Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Family Stories

When I was growing up, my father used to tell me stories.  I do not recall him or my mother reading to me, though I am sure that they did when I was very young, but I hold many fond memories, especially on long car rides, or sitting on the porch at Grandma's, of his telling me, my sister, and brother tales of his youth.  Some stories were his, but others were those his father told him or the tall tales that his grandfather was known for.  Great yarns of family ghosts and buried treasures and renegade cowboys from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.  All these stories involved family, and telling them to yet another generation was a way of holding onto those who had gone before.

I never knew my grandfather.  He died before I was born.  I only vaguely remember my great-grandfather as he died when I was three.  But because of the tales I've heard all my life that they told, or stories that were told about them, I know them both very well.

For the last couple of days, I have been alone with my parents at their lake house repairing damage from Hurricane Irene.  No Internet, no children, just my parents and their stories.  My father is heavily into geneaology.  He took a class on memoir writing recently and has been busily typing away all his old tales and his memories into his computer.  So, I helped him start a blog where he could easily share these treasures with the rest of the family -- including his many grandchildren who will read only if it is on the Internet.  We've spent a lot of time the last couple of days discussing his memories, along with my mother's.

And through recounting my father's well-loved stories, I remembered one of my own.  My grandmother used to tell me how she and my grandfather had met.  It was a story I always cherished, perhaps because it involved such an unusual way to meet, perhaps because my grandmother was so dear to me, or perhaps because it helped me feel closer to this man that she obviously loved and I'd never known.  But, for whatever reason, a few years ago, I decided to turn that family story into a book.  I pieced it together with another story from my grandmother's youth and a memory from my father about a rumor circulating in the small-town he'd grown up in during World War II.  Together, the three intwined into a plot, which would not have been a fictionalized biography of their lives, but would have had touching points.

In a fevered rush of excitement, and with memories of my grandmother raining down on me from her picture on my parents' mantel, I wrote the first three chapters of that book in a few hours.  I then plotted out the synopsis.  Reading over it, the intended story brought tears to me.  The couple of times I've picked it up and read it since that night a few years ago, it has always done the same.

But, I set it aside.  I never pursued writing it beyond the first three chapters and synopsis because I thought no one but my immediate family would ever want to read it, and I was pursuing publication.  New York publication.  My story did not fit into a neat bookstore category.  It was not YA, not fantasy, not romance.   Aside from one aspect, it was a quiet story, but one of emotional depth.  It was, is, unlike anything I've ever written before or will likely ever write afterward.

Last night, I spent two hours talking with my father, answering his questions about self-publishing his memoirs and family history.  The good news, I told him, is that now it is easier than ever to get stories like yours out.  Stories that may not have the large market New York is seeking, but still deserve to be published.

Then today, my mother took me on a road trip to visit with aunts and uncles.  My 86-year-old uncle lives beside a key setting in that story I abandoned long ago and he remembers when it was still in operation.  We talked about it, and he gave me insight to help me visualize the setting better.  At another home, my aunt shared pictures and memories of my cousin who died way too young this past year.  The stories help her remember him and keep his spirit alive.  With both visits, we retold old family stories, of loved ones long gone, but never, ever forgotten because of the stories we tell.

JK Rowling has said many times that Harry Potter changed significantly after her mother's death.  If her mother had not died, Harry Potter would not have been the story it is today.

She incorporated bits of personal and family hsitory throughout her series.  The Ford Anglia which Ron and Harry hijaked to Hogwarts in Chamber of Secrets was exactly the car owned by one of Rowling's best friends which used to carry her to freedom in her teen years.  Snape teaches potions because Jo never cared for Chemistry.  She and Harry share the same birthday.  The Dementors, we know, were born of her personal experience with depression as a single mother living on the British welfare system.  Like Harry and Ginny, Jo's parents met on a train platform.  And as any fan can tell you, Jo put a lot of herself into Hermione.

As writers, is it possible to ever write a story that we pour nothing of ourselves into?

And yet, I had pushed off one of the stories into which I had poured so much of my personal history because of fear of the market.

To me, this is the beauty of the e-book revolution.  The journey my father has unintentionally taken me on the last couple of days, back into the memories of the beloved tales of my childhood, has reminded me why I am a storyteller today, like my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather before me.  My fathers told tales of their lives, of people they knew and loved best.  I tell stories of fictional characters inspired by those I know and love.  They told stories to keep memories alive, to pass along heritage.  I tell stories to awaken spirits and remind us of our connection, even if it is not by blood.

Because from one culture to another, from one age to the new, from my family to yours, Story is what unites us all.  Story is the power of meaning that flows eternally through the human blood.

And now, once again, my little family story that I love so dearly, but abandoned out of fear that it would never sell, is once again beating in my heart and filling my mind with possibilities.  I sit here, at 12:30 a.m., instead of sleeping, with ideas clammoring to get out, bits and pieces of dialogue, snapshots of setting, whisps of emotion.  (Of course, my lack of sleep could also have something to do with the coffee my mom serves which I am unused to. :-)

Coffee or not, my family story is running through my veins.  This time, I will open myself to it.  I am no longer afraid.