As promised, Memoir Mondays will be hosting guest posts featuring a cadre of creative types. It is both a privilege and a joy to introduce to Writing Space readers my fellow MNINB April Challenger, Gerry Wilson. ~Lara.
BIO: Gerry Wilson loves beaches and mountains equally, great books, music, photography, and fabulous food. She is a fiction writer, wife, mother of four grown sons, and grandmother of six—three boys and three girls.
A life-long Mississippian, Gerry taught high school English and creative writing for more than twenty years. She learned the craft of fiction along with her students, but she has also worked with outstanding writers: Dorothy Allison, Connie May Fowler, Jane Hamilton, and Ron Hansen. She has published short fiction in a number of journals and magazines. “Pieces,” a short story, appears in the current issue of Prime Number Magazine. She’s currently revising her second novel and looking for a home for her first. To learn more about Gerry, visit Gerry Wilson: The Writerly Life.
Stories in the Making
Some writers seem able to make stories out of thin air. I’m not one of those, although sometimes a photograph, a headline, an overheard conversation, or a stranger who catches my eye will spark my imagination. Immediately, I’ll pull out the little notebook and start scribbling.
More often, though, my fiction originates in the times, circumstances, and places of personal history. I grew up in north Mississippi, and believe me, William Faulkner’s red clay hills of Yoknapatawpha are exactly that—heavy, clayey soil the color of rust, densely forested, and populated in those days with people who weren’t rich or educated but who exemplified pride in its best sense and strength in hardship.
ONLY CHILD OF AN ONLY CHILD
When I was growing up, my parents and I shared a home with my maternal grandparents. My grandfather had come home from the Great War with tuberculosis. He remained a semi-invalid for the rest of his life. I was a solitary child in a house full of grown-ups and dominated by sickness. Books and my imagination were my escapes. I read, I drew (actually, I drew pictures in my books—something I’m amazed my parents allowed), I played in the yard early on summer mornings because about all you could do in the afternoon was hover near a fan. I have distinct memories of dew on my bare feet and an occasional bee sting. I made playhouses out of boxes or under a big shrub or the willow tree, where it was shady and cool. I pretended. I made up stories.
I also heard them, over and over.
THE GRANDMOTHERLY ART OF STORY
My grandmother told vivid stories. She met my grandfather at an ice cream social on the fourth of July, just before he was to leave for France, and jilted the boy she was engaged to marry. My mother’s birth was difficult, but my grandmother had “not even so much as an aspirin tablet!” She punished my mother for her temper by locking her in a closet. (Awful, isn’t it, the stuff of stories.) She nursed her neighbors through the influenza epidemic and never got sick herself. Her uncle went off to the gold rush and was never heard from again. Her brother, my great-uncle, grew candy trees. That one I never believed, even though when he visited, he brought pockets full of hard candy.
The story she always told about her father’s death is a special gift to me in terms of writing material. He died in a hunting accident when she was twenty-three. My mother would have been two years old at the time. My grandmother was at her parents’ home when neighbor men brought her father’s body back from the woods. She always said she had nightmares for a long time after that day, the image of his bloody head still stark in her mind.
That incident is pivotal in both a published short story and in my second novel, although in the book the character whose father is killed is a fifteen-year-old girl who suspects he was murdered. When the men bring the body home, she’s there, alone. She runs out to meet them, and then she sits on the porch and cradles her father’s head in her lap. I don’t know that my grandmother was alone that day; I doubt it. I don’t know whether she cradled her father. I’ve invented those details and much more. Yet that character’s story is my grandmother’s. Changed, yes, but still hers.
THE WAY IT IS WITH FICTION
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, my grandmother’s stories changed as she aged. They became more elaborate; they varied from one telling to the next. My oldest son and I discovered a couple of years ago, while talking family history and comparing notes, that what she had told me about my grandfather’s service in World War I differed greatly from what she’d told him. I have a few records of his service, but nothing validates either version. The facts of that story died with her. The truth of story did not.
That’s the way it is with fiction. A kind of truth exists, larger and more significant than any facts or inspirations that shape the story. We fictionalize our own stories, whether we’re writers or not. Isn’t every moment of our lives a story in the making? Isn’t every memory a work in progress, like my grandmother’s stories?
So that is my story legacy. As I sit here, pounding away on the laptop, I hope my grandmother looks over my shoulder and reads every word. And I hope she’s proud.
Who or what are your writing influences? Does your personal history impact your fiction? Provide material? Please take a moment to share your story history in a comment.