The Eudora Welty Primer for Writers
June 4, 2012
Eudora Welty was one of us. Certainly she was a great writer, generally placed alongside William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers as a member in good standing of the so-called Southern School of writers. She received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, the O’Henry Award eight times, and the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
But Eudora Welty never really thought that she was that good. Her heart and soul were buried deep within every word she typed onto a printed page. Her stories were warm and intimate. The characters, both the good and the bad, particularly the disheartened and disenfranchised, mattered greatly to her. They had become flesh and blood. They had become family.
Her greatest fear was handing over those words, those characters, those stories to her editor. The woman and the writer she was would be laid bare, as if by a surgeon’s scalpel, with each reading by each editor and ultimately by each critic who had been asked to analyze her work.
She said, “When I walk in with a manuscript and give that stack of papers to my publisher, it’s like walking into a room stark naked and turning slowly around.”
Eudora Welty was kind and generous, humble and genteel, revered throughout the literary world as a genius within her own quiet little writing room in Jackson, Mississippi. She has long been regarded, wrote Carol Ann Johnston on The Mississippi Writer’s Site, as “the century’s most gifted and radical practitioner of the short story.” And Eudora Welty always swore, even though she would never swear in public, that her novels were nothing more than short stories that got out of hand. As Eudora once told The Paris Review: “If I’d known I was going to finish Losing Battles as a long novel, I don’t know that I’d have begun it. I’m a short story writer who writes novels the hard way, and by accident. You see, all my work grows out of the work itself.”
She wrote of the paradox of human relationships and believed strongly in using the importance and power of place to define mood and plot in any story. It is place, she believed that makes fiction seem real simply because with place comes customs and traditions, feelings and associations. Place, she said, answers the questions of “What happened, who’s here, and who’s coming?” Place is a prompt to the memory of both writer and reader, and it the most valuable tool that a storyteller possesses.
Her prose had a lyrical, almost spiritual quality about it. Ray Bradbury said he studied the writings of Eudora Welty religiously. He said, “She has the remarkable ability to give you atmosphere, character, and motion in a single line. In one line! Welty would have a woman come into the room and look around. In one sweep, she gave you the feel of the room, the sense of a woman’s character, and the action itself all in twenty words. How’d she do that? What adjective? What verb? What noun? How did she select them and put them together?”
Eudora Welty would have told him. Eudora Welty didn’t know. She didn’t even remember writing most of them. The words just came out of her.
She was often as surprised as anyone when she received the proofs of her work to check and revise. She said, “When I received them for Delta Wedding, I thought, I didn’t write this. It was a page of dialogue – I might as well have never seen it before. I wrote to my editor, John Woodburn, and told him something had happened to that page in the typesetting. He was kind, not even surprised – maybe this happens to all writers. He called me up and read me from the manuscript – word for word what the proofs said. Proofs don’t shock me any longer, yet there’s still a strange moment with every book when I move from the position of writer to the position of reader, and I suddenly see my words with the eyes of the cold public. It gives me a terrible sense of exposure, as if I’d gotten sunburned.
“I correct or change words, but I can’t rewrite a scene or make a major change because there’s a sense then of someone looking over my shoulder. It’s necessary to trust that moment when you were sure at last you had done all you could, done your best for that time. When it’s finally in print, you’re delivered – you don’t ever have to look at it again. It’s too late to worry about its failings. I’ll have to apply any lessons this book has taught me toward writing the next one.”
Eudora Welty left behind these thoughts and guidelines for writers:
- Sometimes you need to make a speech (of dialogue) do three or four or five things at once – reveal what the character said but also what he thought he said, what he hid, what others were going to think he meant, and what they misunderstood.
- A good snapshot (even a written one) keeps a moment from running away.
- I am a writer who came from a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.
- Write about what you don’t know about what you know.
- My main disappointment was always that a book had to end. And then what? But I don’t think I was ever disappointed by the books. I must have been what any author would consider an ideal reader. I felt every pain and pleasure suffered or enjoyed by all the characters.
- We are the breakers of our own hearts.
- Never think you have seen the last of anything.
- Writing a story or novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life.
- Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write more entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.
- It is our inward journey that leads us through time – forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling. Each of us is moving, changing, with respect to others. As we discover, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intensely do we experience this when our separate journeys converge. Our living experience at those meeting points is one of the charged dramatic fields of fiction.
- Southerners love a good tale. They are born reciters, great memory retainers, diary keepers, letter exchangers … great talkers.
- Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.
- To imagine yourself inside another person is what a story writer does in every piece of work; it is his first step, and his last, too, I suppose.
- It doesn’t matter if it takes a long time getting there; the point is to have a destination.
- Relationship is a pervading and changing mystery … brutal or lovely, the mystery waits for people wherever they go, whatever extreme they run to.
Eudora Welty is and will always be the Grande Dame of Southern writers. On her deathbed, at the age of ninety-two, her doctor leaned down and asked, “Eudora, is there anything I can do for you?”
“No,” she replied. “But thank you so much for inviting me to the party.”
Those were her final words. She lived as wrote – with an abiding desire to make those around her more comfortable regardless of the circumstances.