Monday, November 26, 2007

Giving Old Stories new Life - Mann

A bereaved family will often call me to plan a funeral service for a beloved member of their circle. As is more common lately, they might not have a connection with the church and I may not know the people. As time goes on and they become comfortable with me, the stories begin to flow. I’ll ask, “Tell me about your mother. What was she like?” They tell me about her wonderful garden soup, the quilts she made for grandchildren or maybe how many years she drove for Meals on Wheels. If I don’t hear any connection to church, prayer or God, I ask, “Was your mother a woman of faith?” Often times they will describe the plaque that hangs in her bedroom or a prayer she taught them when they were young. On another occasion, a family member might list church activities, the years she sang in the choir or headed up a prayer ministry. Sometimes, when I ask the family to write a remembrance or eulogy, they are too emotional to do it. As a result, they often leave me to interpret their mother’s story to others.

Giving an old story new life happened several years ago when many boxes of old magazines, 1900 school records, English journals, dress patterns and bits of yarn and cloth fell through the ceiling of my brother’s driving shed — thanks to some curious raccoons. Obviously, my mother couldn’t bring herself to throw out these treasures and had stored them away. As I sorted through the mess, I began to discover that many of the books were clean and untouched. Now, over the last three years, I have read and reread the accounts that lead me to interpret my mother’s life in an era she didn’t talk much about, but defined it as valuable by her actions.

I wrote my memoirs in 1996 and delighted in the discoveries I made. My brother read it and said, “No, no. it didn’t happen that way.” And as we struggled with our individual perspectives of the same family event, we often began exploring the ‘what if’ question. It’s refreshing to write about one’s own life giving opportunity for new questions and making life-giving discoveries.

According to Collins-Gage Canadian Dictionary, interpretation means (1) to explain the meanings of; (2) bring out the meaning of; (3) understand according to one’s own judgment. This brings me to my thoughts about the Creative Non-Fiction genre. By not exercising my call to write about real people, I could have been free to write works of fiction and poetry, which I did some. However, people’s lives intrigue me. How do they make choices, set priorities in their life and live out goals? What makes them angry, sad or passionate? What is life-giving to them and what robs their emotional energies? And maybe the most intriguing mystery is to see adult lives and wonder what seeds of hope and faith were planted in their hearts as children.

There is much debate around the Creative Nonfiction genre. Some reject it, while others say it has the power to reveal what is already there. Wikipedia, online encyclopedia defines Creative nonfiction “(sometimes known as literary nonfiction) as a type of writing which uses literary skills in the writing of nonfiction. A work of creative nonfiction, if well-written, is factually true and artistically elegant.” The challenge is to set plot, dialogue and setting into nonfiction work through interpretation and perspective, and give the old story new life in ways that it will read like fiction.

This genre gives its writer many gifts and the main ones for me have been humility and gratitude.

Donna Mann

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