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April 26, 2011

A week or so ago Gretchen mentioned a room in London’s Natural History Museum. She cited it as an example that inspiration is all around us, just waiting to be recognized. So true. Sometimes an idea will spring to life unexpectedly when we are removed from our usual surroundings. On the other hand, sometimes (most of the time for me) it comes from much closer to home.

Meet the McGee girls, five sisters who grew up on a farm in Missouri during the Dust Bowl years. The one on the left is my mother, the other four my aunts.

When I was a little girl, I loved to sit so still that I felt invisible and listen to my mother and my aunts talk about their lives, the people they’d known and the things they’d seen. You know the book that claims “everything I really need to know I learned in kindergarten”? I think everything I really need to know about writing, I learned from those family stories.

I wasn’t very old when I noticed that, even though they were all talking about the same event or the same person, certain details changed and, with different details, it was a different story. Without realizing it, I had just learned a valuable lesson about writing: the devil is in the details. A cliché? Yes, but true. Isn’t that why cliches become cliches?

There was a mysterious neighbor whose land touched my grandparents’ back pasture. He lived alone in a big house that my cousins and I were convinced was haunted (a conviction the sisters did nothing to discourage). Every sister had a different story to tell about him. Depending on the narrator, he was:

bad to the bone,

painfully shy,

proud and arrogant,

misunderstood and lonely

or (in the language of an era before political correctness)

a nutcase.

I wondered how the sisters could have such diverse perceptions of this man. Five girls had grown up in the same house, with the same parents, had been taught the same values, had known the same person and, yet, each seemed to describe someone totally unique. Another lesson for a writer-to-be: the power of point of view.

It even occurred to me that there might be five brothers with identical faces and different personalities. How else could five sisters have such varied accounts of the same person? I longed to know this man, to see which sister had it right. Eventually, I understood that they were all right. Each had seen a different side of the same complex person and each had filtered what they had seen through their own set of complexities. So I learned the most important lesson of all – that every human being is a puzzle and the writer’s challenge is to keep adding pieces until all the baffling inconsistencies merge into a recognizable whole. Do that, and you’ll have a character who lives beyond your pages and a story worth listening to.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2011 7:40 PM

    What a wonderful story, Sandy! I also love the photo of these five pretty sisters. I was the middle of three sisters and always gravitated to the women at family gatherings; they were the ones with the interesting stories about real lives. I think it was there that I learned to love “story.” And I still do! If there is a story involved, I am interested…and everyone’s life contains at least one fascinating story. Thanks for getting to the heart of what lies behind every novelist or novelist-to-be!

  2. April 27, 2011 8:14 AM

    Gretchen, I envy you. I don’t have a sister and was always fascinated by the bond between my mother and her sisters. I agree that it is the women who tell the stories and keep the family history alive.

  3. Marielena permalink
    April 27, 2011 11:27 AM

    Thank you, Sandy, for sharing such a rich and wonderful family story! It resonated deeply for me. I have always loved family stories, the telling and re-telling of them, that bond us together and reinforce who we are. As individuals, I love the idea that family members filter those stories through their own backgrounds and beliefs, and that as writers, we can create characters with complexity who view the world and life in many different ways. Brava on such a well-written and insightful piece, Sandy! (PS: Loved the photo, too!)

  4. April 27, 2011 1:02 PM

    Thanks, Marielena. That old photo is a favorite of mine. I think of them as my five muses.

  5. April 27, 2011 2:09 PM

    … loved this! I wish I had been a mouse at your house!

  6. April 27, 2011 3:39 PM

    I wish you had been too, Beate. You’d have been the perfect baby sister I always wanted. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. April 27, 2011 10:33 PM

    I love your insight.

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