Last Sunday I finished reading One Writer’s Beginnings, by Mississippi author Eudora Welty. The book is a memoir that grew out of a series of lectures Welty gave in 1983 to the History of American Civilization graduate program at Harvard University. In three sections — Listening, Learning To See, and Finding A Voice — Welty describes different periods of her early life, from childhood to adolescents to adulthood, and explains what these years taught her about writing. It is an engrossing book, short and powerful, a great read for anyone interested in writing or life in the early 20th century.
In the section Listening, Welty describes scenes from her childhood in almost photographic detail. Not surprisingly, Welty describes herself as a shy girl who loved to read. In one scene that I particularly like, she tells us about the moment she discovered that voice you hear when reading:
Ever since I was first read to, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line read that I didn’t hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It isn’t my mother’s voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own . . . It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe . . . reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers — to read as listeners — and with all writers, to write as listeners . . . The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me.
When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted this voice.
One Writer’s Beginnings is full of gems like this. For example, when recounting how she spied on the one-sided conversations of her mother’s phone calls, Welty lets us know what these early conversations taught her: The scene was full of hints, pointers, suggestions, and promises of things to find out and know about human beings. And after pestering her mother to reveal the secret of where babies come from, her mother instead reveals to Eudora that she wasn’t the first-born, but had an older brother that died at birth. From this Welty tells us this: The future story writer in the child I was must have taken unconscious note and stored it away then: one secret is liable to be revealed in the place of another that is harder to tell, and the substitute secret when nakedly exposed is often the more appealing.
I could go on and on about the details of her life and her tips for storytelling. In Learning To See, Welty recounts the summer road trips she made with her mother and father to visit her grandparents in West Virginia and Ohio. She discusses more the importance of books to her life, and even recounts how her mother once rushed into a burning house to save the 20-some-odd volumes of Dickens that she cherished. Finally, in Finding A Voice, she recounts her early college years at Mississippi State College for Women and the University of Wisconsin. She goes on and on in the same relaxed yet authoritative voice that is present in her best short fiction.
I would love to quote Welty for pages but will restrain myself. So I’ll stop now before it gets out of hand. One Writer’s Beginnings is a terrific read by one of America’s greatest southern writers. Please, just go read this book.