For today’s Fabulous Female, I want to share with you the story of one of my heros. I have to confess, she is another writer and I promise that I won’t be choosing writers to celebrate every Friday, but her story seemed to fit well with our topic of success this week.
Flannery O’Connor was one of those people who discovered what she was passionate about and gifted in, and went about doing it.
Born Mary Flannery O’Connor on March 25, 1925, in Georgia, she was the only child of Irish Catholic parents, Edward F. O’Connor and Regina Cline. Regina was from a well-known southern family and quite a socialite, who would have loved her daughter to follow in her footsteps. Flannery, however, from the time she was a child, preferred to spend time in her room, writing books about the birds her parents let her keep as pets. Her first “claim to fame” was when she was six years old. She explained:
“When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”
Though it must have been difficult to top having a chicken that can walk backwards, Flannery made a impact on the world through her writing that was greater than she probably ever realized. However, before she was to make her mark, her story was about to be changed, irrevocably.
When she was only twelve years old, her father was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease, Lupus. Being much closer to her father than her mother, she was devastated when he passed away three years later. Little did she know, she too would later develop the same disease.
Flannery continued to write throughout high school and into college. She wasn’t the outgoing, life of the party type–yet she developed a name for herself through drawing comics for both her high school and college newspapers. It was also in college that she began to truly own her Catholic faith, which became an incredible influence in her writing and in how she saw the world.
After college, she was accepted into the famous Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. Her over-protective mother was less than thrilled about her being so far away from home, but Flannery knew it was the path she had to take. And it was there that she was inspired to create the character of Hazel Motes who first appeared in her short story The Train, and then later became the main character of her first and most famous book, Wise Blood.
Throughout her time in Iowa and for a few years following, Flannery wrote and began publishing short stories, all the while working up to Wise Blood. Her writing was slowed however, when she became incredibly sick and found herself, at twenty-six, back home and in the hospital. It was then that she was diagnosed with Lupus–yet her mother, wouldn’t let the doctor tell Flannery that she had developed her father’s illness. Regina took her home expecting her to live only five more years.
While home, Flannery began to heal better than the doctors expected. She made the best of her situation by rekindling her love for birds, raising peacocks, ducks, hens, and other exotic fowl. Despite her illness–that was at times debilitating–Flannery continued to write, eventually publishing over two dozen short stories and two books. When she was able, she traveled to different universities to give lectures on faith and literature.
Finally, when her sickness was beginning to take its last toll, she went to visit one of her closest friends, Sally, who knew of her sickness but who had been told by Regina not to tell her. On the way home from picking her up from the train station, Sally couldn’t take it any more. She pulled over the car and told Flannery that she was dying from Lupus. Rather than being angry or mad, she thanked Sally, and said that she had sensed it. Having the truth said out loud, seemed to free Flannery, and she continued her work, writing even up until her last days in the hospital. She died, at the age of thirty-nine, on August 3rd, 1964.
What set Flannery O’Connor apart as a writer was her unique, raw style that set literary critics on edge. She had a way of fleshing out the grotesque in humanity, in order to point her readers towards their own redemption. She explained: “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, and brutal.” Through telling the stories of wild and broken characters who receive undeniable grace, Flannery sought to reveal humanity’s need for Christ. And despite harsh critiques, she never wavered in her approach.
Flannery O’Connor is one of my heros and today’s Fabulous Female because she did not seek the approval of other people. She knew who she was, what she was good at, and she went about her work, despite her failing health. Because of her ability to stay true to herself and her beliefs, she was able to redefine literature and give an incredible example of what it looks like to live out one’s faith, even in times of trouble.