“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” Shannon Alder.
Tabitha Moffat Brown was a grandmother when she headed west to Oregon Territory in 1846. Her story and that of her daughter and granddaughter is a part of the novel I wrote called This Road We Traveled. (Revell). On that journey, Tabby (as I called her) decided to write her memoir telling stories of her greatest challenges, a legacy gift she planned to leave her children.
I used that fictional device as a way of sharing Tabby's history as the family dealt with trials during a fateful trek on the Oregon Trail. I've long thought that stories are the sparks that light our ancestors lives; they're the embers we blow on to illuminate our own lives. Tabby did actually write letters about her life that became the basis for my novel. I had her use the occasion of a life-changing journey to share some of her stories. But I think any time of the year is a good time to write down memories and experiences, not in any great order, but as they come to us. They can be sparks for our own families to illuminate their lives.
The Christmas when my older sister got her first horse, a red and white paint named Bonnie comes to mind for me. I was only eight years old at the time but I remember the intrigue of my parents efforts to surprise my sister who at 12 had always longed to have a horse. My sister died 19 years ago but I still see her with her cowboy hat perched on black hair riding in the Wisconsin snow on that chubby red and white horse and she will always be alive to me in that image, a gift I give myself. Maybe it's a birthday story that you remember and want to share. You don't have to have a great insight about the meaning of the story, only that it's something you remember and would love someone else in your life to have it in their memory too.
Someone once wrote that the purpose of a novel is to move people. Sometimes that means moving their hearts and sometimes it means moving them off their couch to go visit a place mentioned in a novel; or to call a friend because something in the story spoke to friendship. Maybe the story moves a reader to write a letter or perhaps like Tabby, to write a story down. Nothing pleases me more as a novelist as when someone tells me how a story moved them to do something they'd been putting off like beginning their own memoir.
At a bookfair last week, a woman said she didn't usually "waste her time" on novels but she read mine because they were based on real people and incidents. I didn't disagree with her -- the reader is always right! -- but I did wish for a longer time to explore with her how fiction always grows from "real life," from our imaginations, from all those stories we were told as children and from the incidents we live out day to day and later weave through memory into story. There is truth to be found in fiction just as there is in biography and non-fiction works of all kinds. William Faulkner noted when he accepted the Pulitzer Prize in 1954, that "the only stories worth a writers blood and sweat and tears are stories of the human heart in conflict with itself." We all have stories like that inside of us and telling them -- even short ones like parables -- can bring joy and wisdom to others and ourselves.
Each of us are story-tellers because stories are the most powerful ways we have of organizing human experience. Tabby organized her stories around her life's challenges but you can organize your stories --whether you're a writer like Faulkner or a gramma or a dad or a student -- around any stories that you've kept in the pocket of your soul.
Give your stories as a gift to others and in the meantime you may well discover as Tabby did in This Road We Traveled things about yourself you otherwise might never have known. Write your legacy this season on "hearts not tombstones."
Merry Christmas and the very best in the New Year! Warmly, Jane