One is never too old to learn. After all, as that Great Depression-era wit and home-spun philosopher Will Rogers often said, "We're all ignorant, just on different subjects."
I'm always on the lookout for lessons I can learn, especially when they come from successful writers. Every year, I make it a point to read books in which such writers offer advice for improving my writing efforts. This year is no exception, and I've already read the first such book: Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings.
Although Welty was a writer of fiction (and fiction is something I seldom read, although I'm trying to correct that flaw, too), she still offers some good advice that is applicable to all writing. Part autobiography, part memoir, it's all good stuff for every writer, and I learned a lot from it.
The book's organizational scheme itself offers a key to the lessons Welty teaches in its mere 104 pages:
II. Learning to See
III. Finding a Voice
Here are a few of the gems she offers under each of those headings.
She passed along this lesson about paying attention to details, offered to her by a literary critic. He told her, "Always be sure you get your moon in the right part of the sky." (11)
". . . This is the case with all readers--to read as listeners--and with all writers, to write as listeners. . . . The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me. . . . When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted this voice." (12)
"Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them." (14)
Learning to See
Referring to the trips she took with her family or with her father, she wrote, "The trips were wholes unto themselves. They were stories. Not only in form, but in theior taking on direction, movement, development, change. They changed something in my life: each trip made its particualr relevation, though I could not have found words for it. But with the passage of time, I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises--I still can; they still do. . . .
"The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find theirs own order, a timetable not necessarily--perhaps not possibly--chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation." (68-69)
Finding a Voice
"But it was not until I began to write, as I seriously did only when I reached my twenties, that I found the world out there revealing, because (as with my father now) memory had become attached to seeing, love had added itself to discovery, and beause I recognized in my own continuing longing to keep going, the need I carried inside myself to know--the apprehension, first, and then the passion, to connect myself to it. Through travel I first became aware of the outside world; it was through travel that I found my own introspective way into becoming a part of it. . . . My imagination takes its strength and guides its direction from what I see and hear and learn and feel and remember of my living world." (76)
"The memory is a living thing--it too is in transit. . . . [A]ll that is remembered joins, and lives--the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.
". . . I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within." (104)
So the lessons in a nutshell?
Listen carefully, picking up the "little" sounds about you, especially the sound of your own words. Revise them when they don't sound right, and make sure you get the details right.
Observe closely, learning to see the seemingly small things that most people miss. It is from such "little" things that stories are built.
Discover your own voice and perspective by building on your own experiences that your mind has stored away in its memory bank. From memory come discoveries of stories.