In loving memory of Dr. William S. Bryant (November 9, 1943 - August 5, 2019).
The Last Resort never would have been published without Bill Bryant.
Shortly after his article about John C. Goodlett appeared in the Kentucky Journal of the Academy of Science in 2006, Billy—as I had always heard him called—got word to me that he would be talking about the paper at a meeting of the Anderson County Historical Society. Since I was working in Lexington at the time, I contacted Bobby Cole, my dad’s good friend and fellow architect of Camp Last Resort, and offered to take him to the meeting.
When we arrived, I saw that at least one more of my dad’s Lawrenceburg High School classmates was there: W. J. Smith. It was a remarkable evening of two generations sharing stories and reminiscences. I was astonished that, more than 40 years after his death, my dad’s contributions to the scientific community had prompted both Bill’s article and this hometown gathering.
They’re all gone now—Bobby, W. J., George Jr., Lin Morgan, Rinky, John Allen, Jody—and now Bill Bryant is gone, too.
Before the article was published, I had had no idea that Bill was working on it, no idea that he had been talking to my dad’s old colleagues (Reds Wolman, Alan Strahler, and Sherry Olson, for example). I now understand that Bill had discovered the very correspondence between my father and his Harvard Forest mentor, Hugh Raup, that I reviewed in detail just last month.
In short, I had no idea that there was still any interest in my father or his work. But what I learned was that Bill knew more about my father than I did.
Twice he led me out to my dad’s old camp on Salt River. I had never been there before. It had evidently never occurred to anyone else in those 40 years that I might like to see the place that was so special—almost sacred—to my father.
A few years later, as I worked on the book, Bill patiently reviewed various sections for accuracy. He encouraged me. He believed what I was doing had value.
He also nudged me to include more about my mother in the book. I remember Bill visiting our home in the 1970s, talking with my mother, going over materials related to my dad’s work. I didn’t fully understand then what his interest was. But he was obviously taken with my mother’s intelligence, her courage, and her struggles to raise two daughters alone.
In the end, though, I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate more of her story into The Last Resort. I promised Bill I had another project dedicated to her. It pains me that he’ll never get to read the novel I wrote about her father. Bill loved reading fiction and he loved history. I think he would have been interested in my telling of this Kentucky tale.
I feel, in a way, that I’ve lost another family member—yet one more of the few remaining connections to my father. Just as I wrote recently that I wish I could have walked the woods with Pud and gleaned a thing or two from all that he knew about its inhabitants, so I wish I could have walked the woods one more time with Bill.
Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., reminds us of the human truths we can uncover from personal letters. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
A couple of years into my pursuit of an undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, I was threatened with summary expulsion. No, it wasn’t my grades; I had finagled my way into the honors program and maintained high marks. And no, it wasn’t my youthful predilection to juvenile delinquency—I was too busy studying to sustain that lifestyle. Rather, as the registrar’s office curtly informed me, I had failed to declare a major prior to the onset of my junior year.
Two days before the deadline, I met with a professor who would become a mentor and friend until the end of his life. Professor Paul L. Murphy—constitutional historian; social-justice advocate; Pulitzer Prize finalist; and gentleman—took an early interest in me. Professor Murphy and his wife would often invite me to dinner at their home where I was accepted as a “sibling” to his two daughters. What he saw in me, I don’t know. But his guidance in any number of issues always gave me clarity.
What did he say?
“Timothy,” he intoned, “what academic major other than history will allow you to read, analyze, and discuss other people’s letters and diaries?” It wasn’t advice, it was an observation. And I was sold. The next afternoon, 30 minutes before being asked to pack my bags, I entered “history” as my major.
I haven’t looked back.
Nor did I think much about this incident until the passing of my grandmother some years later. When my father and I cleaned out her home after her death, we found stacks of notebooks comprising my grandmother’s diary, which she had maintained from the age of 8. Her entries were initially written in Gaelic, the tongue of her native Ireland, and then suddenly transformed into proper English after she settled in the U.S. as a young immigrant. Finally, barely 10 days before cancer’s ultimate victory, she just as suddenly returned to her native language. Indeed, this recapitulation to Gaelic happened mid-sentence. Her final entries were all in Gaelic.
When I read those diaries, I recalled Professor Murphy’s observation.
Recently, I again remembered my mentor’s words when Sallie Showalter forwarded to me a file of her father’s correspondence from the Harvard Forest’s archival collections. I cannot describe the excitement I had scanning through Pud’s letters. Let me try to explain.
In them we see the arc of his relationships with family and friends, as well as his professional interactions and scientific observations. But more importantly we see the development of a “voice,” of an academic rueful and wry one minute, proper and scholarly the next. I read them and felt as if this absent and unknown man, a man I have known of since I was 15 years old but never met, was speaking to me. And I like him, enormously. I understand his world-vision, his striving, and his occasional self-doubt. But it is his humor—and his horrible handwriting—that sing to me.
Letters and diaries do that to you.
So let me end in a plea. In the next few days, I ask you to recover paper and pencil or pen, envelope, and stamp. Think of a loved one, a family member, a friend, or an acquaintance. Write that person a heart-felt letter in your own hand and post it by “snail-mail.” The subject doesn’t matter. It can be humorous or serious, gossipy or informative, apologetic or explanatory.
An unexpected letter may mean more to the recipient than you can anticipate. And you never know what historian will relish your words in some unimagined future.
Ed.--On June 23, 1955, Pud and his colleague John T. Hack were chased off a mountain near Bridgewater, Va., while doing work for the U.S. Geological Survey. They encountered eight other bears while conducting their research, but only one—a mother with two cubs—"attacked." The incident was enshrined in a local newspaper, in family lore, and--as in the following examples--in Pud's own self-deprecating humor.
In the following excerpt from a letter dated June 20, 1956, Pud tries to reassure Dr. Hugh Raup, the director of Harvard Forest who was out of the country for the summer, that all is well at the Forest during his absence.
This part isn’t supposed to be fun.
But, for some reason, it is. Perhaps it’s only because I’m on the front end of the process, and it’s still fresh and new. The rejections haven’t started rolling in yet, overwhelming my inbox.
At this stage, at least, I’m finding it fascinating to research literary agents and small independent presses, trying to discover that perfect fit for my novel. The whole publishing industry seems like a giant corn maze: I just need to take my time, peer around each corner, decide whether to go this direction, or maybe that direction. I expect I’ll find something interesting—even if not useful—either way I go.
It’s an extraordinarily complex business, or so it seems to the uninitiated. There are so many layers, so many ways you could get tripped up. In fact, it may be because the odds seem so long that it feels more like a game than anything of serious import. It’s like playing Monopoly or Risk, where you can go all in without suffering any real consequences. I’m some anonymous sad sack submitting my first-born to a sophisticated, highly literate, beautiful person in New York or Chicago. What can I possibly expect?
They say that the writer-agent relationship is like a marriage. You look for someone you trust, someone you like, someone who shares your taste, someone who has your best interests at heart, someone who will stay with you for the long haul. That seems much more interesting than looking for a business manager. And it shifts the emphasis away from that piece of writing—which can make you morbidly insecure—to the human being who is going to share this journey with you, who will take your hand and guide you through the impenetrable process.
Recently, at the 2019 Books in Progress Conference at the Carnegie Center in Lexington, Ky., I was buoyed by award-winning author Chris Offutt’s approach to this phase of writing. When he was a young man, a graduate of the esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop—someone with talent and credentials and well-known mentors—he struggled to submit his stories to literary journals. His peers prodded him, but he just didn’t think he could face the ego-busting rejections. To flip the script, so to speak, he decided to set a goal for himself: 100 rejections in one year. He was ecstatic as each one arrived in his mailbox. He kept a careful tally. The rejections stacked up. Then one day, the mailman delivered something unexpected: an acceptance letter from the Coe Review. He was crestfallen. Having amassed 86 rejections, he had just missed the goal he had set for himself.
At the same conference, I attended a panel discussion that included a successful young writer and her equally young agent. (I’ve heard the average age of agents is 27, a real obstacle for a woman of a certain age who has written about a middle-aged couple who lived nearly 100 years ago.} The writer revealed that she had searched for an agent for eight years. She kept writing, undeterred, and she kept looking for someone to give her a chance. She and her agent have now enjoyed a 10-year career together. It was clear they have a supportive, mutually beneficial relationship. They poked mild fun at each other and finished each other’s sentences, just like an old married couple.
I can promise you I won’t be that dogged. I’m highly suspect that my lifespan will even extend another eight years, let alone my determination to publish a novel. I’ll be swept away by some other shiny object long before then. Another project. Another hobby. Another way to test my mettle.
But, for the next few months, I’ll do the necessary research. I expect I’ll send scores of query letters and receive an equal number of rejections. I’ll keep Chris Offut’s approach in mind, just to maintain my equanimity. And if something positive happens, I’ll remind myself that finding an interested agent is just the initial step. Then you typically endure another grueling editing process. Then agonize as your book is submitted to publishing houses for new editors to scrutinize. And if you’re really, really lucky, then you get to go through lengthy contractual negotiations and watch helplessly as the publisher’s creative team comes up with a new title and a book cover you’re not sure about. Then it’s time to pore over that final proof, looking for any remaining errors or typos while you secretly fret that the book is no good after all.
Yeah, I’d better grab my fun while I can.
Tim Cooper of Oakdale, Minn., has served as my coach and chief cheerleader as I completed my first novel, Next Train Out. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
I have been fortunate to have observed the writing process Sallie has been engaged in over the last year. To say that it has been an arduous task would be an understatement. But the finished product is a work of art, a work of social relevance, and a work of empathetic exploration that seeks to meld the personal with the historical amid an examination of love and justice.
This past week I have been reading the great Chicago writer Nelson Algren’s essay “Do It the Hard Way.” In this piece, Algren explicates what is “true” in all great writing. He urges authors to be true to themselves and never sell out for the sake of commercial expedience.
But Algren’s essay is so much more than that. Indeed, it can be read as an exhortation to the writer, the reader—to all of us—to seek out and validate the lives of the marginalized and disenfranchised. To listen carefully, uncritically, to their voices, their cadences, and their language and to then relish its uniqueness.
Sallie has two main characters in her novel: her grandfather, Lyons Board, and his fourth wife, Effie Mae. I have told Sallie that I think there is a third major character: language. For, as you will see, Next Train Out is a novel of the vernacular, a novel of linguistic nuance that respects the musings of an Appalachian mother from the coal camps of eastern Kentucky and the sardonic quips of a privileged central Kentucky rake equally.
And beautifully. In his essay, Algren asserts that “if you listen long enough, the commonest speech will begin to ring like poetry. [And] poetry it is, the best and the truest: the poetry of the ball-park and the dance hall, of the drugstore at noon, of the pool room and the corner newsstand, of the Montgomery-Ward salesgirls reminiscing on the streetcar or bus.”
I don’t believe Sallie is as familiar with Nelson Algren’s work as I am, although we have discussed his writing and his life—and Colin Asher’s new biography of Algren—over the past months. I do know, however, that she has somehow internalized Algren’s dictum. Consider these two examples:
Nelson: “I hate t’ see the Spring ‘n Summer come so bad,” she was telling him, “I just don’t seem so good as other people any more. Sometimes I’m that disgusted of myself I think: ‘Just one more dope, that’s you.’ I won’t set up there in that room another Spring alone, thinkin’ stuff like that…I hate t’ see the Spring ‘n Summer come. So bad.” (from "Do It the Hard Way," collected in Entrapment and Other Writings)
Sallie: “Me and Lyons, we’ve been together a long time. At least for me it feels like a long time. Seven years. That’s forever after your last husband was kilt within a year of your marryin’ him, and your first husband proved to be a scoundrel after you birthed him four children. Well, maybe that marriage lasted longer than I remember. I just know I was ready to be rid of ‘im. The traitor.” (Effie Mae in Next Train Out)
Poetry, indeed. Poetry. When you read Sallie’s novel, plunge into the rhythm, the poetry of her writing. Yes, enjoy it on a macro-level—the story is marvelous, the narrative trajectory compulsively readable. But please, please, engage it on the micro-level, too, the level of the sentence, the word. I think we learn more about characters by the way they speak than we do any other way. Each of Sallie’s characters has a distinct voice that propels us to a greater understanding of who he or she is. This is a novel of social relevance that embraces Algren’s call for justice.
It remains only for me to confess something to you: I am a little bit in love with Effie Mae. I think about her often, and I think that I would have been a suitor, too, if the opportunity had presented itself. I know that you, too, will love her, and Lyons, and all of Sallie’s peripheral characters.
Read this novel. Love the characters and their voices. But Effie Mae’s mine.
I have completed a novel. Six months ago I wasn’t sure that I could do it. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to. I had lost confidence. It was requiring too much sacrifice. I had pushed away friends and family. I skipped events and family gatherings so I could work. My aging body was balking at the sedentary lifestyle writing required. I just wasn’t sure I had it in me.
And, now, what is surprising me the most is that I am satisfied with the result. After all that time poring over those characters and those settings and those words, I am not tired of it. I am not eager to leave it behind. I find the book compelling. I enjoy reading it. It doesn’t make me cringe. It makes me happy.
Oh, sure, I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I feel that I have accomplished what I set out to do. I have written a story about my grandfather’s life, as best I could imagine it. I think I have told a good yarn that the reader will want to see through to the end. I have enjoyed crafting sentences that I hope will appeal to those who love words. And I believe I have created two characters who might just stick with you. I expect I’ve made Lyons a little more sympathetic than he actually was, but I had to give the reader a reason to care about him, even if he remains an enigma.
The other surprise turned out to be Effie Mae, Lyons’ fourth wife and the other major character in the book. Everyone who has read any portion of the novel seems to love her. In the beginning, I had no intention of assuming her voice and writing from her point of view. She just came to me one beautiful day while I was sitting on my back patio reading a book about writing. But she is now the glue that holds it all together. Getting to know Effie Mae is a reason to read the book.
Now, after a few days of breathing deeply, I begin the next phase. I have submitted the book to one independent publisher. I have met with one agent and have another meeting scheduled at the end of May. If none of those options pans out, I will begin the hard work of researching agents and trying to persuade one that my book will appeal to readers.
Of course, I have an ace in the hole. I happen to run a little outfit called Murky Press that I know will be interested in publishing this novel. In fact, the sages at Murky Press seemed to portend the challenges, and the joys, of writing it:
“We at Murky Press believe peering into our past may help untangle the present. Trouble is, the past can be mysterious. It can be, well, murky. It takes some effort and some patience to interpret what the past is trying to tell us. And we may still get it all wrong.”
Perhaps it’s my good fortune that with fiction there is no right or wrong. It’s all make-believe—even when it relays the truth. So if I am able to transport the reader to a different place and time, and to inspire some empathy for people whose lives may be unlike ours, then I’m going to kick back and celebrate a job well done.
I don’t believe I’ve ever truly had writer’s block. Sure, there have been many, many times when I’d rather do anything other than the hard work of writing. But, once I finally convince myself to sit down at the computer, once I have some inkling of a topic or a scene in mind, I can usually put words on the page with ease.
I suppose that makes me lucky. Or perhaps just a blowhard. My good fortune comes, I imagine, from the fact that I worked as a writer for many years under various sorts of deadlines. When your paycheck depends on it—or at least your professional reputation—you tend to find a way to deliver. For me, sitting down at the computer is a sign to get busy. The sooner I complete whatever ugly task is staring me in the face, the sooner I can get outside with the dog or tune back in to college basketball (at least this time of year).
Of course, I also know that getting the words on the page is just a start. The fun part, for me, comes after that. I enjoy playing with words, upending sentences, moving the parts of the puzzle around to see what happens. I like to get my writing so “tight,” as some editors call it, that my fiction writing mentor used to call it “airless.” That might be a good thing for a press release or a technical manual, but that’s evidently not a good thing for a novel.
So as I work on this book, I’ve had to learn to give the words room to breathe. I’ve had to give the characters time to fumble around with an idea or a thought. Their communication might not always be the most direct or the most efficient. It may well use more words—sometimes more colorful words—than the expression or the thought actually requires. That at times makes me very nervous. “Cut those unnecessary words!” I hear my invisible editor exclaim. “Make every word pull its weight. Murder your darlings!”
But I’m learning that that approach can make for rather dull reading if you’re trying to create an interesting character. It’s been a tough lesson for me. I’ll discover soon whether I’ve figured it out.
Meanwhile, I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately. That means my brain has been turned to “writing mode” nearly 24 hours a day. Last night, for example, as I lay in bed, I mapped out chapters and wrote snippets of text from 1:30 until 5 a.m. I got up a couple of times and made a few notes. Now, after a couple of hours sleep, we’ll see how much I can capture and actually use.
That’s the disadvantage of finding writing a fairly easy endeavor. Once you turn on the spigot, it’s hard to turn it off. At the moment, though, I need my muse to keep working overtime. I have a deadline looming that I’m determined to make. That should keep me seated, focused, for a few more weeks to come.
By the time I was 14, I had read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I don’t think I was particularly precocious or drawn to novels about war. These books just happened to be in my family’s library, and something I can’t possibly recall prompted me to pull them from the shelf. I’m certain I was a little young to fully appreciate the books, and I need to reread them all.
But I can tell you that these fictional representations of two world wars both fascinated and repelled me. I was horrified by the realities and the inanities of war, and reading these books made me militantly anti-war at a very young age.
As I prepared to write my own novel, I had to dig into each of these wars in a little more depth. The primary character, based somewhere between loosely and explicitly on the grandfather I never knew, served in France during World War I and accepted a job as a civilian at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland during World War II.
I had already spent some time digging into WWII while David Hoefer and I were compiling The Last Resort. But, for the novel, I needed to know particulars, especially about the first few months of America’s involvement and how civilians responded to having the country engaged in yet another war.
WWI was much fuzzier for me, so I’ve done some reading over the past couple of years to catch up. I also had the good fortune of multiple visits to an expansive exhibit about the war, curated by Margaret Spratt, at the Hopewell Museum in Paris, Ky., in 2017. And today I attended a screening of the cinematic wizardry that is the film They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s montage of original film footage transformed by vast teams of immensely talented technicians and then overlaid with excerpts from BBC interviews with soldiers who served during the war. The result is a powerful immersion in the trench warfare experienced by tens of thousands of soldiers, many of them absurdly young. I came away wondering what I always do when I gain a clearer understanding of the brutality of war: how anyone survives intact.
I am by no means a scholar of these two wars. I do not have the depth or breadth of understanding of a curious high school student. But I have tried to grasp some kernel of truth about the sacrifices these men made and the moral lassitude that threatened their souls while fighting in a foreign land for reasons that weren’t always clear against men who in so many ways were just like them. If I have any hope of understanding my grandfather’s story, or my father’s story, I have to peer into that ugly maw, if only from the shelter of my comfortable armchair.
In mid-January, my husband, Rick, slipped on a muddy hillside while walking our dog and fell and broke his arm. It was a simple, clean break, only requiring a basic cast. But it radically—and immediately—altered the ebb and flow of his days.
Rather than spending eight to ten hours a day at work moving heavy boxes of auto parts, he has found himself rattling around the house getting reacquainted with the TV, the washer and dryer, and his computer. He can stay up until midnight, if he chooses, and wake up when he wants. He can ponder home projects we’ve delayed for years, even if we both know we’ll never get around to tackling them.
Some things haven’t changed. He and Lucy continue to take long walks, whether the temperature is 4 or 64. Tuesday nights he still joins the West Sixth Run Club, even if he’s walking rather than running. And, for those of you most concerned about whether he can still churn out hundreds of bourbon balls a week, fear not: he quickly adapted to one-arm candy-making.
He also hasn’t been homebound. Despite the fact that both of our cars have a manual transmission—requiring two hands or, in Rick’s case, one very busy right hand—Rick hasn’t let his temporary disability keep him from his usual gallivanting. One evening he may head to Lexington for a music or cultural event. The next evening he’ll see what’s shaking in Frankfort. If it’s a day ending in “y,” there’s a bourbon celebration somewhere in central Kentucky. And Rick will most likely be there.
As usual, he has taken this unexpected turn of events in stride. He prefers to think of it as “practicing retirement.”
Meanwhile, I have also been navigating a shift in perspective. At the end of 2018, I decided to dedicate the first few months of 2019 to the novel I’ve been working on, with various levels of commitment, for years. I’m close—really close—to finishing it. I’m newly enthusiastic about the work. And I’m trying my best to ignore as many distractions as possible and devote my time to that singular task.
To that end, I recently spent 10 days on a writing retreat in Minnesota under the hawkish eye of my newly minted writing coach, Tim Cooper. Together we scoured every word, every nuance, every historical fact in the first 20 chapters. He offered helpful criticism and much-needed encouragement. As a result, I have renewed confidence that I can get this thing done, and I have a clear plan to get there.
Transitioning from writing nonfiction—in this blog, in op-eds provoked by national events, in materials related to The Last Resort—to fiction has not been easy for me. I’m comfortable writing about factual events and people’s individual and collective responses to them. I feel much more inept at imagining characters and scenes and conflicts and, most importantly, effectively rendering the emotions inherent in each. It has taken some time, and a lot of classroom instruction and mentoring, to help me understand how to capture the human condition, essentially, in words on a page, with the goal of evoking an authentic response from the reader.
Rick may be comfortable behind the wheel of a car right now—reaching across the steering wheel for the turn signal, taking corners by alternately turning the wheel and shifting gears with the same hand—even if I’m not comfortable watching him do it. But I’m paying attention to him, trying to adopt his sanguine approach to an unexpected challenge. I think I can persevere. I hope the result will be a story worth reading.
I come from a family of readers. Serious readers. People who read all the time. I am by far the slacker in the group. If my parents were alive today, I’m sure they would continue to read books despite all the electronic distractions available to them.
My family members also distinguished themselves with skillful writing, although—aside from the two journals by father kept that are included in whole or in part in The Last Resort—I’m not aware that any of them ever wrote for pleasure or just for themselves. I have no recollection of anyone in my immediate family, say, writing poetry or short stories. It’s possible they did, but I’m not aware of it.
And until this past summer, I wasn’t aware of another family member who had, as I did for many years, made a living as a writer or editor. My checkered career had me writing everything from technical manuals to marketing froth for private companies, higher education, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. I spent countless hours reviewing, editing, and verifying pieces written by other staff members. My work days were dedicated to selecting just the right words to persuade, instruct, enlighten, or cajole a particular audience.
But I now know about my Uncle Forrest.
My great-uncle Hamilton Forrest Moore (1881-1972)—oldest son of the Rev. William Dudley Moore, brother of my grandmother Martha Florence Moore Goodlett—had a long career, I believe, with The Anderson News, the newspaper of my family’s home town, Lawrenceburg, Ky. My cousin Sandy recalls that Uncle Forrest continued to edit each edition of the newspaper and send his markup to the news office long after he had officially left his post. It appears that writing precisely, and scanning the work of others for errors, had become a passion for him, or perhaps a curse.
I cannot read a newspaper or magazine or book without landing with a thud on every typo or missing word or poorly constructed sentence. For years I wanted to volunteer to copyedit my local newspaper the night before the rag was printed. It was an embarrassment. Now my husband has picked up the same habits. In fact, he sometimes catches outrageous errors that I miss. His keener mind makes him even better at it than I am.
But I’m happy to know that somewhere in my genetic material there may be a tiny marker that I inherited from my Moore ancestors, the same marker that Uncle Forrest had. Because I lived outside Kentucky the first years of my life, I only remember meeting him once. He was quite old by then and I don’t have any specific recollections of what he was like. But I’m proud now to think that, long before I knew anything about how he had spent his life, I ended up carrying on the work he had loved.
Pud’s mother died two months after he did, in June 1967 at age 81. Her health, both physical and mental, had been failing, so the family tried to keep from her the fact that her youngest son had died unexpectedly. Whether we were successful or not, we’ll never know.
Because I had lived in Baltimore until my father died, I never really knew my grandmother. I’m sure I was around her as a young child, but I have no recollection of having a conversation with her. I don’t remember her voice, her mannerisms, her interests.
I do recall how surprised I was not too long ago when my cousin Mac described sitting with our grandmother and listening to baseball games on the radio. Evidently she was an avid fan. I had no idea. I don’t think I had ever really thought of her as a person with hobbies or passions or opinions. She was simply my grandmother, an abstract that I had shown little curiosity about fleshing out.
Last week another cousin, Vince, sent us a copy of a note our grandmother had written to him in 1953. With just a few phrases, she came alive for me for the first time.
It starts out, “Dear Vincy, Awfully sorry you didn’t get to come down Sunday. You must take your medicine real good and hustle yourself down before it gets too cold to play out.”
She continues, “Mac has gone nuts over baseball and football. As cold as it was Sunday, he had his daddy out back playing ball with him. The little black pig has a room in the barn now right next door to the big pig. Kenneth’s big white rabbit is living in a coop nailed to the wall in the coal house. All fixed up for winter.
“Mac had a jaw tooth filled yesterday. Didn’t whoop and holler nary a bit. Love, Mamoo”
In that brief note, I learned how she spoke, what and whom she cared about, and what events preoccupied her thoughts, as well as a bit about the world she inhabited.
As I hunker down to finish the novel about my maternal grandfather—a man who remained a mystery to everyone in my family until recent research unearthed the outlines of his remarkable life—I recognize even more urgently the importance of perfecting each character’s voice. A few words, an idiomatic usage, a turn-of-phrase paints a better portrait of the individual than countless overdone descriptions. What a character chooses to say, and how he mutters it, reveals his values, his circumstances, his background, and how he views himself and others in his world.
Trying to bring my long-gone ancestors to life is a daunting undertaking. I make decisions daily about their language and their actions that may in no way reflect the reality of who they were. That is why I am writing fiction.
But, this week, I learned a great deal from reading one brief note casually penned by another ancestor. Not only did I learn about her, but I learned how to be a better writer.