I Met You through Your Words

I really didn’t know my maternal grandparents.  I mean, I met them when I was little… like 4 or 5 years old.  But through the agony of broken family politics, I basically never saw or heard from them again once my parents got divorced.

When I re-established contact with my biological mother, around when I was 18 years old or so, my grandparents had already passed away.  I learned this during the first face-to-face interaction I’d had with my mother since I was a young kid.  It was also during this visit that my mother learned I was a writer (she really didn’t know me).  Upon learning this, she went to a box, pulled out an old folder and handed it to me.  I opened it up and found it to be filled with yellowed notebook pages covered in fading pencil marks.

It was my grandmother’s writing notebook.

imageIn these pages, I met my grandmother.  I know, I said in the first paragraph here that I had already met her when I was a toddler but here, in these 50-year old pages, I truly met my grandmother in her own words.  There were short stories, poems, songs, journal pages… a plethora of words and emotions and opinions which I never would have guessed belonged to the white-haired, soft-spoken woman I could call up from the remnants of 5-year-old-Rob’s memory.

I remembered my grandmother as being compassionate when I was injured and bleeding after the latch on the car door broke and I tumbled out of the car, somehow having the strength and wherewithal to grab onto the door handle and hold on so that I wouldn’t end up in the middle of the highway (we didn’t have seatbelts back then)… but I also remembered her as stern and unforgiving if I took an extra cookie or tracked mud into the house.  I remembered her as always deferring to my grandfather’s opinion on things.  But even those memories felt distant to me – almost fictional or fake – because so much time had passed since I’d seen or interacted with her. Basically, I didn’t know her.  I knew of her.  And yet, here in this folder, she was alive, young and vibrant.  She was witty. She was opinionated. She showed off an ironic sense of humor and a passion for life.  For the brief moment I held that folder, I was with her. I asked my mother if this was how she was in real life and the answer was yes – she was funny and dynamic and all the things I was reading.

Then my mother took the folder back and I never saw it again (and now that my mother has passed away, I doubt I ever will).

After having experienced my grandmother’s writing, I took a good look at my own.  How much of “me” was going onto the page when I wrote a story?  If, long in the future, my children’s children were to look through my own fading pages, would they get to meet me or would they just see words on a page?  I realized that while my poetry was pretty good at telling who I was (an angst-y teenaged boy with trust issues and a distinct love of food and advanced math), my prose was pretty bad at it. Sure, if I wrote a piece about monsters and murders and the like, that couldn’t really be who I was since I wasn’t a monster or a murderer… but I should still be able to put a piece of me into the story somewhere, right?

I feel like I became a better writer when I started to include bits of my own personality in the text.  It could be as simple as the now-expected comments about how awesome coffee is. It could be a character who blatantly expresses my own opinions on politics or religion.  It could be a sports team with the same propensity for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as my preferred sports teams have.  Maybe I’m fooling myself a bit in thinking that it has added a layer to the writing which was absent before, but I truly believe that my stories are better with a little bit of me be in them. At this point, I don’t even think about it – it just happens naturally.

I never had a chance to know my grandmother, but through her words I was able to meet her and my life is more complete because of it. I’d be curious to know what you think about the subject.  Do you see bits of yourself in your writing?  Do you make an effort to put your opinions and thoughts on the world into the text of your fiction pieces?  Do you feel it is important or helpful to make your fictional worlds have this real-life connection, even if it is slight?

Whatever the answers, just keep writing… because I’d like to be able to get to know you better through your words.

10 thoughts on “I Met You through Your Words

  1. Well said. I tried to keep a diary for about two weeks and stopped. It all sounded so boring! I have digital copies of all my early writing–stories no one’s read–and I can’t imagine my kids going through them. Odd. Maybe if they were in a folder, like your Grandma’s.

    • Well, I go back and read some of my old stuff and in some cases it’s just downright embarrassing… in other cases it’s pretty awesome to see and remember where I was at that point in my life. I have hard copy of most things I wrote in high school or earlier… before computers were common… In college, I found my way to an OCR scanner and was able to scan most of it in (though since I typed all of it on a very old manual typewriter, some of the scanned characters were unintelligible).

      My kids have read several things I wrote back then… mostly stories. One of them commented that I was “weird”… and that’s how I knew they read it correctly. They claimed to enjoy the pieces, too… and I believe them because they are not at all afraid to tell me when they don’t like the things I do.

  2. Interesting way to think of it! I have been noticing it in the reverse with my own writing… That is, when my writing feels more solid/better it usually contains random pieces of things I have seen or heard or of my life (“of me” as you said) in it, but I had never thought of intentionally setting out to put “me” in every piece as a starting place to make my writing better. I will definitely have to experiment with that!!

  3. In a fit of pseudo-Puritan self-censorship, I destroyed quite a bit of my drug-induced and hormone-enhanced early journals and other writings.

    I wish I hadn’t.

  4. What a touching story. I love that you’ve met your grandmother through her writing and then added the texture of yourself to your own work. To glean so much from a folder of old writing, to see the person who was your grandmother and then sense the legacy you might leave your children—that’s a compelling reason to write.
    I spent many days with my grandparents but was too young to really be in their company. We were in the same room, me bored, them involved with their tasks. Now that they are long gone, I so ache to talk to them and ask the questions I wish I’d been wise enough to compose when I was ten.
    As for who shows up in my stories—I fear I am too much present. I think I should step aside and become more clinical. But maybe you’re right. The tone of the writer’s voice is perhaps what marks a good story as so much better than a sterile observation. We might all let go a little more.

    • I knew one set of my grandparents when I was growing up (they were alive until I was half-way through college). The other sets of grandparents were largely unknown to me when I was old enough to be able to interact with them well. At least with my maternal grandmother, I was able to meet her later in this personal, touching way.

  5. I have to admit that pieces of me are in all of my stories and poems. I enjoyed the piece Rob. Thanks for sharing something so personal

  6. My main character almost always ends up being a lot like me, and all of the other ‘good guys’ in my story share similar worldviews. I think that my writing tends to pull from my inner dialogue, the ugly stuff that doesn’t come out often, which is why I write–as my friends put it–dark humor. When you read my work, you see in my ‘good guys’ the good part of me, in my ‘bad guys’ the bad part, and in my storyline the ugly.

    • I have always said that writing was my mechanism for “getting it out”… the good, the bad and the ugly would get onto the page and out of my head… because in my head, it could do nothing but cause trouble. I usually could turn the darker things into somewhat less dark things by injecting ridiculous humor bits into it or by sending everyone into a coffee shot to hash it out over a nice latte, but sometimes there was nothing that could lighten the mood. And that’s okay… my writing habit is much, much cheaper than therapy would be. at least for now.

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