Winding my way through a used bookstore last month, I came across a slim paperback called One Writer’s Beginnings. In this evocative memoir, author Eudora Welty (1909-2001) describes the impressions and experiences that shaped her childhood in the American South. She has much to teach about the learning process of children who later appreciate words and stories. Today, let’s step into her world and examine Part I, “Listening.”
Looking back on her life in Jackson, Mississippi, Miss Welty recalls: “Childhood’s learning is made up of moments.” Those moments began in her home, watching the full moon rise over the front yard or being wakened for an eclipse during the velvety black night. Her love of stories began long before she could read, with the sight of illuminated letters in fairy tale books and the sound of her mother reading aloud.
In the bedroom rocking chair, in the fire-warmed dining room, or in the kitchen on butter-churning day, Eudora knew that any time or place was ripe for reading aloud. Of course, the future novelist listened for stories as much as she listened to them. While neighbor ladies gossiped on Sunday drives, and while the family seamstress weaved tales through a mouth full of pins, Eudora basked in a world of drama and scenes. Naturally, during several months of bed rest, the young girl read storybooks by day and soaked in the hushed conversation of her parents by night.
Learning happens when we least expect it, for children are always listening. The stories we tell, and the stories they read, should be good ones.
In a time when honor-roll grades made local news, Eudora Welty grew up with wild suspense, wondering when can I go to school? By age five, her days were regulated by the brass bell of the principal at Jefferson Davis Grammar School. The bubbly singing teacher, taciturn art instructor, and no-nonsense physical education classes left their marks on her memory. It was her high school Latin teacher, however, who fed her soul’s growing love for grammar—her “bone fide alliance with words in their true meaning.”
Eudora learned to respect the well-built sentence as something beautiful and solid, like the State capitol building at the top of her street. The marble floors of the Capitol became her daily path to school and to the library, where the booming voice of an ever-watching librarian could never silence Eudora’s devotion to books. Both marble floors and grammar studies would pave the way for this young girl’s budding talent with words.
Your child’s road to writing may begin at the library, or perhaps a foreign language will spark a full understanding of the way English works. Whatever your method, never stop building; someday, your child’s writing will be solid and beautiful.
Words of Faith
Tender, joyful, silly, and sad, words filled Eudora Welty’s childhood as her mother sang lullabies and her little brothers learned to laugh. The girl discovered new words all the time, while she listened to her father’s dictation machine or watched silent-film pantomimes and captions in the movie theater.
Listening went hand in hand with movement and dance when the words spilled out from musical phonograph records or from the cheery choruses of Methodist Sunday School hymns. As a mature writer looking backward, Eudora felt most blessed to have grown up in the atmosphere of the old King James Bible. Its cadence and poetry would shape many Southern writers for the rest of their lives.
The words swirling around your children come from not only books and school, but from parents and siblings, movies and music. Whether words of entertainment or words of faith, they ought to be uplifting, inspiring, and life-affirming. With this background, your grown children might just one day echo Eudora Welty: “the act of writing in itself brings me happiness.”
Part 3: How to Find Your Writing Voice