A Writer's Prayer
Before Flannery O'Connor Wrote, She Talked to God
Flannery O'Connor's first brush with fame came when she was 5 and the Pathé News people—who made the brief, often humorous human-interest clips that movie houses ran in the 1930s between the news and the feature—came to film a short of her. Mary (not Flannery yet) was chosen because she was famous locally for having trained her pet chicken to walk backward. The movie crew came to the farm in rural Georgia where O'Connor lived with her parents to film. The chicken is the star, but O'Connor is in the video, too. She later said she was there "to assist the chicken"; mostly she just stood there looking somber. Big-city moviegoers might have seen her as an earnest country rube, but even as a child, O'Conner was ironic: She knew how to stand just so in that video, how to present a stony serious face instead of a smirk; she knew the value of presenting oneself as a quirky but lovable caricature.
After her father died of lupus, a disease she would get later in her life, O'Connor's mother urged her to work on the high school paper. O'Connor consoled herself and entertained others with cartoons. Her Thurber-esque females do schoolgirl things like wait for holidays, grouse about studying, waddle together in fat-one-skinny-one Laurel and Hardy–like buddy pairs (Oliver Hardy was the first famous person from O'Connor's small hometown), or sit alone eying, through big glasses, couples at a dance. Cartooning, as Kelly Gerald suggests in the terrific essay in Fantagraphics' handsome Flannery O'Connor: The Cartoons, demonstrated O'Connor's ability to satirize gestures that perfectly capture a character's self-importance, cluelessness, ridiculousness. You can see in some of these early renderings images that will later appear in O'Connor stories: two ladies wearing identical hats (as in "Everything That Rises Must Converge"), the pompous pseudo-intellectual ("Greenleaf,"), etc.
Unlike most Southern females of her era, O'Connor got to go to college. She went to the University of Iowa in l946 to study journalism and become a cartoonist. But as soon as she got there, she realized she wanted to write fiction. Her father's death had led to one form of art; her loss, by dislocation, led to another. Displaced from the Southern and Catholic cultures in which she knew how to fit, and with her funny accent, very out-of-it manners, and minority beliefs, she began to feel very alone.
Maybe everyone feels alone and maybe everyone is. But O'Connor's loneliness began articulating itself in her writing. In addition to beginning to craft the fiction she would show in class and submit to magazines, she began to keep a diary. As Roman Catholics in the Deep South, O'Connor and her family had been members of a religious minority, bound together by family and geographic stability. In the academy, O'Connor's faith was regarded as not merely curious, but intellectually ridiculous, if not actually reviled. As her faith was called into question, O'Connor began to keep the private diary Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published as A Prayer Journal.
This book is excruciating. It's a cry. It's full of embarrassingly intimate, often desperate pleas to God. "I don't want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ. I want to feel. I want to love." "I am afraid of pain..." It's also, not coincidentally, the petition of a young writer trying to figure out how to follow what she hopes is her vocation: "Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work... Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted." She also feels ashamed of the vanity of wanting that: "[To be published] is so far from what I deserve, of course that I am naturally struck with the nerve of it."
For O'Connor, writing became an expression of faith. For many artists, regardless of what they think or not of the divine, making art is an act of, and requires, faith. You do it out of longing, from what William Gass has called "a reckless inner need"; you do it as you would an act of love.
There is some uncomfortable desire or want in you, and outside of you is nothing—an empty page or screen or room. But then out of your fear or hope or loneliness or anger or desperation, you do things with words or movements or images that try to show or give. There may be material rewards from what is made—someone may say they like it or tell you "thanks," or someone will thoughtfully critique you, or somebody might even pay you. There will also, though, be others who'll try to take you down—try to ignore them and write what you must, the way O'Connor said you would in Mystery and Manners.
O'Connor's art was part of her longing for God. She wanted her words to show what she saw of God, how the acceptance of or resistance to the divine could shape a life. She also thought her job was to write with, from, for God:
Dear God, tonight is not a disappointing one because you have given me a story. Don't even let me 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 and low interpretation because in it I am not trying to disparage anybody'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.
O'Connor's handwritten manuscript, cursive writing in an old Sterling cardboard covered notebook, is reproduced in the final pages of this volume. The handwriting is clear, with few visible edits. Though she initially wrote it as a private diary document, she rewrote a fair copy with an eye to legibility by others.
When Franz Kafka knew he was dying, he asked his best friend, Max Brod, to destroy all his manuscripts. He also told Brod exactly how the manuscripts were organized, which stories were complete, which went together, the order of composition, etc. Though overtly humble, if not actually guilty, about his writing, Kafka clearly wanted his words to have a life after his own. Brod, who knew and loved Kafka more than anyone, read between the lines of Kafka's awkward request and saved the manuscripts, which is why we can read Kafka's work.
I think a similar thing was going on with O'Connor. Though she did not try to publish this journal during her lifetime, she made sure it would be a complete and legible text for the friends she trusted to find and make known. She was a writer, one who grew from being an entertaining cartoonist to a profoundly serious, though also hilarious, shower-of-God in words. She wanted, I believe, to be seen by God and us; she wanted to be read.