When I Think “Fearless,” I Think of Flannery O’Connor

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Jaime Herndon


Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime


I’ve been writing about favorite female authors of mine lately, and figured I might as well include Flannery. Mary Flannery O’Connor, who, like Harper Lee, went by her middle name. Another Southern writer, she is one of the most kick-ass writers I can think of. Her religious background fascinates me, as does her writing about religious themes. Her Prayer Journal did not surprise me. I was aware of Flannery before I actually read her work.

In 2011, I worked at an indie bookstore in the South, where I read a biography of Flannery, as well as a fictional novel about her life. Months later, living in New York, I took the time to read her. I began with Wise Blood. To say it knocked me breathless would be an understatement. Her vicious prose, the Southern Gothic, the grotesque characters and actions – this was a woman who wrote without worrying about “likable” characters, this was a woman who took chances, who did not shy away from the element of shock. As she once said, “I am not afraid of the book being controversial, I am afraid that it won’t be controversial.” With a statement like that, how could I not love her?

Then I read her collected short stories, including “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Reading hundreds of pages of Flannery was not doable in a linear way. I kept starting, stopping, skipping, going back – the intensity of the world she wrote of was exhausting. I have read the beginning of her Collected Letters, but am saving that. Her nonfiction book Mystery and Manners is one of my favorites, with her thoughts on writing and writers. (It includes her biting quote, “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”)

One cannot talk about Flannery without mentioning her famous peacocks and her experience with lupus, which eventually led to her early death at 39. Her life at Andalusia with her peafowl was sheltered, but her writing was not. She outlived her prognosis and didn’t let the lupus stop her from writing.

I wear a bracelet of a peacock feather to remind me of Flannery. To remind me that it is okay to write controversial things, to have faith but still question it, to embrace the grotesque and shocking and ugly. She churned out writing, even in ill health, which I think of when I just don’t feel like putting pen to paper.