marginalia || On Writing, by Eudora Welty

I found On Writing, by Eudora Welty, while I was on a company retreat, and I really wasn’t supposed to wander into a bookstore. But there it was, and I couldn’t help it. No, I have not read any other work by Welty, only know of her. It’s sort of odd to read someone’s thoughts on writing, and elaborations of their poetics, without having read any other material from that writer. Well, then. That’s how I roll.

Making reality real is art’s responsibility. It is a practical assignment, then, a self-assignment: to achieve, by a cultivated sensitivity for observing life, a capacity for receiving its impressions, a lonely, unremitting, unaided, unaidable vision, and transferring this vision without distortion to it onto the pages of a novel, where, if the reader is so persuaded, it will turn into the reader’s illusion. How bent on this peculiar joy we are, reader and writer, willingly to practice, willingly to undergo, this alchemy for it!

With six essays on, well, on writing, and literary criticism, and musings on the crafting and reading of fiction — this felt right up my alley. What I figured I’d like about it was that it was personal. And I really did think I’d like it. It seemed like something I would like, and even while I was reading it, I knew I ought to be liking it. But. Well, yeah.

Again the word: Odd. I found the texts difficult to penetrate at times, her voice: It felt like someone was talking to me as a teacher talks to a kindergarten-er on the verge of a tantrum, and simultaneously, as a peer with whom one shares a bottle of whiskey. There’s a schoolmarm-y tone, a grandmother-ly tone, a mad professor tone. It could’ve been amusing if my eyes didn’t glaze over so much, or look for something shiny. It just didn’t strike something inside me, I wasn’t receptive to it most of the time. I mean, sometimes I did find some gems — I’ve marked a lot of pages, a lots of passages. But something tells me they wouldn’t really matter by the time I closed the book. See:

Fiction is made to show forth human life, in some chosen part and aspect. A year or so of one writer’s life has gone into the writing of a novel, and then to the reader — so long at least as he is reading it — t may be something in his life. There is a remarkable chance of give-and-take. Does this not suggest that, in the novel at least, words have been found for which there may be no other words? If fiction matters — and many lies are at stake that it does — there can be, for the duration of the book, no other words.

That snippet could’ve been awesome. That could’ve had me leaping up and squealing. But, really, I didn’t know Welty, so how could I be enamored of what she has to say about fiction?

The problem was [and I realized this halfway through the second essay], I wasn’t fully charmed; I wasn’t drawn in to her “lectures.” It wasn’t a question of whether or not I agreed with what she said, or whether or not I found her views dated [– though on my more philosophical moments, I’m inclined to think that basic, and immensely vital, passion for the craft and the art, is, well, timeless]. I just simply didn’t care. This was really a stranger whose thoughts I was reading, and, well, whatever she thought about the craft and the art meant very little to me because — and, yes, hello, SashaFail on the horizon — because I had not read a single paragraph of hers other than this encapsulating little book. Okay? Okay.

But I have done this thing before — read authors on their work and on writing, without having read the “real” writing that they do. Sometimes the passion and the conviction behind the poetics just bleeds through, it just works, and I’m reading this writer’s manifesto one day, and cooing over his novels the next. Sometimes, it works.

This time, it didn’t. Either I just chalk it up to “Oh, well,” or I give this another try, and read me some Eudora Welty first. [That way, I don’t go around embarrassing myself all over my little corner of the interwebz.] So. Any Welty readers out there? Or should I really just give it up?

9 thoughts on “marginalia || On Writing, by Eudora Welty

  1. I have to say I am not a big Eudora Welty fan although I have tried…just never could get into her writing….and I am sure I would feel the same about her musings on writing then!

  2. I’ve never read anything by Welty, so I couldn’t help you. It might be true though that reading a book by her first will mak you like this better. However, I have a feeling you would have to love her other work before returning to a book like this and enjoying it more.

    1. As I said above, I’ve read “on writing” works by authors before I actually got to their actual writing. Sometimes, the way people talk about their work draws you to them. It wasn’t the case with Welty. I might read a story or two of hers in the future, but I’m really not pressed to do so anymore, given how I wasn’t so thrilled with this one.

  3. I think it would take a really special writer for me be able to stomach an entire book like this.

    Obviously, I like hearing about how writers do what they do (which is where my interviews come in!), but I don’t think of those stories as prescriptive. I like thinking of these things as writers’ personal quirks, but I think it would get a bit grating if it had the tone of telling others how they should be doing their thing.

    1. I see your point; some writers treat their “On Writing” treatises as lectures, and not personal reflections. I think that’s one of the reasons why this book failed to intrigue me, failed to convince me to read more of her work. And while I generally agree that this kind of writing shouldn’t be prescriptive, it has worked so many times for me — John Banville, Ian McEwan, Jennifer Egan, even Paul Auster; I’ve read their interviews and poetics, and I just had to try them out.

  4. Eudora Welty is one of my favorite writers of all time – definitely in the top 5. And as you are a fan of short fiction, I HIGHLY recommend that you check out The Golden Apples, her cycle of stories & novellas about the intertwined families of the fictional town Morgana, Mississippi. Her novel Delta Wedding is also absolutely GORGEOUS and a classic of Southern Regionalism.

    That said, her style is probably not for everyone – I think of her as a kind of Southern American Virginia Woolf, and I forget your take on Woolf, but if you hate the low-plot, stream-of-consciousness style of writing then Delta Wedding is probably not for you. I might still recommend The Golden Apples, though.

    1. I haven’t read Woolf, though I have three books by her on my shelves — she’s always been the sort of writer that I keep telling myself I’ll read eventually. That said, I’ll keep your recs on file: I’ll leave it to fate, I suppose, if find them. Your description of The Golden Apples has me intrigued — when I do get to read Welty, I’ll go for that first. :)


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