How learning to read life helps kids become better writers | Learning with Eudora Welty
In her memoir One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty invites us to ponder the connections between childhood memories and the mature creative process.
Miss Welty reminds us of a profound yet simple truth: if you want to raise a writer, you must teach your child how to read. Reading, however, goes far beyond printed words on a page, as we find in Part 2: “Learning to Read Life.”
Reading the Natural World
In the early days of automobiles, when babies bounced across the country on their mothers’ laps, Eudora Welty spent summer road trips with her legs outstretched over suitcases in the back seat. Her family drove long miles from their Mississippi home to visit Grandma Andrews in West Virginia and Grandpa Welty in Ohio. Eudora recalls:
“I rode as a hypnotic, with my set gaze on the landscape that vibrated past at twenty-five miles an hour.”
Winding roads and rugged ferry boats led the family car to its first destination: a West Virginia mountain top with a weatherbeaten house, built by the grandfather who had once impressed many a jury with his oratory and spun plenty of tall tales to tease his wife. The road trip would continue, bearing the family across the state line to the north where—as Eudora’s mother pointed out—the barns were all bigger than the houses. Exploring the Welty farm, with its apple orchard, pasture, corn and wheat fields, young Eudora discovered that, indeed, “Grandpa’s barn was bigger than his house.”
Just as the best landscape artists work from life, the best writers see life with open eyes. Your children can’t journal about changing tides and swooping gulls on the beach if they won’t take the time to smell, to listen, to look around and watch. They cannot write about an afternoon spent at the museum if they walk through the halls but never bother to notice anything.
We are all riddled with distractions that hinder us from truly seeing. Perhaps we ought to take a cue from the Welty family’s road trip of yesteryear, and try driving with the radio turned off, the DVD player removed, and the handheld devices off limits. Allow your children the boredom and wonder of fifteen minutes—or one hour or two—simply looking out the window. Adopt this habit, and over time they may be eagerly describing the changing skyline of your city, the changing colors of the seasons, and all the other curious, delightful things they were finally able to see.
Cross-country trips enabled Eudora Welty to see not only new landscapes, but new facets of her parents and relatives as well. She came to understand her mother as the brave woman who, at only fifteen years old, had escorted a dying father to a hospital by way of frozen lake and train, and had soon after taught school to pupils older than herself.
Eudora learned to sense the changing atmosphere when her father entered a room where five banjo-loving uncles eyed him as the man who took their sister away. Eudora attached great significance to her mother’s childhood home in the mountains, where lonely echoes remind you of things out of sight but never really far away. When her mother’s eyesight grew dim in later years, and their family’s happiest times seemed far distant, Eudora relearned the lesson from her mother and the mountains: “emotions do not grow old.”
It’s easy to separate the children from the adults when friends come calling or extended family fills the house at holiday time. I encourage you, whenever possible, to include your children in adult gatherings and conversations. At first, your little ones may not understand or contribute much, but over time children learn to read people and the situations they create.
With this background in reading both people and nature, your sons and daughters will one day write in a way that cuts to the heart of an argument and, more importantly, touches the heart of all who read.
Part 3: How to Find Your Writing Voice
Daniella Dautrich is a WriteShop alumna and a graduate of Hillsdale College. She and her husband fill their home with books on writing, literature, and computer science.
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