Flannery O’Connor, Ambition, and the Illusion of Time to Spare

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Flannery O’Connor, one of the most important and influential writers in the American tradition. I’m not necessarily one to keep track of such things as the birth and death dates of writers long since gone, no matter how much I admire their work, but O’Connor’s passing somehow feels personal to me this summer. 

I recently worked my way through The Habit of Being, a 600-plus-page collection of O’Connor’s letters. I’m not often interested in reading collected letters, but this body of correspondence with other writers, fans, critics, spiritual seekers, and nonplussed students looking for help with their academic work on O’Connor’s writing was a fascinating read. The letters sing with the same ironic, smart, controlled voice that O’Connor used in her fiction, and, to me, there’s far too little of her fiction left to us.

O’Connor’s a writer whose work readers seem to either love or hate. I fall squarely on the side of enthusiastic love. Hazel Motes, The Misfit, and Joy-Hulga are characters that haunt me in the best of ways, and O’Connor’s over-the-top dramatic style, refusal to moderate the intensity in her work to suit her critics, and dogged adherence to the themes that obsessed her are all traits I admire and hope to emulate. I don’t share her religious beliefs (while reading her letters, I often though, Purgatory? Really?), but I admired the courage she had to maintain a life of faith without ever turning a blind eye to the abuses of and inconsistencies within the Catholic church.

But O’Connor’s also a problematic figure. Too little, I think, has been made of her troubling racial politics. It’s easy to look at a story like “Everything that Rises Must Converge” and see what looks like a scathing rebuke of segregation, but to read the story alongside O’Connor’s letters is to see that O’Connor thought integration to be an unnecessary hoopla, a rousing of rabbles that were unjustified in their grievances. At times, O’Connor’s letters made me want to shake her, and to ask how on earth her faith could correspond with such a lackadaisical attitude toward the sufferings of other human beings.

Something else about O’Connor bothers me deeply, too. In terms of this second fault, I’m probably exercised about it because I see the same tendencies in myself: O’Connor assumed she had time. A lot of time. She wasn’t too worried about getting written everything that she wanted to write, or about the timeframe in which she’d complete any particular piece of work. Even in the last year of her short life, she maintained that she had plenty of years in which to perfect her stories. She didn’t.

O’Connor didn’t know that the lupus she’d had since she was young would kill her at age 39. I didn’t know that, while I was reading her letters, a medical crisis would land me in the ICU. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d get out of there. We don’t ever know how much time we have, or what will stop us from working.

After finishing The Habit of Being and having made my own way back to some kind of normalcy this summer, I find a question echoing in the back of my head: am I being ambitious enough? Am I working hard enough, fast enough? Am I writing as well as I can right now? I don’t plan on keeling over any time soon, but there are some experiences that jar one into realizing that none of us is given any guarantee of time.

I’d be happy to leave behind any single piece of writing as good as O’Connor’s, that’s for sure. I don’t want to drag my feet in getting there.

21 Replies to “Flannery O’Connor, Ambition, and the Illusion of Time to Spare”

  1. O’Connor strikes me as something of a paradox–gifted with the ability to see down to a person’s soul (and to write about it with exquisite craftsmanship), and yet a product of her upbringing, reflecting the attitudes of her church and culture without, apparently, much thought of progressing beyond it.

  2. She was a wonderful writer. I never knew anything about her life, so thanks. And yes, the salient point about not knowing how long we have… I suffered through some close calls in 2012, my health, and as a result i have dramatically changed my lifestyle to go after my dream of a simpler life writing every day, and this past year has been magical! Thanks

  3. Excellent points here. One that will resonate with a large audience and their particular goals…. well done… you are on your way to the mastering this thing we call writing. Don’t forget to assess how you measure “success” . the idea of Arrival rarely satisfies…

  4. If in the final summing up, you’ve contributed more to our world than you’ve taken from it, you’ve used your time well. The rest is not to worry about.

  5. Beautifully written. I’ve recently revisited “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, and as a writer am forever gobsmacked by her structure in telling a story of two types of racism: Old southern lady vs. young, self righteous, racially patronizing youth.

    Your comment about not writing as if you feel you have all the time in the world hits home. I also had a health crisis last year, and realized that I better start getting it done now.

  6. Joe, something that’s always given me a real shock is the fact that she had the chance to meet so many important black writers of the day, and she went out of her way to avoid them. Perplexing.

  7. Thank you, Drotmil! It’s a remarkable story, and I suppose it’s also a good reminder that we don’t have to be perfect to still do a great deal of important work in the world. I hope you’re feeling much better now, and getting your own important work accomplished!

  8. You wrote, “I’d be happy to leave behind any single piece of writing as good as O’Connor’s, that’s for sure.”

    I have read your poem, “Senescence.” Flannery O’Connor taught a chicken to walk backwards. Can you do that, too?
    I look forward to reading your entire Burn This House collection.

  9. All that matters is the writing and the woman was a great writer. This line from her story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” has reverberated throughout my life: “She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
    I intend to address some of your concerns in my series “Writer’s Writers”, of whom Flannery O’Connor is one. I hope you’ll check it out.

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