On this day in 1925, Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia. Today, in honor of her life, I’ve decided to try and put down on paper why she has recently become one of the authors I admire most. It’s actually been fairly difficult to pin down why exactly I love her writing so much. Her stories are often dark and grotesque, she had a sharp sense of humor, and I get the feeling from her letters and journals that she didn’t take any nonsense from anybody.
Yet, I love her. I guess I should start this post by describing how I came to know and admire her writing. When I did my student teaching, I taught “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to my twelfth grade students, but I didn’t really understand it–I knew it was a good story, but that was about it. Then, two years later, I discovered more about her through an online writing course that was based on her short stories.
I vividly remember running from my car through a pouring June thunderstorm to sit down inside Moe’s, eat a burrito, and read another of her essays from Mystery and Manners. When I think of Flannery O’Connor, I think of Georgia summers and heat lightning. She, more than any other Southern writer, reminds me of home.
So here is my attempt at explaining why I admire her so much. Writing this post felt like herding cats because I have too many pictures and ideas running through my brain! I’ve kept it simple by listing the two things I love most about O’Connor: Her writing and her faith.
O’Connor’s stories are brilliant. She is able to perfectly encapsulate Southern culture of the fifties and sixties, religious themes and messages, zany characters, and haunting images in a few short pages of text. Anything a good short story should have can usually be found in one of O’Connor’s.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned from her is the importance of significant detail. She builds symbolism by giving items a growing sense of meaning and purpose as the story goes on. She also uses concrete reality to shape her stories. These concrete details and very real characters provide space for the mysteries of faith. As she writes in Mystery and Manners:
What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of an abstract truth. The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.
The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality depend by contact with mystery. Fiction should be both canny and uncanny. In a good deal of popular criticism, there is the notion operating that all fiction has to be about the Average Man, and has to depict average ordinary everyday life, that every fiction writer must produce what used to be called “a slice of life.” But if life, in that sense, satisfied us, there would be no sense in producing literature at all.
I mean, I could quote Mystery and Manners to you all day–I love it so much that it’s the only required textbook for the creative writing course I will be teaching next year. In her essays, O’Connor describes how she lets her conscience and her sense of moral judgment guide her in writing fiction. I’ve read those essays time and time again, and I always find something new or interesting hidden away in them.
She was also a letter writer, and I’ve been slowly working my way through her letters over the last few weeks. There are some gems hidden inside, and reading them helps you get to know O’Connor the way her friends got to know her–by reading her letters and hearing her describe her own struggles as a writer. It’s incredibly encouraging as a writer to read advice like this:
Any criticism at all which depresses you to the extent that you feel you cannot ever write anything worth anything is from the Devil and to subject yourself to it is for you an occasion of sin. In you the talent is there and you are expected to use it. Whether the work itself is completely successful, or whether you ever get any worldly success out of it, is a matter of no concern to you. It is like the Japanese swordsmen who are indifferent to getting slain in the duel.
I think I’m going to tape that quote to my wall or make it the background image on my computer for a few months.
But it’s not just her writing that inspires me, it’s her ability to be a strong woman of faith who wrote stories that unsettle people to the point of reflective thought.
O’Connor’s main appeal to me is her relationship with Jesus. Raised a Catholic, O’Connor’s fiction is full of moments of grace, and she sums up her philosophy of writing in this statement:
“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”
And even though her fiction is saturated with theological principles and moments of grace, she avoids falling into the idea that a Christian writer has to write “Christian fiction.” In fact, she says this about her writing:
You may ask, why not simply call this literature Christian? Unfortunately, the word Christian is no longer reliable. It has come to mean anyone with a golden heart. And a golden heart would be a positive interference in the writing of fiction.
O’Connor’s stories wouldn’t fit well on the shelves between the Francine Rivers and Lynn Austin books I used to read in high school or even some of the Christian fiction I read now. There is nothing wrong with Christian fiction as we know it, but O’Connor claims there is something a little disingenuous in purporting to know how God would move in a certain situation. She wrote about the world she saw, she wrote about the people she knew, and she left room in her fiction for the mystery of grace. God’s grace is a mystery in real life; why should we force it to be knowable in our fiction?
One of the best ways to discover her incredible faith is by reading her prayer journal. I find myself turning to it again and again to see how she specifically prayed about her gifts as a writer. She knew she was talented, but she still struggled to get words on the page.
I also (selfishly) love it because she kept her prayer journal in a black and white composition book just like I have since college. I didn’t know this about her until a few years ago, but it made me feel like we were kindred spirits. 🙂
So there you have it–clearly I’m crazy and obsessed and I’ll be the first in line to get an autograph from Flannery when we all get to Heaven. But seriously, if you haven’t read anything by this amazing woman, run, don’t walk to Amazon/Barnes and Noble/Half Price Books to find out more about her. Or check out this list of helpful resources I’ve gathered for you!
Visit her home in Milledgeville.
I went in September, and it was such a fun, easy road trip from Atlanta!
Read a Biography.
There’s no better way to get to know Flannery than to read a biography. I’ve often found they can help me understand a writer better before I even read his or her fiction. Here are two of my favorites:
The Terrible Speed of Mercy by Jonathan Rogers
Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch
Read her Writing.
Whether or not reading is your favorite past time, I promise her stories will grab your attention. Don’t believe me? Start with “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “Everything that Rises Must Converge” and then let me know how you liked it!
Thanks for reading this long, rather unorganized post about one of my favorite authors of all time. Let me know in the comments how Flannery has inspired you!