I think one of my biggest inspirations for storytelling comes from my grandfather, Tom. In a small southern town, during the early 1900’s, he ran a small wholesale electric company. In addition to all the normal challenges he would have faced as a small business owner in keeping up with the then emerging technologies in electrical appliances and lighting, in addition to being a loving husband and a father of two children, he faced a challenge unusual among his peers. Tom was legally blind. Ever since he suffered a severe fever at an early age, he only saw vague patches of darkness and light the rest of his life. How my grandfather dealt with this challenge of not having sight and how he not only succeeded but inspired others has been the impetus for my own desire to write for as long as I can remember.
What I find remarkable about the influence that my grandfather had on my life is how little time I actually had to spend with him. He died when I was only three. After he passed, and then my grandmother, my family moved into their home. I seem to have only a single memory of him, me as a small child sitting in his lap as he reclined in an enormous leather chair, me insisting that he follow me to the hallway to see my new rocking horse, me being whisked away and not really understanding why. I say “seem” because memories from that early in any life are often constructed piecemeal over time through family lore, stories told every year over the Thanksgiving turkey, memories made to grow and take shape with the help of others who contribute to the myth-making.
However little time I had with him, it remains true that he had a major impact on my intellectual life. The first gift he left as his legacy was the library that he and my grandmother left behind. The room we used as a den (and usually a dining room with folding metal tables and TV dinners from the frozen section), our family room, was lined with built-in bookshelves packed with all manner of books. The shelves contained a complete copy of the Harvard Classics, Dante’s Divine Comedy, bound editions of Reader’s Digest, a large number of biographies, books about self-development, engineering and, of course, The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette. The vast majority of the books, however, were novels. It was told that every night my grandmother would sit and read to my grandfather. Diving into learning and literature—that is how they passed their time together.
The second aspect of my grandfather that encouraged me is how he took all that he received from his intellectual pursuits and shared it with others in the form of writing or storytelling. When, in the course of running his small business, some customer would fail to pay a bill, he wouldn’t just send them an invoice and a stuffy business letter. He would write them a poem! He would find some catchy sound in their name or in the amount they owed, work it up into a limerick and add that to the envelope. A little humor in the situation often brought in a prompt payment and made his customers love him for his wit and goodwill. He courted and wooed his wife with long, earnest love letters. He also used to travel to schools throughout the state to tell fabulous tales of adventure to the children. He composed poetry and ghost stories, and even the grownups would get chill bumps when he recited his works. His storytelling was so loved that his friends eventually arranged to capture his performances on vinyl. Listening to his ghost stories on the record player while we put lights on the tree is how I remember spending all of my Christmas eves growing up.
I think the third aspect of my grandfather’s approach to life has had the most profound impact on me. Tom lived by a simple rule: Every day do something kind for someone, even something small, and, then, don’t tell anyone. I find the stance of asking what I have to offer, rather than focusing on what I lack, to be encouraging and inspirational. On any number of trips back to my hometown, when people have understood who I was, they would say something like “Oh, you’re Tom’s granddaughter! Let me tell you what he did for me….” I admire him. Rather than being remembered for any challenge he might have faced in daily life, even decades later, he is remembered for what he offered to others and the encouragement he gave.
Today I sit here with a blank page and a multitude of doubts. Chapter One of my first novel is going painfully slow. I have the outline, I know where I want the story to go, I even have the first paragraph. My great abundance of fantastic ideas dries up, however, when putting pen to paper, or rather digits to the keyboard. It can feel scary. I’m trapped by my own promises, my own perceived arrogance at telling others I’m writing a book and then facing the empty page. And when I do write something, I’m afraid to share it with anyone. Nothing I write can ever be any good, can it?
When the darkness hits, when the fear starts to crawl up my spine, I sit at the keyboard and close my eyes. My grandfather looked within when he could no longer look without. Within him he found that he could find the words to describe what was unique about him and his life. Within him he found the images, the stories, the art that inspired him. Being curious about what I have to offer others helps me mitigate the fear. However much I doubt myself as a writer, I am confident that the story I want to tell will be meaningful to others. I am confident that the only way for the story to ever see the light of day is through the words I find within. I sit at the keyboard, with my eyes closed and am curious about how I will ever find a way to tell my adventure. I ask myself how, exactly, my character is going to face the challenge ahead in the next few pages. How will he face his insecurity? How will he overcome the limitations he finds within himself, how will he acquire what he needs, and what will he have to offer others? And then my fingers begin to type….