I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring one as well. For all serious daring starts from within. Eudora Welty
I’m quite grateful for shelter, dear friends, as we’ve been inundated once again with 10 inches of snow. I’ve been indoors all weekend, nursing a cold and watching the snow fall, gently but relentlessly, outside the window. This morning we awoke to a world transformed into blinding white, relieved only by the azure sky shimmering in the sunlight. I can’t say I mind too much…it’s given me extra time for reading, which is always appreciated.
One of my most favorite reading genres are biographies/journals/collections of letters, especially if the subject is an author whom I admire. Over the past several weeks, I’ve been dipping in and out of Suzanne Marrs’ biography of Eudora Welty, whose literary career spanned over four decades. Her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and was, like much of her work, gleaned from the moments and memories of her life. As she wrote in 1976: “We do somehow do learn to write our stories out of us, however disguised and given other players (i.e., characters in the stories) who can move and act where possibly we can’t.”
Fiction became a process of alchemy for Welty, as I think it often does for writers, a way of working though sorrow and coming to terms with life and its problems. She believed that writing “purified experience, and what hurts most about experience may not be its pain, which is pertinent, but its dross, its alloy, residue. You make something. Its truth is somehow related to your honesty and torment.”
The fact that this rarely entailed, at least for Welty, a reliance on exact details and circumstances but a creative amalgamation of memory, feeling, and moral principle which was transferred to her (often whimsical and outlandish) characters, is the mark of a great writer. Welty’s political principles ofen affected her writing and her liberal attitudes left her out of sync with the majority of her Mississippi neighbors. Still, she argued that great writing was “grounded on the bedrock of principle, the very principle for which the crusader speaks.” A writer “must be committed to his mora principles. If he is, when we read him we cannot help but be aware of what these are. His convictions are implicit, deep down; they are the rock on which the structure of more than the novel rests.”
As prolific as she was from the 1940’s-1970’s, her fiction writing suddenly ceased, and for the last 30 years of her life, she was not able to “imagine herself into others lives,” which was “what fiction really is.” Her presence in the literary world was no less bright however, and between 1980 and 1998, she received 18 of her 28 honorary university degrees, often traveling to accept the award with a speech delivered in her gentle Southern accent. She wrote and delivered lectures at several prestigious universities during this time, including a series at Harvard, which was published in 1984 as One Writer’s Beginnings.
And she wrote letters – oh, how she wrote letters! Her correspondence with friends and colleagues the world over is quoted extensively in the book, and gives the reader a greater sense of her role as daughter, sister and friend, as well as writer. Her long correspondence with author Ken Miller (who wrote popluar mysteries under the name Ross McDonald) is most telling, for it was through letters that the couple obviously developed a great love for one another, a love that was sustained entirely through correspondece, for they only met in person a handful of times. Indeed, even at the end of his life, when Miller was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, the two did not meet, although it was clear Welty felt the need to be with this man one last time, as one of her last letters (1982) indicates:
I’ve been feeling for some time that I’d give anything to see you. Now some time has opened up for me – I’d be free to come out, if you found it a good time for you too. Just to walk or sit or ride by the sea and talk again. I would dearly love to see you.
But it was not to be. Whether it was the daunting figure of Miller’s wife, who hovered over him relentlessly and was deeply jealous of his affection for Welty, or a latent fear of seeing this man whom she respected laid low by loss of memory, Welty was not able to “walk or sit or ride by the sea and talk” with Miller before he died.
Reading the excerpts from the hundred’s of letters included in this biography (and probably having just finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) set me thinking about the manner in which correspondence – letter writing – once figured so prominently in writer’s lives. I suppose email and yes, blogging, are the modern equivalents, but I feel a bit sad that the art of letter writing is most likely all but lost. Don’t you think holding a tangible bit of paper, written in the hand of another person, adds a different, deeper dimension to the correspondence? It makes me want to take up the beautiful fountain pen my husband gave me for Christmas, buy some lovely, cream colored stationary, and write you all a handwritten letter!
Suzanne Marrs biography gave me a sense of Welty’s inner and outer life, and the “daring” with which she internalized experience and created fiction with great meaning and message ~ a real look at A Writer’s Life.
Now tell me, have you read any good biographies lately? or written any real letters?