“A song is just a handful of sentences,” I say. “That’s all the room you have. You have to make it count.” I draw open the book and let my finger fall to the first sentence it finds.
Here’s what I got when I tried this today:
After all the July miles, there Jackson stood, burned twice, or who knew if it was a hundred times, facing them in the road.
“Are you Catholic?” I asked her suddenly, and she shook her head.
—“The Whole World Knows”
“God created the world,” said Lorenzo, “and it exists to give testimony. Life is the tongue: speak.”
—“A Still Moment”
Listen, honey, you’re just a virgin compared to Mrs. Montjoy.
For this particular go-around, I’d say sentence three is your chorus and sentence four your bridge, while the others are verse cues. I could play this game with The Collected Stories all day. No one makes a sentence count like Eudora: wisdom, charming incisiveness, the whole picture drawn completely and its unseen forces summoned.
When someone asks me who my first influences were, I cringe a little—not because it is a cliché question, but because it is almost uncomfortable to conjure how vulnerable I was when I first needed a hero. Heroes are no trite matter—people worth looking up to are important at any age. Adult influences wield less power; we come to them more fully formed, with harder edges and less need. Those first heroes are mentors, confidants, complete relationships in their one-sided way. Not unlike first loves, they hold that most delicate of heartstrings: hope. Hope for the future, for what love is capable of, what words are capable of, what we ourselves are capable of. My first hero is, always, Eudora Welty.
I never met Eudora; I never even so much as had dinner in the same room with her or saw her pass on the street. I can’t remember when I first read “Why I Live at the P.O.,” but I recognized myself and my intense Southern family immediately in the cadence, the temper tantrums, the mess of their befuddled, self-damning characters. The jealous sister, the innocent illegitimate child, and the cross-dressing uncle—all of whom loved each other very much in spite of their ridiculous circumstances. I had sat at that very table. (My grandfather had the most beautiful accent you’ve ever heard and told stories in which the words held on to sentences like molasses, but that is another story.) Eudora managed to invoke both culpability and tenderness. Before I knew it, I had ordered my life to be close to her way of thinking, and my life felt close to her thoughts before it was ordered: I watched people, I eavesdropped for dialogue around me, I kept a writing routine, and I tried to have my own point of view even when I didn’t. More than anything, I wanted to find my own voice, my own noise. I confided in Eudora. I took her my fears and my lyrics; I sat alone in coffee shops beside her (sometimes Emmylou Harris and Townes Van Zandt joined us). Eudora accompanied me anywhere that required real courage. And that was nearly everywhere. Yes, she was my pretend friend; I made Eudora up. But whoever she was, she was beautiful to me.
Towns, like people, had clear identities and your imagination could go out to meet them. You saw houses, yards, fields, and people busy in them, the people who had a life where they were. You could hear their bank clocks striking, you could smell their bakeries.
—“One Writer’s Beginnings”
My Eudora: oldest daughter of Andrew and Chestina, child of Jackson, Mississippi. Writer, photographer, solo traveler. Graveyard seer, eavesdropper, New York City explorer. Deeply private. Outsider. Never married. Never ran out of truth to tell. A woman who lived in a time when most people around her believed that women were wives, nurses, or teachers. A true pioneer. Full of not only integrity but love, never unkind.
In the world of today where we can find people who are like us in a digital flash, it is hard to imagine that when I was a kid, I did not meet any working female artists. I had no idea what one looked like in real life. I was eighteen when I finally put eyes on a filmmaker, a friend’s mother who made documentaries. (I could not look away—what was her studio like, what was her schedule like, her rebellion, her handwriting? Who were her heroes?) By that time, though, there was no turning back; I had already made up my mind that I wanted to be an artist and not a mediocre one. I was tremendously naive (which is really the only worthwhile way to be naive).
I had no idea how to begin—beyond spending days alone with drafts of unremarkable work as I pulled out my hair and tried to say something serious. I was determined, but I was every bit as scared. Raised in a traditional family that believed in manners, humility, and hard work, I had exactly one distant cousin who had made his living as an artist—and my dad thought he was weird. Despite this, my parents were incredibly brave; their mantra, a silent what you want for your children is not what they want for themselves. I wanted that dimly lit path; I wanted to test my own mettle. There was a good chance I might make a fool out of myself. I might fail, or worse yet, I might keep trying to no avail for all the world to see as I revealed too much of myself for no damned good reason.
But Eudora favored the brave, so I pushed on.
For all serious daring starts within.
—“One Writer’s Beginnings”
Eudora set up shop in Jackson near the elementary school she had once attended. Her desk window looked out at the same piece of sidewalk until she died. To me, that meant well-watered roots—to truly be yourself in a small town is honest living. Not that I wanted to live forever in my own hometown at all! But at twenty-four, I lived in an apartment on the third floor of a Victorian house in the town where I grew up and I could just about see my grandmother’s grave (and my grandfather’s) from my yellow kitchen’s window. The walled cemetery backed up to the yard. It was a comfort that my grandmother might check in on my morning coffee, my afternoon practice. Kitty had been a woman of few words who deferred to her husband, cooked three meals a day, and was never allowed to forget that my grandfather saved her from being an old maid at twenty-six. I really liked my history. I liked that in three short generations, Kitty’s granddaughter was a stubborn writer who wanted to take care of herself; I thought Kitty liked it, too. That so many folks in my small town knew my mother and my grandparents was a kind of accountability. Throwing away drafts, taking pictures in the graveyard, recording songs over and over on a vintage Rhodes, whittling down words by hand—I was doing my best Eudora imitation.
But, somehow, I was getting calls from the music business in Nashville. There were messages on an answering machine (I did not yet have a cell phone and it was then something of a pretentious thing to have one), emails at an AOL address from one Frank Callari, a manager whose name was in the liner notes of all my favorite records. He’d heard that I might be the real deal, he said as we spoke on the landline in that yellow kitchen. A few weeks later, I was sitting in an empty sushi restaurant with him in the rhinestone capital of the world. Both his physical presence and his personality were immense, and he managed immense personalities—real stars. He wore a Yankees hat to hide his baldness.
“Anyway, he had this gorgeous girlfriend who he’d tie to a cross on stage naked and throw blood on her all during the show,” Frank said. “It was incredible.” Frank had managed Marilyn Manson in his early days in Florida. Frank had the best stories—he had traveled across the desert with a Saudi prince in a Range Rover inhabited by scorpions and spent nights at the Mudd Club with Madonna in New York City. I liked him immediately. But I felt small and quiet in his world. I picked at my avocado salmon roll, so insecure that I could barely speak.
“So who are your influences?” he asked.
“Kitty Wells, Emmylou, Townes Van Zandt, Eudora Welty,” I said, fighting with chopsticks that refused to behave for nervous fingers.
“I like that,” he said. “That’s real deal.” He pointed at me with raised eyebrows and downed some sake. “I love Julie Andrews. Don’t tell anybody.”
We drove around after dinner listening to music, an all-night Ryan Adams recording session, a new record Lucinda Williams had written over the course of one weekend. I could never, ever write a record in a weekend. A song took me days and I threw away over half of what I attempted. We drove past billboards, bus stops, the whole town cloaked in album covers and CONGRATULATIONS ALAN JACKSON ON YOUR NOMINATION signs. The women on the billboards looked like they’d all seen the same makeup artist. There wasn’t a freckle in sight.
“You’re a good writer, not a great writer,” Frank told me, somewhere on I-65. “I think you should co-write. We’ll get you in with the right people, make a publishing deal.”
No kidding, I wasn’t a great writer. I was a kid. I had ten songs and one standing ovation, the set list tucked inside my wallet. Did Frank want me to sell my publishing before it even existed? “And your band. I dunno. Something about the band. Something not so great about your band.”
I felt smaller and smaller, plainer as the music played on. Scared of Frank, scared of the music business, scared of myself. I loved my revisions and my writing routine; I was completely plain. The only reason I ever got on stage was because of writing. Otherwise, it was all vanity. How deeply my mother had ingrained in me the arrogance of being a show-off. The rhinestone capital whirred by; a tiny, scared instinct clutched that purple volume of The Collected Stories. I didn’t want to write songs by committee. I wanted my own voice, no matter how it wavered in my throat and got lost inside. Take my recording masters, take twenty percent, enslave me to a record company, send me home, but my words were mine.
I’ve made my mistakes, but I never sold my publishing. Frank wasn’t happy about it. I didn’t sell out my writing or my band, and I still hate co-writing. Eudora: my stomach test, my integrity muscle, my freckled friend.
My work, in the terms in which I see it, is as dearly matched to the world as its secret sharer. 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. But I was to learn slowly that both these worlds, outer and inner, were different from what they seemed to me in the beginning.
—“One Writer’s Beginnings”
Of course, having integrity is great; having integrity and being on top of the world with it is really, really great, but it is pretty easy to find yourself all alone with your integrity not setting the world on fire. The most important thing Eudora gave me—even though we had no small talk—was her assurance that trying to be a writer with my own voice did not mean that I was going to be all alone. If Jack Kerouac wanted to speed up and intensify the world, Eudora loved it as it was. If Flannery O’Connor pursued the life of the spirit, Eudora officiated at the Church of People. She did not find life lacking; she found it rich and wanted to participate. I did too, desperately. That Eudora had found her place—her home—meant I might do the same.
And Eudora was not EUDORA WELTY when she started out. She probably never felt like EUDORA with the Southern literary crown on her head. She was a Jackson girl traveling through the South alone, taking pictures of strangers while writing for the WPA during the Great Depression. She was an unmarried writer in a time when my grandfather was just one of many Southern men who would never read a book by a woman. But I cannot find a place in her writing where she complains. I cannot find an instance where she was unkind. I can only find her attesting again and again that she has a life full of love, despite being deeply different. She must—sometimes—have felt an outsider in her world, in her family, in her neighborhood, or—worst of all—to herself. We all do. But I cannot find record of her faith buckling. She speaks only of knowing love well, pressing on, the power of words and the surprise of beauty. To invent sentences, she did not need to fill her life with drama or spectacle. She was not at work making a wreck of her personal life. She just pursued the heart of things, those small experiences resonating with a larger truth. Being an artist was not permission to think less of other people; she loved the world she chased with words, and—it seems to me—had the feeling that she belonged there.
Are we open to beauty, or open to wonder? If we are not, then all our words can beat on a wall, and if we are, then a door may open anywhere and a radiant presence come and stand beside us and contribute a word now and then.
—“On Short Stories”
I wonder where Eudora is these days, where she travels with her camera and her calm, deep gaze. For me, now nearly twenty years into my career, my life is more complicated; my fire is more a loose batch of coals than a sapling snap. I thought the worries which made me need Eudora would dissipate—the doubts, the uncertainty, the starting-from-square-one-each-morning feeling. But the truth is I’ve just learned to live with all of that. I have some disappointments, mostly in myself, but I have a good life. I live a few blocks away from the walled cemetery in the town where I grew up, now with a fourth-generation female coming along. I’m sure my grandmother stops in now and then to see the loud-throated, wide-open, highly opinionated joy machine which is my daughter. My writing desk is in her room. When I sit down to begin, I gather myself and my senses, and I listen tentatively. I don’t think of Eudora every day. But she is still that irreplaceable friend whose kindness and courage, once knowing them, I cannot do without. I stand at the gate I would not have entered without her gentle prodding, its cold, rusty iron in my hands. I like to think Eudora bids me to swing wide.
My joy was connected with writing; that was as much as I knew.
—“One Writer’s Beginnings”
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