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Copyright © 1999 The Pennsylvania State University

The Palimpsest Review - Vol. 7

Palimpsest onLine!'s 

Professional Writers at Work

Prudence Grimes: "Writing My Father's Stories"
Jeff Worely: "Tapping the Wellspring of Language"
H. Kassia Fleisher: "Spinning Miss Stein's Grave"
Ray Petersen: "The Cardinal Trait of the Writer"
Todd Davis: "Looking for the Light"
Dev Hathaway: "The Art of the Story"
Len Roberts: Seven Poems
Len Roberts: Cohoes Theater  (PDF Book)
Maria Jacketti: "Objects of Poetry"
Jim Manis: "Struggling to Publish"
Download Palimpsest #7 in PDF (Coming soon)
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  Last updated Dec. 26, 1999; first published to the web: Decemberber 26, 1999.

  The Palimpsest Review and Palimpsest onLine! are publications of The Pennsylvania State University. The words and ideas contained within their pages are the property of their authors and cannot be used for any purposes without the authors' specific written consent.


Prudence Grimes (Fiction Judge)

Writing My Fatherís Stories

y first memories are stories. Hereís an early one: Iím in the bathrom, standing on the toilet seat lid and watching my dad shave. Iím saying, Dad, tell me one more time about the swimming hole.
 Stroking a clean path of skin through the lather, he says, I woke up early, before anyone else in the house, and I sneaked down to the swimming hole, where I was never supposed to go by myself. Itíd been raining, so I was certain the water would be deep. I just stripped down and dived in.
  Iím shaking now remembering it, writing it down, just the way I surely did at three or four. Then what, Dad?
  My head got stuck in the mud.
  It wasnít as deep as you thought.
  No, it was quite shallow. But I couldnít see that because it was so muddy.
  And no one was awake but you.
  Well, so I thought.
  And you tried to get out.
  I pushed my hands down into the mud, to try and free my head, but then my hands got stuck as well.
  And you would have drowned.
  Yes, I would have. But your Uncle Leonard had seen me get up and had followed down to the swimming holeó
  And he saw your legs kicking around like crazy.
  He saw my legs and pulled me free.
  If he hadnít youíd be dead today.
  Yes, Iíd be dead, and you never would have been born.

Now that was a prickly concept. Iíd have never been born. Secretly, I reasoned that my mom probably would have met someone else, married someone else, and with that man she would have made half of me. I didnít tell my dad that; I didnít want to hurt his feelings. By the time I reasoned this all out, I was older, seven or eight. But the memory folds together into my own family mythology.

Every culture in the world deals in story. Stories pass down rules and mores for a collection of people; they pass down history so that we can benefit from the mistakes of our ancestors. (I have never dived headfirst into cloudy water. Never will.) Maybe most importantly of all, they pass down what we value, what we see as beauty, what we cherish and love.
  Last year I was teaching a readings course, and one of the books I was using was China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston. She paid a visit to my university, and I was lucky enough to spend some time with her. The thing I remember most about her visit was how she urged writers to become the myth gatherers of our own societies, to take the stories we heard as children within our families, and as adults within our own particular groups, and make them relevant to the lives of people today, take those stories from childhood and make them mean something, make sense from them.
  Years before meeting her, I had written a story entitled ďSacrificeĒ in which I tried to make sense of my fatherís stories. I tried to lay them out and discern exactly what they meant to me.   After listening to Maxine talk, I began looking further into my store of childhood memories. I went back to a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen that I always found horrifying, and I tried to think about what that story was supposed to get across to children. Once I figured that out, I realized that I didnít like what it was trying to tell children, and so I told it over in a way that reversed Andersenís point, and in doing so made my point. I turned it into a story about how I believe society should behave towards young girls.
  Thatís important work. Whether or not itís work a writer thinks about consciously as she sits down to write isnít important. Itís the act of taking your memories, your familyís history, the things you found frightening or wonderful as a child and making them relevant for who you are and where you live today. Thatís what writing is all about.
  In working from family stories, or childhood memories, itís easy to become distracted by what actually happened and what didnít. I donít worry about actual historical fact. I worry about capturing the essence of the moment, capturing what it felt like to be in that steamy aqua bathroom, watching my dad shave, as he told me stories that chilled me to the bone: the horse that got stuck in the mud of the creek bank in early spring and almost drowned, but grandfather hitched the town horses to her and pulled her free. I was right there, sinking to my ankles in that cold gray mud, watching a horse I loved struggle for her life. As a fiction writer, Iíll do anything I need to in order to make you feel it too. Iím not tied to what actually happened. Iíll happily change things around so that you too are there in the slick clay mud, watching that chestnut mare flag and slow in her struggle.
  As fiction writers, thatís the work we do. We take stories weíve heard, scraps of stories that have stuck in our minds, and try to figure out why theyíre important enough to be remembered. Even when we sit with just the glimmer of an idea of where to begin in our heads, just the scrap of a character, or the shred of a plot, weíre attempting to make sense of our world, and in the beginning, we may be doing it for ourselves, but later on in the process, weíre struggling to take our vision of the world, of what we see as sad, or beautiful, or horrible, and pass that vision on in a way that resonates and says something about the world around us. The truth of that vision is what all of us struggle towards. Be fearless in your quest.
 

Copyright © 1999 Prudence Grimes, all rights reserved


Prudence Grimes has had stories published in journals like The North American Review, Fiction International, Third Coast, and Other Voices. She was a recipient of a 1999 residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Currently she divides her time between working on her second novel and teaching writing at the University of Pittsburg.
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