A Fond Look Back at the Welty Symposium

As I write this, the Mississippi University for Women's annual Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium is in full swing. The event honors one of the MUW's most famous alumnae by offering a slew of Southern writers to read from their works and tell a little about themselves. I've attended twice - in 2001 and again in 2007, but my experience in 2001 was one that I can still feel today.

In 2001, I was an Application Developer for MCI Worldcom, which was a good job that supported me and my son. I was also attending school to finish a Bachelor's degree (my first attempt in the 1980s was interrupted by a boy - well, me and a boy). To put it lightly, I was a horrible Developer and an even worse CS student. I am still friends with folks who will attest to this fact. And I was miserable.

My first loves have always been writing and reading and studying and researching. These are the things that jazz me. So, when I stumbled across an event that combined all that with a college steeped in Southern history and writers who write about all things Southern in a place that I could get to without too much maneuvering around babysitters, I signed up.

It was held in Poindexter Hall. To get to Poindexter, I had to walk and walk through the campus.  October. Fall. 120-year-old campus. I could barely breathe. Inside, I found a seat I liked, away from the collections of college kids who were sitting together like fish in a school (ha) probably mandated to attend for class credit, and readied myself for the program to begin.

Poindexter is over 100 years old and three stories tall and round inside, with huge floor to ceiling windows and a beautiful stage and wonderful acoustics. It is the musical heart of the school - and the town of Columbus, for that matter. The building has been maintained meticulously and perfectly. Looking around, I thought of the years and years of performances and audiences and...and then?

Of course, I spontaneously burst into tears. A writer hadn't even spoken yet. But it happened and would happen again during the program, despite all the logic I threw at myself. (Kleenex has unprotected sex in my purse and I was almost alone on my row, so I was able to be fairly quiet and inconspicuous.)

The writers read from their books and told stories about their paths to their writing lives. Each one better than the next. Then? She spoke. Elizabeth Strout (who is in no way Southern, but could be). At the time, her first novel, Amy and Isabelle (one of my absolute favorite books - I still miss the characters), had just been published. She read a few excerpts and then talked about her windy path of a writing life. She was unassuming, shy, self-deprecating, and funny when she recounted her disastrous 6-month law career. She said that even though she had loved writing since high school, she went to law school to avoid failing as a writer only to end up failing as a lawyer. (She went on to win the Pulitzer in 2009 for Olive Kitteridge. That says so many wonderful things about me, doesn't it?)

To this day, I swear she was reading my mind and talking just to me. The theme of the conference was “A Kindred Soul to Laugh With”, and I could not have felt more connected to her. I wanted to tell her about me, about my life, about how bad I was at my job and my schoolwork, about how much I wanted to sit at her kitchen table and listen to her stories about her life and her characters. But rather than stalk the poor woman, I came home and wrote her a fan letter. I had never done that and haven't felt the need since. She's the one for me. Well, there's Tom Jones, but that's a different kind of connection entirely.

In formulating what I wanted to say to her, I came to the conclusion that this day at the Symposium was divinely orchestrated to show me how far I had veered from my meaning of life - that interdependence of authenticity, spirituality, and nurturing of one's soul. I realized that I was ignoring it and dishonoring God at the same time and had for most of my life. I still had a pretty expensive child to raise, but I knew what I must do. I had this picture framed to remind me. I take a small version of it to every cubicle gig I've had since. And will until. And I look at it and look at it, and I write in the meantime.

I will always regret missing the 2002 Symposium. That year, Jeanne Braselton, Rome, Georgia, author of A False Sense of Well Being, read and spoke about her life. She killed herself the following Spring after losing her husband the previous year. Life and logistics kept me away until 2007. By then, they had moved the event to Cochran Hall, which is no Poindexter (it's new and attached to a dormitory), believe me. But Nan Graham spoke and told the most hilarious story of her trip to the Symposium, and Ellen Douglas read and said, "Thank ya'll for being so proud of me," and I felt like a member of this special little MUW club again.

I hope Dr. Dunkelberg knows what a gift he's given us and that he is able to keep this Symposium going for years to come. I swear I'm going next year. I'm long overdue for a slow, warm, enveloping, Southern hug.