If You Want to Write Well


I’ve long believed that the best way to become a good writer is to be a good reader. As explained in this post, copying the work of others is a great way to learn. I don’t know if Flannery O’Connor was in the habit of copying down the words of other writers, but in a letter to “A ” (dated 28 August 1955) she shares her literary influences (beginning with an explanation of who Mrs. Tate is; Flannery had mentioned her in a previous letter to A):

Mrs. Tate is Caroline Gordon Tate, the wife of Allen Tate. She writes fiction as good as anybody, though I have not read much of it myself. They, with John Crowe Ransom and R.P. Warren, were prominent in the ’20s in that group at Vanderbilt that called itself the Fugitives. The Fugitives* are now here there and yonder. Anyway Mrs. Tate has taught me a lot about writing.

Which brings me to the embarrassing subject of what I have not read and been influenced by. I hope nobody ever asks me in public. If so I intend to look dark and mutter, “Henry James Henry James”—which will be the veriest lie, but no matter. I have not been influenced by the best people. The only good things I read when I was a child were the Greek and Roman myths which I got out of a set of child’s encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge. The rest of what I read was Slop with a capital S. The Slop period was followed by the Edgar Allan Poe period which lasted for years and consisted chiefly in a volume called The Humerous Tales of E.A. Poe.** These were mighty humerous—one about a young man who was too vain to wear his glasses and consequently married his grandmother by accident; another about a fine figure of a man who in his room removed wooden arms, wooden legs, hair piece, artificial teeth, voice box, etc. etc.; another about the inmates of a lunatic asylum who take over the establishment and run it to suit themselves. This is an influence I would rather not think about. I went to a progressive high school where one did not read if one did not wish to; I did not wish to (except the Humerous Tales etc.). In college I read works of social-science, so-called. The only thing that kept me from being a social-scientist was the grace of God and the fact that I couldn’t remember the stuff but a few days after reading it.

I didn’t really start to read until I went to Graduate School and then I began to read and write at the same time. When I went to Iowa I had never heard of Faulkner, Kafka, Joyce, much less read them. Then I began to read everything at once, so much so that I didn’t have time I suppose to be influenced by any one writer. I read all the Catholic novelists, Mauriac, Bernanos, Bloy, Greene, Waugh; I read all the nuts like Djuna Barnes and Dorothy Richardson and Va. Woolf (unfair to the dear lady of course); I read the best Southern writers like Faulkner and the Tates, K.A. Porter, Eudors Welty and Peter Taylor; read the Russians, not Tolstoy so much but Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and Gogol. I became a great admirer of Conrad and have read almost all his fiction. I have totally skipped such people as Dreiser, Anderson (except for a few short stories) and Thomas Wolfe. I have learned something from Hawthorne, Flaubert, Balzac and something from Kafka, though I have never been able to finish one of his novels. I’ve read almost all of Henry James—from a sense of High Duty and because when I read James I feel something is happening to me, in slow motion but happening nevertheless. I admire Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. But always the largest thing that looms up is The Humerous Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. I am sure he wrote them all while drunk too.

Well, that added a few more tags to my (currently) 1700+. I’ve been working at whittling them down, though, and will continue to do so.

I find Flannery’s extensive reading of Henry James interesting (along with Poe—not hard to see an influence there). Last night, I finished reading The Bostonians by James. It is a story populated by characters who will stick with me for a very long time. Whenever I tried to pin one of them down, put her (or him) into a box, I found that they wouldn’t stay put. They are just too real. I learned that James is a marvelous storyteller and creator of human beings.


*I just found this link about the Fugitives, which looks rather fascinating. I’ll have to watch it once I finish this post.

**In the introduction to The Habit of Being, Sally Fitzgerald explains about Flannery, “One thing she had little interest in learning, however, was how to spell. … Except for obvious misslicks on the typewriter, I have retained her own versions of what words ought to look like; to have corrected them would have destroyed some of the savor of her letters.”

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