When I was fresh out of college and began to write stories and submit them, I ignored that classic wisdom that has been handed out for ages: Write about what you know!
I couldn’t possibly do that. I didn’t know anything. I hadn’t climbed Everest or swum the English Channel, or lived with gorillas, or developed a vaccine. I had a good background in America Literature. That was what I knew.
It wasn’t until I had four children of my own that I found myself using the very words I had heard my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother say to me when I was a child: “Young lady, you’d better remember who you are!”
Who you are is intricately connected to what you know and from whence you came. This is where your voice lies hidden — in the memories and feelings that are already innately part of you.
I grew up in an extended family that included grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins by the dozens. Gatherings were frequent, and they were exciting times for a child — especially a child who constantly pleaded, “Tell me another story!”
While other younsters heard The Little Engine That Could at bedtime, I listened, wide-eyed, to tales of the pioneers. Some were relatively tame: stories of wildflower hunts, family picnics, camel rides down “D” Street, swimming in the Santa Ana, which, my grandfather assured me, ran deep and strong and was full of fish all year long.
But, depending on who was doing the story telling, I often got another view of early life in the valley: bull and bearfights, scalpings, shootups and shootouts, and the funerals that followed. To this day, I cannot stand under a pine tree and peel away some sticky sap to chew without feeling my spine tingle as I look up cautiously to make sure an Indian isn’t lurking in the branches above.
I sat on lots of laps. I listened, and I absorbed, as fascinated by the language, the rhythms of speech, the dialects, the expressions, as by the stories themselves. The men with the long white beards I so admired and the women whose hands could behead a chicken and pluck it clean one minute and create intricate and beautiful stitchery the next were masters of the oral tradition. They were inspired story tellers.
I liked the way these people of another generation sounded. I even tried to talk like them, to imitate the sounds of their voices, their twists of a phrase. They taught me that the land shapes people, but people can also shape the land. I learned that history is made minute by minute, even (or perhaps especially) by pioneers of any age whose names are not destined to be remembered.
It was a great disappointment to me to go to school and discover that history there was not exciting. It was: memorize the facts, fill in the blanks, and get your grade. We were not encouraged to think much about people and why they acted the way they did. And I knew it should be different because a much more exciting kind of history had been conveyed to me throughout my childhood consistently and energetically.
This, then, was what I knew — the heritage that had been passed to me through voices from the past. And I began to write, for I had found my historical voice.
To be continued . . .
Contributed by Marilyn Donahue