, and ready my nose for more stone-pushing.