Writing Can Feel Like an Exquisite Form of Possession

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Over the last five days, I have been utterly possessed by what could become a significant work-in-progress. Some of you, who have been following my blog for a while, will remember that I wrote a post about my mother being a writer. For years, as I was growing up, my mother was writing a book. My father worked the night shift at a lumber mill, and night after  night we kids would be lulled to sleep by the clacking of my mom’s old Remington typewriter, complete with the ding of the bell to indicate she had come to the end of a line and then the crank-swish of the carriage return.

As I got older and curious about this book, my mom would dole out little bits and pieces of the story like Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights. The characters and the plot wove its way into my being, in much the same way that I’m sure it was a part of hers. After going through the process of creating two novels, I certainly understand the urge my mom had to talk about her writing.

Over the years of her life, my mom continued to write but the unfinished book seemed to take a back seat to other projects. After I moved away from home I don’t remember ever seeing it or hearing her talk about it.

P1080576Like a lightening bolt from the past, a part of my mother’s original manuscript has resurfaced. It was in a box of things she had left to my son. This manuscript is double-spaced and typewritten on white paper placemats – the kind they put on the table at a restaurant. The pages are nine and half by fourteen inches in size with pretty fluted edges. (My mom worked on and off as a waitress. I guess she got a deal on cheap paper.) It starts at page eighty-six and ends on page one hundred and ninety – approximately forty thousand words. And even at that length, this is only a fraction of the box of these typewritten placemats that I remember from my childhood. It appears my mother was every bit as wordy as I am.

Five days ago, I thought – what the heck – I’ll start typing what I have of this story into my computer. It was as if I had opened a door and walked right into my own childhood, even the smell of the paper evokes so many memories. As soon as I began to type, I began to revise. Hold it, I told myself. What was happening? Before I knew it, I had abandoned any hope of transcribing and was rushing through the long sheets of paper, reading, taking copious notes, trying to understand where she might have started the story and then where she might have been going with it. My memories of what she used to read and share with me are almost always from the beginning of the book. I confess to never having a clue how the damn thing was supposed to end.

As I listened to the character’s voices, they sunk their hooks into me. It’s as if, now that they have been discovered, they are demanding that their stories be told. Somewhat melodramatic, I know – but the story leans in that direction. I am gleaning every piece of information I can from what I have left of my mom’s writing. From that, I am creating character and setting profiles. At the same time, I’m writing the back story – something that may have come in the first eighty-six pages because it sure isn’t in the next one hundred or so.

How can I describe what working on this story means to me? It’s as if my mother, who has been gone now for over sixteen years, is standing right behind me. I can almost feel her lean in close; I can sense her smiling as I go in the right direction and then frowning if I veer off down the wrong path.

A thought occurred to me, late last night as I hunched over the laptop typing away at breakneck speed. What if the rest of the book is ever found? I am swiftly approaching a point where my mother’s story will have become so welded to my own imagination and writing process that I certainly won’t need the rest of her manuscript to write this book. If the remainder of the original work were found, I would read it out of curiosity. It would be fascinating to see if her unseen hand, or my own buried memories, would have guided me along the exact same plot twists and turns that she took. Or, perhaps, I would learn that I had gone in a totally different direction.

I sense that some people close to me (Bruce, are you reading this blog – hahaha) may think I’m a bit nuts for immersing myself in this project, but I’m hooked and that’s that. I am also feeling remiss for all the excellent blog posts I’m passing up these days, to say nothing of summer’s last hurrah. I’ve hardly gone outside or into social media since this project grabbed a hold of me. But writers must write and stories must be told. When a golden opportunity falls right into my hands, I know what to do with it. I’ve also discovered that I can work on writing one book (albeit a decidedly different kind of book) and edit another book, simultaneously. A discovery like that is worth a lot.

Has anyone else ever had an experience similar to the one I’m describing? Weigh in with your thoughts one way or the other. I’d love to have the input.

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37 comments on “Writing Can Feel Like an Exquisite Form of Possession

  1. I have my mother’s notes on a bit of her life story. When I read them, I know she is with me. It’s an amazing experience.

    • Definitely! There is something about seeing a loved one’s handwriting that is so moving. My mom had a somewhat cryptic style – translation – hard to decipher – but even if I can’t make it all out, it’s wonderful to behold.

  2. What a treasure you’ve uncovered, Francis! You must write this story. I have nothing to compare to this, it’s a true gift.

    • Yes! Thank you, Jill. So true, I must write this story but, I must pace myself. I have gone six, twelve to fifteen hour days on this and it is time to come up for air. The immersion was necessary to wrap my mind around the project but if I’m not careful, strangulation is a definite possibility. Oh the balancing act of the writer.

  3. This is so amazing. It sounds like you’ve started a pretty incredible journey and I can’t wait to hear about your progress with such an emotional and personal project. Like Jill said, what a gift this is! My father wasn’t a writer but he did attempt keeping a journal shortly before he passed and even just looking at his old handwriting makes me feel closer to him. I wish you luck!

    • Ditto on the handwriting thing. The initial immersion with this fragment of my mom’s writing, her creation really, has been emotional – no denying that. And I find myself saying, “Yes, yes – you nailed that bit of dialogue.” And then, “Oh my goodness, mom, no, no, no . . . that bit doesn’t work at all.” Quite the sifting process, but I’m in too deep now to back out. Stay tuned – like my mom, I can’t help but talk about my writing.

  4. oldmainer says:

    That is so amazing. A once in a lifetime opportunity. I had a great aunt that was supposedly a writer and poet. When she died, her brother burned all her stuff. Said it was only scribbling. If only it could have survived.

    • I literally cringed when I read your words about someone burning a writer’s yet unpublished work. Then I started to think – perhaps that is what the great aunt would have wished for – maybe she never wanted her work read by others. Cue up an image of the great J.D. Salinger burning up his own work so no one would make a discovery after he was gone. But do writers have such a right? Stories have power in and of themselves, beyond the hand that penned them. Creation will find its way out into the world. Yes – if only the great aunt’s scribbling could have survived.

      • oldmainer says:

        I don’t think she ever published. Her husband was a schooner/freighter captain and was gone a lot. They had no children. Suspect this helped fill the hours. Still, I wish something had survived so I could at least have had a glimpse of her style and perspective. Oh well!!!!

  5. isabelburt says:

    I really identify with this story. My mother was writing her ‘book’ for the last thirty years of her life, too. Hers was more autobiographical, but I have little ‘memoirs’ which would now be perfect for blog posts if she had one!
    Your post is very moving, and I think your mother would be happy with whatever you do, in the end. Good luck.

    • What a fascinating idea, Isabel. A themed blog – memoirs of a mother who has gone. Of course, sharing the writing of another is a dangerous process. One can never purely transcribe – always the temptation to tinker. But that’s okay because there is no such thing as purity in fiction. My thought for the day! Thanks for your kind words.

  6. Incredible, Francis! I think this is one of those experiences that could turn into something really special — and big. I’m already seeing a movie with Meryl Streep as your mother…

    Terrific too that the ms is on restaurant placemats.

    • Your comment had my imagination running wild with possibilities, Kevin. Thank you! My mind jumped from an image of Meryl Streep leaning over my shoulder to the idea that the book could be written to include the finding of the fragmented manuscript, the ghostly presence of a mother guiding the daughter’s hand. The writing could cut back and forth between some sort of present day reality and the found story. Then I imagined that perhaps the now totally fictional mother wrote this manuscript to tell a story that is NOT fiction – now the daughter has a real life transcript of a crime on her hands – albeit fragmented. Starting to sound like a fascinating movie. But who will play the amazing daughter – that is the question that now haunts me. I must find an actor who is a cross between my internal image of myself (a sort of grey haired Demi Moore) and my real world image (more Kathy Bates). Okay, enough of these crazed speculations.

  7. cherylreaume says:

    Fran
    This brought back so many memories of your mom. I can picture her long curly hair and beautiful smile. I remember reading the piece she wrote for you and Bruce at you’re wedding.
    Wow I can’t believe she has been gone for 16 years.

  8. Roy McCarthy says:

    That’s amazing Francis, an incredible story. You have no idea where the rest of the m/s might be? I think, if found, I’d yield to the original.
    On the question of simultaneous WIPs, yes absolutely. I find it keeps both fresh and alive.

    • Well – the search is certainly on, now, to locate any other part of it. My son has been charged with digging through a couple of other boxes left in storage. If found, the question then would become – what version is most true to the characters and the story they need to tell. Quite the judgement call – right? And I suspect I would lack the objectivity to make that call. I have been loving the back and forth of the simultaneous WIP’s – though I am more exhausted than I’ve felt in a while.

  9. Gemma Hawdon says:

    Wow, that’s incredibly exciting – and to be so intimately connected to your mum once again. I think you should keep going, it sounds like you’ve hit on something very, very special 🙂

  10. Gwen Stephens says:

    Fran, I got goosebumps reading this. While my father didn’t leave a writing legacy, every now and then I stumble upon a relic of his life that gives me the same feeling you described — that he’s standing over my shoulder. Love ones who are gone but never forgotten impact our lives. I feel like you’ve been given this great gift, and as a writer I can relate. Strike while the iron is hot. Pursue this with all your passion and finish/revise/edit the manuscript. Even if the missing pages are found someday, write it the way you think it should be. Then, if you decide to publish it someday, give your mom the credit she deserves. Put both your names on that title page. Maybe include a Forward that tells readers the origin of the book. As the folks as Nike would say, Just Do It.

    • I love the idea that I could bring this book to publication and share authorship with my mom. It’s like coming full circle in some ways. Yup – I totally agree – just do it! Thanks Gwen.

  11. Cate Macabe says:

    I used to daydream of finding a letter from my mom that had been hidden away somewhere, a letter addressed to me in which she shared her love for me one last time. I think you have found something even better in your mother’s manuscript, and it has become a part of you. If you finish it, it will be as if you wrote it together. What a blessing.

    • I love the way you have expressed this, Cate – to think of it as a letter (albeit in a bit of code) that my mom has written just for me – a discovery maybe she always hoped I would make. And the best part, as you say, is that it already feels like we’re working together on something. It is a gift and a blessing.

  12. This is wonderful! You’ll be honoring your mother by getting this finished and published. What a great treasure for you to find.

    • I totally agree – treasure indeed. The more I delve into the many routes that this story could take the more I realize how fortunate I am. Of course, then I have moments of paralyzing fear but that is how I always feel at some point in a project. Onward, onward – it’s all we can do.

  13. I LOVE this post and I am so very excited for you. What a wonderful, wonderful thing…to find such a huge piece of your mother when she’s been so gone so long and…to recover such a huge part of your childhood. What a gift. Emotion-evoking for sure. I don’t think you’re crazy at all. Don’t let her go.

    Off to reblog!

    • I have to remember that I’m not crazy as the papers clutter every surface within sight and everything is mixed up and I start wanting to find the rest of this manuscript more than anything else – even though I know that is unlikely. So like human nature to go from excited to grasping. Thanks for the support.

  14. Reblogged this on hazyshadesofme and commented:
    A lucky writer friend found a very special gift. Read about it here:

  15. Ms. Roz says:

    As others have commented this is truly a treasure and I can completely understand how the urge to finish it has become a driving force in you. I am a firm believer that there are incidents that happen in our lives that bring something special into our lives and I believe that this is one of them for you. Through this project not only do you get to remember and relive those moments you had with your mother as a child, but you also get to finish something that she probably would’ve loved to have finished. It is truly amazing and I can’t wait to hear that you have finished it!

    • Hi Ms. Roz – nice to meet you on my blog. I can definitely attest to the fact that my mom would have loved to see that book published. Now, whether she’s going to love what I decide to do with what she left – that might be another question. But, oh what an exiting journey I have embarked upon.

  16. Pat Benson says:

    how wonderful that you are making your mom’s project your own. best wishes

  17. P. C. Zick says:

    What a gift you have received. Of course, you must follow it through. I just came out of something similar. I took my great grandfather’s journal of the Civil War and typed it up, revising as I went. I didn’t know the man, but his words resonated with me and I knew I needed to share his insights. Onward!

  18. […] of my regular readers will remember that about this time last year I did a blog post about having found a small portion of a manuscript my mom had been working on for years. Pages […]

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