My mother was lost for days, believing that she had completed something worthwhile and convinced that there was nothing more she could do. Then we had a breakthrough. “Start with a single anecdote, one that you find exciting to tell, that you know inside out, that you think will move people. And rewrite it, providing as much detail as you remember.”
Then I suggested the day that she had marched in Mississippi with her students and fellow teachers in memory of Martin Luther King, the week following his assassination. What had been a couple of paragraphs in her handwritten journal became several pages with a lot more detail. But it still was just a description of what happened, without a sense of who was there and what it felt like. That’s when our writing partnership began. Until then, I’d been a typist for her. At that point, we started working together as writers.
For hours on end, I asked her questions about the incident, encouraging her to remember as many details as possible. What was the conversation in the parking lot before driving to the start of the march? Who was there? How were they dressed? Was it a hot and sultry day or was there a gentle breeze? Was she scared? Did she feel as if she belonged? Then I went to work at the keyboard, absorbing her answers into the material.
Once I’d finished with her comments, I brought the manuscript back to her, asking if it still felt like her words. I was hooked. I very much wanted to use her writings as a starting point and turn them into something with wide appeal, something that was more than a gift to friends and family. But I didn’t want her to feel as if I’d taken the project away from her. It still had to be her story. So I spent hours trying to capture her voice, to write as if I were she. In doing so, I grew to understand her better than I ever had before, her weaknesses as well as her strengths. By the time we were finished with her life story, neither one of us could tell which were her words and which were mine.