I still think it’s a good idea. Maybe I should delete that paragraph so that no one steals it.
The point is that stories–good, thought-provoking, colorful stories–are everywhere. If you write, you need to know that.
I know a lady in her 90s who thinks her tale would not interest anyone–it’s not as if she were a Holocaust survivor, she says. No, she was merely a newlywed who traveled by steamship and rail to the old country–Berlin in 1937–to visit her husband’s relatives. There, they had a front-and-center view of Krystallnacht–the night when Nazis went on a rampage, smashing windows and setting fires to Jewish-owned shops and synagogues. During the next few weeks, she and her husband–both Jewish–managed to get some of his relatives out of Germany by train. They used coded telegrams to learn if the next stations were safe from Nazi inspections, and spent some time wondering just how much protection their American passports would be if push came to shove.
But who would be interested in that?
A friend of many years just revealed that her marriage in the late 1970s was performed by Johnny Cash, who’d only become a minister that week. A coworker and her daughter took fencing lessons from the guy who taught Hollywood stars like Errol Flynn and who donned the Darth Vader costume to duel with Luke Skywalker in the 1980s. And should I even mention the 80-something lady who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and a prison camp to be rescued by Otto Schindler, and who was the inspiration for the little red coat in Speilberg’s film? She is setting down her own incredible life story with the help of another writer.
Amazing tales are all around us. You probably know a few too. They don’t have to be about a whole life; memoir is not autobiography. An incident or a year is perfectly acceptable as fodder for your imagination. Maybe you don’t know the end of the story or all the details, but the bits and pieces inspire you. That’s fine.
My father sat his parents down once and put a microphone before them. It was the early 60s and he wanted them to talk about their lives. When I listened many years later, my first thought was disappointment. My grandmother , who had a phenomenal memory for addresses and dates, droned on for a full 20 minutes about every house they’d lived in. Every three or four months, a new one: “And then we moved to Juanita Place, 3530, that was in Inglewood, and then that December we moved to Boyle Heights, to a blue building on the corner of . . . “
But I soon realized the bigger truth behind this, which she kept at bay with her stark addresses: They had no money. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, they moved from a place whenever the landlord threatened to bring the sheriff. A few months here, a few months there. Often the move took place in the middle of the night.
That’s how my father grew up. And that’s a story, a sad one in his case, but I can see it being a funny story too, for a different family. The Marx Brothers, maybe.
Please understand–I am not suggesting you appropriate someone else’s biography and use it for your plot! Bad, bad. But a story like my grandmother’s may spark a lively scene in your 1920s romance, of someone sneaking out of their home before the landlord comes calling. That happened to many folks; it’s generic and not traceable to any one person.
I realize these are all old stories. OK, how about the 30-something adoptee who traced her birth parents and went to visit her newly-found family in the Carolinas? She came back to her West Coast home depressed and overwhelmed; she hated everything about them. Including their toothlessness. Or the aerospace industry engineer, who was found wandering the streets of Tijuana as a toddler and adopted by missionaries, then educated in the top schools? A brilliant man, but still hampered by an accent and shyness he can’t seem to shake. The crazy lady writing her rambling memoir that (she’s convinced) will expose the malfeasance of corporate America’s GMO food producers and change the world forever has a story to tell too–all grist for the mill.
Jennifer Egan filled A Visit from the Goon Squad with vignettes that charm–like the story of a 1970s African safari recalled fondly by a character reminiscing, twenty years later. And then we’re there, on safari, meeting new people, seeing younger versions of the characters in the book. At the end of that chapter we learn that one of the children on that safari starts a Facebook page fifty years later, which led to a chance meeting and marriage for two of the participants, now senior citizens. I loved that small bit and wondered if a real-life episode inspired it.
In my last corporate job, my boss walked in one day and said, “I hear you write?”
“My mother has a great story. I just don’t know what to do about it.”
The boss’s mother was raised in a proper Japanese home in Southern California in the 1930s. At one point, her traditional parents–no doubt worried that she was becoming too Americanized–sent her to a Japanese “finishing school” in mainland China. Why they decided on China and not Japan itself is a mystery to all. Maybe it was cheaper there. Japan had taken over Manchuria a few years before and had a strong presence in China.
Right after the young lady traveled to China and settled into her new dormitory, all hell broke lose. The Japanese picked that time to attack China. Ever hear of “The Rape of Nanking” ? Japan attacked Shanghai, then Nanking, the capital city, which became the site of some of the worst wartime atrocities in modern history. If I went into detail, I would make you physically ill. In Nanking alone, 300,000 people died in six weeks. And the war spread out from there.
So here’s this teenage American girl of Japanese descent in mainland China. The school’s shutting down, teachers are fleeing, and there’s a vicious, bloody war going on. Neither she nor her dozen classmates speak any Chinese language. Some of them don’t even speak Japanese! They’re in a dangerous place and their only hope is to split up and escape, go south toward Hong Kong, and try to get back to the USA. They make a pact to contact each other once back home.
My boss’s mother made it. She never heard from any of the other girls. Not one.
By the time I heard the story, the woman suffered from Alzheimer’s. She’d never talked much about the horrors she saw in China and I don’t know how much of the details her children were able to learn. Her story–the little I know–still gives me chills. What a novel or movie that would make!
So when people say they don’t know what to write about, I really think they’re just not listening.