“Help me to push myself aside”: Flannery O’Connor’s journals excerpted in The New Yorker

September 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Flannery_O'ConnorAficionados of Flannery O’Connor’s writing will want to pick up the September 16, 2013, issue of The New Yorker, which contains excerpts from a personal journal the author kept during her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1946. The pieces, addressed “Dear God,” and taking up subjects such as Christian worthiness, faith, hope, and charity, underscore O’Connor’s religiosity – which was an inescapable aspect of all her fiction – as well as her struggles to live as a writer and a practising Catholic.

“Please let Christian principles permeate my writing,” O’Connor says at one point, “and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate.”

O’Connor clearly felt conflicted between her desire to be an author – something she associated with ego – and her desire to live for God.  “I do not know you God because I am in the way,” she writes. “Please help me to push myself aside.” She desires to “want” God and, in typical O’Connor fashion, finds an ironic metaphor to describe this want, saying she wishes for it to live “like a cancer” in her. The desire for God, for O’Connor, was a living thing, which she (somewhat surprisingly) contrasts to art:

It is easy for this writing to show a want. There is a want but it is abstract and cold, a dead want that goes well into writing because writing is dead. Writing is dead. Art is dead, dead by nature, not killed by unkindness. I bring my dead want into the place the dead place it shows up most easily, into writing. This has its purpose if by God’s grace it will wake another soul; but it does me no good.

The notion of God’s grace is central to O’Connor’s writing and her thought, as is made abundantly clear in these journal excerpts. She is constantly asking for grace to be bestowed upon her, and identifies the problem in Kafka’s writing as being removed from this grace. “Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord,” she writes, “and please don’t let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it.” She is desirous of heaven and communion with God, both of which require grace to obtain. “Help me to feel that I will give up every earthly thing for this,” she says. “I do not mean becoming a nun.”

That last comment is indicative of another typical O’Connor feature that reappears in these journal entries: her wicked humour. She decries “stinking romanticism” and cleverness (intellectuals were one of her key targets in all her fiction), and castigates herself for saying “many too many uncharitable things about people … because they make me look clever.” And yet she has it in her to unleash throwaway zingers that cut pretension and hypocrisy to the bone: “If we could accurately map heaven some of our up-&-coming scientists would begin drawing blueprints for its improvement, and the bourgeois would sell guides 10¢ the copy to all over sixty-five.”

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