Writing (and reading) for Family
Earlier this year I decided I wanted to write something for my grandmother on her 100th birthday in September. I thought whatever I wrote could be private, for her to read and remember, but as the party planning got more elaborate, I was placed on the schedule of events. I'd be reading "Reflections." When I learned that there would be an audience I tweaked what I'd written and then I filed it away. That was in July.
I need about two months between finishing a piece and looking at it again for revision. By then I'm less attached to what I wrote the first time. It just so happened that in August and September, I was so busy with work and family that all I had time to do was read it a second time. I didn't make any revisions. I told myself that the piece was fine. I promised myself I'd look at it again when we got to Atlanta for the party. I pictured myself on the hotel bed with my laptop, making changes, reading it aloud. Of course, that never happened.
I was anxious, then, because I had not revised my "reflections." There would be 300 people in attendance, and a lot of them would be church folks that I didn't want to offend or bore. Let's be real, a churchgoing audience is used to a different type of rhetoric than you find in a quiet essay. I guess I was also nervous that my father, brothers, nephew, sister-in-law, cousins, uncles, aunties would be there to listen. I'd never shared with them a personal essay that I'd written.
I also kept replaying a scene from the movie, "Death at a Funeral" starring Chris Rock. In it, Rock plays a writer who's been working on a novel for forever. He's a serious brooding type with little sense of humor. At his father's funeral, Rock reads a eulogy which is filled with the kind of flat and boring historical facts that just won't fly with black folks at a funeral. I'd filled my essay for my grandmother with flat historical facts. I mean, how else do you talk about living for an entire century?
And then, at the party other people got up and started saying the same historical stuff that I'd written. Even if it wasn't exactly the same in content it was in spirit. Unoriginal ideas are not something we writers strive for.
I started revising in my head. I began mentally cutting and pasting. "The beginning was boring," I thought. I'd start with the third paragraph.
Reflections were scheduled at the close of the event. There were two readers of reflections: me and one of my grandmother's friends. The friend was from a senior citizens group that meets to play bingo and such. This gray-haired woman was exactly the type of phenomenal speaker you never want to follow. She had no notes. She was funny. She told personal stories about my grandmother that were endearing and specific. I am certain that the words she spoke were mostly spontaneous. She was brilliant.
When it was my turn, I walked up to the front with my two typed pages. I decided right there not to read the first page. Instead I just talked. i told them how I'd fretted about this reading. How I'd researched all these historical facts which were not really relevant. I told them that I was happy I'd done the research because it helped me understand the dilemma I faced when talking about my grandmother. On the one hand, I was reading about an America pre-voting rights for women, pre-civil rights for blacks, and a world where a lot of ugly things were happening. On the other hand, there was Rubie and her constant laughter, her flowering garden, her delicious pound cakes. I told them that it was hard to reconcile these very different images without conceding that maybe Mama Rubie's life was blessed. I admitted that "blessed" is not a word I often use but that it seemed appropriate to describe a woman who thrived despite such low expectations.
I then shared a few personal stories and read from the end of the essay. This was a section of the essay that was written more like a prose poem. I got a little emotional as I read, but it was an emotional day.
I heard Toni Morrison say once that the revising is never done, not even after publication. I'd add that the revision process continues even as you walk to the mic.