The Continuous Thread of Revelation: Eudora Welty on Writing, Time, and Embracing the Nonlinearity of How We Become Who We Are
By Maria Popova
To be human is to unfold in time but remain discontinuous. We are living non sequiturs seeking artificial cohesion through the revisions our memory, that capricious seamstress, performs in threading the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. It is, after all, nothing but a supreme feat of storytelling to draw a continuous thread between one’s childhood self and one’s present-day self, since hardly anything makes these two entities “the same person” — not their height, not their social stature, not their beliefs, not their circle of friends, not even the very cells in their bodies. Somewhere in the lacuna between the experiencing self and the remembering self, we create ourselves in what is literally a matter of making sense — of craftsmanship — for, as Oliver Sacks so poignantly observed, it is narrative that holds our identity together.
But while this self-composition is native to the human experience, there is a subset of humans who have elected the transmutation of discontinuity into cohesion as their life’s work and have made temporality the raw material of their craft: writers. The essence of that craftsmanship is what Pulitzer-winning author Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909–July 23, 2001) explores in a passage from One Writer’s Beginnings (public library) — her three-part memoir adapted from the inaugural Massey Lectures she delivered at Harvard in 1983, shortly after she was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and exactly half a century after The New Yorker rejected her brilliant job application.
The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their 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.
Drawing on one of her short stories, whose protagonist holds up her fingers to frame what she is about to paint before she beings painting it, Welty reflects on the evolution of her own understanding of writing and selfhood — a beautiful counterpoint to today’s fashionable fragmentation of the wholeness of personhood into sub-identities:
The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.
With an eye to the retrospective pattern-recognition by which we wrest our personhood from our experience — an existential act on which Joan Didion had some magnificent advice — Welty adds:
Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life. This has been the case with me. Connections slowly emerge. Like distant landmarks you are approaching, cause and effect begin to align themselves, draw closer together. Experiences too indefinite of outline in themselves to be recognized for themselves connect and are identified as a larger shape. And suddenly a light is thrown back, as when your train makes a curve, showing that there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you’ve come, is rising there still, proven now through retrospect.
Complement this particular passage of Welty’s altogether fantastic One Writer’s Beginnings with anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson on the nonlinearity of how we become who we are and with more life-earned insight into the craft of writing from Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, Gabriel García Márquez, Ernest Hemingway, Zadie Smith, T.S. Eliot, and other titans of literature, then revisit Welty on friendship, the difficult art on seeing one another, and a rare recording of her reading her comic and quietly heartbreaking masterpiece “Why I Live at the P.O.”
Published February 21, 2018