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.
In 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.