The rationalist approaches the peacock and sees, possibly at first glance, beauty. But, after the beauty has worn off and the tomatoes have all been eaten off the vine, the scientist hears nothing but the screeches and sees nothing but dinner. The writer, however, sees the King of the Birds.
The writer writes because, when the rationalist is done with all the defining and the categorizing and the mystery of life has finally been “revealed” and exhaustively understood, more mystery is found underneath it. Flannery O’Connor, in Mystery and Manners, says that if you are asked to explain what you are writing about, the only sensible answer is to say, “Read the story.” If what we write about can easily be summed up in a one-sentence theme, then why have we wasted our time writing for pages? It is, in fact, impossible to divide the theme from the story, just as it is impossible to divide the incarnated Christ from God Himself. The mystery cannot be understood without the body, the tangible, just as the concrete cannot be understood without mystery. Flannery writes that stories cannot be limited to character motivation or right theology. The writer “has to be concerned with these only because the meaning of his story does not begin except at the depth where these things have been exhausted." This must, I believe, be the litmus test I use to assess my own writing, though O’Connor would laugh at the irony of my applying human formula to measuring Mystery.
Mystery, Flannery says, is an unflinching look at the true condition of humanity and all of its horrors, and finding that the God who evaluates it all has deemed it worthy to die for. Religion doesn’t limit the artist; it, in fact, frees the artist to see the fullness of the human experience. If God accepts it all, then who are we to look away. As a doubt-filled believer, I can firmly take hold of this call to not try to understand it all, but to tell all of what I see, particularly in the deep recesses of my heart and mind. The role of uncertainty is possibly one of the main tools the Christian artist must use in interpreting life through art.
Manners would then be the what of what I see: the daily routines, the accents, the figures of speech, the clicks and tics, my conflicting thoughts, the sinner and the saint in each character. A whole character does not live since there is no such thing on the earth. The broken, whole-enough or thoroughly shattered person lives, not because the writer makes her live, but because something else has brought her to life. As soon as my writing takes a turn into certainty, I have surely let my writing die. I will leave conclusions and explanations to the scientists and theologians. I will push off the false burden of the fate of souls and I will concentrate on the burden of creating art.
The role of the grotesque in Flannery’s writing has more to do with actual truth than with any exaggeration of it. The “normal” Bible salesman steals a woman’s wooden leg, not because she needed to make up a dramatic conflict, but because that is exactly what the Bible salesman wanted to do. It was inevitable. In writing nonfiction, however, it is not the inevitable that I can harvest but the regrettable.
As a Christian, the regrettable is a necessary subject, because, as Flannery says, Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it. Again, the only way to achieve this is to leave the mystery part to Mystery and specialize in the concrete. My past embarrassments and shames and my current foibles and regional manners must be written if I am to write anything that signals to Mystery. Now, because I am not a bank robber or meth addict, I will have to make the distortions and disfigurements of my character appear as distortions, since most modern readers will find them shameless.
Because of this challenge, I believe that the role of the grotesque is of even higher impotance for the nonfiction writer. How can I charge myself as being racist when the majority of the western world wants to absolve himself of any chance of being one? How can I show my own disbelief when the Christian reader can discount my salvation so easily? I will either be dismissed as an extremist either way. However, I think if I write about my humanness, my successes as well as my failures, the universality of truth will shine through. The grotesqueness of my life is one of the extreme gulfs between faith and belief, love and hate. Both present at all times in me.
To me, this ends the creative non-fiction debate. I do think it is wise to build trust with your reader by establishing a relationship of integrity with words; however, the commitment to the “greater truth” must be held higher than the commitment to accuracy. If my writing is to help the almost-blind to see, exaggeration and hyperbole become guide-dogs. Not only are they allowed, but they are required for safe navigation for the visually impaired.
O’Connor’s fusing the Sacred and Secular is a fight against the fundamentalist culture of evangelicalism, though it is not a modern conflict. From the Gnostics to the Opus Dei sect of the Catholic Church, there are plenty of the religious who want to curse the body and all that is not “of heaven.” However, what Flannery makes plain for the writer who may not get it: Mystery and Manners are both of this world and of heaven, like Jesus himself, God made Man. So, Flannery said to me, “Girl, if you are gonna write about anything worth reading about, you will write your freckles, your patched-up asphalted street, your father’s cry of repentance—“Foul Number 10!”—your wickedly precocious ten year old—how you admire her and fear her, your gluttony for highly salted soul-food and smoked meats, your hyperactive six year old—how you want to swallow him and how his eyebrows swirl into his forehead and hypnotize everyone he meets.” The big Mystery is that my life, as banally quotidian as most that began in 1973 in Atlanta, Georgia, is the dream life of angels and is to be paraded, only God knows why, like a peacock.