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Essay: Why I Write

My paternal grandparents in their courting days. She lived to age 101. Photo 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.

Gravesite in Toms River, New Jersey, of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Photo 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. 

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

With my mom and dad when "Having Our Say" was at the Booth Theater on Broadway. 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 respect for 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.

 

I loved living in South Carolina, but as a sensitive and observant child with a strong sense of justice, I was appalled at segregation. The incidents I witnessed have stayed with me throughout my life.

 

Living in Florida as a young adult was also an eye-opener. Florida is where I was a cub reporter on a daily newspaper, covering everything from crime to local politics. 

 

Whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction, what I hope resonates in my books is human experience in its truest form. We are strange creatures, capable of greatness but also astonishing cruelty. A book can be light-hearted or profound, tragic or funny, sweet or cruel, depressing or inspiring, or some combination of the above, but most importantly, it must ring true if it is to have any meaning.

 

Being a writer is my way of trying to understand the world, although I realize I never really shall, and neither will anyone else. That is the way it is. In life, there is always a mystery just beyond the next hill. Grappling with curiosities and challenges, and finding words that illuminate the varied experiences of life, are not a choice. Being a writer is simply who I am.

Copyright 2019 Amy Hill Hearth. Permission for use may be granted by request. Please send an email to Amy Hill Hearth at the link on this page.