“I AM” is, of course, the name God called himself in the Old Testament when Moses asked God whom he should tell the Israelites had sent him. O’Connor would have recognized the hubris of a declaration that implicitly compared herself to God. But employing the same sardonic sense of irony with which she’d later craft her characters, O’Connor explains that this statement isn’t hubris, but rather, its opposite: humility. She desires to be emptied of self-satisfaction in order to experience something “wonderful” from a source greater than herself.
O’Connor’s life would be filled with wonderful things. After college, she would be accepted to the highly competitive Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She would befriend acclaimed writers such as Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Fitzgerald (the famous translator of classical epic poetry such as Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad). She would become published in some of the most reputable literary and popular journals of her age. She would write astonishing short stories, novels, essays, and letters. And eight years after her death, The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor would be honored with the National Book Award for Fiction.
But the young woman of 18 writing in the journal knows none of this. What she knows is that she wants to succeed as an artist, but she is filled with self-doubt, which she deflects by professing that she would prefer “social success” to literary achievement even though that seems an even more hopeless pursuit for such a “frightened rabbit” as she. Yet, she is similarly skeptical of her intellectual and writing abilities; her lack in this area is merely compounded by her limited social experience, which she worries gives her too little material to reflect and write upon—the catch-22 of every unaccomplished aspirant.
Of course, 18 is not the most confident age for anyone. On top of that, to be a woman who writes, or one who wants to write, has been viewed through most of history as transgressive, even subversive. To be an “author” entails having “authority,” as the etymological connection of the two words suggests, something, until recent history, denied to women by lack of education, legal rights, or public roles. In the early age of print, when women began to seize the authority granted them by access to education and print technology, the term “female pen” was used pejoratively of the woman writer, suggesting, with its phallic symbolism, the sheer unnaturalness of the female author.
From Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century mystic sealed up in her little cell, to the pseudonymously published Brontë sisters of the 19th century, women writers have often felt compelled to hide themselves or their work in one way or another. Thus, Virginia Woolf observed in her 1929 treatise on women and writing, “A Room of One’s Own”:
When … one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.
Woolf’s essay exhaustingly and exquisitely reveals the results for women of centuries of artificially erected barriers that undermined their ability to find and express their voice and their authority. Such a history goes a long way toward explaining the near-paralyzing insecurities of a budding female writer like O’Connor. Writing in her journal one day, she leaked ink on the bedspread; she notes she will have to make up an excuse about it because “I don’t care to have [my mother] know I write.” She even labeled the diary, with her usual dry humor, Higher Mathematics, presumably to mislead her mother’s prying eyes. And it’s no coincidence that O’Connor would eventually publish under a pen name that dropped her given name, the feminine Mary, replacing it with her more androgynous middle name, Flannery.