The habit of art: How to write better stories, more consistently

“Art is the habit of the artist.” – Flannery O’Connor

In 1955, Flannery O’Connor wrote a short story called “Good Country People,” which is often remembered in lit classes as the story where a Bible salesman steals a woman’s wooden leg. Many consider it to be among O’Connor’s greatest works, and yet…

She wrote it in a single draft.

Without a plan or outline.

She just… wrote. Straight into the rabbit hole, and came out with a masterpiece.

How, you ask? (Because I sure wondered.)

According to O’Connor, she was able to pull off a nearly perfect first draft because she’d developed something called the “Habit of Art.”

Now, it’s unlikely any of us will ever pull off a feat like O’Connor’s (which was a one-time occurrence even for her), but her Habit of Art really is something anyone can develop — and it’s the key to writing better stories, more consistently.

What exactly is the Habit of Art?

The idea is pretty straightforward, even if French philosopher Jacques Maritain (whom O’Connor referenced) makes it seem convoluted in Art and Scholasticism. Basically, he claims that when an artist reaches a certain point in their development, the creation of art becomes not just an active pursuit, but a natural inclination.

Art, in other words, becomes a habit — your subconscious naturally conspiring to help you craft meaningful stories whenever you sit down to write.

Sounds cool, right? But what does that look like in practice?

Well, to start, it’s not like going into a trance and running on complete creative autopilot. As O’Connor explains in the essay “Writing Short Stories,” the act of writing “is something in which the whole personality takes part — the conscious as well as the subconscious mind.”

Art, in other words, is created through a collaboration between your conscious and subconscious — between logic and creativity. When you develop the Habit of Art, what you’re really doing is developing and empowering the subconscious part of your creative process.

That, in turn allows your conscious mind to do less heavy lifting and act more as a guiding force — focusing and directing your creativity.

How to develop a Habit of Art

The process of developing any habit is simple: do something over and over consciously, until it becomes an unconscious action.

That’s how professional musicians and athletes learn to perform consistently under pressure: they practice particular movements, breathing techniques, and thought processes over and over, until they learn to act that way every time, without thinking.

For writers it’s the same. The Habit of Art isn’t a single habit, so much as a collection of habits, skills, and instincts that come together in your subconscious to improve your writing. (You can see how to accelerate your growth with this mindset here.)

Here are key activities that help develop a Habit of Art:

  • Writing exercises. Just as musicians and athletes use exercises to turn specific skills into habits, so can writers use exercises to sharpen and habituate their approach to imagery, rhythm, voice, figurative language, etc. All you need to do is choose the skills you want to habituate, find a relevant exercise (or make your own), then do that exercise regularly, until it starts to feel more natural.
  • Reading and writing. This is a no-brainer, and it’s common advice. To develop a natural instinct for storytelling, you need to be immersed in books — savoring the plot, language, and characters, while simultaneously breaking down how they work. You also need to be elbows deep in your own writing, mimicking and exploring and experimenting, so the craft seeps into your bones.
  • Observing the world. In O’Connor’s view, the Habit of Art is more than just a discipline: it’s a way of seeing. And I agree. The best writers learn to habitually observe the world and find meaning in the little moments. So slow down, and take the time to notice the life passing you by. The more you do, the more your observations will start finding their way into your work.

Here’s the good news

If this all sounds overwhelming, I want you to take comfort in this: you already have a Habit of Art.

And it’s growing.

The Habit of Art isn’t some mythical switch you suddenly flip upon attaining artistic enlightenment. Instead, I believe it’s something you start developing early on, and its growth is a natural result of you reading, writing, and living.

So do those things. Read, write, and live thoughtfully — then watch as your Habit of Art develops.

I can’t promise it will help you write a single-draft masterpiece like it did for Flannery O’Connor.

But I know it will help you write some incredible stories.

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