Guest contributor: Debora Black

Bad Advice Wednesday: Is That So?

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Speaking of Flannery O’Connor, someone I once knew actually met her, and not only that, spoke with her.

It might have been about 1960, for my acquaintance was a college student at the time.  He had gone to a reading or some sort of literary talk and, terrified to meet the writer, he willed himself to remain in the line of people approaching her.  Trembling he was, the closer he came.  After all, it was she, The Flannery, The Queen of the South, known as much for a terse sensibility as a turn of phrase.  He struggled over what he would say to this great one, and was still discarding ideas when he all too soon found himself face to face with her.  She was accurate to the photographs.  Tightly curled hair.  Winged spectacles.  Sharp eyes.  The complete Flannery.  Rattled, he opened his mouth and heard these words come out I want to be a writer.  He was, of course, immediately mortified.  How could he?  Never a published word, in fact he had hardly put pen to paper really.  His eyes went wide at his mistake.  He could have fallen at her feet in his despair.   But it was too late.  The writer’s face went to stone.  The sharp in her eyes sharpened.  Her lips barely moved, but she said, very distinctly, Is that so.  Not a question.  Dismissed!  And that was the end of that.

Well, since my own writing doubts were the point of our discussion, I was horrified by his story.  I gasped.  I asked my acquaintance How could she be so cold?  How could she be so lacking in empathy?  This was dream-crushing stuff, here.  In the middle of my creative writing program, I did not take this lightly and thought on the entire incident from time to time.

About two years ago it finally came to me, and it is all quite simple, and yet for the person who says I want to be a writer, it might take years to get.  For me, ten, and it went like this:

I said I want to be a writer, so I moved to the mountains and spent hours and hours hiking into the landscape.  I was intensely involved with my surround and learned the particulars of the trails and the particulars of the tracks and droppings of the wildlife.

Is that so

I said I want to be a writer, so I became the director of an art gallery and studied all the nuances regarding the works of some the best oil painters of the West.  I honed my selling skills and placed dozens of paintings.  I even developed an art collection by trading my commissions for paintings (clever girl).

I said I want to be a writer, so I skied almost every day and took clinics and got a ski instructor certification.  I put all my practice to good use, and now I can ski through the half-pipe (minus the tricks), I can elicit oohs and ahs as I fly by other skiers, I can dart through the moguls, and keep up (sort of) with a former Olympian with whom I sometimes ski

I said I want to be a writer, so I started teaching again, this time at the local college, and devoted countless hours to helping my students become better and stronger and more successful in their individual pursuits.

I said I want to be a writer, so I renovated my condo, I adopted four dogs and a cat, I did some traveling, and I invested myself in a sexy relationship with a sexy man.  Whew!

But where was the writing?  Oh.  Hmm.  Where did I put all of that, I wondered.  And I started looking.  The filing cabinet, yes, there was some.  Under the bed, more.  Stuffed between books on the shelves, inside a dust-covered box, among the almost empty pages of this and that forgotten journal.  I collected all of my pages together and…tatters, my friends, tatters.

And what to do now?  I flung myself across the beautiful wood floors that I had helped to lay and had a good weep in the style of southern heroines, But I just wanted to be a writer I sobbed to my animals, the only creatures likely to listen by this time.  I gave some thought to Flannery O’Connor, her singular greatness (enough to rattle any wanna be to pieces) and her indifferent pronouncement.  Fuck Flannery O’Connor I said.  Fuck that pasty-faced bitch!  And then I did what no one else could do for me or keep me from doing, one phrase and then the next, until my first new piece was complete.  And then I began again.  Because, you see, I finally got what she’d said.

As for my acquaintance, he had gotten it much sooner than I.  He had risen long ago from the ashes of that day and carried on by writing and publishing his own fine collection of books.  Is that so’d right on into greatness, the difference between wanting and being having been made explicit.


Debora Black is a writer and athlete living in Steamboat Springs, CO.

  1. Lorna Hamilton writes:

    The phrase “Is that so” in this essay can be applied to anything a person is striving for. That’s what makes this essay so important. For me……I want to learn to cross country ski after snowboarding for so long…..”Is that so”. I want to join Alanon and gain some tools to help my alcoholic brother….”Is that so”. I want to have many joyful moments each and every day…”Is that so”. Thank you Debora! I think I will just start looking around and finding all of those tatters that are here somewhere.

    • Debora writes:

      Hi Lorna! I can totally see you cross country skiing! Bruce’s Trail next year–my favorite spot. Pack a lunch! Definitely clears the head and frees the soul for all the rest. Glad you had a chance to sign on to Cocktail Hour.

  2. Tina writes:

    Amazing work, Debora. Especially poignant as I pick up my own tatters.

    • Debora writes:

      Tina’s here! Yay! Glad you like. Thanks for the read. I’m not worried about you at all, Miss Thang. The way you can road bike all the way to Toponas and back (or some such) and spend a summer morning running the ski mountain…tells me everything I need to know.

  3. Stephan Zittel writes:

    I enjoyed this so much! So many of us get caught up in the day to day of our world. Work, errands, family, vacations, TV, etc…that we lose sight of dreams we had in our youth. It’s all a process and you did a wonderful job of putting it back into perspective. That it is indeed, never too late to get started!

    • Debora writes:

      I know! Everyone needs to stop doing that…and it’s never too late to learn who Flannery O’Connor is! When Steph finished reading this he turned to me and said, “Flannery O’Connor’s a woman?” We had a good laugh over that. He was kidding, actually, but that’s what everyone loves about Stephan, he can always make you laugh.

  4. Ann writes:

    A wonderful piece. The difference between reality and dreams is — to resort to cliché — blood, sweat, and tears. Sometimes shedding the tears first is necssary to clear the way for all the hard work that goes into creating our realities. It is never too late to gain perspective and to BE what we want to be. Brava!!!

    • Debora writes:

      Ann was my reader for that first new piece I mentioned in the essay. I knew I could trust her–felt she was the only person I could trust– with my tatters. Ann is a big time lawyer and a lover of literature. She had a great eye and lots of compassion. My little sister!

      Thanks Annie!!!