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Eudora Welty on Listening to Words

"As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me"

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Eudora Welty on Listening to Words

Eudora Welty (1909-2001)

Harvard University Press

Short-story writer Eudora Welty once told an interviewer, "When I read, I hear what's on the page. I don't know whose voice it is, but some voice is reading to me, and when I write my own stories, I hear it, too. I have a visual mind, and I see everything I write, but I have to hear the words when they're put down" (Paris Review, Fall 1972).

A decade later, Welty expanded on this observation in her memoir One Writer's Beginnings (1984), which begins with a section titled "Listening." Revisiting her childhood, she recalled the voices of her parents and teachers—and of Mrs. Calloway, the "dragon-eyed" librarian in Jackson, Mississippi. Though "SILENCE in big black letters was on signs tacked up everywhere," Mrs. Calloway's "every word could be heard all over the Library."

The sounds of words--especially words on a page--formed the richest part of what Welty called her "sensory education":

Ever since I was first read to, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line read that I didn't hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It isn't my mother's voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers--to read as listeners--and with all writers, to write as listeners. It may be part of the desire to write. The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me. Whether I am right to trust so far I don't know. By now I don't know whether I could do either one, reading or writing, without the other.

My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books. When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted this voice.

In Reading Aloud, we consider the value of listening to our words when we write: listening as a way of revising our prose until the words "sound right" and also as a way of discovering a sure and distinctive voice.

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