Eudora Welty: One Writer’s Beginnings

One Writer's Beginnings (The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization) - Eudora Welty

Glimpses Into a Unique Writer’s Mind

“Listening,” “Learning to See” and “Finding a Voice,” Eudora Welty entitled the three chapters of her autobiography “One Writer’s Beginnings.” And while these may be steps that most writers will undergo at some point, Welty’s compact memoir is notable both because it allows a rare glimpse into the celebrated writer’s otherwise fiercely protected private life and it illustrates the roots from which sprang such extraordinary protagonists as “The Ponder Heart”‘s Edna Earle and Daniel Ponder, Miss Eckhart and the Morgana families in “The Golden Apples” and, of course, the anti-heroes of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Optimist’s Daughter,” Judge McKelva, his second wife Fay and (most importantly) his daughter Laurel.

A native and – with minimal exceptions – lifelong resident of Jackson, Mississippi, Welty received her first introduction to storytelling as a listener; and early on, learned to sharpen her ears not only to a story’s contents but also to its narrator and its protagonists’ individual nature: “[T]here [never was] a line read that I didn’t hear,” and “any room … at any time of day, was there to read in, or to be read to,” she notes in “One Writer’s Beginnings,” adding that the discovery that all those stories had been written by someone, not come into existence of their own, not only surprised but also severely disappointed her. Equally importantly, family visits to relatives brought out the born observer in her; each trip providing its own lessons and revelations, each a story onto itself – the seed from which later grew her manifold unforgettable literary creations. At the same time, her father’s interest in technology introduced her to photography as a means of capturing visual impressions, one moment at a time; and when traveling around Mississippi as an agent for a state agency (her first job) she learned to use that camera as “a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know” and discovered that “to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was [then] the greatest need I had.” Not surprisingly, her photography was published in several collections which have found much acclaim in their own right.

Thus, from early childhood on, Eudora Welty not only had a keen sense of the world around her but also, of words as such: of their existence as much as the interrelation between their sound, physical appearance and the things they stand for. Encouraged by her mother, a teacher, and over her father’s worries (he considered fiction writing an occupation of dubitable financial promise and, worse, inferior to fact because it was “not true”), Welty embarked on a writer’s path which would lead her to award-winning heights and to a reputation as one of the South’s finest writers, with as abounding as obvious comparisons to fellow Mississippian William Faulkner in particular; a literary debt she acknowledged when she wrote that “his work, though it can’t increase in itself, increases us” and “[w]hat is written in the South from now on is going to be taken into account by Faulkner’s work” (“Must the Novelist Crusade?”, 1965).

An approach that Welty herself developed early on was to consider the publication of her short stories in periodicals merely a step towards each story’s final shape, and she generally revised her stories before including them in their various collections. – Not only a keen observer, she was also a writer endowed with a sharp sense of humor and satire, and with the gift to brilliantly use location, localisms, accents, patterns of speech and customs to make a point.

Yet, “[t]here is no explanation outside fiction for what its writer is learning to do,” Eudora Welty maintained in her essay “Writing and Analyzing a Story;” explaining that each story references only the writer’s vision at the moment of the creation of that very story, and the creative process itself: nothing that can be “mapped and plotted” but a product taking shape within the process of its creation as such, thus giving each story a unique identity of its own. And considering her reluctance to comment on, or to explain her own fiction writing, the insights into that creative process’s origins she allowed her readers in “One Writer’s Beginnings” are all the more to be treasured.


Favorite Quotes:

“It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they come from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them …”

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”

“She read Dickens in the same spirit she would have eloped with him.”

“Through travel I first became aware of the outside world; it was through travel that I found my own introspective way into becoming a part of it.”



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