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Last updated Dec.
26, 1999; first published to the web: Decemberber 26, 1999.
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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
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
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
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
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.