My mother was known for being a storyteller. As she grew older, she repeated the stories more and more, but I still listened. I knew exactly what she was going to say; she’d use the same phrases over and over, with the same inflections. But every time, I enjoyed hearing her. And she enjoyed telling the stories.
So why didn’t it work to just take her stories, write them down, and include them in my book? That’s how we started. At first, we’d have only the skeleton of a story and then we’d flesh it out, trying to have each anecdote read as closely as possible to the way she’d told it over the years. But it wasn’t enough.
When I started circulating early manuscripts to friends and family, I frequently received feedback that the new stories, the ones in my own voice, were better written. Part of me was happy about that. It’s not that I was competing with my mother to see who could be the better writer, though I suppose if I’m honest there was some of that. But I wanted all the old stories to be successful as well.
I tried to capture her voice as much as possible. I interviewed her for over a thousand hours, asking her to repeat the stories again and again so that I could capture everything she said, all the little nuances.
Gradually, I realized that the old narratives had been told so many times that they had lost their spontaneity. My mother was an actress. When she told the stories, she relived them. You could see that in her eyes, in the expressions on her face. You could hear it in her voice. And that made it work. That fascinated her audience. The trick for me was to figure out a way to get that all on paper, to keep the stories just as riveting when read as they were when she spoke them.
To do that, I had to relive the stories myself, to imagine myself in her shoes, to try and feel what she felt. Over the years of our working together, I like to believe that I was able to accomplish that, at least to some extent. The result was a mother-daughter closeness that grew dramatically as we worked. I’ve written before in this blog how this helped me to understand the romance between her and my father, a true gift for the child of divorced parents.
But it also made me understand her as a mother. I had to view my siblings as her children, feeling the pain she felt when she believed she had let Charles down, or the ache that wouldn’t go away when she felt Philip growing more distant, or the pride that sustained her as she watched Connie struggle with the demands of being a single mom.
My finished book is a tribute to my mom and a gift to those who knew her and those who will grow to know her from reading it. But I’ve received more than all of those combined, for through my efforts to bring this project to fruition, I have grown to understand this truly remarkable woman.