On the joy and tears of writing

Alice Walker feted purply at the Pratt

October 19, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

The sharecroppers' daughter scrawled words into the dirt with a stick. Later, she graduated to a spiral notebook and, eventually, a laptop.

Now, more than a half-century after she began, the writer Alice Walker has yet to stem the flow of words that document the world in its beauty and injustice.

Walker, the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, came to the Enoch Pratt Free Library yesterday to accept the eighth annual Lifetime Literary Achievement Award. Past winners of the $10,000 prize (paid for with private funds) include Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison and John Updike.

"Writing is joyful," the 60-year-old Walker told a group of donors in a private reception before the ceremony. "No matter how many tears may be falling over the page, it is so joyful to cull it into being."

Though she has written 23 works ranging from essays to children's literature, Walker's most famous novel is The Color Purple, which in 1983 won the Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award. In 1985, the book was made into an acclaimed film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.

Now, The Color Purple has been adapted for the stage as a musical and is expected to open on Broadway next fall. Last month, the show had its world premiere in Atlanta, and Walker was in the audience. The trip had extra resonance because she was raised in Georgia.

"I fled Atlanta in the 1960s because of the horrible racism and the great stress of trying to change a system so corrupt and evil," Walker said.

"But Atlanta is very, very different now. I was delighted to see Atlantans and people from the rest of the state sit and look at what is part of our common history. This is something that 40 years ago was just unheard of. We are evolving in our ability to be human to one another."

In honor of the author and her seminal novel, the Central Library was decorated tastefully in a purple theme. Irises rested in individual vases, and the tablecloths varied between an eggplant-colored satin and a subdued violet plaid. Even the fruit adorning the salads and dessert - raspberries and strawberries - seemed to take on a lilac hue. But perhaps it was just a trick of the light.

Most things in life are, the author said, one way or the other.

The youngest of eight children, she was partially blinded at age 8 when her brother accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun. Her embarrassment at the resulting scar, which was removed surgically years later, helped develop her writer's eye.

"She withdrew from the rest of the world and became a meticulous observer of human relationships," the philanthropist Sylvia Brown said in her introduction of Walker.

The budding author's resolve later was bolstered by three gifts from her beloved mother: a sewing machine so she could make her own clothes, a suitcase so she had something to pack them in and a typewriter that provided her with the means of escape.

But it was Walker's brothers, with their never-ending torments, who first taught her to edit her own work.

"There are writers who write something and then scratch it out and then throw it away," she said, making a tossing motion over her shoulder.

"But I had brothers who, if I didn't take a lot of care, would grab up what I wrote and destroy it. So I learned to compose huge things in my mind.

"When I wrote my first novel, I rewrote it five times or more. In the last draft, there was one sentence that was the same as it was in the original - and I crossed it out. But when I wrote The Color Purple, the pages in my notebook looked just like the pages of the finished manuscript. It was like I had been carrying this pretty much complete piece in my head."

Even in conversation, Walker's writing gifts are readily apparent. Each question elicits an elaborate, articulate, beautifully composed answer that ranges over topics including holistic medicine, the prison system and the destruction of the rain forests. A second question inspires a reply that touches upon Buddhism, gardening and genital mutilation.

At one point, she catches herself and apologizes. "I'm so sorry if this is heavy-duty," she says - and then immediately takes it back. "But it's reality."

It is the fate of a writer as political as Walker to constantly bump up against grievous problems that she cannot solve. But she has learned not to be overwhelmed by them.

"If you can accept that you're always starting at the beginning," she said, "you can avoid a certain kind of despair."

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