In her best-selling autobiographical book, One Writer's Beginning, Welty comes close to getting at the secret of the artist when she discusses the difference between events as they happen in our lives and events as they take on significance to us. Whereas the first is chronological, the second need not be at all, for events as they take on meaning follow what Welty calls a "thread of revelation."
Learning to perceive the world as the stuff of story is what most influenced Welty in her childhood. In describing an event when she found two polished buffalo nickels in a box in her mother's drawer, only to find out they were nickels taken from the eyes of her mother's first child who died as a baby, she says that the future story writer in her must have stored that episode away--not as a event but rather as an emblem. For although she had been pestering her mother to answer the primal question, "where do babies come from," she had received another secret, not how babies are born but how they die. Welty says this suggests that one secret is apt to be revealed in the place of one hard to tell, and that the revealed one is often more appalling than the one sought for. All of her stories, she says, are discoveries in meaning, and she cites "A Memory" as an example.
Writing, says Welty, is a way of discovering connections, for experiences that are too indefinite by themselves. Writing develops a respect for the unknown in human life, says Welty, and a sense of where to look for connections, how to follow the threads to a clear line, for nothing is ever lost to memory; the strands are all there; one seeks for the clear line. The memory is a living thing, Welty concludes, and all that is remembered joins and thus unites the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.
"A Memory" recalls a point when the artist began to look at reality through the frame of art, for since she started painting lessons, she has made small frames of her fingers to look out at everything. Reality for the future artist must be in keeping with the frames she establishes or else she feels terrified by a vision of wildness and disorder. Her perspective on the world is aesthetic and thus religious, for she is constantly hovering on the brink of seeing what is not quite there in actuality. Her sense of exaltation stems from the sense that every observation "almost" reveals to her a secret of life and that even the smallest gesture of a stranger is a communication or a presentiment.
The memory counterposes her dream of her first love and the bathers she observes at the water's edge. As in Joyce's "Araby," the dichotomy here is between the beauty of the dream and the vulgarity of the reality. Whereas the only physicality she associates with her loved one is the sight of the blood dripping from his nose, the people on the beach seem nothing but the physical, the extremity of which is the image of the woman pulling down the front of her bathing suit to dump out the sand, at which the narrator feels a peak of horror that the breasts themselves had turned to sand.
Welty says in One Writer's Beginning that the tableau discovered through the young girls' framing hands is unwelcome realism, and she has difficulty accomodating this view with the dream of love inside her, which, amorphous and tender, will have to remain her own secret imagining. The experience of the young girl marks the point at which the dreamer stops to look and becomes the artist. "After that, dreaming or awake, she will be drawn in."
Tomorrow: Ann Beattie, "Janus"