Flannery O’Connor: Lupus Warrior
The works of Flannery O’Connor can be found in almost any library. Hailed as one of America’s greatest fiction writers, her works – including such notable pieces as A Good Man is Hard to Find, Wise Blood, and Everything that Rises Must Converge– line the shelves in any self-respecting book collection. The work of this southern gothic writer has been captivating people for decades. Even readers who don't particularly enjoy her writing would be surprised to learn this one remarkable fact about Flannery O'Connor: she wrote some of her best works while fighting lupus, a debilitating inflammatory disease. This battle would shape her faith, her writing, and her life– and ultimately end it all.
O’Connor grew up in Savannah, Georgia, quite literally beneath the shadow of the Catholic church. When I visited her childhood home one cool September day– my legs tingling with nerve pain from my own long-term health problems– I saw her cradle in an upstairs bedroom; the steeple from St. John’s Cathedral across the square filled the window above it. I was shown the bathtub where she used to gather her friends and read Grimm’s Fairy Tales to them, which would send them home terrified, producing irate parents coming back later on. I learned how her faith and her worldview shaped her writing, and I realized what a blow it must have been to both of those to be diagnosed with such a terrible disease so young.
O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus erythematosus when she was twenty-five. This was the same disease that had killed her father when she was sixteen. Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that causes chronic inflammation; it has no cure. Most people have a genetic predisposition to it, so there was probably an inkling in the back of O’Connor’s mind that one day she might follow her father, although twenty-five is an early age to be diagnosed. O’Connor went home to her mother’s farm to live out whatever was left of her life. This, though, was where things got interesting: doctors predicted that twenty-five-year-old O’Connor had only five years left to live. However, she lived for fourteen more years. During that time, she wrote two novels, thirty-two stories, and one hundred book reviews– nearly all of her important works. Despite daily symptoms such as joint pain, fatigue, and side effects from medications, O’Connor had the self-discipline to sit down and write for two hours each morning; she allowed absolutely nothing to disrupt those hours. Her writing grew and flourished during this time; she had been living in New York prior to her diagnosis, and initially, coming back to rural Georgia felt like somewhat of a letdown. But this was where her material– planted in her Southern upbringing– became so much richer and more natural. Eventually, O’Connor said that even with her lupus, coming back to Georgia was the best thing that could have happened to her.
Modern-day writers who are sick, in pain, or simply just busy can draw many practical applications from Flannery O’Connor’s dedication. For one thing, it wasn’t simply a coincidence that O’Connor wrote so many short stories. Since she could only write for a couple of hours a day before being overtaken by pain and fatigue, writing a short story was much easier than tackling a novel. Figuring out how to use your amount of energy and time in the most resourceful way possible is the key. Even if you’re loath to make changes to your writing style– give it a try anyway. Writing something is better than not writing anything.
There came a point when O’Connor could write for only one hour a day. She sent a story that she’d written in this period to a friend, who offered criticism– to which O’Connor responded calmly that she had done well to even write the story at all. No one truly understands what’s going on in your body and your life except you. If you know you’re doing your best and giving it all you’ve got, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Know your limits, and know how to handle people who don’t understand what your limits are. Your habits, O’Connor said, must adapt to what you can do– so figure out what that looks like, and then don’t be shy about sticking to it.
As a writer who was diagnosed with a chronic fatigue disease when I was seventeen, I feel a lot of similarities to O’Connor. I understand her struggles, and I respect and emulate her discipline. As I left her childhood home in Savannah last fall, I turned back for one last look and saw something. In front of the house the house was a Little Free Library, a box where people can take a book or leave a book or both. It seemed wildly appropriate to me that not only can readers walk into any library and borrow one of O’Connor’s works, but that they can even find books under her very home. Flannery O’Connor left an indelible mark on the world of literature– not just in spite of her lupus, but perhaps even because of it.
Hailey Hudson is a young author, blogger, and freelance fitness writer from the mountains of north Georgia. When she’s not writing, she coaches 8U softball and works for a nonprofit that tutors refugee kids.