National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches
Winner of the 1991
TO AMERICAN LETTERS AWARD
In Acceptance of The National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at The National Book Awards Ceremony on November 20, 1991.
When I was about nine years old, a newspaper advertisement appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal inviting children to write a jingle and win a prize, in praise of a product named Jackie Mackie Pine Oil. It must have been a household lubricant, for use on sewing machines and squeaky hinges and the like. Whatever it was, an invitation was all I needed: I responded.
In my jingle, Jackie Mackie worked a spell. I turned him into a magician. My instinct was right, in one respect. A jingle, as well as a poem, a story, does involve magic. My jingle won first prize, and my mother said she wasn't surprised. Jackie Mackie sent me a check for $25. The time was that of World War I. I remember because my prize was converted into a War Bond, helping to defeat Kaiser Bill.
But all writers here will understand the important thing I was finding out: the joy of sending something you had written out into the world. You discover that somebody - not your mother - at the other end will actually read it. Whatever happens to it, this written word that goes forth from you now exists. It has a life of its own.
I loved from the first, as a child, the act itself of writing. The act could not be separated from the story. They spring up, grew, and came along, together. Each story became, for the time being, my teacher. So what serious writer could ever come to the end without starting another, starting anew?
The editors and the publishers, and the literary agents who have entirely made it possible for my work to appear, for my work to continue, I shall think of out of the clearest of vision and with love. Some of them are present here tonight. Those who are no longer in the world are present to me in spirit.
My father and my mother, my two brothers, would have been expecting it of me to make a better speech than I am making, to express their pride and my gratitude in this moment, all in one. That too supports me.
It is for all these people that I practice my art.
Yes, I regard writing as an art, an art of communication. We each in our own way will keep on with, and practice as well as we can, what it can keep teaching us to do. There are more stories to write-always more.
To The National Book Foundation I would like to say that your wonderful prize tonight is wonderful too in not being an end in itself. It can encourage an 82-year-old. It's now on to the next story. In the prospect of working emerging - or for that especially - I now most deeply thank you.
Former Chairman of the National Book Foundation Board of Direcotrs Joel Conarroe with Eudora Welty. All photos: Robin Platzer