JK Rowling, E.L. James and many other famous writers with initials for first names have also offered their
condolences kudos for writing tips that have been called “…Hemmingway-like, at least in terms of questionable sobriety.”
But long before literary giants and their lawyers began using court-appointed messengers to send accolades requiring my signature, there was someone whose kudos and opinion meant more than any other — and still would if she were alive today. I’m talking, of course, about Barbara Walters.
Ha! Of course I’m not actually talking about Barbara Walters who, as we all know, once called my writing tips “Kwap.” Plus, I’m pretty sure she’s still alive.
No, the person whose opinion and laughter always meant the most was my grandmother, who would’ve celebrated her 102nd birthday today. That photo of her was taken on Mother’s Day in 2008, one day after turning 96, and three days before she passed away. As I sat down to write this week’s NWOW, I thought of how I’ve written about finding your muse, the importance of establishing your voice as a writer, and how being a writer really comes down to believing in and accepting yourself as one. And while the examples I offered in those posts were purposely general enough to be accessible and relatable to everyone, in my own life it was my grandmother’s encouragement and example that set me on an early path to finding those things as a writer.
And there’s no denying the influence her sense of humor had on the direction I took with my writing. When I was a child, she fostered my budding attempts at writing and humor by creating an environment of acceptance and honesty. She laughed at the good stuff, chuckled at the lame stuff and was the first to tell me when an occasional joke attempt was in the wrong spirit.
“Don’t make anyone the butt of a joke unless you’re willing to show your own cheeks first,” she once told me. It’s a rule I still try to follow whenever I write. Keep in mind she never knew of Justin Bieber, in which case I’m sure she would have agreed he’s the exception to that rule.
When I was in seventh-grade, I came home one day complaining about all the reading I had to do. Being a voracious reader, my grandmother appeared disappointed by my remarks as she laid her book in her lap and lowered her glasses, then asked what I was reading.
“Dumb stuff about a guy hunting a whale,” I said.
“Yeah,” I said, then giggled at the title, which sounded extra funny coming from my grandmother.
“Oh right, that word’s pretty funny.”
“What word?” I asked, still giggling and wondering if she’d say it.
“You don’t think I’ll say it, do you?” she asked. “Fine, but don’t dare tell your mother.”
As I stood wide-eyed in disbelief at what was about to happen, my grandmother cleared her throat and then repeated: “Moby, Moby, Moby!”
We both laughed, then as I walked I heard her say, “It could be worse, you know.”
I turned to see her her face obscured by the book she was reading.
“You could be stuck with ‘The Open Kimono by Seymour Hair’ or ‘The Frantic Tiger by Claude Balls,'” she said, then turned a page for emphasis.
By noon the next day, EVERY seventh grader at Jane Addams Middle School was apparently “reading” one of those two books — and I have to credit my grandmother with the closest I’ve come to experiencing celebrity status. I also have to credit her with a trip to the principal’s office by 12:30 that day. I never gave her up until now, but I’m pretty sure there’s a statute of limitations on that sort of thing.
I think each of us has that reader we write for, imagined or otherwise, who plays a different kind of mentor role in our lives as writers. They inspire us in some way to strive for our best with each word, paragraph and finished piece. They’re the ones whose example and encouragement — intended or otherwise — we turn to when we need reminding of why we do what we do, and where our writing first takes root while simultaneously taking flight.
As important as it is for writers to explore the tools and creative processes that enable us to do what we do, and hopefully continue to climb higher, it’s just as important to remember those who first gave us wings.
Thank you, Nonnie, for being my unspoken mentor.
And thank you, Dear Reader, for allowing me a few minutes tell you about her.