Flannery O’Connor: The Writer Who Couldn’t Spell
“What first stuns the young writer emerging from college is that there is no clear-cut road for him to travel on. He must chop a path in the wilderness of his own soul; a disheartening process, lifelong and lonesome.” – Flannery O’Connor
She was either a renaissance woman or just an indecisive one. Before she settled into a life as a novelist and short story writer, Flannery O’Connor dabbled in journalism, cartoons, poetry and poultry. (Oddly enough, the last of those was arguably the passion that stuck with her the longest.)
Mary Flannery O’Connor grew up in Savannah, Georgia during the Great Depression. O’Connor’s creativity surfaced early and because she was an only child, her parents tended to dote on her and nurture her interests. By the time she was 9, Mary Flannery was drawing family pictures for her parents and giving poems to her father.
Throughout her life, O’Connor had a love for birds. She raised chickens as a young girl and later kept more peculiar creatures like Japanese bantams and a one-eyed swan. So it’s fitting that the earliest surviving work of hers is a cartoon she drew of a bird and a child. According to Flannery, a biography by Brad Gooch, the cartoon featured a clever “role reversal” in which the bird was grounded while the child flew in the sky. But despite all this creativity, O’Connor was a lackluster student who aggravated all her English teachers.
One of O’Connor’s elementary school teachers later remarked that there was “nothing remarkable at all about her as a student.” That might actually have been sugar coating it. According to the biography, O’Connor frustrated her English professors by writing obsessively about her “ducks and chickens,” and to make matters worse, she was terrible at spelling, a problem that lasted her entire life.
O’Connor soon moved away from writing about poultry and instead focused on her family, annoying a new group of people. When she was 10 years old, she wrote her first “book,” called “My Relatives.” As Gooch writes in the biography,
The series of portraits were so finely drawn, and uncomfortably close to life, that the relatives given this treatment by their mischievous daughter, cousin, or niece hesitated – or simply refused – to recognize themselves.” O’Connor later declared that the book was “not well received.”
Perhaps in response to this, she started keeping a journal instead.
When she was 15, her father died suddenly from lupus, the same disease that would eventually cut her life short. Some have speculated that she became a writer to be more connected to her father who not only supported her early literary ambitions, but also may have had some of his own. Yet even if this was the case, it took a while to come about.
In high school, she was urged to join the school newspaper, but claimed she did not know how to write, so instead she became art editor, and started producing a slew of satirical cartoons. Soon, she also revived her interest in poetry… and in feathered creatures, combining them into an opus. O’Connor produced “Mistaken Identity,” a 17 page poem complete with drawings “about a case of gender confusion among geese.” If she had continued along this route, we probably would not care to read about her now.
O’Connor took these hobbies with her to college at Georgia State, churning out questionable poetry and funny drawings that gradually caught the attention of the students and staff. Perhaps because of this success, she intended to become a professional cartoonist, or possibly a journalist. All the while, she did write short stories for classes, both in high school and college, but she never flourished partly because of her teachers. Her early teachers didn’t like her subject matter and her later teachers didn’t like her style. One teacher wanted her to write more like Jane Austen, another wanted her writing to be more “ladylike and graceful.”
Finally, she got lucky and took an English class with a supportive teacher who encouraged her to be adventurous with her writing and her voice. And it turned out her voice was pretty violent. She wrote stories about a husband murdering both his wives and lonely men committing suicide. Some of this violence seeped into her later published works as well.
Even as she honed in on her writing talents, she continued to dream of being a cartoonist, publishing dozens in the school paper and submitting a “batch” of them to the New Yorker each week (all of which were rejected.) The turning point came when one of her teachers – a philosophy professor – was so impressed by her intellectualism that he urged her to go to the University of Iowa to study journalism. He managed to use some connections to secure her a spot with a scholarship. But it just so happened that Iowa also had the pioneering MFA program in the country for young writers. She quickly fell into that program instead.
While there, O’Connor inhaled books, churned out short stories, and through the program, met literary editors and writers like Robert Penn Warren. It was in this program that she got her first work of fiction published – “The Geranium” – and finally started to think of herself as a writer first and foremost.
Though she had a short life, dying at the age of 39 from lupus, the body of work she produced in the following years would rival that of any American writer from the last century.
For some of Flannery O’Connor’s early cartoons, check here.
Image courtesy of Flickr, 50 Watts.