In the summer between my junior and senior years of college, I took a 2-week poetry workshop with Alfred Corn. I was not particularly fond of that class—Corn was a distant, formal man, serious about poetry and attentive to our poems but rather dour about the entire enterprise. In particular he didn’t compare well to the teacher we’d had the 2 weeks prior, the affable and sparklingly brilliant Robert Hass. Hass had ended our 2 weeks with him by walking around the room and giving every one of us a bear hug.
Corn ended our 2 weeks by giving us a piece of advice—“If you are capable of doing anything else in the world, anything at all other than being a poet, I urge you: do that instead. Don’t do this.” It was a wry joke, and I think it was delivered affectionately, meant to inoculate us against the many disappointments and frustrations we would encounter if we chose that thankless path. But it stuck in my head like nothing else he said that summer.
I found plenty of things to do with myself other than writing poems; it turned out I was vaguely capable of several of them. I wasn’t a terrible teacher. I could design websites and code them. I could cook. At one point I thought I might make a go of it as a dog trainer. Since I could do other things, I thought, surely I should. But I kept yearning to write, kept wanting to throw everything else I had to the wind and take a crack at it. It would be unfair to say that Corn’s warning alone stopped me—my own laziness, my career anxiety, my fear of failure were more than enough to keep me from writing. But it worked in my mind like a fatal mantra, a constant reminder that to follow the path I wanted to follow would lead almost certainly to the abyss.
Years after that class—I was living in New York, working on the things I could do instead of writing—I spent some time reading through a Library of America edition of Flannery O’Connor. When I finished the stories, I got into her letters. One was to a young man from Georgia who’d asked her for advice—not about writing, but about faith. He was 19 years old, a first-year student at Emory University, confused about how to reconstruct himself after having had his childhood beliefs dismantled by professors in his philosophy and literature classes. How, he wanted to know, did an intelligent person reconcile faith with all that we knew and thought about the modern world?
“This experience you are having of losing faith, or as you think, of having lost it,” she wrote, “is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this….I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief ”
The man she was writing to—in 1962—was Alfred Corn. She continued:
If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation….Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It’s there, even when he can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian scepticism. It will keep you free—not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.
What a gift that letter was—and is. O’Connor was near the end of her life in 1962, her body wracked by lupus. She was famous, owed this kid nothing, presumably had plenty to do more important than to encourage a stranger in his doubt. And yet she did encourage him. She made the case for faith so well that I thought if someone had spoken like that to me when I was in college I would still believe.