Last night I watched a documentary on PBS about the life of the writer, Flannery O’Connor. I read a number of her writings while I was in graduate school. They are often macabre and a bit weird but they were written out of her experience as a woman and a Southerner. She had lived during the era when segregation was the rule of the day and she had learned to accept it and not try to change it. She did believe in rights for all persons but she had decided that she could live within the culture that excluded black persons from sharing equally in society. I do not agree with her thinking on those societal issues but do find her writings to be interesting from both a psychological and theological standpoint.
Ms. O’Connor wrote about the misfits of society and how they found correction from others in society because of the way society reacted to them. She was a devout Catholic and her writings were shaped by the beliefs that she had received as a child at the school and church she attended. Her thinking was ahead of her time in many ways but she lived in an era in which a woman could not speak out boldly because of the risk of being ostracized or persecuted. She wrote anyway using people she knew as the role models for characters in her stories. Her mother was one that she used in a story about immigrants from Poland who came to Georgia after WWII and began to help farm the land of some needy Southerners. They allowed them to settle on their land but when they began to be viewed as wanting to “take over” then a tractor was allowed to come lose and run over the father of the family killing him and ending their venture into society that seen as a threat to those already there. The mother in the story is described as hard hearted and critical and may have been based on O’Connor’s own mother.
In another story, a man whom she had a crush on and rejected her seemed to be role model for a traveling bible salesman who mistreats a woman whose leg prothesis he steals and leaves her stranded in the hayloft of a barn. O’Connor had such a crush on a man visiting from Denmark and she was devastated when he returned to his country and married someone else. She made his character the villain in the story although she denied it when the man wrote to her after reading her story.
I have been writing short stories for as long as I can remember and sometimes have used people from my life experiences as characters in the stories I have written. I have never been happy with them because they seem too matter of fact and a bit stilted perhaps because I have been trying to write the stories from an historical perspective using actual experiences that I have described rather than simply using the persons I know as characters in the stories and then allow the fiction to work with the character rather than the experience carry the story.
Flannery O’Connor may have used actual persons to be models for characters in stories but she allowed the stories to take twists and turns that those real persons would have never taken. She includes violence as part of the stories that she must have imagined the characters could have done even if the real person she based them on would have never done such things. She allowed the character to take on a life that went beyond the life of the real person she knew and then used their actions to make a point that needed to be made about the world around her.
I think I am going to try to do a similar thing in the writing that I am doing, allowing the people I have known in life to act in the stories but to go beyond anything they may have done in life. Even describing scenes that may be shocking to readers allows the writer to venture into areas that need depth without trying to be historic or realistic in nature. People may shape our thinking even if they did not actually venture into the depths of our imaginations. It is those ideas that bring about stories that can be salvific and grace filled for the writer if not for the reader.