Things I Should Have Read in Grad School

Sometimes you’ve just got to surrender to the season. I’m a writer in need of a strict routine and when it gets broken or interrupted, I’m pretty much useless. So for the next few weeks I’m switching my focus to reading and studying other writers, namely writers that I probably should have read years ago.

Since I started reading books about writing, I’ve realized how much of my cannon is sadly lacking. I’m still not sure how I made it through a three-year MFA program without reading “The Dead” or D.H. Lawrence or John Steinbeck or Moby Dick for that matter. Every time someone sends me a 100 Greatest Books Ever meme I feel like someone should revoke my MFA.

Well, no more. Over the holidays I plan to not only do some fun reading (The Uses of Enchantment and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) but to beat my way through the list of books on my “I should read this” list.

Today was all about Flannery O’Connor: “Geranium,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The River,” “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” “Revelation,” and “Judgment Day.”

I don’t think you can make it through a college freshman composition course without reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “Good Country People,” but the rest of her stories are usually left for more avid readers, O’Connor fans, or literature majors. It’s a shame, but it’s not hard to figure out why. O’Connor’s stories are not for the faint of heart. The characters are sympathetic, but difficult to like. I read a passage from “Revelations” to Hubs, who promptly retorted (about the character), “Wow, what a bitch.” Exactly! And yet, still sympathetic. It’s a mystery to me.

I’ll leave the analysis and the academic review of these stories for the more skilled. The things I took away from them were probably not revelations to anyone but me. Anyway, I was struck by the language O’Connor used to create these worlds and characters. In “The Geranium” she writes, “People boiled out of the trains and up steps and over onto the streets. They rolled off the street and down the steps and into trains – black and white and yellow all mixed up like vegetables in a soup. Everything was boiling.” That paragraph stayed with me, not just for it’s electricity, but because it’s a great (and obvious) example of using an image to depict a character’s point of view. I was overwhelmed just reading that paragraph, which is how I would expect the protagonist (an elderly man from the country) to react to the New York City subways as well.

I also admire O’Connor’s willingness to create ugly characters. Most of these stories dealt with a character with some physical abnormality. Those that are more intact physically are at least overweight or “plain.” This is something I struggle with in my writing. I’m usually a little afraid to create an ugly character and in the all the workshops I attended, I recall only one story where a character was homely and that definitely wasn’t the protagonist. I think we aspiring writers could all take a lesson from this and try creating a protagonist that is at least a little ugly. (Hmm… I sense a writing exercise here.)

There’s so much more to take away from Connor’s short stories. I’m glad I finally branched out beyond the usual stories. I’m sure I’ll be returning to these stories for years to come to learn how to handle character, structure, place and so much more.

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