Essay: Why I Write

My paternal grandparents in their courting days. She lived to age 101. (Copyright Amy Hill Hearth)
I was raised in a family that cherishes its elders. Perhaps this is why I love older people and their stories. My paternal grandmother died in 1997 at the age of 101. My great-grandma lived into her 90s. Several great-aunts lived to their late 90s and past the century mark.

I grew up knowing that older people deserve respect and attention. I understood (in a way that many people apparently do not) that older people were not, in fact, always old. Indeed, they were once young. And middle-aged. And they had many stories to tell.

My mother's parents, who were of German descent, came to America through Ellis Island in 1921. They were ill, and were kept at Ellis Island for several months.

My mom is a first-generation American, born in Chicago, Illinois. She is also the first person in her family to go to college. (Copyright Amy Hill Hearth)
From them I came to understand the immigrant experience in America, the difficulties assimilating, the longing at times for a home faraway. From what they'd been through, I saw what it was like to be poor, to hope for more, to work in sweatshops, on farms, or mopping the floors of the rich until your fingers bled. And I realized how lucky I was to be American-born and have a head start.

Through my father's bloodline, I am a thirteenth generation American. His ancestors include a Dutch woman who arrived in America via shipwreck, a female Lenni-Lenape Indian born circa 1700, and a band of brothers who fought against the British during the Revolutionary War. These were some tough people. From what I've been able to learn they, too, were poor although their quality of life was probably quite good. In the early part of the 1900s, they started leaving the farm life. My grandfather went to Cornell, Class of 1922, and eventually became a very successful businessman who served on FDR's National War Labor Board.

Stories surround us everywhere we look. As a child, I recall playing in a converted ice house near my paternal grandparents' cottage in Lake George, N.Y. I spent many a rainy day in that old ice house. It seemed magical to me.

My dad at age five in 1929. (Copyright Amy Hill Hearth)
Long before my time, the ice house had been turned into a garage, guest room, and storage area, and it seemed to have become a repository of family memorabilia. It was my portal to the past. There were cannon balls and bullet fragments from the Civil War, ancient wedding rings of gold as thin as thread, and photographs of serious and somewhat scary-looking people, but I understood that these were my people - long dead, yes - but mine. Whoever they had been, they had saved these items for me. And so I had a comfort level with history and the past that is probably unusual.

One of the challenges of my childhood - which in retrospect turned out to be a blessing - was that we moved several times. My mother was a homemaker and my father, an electrical engineer and marketing executive, a profession which involved relocating every five or six years. The experience of living in Columbia, South Carolina from age 6 to 12 during the 1960s was pivotal for me.

My dad, who enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 at the age of 18. (Copyright Amy Hill Hearth)
By living in the Deep South during my formative years, I acquired an ability with language and storytelling that is uniquely Southern. At the same time, I became aware of racial injustice and inequality in our society. I attended a segregated school. I saw drinking fountains labeled "Colored" and "White." From a young age, I became a person who asked questions. I saw unfairness, and asked why.

These are the qualities, experiences and values that I bring to the table each time I interview someone and later, when I sit at my writing desk, hoping to capture his or her story for posterity.

I suppose it's no coincidence that when I tried my hand at fiction, my mind would turn to the past for inspiration. In fact, the narrator in my first novel is an older woman - 80 year old Dora Witherspoon - who is ready to share a story from her youth.

My parents on their wedding day in 1950. (Copyright Amy Hill Hearth)
"I want young'uns to know about my time and place, the people I knew, and a world that's all but gone," Dora says.

Whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction, these are the stories I feel compelled to write. How else can we learn if not by sharing stories from the past? Reading, writing, and storytelling are acts of love. Stories may be light-hearted or profound, tragic or funny, sweet or cruel, depressing or inspiring, but at best what they really must do is to resonate. Stories are small gifts that transcend time and place, opening hearts and minds along the way.


Copyright 2017 by Amy Hill Hearth.