The Letters of Flannery O’Connor – Writing about Writing, and Turning Thoughts Towards God

By Victoria Williams

Introducing Miss Flannery O’Connor: Fiction Author, and Cultivator of a Faith-Filled Intellectual Life

“People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.”

I first became familiar with Flannery O’Conner through her direct, uncomplicated tone in the non-fiction excerpt above — what tone would better suit such prophetic words?

Anticipating I’d hear from a heart turned towards good, I began to read her fiction. But I soon found her novels to be filled with unpleasant and untrustworthy characters. If you delve into O’Connor’s stories, you will encounter sketchy Bible salesmen eager to con their neighbors. You will see into the eyes of callous middle-aged women who repeatedly reveal their lack of self-awareness. And you will hear the philosophizing of men, women, and children for whom every other thought is casually-murderous. Part of me was asking, “If a Christian wrote this, why don’t any of the characters in it set an edifying, godly example?”

But that’s the wrong question to ask. If you instead asked ‘where is the grace in all that?’ you’d find an answer ready in her own words. O’Connor explained that she’d discovered that her forte in fiction is “the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.”

Writing to please God

After appreciating her stories, I naturally desired to learn more about the mind behind those creations. Additionally, after reading stories so subtle and laden with meaning, I hoped for a few direct explanations in case there were things I’d misunderstood or failed to notice. (There were some of those!) Fortunately, the book in my possession contained much of Flannery O’Connor’s correspondence spanning 1948 to 1964–the perfect opportunity to peek into her private conversations.

Through her letters, O’Connor distributes valuable wisdom to old friends and new acquaintances alike. Here are a few excerpts in her replies to readers who wrote to her:

(To Thomas Mabry, 3/1/55)

“If my stories are complete it is because I see everything as beginning with original sin, taking in the Redemption, and reckoning on a final judgment. I have heard people say that all this stifles a writer, but that is foolishness; it only preserves your sense of mystery.”

In response to a reader who has shown her a story of his own (Ben Griffiths, on 6/8/55), O’Connor recommends two stories she wants him to read before he starts re-writing his own. She follows that with this custom-crafted advice:

“…when you present a pathetic situation, you have to let it speak entirely for itself.  I mean you have to present it and leave it alone. You have to let the things it the story do the talking. I mean that, as author, you can’t force it and I think you tend to force it in your story, every now and then… You have got to learn to paint with words. Have the old man there first so that the reader can’t escape him. This is something that it has taken me a long time to learn. Ford Madox Ford said you couldn’t have somebody sell a newspaper in a story unless you said what he looked like. You have to learn to do this unobtrusively of course.”

Laughter

In my own correspondence, I want to be interesting, honest, and approachable. I’ve pored back over old letters I wrote and regretted boastful content, self-focused thoughts, and a pretentious tone. I’ve looked at letters written to me as well — and noticed which ones I didn’t find the heart to reply to. The friend writing often went “too deep too fast” — into emotional depths that were uncomfortable for me, or relational worlds that were unfamiliar to me.

When composing her letters, O’Conner fought to resist these far-too-common perils. And one of the most reliable weapons in her arsenal is humor. Flannery O’Connor’s sense of humor served her well in prickly situations – such as needing to make an apology. She once wrote a reader (Beverly Brunson, on 1/1/55) that when she came across the last letter she [O’Connor] had sent her, “I was astonished by the tone. I seemed to have surpassed my usual rudeness…” In that same letter, explaining some thoughts that had disturbed Ms. Brunson, O’Connor noted, “remember that the absurdity is in me, not in what I stand for.” After discussing some substantial questions, (whether she thinks life a tragedy, for example) O’Connor closes her letter, “Regards and do not be offended by me again; I take you as seriously as I take myself.” (Which is also a jibe, if you think about it for long enough.)

Her sense of humor shines in her lively correspondence with her friend Maryat Lee, a playwright then living in New York City. Those missives are filled to the brim with gleeful nonsense and silly pet names. (“Marybat,” “Maryrightofway” and “Raybucket” are a few.) Memorable is O’Connor’s response to learning that Ms. Lee lost a position working as a housekeeper. O’Connor points out that there are many things Maryat is better at than housekeeping. When she [O’Connor] adds, “You probably blended their garbage and baked it,” their close friendship is evident (because who else but a close friend can you say that to?).

Filled with sincerity and careful thinking coupled with that light touch of humor, Flannery O’Connor’s letters have much to give.

What you get

As a curious reader, you get to know what O’Connor was thinking about her fictional characters behind the scenes. (For example, she based one of her characters on a tedious woman in a hospital waiting room. To my surprise, she also thought that one was a sympathetic character.) As an aspiring writer, you get to see another writer’s thought process and work process — as revealed not to the general public but in personal letters to her most intimate friends.

As a listener, you get to laugh with her, and maybe even let her adjust your perceptions. (For example, my perception of work. After a bout of illness she celebrates, “I have been getting to work again, and I eat that up. I eat it up like filet mignon.”)

As a correspondent yourself, you get to find new solutions to your own difficulties in the valuable but underrated skill of letter-writing.

As a lover of God seeking to walk wisely in the world, you get to behold theological depths, vision, and joys.

Where to Find Them

My fellow curious readers can find collections of Flannery O’Connor’s letters in several sources:

* The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

* Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends, and

* O’Connor’s Collected works: “Collected works : Wise blood, A good man is hard to find, The violent bear it away, Everything that rises must converge, Stories and occasional prose, Letters”

Acknowledgements: Thank you to TheTrueSquidward on the “University of Bayes” Discord server for help editing this article – I can confirm that it did get me out of a rut!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Victoria Williams is a Christian woman who loves reading, teaching math, and watching people grow. Her obsessions include the Gospel, loving the weak, peacemaking, cross-cultural ministry, storytelling, nerdy conversations with friends, and coffee. She also blogs.

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