Becoming a Writer

 “I am not writing a conventional novel…” ~ Flannery O’Connor

Letter to John Selby, February 18, 1949. O’Connor: Collected Works. Edited by Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Library of America, 1988.

University of Iowa

Flannery arrived in Iowa City, Iowa to begin her graduate studies in journalism at the University of Iowa in September 1945. Iowa City was a small rural town, not unlike what Flannery was used to in Milledgeville, but when school was in session it became bustling with thousands of students and faculty. It was even more bustling in 1945 because the government offered soldiers returning from service in World War II a free college education under the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act or GI Bill. Creative people especially flocked to the University of Iowa creating a perfect environment for a budding author. Flannery spent her time in Iowa surrounded by aspiring poets, artists, writers and musicians some who had experienced war abroad.

Surrounded by thousands of energetic graduates did not keep Flannery from feeling very homesick. Flannery grew up surrounded by family but now she was with strangers, and it did not help that many of her classmates and professors struggled to understand her southern accent. There was one place Flannery felt at home, St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

Unhappy in her journalism and art courses, Flannery changed courses and joined the Writers’ Workshop (a name given to the Master of Fine Arts graduate writing program at the University of Iowa). The program’s director Paul Engle allowed her into his program after reading some of her writing samples. Other graduate programs in literature focused on reading, analyzing and criticizing the great names in literature like Shakespeare. In the Writers’ Workshop, students focused on learning the craft of fiction writing. The students would write short stories before each class and read them aloud to the group. Sometimes Paul Engle would read Flannery’s stories because of her thick accent and shy nature. Flannery discovered her career path was not journalism or cartooning but “imaginative writing.”

In 1947, Flannery won the Reinhart-Iowa award. To win the award, Flannery submitted several chapters and an outline of what became her first novel Wise Blood. Reinhart Publishers awarded Flannery $750 with an option to publish. In June of 1947 Flannery submitted a collection of short stories titled The Geranium as her thesis and was awarded her Master of Fine Arts degree. Flannery continued in Iowa City as a post-graduate and worked on her first novel until the summer of 1948 when she was accepted to the Yaddo Foundation’s artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York.


Flannery O’Connor went from a small college town in Iowa to rural countryside near New York City to stay at the Yaddo artists’ colony. The Yaddo foundation invited artists, writers, composers, philosophers and other creative people to spend time at the Yaddo estate to escape the world and work on their art. All the invited residents got a free place to stay and free meals. Similar to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the residents at Yaddo shared their work with the group to get ideas and suggestions for revision. Elizabeth Ames was the director of Yaddo when Flannery lived there. She lived in the home and acted like a house mother to the residents.

Ames had strict rules for the residents. From nine in the morning until four in the afternoon no talking was allowed and no visitors. Everyone was expected to work diligently in their studios. Flannery enjoyed the time spent working on her novel, but did not fit in well with the other artists who liked to drink and party in their free time. The poet Robert Lowell arrived at Yaddo in the fall of 1948 and became close friends with Flannery.

In February 1949 an article in the newspaper accused a former Yaddo resident and personal friend of Mrs. Ames of being a Soviet spy. The report was dismissed by the army, but it caused a lot of tension at Yaddo and all the residents left. Around the same time, Flannery received a letter from John Selby from Reinehart publishing with some harsh criticism of the first nine chapters of Wise Blood. Flannery explained to Mr. Selby that she was “not writing a conventional novel.” Eventually Flannery got a full release from Reinhart and published with Harcourt, Brace & Co.


Flannery lived in New York City before being introduced to Robert and Sally Fitzgerald who invited her to rent a room at their home in Connecticut. Every day, Flannery attended early morning Mass, ate breakfast and then spent four hours working on her novel. In the afternoon she babysat for an hour then had supper with the Fitzgeralds and spent the evening in lively discussion with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald. On a trip to Milledgeville during Christmas 1949, Flannery fell terribly ill with a kidney condition known as Dietl’s crisis. Flannery had surgery and recovered enough to return to the Fitzgeralds in March of 1949. In December of 1950, at the age of twenty five, Flannery started complaining of muscle weakness and joint pains, both symptoms of lupus. Her Christmas visit to Milledgeville that year became a permanent return to Georgia.

The Habits of a Successful Writer

Flannery loved to read and write from a young age. She obviously had natural talent as a writer, but is that all it takes? Writing is a discipline that takes practice and dedication. While at Iowa State University, Flannery learned the habits and techniques of a successful writer. Perhaps some of the advice Flannery took to heart can help you be a better writer.

  1. Read! Flannery took several courses that focused simply on reading. She read authors from different time periods, different regions, and different styles. Southern writers like Conrad Aiken and William Faulkner especially influenced Flannery. She also habitually read the Bible and works by theologians like Thomas Aquinas.
  2. Schedule! One of Flannery’s favorite professors Paul Horgan told Flannery she needed to set aside a certain number of hours each day for writing. Every morning after Mass, Flannery would spend around two hours or more writing.
  3. Share! During the Writers’ Workshop, Flannery shared her writing with other students, professors, and other writers brought to the Workshop by Paul Engle. She used the criticism and advice of everyone who read her work to make it better and better.
  4. Keep Trying! Flannery is now one of the most famous American authors that have ever lived, but she got plenty of rejection notices from magazines and journals. Flannery learned to keep writing and keep trying to get her work published.

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