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Frank O’Connor Studies

Manuscript Page of 'Judas'

Frank O’Connor at Work

by Prof. Michael Steinman
Nassau Community College, New York

O’Connor’s casually seamless prose hides what Yeats called “stitching and unstitching,” as the evidence shows. We have the handwritten and typewritten drafts his widow Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy rescued from the wastebasket for over more than a decade, which show that he was never easily satisfied, discarding as flawed those stories another writer would have found gratifying and complete. He even rewrote stories when asked to assemble them for a new publication. In his collection Traveller’s Samples, he told an American interviewer in 1951, “there’s a story which I published twice, once in Ireland, once in America, and neither version bears much resemblance to the other or to the version in the book. As I have not now seen it in six months, I have a wild hope that I really may have gotten it out of my system.” This was more than editorial polishing:

I know there is only one correct way to write a story, and that is the way I do it. If there were a more correct way, I’d use that. That doesn’t mean that I’m blind to the merits of other writers. On the contrary, considering that they use the wrong methods, I think it remarkable that they should write as well as they do. But I think they would write still better if they wrote in my way.” (“One Man’s Way” 151-2).

Pages from an O'Connor notebook

Although his mock-vehemence is in part comic, O’Connor believed in his self-created method and urged his students to follow it. A story could begin with any bit of experience – an anecdote heard, an incident remembered, but it had to suggest, even at that early stage, a larger theme, implications beyond its importance to the teller. The theme, to O’Connor, could best be captured in a brief form that encapsulated its essential characters and action in the most spare way. Kate Murphy, one of his students, remembered that “he insisted that each of us write down in no more than four sentences what the projected story was – not what it was ‘about.’” Some of his students even adopted algebraic symbols, so that the plot of his story “Michael’s Wife” could be reduced to “X marries Y abroad. He wrote down these “themes” in pocket notebooks, using them as portable collections of inspirations for new stories, checking themes off when a story had been successfully completed. If a theme seemed promising, the next step was a “treatment,” written in a lawyer’s brief book, something more expansive but still compact; a treatment did not emphasize the quality of the prose, but focused on “construction,” the design of the narrative as revealed through incidents, not description or dialogue. After Y’s death X returns to home of Y’s parents but does not tell them that Y is dead.” O’Connor said:

It looks crude, but from my point of view it has its advantages. It enables me as a writer to get the subject clear; to forget all about America, all about Co. Cork and the North of Ireland – to even forget that the principal character is a woman, not a man, so that I can ask myself whether the story wouldn’t be equally true if the person who came back was a man instead of a woman. Above all it gives me freedom – freedom to try out that story in terms of a city rather than a village and in terms of characters who can give the story its fullest significance. (“One Man’s Way” 153).

'Girl at Gaol Gate' Draft

From there, he would write a fuller handwritten first draft and edit it, then revise that draft in typescript, often editing either version (original, carbon copy, or manuscript) in the margins or on the blank side of the facing pages. Mrs. O’Donovan Sheehy recalled in a 1983 interview, “When he went back to a story, he’d open up the [brief] book and he’d type from it; he always used the version before when he was on the next one. And if he’d finished that, if he liked the next one better, then the first one would go into the scrap basket, which is where I came in. I didn’t always succeed; there were times when he threw it away and I wasn’t noticing.”

He might send a finished story to The New Yorker, where, once accepted, it would then be examined by their fiction editors – most often, O’Connor’s friend, the writer William Maxwell, and the two men would consider not only the smallest details of fact and word choice, but the story’s essential shape, what Maxwell called,”its emotion, its effect, its form, its pattern.” Publication in a magazine was not the end – not only did O’Connor revisit already published stories before considering them worthy of inclusion in a new book, but the book itself (following Yeats’s ideal) had to have its own “ideal ambiance.” He planned collections to be called The Little Town: Stories of Provincial Life and a book of stories about children, punningly called Small Ones, a companion volume to Domestic Relations to be called Public Relations, and a book of stories about priests, The Collar, which Mrs. O’Donovan Sheehy edited and published in 1998.

In retrospect, many of his readers would have been happy if his creative method had been slightly less demanding, freeing him to write more stories rather than perfecting others – but O’Connor’s methods of revision and recreation gave his their particular magnificence. That he published over two hundred stories in a forty-year career testifies to how hard he worked; the stories speak for themselves.

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