At a time when it seems society’s rules are either niceness or insult, sentimentality over thought, I began to feel out of place in my riots of opinion, when the words poured out in a verbose storm.
My writing is steady but the network is small. I lack the ever-desirable community of writers with whom I might feel simpatico.
Along came Flannery.
May I introduce you to Flannery O’Connor?
More concise words than mine can provide a smart introduction to this remarkably smart woman. Suffice it to say, Flannery’s name was one I have heard since encountering the shocking and violent story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in an educational milieu.
Flannery’s name popped up from time to time among Catholic circles. As I entered more into the Catholic literati (anonymously through social media) her name and body of work became a force to be reckoned with. It was in listening, yet again, to “The Fountains of Carrots” Podcast that I encountered a sincere passion for a remarkable writer.
Their advice was not to begin with her short stories for an introduction but her novels, starting with “The Violent Bear It Away.” Best to alternate between reading O’Connor’s fiction and letters in order to come up for air from the grotesque.
Flannery O’Connor was a successful writer in Milledgeville, Georgia in the 1950s and 60s, who died at age 39 of lupus-related kidney failure.
I read her two novels and recommended “A Good Man” for a book club, knowing just enough to facilitate the group. Her stories illustrate the action of grace in the lives of the broken, who, for the most part, are trying to resist it. If grace works in conjunction with nature, but nature is deformed, what will happen? This question she explored.
As my reading continued, I purchased the 600-page volume of O’Connor’s letters. It was true what they said. Here I met her.
What drew me in first was her unabashed opinions. She wrote what she thought and did not hold back.
How long had I been surrounded by the feeling that one must be “nice,” not step on toes, not speak with the freedom the clear ideas I developed throughout the day after listening and reading. For fear offending, I veiled language and opinion.
This is not a call to be rude but to be honest. O’Connor was honest. In her letters to friends, in her letters to strangers, she was full of integrity, said it like it was. If she did not have an opinion, she said that too.
Here is a woman to be admired, I thought.
Deeper into the pages, I followed the advice, alternating between stories and letters. Letters are a powerful way to meet another person.
Next, I discovered the way Flannery, already a respected writer, sent her stories out again and again to friends whose opinion she valued for the input. She almost always made the recommended changes, trusting them for their technical skill and because they grasped the vision of what she was about. It was not their intention to change her writing, as one publisher would have done, but to help make it better. That willingness to seek out the advice of others, to put her work on display and humbly make corrections stirred me. It is a frightful thing to submit for feedback. Yet, she did it again and again.
Inspired I sent my own work out. The responses were promising.
O’Connor wrote letters. If she loved a novel, she wrote a letter to the writer to tell him so. This was how some of her friendships were formed. Before social media and author’s lists of 20,000 followers, these letters formed lasting friendships.
Authenticity, humility, connection.
There is a great deal more to be gained from Flannery O’Connor. She saw the world for what it was, full of pain and full of hope; full of disfigurement and full of beauty. She saw humans as prone to pride and arrogance, but redeemable when a crack can be made. She was interested in that crack.
With any author, you can study the literature and you can study the author. For the time being, I aim to study both.