Monday, May 14, 2012


"In our house on Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks." So begins Eudora Welty's memoir One Writer's Beginning.

A slim little book. An inspiring place for any aspiring writer to begin. It was one of the two books that squared me on the path to a writerly life. The other was equally slim: Strunk and White's Elements of Style. I think I paid about 15 cents for each of them as used paperbacks.

Welty's book has three parts, the titles of which suggest key steps in becoming a writer: "Listening," "Learning to See," and "Finding a Voice."

"Listening" requires neither learning nor finding. You either grow up with the striking of clocks (metaphorically speaking), or you don't. Of course, clocks strike everywhere, but they are not always heard. By "listening," Welty means a certain innate awareness of the world, an inborn sensitivity to sights, sounds, tastes, touches, smells. You either have it or you don't. If you have it in spades you have the chance to become a Joyce or a Proust. If you don't have it at all, then becoming a writer is not an option. I had just enough to make the mid-lists.

Then, in "Learning to See," this, from an early trip to a grandparents farm in the mountains of West Virginia:
It took the mountain top, it seems to me now, to give me the sensation of independence. It was as if I'd discovered something I'd never tasted before in my short life. Or rediscovered it -- for I associated it with the taste of the water that came out of the well, accompanied with the ring of that long metal sleeve against the sides of the living mountain, as from deep down it was wound up to view brimming and streaming long drops behind it like bright stars on a ribbon. It thrilled me to drink from the common dipper. The coldness, the far, unseen, unheard springs of what was in my mouth now, the iron strength of its flavor that drew my cheeks in, its fern-laced smell, all said mountain mountain mountain as I swallowed.
Here is something that has to be learned, from parents, teachers, books, or personal adventure, a way of connecting and extrapolating one's sense experiences, of recognizing the inexhaustible possibilities of metaphor -- that is, of tasting the mountain in a sip of cold spring water.

And now the hardest part of all: "finding a voice." This section of Welty's book begins: "I had the window seat. Beside me, my father checked the progress of our train by moving his finger down the timetable and springing open his pocket watch." From so slight a sample -- two sentences -- one recognizes the writer's voice, the spare style for which Welty is known, the sturdy nouns, the vigorous verbs. Only the one adjective matters -- "window" -- which says everything we need to know about the child.

I can vividly remember, after years of false starts, the moment I discovered a way of writing that fit me as comfortably as a favorite pair of jeans. It was when I typed the first sentence of The Soul of the Night: "Yesterday on Boston Common I saw a young man on a skateboard collide with a child." I knew at that instant the paragraphs that would follow, detailing the child's long flight across the galaxy. Science would be part of that voice, and the human drama too. One foot on the shore of fact, one foot in mystery.