To Stay True to the Vision

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Default image
"Why can't you write something that a lot of people would like?" That was Regina O'Connor's question to her daughter, Flannery, well after her daughter had published a groundbreaking novel, Wise Blood, and a prize-winning collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard To Find.

It's the question of mothers everywhere, and siblings, friends of the family, tax accountants, and one's own shame. The question applies not only to writers and other artists but to anyone responding to a difficult calling. I know a young couple from Texas preparing to be missionaries to Asia. Their families regard them with a condescension usually reserved for the afflicted.

Flannery O'Connor now is recognized as among the greatest American writers of post-World War II fiction. A lot of people have come to love her work, although she died at the age of 39 in 1964 with only four books to her credit: the two books mentioned and another novel, The Violent Bear It Away, and a posthumously published collection of stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge.

Her reply to her mother was that a vocation to write didn't mean a vocation to write just anything. She expanded on this to others, saying that in her experience a true vocation usually entailed sacrifice. Her sacrifices included suffering the entirety of her too-brief adult life from lupus, which mandated that she forsake hopes of marriage and live as an on-again off-again invalid with her mother on the family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. More important, to her mind she had to be true to the vision given to her.

Critical commentary on Flannery O'Connor has been for the past thirty years an academic staple. Yet none of her commentators and biographers, myself included, come close to explaining how O'Connor, as a graduate student at the University of Iowa's Writing Workshop, where she began writing Wise Blood, came to possess a literary gift that bears striking resemblance to Jesus' own ability to fashion parables.

Wise Blood was first signed with a publisher called Rinehart, until O'Connor's protests against Rinehart's attempts to "train it into a conventional novel" caused the company to cancel the contract. In this and many other instances, O'Connor stuck to her guns.

She wasn't simply intransigent, however. She learned from her critics. As her art matured, she turned more and more from writing about "freaks" to writing about "folks"; the Bre'r Rabbit element of caricature in her work was molded and deepened into something more like Flaubert's naturalism.

Her central concern to describe how people in the midst of time deal with timeless realities never wavered, however. She shows us how God declares himself and how we must choose for or against him, as well as the difference this makes.

The artist as self-sacrificing saint is used so often to justify narcissism and self-indulgence that we may resist crediting such choices. All of our participation in the kingdom of God, however, is guided by invisible realities for ends whose value often remains hidden even from ourselves. We can only fulfill our callings, in whatever circumstances, if we prize "the substance of things hoped for," faith, above all else.