How a Grandmother’s Secret Words Became a Granddaughter’s Treasure – a gift to publication
Note: This post was first published as a guest post on Women’s Fiction Writers on April 21, 2015.
What is a lucky writer? Is it one who attends the best school with the best writing programme? Is it one who starts telling stories before she learns how to write? Is it one who writes her first novel and manages to get pulled from the slush pile, noticed and offered what we all want – the opportunity to publish? Or can it be as simple as a gift of words from one generation to another?
I like to believe that grandmothers see something that we cannot. It’s as though they have an ability to wash away all life’s bits—the dirt that clouds our vision. When we doubt ourselves as writers, somehow they never do. Grandmothers see the heart of it, what’s really there.
I can imagine my grandmother standing in a field of life’s debris, everything scattered around her; her mistakes, her worries, her indulgences, her vanity, her moments of envy and her need for approval, maybe even self-satisfaction and courage. The only structures still in tact are her passions; the people whom she adored, her dogs and The Lord. She was a devout Catholic. Yet standing tall on the horizon are her poems, one after another like city skyscrapers untouched yet powerful.
In 2003, I was an on-again-off-again writer. I had written several children’s books and had completed my first novel a few years before – none of them garnering results. I hadn’t realized at the time the immense value in their training ground. Each writing project was overshadowed by a demanding career as a teacher. With all of my life’s debris floating around me, I couldn’t have known that my grandmother was waiting for the right time to shoo it all away.
All along, when I thought no one had noticed my writing, what I enjoyed most in this world, there was someone in the wings watching every move. That’s what grandmothers do, just as I have a sneaking suspicion that every writer out there has someone watching. Whether you dabble in prose on weekends or coffee breaks in the staffroom, whether you submit that extra writing piece along with your art project at university, someone is noticing. I am sure of it.
When my grandmother gave me the incredible gift of her poems just weeks before she died of cancer—cancer that she wasn’t actually aware of at the time, I remember holding them feeling bewildered and full of questions. These were poems that she had spent her life writing, yet all she would tell me was that no one had ever known about them. It was an incomprehensible treasure. Before handing them to me, she cradled them against her chest, holding them like a newborn child, and said, “You are a writer, Susan, maybe you can do something with these one day.” I wasn’t sure why, but I shelved her gift and didn’t look at them for ten years. Perhaps it was grief. I simply didn’t know. It took finishing my second novel before it occurred to me, “It’s time. I have to read those poems.”
It was in seeing her handwriting that her words flooded every part of me. Seeing the bits she had scratched out and replaced, were telling of her love and commitment to her writing. Each poem told a story about her, about the times, about young love in the face of war and the trials of a woman, a wife, a mother on the home front, waiting on British soil, praying that he will walk through the door again. Seeing the rough drafts worked into a finished product made me appreciate the written word on paper, the handwritten word.
These poems were in essence the letters of her life, and oh, how romantic they were! So I weaved my grandma’s poems into a new novel, a story inspired by her exquisite poems in her beautiful handwriting, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley. The exciting part is, even after death, my grandmother’s poems combined with my storytelling made a publisher sit up and notice. Together, we did it. It wasn’t until I was knee-deep in my novel that I understood why I had waited so long to read her poems—I wasn’t ready to write this story.
We, as writers, find inspiration in a myriad of places. It can be found in the tiniest droplet of water on a twig whilst taking a walk, and still we feel lucky for being given that moment. So what makes for a lucky writer? I think we should all ask ourselves that question from time to time. Can it be as simple as a gift of words from one generation to the next? When I think of my grandmother and the treasure trove that her words unfolded in my imagination, the answer is crystal clear. Yes.