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.

Dot to Dot

In autumn 1991 I was an observer but not yet a writer. I drove my eleven-year-old son and his friend up Interstate 5 where it traversed the Tejon Ranch approaching Bakersfield. The mountains rose like brown whales from an arid sea of olive chaparral. We weren’t there to view California in its austere native splendor. We’d gone to see the Umbrellas.

Environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude had installed almost 1800 twenty-six-foot-tall yellow umbrellas flanking the hillsides along the highway. They popped open, polypropylene mushrooms blooming overnight in fairy rings and staggered parades. Up close an umbrella’s oversized ribs and golden sails loomed large enough to shelter our entire family. At a distance they tumbled across the landscape like lemon gumdrops.

We drove from site to site along the main route spotting umbrella clusters on the highway shoulders. A loopy side road took us to a solitary umbrella wading in a pond, its reflection making two.  Hundreds more scattered on the ruffled hem of the foothills. Dozens trooped like scouts up a far ridgeline, growing a spiky mane for the mountain. One perched inaccessibly on a craggy rock between the divided highway. Everywhere they posed on the terrain, hundreds of people traipsed to peer and touch the umbrellas.

I became more and more irritated by the crowds. Who were these people in their cars and trucks, picnicking by the roadside, hauling cameras as big as jackhammers, mucking up my sightlines? The boys jumped from rock to rut, ran around the steel masts of nearby umbrellas, and popped up and down like groundhogs in February. If the significance of the exhibit was lost on them, they exploited the carnival-like opportunities of the moment and had fun. But I wanted the full sensory experience, to see the umbrellas singular against the modern world. I wanted to guzzle the essence of the event, filling myself with Art.

At our last stop the wind picked up in staggering gusts. Fat raindrops suggested I must soon begin the two hour trek home. Glancing up to spot folks wandering around a cluster of umbrellas, I finally got it. People—moving, bending, pointing—filled in the negative spaces between umbrellas, adding a kinetic element to still giants. Tourists, art critics, and serendipitous travelers were as essential as the square platforms that secured the flaring umbrellas. They were art. My son and his friend were art. I was art.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude planned their project, publicized it, and convinced landowners to allow them to mount their work. They didn’t tell us, the viewers, the whole truth. We weren’t union members collecting our per diem and threatening to strike if the conditions got bad, but we were a crucial part of the art. Without us wandering among the golden forest, the umbrellas would have been just an outcropping of gigantic manufactured fungi, as misplaced as whales in the desert.

I grinned driving home through the rain, tired boys sleeping in the back seat. How brilliant were the two artists. If they’d proposed their project along traditional access lines, they would still be mired in legalities, trying to close contracts and avoid suits, sign here and you can officially be artwork. Instead, they’d simply opened umbrellas where people could not only view them but walk close enough to touch. I hadn’t just gotten to see Christo’s Umbrellas. I’d gotten to be the exhibit. Yellow dot to yellow dot, I connected and completed the spectacle.

It has been decades. The umbrellas are gone, the boys grown, I am a writer. Like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, I begin my work in isolation, researching and outlining, revising and deleting, dreaming story. When ready for presentation I invite friends and critiquers to read. If I am half as smart as the artists, I’ve left space for readers to take shelter in my words. Like the viewers along Interstate 5, my readers connect the dots. As the artists trusted me, I trust those who become immersed in my writing to fill in the blanks. They inhabit my protagonist’s life, walk my story arc, and contribute their interpretation to my work. A volume of dried ink becomes a living entity we share.

Competent writers know to excise bathroom trips, grocery shopping, toenail clipping, and meaningless dialogue. Writing every possible activity a character might engage in squeezes the reader out of the book. Worse, a pedantic pace dumps the story into a well of boredom, leaving no place for a reader to lodge. My partner closes the book. How to create that living space for readers is as much a part of my writing process as vocabulary choice, character development, plot sequence, and crisis resolution.

I am an observer and I write about everything. I often struggle to recognize when the carefully crafted passage is dispensable. Weeks of creating the perfect scene, hours of evaluating content, only to realize it doesn’t contribute to my story. Unessential, contrived, a distraction without purpose, I discard the chaff. Better to leave the space open and trust my reader to fill in the blanks. Christo and Jeanne-Claude taught me through engagement with their art how to write enough for the reader leap from dot to dot but not to run all the bases. Leave vital space. Readers are more engaged when they sense their presence within my story. Readers become the story.

Once, I got to see the Umbrellas. Years later I apply the lesson of vital space to my writing. What life experience has influenced your writing?

Be well, friend.