Monthly Archives: August 2008

Noted: Miss Welty

Eudora Welty’s great short essay “The Little Store” takes us with her, as a child, to a neighborhood grocery. It’s a story about the lost world of childhood and captures turn-of-the-century Jackson, Mississippi. All she conveys is suffused with meaning for her, but Welty avoids sentimentality by showing in vivid details instead of telling readers what to feel. As for the store, it’s a realm of children on errands and of a grocer who waits for them to “make up their minds.”

Early on are these foreshadowing thematic lines: “Setting out in this world, the child feels so indelible. He only comes to find out later that it’s all the others along his way who are making themselves indelible to him.”

One day on the store’s stoop little Eudora encounters an organ grinder and his monkey, exotic and jarring presences. They break the illusion of normalcy, though they’re quickly fused in her mind with the benign store—as all the objects and people and activities on her store trips are connected with the adventure of going there. Except she didn’t think the store had an ongoing story of its own.

The patient storekeeper and his shadowy helper (his wife, his sister, his mother?) wore black eyeshades, Welty realizes in hindsight: “It may be harder to recognize kindness—or unkindness, either—in a face whose eyes are in shadow.” The wallop soon comes as the essay, her innocent girlhood, and the store end together in terror and mystery and “news of people coming to hurt one another.”

The climax comes at the end this way, its impact felt and lingering because the preceding narrative has prepared us to comprehend the enormity of the loss.

Welty (1909–2001) sent me with this haunting little essay to One Writer’s Beginnings, a memoir of her sensibility growing within the gift of her stable, happy family. She makes clear that what impelled her work was the love inculcated there. Not that her future spared her, as artist or woman, her allotment of human pain. Discussing one of her short stories, about a girl who learns in painting to frame scenes with her hands, only to see unwelcome reality thereby intrude upon her inner dream of love, Welty writes:

“The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.”

(“The Little Store” is available in a paperback collection, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, and is included in the Library of America’s Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays & Memoir.)

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Review: ‘The Writing Life’

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Harper Perennial. 111 pp. $9.56

Sometime after the excitement of beginning her book a serious writer will discover her work’s own “intrinsic impossibility,” says Dillard. Eventually she’ll probably throw out the main point, her grand vision, and settle for the more modest discovery she made in writing.

If a writer had any sense, she’d devote herself to a career selling catheters. The Writing Life is about persistent inquiry and love. A sort of commiseration, it contains rules of thumb: throw out the beginning; the book begins in what you thought was the middle. It can take years and heartbreak to see that—another given.

“Once, for example, I learned from a conversation with a neighbor that I had been living in a fool’s paragraph,” Dillard says.

Neighborly advice is unintentional, however. Anyone who’s written a creative book is full of woe and wonder, but Dillard notes in her dry way that civilians really don’t care. (How much do you crave tales of your brother-in-law’s plumbing supply business?) However, as a veteran, she offers this: “It makes more sense to write one big book—a novel or nonfiction narrative—than to write many stories or essays. Into a long, ambitious project you can fit or pour all you possess and learn. A project that takes five years will accumulate those years’ inventions and richnesses.”

There’s a lot of reading: a writer must study literature, must know what’s been done so she can try to exceed it. Dillard adds this spooky caution:

“He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, for that is what he will know.”

She’s on record elsewhere as advising writers to read history. She counts a life spent reading as a good one, though her fascination with bugs and rocks and stars draws her outside. She’s the plucky one with binoculars around her neck. When writing her books, she stared at the wall:

“Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”

Years after The Writing Life she worked on a novel set on Cape Cod. She piled up 1,200 pages. It took ten years. Then she saw the book’s heart, a love story, couldn’t bear the weight of geologic history and began cutting. The Maytrees, a shimmering work of art published in 2007, is 216 pages. [Since reviewed here.) She said it almost killed her and announced her retirement after twelve books.

Her book on writing is rare because it isn’t aimed at complete beginners—of course, she calls it a memoir. Sometime during the two to ten years it takes someone to write a decent book (another precept) the writer should read The Writing Life. The book (Dillard’s, that is) won’t make much sense otherwise. It isn’t much of a how-to guide unless someone has sweated through a manuscript, and then it’s the best.

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Review: ‘The Truth of the Matter’

The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction by Dinty W. Moore. Pearson/ Longman. 302 pp. $42.48

The Truth of the Matter, which I’ve used twice now in a 300-level undergraduate introduction to narrative nonfiction, is a complete textbook that can stand alone or be paired with supplemental anthologies such as The Art of Fact, Short Takes, Intimate Journalism, or The Best American Essays of the Century, depending on the instructor’s focus.

The first third of The Truth of the Matter discusses the genre and explains its building blocks. Beginning and intermediate writers find these concise chapters valuable for giving them just what they need to craft personal essays, memoirs, and literary journalism. Moore shows the difference between standard “just the facts” reportage and the deeper narrative nonfiction that graces literary journals and magazines such as The New Yorker. Obviously in essay and memoir, and in varying degrees but unmistakably in narrative journalism, the writer uses the self strategically to delve into larger subjects. Moore’s perspective makes the book suitable for teaching nonfiction writing in both English creative writing sequences and in journalism programs attentive to narrative’s power.

The book’s anthology includes four brief essays, an artful form Moore has encouraged through his editing of the online journal Brevity. The classic conventional-length essays “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin; “The Courage of Turtles” by Edward Hoagland; and “The Search for Marvin Gardens” by John McPhee are valuable historically and in terms of craft. Great contemporary essays that give students access to their own material include Tony Early’s “Somehow Form a Family”; Philip Gerard’s “What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes”; Lucy Grealy’s “Mirrorings”; and Terry Tempest Williams’s “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.”

Four essays by successful writers on aspects of craft complete the anthology. I love Tracy Kidder’s trenchant “Making the Truth Believable,” in which Kidder explains his fidelity to external reality and shows how choosing the wrong point of view can lead a writer into dishonesty. As a strict constructionist myself—the creativity is in the discovery of truth and in its presentation; you don’t make things up—I appreciate this as well as Moore’s own emphasis throughout on honesty.

Students need to be told explicitly the reasons to be truthful in nonfiction: moral—you made a promise; and practical—don’t make Oprah mad. Increasingly I’m convinced there’s a big third reason: aesthetic.

Truth and beauty in nonfiction often emerge when a writer explores a rough edge that can’t be smoothed with the convenient trowel of fiction. On the day you caught the huge bass, was grandpa wearing the red London Fog jacket he usually took fishing? Instead of plugging in that detail as a probable, you call your mother, who tells you he was colorblind and too proud to admit it. His signature jacket was, to him, a shade of gray. And, writing about this, you remember grandpa’s pride in knowing how everything was done correctly—it marred your experience with him that day on the boat. Yet now you see how his stubborn need to control was inseparable from his love for you and carried echoes of his battles with his Greek father; you understand the regret that always seemed to shadow his self-made pride. So a story that began as a sentimental snapshot becomes an affecting exploration of a family trait and the intertwined light and dark and gray aspects of male ego.

I don’t mean to saddle Moore with my aesthetic theory, but teaching his book helped provoke it, especially his chapter on discovery. As he says, the meaning that underlies a story is often discovered during the writing (rather than being understood at the outset). I’ve learned in my work and in students’ to pay attention to a ragged hole instead of trying fearfully to write around it, because through that portal nonfiction’s art may enter.

As a writer and teacher I’m grateful to The Truth of the Matter, a clear and subtle discussion of an exciting, untidy genre.

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