Last Saturday a friend of twenty years, asked if the stories I have written for this blog are true. They are. Because I have the kind of big blended family and unusual ancestry that represents the diversity of the United States, I have a deep well from which to draw. If I ever write fiction here or tell a story other than my own or create an imagined ending for one that started as truth, you’ll know.
But back to last Saturday. Her question led to a discussion about when we became interested in stories and how differently our minds work in creating them. L. is a talented short story and non-fiction writer. Maybe in the future she’ll offer her thoughts in a guest post here.
But today I’m going to tell you how my mind started shaping stories because it might lead those of you who believe you’re not creative enough to come up with a song lyric, a short story, a novel or a narrative painting to think again.
When I was a kid learning to read, I preferred the newspaper to school primers. Every day I studied three sections of The Virginian-Pilot: the comics, Ann Landers and the obituaries.
My affinity for the obituaries started when I was young and still small enough to sit on my maternal grandmother’s lap as she read some of them to me. In my adult mind, it seems that everyday she knew at least one name that appeared on that page. After she read the notice, she would elaborate with what she knew or heard of that person. She never spoke ill of the dead. She did, however, list trials and tribulations not included in the bio. A run-away husband. Bouts of diverticulitis. A stillborn child. A face burned by an exploding cook stove. A loved one killed in the Great War. Back then I might not have understood the specifics of these revelations, but I sensed that they mattered.
All of this fascinated me so much more interesting than the See-Spot-Run books my brother read in first grade. Although I didn’t know the language to use, I understood how obituaries, especially the way my grandmother presented them, held more plot and deeper characterizations.
Every so often – let’s say two months because a kid does not have a good concept of time unless he’s being sent to bed – my grandmother would gasp upon seeing certain names. “Oh,” she would cry, “Freddie Rogers died.” She would shake her head, “He loved me so!” before telling me how handsome he was. Or she would exclaim, “Jimmy Murphy! He wanted to marry me, but my mother didn’t like him.” I liked to imagine these boys hanging around my grandmother, begging for her attention, adoring her the way I did.
Months turned into years, and still my grandmother would spot the name of a former love, and it appeared she had more boyfriends than Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe could ever expect to have. It seemed a bit much for a woman so devoted to God and her evangelical faith and the radio sermons of Ernest Amsley.
Finally, I said, “Grandma! How could you have so many boyfriends? You got married at fourteen.” She pursed her lips, closed her eyes and smiled.
So you can see why my fondness for obits continued long after I was too old to sit on her lap, on past her dying at age 83 and still remains with me today.
As a writer, I see every obituary as a story in need of details. If I read of a man who is survived by eight children, all scattered across the country, I wonder why not even one child stayed at home. Where they all trying to escape horrors of poverty and abuse? What regrets did he carry to his death?
Or a woman doctor who died at 90, never married, and spent her life doing medical research? What kind of family did she come from that encouraged her studies in an age when homemaking was the usual career of choice? And how did her family make or inherit so much money that they could afford to buy so many years of education? Had she ever been in love? Had a broken heart? Did she live with a lover? Or a house full of cats? There are always so many questions to ask, blanks to fill in.
Of course, it’s impossible to know the full story of anyone’s life, even those loved ones you know better than anyone else. But it is possible to take the clues offered in an obituary and make it a story of your own.
Go on. Try it. You’ll see.