Exploring my writing roots at 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning
Have I ever told you about my writing roots? I feel like I haven’t, and that’s odd, because you would think that would be a natural topic of discussion on a writing blog, right? At any rate, storytelling seems to be embedded in my genes, as much as my early graying hair and the extra fat that I tend to carry around in my gut. Those are a few of the things I get from my mom’s side (along with some good things, too, don’t get me wrong.) But, the storytelling gene runs strong on my dad’s side of the family.
My dad’s paternal grandfather – my great grandfather – Ralph Webster, is a bit of a legend in our family. It is said that he could pick up any musical instrument and hear any song one time and play the song on that instrument. The accordion was his chosen instrument, but his voice was a major talent as well; one that he often put to good use spinning yarns for anyone who cared to listen.
Oral storytelling is a popular pastime in that branch of my family tree. My father is no exception. Many a family wedding photo has captured my dad gesticulating largely as he tells one of his stories that never fail to hold his audience in thrall. Not only does he tell fabulous stories of the hilarity that seems to ensue in his daily life, but he is also a connoisseur of family history. His brain is a magical treasure trove of stories that beg to be written down for posterity, but he’s not one to spend time sitting down to write.
I keep telling myself I need to bring a recorder along when I visit my dad, as he’s always passing on family stories that I know will be lost one day if someone doesn’t manage to capture them. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the oral storytelling gene, so my ability to pass the stories on by mouth is greatly lacking.
When I visit my parents, who live a few hours to the south of me, I often find myself wandering the family cemetery with my dad, who can – and often does – tell me one story after another of the people who passed long before I came along. As we meander from headstone to headstone, these stories help connect me to those who came before me. Leith cemetery has become such a fixture in my life, I even included it in my novel, Valley of the Bees.
While the storytelling gene is strong in my father’s paternal line, the writing gene definitely comes from his mother’s side. According to my Grandma Webster, her mother, Viva Crum Douglas, wrote soap operas for one of the major networks back in the day when soap operas were still listened to on the radio. Viva had an opportunity to move to New York City and really make it big as a writer, but she decided that New York City wasn’t the place where she wanted to raise her children.
I’m not sure how true this story is, since family stories can sometimes contain as much myth as fact. I haven’t been able to verify the story, so who knows. But, the fact remains that the writing gene came down to me from her.
My grandmother was herself a writer, who left copious amounts of written material when she passed away ten years ago. I count myself lucky to be in possession of a book of memories she wrote out just for me. It’s such a comfort to be able to turn to and read her familiar handwriting that she once applied to the art of writing letters and notes of inspiration and encouragement to all of her thirteen children and countless grandchildren.
Aside from the vast amount of personal writing she left behind, Grandma Webster also published several academic articles. As far as I know, she never published any fiction, but I know she wrote it. I have fond memories of her massive typewriter sitting on her kitchen table with a sheet of paper waving from its top and a ream of typed pages sitting next to it. I don’t know what happened to the novel she was writing, or if she ever finished it. That may be one of those stories that’s doomed to disappear without ever being shared.
Grandma was always my biggest fan. She was one of those rare gems who somehow managed to make each and every one of us feel as though we were her favorite. When I write, I often feel as though she’s sitting beside me, cheering me on. Whenever I doubt my talents or think I’ll never finish a project, she is always there to tell me how proud she is of all that I have survived and accomplished in my life.
In many ways, I write for her. Nothing builds my confidence better than reminding myself of how proud she would be if she were here to see me now. She wouldn’t care that I’m poor or that my book has only sold thirteen copies. She would just be happy to see me pushing forward, doing what I love, what she loved, and what I hope at least one of my children or grandchildren may one day love as well.
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