Flannery O'Connor & the Joy of the Craft
Updated: Jul 19, 2021
Last week, I crossed off the top item on my bucket list when I visited Andalusia, the farm in Milledgeville, Georgia where my biggest writing influence, Flannery O’Connor, crafted her most famous stories. I have always connected with Flannery (I call her this because I feel we are on a first name basis) on personal, creative, and spiritual levels. We had a similar upbringing and dealt with crucial life milestones at about the same time. We share similar beliefs about the value and role of fiction. The contrast between the simplicity of her stories and the depth of the ideas they explore has inspired me to think differently about my own craft.
Most of all, reading her work played a vital role in my decision to become a Christian, another strong commonality we share.
All of this is what led me to drive nearly twelve hours from Ohio to Georgia to see the places where she lived and worked. Flannery’s life was tragically short. Just after entering a prominent circle of writers in the northeast and cementing her position as a rising literary star, she was diagnosed with lupus at age twenty-five. Her father had died from the same illness when she was a teenager. Facing prolonged and worsening weakness and illness, she was forced to return home to live with her mother on the family farm. She once wrote that she initially felt that this new arrangement would snuff out her writing.
In fact, though, it was in her small room, a parlor converted to a bedroom to keep her from having to climb the stairs, that she wrote the most enduring of her stories. I’d always wondered what it would feel like to stand in that room. I’d seen pictures of it—blue curtains and a blue quilt on a small bed, stationed next to her desk, outfitted with a typewriter and books, with a wardrobe dividing her workspace from the rest of her quarters. When I actually stood next to her bed, though, I found that there is much more in the room than what you can find in a Google Images search.
There are walls lined with bookcases, a copy of St. Thomas Aquinas and a Catholic Bible stacked on one of them. In one corner, you’ll find a phonograph that Flannery received as a gift and kept even though she didn’t care much for music.
A bottle of aspirin on the corner of the fireplace demonstrates how primitive medicine was in the 1950s—you can’t manage lupus with over the counter painkillers. But what struck me most about not just Andalusia, but the other sites in Milledgeville that I visited, is that like this room, Flannery’s life was very small.
After leaving the farm, I went into the city itself to explore Georgia College, where she received her B.A. in English and sociology, and Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where she attended mass every morning and where her funeral would eventually be held. Both are located just a few miles away, as is the cemetery where she is buried. While she did travel to universities throughout the country to lecture and even visited Europe, the majority of her life took place on the farm, where she practiced her craft, and in the church, where she practiced her faith. Her life may not have been the grand literary adventure she undoubtedly imagined, but as a devout Christian, she knew that God often takes our dreams and conforms them to His will, to not only make us more like Jesus, but accomplish the plans He has ordained for us.
Flannery would have believed this. She undoubtedly fought fear, depression, and anger—these emotions are palpable in her fiction. But her faith and creativity were central to her life. She knew she had to keep the main things “the main things.” Last week, I wrote about how focusing too heavily on “producing something” can drain the joy of creating from our writing. We impose so many “shoulds” on our work that we forget that writing is supposed to be fun. Yes, writing is hard. There’s no escaping that. Flannery’s correspondence with editors, friends, and mentors shows that she wrote and edited with meticulous attention to detail. It takes time to become good at this.
That she was able to create such a vast body of work in the midst of a life-threatening, debilitating illness only makes her writing that much more inspiring. However, one thing I draw from visiting the places that meant the most to her as well as her personal writing is that she never allowed the process to become devoid of joy. She loved her faith and she loved her work, and she couldn’t separate one from the other. These two things were the source of her joy as an artist and enabled her to pursue her writing even in the direst of circumstances. Flannery was a humble person, and if someone had told her that half a century after her death, we’d still be dissecting and discussing her work, she’d probably have laughed at them. She probably enjoyed the praise she received for her writing, but I get the feeling that the accolades weren’t the primary reason she did it. She wrote because she loved it and it was an integral part of who she was.
During our visit, our tour guide told a story about Flannery and a one-eyed swan. The unique swan was one of numerous birds she kept on the farm (the most famous, of course, being her forty-some peafowl). In a letter to a friend, she described the kinship she felt to the disabled bird, that her own disability made them an unlikely pair. A swan doesn’t stop being a swan just because it is missing an eye. A writer doesn’t stop writing because she faces difficulties up to and including illness and death.
In fact, those obstacles should strengthen not only their resolve, but the quality of their material. “I can,” Flannery famously wrote, “with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing.”
What are you allowing to stand in the way of what you feel driven to create? Where does joy come from for you? Just as Flannery was able to see her faith as directly intersecting with her writing, what topics, beliefs, or ideas seem directly tied to your work? These are just a few questions that I am still pondering after my visit to Flannery’s hometown.
If you need a little help answering these questions for yourself, I’ve created several resources, including workbooks, revision guides, and complimentary consultations, to help you as you dig in.
They will help you generate writing topics, learn more about the writing craft, and empower you to reach your creative potential so you can inspire and impact more readers. Best of all? They’re free. Click here to grab them now.