August 3, 2010


My mother is 94-years old and when I took her to lunch last week, she announced she’d decided to write a short story. She told me what it was about, an adaptation of an event in her life she thought worth preserving. She’d listened to a radio interview I’d done recently for my books, Heart Land and Gothic Spring, and got inspired. I was flattered because throughout my life she has inspired me. She still does. At 94, she ready to begin a new enterprise. How gutsy is that?

I didn’t remind her that she’s legally blind and probably can’t see the page well enough to write (When I need her signature on a document, it ends up flying diagonally across the paper rather flat against the line).   

So, the issue isn’t about how the words would look on a page if she wrote them down; the issue is that she’s writing in her head and recounting her story to me, her audience of one.

I like to think she’s working in an oral tradition that predates written language, one that goes as far back as the stories from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey when they were first told. Each time she invents a tale she is, in the purest sense, being a writer. And the lovely thing about the oral tradition is one needn’t worry about punctuation or spelling.

Some people have a wonderful knack for telling a story. The discipline has its own rigor. Drag the plot along too far and you lose your audience. Move the plot too quickly and the narrative seems underdeveloped. Like comedy, telling a story is about timing.

Garrison Keillor is a master of both the verbal and written tradition. He’s authored numerous books that go down well with the public and his radio program, “A Prairie Home Companion” is a national treasure. But I like his anecdotes of Lake Woebegon best when they are told. His delivery — his pauses, his lilts, his cadences – are so mesmerizing, it’s like being rocked in a cradle.   

Many arts stem from the oral tradition: troubadour songs, theatre, poetry, even the town crier was a walking newspaper. 

I don’t know how long my mother intends to go on telling her stories. I do know she’s taken up a tradition so old that by comparison she appears young. Its pursuit, I’m certain, will help to keep her that way.