There are all kinds of books on writing — manuals, style guides, words of wisdom, words of warning, and every kind of bizarre miscellany imaginable. Like many writers I read a lot of them — not always for the advice, but often as maps to foreign countries that my fellow travelers have visited.
I came across another of these when I thought I would check out Eudora Welty, a writer I didn’t know too much about, who fell between Isaac Bashevis Singer and John Gardner in my copy of The Paris Review Interviews vol. II that has spent the summer on my bedside table. Welty, I discovered, lived into her 90s mostly in her native Mississippi, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and was a prolific writer of short stories, novels, and also observations on writing that were collected into several volumes.
Many writers don’t bother to explain or justify their thoughts or processes. Perhaps they are wisest of all. On the other hand, there are those who feel so much, think so much, and wonder so much about the act of writing that it is quite natural, and perhaps even inevitable, that they should want to say something on the topic.
The title of her book, “On Writing”, does not tell us much about what Welty will cover in her slim volume, and there are essays that were written years, and, in some cases, decades apart. But in the first essay called “Looking at Short Stories” we quickly determine that this is not in any way a traditional guide but instead a look inside the mind of a highly original, curious, and sensitive artist.
Her greeting at the threshold of this book is both disarming and inviting — and, I would say, quite charming. In her first sentence she writes: “Looking at short stories as readers and writers together should be a companionable thing.”
With that she re-introduces us to many short story legends: Forster, Crane, Hemingway, Mansfield, Faulkner, Chekhov, Woolf, and Lawrence. She quotes long and generous passages from many them, along with astute observations on each.
There is nothing on their relative merits, no valuation systems or score card. Instead she approaches them with openness and interest, accepting them as they are, but also brings to bear the force of her considerable intelligence to engage deeply with the contents of their works, while wondering about their internal compulsions and driving essences.
She concludes what she no doubt intimately knows — that every artist, like every human being, must be appreciated on his or her own unique terms. No writer of any value has infinite range or can master every type of story. They can only master one type of story — their own.
The following chapter, titled “Writing and Analyzing a Story”, is an interesting discussion — or really a demonstration — of how a writer cannot regard a story with the same detached, abstract eye as a critic. Of course some writers are excellent critics, but, as she says, these are the rare exceptions who happen to be doubly endowed.
It is an important point, and one that seems more and more obscured these days by forces of homogenization that value short-term lucrative and predictable results rather than creations of quality, depth and originality that will endure the test of time.
Welty believes that stories, like people, should be approached with a considered, careful, and respectful eye.
“To me as a story writer, generalizations about writing come tardily and uneasily, and I would limit them, if I were wise, by saying that any conclusions I feel confidence in are stuck to the particular story, part of the animal. The most trustworthy lesson I’ve learned from work so far is the simple one that the writing of each story is sure to open up a different prospect and pose a new problem; and that no past story bears recognizably on a new one or gives any promise of help, even if the writing mind had room for help and the wish that it would come. Help offered from outside the frame of the story would be itself an intrusion.”
Then she goes on to give an example of how she re-wrote one of her own stories after taking a fateful trip south of New Orleans. In her mind, and according to an internal artistic logic, this makes perfect sense. She wrote the story one way, and then, after the trip, she changed, and so the story changed, and then she had to re-write it.
It is an intensely personal process, so much so that it is even a little difficult to follow her example if you are not familiar with the story itself.
But, of course, that is exactly her point.
“I think that the writer’s outbound choices were to him the believable ones, not necessarily defensible on other grounds; impelled, not subject to scheme but to feeling; that they came with an arrow inside them. They have been fiction’s choices: one way and fateful; strict as art, obliged as feeling, powerful in their authenticity.”
Authenticity in fiction is an interesting area of exploration, perhaps not much discussed in any of the creative arts — because what exactly is authentic about a made-up world? As Welty points out, the answer is both extremely important and entirely personal. What is authentic and meaningful for Lawrence will not be authentic for Woolf or Welty or anybody else. But for all artists it is a crucial — probably THE crucial — question.
She certainly follows her own advice and council, and all the chapters in this book are far from typical, but are nonetheless pressing for writers who are curious about some of fiction’s perennial questions, like “Must The Novelist Crusade?”
Overall in Welty you sense a writer of energy, intelligence and boundless curiosity. No matter how large the frame around her area of inquiry, or how broad-minded the question, she is always threatening to burst out of its constrictions, to follow another fascinating thread that leads to another story or question. No wonder she was prolific.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book on writing by an author of this caliber whose fiction I didn’t know well. It was a kind of strange reversal.
But, then again, like with people, you encounter writers in all kinds of different ways. And, once encountered, Eudora Welty isn’t one you’re likely to forget.