Inspiration

lightning, thunderstorm

pixabay, creative commons license

The title alone of Kimberly Bunker’s essay for Glimmer Train—“The Fear of Not Saying Interesting Things”—is irresistible. She says this fear never stops her from talking, only writing. I’d guess many authors and most talkers, judging by overheard conversations, feel the same way.

Bunker favors waiting for interesting subjects and ideas to appear versus trying hard to find them. Which is not the same as waiting for your Muse to ring the doorbell, accompanied by her handmaiden, Serendipity. Said Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

This seems to be Bunker’s message, too. “Cultivate a mindset that’s receptive to but not obsessive about ideas, and . . . be methodical about pursuing ideas that seem worth pursuing.” In other words, find the right balance between the idea that inspires and interests you and the necessary work to polish up that idea for the public.

In some respects this is the same wavelength the young Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic, was on when she wrote prayers at the Iowa Writers’ workshop. One of them began, “Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.” I suspect most other writers would expect more credit.

In a letter to “A,” she also wrote, “the greatest gift of the writer is patience . . .” Here again is needed a balance between the patient, painstaking work of getting a story or book into shape while preserving that initial lightning strike of inspiration.

Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person”

bookshare, Flannery O'Connor, peacock

Bookshare box outside Flannery O’Connor’s girlhood home with an adored peacock (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Late last year author David Griffith wrote a timely essay in The Paris Review about Flannery O’Connor’s infrequently anthologized short story, “The Displaced Person.”* He was inspired to do so by the ongoing political debates over immigration. First published as a short story in 1955, the story was made into a tv movie with John Housman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Irene Worth in 1977.

O’Connor generally avoided stories that tried to make a particular point about social issues. Topical writing can sink unpleasantly into polemics or become outdated. Think about the reservations people now have about The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the McCarthy era witch hunts. Griffith says O’Connor’s story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” is another exception. (It’s the unforgettable tale of the mother who gets on the bus wearing her distinctive hat.) It manages both to avoid lecturing the reader as well as remaining relevant, as the bigotry it lampoons has not disappeared and constantly shifts to new targets. As have suspicion and resentment of “the displaced.”

More important, says Griffith, “To be topical, (O’Connor) thought, was to risk arguing for social changes that couldn’t be brought about by mere idealism, but by the hard, messy, and sometimes violent work of transforming hearts.” We hear that in the current campaign as well. Idealistic, pie-in-the-sky proposals from politicians that have not a wisp of a chance to become anyone’s reality. When we think about the desperate parents of Guatemala, who were willing to part with their beloved children and send them impossibly far away to the United States to keep them safe (only to find they weren’t welcome here), the difficulty of transforming greedy hearts is abundantly clear.

Griffith, like other students of O’Connor’s works, would argue that in fact many of her characters are displaced persons—if not literally, he says, then figuratively: “morally rudderless, existentially lost, or both.” And their displacement comes from their inability to love their neighbor. One way Griffith describes displacement is being “without a community to care for you” and, I’d add, “to care about.” The loss of caring community certainly describes the situation facing migrants all over the world today. They did not ask for their home countries—their caring communities—to become disastrous, murderous places.

“The Displaced Person,” Griffith concludes,“carries a dark moral force without recourse to didacticism or sentimentality.” The character in this post-World War II story has been displaced through the intolerance and hatred spawned by the Third Reich. Yet O’Connor does not refer to the war itself, but instead focuses “on the long shadow cast by this kind of evil,” a shadow that at the time of her writing extended all the way to Milledgeville, Georgia, and that in 2016 is deepening across our beloved country.

*If you search for “The Displaced Person full text,” the Gordon State College link has it as a rather funky pdf.