When I drove to Jackson, Mississippi to meet with several members of the Writer’s Guild for lunch, I discovered the answer to a question that I’d been asking myself for a long time. I didn’t realize I had found the answer until several days later. You see, on the way to the appointed lunch spot, I saw an arrow pointing to Eudora Welty’s house, a National Historic Monument. Maybe I was in a literary state of mind.
Many years ago my creative writing teacher, William Dickey, had suggested I read Welty’s story, “Why I Live at the P.O.” I remember being enthralled by her voice, very southern with a wry sense of humor. She wrote steadily from 1941 almost up until her death in 2001, honing her craft in stories and novels about the American South. Welty won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for The Optimist’s Daughter and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 for her contribution to the cultural interests of the United States.
After lunch, I decided to follow the signs to the Welty house, a Tudor sitting on Fortification Street opposite Belhaven University.
Signs directed me to an adjoining museum with photo exhibits. It’s here I bought a white Eudora Welty mug to commemorate the occasion. I was a northern writer now ensconced in the South invited by the center’s devoted guides to enter Eudora’s world, the place where she lived and finished her major writing. She called her editing process, “cut and pinning.” She snipped paragraphs and ordered them into their proper sequence with straight pins. It was a wonderful tour and I tried to absorb as much Welty lore as I could. I also toured the gardens dripping with marigolds, zinnias, and roses.
So what about my question? After the tour, I drove to Lemuria Bookstore–Jackson’s answer to Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, with rooms where it’s possible to lose oneself in reaching for and looking at good books. I picked up Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, actually a compilation of lectures given at Harvard University. I couldn’t put it down. To my mind, it’s one of the best books about writing that I have come across. Welty talks about an independence of spirit, the love of spoken language, and storytelling. But most of all, she helped me to understand plot in a way that no other writer has:
“Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life. This has been the case with me. Connections slowly emerge. Like distance landmarks you are approaching, cause and effect begin to align themselves, draw closer together.”
She also talks about the revelation of experience, a perfectly marvelous phrase that explains the power of written prose.
Welty never placed commas where I think they should be. She was a writer who heard things her own way. Here’s one of her perfectly balanced sentences:
”I let run through my fingers in the haunting stillness knowledge of animate things.”