As I was unpacking boxes of books recently, as part of my move to Microsoft, I opened my copy of the collected stories of Eudora Welty. This awakened memories of my southern childhood and two anecdotes about Ms. Welty, one technical and another cultural.
You've Got Mail
My former colleague at Illinois, Steve Dorner, eponymously named the email client Eudora after Eudora Welty, based on memories of her short story, "Why I Live at the P.O." He related his rationale for this in a 1997 New York Times interview that took place during Illinois' Cyberfest, the "birthday" celebration for HAL, the computer from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Remember the line from the book, "I am a HAL Nine Thousand computer, Production Number 3. I became operational at the HAL Plant in Urbana, Illinois, on January 12, 1997.")
Let me get back to Eudora. Steve said he was embarrassed because he had never talked to Ms. Welty and felt presumptuous to have named a piece of software after a living person. In contrast, Ms. Welty was, based on all accounts, both pleased and amused by the eponymous software.
It is a great story about the rippling impact of a writer on lives and culture and about the power of a single individual to shape our notions of electronic communication. Eudora was arguably the first great graphical email client, one I continued to use until I moved to Microsoft and switched to Outlook.
One summer night when I was about twelve years old, I sat watching the Dick Cavett Show on our old black and white television, the small town boy's version of Plato's Cave. Dick was a thoughtful and insightful interviewer, and he hosted a diverse and eclectic set of guests, from Salvador Dali to Groucho Marx. In rural Arkansas, this was a cultural smorgasbord and a daily vignette of a yet unseen cultural milieu. Of all this diversity, the interview I most remember was one with Eudora Welty.
As one would expect, Ms. Welty was the very picture of a southern lady, all pearls and lace. She was every southern boy's grandmother, dressed as if for Sunday morning church services. You could almost smell the lavender on her hanky.
During an otherwise innocuous conversation about short stories, southern culture and writing, Dick asked Eudora if she believed anyone, with the right encouragement, could become a writer. Even at age twelve I knew the socially polite answer to this question: "Why yes, of course. Everyone has stories to tell and can put them on paper with help."
To my surprise, Eudora didn't offer the expected platitude. Instead, she sat bolt upright in her chair and fixed Dick with a look that would have withered a southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) at 300 yards. I knew that look; I'd seen it on my grandmother's face.
It was the look southern women of a certain age and period reserved for their men folk when they said or did something so unbearably stupid that it beggared the imagination. In my grandmother's case, it was when my grandfather described his latest cockamamie get rich scheme based on selling homemade fishing lures or when he shot a hole in the living room floor while cleaning his favorite squirrel hunting gun.
I knew the look – something interesting was about to happen. I sat forward expectantly in my chair, and I was not disappointed.
As I recall it, Eudora said, "No! If the words don't burn inside you, if you aren't driven to put them on paper, regardless of the price, you are not a writer." In my mind, I can still hear her vehemence, with each phrase uttered like a hammer on steel. She sat there, daring Cavett, a bit of a language maven himself, to contradict her. He was wise enough not to try.
As a twelve year old, this was a powerful statement, that passion for a calling in the face of adversity was both common and necessary. That a genteel southern woman would say it with such fearful ferocity was astounding. I knew and believed that she was right, and it gave me both hope and courage.
You Got the Love?
Passion alone is of course, not enough. One needs talent and diligence too, but the passion drives the diligence and the talent feeds the passion. The words, the music, the curiosity -- whatever the calling – it must burn inside you. Eudora had it exactly right.
With diligence, anyone can put words on paper. But only passion, diligence and a love of language can make you H. L. Mencken with words that live and dance or Ernest Hemingway, whose parsimony of phrasing subtly entraps one in complexity. Diligence can make anyone a piano player, but only the triumvirate of passion, talent and diligence can create the virtuoso who was Vladimir Horowitz. The triumph over tragedy of François Jacob's biomedical discoveries is a story of dedication, talent and insight.
It's not the book signing or the Pulitzer, it's the story. It's not the record contract or the Carnegie Hall recital; it's the music. It's not the Science cover or the Nobel; it's the understanding. It's about the passion. It's about the love.
The passion, the love, comes in all domains. Several years ago, Reebok aired a basketball shoe commercial that featured several NBA icons. The voiceover included these lines, "A contract can make you rich, the fans can make you famous, the press can make you a superstar, and a championship ring can make you immortal. But only the love can make you a player. You got the love?"
I've thought many times about the Reebok commercial and about Eudora. Each time, I smile, because grammar aside, I know Eudora would have understood. The passion matters. You got the love?