As a native Mississippian, I grew up learning about and reading works written by Eudora Welty. Last year when I led a small group discussion on “No Place for You, My Love,” I’m pretty sure all of my writerly friends wanted to knock me over the head to get me to shut up about how fantastic I thought it was. (I’ll actually explore this story in a later blog post, so stay tuned.)
Eudora Welty was a force in Jackson and continues to be so after her death. When she was alive and I still lived in the South, I would hear about Eudora sightings. I actually had one myself, when I attended a play at New Stage Theatre. I was seventeen, and my mother pointed her out , seated close to the stage. She was talking to some people who had come up to her, and my mom encouraged me to go down there. I was too intimidated, and still today, I regret not being courageous enough to introduce myself.
Our local theatre wasn’t the only place she was spotted. Perhaps the most well-known of her outings about town was to the Jitney Jungle no. 14 (now McDade’s) off of Fortification Street. This is the location where I’d heard she did a good bit of her eavesdropping, which I think is probably an inelegant way of describing how Ms. Welty took in the auditory stimuli. I can imagine her pausing for a long time in one of the aisles, pretending to make a very hard choice about pickles, when she was in actuality tuning in to the titillating conversation taking place a few feet away.
In her autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings, Welty describes how listening to others’ conversations began for her at an early age. (In fact the first section of the book is titled “Listening.”) She writes:
In Jackson it was counted an affront to the neighbors to start out for anywhere with an empty seat in the car. Mother sat in the back with her friend, and I’m told that as a small child I would ask to sit in the middle, and say as we started off, “Now talk.”
There was a dialogue throughout the lady’s accounts to my mother. “I said”…”He said”…”And I’m told she very plainly said”…”It was midnight before they finally heard, and what do you think it was?”
What I loved about her stories was that everything happened in scenes. I might not catch on to what the root of the trouble was in all that happened, but my ear told me it was dramatic. Often she said, “The crisis had come!” (Welty 13)
In a 1972 Paris Review interview of Welty by Linda Kuehl (“The Art of Fiction,” no. 47), she is asked where her dialogue comes from. Her reply, below, offers both encouragement and a caution about using what we overhear.
Familiarity. Memory of the way things get said. Once you have heard certain expressions, sentences, you almost never forget them. It’s like sending a bucket down the well and it always comes up full. You don’t know you’ve remembered, but you have. And you listen for the right word, in the present, and you hear it. Once you’re into a story everything seems to apply—what you overhear on a city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you’re writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story. I guess you’re tuned in for it, and the right things are sort of magnetized—if you can think of your ears as magnets. I could hear someone saying—and I had to cut this out—”What, you never ate goat?” And someone answering, “Goat! Please don’t say you serve goat at this reunion. I wasn’t told it was goat I was served. I thought—” and so on, and then the recipe, and then it ended up with—I can’t remember exactly now—it ended with, “You can do a whole lot of things with vinegar.” Well, all these things I would just laugh about and think about for so long and put them in. And then I’d think, that’s just plain indulgence. Take it out! And I’d take it out.
I’m truly fascinated by Welty and her writing process, but beyond making a post to proclaim my general admiration, I think we can take away a few things to apply to our own work (and conveniently tie them in with our “Sensory Series” on the blog).
First, and most basic, listen. Be a Welty! Meander in the aisles of the store; stare out the windows on a bus or a train. Unplug, stay still, and tune in to those around you. Keep a notebook with you to jot down memorable quotes or conversations, or if you’re like me and can’t keep up with a notebook, create a notes page in your cell phone. That way you can prompt yourself later when you’re scrambling around for just the right thing for your current project.
Second, milk what you’ve heard by turning it over in your mind. Ask yourself some of the following questions:
- How can this enhance characterization or dialogue?
- What has this eavesdropping told me about my/my characters’ surroundings, or what does it offer in terms of sense of place?
- What sort of tone does it lend to my piece?
- How does this influence the motivations of my characters?
- How might this impact plot?
Try to examine the information from every angle, and flesh it out as much as possible. Kelly Morris will have a follow-up post with even more helpful ways to use what you’ve overheard.
Third, while you want to be a Welty and listen, also be a Welty by using your trophies with caution. As she said in the Paris Review interview, we sometimes include things in our writing because we’re indulging ourselves for whatever reason: we think something is funny, or meaningful, or particularly clever. However, these indulgences can be at the expense of the piece, and only you as the author have the power to stay true to its real voice.
If you’re interested in reading more about Eudora Welty (and of course you are, right?), then here are two links below that you might wish to view. The first is to the interview I referenced above, and the second is to the Eudora Welty Foundation website. One Writer’s Beginnings is a fantastic read as well.
Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984. Print.
Welty, Eudora. “The Art of Fiction, No. 47.” By Linda Kuehl. New York City, NY: Paris Review, No. 55, Fall 1972.