I meant to write so much more this week, but my life sort of hijacked me, as it is often want to do. I’ll follow up, tomorrow or Tuesday, with a recipe I’m going to try today, and stories about the Chocolate Festival, but for today, I want to focus on the woman who almost ruined me for writing: Flannery O’Connor.
Flannery O’Connor was born today in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, a quirky Southern town very much aware of its own Southern charm. When I was in college, I declared English as my major, with an emphasis in Creative Writing.
“Oh,” people would say to me. “You’re a Southern girl who wants to write. You should read Flannery O’Connor.” They lifted her up as this pinnacle of Southern writing: if you want to be a Southern writer, then read Flannery.
I’ll tell you one thing right now: I got sick of Flannery O’Connor real fast. The South she wrote about might as well have been a foreign country – dirt roads and bare feet and prosthetic-pilfering Bible salesmen. Southern fiction, as far as I could tell, was dark and twisted and grotesque. Anyone who knows me knows that, typically I’m… well, not.
I grew up in metro Atlanta. I shopped at Lenox Mall on Saturdays (strictly window shopping before my sister and I headed over to Old Navy – poor college students can’t afford the wares for sale at Lenox). I went to Starbucks and Target and bought gas at Costco. I talked fast – still do – and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t write the grotesque. Flannery O’Connor, as far as I could tell, was a ghost, haunting over my shoulder, taunting me for every well-adjusted suburban character I wrote.
It wasn’t until graduate school that I read Mystery and Manners. I trudged through an essay on raising peacocks before making it to her words about writing. I’ll admit: I was skeptical. I had stopped believing years ago that Flannery had anything to teach me. And then, lo and behold, in the third essay of the book, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” Flannery confessed:
I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families, nor Bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs.
I knew it!! I was glib and triumphant. I had caught her in the big, ridiculous lie that had been created for me: to be a Southern writer, you had to write a dark, twisted, sordid Georgia full of convicts and freaks and what not. I kept reading, made it to “The Regional Writer,” and I hit on this gem that put me right back into my seat:
Southern identity is not really connected with mocking-birds and beaten biscuits and white columns any more than it is with hookworm and bare feet and muddy clay roads. Nor is it necessarily shown forth in the antics of our politicians, for the development of power obeys strange laws of its own. An identity is not to be found on the surface; it is not accessible to the poll-taker; it is not something that can become a cliche. It is not made from the mean average or the typical, but from the hidden and often the most extreme. It is not made from what passes, but from those qualities that endure, regardless of what passes, because they are related to truth. It lies very deep. In its entirety, it is known only to God, but of those who look for it, none gets so close as the artist.
Yes. I had suspected it. I had written a cover letter to graduate programs insisting as much: Southern identity in fiction writing wasn’t something that could be typified. It wasn’t something we could define and teach, though we can teach literature that we believe to be Southern. But then, isn’t literary criticism a whole different matter, quite separate from the creation of fiction?
I think we have literary parents. I think of writers, long gone, who I look to as teachers, as parents who brought me through my rough years and still love me (or at least tolerate me) long after I’ve learned to stop acting like a snotty undergrad: Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty. I have an entire literary matriarchy. I have aunts: Tayari Jones, Elizabeth Dewberry, Ellen Gilchrist. I have had teachers who have worked at making me grow as a writer, who have shown me not only how to live as a writer (in the practical, day-to-day ways) but also who have painstakingly taught me the details of craft and technique. At AWP in Denver a couple years ago, Tayari Jones introduced me to a guy who had taken one of her workshops elsewhere. “I’ve taught you both,” she said; “That makes you cousins.” I have friends, literary siblings, shall we say, who I struggle alongside as we try desperately to write our books and convince someone to publish them.
It is common to fight against our influences, our literary parents, and I fought Flannery for a good long time. But in the quote above, she stopped me. She sat me down and schooled me. “Look it here, whipper-snapper,” she said to me, (in my imagination, where she wears glasses and points a finger and uses words like ‘whipper-snapper’), “Look it here, and listen to me. You may think you know what Southern fiction is because you’re from Georgia and you have a lot of cooking oil running through your veins and you’ve read a fair share of Faulkner and Welty and worked at the Margaret Mitchell Museum, but you won’t know the first thing until you stop being so smug and start writing. Start telling the truth. Stop trying to be Southern and just be.”
(These are the notes I read between the lines. They don’t appear in all editions of the book.)
That was the moment when I stopped fighting Flannery. It was ground-breaking. It continues to be. And in that spirit, I say happy birthday to Flannery O’Connor.