Jan Carson is a writer based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her first novel, “Malcolm Orange Disappears” was published by Liberties Press in 2014, followed by a short story collection, “Children’s Children” in 2016. Her flash fiction anthology, “Postcard Stories” is forthcoming from the Emma Press in 2017.
Her stories have appeared in journals such as Storm Cellar, Banshee, Harper’s Bazaar and The Honest Ulsterman. In 2014 she was a recipient of the Arts Council NI Artist’s Career Enhancement Bursary. She was longlisted for the Sean O’Faolain short story prize in 2015 and shortlisted in 2016, won the Harper’s Bazaar short story competition in 2016 and was shortlisted for a Sabotage Award for best short story collection 2015/16.
In 2005 I moved to Portland, Oregon. I knew no one in the entire state. This was part of the appeal. I wanted to be unknown. I was weary of the Northern Irish goldfish bowl I’d grown up in; of not being able to leave the house without bumping into someone I knew; of over-familiarity and never being able to escape my previous self. I wished to re-invent myself and fancied becoming a writer. I had not, at this point, written anything but felt very strongly that I had the potential to write many things of great and lasting importance. (I was reading a lot of Sylvia Plath at the time). As a teenager I’d consumed huge amounts of American literature: Steinbeck, Salinger, Capote and all the other, ‘mostly men’ who’d charted the US’s progress through youth and early childhood. I was captivated by the possibilities offered by a country still trying to define itself, and believed that America, despite its myriad faults, could offer me almost unlimited opportunities for re-invention. So, I packed a laptop and an inordinate amount of waterproof clothing, (Portland being the only city in the world more prone to pervading drizzle than Belfast), and moved to the other side of the world. I told everyone I met that I was a writer. “That’s great,” they said, and never once questioned this bold claim. After a few weeks I began to believe my own fib. After a few months I actually started writing.
I spent almost four years in Portland. I flourished in the city’s incredible arts community. I flexed my wings as a fledgling writer and wrote, and wrote, and most of what I wrote was utter drivel, but the odd piece flew. I felt a creative freedom I’d never experienced before. It seemed possible, even probable, that I might get to make some tiny, but significant mark on the world. I had a friend tattoo the phrase, “be not so fearful,” round the inside of my left arm. This would be a permanent reminder of my new found confidence; a bold line I would not permit myself to retreat over again. Then, in Autumn 2008, my American adventure was suddenly over. Visas, family issues and study opportunities conspired to force me out of the city I’d hoped to call home and back across the Atlantic, to Northern Ireland, where I did not want to be. The scab hadn’t even healed over my new tattoo yet I could already feel the fear beginning to sink its claws in.
With zero career prospects and even less savings, I found myself, aged twenty nine, making the humiliating move back into my old room in my parents’ house. I got a minimum wage job in a provincial shopping centre, and quietly despaired. It was not an easy year. I spent a great deal of time stomping round the town with my anorak hood up, crying and trying to reconcile the person I was in Portland with my current circumstances. I watched a lot of CSI. I spent a great deal of time hanging out in Tesco’s café, (the only thing open after 5pm on a week night), and I attempted to write a novel.
I have a very clear memory of writing the opening two lines of my first book, Malcolm Orange Disappears. I was sitting in the coffee island of the provincial shopping centre, drinking a piss-thin Americano and trying to feel inspired when one of the security guards leaned over my shoulder, read the first two sentences off my laptop screen and laughed in my face. It was one of the smallest and most demeaning moments of my life. At that point I could not possibly have imagined the life I now have: writing, publishing books and stories, never, really making much money, but nonetheless relishing every second of the journey. I felt utterly defeated: stupid and insignificant, the absolute opposite of a dangerous woman. I almost gave up on my novel. I very nearly stopped writing.
Just a few weeks later I discovered Flannery O’Connor. I may have been a little late to this particular party but, for me, the advent of Flannery occurred at exactly the right moment. In a very real sense Flannery O’Connor saved my writing life. I devoured her stories, novels and, perhaps most importantly, her non-fiction writing. She kicked the fear out of me, reminding me why I had to write. It was not a choice so much as a responsibility. Her stories knocked me sideways. They were passionate, wise and wickedly funny. They left me with an unswerving desire to live well and boldly. Under her tutelage I came to understand that crafting a powerfully honest sentence was just about the most dangerous thing a woman could do.
Over the course of a very long winter, selling over-priced candles and picking away at the first draft of my novel, Flannery taught me that words were like tiny bombs: powerful and potentially explosive. There was no place for fear or restraint when it came to writing honestly about the world as I saw it. If I was entrusted with the gift of writing I was required to tend it to the absolute best of my ability. This would require bravery, risk-taking and the very real possibility of failure. It wasn’t my job to concern myself with what might become of my writing. I was not to worry what friends or family, church or critic might make of the stories I felt compelled to tell. It was my chief calling, and indeed privilege, to serve the words generously, to shape and sharpen, then let them loose to explode as they saw fit. This was a harsh lesson, but a grounding which would ultimately keep me writing through the ups and downs of the following decade. I ignored the security guard and all those people who thought they knew what I was capable of, and the little voice in my head which craved security and approval, and I finished my book. Then I wrote another. And two more after that. And I’m still going.
Flannery O’Connor stayed with me. She became both a good friend and a persistent thorn in my side. Her essays continue to be the most well-thumbed books on my shelves. I go to her for inspiration and challenge when I feel myself growing fearful, doubting my ability as a writer. Sometimes she offers me sympathetic encouragement; mostly I get a well-aimed kick in the butt. I see much of myself in her life for I’m also a woman writer who has struggled with chronic illness, who feels drawn to wrestle with issues of faith and region, who doesn’t function well, (at all), when she isn’t writing. I admire Flannery’s tenacity; her ability to flourish despite circumstances. I have so much still to learn from her.
In some ways Flannery O’Connor lived a very small and limited existence. Diagnosed with Lupus at 25, she spent most of her short life in pain, restricted to the family farm at Milledgeville, Georgia where she raised peacocks, wrote furiously and, as a devout Catholic, spent hours in prayer and contemplation. She had no real love affairs, didn’t travel widely, caused no significant scandals and died one year shy of her fortieth birthday having written two novels and two collections of short stories. By today’s high standards she might not even be considered a particularly successful human being. Yet, I would argue that Flannery O’Connor lived fearlessly, with tremendous passion and purpose, condensing so much significance into her 39 years, the reverberations are still being felt all over the world, not least in the thousands of writers she inspires, and oftentimes provokes, from beyond the grave. Flannery O’Connor is, in my opinion, the definition of a dangerous woman.
I am primarily drawn to O’Connor’s unswerving sense of purpose. Her good friend Sally Fitzgerald recalls how, in light of her Lupus diagnosis, (which in the 1950s was a death sentence), Flannery, “took stock characteristically and began to plan her life in the light of reality.” A practical realist as much as a visionary, she understood from a very early age that she had been born to write and ordered her life accordingly. She put her artistic practice first, actively resisting self-pity. She refused to allow exhaustion, chronic pain or limited time to distract her from writing and was, reportedly, crawling out of bed to finish the stories in what would become Everything That Rises Must Converge even as she lay dying. The literary world has always been plagued by individuals who value the title of Writer above the act of writing. Flannery O’Connor remains the antithesis of the status writer. Her life and work pay testament to an unspoken belief that her work was much more important than she would ever be. There is a peculiar power to be found in such bold humility when coupled with creative excellence. It is not bolstered by success or crippled by critique. It is unswerving as a bullet in its purpose and almost always hits its mark.
Secondly, I am continually inspired by Flannery’s ability to see her difficult circumstances as fuel, if not fodder, for her writing. Every time I feel frustrated by the constraints of my own life –the exhaustion of juggling full time work and writing, the financial limitations, the small and large disappointments- I am reminded of her assurance, “I can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing.” Every facet of Flannery O’Connor’s existence, both the positive and negative, found its way into her work and made her a braver, bolder, more honest writer. I have spent the last decade trying to squint my eye in a similar fashion. It’s a difficult thing to do. In a world where so many use their circumstances as an excuse to retreat, Flannery has taught me how to invert my artistic gaze and see the powerful potential in every experience, no matter how difficult.
I must also pay testament to O’Connor’s incredibly forthright voice. In a literary scene dominated by men she never once allowed her gender to limit the power of her voice. She offered unbidden critique of her, chiefly male, peers, castigating Capote and other “fashionable” writers of the time, whilst taking every opportunity to champion those whose work she admired, many of whom were relatively unknown. She spoke out boldly on controversial topics such as Catholic doctrine, the role of the Southern writer and literary form, militantly maintaining her own opinion, even when it wasn’t the popular or pervading outlook. She was a woman who knew her own mind and wasn’t afraid to use it. The impact of her influence is particularly remarkable in light of the fact she was latterly confined to a bed, in a room, on a backwater, Georgian farm. O’Connor’s boldness of tone is unarguably most apparent in her fiction. Her critics often accused her of over-doing the grotesque to which Flannery, with characteristic forthrightness, and no small measure of dark humour, replied, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Bold and uncompromising as she could be, Flannery O’Connor also had an incredible generosity of spirit when it came to supporting other, younger writers. Her collected letters offer a small insight into her belief that the writer does not exist in isolation; each generation has a responsibility to invest in the next. Over the course of her life she wrote hundreds of carefully constructed letters to other, less-experienced writers, mostly younger women. She offered advice, criticism, contacts and encouragement, always pausing to celebrate the success of her fellow writers.
Dangerous women, understand that the patriarchy is advanced when women are tricked into seeing each other as competition. Flannery O’Connor resisted this. She was always a team player, championing the power of artistic community. Her final, posthumously published collection was titled, Everything That Rises Must Converge. I have always read this as a kind of rallying cry. It is the writer’s responsibility to write and write well, understanding that their voice is just one small, but essential part of a much bigger conversation. For me, however, Flannery O’Connor’s voice will always be just a little louder than the rest.
Image: Cropped from photo ‘Robie with Flannery 1947’ by Cmcauley at commons.wikipedia.org, used under CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.