The amazing stories right under my nose.
One of the challenges with writing, for me, is figuring out what stories to tell. On my worst days, it feels like there is nothing I could possibly say, nothing I could possibly write, that would be at all interesting to anyone else. This, I think to myself, is futile.
I imagine that, at some point, someone must have said something like: “When inspiration seems most distant, don’t forget the inspiration that is closest to you, perhaps right under you nose." I knew that our family had some letters and other documents from my Dad’s side of the family, and I knew some of the letters were interesting, but I hadn’t looked at any of them in at least fifteen years. Was this the inspiration right under my nose?
I’m not sure what it was – perhaps picking up a battered copy of Timothy Findley’s The Wars or the box of memorabilia from my Grandfather sitting on the shelf in my bedroom – but something prompted me to email my Mom about these letters. Part of me thought maybe I had made the whole thing up, that these letters didn’t really exist (I don’t have the most trustworthy memory these days). It turns out they really did exist, and that there was more than I imagined.
This is the smaller of the two boxes of letters.
As I gingerly picked through the letters, one by one, stories I remembered reading years before started coming back to me. Within the first few letters I had already read of a husband, my Great Grandfather, writing to his wife, halfway across the country, pleaded to be granted his “freedom." I read a letter from a wife, my Great Grandmother, to a husband who had forsaken her, pleaded for support so she could pay her bill to the grocer, and another letter cautioning him that he was in danger and that, through friends, the police had found out where he was. And there is a letter from my Great Grandmother to her brother, apparently estranged; she had been inspired by Jesus to attempt to reconnect.
All this came, literally, from the first few letters at the top of the pile. Reading them, one by one, is like reading the greatest novel, and the most compelling work of history, all at the same time. There is so much to read in this box, and a larger box still waiting to be explored.
As I mentioned before, I don’t remember exactly what it was that prompted me to ask about these letters again, which I had largely forgotten for almost two decades. But now it feels like fate, like something that was meant to be. Here I am, a writer, struggling to find his voice, to find stories to tell, and all this time I was missing so many interesting stories, right under my nose.
Now comes the next challenge: How to tell these stories. I often enjoy reading historical fiction, and there are definitely many interesting possibilities in the themes and ideas in these letters. I also enjoy reading "actual" history, and I do think that the most interesting opportunity might be a creative non-fiction retelling, wrapped in the story of what it is like to discover the details of lives lived. I’ve always been nervous about non-fiction and memoir, though; I fear the inevitable insult felt by those who feel I have misrepresented them. Of course, confining myself to stories of those who have passed on alleviates that concern somewhat, but it will be hard not to write something about how the lives in these stories impacted my family. We’ll see.
I continue to read through the letters, scanning them as I go, since they are getting quite brittle and fragile, and I don’t want to have to handle them too often. As an added bonus, it’s a lot easier to sort and find them in digital form. It will be interesting to see whether Evernote's handwriting recognition can do anything with the cursive in these letters. That could open up a whole new range of possibilities!
I will probably post more about this as I go. I am even contemplating recording some readings, both of my writing as it progresses, and maybe even of some of the letters. We’ll see. Feel free to post a comment and let me know what you think.