Flannery O’Connor: A Born Writer

“He’s a born politician.” “She’s a born actress.” “He’s a born preacher.” “She’s a born lawyer.” These are examples of an expression I heard often when I was a young man describing someone who seems to possess an innate talent or skill for a profession or avocation. People who excel in this fashion often exhibited certain predispositions at an early age that their family and friends recall and associate with their success. I am not qualified to comment on the influences of DNA over environment in determining aptitude, but most of us can remember that one child who seemed almost obsessed with a certain activity, pursuit, or area of interest and eventually grew up to turn that fixation into a lifelong career.

  • The librarian who as a child organized into collections and sub-collections every single book, DVD, and CD in the house
  • The biology teacher who as a child captured and studied every living creature within a one-mile radius of home and could spout off a half dozen facts about almost any major species
  • The information technologist and software architect who as a child voraciously read encyclopedias and was fascinated by computers and programming (think young Bill Gates)

When I served as the director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation in Milledgeville, Georgia, I frequently gave presentations about O’Connor, which included a brief overview of her life that was cut short at the age of 39 from the effects of lupus. Along with many others who have studied her life and work, I perceived that Flannery O’Connor was indeed a born writer. I’m sure the same case could be made for any number of writers, but I know much more about the childhood of Flannery O’Connor than any other author.

Mary Flannery O’Connor (her full name) was born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, and was the only child of Edward and Regina O’Connor.  She was raised by a Catholic family that sometimes viewed children much like small versions of adults, a perspective largely abandoned by the 19th century. Young Mary Flannery thrived in this atmosphere. She was a bold, precocious little girl who took herself quite seriously. She referred to her parents by their first names, not “Daddy” or “Momma.” When he was away from home, her father wrote her affectionate letters that he playfully addressed to “Lord Flannery,” and she would sign her correspondence to him with the same title, addressing them to “King of Siam.”

Young Mary Flannery was encouraged to read, and perhaps the most recognizable photograph from her childhood shows her in profile sitting with a large book in her lap, staring down at the page with a look of determined concentration. She would later use that same fierce gaze to observe the world around her and depict it through a grotesque and outrageous filter. As a young reader she collected a small library of familiar children’s titles and took the liberty of writing brief reviews on the flyleaf or title page of the books. Always assertively opinionated, the young critic praised some books as “First rate,” while others, such as Georgina Finds Herself, she dismissed as “the worst book I have read next to Pinnochio.” It is worth noting that, at the height of her career, Flannery O’Connor wrote more than a hundred book reviews for two Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia. Also, she carried to adulthood her sharp words in assessing the value of books, as is illustrated in her acidic comments about the works of other southern writers such as Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. To put it in today’s vernacular, she was savage.

Not unlike many bright children, Mary Flannery wrote stories from her own imagination. Some of them were about animals with human characteristics, which is a typical theme explored by aspiring young writers. However, she went a few steps further than most children. Not only did she write clever and often hilarious stories, she also illustrated them, bound them with yarn, and made multiple copies of them to distribute to friends and family.  She was absolutely fascinated by the whole process of both writing and publishing, which later translated to a keen understanding of writing as a profession. The volume of her published letters, The Habit of Being, includes correspondence to her agent, editors, publishers, and other professionals in the book industry where O’Connor demonstrated shrewd business acumen.

As a high school and undergraduate college student, Mary Flannery turned her artistic energy to cartoons, which she created through sketching and drawing but more elaborately through printing with linoleum blocks. Although she ended up in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under the direction of Paul Engle, she initially entered graduate school at Iowa thanks to a scholarship in journalism — she intended to pursue a career as a cartoonist. O’Connor’s biting satire and wicked humor were clearly developing even as a cartoonist, not just in the illustrations, but perhaps even more so in the captions. Some critics have argued that, as a mature fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor continued to exhibit the eye of a cartoonist in the creation of her most exaggerated characters. Little wonder that, when asked why her stories were so shocking, O’Connor explained “for the almost blind, you draw large and starling figures.”

In the private journals Flannery O’Connor kept as a college student, she undoubtedly believed that being an artist was so much more than a career choice.  It was a vocation. As she focused her attention toward writing, O’Connor yearned for her work to be used by God. She wanted to craft stories that would miraculously reveal God’s grace. As she matured into one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, she became less sentimental, but she never lost her appreciation for the mystery of art as it is interpreted by the Church, to which she remained devoted for the rest of her life. Perhaps she returned to the intensity of her younger years. She certainly became much more confident. When repeatedly asked why she decided to become a writer, without hesitation O’Connor always replied, “Because I’m good at it.”

Most of us get some level of education and eventually find a job that, with any luck, will get us out of our parents’ hair and their bank accounts. We will end up with about five different full-time jobs before we finally clock out for the last time, and our career paths will largely be determined by factors such as education, employment opportunities, salary, family obligations, and just plain old simple fate. But for a select few, a seed will be planted at a very early age that will germinate into a thriving métier that brings with it fulfillment and a deep sense of purpose. The term from my Southern Baptist heritage was “a calling.” The vocation of writing for Flannery O’Connor required serious devotion, discipline, sacrifice, and a form of genius that appears only a few times in each generation of artists. She was born with an incredible gift, which she carefully and skillfully nurtured, and her readers are the fortunate beneficiaries.

My Favorite Hike . . . So Far

My wife and I have had the good fortune to walk and hike in some spectacular locations over the last ten years including England, France, and Italy. I have written a few posts about our treks in Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California. I maintain that some of the best scenic walks or hikes in the United States are in California: around San Francisco, along the Pacific coast, and in the wine country, just to name a few. If pressed to choose my favorite hiking experience to date, that distinction would have to go to Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Yosemite Valley is the most familiar destination in this region to so many visitors, but Yosemite National Park covers 1,200 square miles. First protected in 1864 by the federal government and the state of California, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and vast wilderness.

We were at Yosemite for several days during July, 2013. A close friend who lives in California frequently visits Yosemite to relax, hike, and take fantastic photographs — a hobby that has in recent years almost become a vocation. She was generous enough to be our guide, taking us to some of her favorite places to hike and witness the beauty of this amazing place. We stayed in a comfortable cabin about 45 minutes south of the valley near the village of Mariposa. For our first outing, we explored the meadows around the Merced River between Sentinel Beach and Cathedral Beach, which offered stunning views of the rocky cliffs of El Capitan and Cathedral Spires. The meadows with their lush riverbanks are large enough to provide some privacy and a good place to escape the crowds that gather near the camping sites and the more popular attractions in the park. We spent the early afternoon taking photographs and wading in the cool waters of the Merced River where it pools in the numerous bends as it winds its way through the valley.

Wading after hiking at Yosemite
Wading after hiking at Yosemite

On our second day, we spent some time at two of the most familiar waterfalls in the valley. Bridalveil Fall is the thin, tall spray that is visible on the right from the famous Tunnel View, the place where Wawona Road exits the tunnel and the place where most visitors get their first glimpse and photographs of the breathtaking vista of Yosemite Valley. There is a trail that leads to the base of the fall, where the water crashes against gigantic boulders and disperses a fine mist over an area about an acre in size. The best time to view the falls at Yosemite is the spring, when the melting snow creates the largest volume of water spilling over the soaring rock cliffs. Even in July that year the water was still running enough to make for a spectacular performance. We also walked up to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, and then treated ourselves to afternoon cocktails in the courtyard of the Ahwahnee Hotel, now called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. While sipping our drinks under the umbrellas, my eyes were drawn upward to the cliffs rising from the valley floor. Our friend identified the peak as Glacier Point, and I asked, “Can we get up there?” She explained that Glacier Point Road takes off from Wawona Road and leads to an observation point with a picnic area and restrooms. We decided that we would have enough energy by the next morning to explore the hiking trails around Glacier Point.

When we arrived at around 9:00, the crowds had not yet started to gather at this famous lookout point, which offers one of the best views of Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome rock formation. We wandered around the site, experiencing the valley from a completely different perspective than the previous two days. Similar to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, words fail to describe the spectacle. Even explorers like John Muir had difficulty. Our friend, who is twelve years our senior, challenged us to take the hike from Glacier Point up to Sentinel Dome, which rises about 900 feet from the trail head and peaks out at over 8,100 feet above sea level. “I won’t be happy unless I’m at the top,” I said. We strapped on our backpacks, which included our lunches, and headed up the winding trail through the evergreens toward the summit. When there were breaks in the trees, the views along the way were fabulous. The last hundred feet of the trail opened up to bare rock and was fairly steep. The reward for making it to the top was well worth the effort. Sentinel Dome presented far-reaching vistas in all directions: to the west down the valley to the Merced River canyon and to the north the massive expanse of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. At this elevation, the peak of Half Dome is in clear sight and is only 700 feet higher. I couldn’t resist hopping up on the large rock that crowns the dome for a selfie with Half Dome to commemorate the occasion.

On the peak of Sentinel Dome at Yosemite
On the peak of Sentinel Dome at Yosemite

To employ poor puns to the fullest extent, how do you top such an uplifting experience? On our way back down the trail, we stopped for lunch on some large rocks at an opening looking out to the east. We could just make out the remaining snow on the High Sierra peaks in the distance. Below our perch across a considerable expanse, we could see Nevada Fall making its contribution to the Merced River. At the brief intervals when there was no wind through the trees, we could just barely hear the distant roar of the water crashing down the crag to the huge rocks at the fall’s base. With tired legs and sore feet, we refueled on sandwiches and fruit, realizing that we were totally immersed in one of those wonderful moments where friendships, nature, and a deep appreciation of life converge to present memories that never fade. My wife and I continue to travel and look for opportunities to hike, especially at locations where we can enjoy beautiful scenery. Perhaps at some point I will have an outdoor encounter that impresses me even more than the morning at Sentinel Dome did. I truly look forward to it.

Nevada Fall at Yosemite
Nevada Fall at Yosemite

Southern Word of the Day (Part 5)

Here is the latest installment of my favorite Southern words, and perhaps Jeff Foxworthy has used these too.  No plagiarism is intended here; I can only plead ignorance, which for me is not a stretch at all.

Pressure. Usage: “You can see inside the window better if you pressure face right up to the glass.”

Turnip. Usage: “Will you please turnip the volume on that TV so I can hear what they’re sayin’.”

Mare. Usage: “Billy Bob is thinking about running for mare in the next city election.”

Manure. Usage: “I like manure truck better than my old one “cause it’s got 4-wheel drive and a gun rack.”

Meander. Usage: “Charlene went with meander momma down to the Wal-mart to look for some curtains for the trailer.”

Entity. Usage: “If you pour a little oil entity pot of spaghetti the noodles won’t stick together.”

Binary. Usage: “I didn’t binary one of them undershirts at the yard sale ’cause they had stains in the arm pits.”

Trauma. Usage: “I’m gonna trauma best to be at the rodeo this Saturday night if I can get back in time.”

Eclipse. Usage: “I like this new barber because eclipse the hair growing out of my ears.”

Pumpkin. Usage: “If the basement floods again, that new pumpkin get the water out in a hurry.”

Southern Word of the Day (Part 4)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 3)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 2)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 1)