I've recently enjoyed a few conversations about the pratfalls and dangers of writing real life stories. When you write about real life, trying to weave a tale concerning events that actually happened, you have to make certain the story is interesting to readers and not just to yourself. Tales from our own lives often seem very interesting to us and to those close to us, especially those familiar with the characters in the tale because they know them in real life. They aren't always interesting to people who don't really know us, our characters, our situations and our personal history. One has to have that knack for engaging readers with true to life stories that they not only can relate to, but that will have some level of meaning applicable to their own histories or situations. And, of course, you have to avoid going off on tangents that take you too far away from the story or represent rants about your personal feelings about various matters that aren't pertinent to the story.
One of the other problems, and one that has come up in recently months for me, is remembering the details correctly. Telling a story first hand depends on how we remember and recall details. Telling a story second hand has the same problem that happens when you sit around a campfire whispering to the dude on your left, who passes on the whisper to the girl on his left, until the story comes around completely different than the original. Unless we're actually writing down the details, a friendly dog turns into a wild and angry goat somewhere along the way.
My grandmother has always wanted me to write a novel about her life. From the stories she's told me over the years, I extracted a short piece I posted here a while back. Since I moved to North Carolina a couple months back and have an opportunity to talk with her regularly again, I've come to discover that I've gotten quite a few details from her life's story mixed up. And I've completely failed to properly understand elements of that story that turned out to be rather key to the story as a whole. It is a good turn of events therefore that I have a ninety-five year old grandmother who is not only still numbered amongst the living but still has all her mental faculties.
My grandmother's father came to America from Norway in the late 19th century. He was a photographer and became very successful working out of his studio in New York. I knew he had been very successful, but not that he was also quite wealthy and that he apparently was employed for some time as the personal photographer to Teddy Roosevelt. My grandmother is very odd when it comes to details. The details she emphasizes and places the most importance on are not the ones you would generally emphasize in writing a story. Her most emphasized details tend to be the personal ones that can be important to members of the family or herself, like how my uncle wore "an adorable hat" when he was very small. She tends to gloss over and place little emphasis on details such as how she had sat on Teddy Roosevelt's knee a number of times when she was a small child when her father took the family out to the Roosevelt house on Long Island.
These details, which I cannot recall her ever mentioning to me before, and are backed up by other members of the family, seem to me the kind of details that are key to telling her story in a way that appeals to readers. "Yes, I sat on Teddy Roosevelt's knee many times when we visited. I remember him as the loud man with the big moustache, but I want to tell you about your uncle's adorable little hat. You know, he doesn't ever wear hats anymore. I think the last time I saw him wearing a hat was in 1962."
It also leads me to wonder further about the origins of my grandmother's name. Her parents were Norweigan immigrants who tended to name everyone after someone in the hierarchy of what was a very proper family, usually a highly respected ancestor. Her name isn't a Norweigan name and she was the first, and only Eleanor in the family. All she remembers is that her father "really liked the name."
I also remembered incorrectly the story of her brother's death. He died in the Pacific in World War II. I had the battle incorrectly marked, confusing it with another story I'd been told by a friend long ago. He was killed in the Battle of Saipan on July 6, 1944. He'd been serving in the Army in the Pacific theatre since he'd signed up following Pearl Harbor. He had been employed by the man who eventually became my grandmother's second husband, my grandfather, who was found unfit to serve due to a number of medical issues. That part of the story actually plays out as the classic tale of the man who finds himself overwhelmed by a sense of guilt because his friend died in battle and he was unable to be there himself.
The other part of the story, the great family mystery, also became convoluted in my previous second hand tellings of the tale. It wasn't my grandmother's father who returned to Norway for a visit and did not return. It was her mother who took the two children back to Norway to visit with family and then did not return to The States for two years. It was during this time that my grandmother's father became somewhat unhinged, as great artists are known to do when left unattended for long periods of time, and ran off with his cousin. The great photographer had quite extensive financial resources and connections at his disposal and went completely off the grid. Family on both sides, my great-grandfather's parents as well as my great-grandmother's family spent a great deal of money on private detective types trying to track him down. He was never heard from again. My grandmother still remembers being in Norway at the age of seven and her mother receiving the telegram which said, "Come back immediately. There is trouble."
His disappearance was the great turning point in my family history. My grandmother's mother died, not as one would suppose from Victorian novel disease but from cancer at the age of thirty-seven, eventually leaving my grandmother as an orphan at the onset of the Great Depression. Tales of madness, alcoholism and the like continue on from there. Or, as my grandmother says, "It turned out well in the end, but it was touch and go for many years."
In those details rest the ultimate center of the story. A man who had it all, living the dream, highly respected and admired in the growing photography industry who rubbed elbows and drank whiskey with the wealthy and powerful, runs off with a woman, his own cousin no less, and gives up everything never to appear again. It has mystery, a powerful theme, interesting characters, and a lot more than just a little kid in a funny hat.
The other strange thing I've found as I've dived deeper into the story searching for evidence of my great-grandfather is that the majority of photographs of Teddy Roosevelt in existence seem to be completely uncredited. I think the man may have become a ghost long before I became one myself.
As I finally seem to get the details right, my grandmother puts her hand on my arm and tells me, "You could call it 'The Photographer's Daughter.' That would be a good title, don't you think?"