The Rest of the Review: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Prayer Journal”

The Rest of the Review: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Prayer Journal” March 27, 2014

(Here is the full length piece I wrote about Flannery O’Connor’s recently published, “A Prayer Journal.” I wrote the piece for a copy of the book for this website here. They edited out a lot of it for space, but they told me I could reprint the whole thing here.)

I can’t imagine any scenario in which Mary Flannery O’Connor would be happy to know her youthful, private supplications and confessions to God would one day be fodder for the salacious eyes of the literary world. First and foremost, it would offend her writing sense. Where O’Connor was deliberate in the selection of every comma in her published work, A Prayer Journal is meandering and repetitive, without economy or precision. Where O’Connor’s stories masterfully use action and imagery to reveal her meanings, this work is devoid of subtext.

Secondly, this edition would certainly pique O’Connor’s sense of decorum. Where she was private, preferring her work to speak for her, in A Prayer Journal the person of the artist is stripped bare: insecurities, sins, and bad spelling.

I felt self-conscious while I was reading A Prayer Journal: “How could they have had the nerve to publish this thing?” The work is so intimate as to end with O’Connor confessing an erotic thought and making a prayer, and then noting with chagrin, “There is nothing left to say of me.”

In fact, the permission to breech O’Connor’s private conversation with God is in Prayer Journal itself. One persistent request to God is that her work as a writer be a thing of grace for the world. She was unsure how she was going to do as a writer, but she was determined that her work would be at the disposition of the Divine plan. As she notes early on in the journal, “Give me a strong will to be able to bend it to the Will of the Father.”

Reading this book was a grace for me as a writer and particularly as one who is a serious Catholic. It will be a grace to anyone who wants to put his or her talents to use to make a difference in the world. To non-writers, it gives everyone of us permission to speak frankly to God without proper prose and affectation. The Prayer Journal is not in itself a work of genius, but it is engrossing as the intimate, unpretentious thoughts of a budding genius. It is inspiring in its unconsciousness, because it shows that mastery of craft united to a pastoral care for the world don’t just happen, but are the fruit of fervent desire and humility.

I’m not proud of it (actually, I probably am), but the best word to describe my reading of Prayer Journal, was greedy. I’ve always craved more access to the person who has upended my world innumerable times through her weird stories. I’ve combed through her collected letters, The Habit of Being, with the same voyeuristic spirit. There is the same stalky compulsion in the fan base of my other literary idol, the poet Emily Dickinson. Both artists were stolidly adverse to talking about the power and meaning of their work that make us, their fans crazy for validation. Most often, when people would ask Emily Dickinson the meaning of one of her strange verses, she would answer them by dashing off two or three more, just as inscrutable. O’Connor once warded off a query about the meaning of a story with the snippy squelch, “If I could say it in a sentence, I wouldn’t have written the story.”

One of the things we are looking for in works like A Prayer Journal is to find out if the greatest writers knew, really knew what we think they were doing, even as my own efforts as a writer assure me that the kind of work these women did could never be an accident. Still, the question is pressing for those of us who sweat at what young O’Connor called “aesthetic craftsmanship.” Do brilliant artists know they are stretching an art form to a new and wonderful place? Does their kind of work come out of intention or instinct?

In A Prayer Journal, young Mary Flannery has no conviction at all of attaining to literary stardom. In a wonderful way, the woman who would become probably the greatest short story writer ever, begins her career by wrestling with the horror of being mediocre. In the too often, parched, banal contemporary culture which seems mainly concerned with championing the sensibilities of the unachieving, Flannery’s bold aspiration to be a great writer pours out like a long glass of delicious cool champagne.

Flannery also worries that her writing will lead people away from God instead of towards Him. It shows she knew that her themes were going to be very high stakes and, that meaning well doesn’t necessarily mean doing well. It also shows she had already figured out that she couldn’t show the power of the resurrection in her stories, without dragging her readers through the potentially scandalizing places of fetishistic Bible salesmen, and acne-scarred Yankee crazy women, and bitter old men clinging to the N-word. Her prayers for the impact of her writing make for some of the most charming and thought-provoking parts of the book: “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing, and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate.” Or again, after having acknowledged the mysterious way in which God “gave” her a story, she writes, “I can’t write a thing. But I’ll continue to try…I wonder if God will ever do any more writing for me.”

Flannery O’Connor, self-portrait, 1953
(I LOVE that she painted a halo on herself!)

For those worshipful fans of Flannery who just want to uncover a few more searing Southerny sayings to haunt your comings and goings, there are several here. They aren’t as polished as those we are used to from her stories, but the fact that she wasn’t writing for anybody but herself and God makes them that much more impressive. I am always amazed how really great writers actually think quotable. The rest of us have to labor for days to get five or six words to work. Young Flannery effortlessly importunes God, “Please help me to get down under things and find You where You are.” As regards the Kingdom of God, she creates the perfect parallel formulation, “I don’t want to fear to be out. I want to love to be in.” Has anybody ever rejected sentimentality with better imagery than, “[We] have lost our power to vomit”? I thought several times reading these kind of instinctively artful marriages of style and substance, “Talent is a thing. And wondrous.”

For those who want to pour over young Flannery’s private thoughts to find insight into the recurrent theme that would go on to make her fiction a miraculous singularity particularly in the Church, there is an unassembled symphony of patterns and tropes here. In only thirty-seven short and often partial pages, A Prayer Journal references grace twenty times.

A Prayer Journal shows that she already understood at twenty the need for a ponderous and unifying “big idea” in a story noting, “To maintain any thread in a novel, there must be a view of the world behind it.” O’Connor’s “view of the world” was that good things were only possible through the direct, conscious and gratuitous action of God in human life. In the compilation of O’Connor’s speeches and essays on writing, Mystery and Manners, the taciturn one tosses off in a speech that “my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.” It is the story she can’t get over, that she tells over and over and over. Also, evident in A Prayer Journal, is that O’Connor has already figured out that grace and suffering are inextricably linked. Again later in Mystery and Manners she confirms her youthful theories with the note, “I find that suffering uniquely prepares my characters for their moments of grace.”

The stunning quality that makes Flannery O’Connor who she is as a storyteller concerned with the Christian thing, was in pushing the notion of how terrible grace might need to be to save us. She wants her readers to come to grips with their own aversion at the idea that the worst thing that could happen to us, might be just what our soul needs. She tips her hand as to writing hauntingly provocative stories in Mystery and Manners by saying, “To make a story work, I have found that what is required is a violent act in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace.”

When young Flannery O’Connor prays to God in A Prayer Journal, “Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, O Lord,” she is Hulga in Good Country People, the wooden-souled seducer of Bible salesmen, about to be humiliated and perhaps left to die alone, so she might live eternally. Will respectable Christian woman (“Thank you, Jesus!”) Ruby Turpin embrace a saving “Revelation” through the horror of being cursed like a warthog to hell by a zit-faced Yankee co-ed? Can we bring ourselves to agree that “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in us because it might take somebody to put a gun in our face every day of our life? In A Prayer Journal, O’Connor notes that sin “leads a good many people to God who wouldn’t get there otherwise.” But can we really be grateful for the little lie that leads a child-saint to drown in “The River,” and be spared a probable life of sin? Could it ever really be a good thing for a decrepit, bitter old man to fall down the stairs like a dried out old “Geranium” falling off a shelf?

O’Connor’s challenge to all of us, to find the saving action of God in whatever damn thing afflicts us, is the outrageous and irresistible key to her fiction. “A Prayer Journal” assures us that before she sentenced her characters to suffer on their way to salvation, she gave God permission to first and foremost have its way with her as, “Supernatural grace that does whatever it does.” Of course, it is impossible to read this offer from the young writer without being mindful of how lupus would in a few short years begin to have its way with her, culminating in a terribly premature death at thirty-nine. Like the unconscious acts of so many of her future characters, A Prayer Journal was the divinely inspired preparation for O’Connor to embrace the purification of her suffering. May it be the same for all of us who pick it up greedily or just to satisfy our curiosity. Grace can work with that.

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