In a letter to author Cecil Dawkins written 3 April 1959, Flannery O’Connor not only remarks on the electric typewriter she is using, she has a comment or two about the wonderful news that Cecil has been paid $1,000 for a story. Noting that the most she ever has been paid is $425, Flannery goes on to say,
“Your sale to the Post ought to impress your mother greatly. It sure has impressed my mother who brought the post card home. The other day she asked me why I didn’t try to write something that people liked instead of the kind of thing I do write. Do you think, she said, that you are really using the talent God gave you when you don’t write something that a lot, A LOT of people like? This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc. All I can ever say is, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
Very few authors “got asked” more than Flannery O’Connor. She was repeatedly asked about her unusual vision of the world, her “Southern gothic” characters, her style of writing. When she wasn’t being queried about such things, she was being ignored by agents, publishers, Grant Committees and Boards of Directors.
And yet, from the beginning, her vision of her work and her commitment to that vision were unwavering. As early as 1949, writing to potential editor John Selby, she says, “In short, I am amenable to criticism, but only within the sphere of what I am trying to do; I will not be persuaded to do otherwise.” Later, writing to Paul Engle (a fellow Iowan and a wonderful poet), she reflects further on her experience with Selby and Rinehart: “To develop at all as a writer I have to develop in my own way… I will not be hurried or directed by Rinehart… Now I am sure that no one will understand my need to work this novel out in my own way better than you; although you may feel that I should work faster. Believe me, I work ALL the time, but I cannot work fast. No one can convince me I shouldn’t re-write as much as I do.”
Vision, confidence, persistence: for Flannery O’Connor, they added up to that sense of self that is critical for anyone who is determined to spend long, isolated hours turning over words, sentences, and paragraphs. Some are gifted with the qualities from birth. Others begin to develop them only after long years of anxiety and tentativeness. But however the vision arises, however the confidence grows, no matter how determined and persistent the writer, that sense of self must continue to be nurtured and strengthened. When we are left with a record of that growth, as we are with Flannery O’Connor’s letters, it is worth attending to. Her path can be a light for our own.