In writing these more-or-less weekly essays I often use some incident or encounter from the past as a foundation. I can recall details of conversations and events that may date from my childhood or from some other time long ago. It is a skill that has served me well when doing research for technical and educational films. Now, writing fiction, that ability to recall not just words, but time and place and action helps me create characters with dimension, and scenes or settings that give breadth to a character or an event. I think it is a skill a lot of people possess, but don’t always use, especially when recounting a bit of family history. And everyone, it seems, loves history. Especially when it is their own.
There are others who love that kind of recall. More than once I’ve had people tell me stories from their family, ending with “you ought to write that.” Well, no, You ought to write that. Those are your stories, from your family and your life. It isn’t all that hard. You simply write the story as you recall it, then add as much detail as you can to give the people and events dimension.
My mother undertook to write her story when she was in her 80s (she lived to be 96), and which she had printed for the family (by then including many grandchildren and great grandchildren, cousins and nieces and nephews). An immigrant in 1912 at the age of six, dropped into a small Southern town where her father had prepared the way, she and her mother spoke no English, had no exposure to any place bigger than a Russian farm village. Her story of how she became an American in every way, including a genuine Southern accent, was legend in our family. An accomplished (but mostly unpublished) writer in her own lifetime, she left a priceless inheritance for her family. As our family increases with the addition of spouses and progeny, her little booklets about her life will keep her story alive, and give substance to memory.
How difficult is it to do the same with your own stories? Not really hard at all. To begin, take something from the past, a photograph, a special plate or spoon, at tool from great-grandfather’s workbench, virtually anything that has a story of its own. Hold it, touch and turn it, study its dimensions and picture it in use, or sitting in a special place on the mantel or corner cabinet. Describe the object. Be aware of every detail that you can see or feel or recall. Remember when you first saw it, who told you what it was, where it was kept. It’s the little things that give life to an object. Now you have set the scene.
From that starting point, expand your story. Write about the people who handled the object or who are in the photo or painting. Put down details of who, what, where, when and if you know, why. You will find yourself recalling far more than you had expected, far better than you remembered when you began.
And don’t worry about the words. If you think your spelling or grammar is not up to a standard, there are two things you can do about it. Especially if you are using a word processor, there are tools available at the click of a mouse to check both of those things. Or, you can simply write what you want, in your own voice, and not think about what letter goes where, or what ending a word needs to agree with the words around it. I’m not recommending that you pay no attention to those things, of course. Doing it right will make the reading experience better for your audience, but the main thing is to get the story down, get it right. Make it beautiful later if you wish. The main thing is getting it down.
Tell me a story.