Day 125

In One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty describes her childhood as a rich tapestry of family experience during which her consciousness as a writer and storyteller emerge. Conceived as a series of lectures in 1983, the book is written in three parts: “Listening,” “Learning to See,” and “Finding a Voice.” A careful reader quickly sees that Welty isn’t writing an instruction book. Rather, she’s showing us by example how to listen to what’s around us and how to discover the details and hidden pockets of inner truth in daily life.

Sometimes when I go out for MyBigWalk I’m thinking about my writing so deeply that I hardly see what’s around me. On these days I’ve usually got the tension of a plot twist or a character’s motivation boiling inside me, and I walk to keep pace with — or rather to keep a few steps ahead of — my racing mind. There are times when the answer comes to me and I want to run home as quickly as possible to write it all down.  On those days I usually have to force myself to walk a full hour and use the remaining  time to mull over my new insights and better formulate how it will further my material.

Other days I go out walking as a respite from the solitary labor of writing, and this month,  as I’m working on revising a finished manuscript, that is mostly where I’m at.

This week, in an effort to escape the constant pressure of WORDS, I took my digital camera out with me twice, and practiced an exercise my photographer-friend (and current partner in a Life Into Art workshop we are leading) Amy calls “Shooting from the Hip.” The exercise is simply to hold the camera away from yourself, avoid looking through the view finder, and snap the shutter. (Obviously this works best with a digital camera, when film and processing costs are not at issue.)

Having spent my creative life training myself to look at things from different angles and perspectives, I wasn’t sure I’d find the exercise liberating or even particularly instructive.  But I actually took some interesting photos, including this one in my neighborhood, and this one of Leslie. As a writer I’ve always thought of learning to see as an exercise in the visual sense: opening your eyes and powers of observation to the world around you. But learning to see might also mean learning to discern what the naked eye doesn’t readily reveal.  It might mean learning to see how skewed your own perceptions are, or learning to see how you are perceived by others — or conversely, learning to see that you need to let go of how you’re perceived by others.

In One Writer’s Beginnings, Welty writes about a formative train trip she took with her father when she was a girl, sometime around 1914. Her descriptions of the passing landscape are lovely and luminous. But it’s later, when her entire perspective on the trip shifts, that Welty goes beyond simple act of seeing, and becomes the observer self — the voice of the writer who sees, processes, and reveals much more than the external scenery of life.

“On the train I saw that world passing my window. It was when I came to see it was I  who was passing that my self-centered childhood was over.”

It’s this next step — first, holding the camera away from ourselves, then turning it outward, and then reflecting not only upon what was seen and unseen, but also upon how the act of reflection changes depending on your internal distance from that moment — that interests me the most.

Some days I hurry home to write it all out. On other days the tensions of understanding something so internal and external in the same moment is enough to drive me to a walk second loop through the park. That’s the joy, and the struggle, of being a writer. And of being a writer who walks.

NOTE: Eudora Welty was a photographer for the W.P.A. and briefly considered a career in photography. I did not know this until I searched her name for this blog entry, and discovered there is a show of her 1930s photographs running at the Museum of the City of New York through February 16. Here are a few of her photos.