“And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see; or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.” Alice Walker
Geneology has always fascinated me. Although I’ve never taken the time to delve deeply into my family’s history, I have reaped the benefits of research done my cousins and learned some surprising things about my ancestors. Yes, those Kentucky settlers were mostly Scotch-Irishmen, but there were some German Jews who settled in Pennsylvania before the Revolution, and one of them was a lieutenant who crossed the Delaware with George Washington. And my father has said his grandfather was the dance leader in the Armenia village where he lived.
In her book, Writing Begins With the Breath, Laraine Herring talks about listening to the “silent voices” from our past that may be “whispering in our hearts,” hoping to find their way onto the page.
“Are you drawn to a culture or time period not your own?” she asks. “Chances are it’s because the stories of those places intrigue you. How many stories are there in each generation you can trace? Look to the stories that are unspoken to find the ones with energy.”
In my writing, I realize how often I’m drawn to tell stories about legacies – about the gifts, the impulses, the characteristics that pass from one generation to the next. In both novellas I’ve written for NaNoWriMo, legacy is at the heart of the story and the theme. In Dear Samantha, a dying woman leaves the story of her life in letters written to her unborn granddaughter. In The Wedding Dress, one woman passes her wedding dress through four generations of women, each one learning something about themselves through the experiences of the others.
Is there something in my past that calls me to write about this topic? Are there voices from ages ago working to send a message through me?
Joyce Carol Oates once spoke about “writing to heal one’s ancestors.” As human beings, we are interconnected with so many others, through our flesh and blood, but also through basic human needs for love, comfort, beauty. Now, science tells us that human beings can trace their DNA back to one of only ten basic groups. Writing can be a way to tell the stories of our ancestors, a way to rewrite those stories so they make sense, so they speak to other people in perhaps new and unexpected ways.
“Writing is about following signposts,” Herring says. “Close your eyes and open your ears and heart…who is whispering to you?”
How about you? Are there stories you feel drawn to tell? What stories from a distant past are whispering to you?