I have had the book for a long time. Read it for the first time many years ago and picked it up again just the other night. I remembered one or two bright and poignant scenes from my first reading and I was in the mood to catch a glimpse of that beauty again.
The book is entitled One Writer’s Beginnings, and it is a distillation or expansion or record (I don’t know which) of a series of lectures Ms. Welty gave at Harvard way back in 1984. It is no wonder the college invited her. She is one of the preeminent Southern writers of all time. She won the Pulitzer for her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, and was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Order of the South. She died in 2001.
The book is really what the title suggests: it’s a biographical account of her becoming a writer. The first section of the book – where I am now in my reading – is titled “Listening.” Like many others, Ms. Welty’s first experience with books was in the nursery where her parents, mostly her mother, read to her night after night.
And so she began as a listener and this mode of taking in the word has never departed from her. In fact, it is integral to her writing.
Ever since I was first read to, then I started reading to myself, there has never been a line that I didn’t hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It isn’t my mother’s voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader voice. I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers – to read as listeners – and with all writers, to write as listeners. It may be part of the desire to write. The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me. Whether I am right to trust so far I don’t know. By now I don’t know whether I could do either one, reading or writing, without the other.
My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books. When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make changes. I have always trusted this voice.