Monday, April 27, 2009

Aleksandar Hemon's "Love and Obstacles"--English as a Second Language, and the Writer as Drinker

Aleksandar Hemon, born in Sarajevo, came to America in 1992 on a cultural visa as a twenty-eight-year-old journalist. Scheduled to return to Bosnia on the day the Yugoslav army began shelling his home town, he was granted political asylum and settled down in Chicago, taking jobs as a dishwasher and sandwich maker and trying to learn English by making lists of words from the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov.

Three years after his arrival in the U.S. he started publishing stories in English in such places as The New Yorker and Granta and getting them chosen for Best American Short Stories. When his collection The Question of Bruno appeared in 2000, he received rave reviews and was compared to famous European authors, such as Joseph Conrad and Nabokov, who wrote brilliantly in English.

Jozef Pronek, a Hemon alter ego, was introduced in a novella-length story in The Question of Bruno entitled “Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls,” a story about a Bosnian immigrant who comes to think of himself as a cartoon character, a dog, a detective, a madman. (Pronek is not blind; the title of the story comes from the name of the rock band he established in Bosnia, derived from a blind American blues singer.) In Nowhere Man, his highly anticipated first novel, Hemon traces Pronek’s life back to its beginnings in Sarajevo, recounts his youthful coming-of-age, and details his efforts to make a new home in America.

While he was working on his second novel The Lazarus Project, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008, Hemon was apparently also writing eight short stories, six of which appeared in The New Yorker, and now released in his new book Love and Obstacles, due out in May from Riverhead Books.

I have been reading Hemon’s stories from the beginning. I even read Nowhere Man, although I must confess I have not read The Lazarus Project.

Since English is a fairly recent second language for Hemon, his vocabulary is sometimes strangely formal (as when he uses the word “masticates” instead of “eats” for the simple act of eating a sandwich), or self-consciously poetic (as when he tells the reader to “wipe the misty windshield of memory”). Hemon has said that he chooses words in terms of the sound and the rhythm they make rather than in terms of plausibility.

I am a little leery of Hemon’s work, for I think, like Ha Jin, he was greeted in America so enthusiastically for reasons extrinsic to his art. First, he was called “remarkable” because he began publishing in English only three years after beginning to learn English as his second language. And second, he began publishing during the war in Bosnia, when there was much publicity about the atrocities there and thus was touted as “a new voice” of Bosnia.

O.K., fair enough. But now that he has been writing in English for over a dozen years, it seems to me that the steam surrounding him for his “remarkable” grasp of English and his “new voice” should simmer down a little; it is time that he either make it on his own or not make it at all.

Maybe I am just too cynical about the press release hype surrounding authors who represent “new voices” from previously unrepresented countries or cultures, as if they were indeed the voice of their people. I know this sells books, and why the hell write if you can’t sell books? But I think a writer’s work should stand on its own merits.

The publishers are promoting Love and Obstacles as a “linked” collection of stories, in hopes that the public will think it is “novelistic,” whatever that means, treating the stories as chapters. I have already expressed my cynicism about this tactic. As I never tire of saying, I think a story should have the integrity to stand on its own and be appreciated as a short story, not as something to hurry through to get on to the next chapter.

I just finished reading Hemon's new collection of stories, Love and Obstacles. I guess what bothers me about Hemon is the autobiographical persona he creates in these stories. It is the same persona we met in Bruno and met again in Nowhere Man. At this point, the new stories seem too much “twice-told.” The Hemon alter ego is just getting a little tiresome, especially since in most every story, whether he is a teenager or a wanna-be writer, he ends up getting drunk.

In “Stairway to Heaven,” at age 16, he is introduced to getting drunk; in “Everything,” at age 17, he is sent off to the city with his parents’ hard-earned money to buy a freezer and ends up giving away part of the money because he gets drunk. In “Conductor,” he gets drunk while at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop with a famous Bosnian writer, and in “The Novel Truths of Suffering,” he introduces himself as a writer who has published a short story entitled “Love and Obstacles” in The New Yorker and gets drunk with an American Pulitzer Prize winning writer who is visiting Bosnia.

I like a drink as much as the next person, but Hemon's continual presentation of the writer as a hard drinker just bores me after a while. If anyone out there has any thoughts about the cliche of writer as drinker and where the hell it started, I would appreciate hearing from you. If you have read any of Hemon's work and want to weigh in on me for not thinking he is the greatest thing to hit these shores since Ha Jin, then please have at it. It is more fun writing this blog when I get a reaction.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Amy Hempel and Alistair MacLeod win the Penn Malamud Award for their Short Fiction

Alistair MacLeod and Amy Hempel have been selected to receive the twenty-second annual PEN/Malamud Award. Given annually since 1988 in honor of the late Bernard Malamud, the award recognizes a body of work that demonstrates excellence in the art of short fiction.

MacLeod is the author of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, which were later published together under the title Island: The Complete Stories. He is also the author of the novel No Great Mischief. He was raised in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and was educated at St. Francis Xavier University, the University of New Brunswick, and University of Notre Dame. He has also received the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Amy Hempel is the author of Reasons to Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Tumble Home, and The Dog of the Marriage, which have been published under the title, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. She also won the 2008 Rea Award. She teaches in the MFA program at Bennington College.

The PEN/Malamud Award includes a reading in the 2009/10 PEN/Faulkner reading series at the Folger Shakespeare Library and a prize of $5,000, which will be shared by MacLeod and Hempel.

Single past winners include John Updike, Saul Bellow, George Garrett, Frederick Busch and Andre Dubus, Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor, Grace Paley, Stuart Dybek and William Maxwell, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, John Barth, T. Coraghessan Boyle. Since they started giving the prize to two winners—one “master writer” and one “younger writer.”—the winners have been: Ann Beattie and Nathan Englander, Sherman Alexie and Richard Ford, Junot Diaz and Ursula K. Le Guin, Barry Hannah and Maile Meloy, Richard Bausch and Nell Freudenberger, Lorrie Moore, Tobias Wolff and Adam Haslett, and Elizabeth Spencer, Cynthia Ozick and Peter Ho Davies.

MacLeod’s first collection came out in 1976, so I guess he is the “master,” but Hempel’s first came out in 1985, so she is hardly a “younger” writer.

I have been reading Amy Hempel since her first collection and have taught her best-known story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” many times. (The cemetery, by the way, is not far from where I live, just off the San Diego Freeway between the Los Angeles Airport and the city.)

Perhaps you already know the story; it’s one of those stories that epitomizes some of the characteristics of so-called “minimalism” of the 1980s and thus will probably be a long-time anthologist’s favorite for university texts. What makes it memorable is not its central focus—a woman visiting her friend in a hospital where she is dying of cancer—but rather the witty, brittle black comic remarks that the two women make—a kind of modern gallows humor. For example, when the narrator leaves after a visit, the dying woman says, “Bring me something back. anything but a magazine subscription.”

Hempel was a student in one of Gordon Lish’s writing classes in New York (Lish is perhaps best known for being Raymond Carver’s early editor, who has been given credit for Carver’s minimalist style in his first two collections.) She has said that the “Jolson” story and several others in her first collection were assignments in Lish’s class.

Hempel’s four collections of short stories, at my count, is a career total of less than 600 pages. In her fourth collection, The Dog of the Marriage, she is as tight-lipped as ever. She once told an interviewer that the trick of the short story is to find a “tiny way into a huge subject.” The question is not whether Hempel has little to say, but whether the few words she chooses to explore the huge subjects in this book—love, loss, divorce, death, grief, betrayal, rape, heartbreak—are the right words to express their inexplicable essence. What the stories are about is finding a way to live when life is unlivable and language seems inadequate.

One very brief piece, which seems emblematic of the entire collection, juxtaposes white objects in a gallery of paintings with white spots on an x-ray. The artist of the exhibit, which is significantly entitled “Finding the Mystery in Clarity,” says the mind wants to make sense of a thing. However, when a doctor tries to tell the central female character the meaning of the spots on her x-ray, she can only helplessly repeat, “What are the white things?”

A casual first reading of these stories may make one feel short-changed and cheated, but short stories are seldom meant to be read rapidly and once only. The challenge is to try to become the attentive, sympathetic reader they demand.

The twentieth century’s first and most influential minimalist, Anton Chekhov, described the writer’s challenge this way: "In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because--because--I don't know why."

I am not sure that I know either. But I suspect that the short-story writer’s compulsion is similar to that of the poet—to struggle with human complexities that psychologists, sociologists, historians, novelists and other dispensers of explanatory discourse never quite account for. I would appreciate hearing from my readers about this “minimalist” approach. Is Chekhov right that it is better to say not enough than too much? Do you know the reason for this minimalism that Chekhov says he did not?

Alistair MacLeod’s stories are quite different than Amy Hempel’s. They have the echo of orality, whereas her stories are definitely written. They are certainly tightly written, many of them sounding as though the language were engraved on stone—perfectly wrought, almost ritualistic and legendary in their rhythm. He is one of my favorite writers. I recommend him to you highly. I wonder if any of the writers reading my blog have tried to write an "oral" story, a legend, and might comment on the difficulty of making this kind of story work in such a "written" age as our own.

I met him briefly two years ago at the Dublin Writer’s Festival. He was giving a reading at the Peacock Theater, which is a small venue adjacent to the famous Abbey Theatre, established by Yeats and others. He read “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun,” a wonderful choice, a tour-de-force of the ancient storyteller’s art that transformed everyone in that theater into rapt listeners, hunched close to catch every nuance, like peasants around an Irish fireplace. The story begins, “Once there was a family with a Highland name who lived beside the sea. And the man had a dog of which he was very fond. She was large and gray, a sort of stag hound from another time.”

It is a harrowing story that you will never forget. Almost as harrowing is “The Boat,” told by a man whose father is a fisherman, as many of MacLeod’s characters are. It ends with the discovery of his father’s body washed up on the rocks: “And the fish had eaten his testicles and the gulls had pecked out his eyes and the white-green stubble of his whiskers had continued to grow in death, like the grass on graves, upon the purple bloated mass that was his face. There was not much left of my father, physically, as he lay there with the brass chains on his wrists and the seaweed in his hair.”

If the men do not make their living from the sea, they make it in the mines. In “The Closing Down of Summer,” a miner named MacKinnon, leader of what he calls “the best crew of shaft and development miners in the world,” prepares to leave mining in the North as summer ends to take on another job in the southern hemisphere. It is a typical MacLeod elegiac paean to the challenge and danger of a rugged life, of facing the inevitability of death.

Those of my generation may recall a song by Peter, Paul, and Mary, entitled “The Ballad of Spring Hill,” about a mining disaster in Nova Scotia, a disaster that MacLeod refers to in another story in Island. The first stanza is:

“In the town of Spring Hill, Nova Scotia

Down in the heart of the Cumberland Mine,

There’s blood on the coal and the miners lie

In the roads that never saw sun or sky

Roads that never saw sun or sky.”

MacLeod taught the fiction workshop at University of Windsor before his retirement. One of his students recalls a constant refrain from his class: “And if you don’t get it right, the reader will put down your book, go into the kitchen and make a cheese sandwich, and never come back.”

MacLeod once told an interviewer that he tries to make stories that endure and that “will stand the rain, so to say, and I try to do the best that I can. I write slowly and carefully and I hope that the end result is worthy of this so called dedication.”

MacLeod’s scrupulous prose has earned him the dubious title of “a writer’s writer,” which usually means a very fine writer that not many people read.

I have seen no bad reviews of MacLeod’s work. Jane Brox, in a 2001 review of Island in The Boston Globe captures his effect just right: “Macleod’s cadenced, mesmerizing stories are so finely rendered, their verity so transfixing, that rarely have I been pulled into short works the way I have been pulled into these, pulled so far in that while I’m reading there is no other world.”

I have read the stories before, but now I am listening to them on an audio book recording that I synched to my Ipod. In the early morning, I take my old dog, Shannon (She is a 14-year-old flat-coated retriever, whose black hair is now white around her muzzle) for a long walk and listen to the wonderfully mesmerizing stories of Alistair MacLeod. It’s a miracle that the two of us don’t get run over.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Robert Boswell, Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards and The Half-Known World

I have been reading Robert Boswell’s new collection of short stories, Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, due out from Graywolf Press at the end of April. My review will appear in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for which I have been reviewing short story collections for the past several years.

Boswell is the author of two previous collections of short stories and six novels. He teaches creative writing at New Mexico State University, University of Houston, and in the Warren Wilson MFA program. He is, by the way, married to Antonia Nelson, whose recent short story collection I also reviewed and about which I posted an earlier blog. Perhaps some of you have met him or read his book on writing fiction entitled The Half Known World.

When I got the review assignment, I ordered The Half Known World and was pleased to find that, like other good books on writing fiction, it was really about reading fiction. I want to make a few comments about the title essay of this collection of essays and lectures before commenting on The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards.

First, let me say, I really like much of what Boswell says about writing/reading fiction. He does not spend time handing out the kind of tips about craft that you often find in Writer’s Digest, but rather provides a thoughtful commentary on the techniques of works of fiction that he admires, such as Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Although I am not a writer of fiction, I recommend this book to you. It just came out in paperback last year from Graywolf.

Here are some quotes from the title essay that I like:

*“I have grown to understand narrative as a form of contemplation, a complex and seemingly incongruous way of thinking.”

*“For as long as I can, I remain purposefully blind to the machinery of the story and only partially cognizant of the world the story creates. I work from a kind of half-knowledge.”

*“If the writer’s goal is ‘literary fiction’ [one of his or her responsibilities] is the creation of a half-known world. To accomplish this, the writer must suggest a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension.”

*“Fiction writers [often make the mistake of confusing] the half-known world of literary fiction with the fully-known world of popular film or TV.”

*“A fully known world is devoid of mystery.”

*“This is the key thing to understand: In literary works, secrets function to the extent that their revelation creates an equal portion of mystery. The world then remains half known.”

*“When the reader’s experience of a story results in a world that is too fully known, the story fails.”

*“A crucial part of the writing endeavor is the practice of remaining in the dark.”

I like Boswell’s emphasis on the “half-known world” and the importance of remaining in the dark. He is not the first to say this. Much of his discussion here owes an important debt to the essays of Flannery O’Connor in her wonderful collection Mystery and Manners, another book I recommend very highly.

A story," O'Connor says, "is a way to say something that can't be said in any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate." Well, yes, sure, that's right. But what kinds of meanings cannot be expressed in a statement? Are there really such things? Later on, O'Connor says, "There are two qualities that make fiction. One is the sense of mystery, and the other is the sense of manners. You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you." Yeah, O.K. I get that. But where do you get the mystery? She doesn't answer that one.

“Mystery" is indeed Flannery O'Connor's favorite word. She says that for the writer who believes that life is essentially mysterious, "what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself." For this kind of writer, the "meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology ... have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do." I love it when she talks like that. One more: "The peculiar problem of the short-story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible.... His problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him."

Yes, I believe it. Somehow the concrete doesn't stay concrete in the short story, but like the mystery of incarnation, is transformed into spirit even as it remains body. But, Lord, what do you make of that?

Most of my favorite writers talk like this. Eudora Welty is another. She once said: "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful." "The mystery of allurement." Yes, I believe that. And yes, when it comes to the stories I like best, the more I read them, the more mysterious they become. I love being caught in the beautiful mystery of them.

Now, about Boswell’s stories in Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards. As usual, I experienced more than a little conflict while reading them. On the one hand, I enjoyed them, found them engaging and well written, but at the same time I felt that I was being manipulated. I know, I know, all writers manipulate us. If they fail to manipulate us, then they just fail.

What bothers me about Boswell’s stories—and I would love to hear from some of the writers who read this blog about this—they often just sound too much as if they were written by someone who teaches writing.

I have never taken a writing workshop in my life, so I cannot say that I know what a creative writing teacher actually teaches. But I have certainly read a great number of books about writing fiction written by those who teach creative writing.

At least three aspects of Boswell’s stories remind me that he teaches creative writing. I will comment on them briefly and hope to hear from others about this.

First of all, there is the irresistible urge to “experiment” with narrative structure or point of view. For example, in his story “No River Wide,” Boswell plays with presenting the point of view of the central character as simultaneously existing in two different places and at two different times. It is a reasonable ploy. After all, all stories present a past event from the perspective of a present time. There is the time the event took place and the time the teller relates the event. However, we usually ignore this and respond to the past event as if it were somehow still taking place.

It reminds me of something the contextualist critic Murray Krieger once said about the word “still” in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—“Thou still unravished bride of quietness.” The word “still” means both at once not moving and still moving, that is, still to come. But Boswell’s use of the device draws attention to itself as a self-conscious convention.

In the story “A Sketch of Highway on the Nap of a Mountain,” Boswell uses the point of view of a woman who seems to have had a stroke, or maybe she is just a modern Mrs. Malaprop” who makes numerous language errors, such as “I get irrigated with my life,” “He begins happily dissembling our past,” “I’m at the car, divulging a black boom box.”

They are funny, and Boswell seems to be having a great time inventing them, but the story seems to be mainly an excuse for demonstrating his cleverness in inventing them.

Another possible problem of the creative writing teacher writing is that he or she is apt to write in the style or thematic mode of a writer that he or she admires.

For example, Boswell’s story “Supreme Beings,” which features mystic visions and the quest for the savior and which focuses largely on a priest suffering his own conflict of faith, sounds very much like Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood.” And the title story, which goes on quite long about a group of druggies living a doped-out life in a wilderness vacation retreat, complete with some comic violence and death, and a wise man who spouts, what else, wisdom, sounds much like the characters in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.

Of course, a writer should experiment with various techniques of point of view, structure, and language. Of course, a writer is going to be influenced by writers that he or she admires.

I just wonder if it is not a bit risky for a writer to teach writing. I understand that writers who write serious short stories cannot, by any stretch, make a living writing. I know that the most sensible way for writers to make a living is to teach writing. But is it not risky to do so? How can a writer who teaches writing conventions and the techniques of other writers not run the risk of writing fiction that calls attention to itself?

I would certainly appreciate hearing from any of you about this.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Eudora Welty Centenary, One Writer's Beginning, and What Makes Writers Different from Others

An old college chum of mine, Donna Lander, sent me a link to the recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine, which has a picture story about Eudora Welty, focusing primarily on her Depression era photography. April marks the centenary of Welty’s birth. The article is worth taking a look at if you love Welty, as I do. Most of the pictures are from the South, but there is one striking Escher-like New York street scene, and one elegant photo of Welty herself as a young woman. Here is the link:

Also, if you are interested, Suzanne Marrs published an authoritative biography of Welty a couple of years ago. Marrs’ book is a very traditional biography, charting the events of Welty’s life from birth to death in extensive, well-researched detail. Whereas Ann Waldron’s 1998 biography of Welty was hampered by Welty’s unwillingness to cooperate, Marrs, an English professor who lives in Jackson, Mississippi and who visited Welty for many years, was given access to letters and diaries and was welcomed by Welty’s friends. Waldron, perhaps piqued by Welty’s reticence, made much of the writer’s physical appearance and southern seclusion; Marrs, obviously an adoring friend and fan, burnishes the iconic image that Welty became in American literature and presents her as a sophisticated, well-traveled woman of letters.

Eudora Welty once said that people should read a writer's creative work instead of a biographical account, adding that she did not think anyone would be interested in her private life. Perhaps partially to forestall anyone poking into her affairs, Welty published her own autobiographical memoir, One Writer's Beginnings, in 1984, which interested enough people to keep it on the New York Times best-seller list for almost a year.

The central purpose of One Writer's Beginning is Welty's exploration of what it is that makes a writer become a writer and what it is that sets a writer apart from others. Welty tries to answer these two questions in two basic ways: by describing the actual events and details of her life that she transforms into the stuff of story and by her own meditative consideration of the meaning of these sources of her fiction making. The central key to the secret of the writer, Welty seems to suggest, is his or her ability to determine the difference between mere events and "significant" events. A relation of mere events may be simply a chronological retelling; however, significant events follow what Welty calls a "thread of revelation." And that phrase perhaps is the best description of the structure of One Writer's Beginning, for the book develops a continuous related thread of individual moments of revelation and meaning.

Some of the central points along this thread involve Welty's gradual awareness of what she calls "the voice of story." She recalls hearing her mother read stories to her, but it is not her mother's voice she hears; she says that when she writes she hears her own words in the same voice that she hears when she reads. Welty also recalls when neighbors were invited to go on a Sunday drive in the family car and she would sit in the back seat between her mother and a friend and say, "Now talk." It was in this way that she learned the wonderful language she recreates in such stories as "The Petrified Man" and "Why I Lived at the P.O."

The section of the book entitled "Learning to See" is more unified in time than the anecdotal first section, for it deals with Welty's annual summer visits to relatives in West Virginia and Ohio. Although she never lived in these areas, she feels a strong sense of place in them, particularly the mountains of West Virginia where her mother was born and raised. She takes obvious delight in telling stories of her mother's family, for such family stories are usually a child's first introduction to the roots of story--those revelatory moments of reality worth remembering. If life is a series of revelations, as Welty claims, then each trip she made to her parents' roots constituted a particular revelation for her.

In the last section, "Finding a Voice," Welty talks about the specific sources of some of her most memorable stories, usually some image, character, or phrase from which the story grows. For example, the story "Livie," a mythical piece about youth and old age, springs from her seeing trees throughout the South that people beautified by putting brightly-colored bottles on the ends of limbs. Her first story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," originated with a phrase she heard from a traveling man--"He's gone to borry some fire"--that took on mythological meaning for her.

Although many experiences are too indefinite to be recognized alone, Welty says, in a story they come together and become identifiable when they take on a larger shape. Writing develops a sense of where to look for these connections, how to follow the threads, for nothing is ever lost to memory. Memory is a living thing, urges Welty, and all that is remembered joins and unites the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.

The charm and magic of One Writer's Beginning can largely be attributed to the personality of Welty herself, the model of the genteel Southern lady--gracious, kind, hospitable, and therefore irresistible. But it is also a memorable little book because of its ability to recreate the feel of small town American life in the first two decades of the twentieth century--a time when home libraries were filled with Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and the Book of Knowledge rather than a time when family rooms were filled with televisions and computers. Welty's ear for the dialogue of the small town South, her eye for the telling detail, and her vivid memory for the look and feel of the first two decades of the twentieth-century era make the book a minor classic.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty is a major classic. It contains forty-one stories--the distinguished southern writer's complete short fiction corpus. It includes four earlier volumes--A Curtain of Green (1941), The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), The Golden Apples (1949), and The Bride of Innisfallen and Other Stories (1955)--and two New Yorker stories previously uncollected, "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" (1963) and "The Demonstrators" (1966). In her Preface, Miss Welty, always the model of graciousness, briefly expresses her gratitude for the fact that her early stories, beginning with "Death of a Traveling Salesman," were welcomed by influential southern critics and writers, such as Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Katherine Anne Porter.

Stories from Welty's first two collections are generally better known than those from the last two, having frequently been anthologized in numerous college literature anthologies since the 1940's. In them, Welty focuses brilliantly on the Mississippi milieu she knows so well, creating enigmatic characters and symbolic situations that combine the ordinary and the mythically meaningful in a way that has become characteristic of her best work.

It is in these first two collections that we meet the following gallery of unforgettable women:Ruby Fisher, who mistakes herself for an abused woman of the same name she reads about in the newspaper ("A Piece of News"); Leota and Mrs. Fletcher, who, medusa-like in a beauty parlor, metaphorically turn men into stone ("Petrified Man"); Sister, the postmistress of China Grove, who laments the return of the prodigal daughter and tries to justify her own exile ("Why I Live at the P. O."); Clytie, who ends up upside down in a rain barrel, her black-stockinged legs hung apart "like a pair of tongs" ("Clytie"); Phoenix Jackson, a never-say-die grandmother on a sacred journey to seek relief for her scarred grandson ("A Worn Path"); and Livie, who finally dares to leave the control and order of Solomon for the raw life of Cash McCord ("Livie").

The fact that Welty's short stories do not focus on social issues has been one source of criticism of her short fiction and one reason why her stories have sometimes been characterized as women's writing in a pejorative stereotyped sense. Welty's stories seem to spring more from the world of myth and story than from the social world, and the language in which they are written is often highly symbolic and allusive, therefore susceptible to being called, especially in the mid-twentieth century when such so-called masculine writers as Hemingway and Faulkner dominated literary life, somewhat "precious" and overly self-conscious. However, as heavily loaded with metaphor and allusion as Welty's language is, and as resonant as her characters are of the world of myth, still her stories seem rooted in a strong sense of place, even if they seem eternally out of time in what she has called a "season of dreams."

I highly recommend One Writer's Beginning if you have not yet read it. I am sure you are all familiar with Welty’s stories. I have written articles on the following: “Why I live at the P.O.,” “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden,” and “A Visit of Charity,” which are among my favorites. I would be interested in knowing what your favorite Welty story is and why.

I would also be interested in hearing from students and writers on Welty’s ideas about what it is that makes a writer become a writer and what it is that sets a writer apart from others. I like Welty’s idea about the writer’s ability to determine the difference between mere events and "significant" events and how significant events follow a "thread of revelation."

I have always felt that writers are different from others. Or at least when they are writing well, they become different from others. I also must admit that I have always been in awe of great writers, when they are writing well. After all these years, I am still not sure how in the hell they do it.

I am taking an RV “road trip” this summer with my wife and family members—back to my hometown of Paintsville, Kentucky for the wedding of my youngest sister’s youngest daughter. Since we are going to take Interstate 10 to Tucson for our daughter’s M.A. graduation (in English, of course), and then on to New Orleans before heading North, we just may be able to stop in Jackson, Mississippi to visit Eudora Welty’s home. I hope so. I will let you know.

Oh, and a brief footnote about my little poll of my readers: 40% writers; 30% teachers; 20% students; 10% general readers. I know there is overlap here. After all, writers are always readers and teachers are always students. I also realize that all my readers did not take the poll. That's o.k. I do not have a counter of visitors to this blog. Like the rest of you, I just write and write and hope there are readers.