ONE WRITER’S ROOTS
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.
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,
proud and arrogant,
misunderstood and lonely
or (in the language of an era before political correctness)
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.