ANDALUSIA LAUNCH of Birds of a Feather
Today, Thursday, at Andalusia, the home place of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia, I’ll be touching the pulse of my identity as an author of fiction. For those of you who can’t make it, I’d like to share what I’ll be talking about.
My gratitude goes to to April Moon and Elizabeth Wylie of the Andalusia Foundation, to Joshua Hren, publisher at Wiseblood Books, and also to author Charles McNair, who’s such a integral part of this event. Finally, thank you to all who’ve come today.
When Charles and I were deciding on a name for our event at this wonderful farm, we looked for something that would correlate with Flannery O’Connor. “Misfits, Mission, and Mercy,” seemed to be just the right thing.
So under that flag, each of us will give a talk on our perspectives and read from our works. Charles is taking on Southern Fiction, fiction in general, and magical realism in his novels. My talk concerns Catholic Fiction, Catholic Imagination, and the influence of Flannery O’Connor on my writing.
And since, in the South, it’s always “Ladies First”– I will begin.
When we read a book, we absorb the author’s story. But as readers, we absorb the author, too. Either we’re drawn to him or her, and want to read another book, or we turn away. And we often like a certain writer because we identify with them in some way.
Flannery O’Connor, as we know, was a Catholic and a Southerner. Being a Catholic Southerner, too, reading her work is like hearing a kindred spirit speaking in my head. And being an author, as well; she’s sort of a mother figure to my writing. Of course, I never met her, but she seems always to have been in the peripheries of my life.
In fact, Flannery O’Connor and my mother were born months apart in Savannah and for a time, attended the same Catholic elementary school. After reading O’Connor’s letters in Habit of Being, and the frequent accounts of conversations with her mother, Regina; I can hear the attitudes and inflections in speech, of my own mother and grandmother arguing, or gossiping, or telling a story.
Any of Flannery O’Connor’s stories can be enjoyed without knowing the depth of her Catholic faith, but when her faith is delved into, she’s just phenomenal. There’s no one else like her. I don‘t think there will ever be.
This statement by Flannery really sharpens understanding of how she identified herself as a writer:
“Many of my ardent admirers would be roundly shocked and disturbed if they realized that everything I believe is thoroughly moral, thoroughly Catholic, and that it is these beliefs that give my work its chief characteristics.”
It wasn’t always so, but today, everyone realizes that the identity of Flannery O’Connor as a writer came, not only because she was Southerner, but because she was a Catholic—-a Catholic writer with a Catholic imagination.
As for myself, like O’Connor, my perspective on life comes from my Catholic faith and my Southern roots. I know who I am as a writer, and I don’t try to be different from that. I’ve never lived, or wanted to live, anywhere but the South. And I’ve never wanted to be anything but a Catholic, despite that All the men in my family–my father, grandfather, and four uncles, were Southern and Protestant. Nearly all of those men married Southern women who were Catholics, then they, themselves, converted to Catholicism near the end of their lives. So I believe I understand–and I know I try to address—-all readers, whatever their faith, or lack of it.
A great thing about being a Southern Catholic writer is that here most all native Southerners, the greatest percent Protestant, know the Bible, can quote the Bible, and try to live by the Bible. And most of them admit they are sinners in need of being saved. I don’t think you’ll find that anywhere else to such a degree; so for writers like me, concerned with sin and salvation, a southern setting is ripe ground for fiction.
Add to that, my grandmother’s Macon, Georgia family of nine children produced three nuns and three Jesuit priests, and that one of those cousin priests taught Theology to my husband and I when we were students at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Al., and you can see why my writing is influenced by Catholicism.
But at Spring Hill, there was another wonderful Jesuit who was not related to me. Father Robert McCown taught me Creative Writing, pushed me into writing my first one-act play, and then helped to produce it on campus. And this is especially interesting–Father Robert McCown was the younger brother of yet another Jesuit, Fr. James “Hooty” McCown, who served as Flannery O’Connor’s spiritual advisor, and to whom she wrote many letters included in The Habit of Being.
My Catholic Imagination was bolstered by every Jesuit who taught me: that God is truly present in everything we undertake in our lives. As an Art major, studying under a another talented Jesuit priest, I learned about the shadowing color Gray–not only as it appears in Art, but in life.
So this is the way I see it, and try to portray it, as a writer of Fiction who is both Southern and Catholic: In my characters–—and really, in life itself, there are always two extreme actions: Good and Evil. To ignore them in Fiction is to ignore Truth. Think of two ends of a horizontal line. At one end is the bright white of absolute Good. At the other end is the darkness of absolute Evil. In between those ends are lighter and darker hues of the color of GRAY. The farther we travel from either end, it becomes more difficult to see, or find our way back to the other.
The fact is most human beings travel daily along a line like this. They travel toward one end or the other, to the light or to the darkness. But in between the two ends is a lot of area in which to turn in an opposite direction—–either a fall, or an epiphany. This is core in Catholic Fiction—-the possibility of spiritual epiphany is always present in the work, though it may not always be accomplished by a character.
Now, the question: What is the Catholic Imagination?
At first, for me, it had nothing to do with writing. It was an accumulation of Catholic belief instilled in my childhood that I used to decipher the world around me. I saw and acted according to that lens, believing it was the way everyone else looked at the world. Even in the Protestant South, where in the 1950’s and 60’s, Catholics stood out like sore thumbs; it took years for me to find out that not everyone saw the world the same as I did.
The Catholic imagination perceives people as good because God made them to be like Him. Except he also gave us the gift of free will. We can choose not to be like Him, and even choose not follow Him. No human being can honestly understand the magnitude of intelligence in the design of our Creator who gave us this free will, and whether we love him back or not, the Catholic Imagination contends that He loves us every second of our earthly lives, all the way into infinity. So, the desire of a Catholic writer is to translate our Creator and his goodness in some concrete form for readers; and that is a difficult job in our world today because many are certain there’s no such thing as a sole Creator, and others don’t see our world as good. So what is a Catholic writer to do? What did Flannery O’Connor do? I think she simply stuck to her guns.
There are wonderful intellectual authorities, such as Dr Bruce Gentry and Ralph Wood, who I believe serve on the board of the Andalusia Foundation, and have authored scholarly works about Flannery O’Connnor’s Catholicism. But I’m not an intellectual. I’m a writer who thinks of herself as a Heart-ellectual. Much like a Cardiac suregeon does every day—-for real–when I write I attempt to perform a surgery on my characters hearts looking for the goodness inside them, no matter how evil or diseased their actions might be. Maybe that’s what Flannery did, too.
A Catholic Imagination gives a writer like me, an identity. But that writer also finds the same identity in her characters, her readers, and with every other human being:– That we are children of God. That we are brothers and sisters. The Catholic Imagination perceives all people as good because God made them to be like Him. But as I mentioned before, writers, along with everyone else, have to also recognize free will. And because of free will, goodness within a person isn’t always outwardly practiced— in fact, often we do the opposite.
I believe a writer with a Catholic imagination will have strong emotion about current events where goodness is not: The murder of children. Debilitating disease. Sadistic, sexual perversion. Dishonesty. Meanness, and on and on—–just check ‘I choose not to follow” on each of The Ten Commandments. The question then becomes, “Can the mercy and grace of God, our Creator, be found where goodness is not?”
Well, Flannery O’Connor said that “often the nature of grace can be made plain only by describing its absence.” In other words—describing an opposite of grace. Something she did so well in her novels and short stories.
So, Yes. To the Catholic writer, God is powerful enough to draw out goodness from atrocities that emanate because of the misuse of human free will in real life. And this is what he or she writes about.
In the Catholic writer’s imagination, there is a link between the divinity of God (the supernatural world) with the natural world. The task of writing becomes that of interlocking the two.
Representations are created, and specific truths about God’s presence in our world appear in the writer’s mind. She translates those truths in her settings, and in her characters and their dilemmas.
And what she translates is the tenet called grace, both Sanctifying Grace and Actual Grace. Sanctifying Grace, inherited from the God who made us, lives in the soul and stays in the soul—it’s what gives us our dignity as human beings. By contrast, Actual grace doesn’t live in the soul; rather, throughout a lifetime, it acts in the soul as divine pushes from God toward His goodness—often when a character, or a person for that matter, is far from that bright white light. But those pushes must be noticed, and must require cooperation. A Catholic imagination will translate that in fiction.
The translating writer understands that a person must accept grace by his own free will; and that grace, like love, is sometimes prickly. I’m going to read a short excerpt about the prickliness of love from my first novel, A Hunger in the Heart, because it deals with the sacrifice real love must make. It’s relayed by Sarah Neal Bridgeman, the alcoholic wife of a decorated, but mentally disabled, World War II hero–and the mother of a young son, Coleman, who’s struggling with the upsets in his life. Because of her alcoholism and spitefulness, we don’t at first see the goodness in Sarah Neal. We see her as hypocrite who wears a crucifix around her neck and hangs a Cross with the suffering Jesus in every room in her house. This excerpt is when she and Coleman visit a newly-opened religious gift store in Gator Town, Florida. P.80 A Hunger in the Heart.
“Love isn’t a symbol. It’s an irritant, and it will cost you some skin.” Real life Love IS often painful. To give up some skin for it, requires Grace.
A writer with a Catholic imagination translates grace, even in a world, or a character, on the edge of evil. She sees a double beginning and ending in everything, and I mean everything, including the awful, current events I mentioned before. Along with this, she realizes that knowing ‘reasons why’ is a human characteristic. She perceives a cause, and an effect that creates another cause, and effect, and on and on until an epiphany–or a fall–is created.
Stories are discovered in her imagination and brought to light by a very intimate flashlight, one that shines a light on the many causes and effects of free will, and on the causes and effects of grace; both working, and often conflicting, in the same human soul.
The stories in my collection, Birds of a Feather, are about the commonality each of us share as human beings: sin and its risk, and the presence of God’s mercy, waiting for us to realize it’s there, and then—-act with it.
It’s my opinion that this common identity is key to the Catholic Writer and his or her imagination.
Here’s what Flannery O’connor says about Identity, from Mystery and Manners:
“… An Identity is not to be found on the surface; it is not accessible to the poll taker; it is not something that can become a cliché. It is not made from the mean average or from the typical, but from the hidden and often the most extreme. It is not made from what passes, but from those qualities that endure regardless of what passes, because they are related to the truth. It lies very deep. In its entirety, it is known only to God; but of those who look for it, none gets so close as the artist.”
So, As a Southern writer—-my identity is wrapped in the wonderfully changeable, material world around me–the world I live in. But as a Catholic writer—my identity is also wrapped in the mystery of mercy and grace in the immaterial world that lies deeply behind this one—-because that is the world that is unchangeable and enduring.
My short story collection, Birds of a Feather, published by Wiseblood Books, will be out July 14, but I was sent some advance review copies for today.
I’m going to read a story, called, “Jimmy’s cat.” It’s tone is definitely different from the other gritty stories in the collection. But I chose it because it speaks in a more humorous way, to what happens when a person lets Go of His or her Indentity.–And also, it’s the shortest story in the book.
p.165 “Jimmy’s Cat”