''Up in Tishomingo County (Mississippi), I knew that my continuing passion would be to part the curtain that falls between people,'' Eudora Welty writes in the preface to her book of photographs. The faces in those photographs, Miss Welty explains, are full of meaning, more truthful, more terrible, more noble than any generalization could describe. They tell the story of life. It was to learn more about this story that Miss Welty began writing fiction.
Eighty-two-year-old Eudora Welty has been writing for some 55 years. Her stories and her novels occupy a significant place in American letters. She is considered one of the two or three most important women writers that our country has ever produced. Interviewed frequently by scholars and journalists, Miss Welty has earned both popular and critical acclaim.
Both her short story collections and her novels have made the best-seller lists. Her memoir, ''One Writer's Beginnings,'' (three lectures delivered at Harvard, later published as a book) remained a best-seller for 46 weeks, something almost unheard of for this type of work. Her novel, ''The Optimist's Daughter,'' won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Her short stories and essays are featured in almost every anthology of American literature.
Miss Welty, moreover, has received many other distinguished literary and academic honors. These include six O'Henry Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the American Book Award, the National Medal for Literature and several honorary doctorates. Now she is to receive another highly prestigious award, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Born in 1909, the daughter of a school teacher and an insurance executive, Miss Welty has fond memories of growing up in the small town of Jackson, Mississippi. Although she spent a childhood reading books, with ''poetry running through my head,'' Miss Welty didn't think of writing as a way for woman to earn a living.
In fact, there wasn't much a woman could do to earn a living in the late 20s and early 30s, except teach or work in a business office, she says. Not wanting to teach, Miss Welty decided to go to the graduate business school of New York's Columbia University. She studied there for one year, when her father's sudden death forced her to return home to Jackson. Back in Mississippi in 1931, she found a job writing publicity releases and taking photographs for the Works Progress Administration.
Those photographs showed her the eloquence of the human body and the human face. Furthermore, she says, that eloquence allowed her to see the Depression, the South, the sorry state of the world and the story of life. Above all, it taught her that ''we are the breakers of our own hearts . . .''
''I learned quickly enough when to click the shutter,'' she continues, ''but what I was becoming aware of more slowly was a story-writer's truth: The moment in which people reveal themselves.'' The snapshot, she adds, is a moment's glimpse into that truth. Fiction, though, is a long look, a growing contemplation.
Realizing that she needed to ''find out about people and their lives,'' she began writing stories -- ignoring the fact that writing was not considered a profession open to women. (Women's lib, she has said later, does not apply at all to women writers. ''We've always been able to do what we've wished.'') Miss Welty, however, had little success in placing her early stories and received dozens of rejection slips.
Then in 1936, Manuscript, a little but highly respected magazine, accepted ''Death of a Traveling Salesman,'' and brought her work to the attention of eminent writers like Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter and Ford Madox Ford. A few years later, The Atlantic published her fiction. By 1942 when she received her first O'Henry Award, she had a national -- soon to be international -- audience.
From her first short stories, collected as ''A Curtain of Green,'' Miss Welty had focused on the intricacies of the interior life. Inward and separate journeys, she observes, lead us through time. It is only when our separate journeys converge, that we experience the charged dramatic fields of life.
The story, itself, is one of those charged fields. A work built of imagination and words, the story comes about, Miss Welty says, when the creative mind is moved by the magnetic, the alarming, the overwhelming person, place or thing. So moved, the writer seeks language as the medium to praise, to call up, to prophesy, to love.
Ultimately, she explains, all great writing comes out of love: Writing out of love, we bring what is told alive. Writing out of love, we see each other's wonder, each other's human plight, each other's presence. Writing out of love, as Miss Welty realized nearly 60 years ago, we part the curtain that falls between people.
Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.