Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Eudora Welty - A Mentor's Mentor

In the late 1980s, my friend and colleague, Laura Benson, recommended One Writer's Beginnings to us at a workshop.  I remember her sharing sections of it and I immediately went to The Bookies for a copy (at that time The Bookies was still in an old bungalow off 6th Avenue... crammed to the brim with books).  

I think it was one of the first hard cover "professional" books I ever purchased and it still has a special place on my bookshelf.  It's the narrative of Eudora's falling in love with language, writing, and story. It's broken into three sections "Listening," "Learning to See," and "Finding a Voice." Based on her lectures, it captures her story of becoming a writer... finding her voice after years of listening and observing those around her.

Imagine for a minute if we used those three section titles as a "curriculum guide"... if we, indeed, took all the complexities we face as teachers and filtered them through what a young girl from Mississippi deemed important as a learner.  As teachers of reading and writing, could we not couch our work in those three areas?  

What if our guiding questions became:
What are the ways my students are learning to listen?
What are the ways my students are learning to see?
What are the ways my students are developing a sense of their own voice?
How?  Why?  So what?

If we simply (or not so simply) helped our students (and ourselves) to "listen," wouldn't we already be one step ahead.  Listen to the rhythm of these words.  Listen to your fellow learners, what did you hear?  Listen as I share this part out loud with you, what do you notice?  Listen to your own understanding, what's floating in your mind right now?  There's something in this piece that I want to try in my own writing, did you hear it?  Listen again. Listen to the pattern of the words, the sentences, the text... what's beating in your heart?  Your mind?    Listening.

Now "See."  See what's around you (write it down).  See what he just did, do you suppose you might have a go with that?  See how that vowel pattern works, are you learning to recognize it?  See how this illustration matches the words the author uses.  Close your eyes for just a moment, what do you see?  When she shared her poem with you, what did you see?  When you share your writing with him, what did he tell you he saw?  Watch me, tell me what you see... now let me watch you and I'll tell you what I see.  Learning to See.

Find a Voice.  Did you hear the way you said that... it sounded just like _____ (insert your favorite author's name)?  You should write about that, it's an important story.  Your thinking is really important, you might recommend this book to someone you think might enjoy it.  You did create a sensory image, how did it help you?  If someone, right now, asked you what you were thinking, what might you tell them?  You know, not many people can capture a moment in time as beautifully as you just did... how will you share it with others?  Finding a voice. 
Learning to See.
Finding a Voice.

Listen to Eudora's words as she describes an important discovery she made about books:

It has been startling and disappointing to me to find out 
that story books had been written by people, that books were not
natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.  Yet regardless
of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in 
love with them--with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper
they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession
in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.  Still illiterate, I was ready for 
them, committed to all the reading I could give them.  (Welty, pp. 5-6)

That's exactly what I want my students to do, to commit themselves to understanding all that books can give them.  Not based on a number of books they plow through.  Not based on a "level" or a specific genre.  Not based on the number of minutes they read.  Not based on the questions they can answer after a read.  Not based on some mystical "core" description of what a reader is or is not.  Not based on a test.  I want the readers in my care to fall in love with the books themselves.  And perhaps if they listen and learn and see my passion for reading and writing, they will perhaps, in turn, find their own voices as readers and writers.

If you haven't read One Writer's Beginnings, you should.  If you haven't read one of Eudora Welty's works, you should.  If you haven't explored her descriptions of life in Mississippi, you should.  There's something grand about her language, her words, the tempo of her writing.  Her simple southern life gave her writing a complex and varied cadence.  And as you read Welty, you have to keep "Listening, Learning to See, and Finding a Voice" in mind.  Eudora Welty is a mentor's mentor.  

Also read A Darling Life:  A Biography of Eudora Welty by Carolyn J. Brown.  Ms. Brown has captured the life... in words and photographs (many of Welty's own)... of Eudora Welty for a new generation of learners.  This time for young readers and writers.  From her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi to political unrest to her declining years, Ms. Brown captures the journey of Miss Welty stunningly.  She lead a simple, albeit extraordinary, life.  Listen to these words from Miss Welty:

Lately, in my old age, it has seemed to me, when friends meet to hold
a public service to pay tribute to one of their number who has died, that 
without words to that effect ever being said, they are drawing a circle 
around that friend.  Speaking in turn one after the other, joining them 
together anew, they keep what they know of him intact.
Eurdora Welty, Introduction, The Norton Bok of Friendship  (Brown, p. 75) 

I'm thinking we all need to draw a circle around these two books for a bit of time... just to listen... to see... and perhaps find a bit of our voice, both as teachers and as readers and writers ourselves.  To keep Eudora Welty's contributions as a writer intact... read!

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