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Posts Tagged ‘Eudora Welty’

12 MAY, 2014

How to Pitch Yourself: A Lesson from Young Eudora Welty’s Impossibly Charming Job Application to The New Yorker

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An exquisite yin-yang balance of erudition and irreverence, dignity and self-deprecation.

“Only when we take ourselves lightly can we take ourselves seriously, so that we are given the courage to say, ‘Yes! I dare disturb the universe,'” Madeleine L’Engle riffed on T.S. Eliot in her magnificent meditation on creativity. But in the quest to find fulfilling work, we stand in our own way all too often by taking ourselves too seriously to dare “disturb the universe” in any meaningful way.

In March of 1933, shortly before her 24th birthday, Eudora Welty penned the polar-opposite counterpart, if there could be such an oxymoron, of Sherwood Anderson’s perfect resignation letter: She mailed to The New Yorker what’s possibly the loveliest job application of all time, offering her services with equal parts respect and irreverence, self-esteem and well-placed self-deprecation — an epitome of what it means to find your purpose and do what you love. From offering to step in for the great James Thurber “in case he goes off the deep end” to showcasing her affinity for E.E. Cummings with disarming unsubtleness, Welty’s missive — found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library | IndieBound), that wonderful collection based on Shaun Usher’s labor-of-love website, which also gave us young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life and E.B. White’s heartening response to a man who had lost faith in humanity — is a timeless lesson in how to pitch yourself to your dream job.

March 15, 1933

Gentlemen,

I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930–31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A.(’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

Truly yours,

Eudora Welty

Disappointingly, the editors at The New Yorker seemed too dainty and immune to Welty’s intelligent charisma — her letter produced no response. Only years later would the magazine obliquely recognize that initial failure by eventually publishing some of her short stories. Exactly four decades after her brilliant plea for employment, Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter — a title inadvertently poignant in the context of her New Yorker rejection — and seven years later, in 1980, she became the first woman to receive the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in literature.

Letters of Note is a treasure trove of heartening humanism in its entirety — highly recommended. Sample its soul-quenching goodness further here and here.

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31 OCTOBER, 2013

Eudora Welty on the Poetics of Place and Writing as an Explorer’s Map of the Unknown

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“No art ever came out of not risking your neck.”

“Longest way around is the shortest way home,” James Joyce wrote in one of the most memorable lines in literature — so memorable and impactful perhaps because it harnesses so exquisitely the ineffable yet enthralling role of place in writing. That’s precisely what Eudora Welty explores in an extended 1956 meditation found in On Writing (public library) — an indispensable handbook on the art of mastering the most important pillars of narrative craft, from language to memory to voice, and a fine addition to the collected wisdom of great writers.

Welty begins by considering how place shapes the “goodness” of good writing:

As soon as we step down from the general view to the close and particular, as writers must and readers may and teachers well know how to, and consider what good writing may be, place can be seen, in her own way, to have a great deal to do with that goodness, if not to be responsible for it. How so?

First, with the goodness — validity — in the raw material of writing. Second, with the goodness in the writing itself — the achieved world of appearance, through which the novelist has his whole say and puts his whole case. … Third, with the goodness — the worth — in the writer himself: place is where he has his roots, place is where he stands; in his experience out of which he writes, it provides the base of reference; in his work, the point of view.

Welty adds to history’s wisest meditations on art and echoes Tolstoy’s notion that art is a bridge of mutual understanding and argues that no form of art is better able to touch us than fiction:

Mutual understanding in the world being nearly always, as now, at low ebb, it is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another, if the other can hear at all. Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, indeed, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction; in particular, the novel.

She offers a beautiful metaphor, delightful in its object’s datedness yet timeless in its sentiment, for how fiction works its illuminating magic:

Some of us grew up with the china night-light, the little lamp whose lighting showed its secret and with that spread enchantment. The outside is painted with a scene, which is one thing; then, when the lamp is lighted, through the porcelain sides a new picture comes out through the old, and they are seen as one. A lamp I knew of was a view of London till it was lit; but then it was the Great Fire of London, and you could go beautifully to sleep by it. The lamp alight is the combination of internal and external, glowing at the imagination as one; and so is the good novel. Seeing that these inner and outer surfaces do lie so close together and so implicit in each other, the wonder is that human life so often separates them, or appears to, and it takes a good novel to put them back together.

This fusion of the separateness of human life, she argues, is the core responsibility of the writer, who upholds it by separating the meaningful from the meaningless through a series of choices — a concept curiously similar to French polymath Henri Poincaré’s assertion that “to invent is to choose” in his 1908 description of how the inventor’s mind works. Welty writes:

This makes it the business of writing, and the responsibility of the writer, to disentangle the significant — in character, incident, setting, mood, everything — from the random and meaningless and irrelevant that in real life surround and beset it. It is a matter of his selecting and, by all that implies, of changing “real” life as he goes. With each word he writes, he acts — as literally and methodically as if he hacked his way through a forest and blazed it for the word that follows. He makes choices at the explicit demand of this one present story; each choice implies, explains, limits the next, and illuminates the one before. … What tells the author his way? Nothing at all but what he knows inside himself: the same thing that hints to him afterward how far he has missed it, how near he may have come to the heart of it. In a working sense, the novel and its place have become one: work has made them, for the time being, the same thing, like the explorer’s tentative map of the known world.

In noting that “establishing a chink-proof world of appearance” is the primary responsibility of the writer, Welty returns to the power of place, which she argues is the writer’s best way of reconciling the quest for truth with the awareness of the deliberate construction of this world of appearance:

Place being brought to life in the round before the reader’s eye is the readiest and gentlest and most honest and natural way this can be brought about, I think; every instinct advises it. The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animated the whole of his work.

Inevitably, we get to the g-word: Place, Welty insists, plays into genius, for place helps us focus and focus helps us love, much like attention anchors us to reality:

Feelings are bound up in place, and in art, from time to time, place undoubtedly works upon genius. . . . It may be that place can focus the gigantic, voracious eye of genius and bring its gaze to point. Focus then means awareness, discernment, order, clarity, insight — they are like the attributes of love. The act of focusing itself has beauty and meaning; it is the act that, continued in, turns into mediation, into poetry. Indeed, as soon as the least of us stands still, that is the moment something extraordinary is seen to be going on in the world.

Place, above all, is an instrument of the imagination, which at once shrouds things in fruitful illusion and strips them to their bare essence:

Place, to the writer at work, is seen in a frame. Not an empty frame, a brimming one. Point of view is a sort of burning-glass, a product of personal experience and time; it is burnished with feelings and sensibilities, charged from moment to moment with the sun-points of imagination. It is an instrument — one of intensification; it acts, it behaves, it is temperamental. … The writer must accurately choose, combine, superimpose upon, blot out, shake up, alter the outside world for one absolute purpose, the good of his story. To do this, he is always seeing double, two pictures at once in his frame, his and the world’s, a fact that he constantly comprehends; and he works best in a state of constant and subtle and unfooled reference between the two. It is his clear intention — his passion, I should say — to make the reader see only one of the pictures — the author’s — under the pleasing illusion that it is the world’s; this enormity is the accomplishment of a good story. I think it likely that at the moment of the writer’s highest awareness of, and responsiveness to, the “real” world, his imagination’s choice (and miles away it may be from actuality) comes closest to being infallible for his purpose. For the spirit of things is what is sought. No blur of inexactness, no cloud of vagueness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose.

Welty adds to this a point of advice to aspiring writers:

One of the most important things the young writer comes to see for himself is that point of view is an instrument, not an end in itself, that is useful as a glass, and not as a mirror to reflect a dear and pensive face. Conscientiously used, point of view will discover, explore, see through — it may sometimes divine and prophesy. Misused, it turns opaque almost at once and gets in the way of the book.

And so we return to the chief responsibility of art and the artist, which swings reader and writer into an intimate dance of believing and being believed:

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!

This alchemy, Welty argues, is the alchemy of place:

The sense of place is as essential to good and honest writing as a logical mind; surely they are somewhere related. It is by knowing where you stand that you grow able to judge where you are. Place absorbs our earliest notice and attention, it bestows on us our original awareness; and our critical powers spring up from the study of it and the growth of experience inside it. It perseveres in bringing us back to earth when we fly too high. It never really stops informing us, for it is forever astir, alive, changing, reflecting, like the mind of man itself. One place comprehended can make us understand other places better. Sense of place gives equilibrium; extended, it is sense of direction too. Carried off we might be in spirit, and should be, when we are reading or writing something good; but it is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and in every sense of the word to bring us home.

Since place is always bound up in our boundaries, Welty echoes Anaïs Nin’s timeless wisdom on embracing the unfamiliar and cautions:

For the artist to be unwilling to move, mentally or spiritually or physically, out of the familiar is a sign that spiritual timidity or poverty or decay has come upon him; for what is familiar will then have turned into all that is tyrannical.

Indeed, this vital willingness to move toward the unfamiliar is entwined with our willingness to take risks, which is what keeps us moving, if not spatially, then at least spiritually. Welty ends with a beautiful reflection:

No art ever came out of not risking your neck. And risk — experiment — is a considerable part of the joy of doing, which is the lone, simple reason all [writers] are willing to work as hard as they do.

The open mind and the receptive heart — which are at last and with fortune’s smile the informed mind and the experienced heart — are to be gained anywhere, any time, without necessarily moving an inch from any present address.

On Writing is a must-read in its entirety and a superb addition to these favorite books on writing. Complement it with more advice on the craft from great writers, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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