Words and Photos By Rebecca T. Dickinson
I did not believe I had much of a story from my childhood and youth. Sure my mom said there were family stories I could write. She didn’t understand those stories, to me, were inside jokes. An aunt told me I needed to experience life and one day I’d be an author … maybe, when I hit forty. Not much inspiration of my personal life reflected on early pages; at least not what I consider good stuff.
I developed a habit at an early age to ask people, who I felt were approachable, questions about where they came from, their family, and what growing up was like. I asked these questions because the friends I made, most of the time, were not main stream. To most who knew me, I did not suit the main stream of having nails done or anything in teen fashion. Most of my friends had something different about them whether they moved from another state, country or were just different in an awesome way. Something about them captured my attention.
When I asked those questions, I gained a skill essential to my career as a history student, journalist and now as a freelance writer. I later found the significance in my personal life. Believe me, I dug up a treasure trove, but the ability to ask questions gave me something some writers can lack if they are not careful: curiosity.
Writers should have curiosity, but it is sometimes lost when we focus on the pressure – which we place on ourselves – from the publishing industry or someone else we want to impress instead of first typing something on the page.
My grandmother told me, like many others, “Write what you know.” I have a lot experience; been many places; and I have some stories. I did not want to write a novel with a character semi based on me.
In a creative writing class in 2005, my teacher invited an author. I do not remember her name or the title of her book. It was a historical fiction novel about a Soviet botanist who was later purged by Stalin. She said a Russian reader was hesitant and doubtful about the work she—the American author—had done. She had never visited Russia, but she did research on the same island where the botanist had performed his research. The author forever changed my perception of writing.
She said you can use what you know, but write about what interests you. I’ve also been told write what you fear.
When I started my senior research paper about Kate Salley Palmer, I interviewed her and a former South Carolina representative—a female—who opposed the women’s rights movement. I heard the pain in Kate’s voice as she told detailed memories from college; girls who committed botched abortions.
I knew I could write, but I was also interested in writing about others or stories influenced by others. Yes, I experienced it through the very pain in their voices on my recorders. I heard the confessions, the nervousness in talking to me, and the setting. Who would know better than the person telling the story?
What was my job?
First, a historian. Ask questions.
“Honest history answers our questions only by asking something of us in return.”
~Edward L. Ayers
As a news staff writer, I told other people’s stories. Like an actor on the stage, I ceased to be myself. I wandered in their heads, pulled at their most sacred thoughts related to the story, and used the information for print.
Sons of the Edisto meant I had to ask my father a lot of questions. I interviewed other people about growing up in the Great Depression down to in what and how people bought their sugar. I took in every detail, and of course, double checked it.
I think writers must ask questions. They must ask each other questions, because that is the only way we learn. Where do you find your stories? Why are they important to you?