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It is an inescapable duty for a southern Catholic to admire Flannery O’Connor, and so of course I do. Yet her fiction is not easy to love. As with Shakespeare, the weight of the need to apprehend and appreciate a work beyond the usual pleasures of storytelling sits oppressively on the soul. It’s a responsibility to read mindfully. Sometimes you just want potato chips.  You can’t read Flannery while your watching network tv and tuning out commercials.

Her non-fiction is another kettle of fish altogether. It’s always fun to read what writers have to say when they’re thinking about writing, or  writing about thinking, or just trying to figure out their lives. Reading Flannery O’Connor: A Prayer Journal, I am comforted to discover that her journey of faith traverses a landscape familiar to my own. Early on, she wrestles with the fear that she’s no good as a writer.  She realizes that her desire to write is after all a collaboration with God, and not just a whim to go after willy-nilly. As she experiences writer’s block, she fears that the God Who gave her the gift of words has taken it away. We realize that even for a unique genius like Flannery O’Connor, the vocation of the Christian writer meshes ambition and humility in an uneasy partnership/antagonism.

She also worries about how she is incorporating religion into her stories, a prescient fear when you think about how her work was received by many critics.

“Dear God, tonight … you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story– just like the typewriter was mine. Please let the story, dear God, in its revisions, be made too clear for any false & low interpretation because in it, I am not trying to disparage anyone’s religion although when it was coming out, I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to do or what it was going to mean.”[1]

Does any writer really know what he or she was trying to do or what the story means, even after it is finished? Like the child to which it is so often compared, a story bears the marks of its parentage but is a unique and living creature all its own.

To what story was Flannery referring above? She was twenty-one when she wrote that– I’m not sure she had published any stories yet at that point. She wrote her prayer journal in Iowa City where she was  attending writers’ workshops. Reading this worry of hers early on about how she wrote religion into her fiction was enlightening. She knows she might go too far and not only be misunderstood but worse:

“Please don’t let me have to scrap the story because it turns out to mean more wrong than right– or any wrong. I want it to mean that the good in man sometimes shows through his commercialism but that is not the fault of commercialism that it does. Perhaps the idea would be that good can show through even something that is cheap.”

Reading her prayer journal puts it into my head to try her stories again. Dang wouldn’t you know it I have none at hand.

She’s hilariously extreme in her address of God, finishing up her thoughts on this story she’s working on:

“Anyway it all brings me to thanksgiving, the third thing to include in prayer. When I think of all I have to be thankful for I wonder that You don’t just kill me now because You’ve done so much for me already & I haven’t been particularly grateful.”‘

Oh, Flannery!

[1] O’Connor, Flannery, A Prayer Journal, edited by W.A. Sessions, p.11
[2] Ibid, p.12

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