Does this quote make you think of anyone?
It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly
that we are not the same afterwards, even unto our names.
-Yann Martel, Life of Pi
This quote brought to mind a story I heard recently from a chance acquaintance I’ll call Fiona (not her real name). We’d hit it off because we both are working on writing a book. She told me her story over a cup of coffee about how a mundane encounter a few years ago ended up profoundly enriching her life.
The way Fiona describes her experience starts with a summer afternoon that was terribly sticky-hot and humid. She’d been asked to meet an older man and his adult daughter at a local community center. The air conditioner whirred loudly but she couldn’t feel any movement of air. With it’s dull linoleum floors and slightly battered armchairs, worn down to threads on the armrests, the main reception area felt sad and oppressive.
The man and his daughter were late.
Or, maybe the oppression wasn’t entirely about the weather, but the job at hand. Fiona had volunteered for Story Catcher, a free service for hospice patients to record their life stories. She’d longed to be a published writer and when she retired had happily enrolled in the organization, thinking it was writing group. Instead, she was a scribe for other people’s stories.
It’s now a quarter past the hour. The heat is bringing on a headache.
It’s not as though Fiona hadn’t tried to author a book. Years earlier she’d written a painful memoir. Her parents had been tragically killed in a car accident when she and her brother were in grade school. Abruptly uprooted, the kids ended up moving to another state to live with an uncle unprepared to raise two young children. No one thought to pack up pictures or family momentos; the recollection of their earlier childhood was scattered and disjointed.
Fiona found that writing the memoir brought some comfort to her troubled memories but just as she was ready to self-publish it, her brother rescinded his permission to tell their story, the remembrances too tender and private.
Ever since, Fiona had felt unsettled, her past unresolved. She held onto the idea that writing could help her move forward.
There is a shuffling down the corridor and, looking up, Fiona sees a wheelchair round the hallway corner with an older man being pushed forward hurriedly by a disheveled woman. “Fiona?” she calls out, pushing aside damp hair from her face.
“Yes, and you must be the McGregors,” Fiona says.
“Don’t bother!” the older man calls out, “I’m not telling any damn stories,” as they wheel closer. “Oh, dad,” the woman sighs.
Fiona told me that at that point she was tempted to leave. Her headache had gotten worse; she was feeling like she was wasting her time and, here, this gentleman was glaring at her and didn’t want to cooperate. Torn between respect for his wishes and the duty of completing her task, she wavered. Not another afternoon of someone else’s stories. She closed her eyes.
Then, like a whisper, an inner voice said, “Stay.”
Fiona opened her eyes. The man glowered at her. “Why don’t we just talk,” she suggested. “Could we start with you telling me a little about yourself?"
“Why don’t YOU tell me about yourself,” he responded.
“OK, my name is Fiona. I lived near here as a little girl.”
“My parents had a house at the corner of Trevi and Triton. But they died when I was little, over 50 years ago, so I moved to Pennsylvania.”
The man peered at her for a long moment. “Trevi and Triton. Is your name Smith?”
Fiona nods, surprised.
“I knew your parents."
And so, over the next few hours instead of the gentleman recording his life story, he tells Fiona hers. He had been a close friend of her father’s; his wife and Fiona’s mother had been backdoor friends, their children running freely back and forth between houses. The older man’s daughter remembered Fiona too. Together, they filled in gaps of Fiona’s memory and added new accounts of a family life with loving parents.
The car accident had been a heartbreaking rupture to their lives too. “We always wondered how you were getting on, honey.”
Fiona has now written her book, a romance novel, and is at the stage of working with an editor. Over the past few years Fiona and her brother have reconnected with these former neighbors. “That meeting was meant to be!” she laughs.
I loved this wonderful story. My goal right now is to write true stories about how perseverance over challenges can connect us to what matters and to each other. Fiona’s story is a beautiful illustration of this and I’m grateful she shared it with me.
Steps I’ve Taken to Write a Book
Instagram posting of writing 30 minutes/day: Can’t wait to finish up my 100-day challenge on Instagram. I am planning on posting a small hoop-la when I get there! It’s a little unnerving to have taken so many selfies.
Mastermind writing course: TODAY— JUNE 26 -- IS THE DEADLINE TO SIGN UP FOR THE NEXT GATEWAY MASTERMIND. Here is the link for more info on this 3-month course. This is a virtual class taught by Dan Blank. I’ve signed up again because even though I feel my time is stretched it’s providing a discipline and structure to work on craft and identify an ideal audience for my creative work.
Books I’m reading: I just finished reading June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. The novel tells two side-by-side stories, 60 years apart, that gradually unravels family secrets and the horrific events that brought them about. The spellbinding setting is a majestic dilapidated Victorian mansion, neglected over time in a small town in Ohio, and the family’s former home. The main character Cassie feels suspended in time, lethargic, until she is forced to defend an unexpected inheritance from an unknown relative. Her pursuit to find out more about this family connection leads her to discover answers about her own life. Now that I’ve whipped my way through it, I’m going back over it to see Miranda’s careful construction of time and place.
Let me close with another quote from Life of Pi:
The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no?
And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?
Doesn't that make life a story?
Yes, I think it does!