Credit: Martha Sprieser, Flannery O’Connor’s roommate at the University of Iowa (Flannery O’Connor Collection, Special Collections, Georgia College Library, Milledgeville, Georgia).
Flannery O’Connor was a believer. It was at the end of every story: the appearance of holy ghosts, fiery furnaces, judgment day. It was in the twist of her knife. The way she would jam it in a character’s gut, turn it, then rip it up. To make sure she got all the vital organs. The end of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”—“‘Shut up, Bobby Lee,’ The Misfit said. ‘It’s no real pleasure in life’”—is the most Catholic thing ever.
While she was writing what would become Wise Blood, she was also writing A Prayer Journal. Literally, journal entries written during her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, addressed to the Lord and asking for his help getting published. “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate,” she wrote. Also she kind of thought of God as a crazy lover. From November 23, 1947: “Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be the Fulfillment.” I am also from the South. I am also a writer. God was never anyone special. No one in my family took religion seriously.
My mother’s family is from the coast. They have always lived there but they don’t know how they got there. The oldest grave is from the 1600s. The name is Irish. They were indentured servants who jumped overboard or maybe they were pirates who got tired. They were cut off from the mainland for a long time. Their preachers are traveling, itinerant. They pitch tents for weeklong revivals. The ground is sandy and soft and the girls wear spike heels because this is a social thing. There is a lot of theatrical screaming. The preacher, red-faced, sweating: “The devil is here! He is among us. I seen his little hoof prints all in the ground. I seen them just outside.” At least this is funny.
My father’s family is from the mountains. They are Presbyterian and they know exactly where they come from. My great-grandmother had her own pew at church. You did not fuck with her. Even on those Sundays when she chose not to show up, no one sat in her pew. It was just an empty space in the middle of the church. This was about control, not, like, adoration. “Prayers should be composed I understand of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication,” wrote O’Connor. The Presbyterians are the “Frozen Chosen.” Everything in life is predetermined. This place gave me a cold, snake feeling. This is where I grew up.
I want to call the new thing I’m writing Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space, like the Spiritualized album, but I probably won’t. I am suddenly interested in astronomy. There is a planet out there where it rains blue glass, sideways, in 4,350-mile-per-hour winds. The universe is accelerating. It is moving so fast that we will eventually leave light behind. If we exist at all, we will all be invisible. This idea appeals to me. I like art that is empty and also big.
January 2, 1947: “No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.” I do not know all things. I seem to know less and less every year. The psychic I went to the other day said I would live to eighty-six and have many followers. She was Russian and very certain. Flannery O’Connor lived to thirty-nine. Most of the time she was writing she knew she was dying. She did not know she was dying while she was writing her prayer journal.
My mother found God recently. She quotes scripture at the dinner table and I stare at her like she’s crazy. It’s completely disconcerting. Maybe not that recently. I’ve been gone twelve years, which is a long time. Apparently there is a channel called God TV. Before I was eighteen, she bought my cigarettes. Now she has lost her house and moved back in with her mother, down at the coast. My grandmother thinks it’s ridiculous, how much my mother goes to church. I think it’s an act, because she is lonely. One day I’ll be lonely, too.
A Prayer Journal ends abruptly. The last entry is about cookies and erotic thought. “There is nothing left to say of me” is the final line. But there was everything left to say. There was “Good Country People” and “A View of the Woods” and “Parker’s Back” and The Violent Bear It Away. There still is today. Writing books is one way to live forever. Isn’t it? This is something I want to believe. Until all the light goes out anyway.
Katherine Faw Morris was born in North Carolina. Her debut novel is Young God, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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