Flannery and Facebook: The Impact of O’Connor on my Daily Writing Life
A. Manette Ansay
(This piece was delivered as a talk at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, GA. )
A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. --Flannery O’Connor
Posted on FB by the writer Dinty Moore, August, 2009 (Ohio University)
*19 people ‘liked’ this
*Nice quote. I'm teaching one of her stories next week. I'll have to use this.
*Great quote, Dinty. A great reminder of why we love stories and not executive summaries (as if we needed one).
*That's true of poems too, no?
*Very true of poems, Susan.
*On the money -- & even better in that F O'C kept such pronouncements to a minimum. She concentrated on her own stories.
*One of my all-time favorite O'Connor quotes. (But there are so many great ones to choose from!)
*God, I love her. And to Susan and Keith: I see how this CAN be true of poems, but I suspect another quote lingers about - maybe not from Flannery - for poems. The essence of the quote is true for art, yes, but the specifics is about stories. Thinks I. (Subject verb agreement a problem here. Ooooops.)
*She also said, "You have to learn to paint with words." That's the banner on my blog, to remind me of the importance of each word. Thanks for sharing this, Dinty.
*Flannery and I hail from the same town, Milledgeville, GA. My parents both volunteer at her old farm place, Andalusia. In fact, my father restored her rockers on the porch this spring. We all love her and her characters, some of whom I swear are still alive.
*Barbara and I toured Andalusia last weekend or tried to. What I later found out was a White-Crested Black Polish Bantam (for real) got his spurs up and challenged us all the way, cutting loose with an ejaculatory "Er-er-er-ER-ER-ER!" when we quit the field. Good thing we were wearing jeans; he woulda tore us up had we been short-clad.
*The story of all stories is a rhizome. It has no start. It has no span. It fakes forms and labors over a thousand metaphors and still a thousand plateaux exist, between us and us.
I teach creative writing at the University of Miami. We all know what Flannery O’Connor had to say about such employment (when asked if she thought universities stifled writers, she replied, “My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them”) but I teach for utterly selfish reasons, and the first was illustrated to me afresh when, last fall, I was invited by one of my graduate students to go on a weekend road trip to visit O’Connor’s childhood home. Marissa was fresh from two back-to-back cross country trips she’d taken over the summer, coupled with a quick jaunt from Florida to Boston and back. This had whetted her appetite for more driving. Our readings of O’Connor’s Habit of Being gave that appetite a focus. It was only nine hours to Savannah, she assured me, OK, ten at the most. If we left early, we could attend a fundraiser on Friday night, then rise bright and early to scoot the remaining 160 miles to Andalusia, the gently unravelling farmhouse in Milledgeville, Georgia, where O’Connor lived with her mother, her peacocks and her fierce convictions until her death from lupus at 39. The grounds and walks, as well as the residence, were open to the public. We could stretch our legs a bit, maybe even enjoy a late lunch in town before charging pell-mell back to Florida.
“The truth,” O’Connor wrote, “doesn’t change according to our ability to stomach it.” Away from my students, the truth about me is this: I am yet another divorced, middle-aged, working mother, wedded to my complex datebook and planner, chronically responsible, utterly exhausted, opening my textbook to discover, in class, that instead of my hastily jotted notes, I’ve grabbed the Costco shopping list. Yet under their youthful influence, in the kind light of their gaze, I’m different somehow, transformed, re-cast. The sort of fun, spontaneous person, in fact, you invite to go on a road trip. Marissa coordinated the group which, initially, included six of us, but in the end, everyone else raised the white flag of reason, so she and I headed out alone, armed with a talking GPS system and an unabridged Truman Capote novel on tape.
One might argue that listening to In Cold Blood Blood while negotiating I-95 out of Miami is redundant. I would not disagree. But thirty miles north of West Palm, the clutter of construction and concrete and billboards (Your Wife Is Not Hot because you called the AC experts!) eases the way a bad cramp might ease, and we found ourselves passing through something like beauty: tomato farms, fields of long-horned cattle, flat land peculiarly leached of color by salt air and scouring heat. In the background, Capote’s murderers were making their random plans. We passed a dozen wood storks at the edge of a drainage canal, hunched and wise-looking beneath their wrinkled, black caps. We passed the perfect carcass of a fresh-killed armadillo. King fishers, stoic, on telephone wires. Tires along a barbed wire fence, each bearing its own chalked word: I Am Madly In Love With Jesus. I thought of Hazel Motes. I thought of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic landscapes. I thought of the woman who taught catechism classes in the small, Wisconsin town where I grew up. These classes were held in the basement of her home, because she was too ill to go out. One night, she decided to show us the power of Satan. We joined hands, and she called to him. It was then that we saw him circling our bodies in the form of a blue light.
Calling O’Connor a regional writer is like calling the Atlantic Ocean the property of Key West.
At lunch time, we pulled off for gas. A stout, sun-burned man had set up a truck stand at the edge of the parking lot, and we bought oranges, sweet fingerling bananas, tough strips of alligator jerky that probably wasn’t alligator, but we all pretended it was. The bed of his truck was peppered with bullet holes. On closer inspection, I saw they were a combination of real ones interspersed with press-on stickers that looked like bullet holes. The chicken-or-the-egg question reared its head, and as we drove away, I tucked the image into that particular space where a writer operates, one which O’Connor describes as the “peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.” Accelerating back onto I-95, I was met by another, more immediate junction: seven white crosses at the side of the road, two large and five small, each with its faded memorial wreath. High overhead, the sky stood watch: cloudless, vast, uncompromising as any O’Connor story. Her fiction remains the single most profound literary influence on my work. She died the same year that I was born. She was younger than I am now.
All those riches--here, then--conceded to the ground.
“To expect too much,” she wrote, “is to have a sentimental vision of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.”
“Flannery O’Connor taught me about negative characters and negative desires,” writes Stewart O’Nan. “The grandmother did not want to go to Tennessee. The kid in Everything That Rises does not want to be on the bus. Joy/Hulga. . . all these disgruntled people who believe they belong somewhere better. ”
When I first began teaching creative writing, twenty years ago, my mentor gave me this advice: Never teach an author that you love; choose something that you like instead. Of course, I didn’t listen, and I arrived for my first class armed with nothing but copies of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and a smile. I was using a wheelchair back in those days, and I looked about 14 years old, and I was fueled by a fire-and-brimstone passion that rivaled any other fundamentalism. In vogue at the time--even more so, I think, than now--was the kind of writing in which the writer reveals, at the end of a series of half-hearted urban encounters, that his or her story doesn’t mean anything, because the world is a pointless place. I, too, had written this way, at first. I, too, had been one of the living dead. But good literature had changed my life. I was out to share the light!
“Fiction is made out of everything human,” I quoted to this first class earnestly. They were business majors and nursing majors and budding engineers who needed an easy humanities credit. Rush week was about to begin. Gold crosses twinkled at their throats. “We are made out of dust,” I told them, “and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction.”
And then, without any further preparation or context, I loosed the Misfit on them.
Needless to say, this was not the high point of my teaching career.
The students were horrified. They were shocked and angry and offended. I might as well have shot the grandmother myself. The discussion exploded into a defense of Christian values, of Jesus Christ Himself, of baseball and Mom and apple pie, all of which the students uniformly believed to be under attack. How could she write a story like this? Why would anybody want to read about a whole family getting killed for no reason? Even the guy who killed them admitted it wasn’t any fun. Fortunately, I had my first truly bright idea right about then: I shut up. And listened. And remembered my own first appalled reaction to reading “Good Country People,” disabled myself, knowing nothing of the writer. Finishing that story reminded me of the time I’d seen a dog trot across the Interstate. I’d known it was going to be hit and killed, but I’d kept on looking anyway, and maybe I didn’t learn so much about the dog, but that wasn’t the point. I learned something about myself. I couldn’t look away from “Good Country People.” I couldn’t stop thinking about it, either. When the dog was hit, I felt the impact. That first O’Connor story left me changed.
“All human nature vigorously resists grace,” O’Connor wrote, “because grace changes us and change is painful.”
The second selfish reason that I teach: I have the privilege of encountering the person I was at eighteen from the vantage point of whatever age I happen to be. The students in that class--who were, by the way, at Cornell University--were ghostly reincarnations of my younger, terrified self. I’d also arrived at my first college classes armed with my parents’ religious and social beliefs, many of which I’d started to question, but that didn’t keep me from brandishing them like swords whenever I found myself challenged. O’Connor’s stories were utterly unlike anything I’d read before. Like my students, I took offense at the way they rose up off the page like snakes, striking not once but dozens of times, without remorse or compassion. Like my students, I misread them, believing they were anti-Christian. I argued for weeks with my first creative writing teacher, insisting O’Connor was mocking anyone, punishing anyone, who was gullible enough to take anything on faith.
“The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism,” O’Connor wrote. “When I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer has hold of the wrong horror.”
I never intended to become a writer or, for that matter, a reader. From the time I was six, my passion was the piano, and at the age of 17, I was accepted into the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. The future I had in mind for myself was as far from my parents’ life in Wisconsin as, well, Savannah, Georgia from Fairbanks. I could not wait to get there. But by the age of twenty-one, I could no longer play a scale. I could not walk. I could not lift my arms above my head. I returned to my parents house, tail between my legs, and there I spent the next two years in bed. My hair fell out. My weight dropped to 100 pounds. I was told I had lupus. I was told I had MS. To this day, I do not know--no one knows--exactly what went wrong.
“I have never been anywhere but sick,” O’Connor wrote. “In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe and it’s always a place where nobody can follow.”
“Writing fiction began for me as a side effect of illness, a way to live beyond my body when it became clear that this new, altered body would be mine to keep. A way to fill the hours that had once been occupied by music. Years later, a writer I admire would tell me of awakening in the hospital, after a car wreck at the age of eight, and thinking, with absolute clarity, “Now I can be anything, and I want to be a writer.
On January 1st, 1988, I made a New Year’s resolution to write for three hours twice a week. Even now, I cannot explain why I made this particular resolution and not another--to become a painter, say, or to compose an opera. Prior to that time, my experience with fiction had been limited to grocery store romances, the kind with half-corseted breasts peeping through the cover. The only sustained writing I’d done, aside from college papers, were poems I’d scrawled whenever I fancied myself either miserable or in love. The latter, which I’d collected in a cloth-covered notebook, had mysteriously disappeared during my first semester of college. Choice excerpts had resurfaced, however, on bulletin boards across campus, and for awhile guys that I didn’t know kept calling me up to ask if I wanted to see their rooms. This left me feeling somewhat uneasy about poetry. Occasionally, I had a vague idea about writing a novel, but I figured that writing--like falling in love, or saving money, or working crossword puzzles--was something I could always do later in life, when I got older and less active, when I needed to find something I could do sitting down.
On New Year’s Eve, 1987, it occurred to me that this was exactly my situation. I couldn’t walk more than a few steps. I couldn’t use my hands very well. I was in so much pain I couldn’t concentrate from one moment to the next. And yet, come hell or high water, I stuck to my writing schedule. Three times a week, two hours at a time, I sat in front of my electric typewriter and tried my best to shuck off my body, to abandon my life, to write my way into a whole new world that had nothing to do with me. I was going to get famous, make lots of money, and pay off my medical bills. In the process, I’d become somebody else altogether, a person I’d invented: successful, sophisticated, interesting.
Sustaining a whole novel proved more challenging than I’d thought, so I decided to hone my skills on a couple of quick short stories. The trouble was, I couldn’t recall ever reading a short story that I’d cared about, though there’d been plenty that had left me cold, or annoyed, or feeling like the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Was everybody really seeing all that stuff about metaphor and symbolism and the universal human condition, or were they just pretending it was there, afraid to admit they disagreed? I disagreed. My English classes had inevitably centered on stories about safaris, or wars, or jolly old England, and though I could accept that such conditions were human, they were not universal and they were not mine. It seemed to me that my life, like the lives of people I knew, was something that happened on one planet, and Great Literature was something that happened on another, and that these two planets--though briefly visible to each other every once in a great while--had amazingly little in common. Reading men like Hemingway and Fitzgerald made me feel as if some vast amorphous god were taking an eraser to my life, my individual beliefs and concerns. In the margins of The Golden Bowl, I’d scrawled, “If these people had to work for a living, they wouldn’t care whether or not the stupid bowl was cracked.”
So why, then, were my first stories clumsy imitations of James, of Fitzgerald, of the very writers I most fervently disliked?
I wrote the way I thought I was supposed to write, setting my stories in exotic locations, rendering them in highly Latinate diction. Because who would want to read about people who sounded, well, common? About people who spoke the way family members did, about the same sorts of things? My characters didn’t merely roll out of bed, head to the bathroom, and wash their faces in the morning; they arose and adjourned to the lavatory to perform their morning ablutions. The men smoked cigars; the women wore silk and sipped Pernod, which I couldn’t pronounce and had never tasted. People “just shrugged” a lot and said, “I don’t care.” Then they committed strange and violent acts. Narrators were particularly inclined to kill themselves when the story was written in the first person. Needless to say, all of my characters were able-bodied and physically beautiful.
That first creative writing teacher was a good and gentle soul. After reading one of my early stories, she said that, sometimes, she read things which were so painful, so disturbing, that she locked them up in a part of her brain where she knew she’d never encounter them again.
“I don’t know what else to write about,” I said.
“Write about what you know,” she said. “Write about something you care about.” She told me that Flannery O’Connor had said that anyone with a childhood had enough material to write fiction.
“Who is he?” I said.
So I read Good Country People. I read Everything That Rises Must Converge. The night after I first read “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I could not fall asleep. Why, I wondered, would my kind and gentle teacher--who had accused me of writing such terrible things--give me these stories as an example of where and what to do? And yet, I already knew, at some level, the answer to this question. Aside from their dazzling technical expertise, what these stories had--and what my own work lacked--was absolute, unmitigated passion. What I’d felt when I’d played the piano. The greatest loss in my life at the time had not been the loss of my body, as I’d known it, but the loss of what connected me with, invested me in, the world. O’Connor’s work reconnected me. It woke me up. Like anyone emerging from a long sleep, I woke hungry.
A few nights later, I dreamed O’Connor and I met for lunch in a school cafeteria. She was on her crutches; I was in my wheelchair. Her hair was flaming orange and teased into a tall beehive. I followed her through the line as she piled food on her tray, speaking irritably to the servers, pointing at what she wanted. Without looking back to see if I was coming, she picked up her tray and crutched--gracefully, without dropping her tray or spilling anything (!)--toward an empty table. “How did you do that?” I said, stunned. She made an impatient gesture, as if to say, “Duh,” then started in on her lunch. My manuscripts were stacked beside her plate, but she didn’t seem to notice them, and when she’d finished eating, she quickly stood up to go.
“Aren’t you going to tell me what you think of my stories?” I said.
O’Connor waved her hands dismissively at the manuscripts. “Yes, yes, yes,” she said, already moving away, “but what are you trying to say?”
I woke before I answered, but I suddenly understood.
My next story was about an old man who digs a series of holes in his backyard, looking for a way out of his own growing sense of disorientation and dementia. My teacher liked it better than any story I’d written before. I wrote another about a woman, silenced by stroke, left in the care of indifferent twin granddaughters while their mother goes out on a date. Instead of turning away from the thematic resonance of my own situation--writhing against the constrictions of my body and it limits--I was claiming it, finding voice, daring to admit: this matters. For the next 15 years, I would write as if my life depended on it, which in many ways, it did.” (Quoted from my memoir, Limbo, HarperCollins 2001.)
“In high school, in my native Riverside, California, an ambitious English teacher assigned our class "The Artificial Nigger," writes Susan Straight. “It was 1977 or 78, and our high school was one third black, one third Mexican-American, and one third white. The only time someone had said the word "nigger" aloud in my memory was during my freshman year, when a white rock band had visited and set up on the steps where black students usually congregated; legend has it that some stoners gathered, a black student threw something at the drummer, someone uttered The Word, and we had a full-scale riot which lasted for several hours, occasioned police helicopters and squadrons, and ended with school cancelled for two days.
We didn't study the story well. The class refused. We just sat there, and the story disappeared, and I never got to read it until I was in graduate school and a professor and mentor named Jay Neugeboren very kindly said, "How can you never have read Flannery O'Connor? You are trying to write like her. You write about the place you were born. Here.
He gave me The Collected Stories, and I have loved them, studied them, dreamt about them, given them away, taught them, and loved them, some more in the ensuing years. I cannot say I have written stories like them, because I can only try, but in thinking and reading about Flannery O'Connor, I know how much I have lived like her. I invoke her often when people ask how I can still live three blocks from where I was born, how I can hang around with people I know are killers and drug dealers, how I can sit and listen to old people tell stories of Georgia and Mississippi and Louisiana. I can because of Flannery and her stories and novels, because I've seen how she absorbed and distilled and refashioned her world while remaining in it. She's as astonishing to me today as she was when I was handed that book. The book's spine is broken now. I have pictures of her and Eudora Welty here in my little room, in southern California where it is over a hundred degrees for the twentieth day and the smoke lingers in the sky. To preserve her house, and her legacy, is vital.”
Marissa and I arrived in Savannah in the middle of the afternoon. It was sprinkling politely, charmingly, as we checked into our B&B, but by the time we started walking toward O’Connor’s house at the edge of Lafayette Square, rain was falling so fast and hard that the street drains overflowed onto the sidewalks. Conversation between us stopped; it was simply too hard too hear. Without this rain, I would have felt like what I was: a tidy tourist, a literary voyeur, someone peeking through Windexed glass at a scene lived long ago. But the rain placed me here, fixed me within O’Connor’s experience and skin. She, too, would have smelled woodsmoke in the streets. She, too, would have felt her wet cotton socks slipping and sliding inside her shoes.
Prior to our trip, Marissa had contacted Bill Dawers--director of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Foundation--introduced herself, and told him about our plans. To our surprise, he’d offered to meet us for a private tour of O’Connor’s childhood home before the evening fundraiser began. The simplicity of the house, its careful appointments and quiet ways, was deeply moving. Here was the backyard where, as a child, she’d taught a chicken to walk backwards. Here was her collection of books, some bearing pithy remarks in the margins that suggest her voice was already present, formed, even then. “I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation,” she wrote. “In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both.”
About her illness, she wrote that she could “with one eye, squinting, take it all as a blessing,” but as Lois Wolfe points out, quick as she was to dissect the Southern character, “she never wrote in letters how her father’s death affected her at the age of fifteen. Never wrote of any anger or disappointment that her father’s disease, lupus, had put her on crutches, isolated her in her mother’s home, kept her dependent from the age of twenty-five until her death at age 39. . . She never wrote about physical pain, and made humor of her hospital stays, her confinement to crutches, her bouts of fever, and bone-weary reactions to harsh medications. She made philosophy of her illness, believing that the combination of sickness and success was vital to the deep interior work that vested itself in her understanding of life.”
Bill invited us to the second floor, and as we climbed the stairs, I considered how remarkable it was that I could do such a thing. Though I do have flair ups from time to time, the last time I walked with a cane was briefly in 2008. One could say that I’m able bodied with quirks--but who doesn’t have quirks at forty-five? I remained in a wheelchair until I turned thirty, by which time I could walk short distances again; I used a scooter for these distances until my mid-thirties. In 1999, at the age of 35, I received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey, informing me that my first novel, Vinegar Hill, had been chosen as her next book club selection. I used the subsequent royalty checks to enroll in an outpatient treatment center at Beth Israel Hospital in New York, where I was living at the time. There I received many of the experimental auto-immune treatments being offered to patients with HIV/AIDS. In the end, I recovered. Flannery did not. My experience with illness has moved me to believe that things do not happen for any particular reason. I’ve grown comfortable, living with that mystery, valuing the good things that come my way. Hers led her towards an increasing complex interpretation of faith, in which life becomes a trial by fire and burdens a mark of favor. She wrote: “Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.” She wrote: “The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience.” She wrote: “When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God.”
The fundraiser kept us out rather late, but in the morning, Marissa rattled my door before the sun was up, and within half an hour we were on our way to Milledgeville, guided by the talking GPS. A mile from Andalusia, we got lost anyway, but Marissa pulled out her iPhone and began to tap away at the screen.
“How do you use those things?” I said. “Are they really worth it?”
“Manette,” she said, with an evangelist’s conviction, “this thing will change your life.”
Which brings me to the third selfish reason that I teach: I am always up-to-date with every new technology. My students make sure I’m not left behind. Today, I carry an iPhone and a Kindle. I peruse the latest top ten YouTube videos, visit sites on Google Earth. For a long time, I did resist the idea of social communities--I grew up, I like to quip, in order to leave my past behind--but even this resistance was overpowered when a photographer friend met me during my last trip to New York and showed me how to set up a Facebook account. “I’ll never use it,” I grumbled, logging off. But I logged on a week or so later to discover 20-odd friend requests waiting for me, most from writers I’d longed to meet, whose work and ideas I’d always enjoyed: Rick Moody, Connie May Fowler, Richard Hoffman, Diana Abu-Jabar, Dinty Moore. One minute I was isolated somewhere near the tip of Florida’s long toe, unable to participate in the Miami writing community due the work/life balance juggling act one commits to when raising a child alone. The next, I was connecting with writers all over the world, on my own terms, after my daughter was in bed. Twenty minutes of chat before the nightly marathon of paper-grading begins is usually enough to make me feel part of a larger world. To give me a bit of perspective. To generate fresh energy for my real work, my writing, which I usually don’t get to anyway before 10 PM.
Wandering the grounds of Andalusia, following the path down to the pond, I’m struck by both the beauty of the place and the isolation O’Connor lived with during the final years of her life. The bulk of her adulthood. Efforts are always made to establish that hers was a world warmed by written correspondence, by visits and visitors, but the truth remains that I have been that lonely young person, waiting for the mail, gritting my teeth through kind visits by relatives and neighbors, trying to find new things to say to my mother, who cared for me. Maybe in a year, I’d be better again, able to move on with my life. Maybe, in a year, I’d be dead. In the meantime, as much as I didn’t want to be here, back in the life I’d longed to escape, there was simply nowhere else to go. There was nothing else to be done.
How different those first years of disability would have been for me had there been Internet, iTunes, eBooks, Facebook. How different O’Connor’s life would have been had she been able to access even some of the technologies connecting us today. But of course, we would not have her fiction; at least, we would not have her fiction as it stands. She insisted that you have to look at fiction as “saying something about life colored by the writer, not about the writer colored by life,” yet I’m not sure that is the case. How could it be? I, too, am accused of writing books that are incomprehensibly bleak. At least, I used to be. But the last two books--something that’s been pointed out by others--are significantly kinder, more generous, forgiving. One wonders if it is possible, even briefly, to detach artistic vision from circumstance. Had my twenties and early thirties not been colored by so much physical pain, could I have written, at twenty-five, a book like Vinegar Hill?
“At least this is an individual book,” O’Connor said about Wise Blood. “Nobody would have been found dead writing it but me.”
Dinty Moore might have been a better man if there'd been someone there to shut down his Facebook account every minute of his life.
Posted on Facebook by the writer Dinty Moore, June, 2009 (Ohio University)
- 14 people “liked” this
- There aint no real pleasure in life but meanness, Dinty...
* A better man is hard to find.
* Facebook is quickly becoming the death of man a better man.
* Damn you, The Interweb.
* Didn't death of better man already happen? I'm sure i read about it somewhere...
*Wise words. Could it be said that you have Wise Blood?
*Maybe you should try a nice relaxing trip to Tennessee.
*Don't take the detour, and leave the cat at home.
*All y'all are too quick for me -- took all the best lines.
*All I can say is happy happy to see you back, whoever let you back on.
*Go with it, man.
*but i thought facebook was going to save the world
*Facebook makes one idle and dilettantish and second-rate
* Or not. Some of us need the laughs.
*Flannery would have had some pithy views about Facebook. . .
*She would! But I feel a little less like a Misfit when I'm here.