Writing with Granddad
For several months, I’ve been working with my grandfather on a story of his life. He’s now 91 years old, into his tenth decade, and has always been a natural story-teller with a sharp memory and a good sense of humor.
I’d been making recordings and taking notes for years, but only recently the right confluence of available time and mental energy inspired me to begin organizing, documenting, and researching the many tales he has told me since I was a child.
The process typically starts with his conveying a story, either through an interview-style conversation, a recording, or his own writing. If we’re talking, there’s often a lot of “You understand?” punctuating. Sometimes he draws diagrams or maps — ostensibly to illustrate his points but mostly to make sure I’m grasping everything. Then, I type up a draft, which he reads and comments on.
When a new version of an iPad came out, I gave him my old one and began emailing drafts to him.
Once, I was going over a piece with him. “I completely rewrote these first three paragraphs — just clear this stuff out,” he said, gesturing with his pen to the iPad propped up on his leg.
“These paragraphs are ok.” He indicated a section further down. Then he handed me several pages of notes.
Another day, I called him about some changes I had made. “I sent this to you again — can you read it?”
“Oh, is it on my Facebook?” My grandfather thinks his iPad and Facebook are the same thing. I started to explain, Well, it’s on your iPad in your email, not on Facebook. But instead I just said, “Yes.”
“Oh, dammit …” I heard him mutter over the line and knew he was clicking the wrong thing.
Another few seconds went by. “You have ‘drove’ but he didn’t drive it. He towed it. The word you want there is ‘towed.’ You understand?”
“Ok. Got it.”
“Got it? ‘Towed.’ T-O-W-E-D.”
At 10 p.m. on a Friday night, I called him while I was trying to finish up one scene. I knew he would be awake but I still asked, “I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“No, wrastling is on.”
“Well, I just sent you that story. Read it, when you get a chance, and let me know if everything’s correct.”
A few minutes later my phone rang.
“Ok, it’s very good. I just found a few errors.” Then he read the story back to me, orally correcting typos and questioning word choice.
Occasionally he would suddenly start reading again paragraphs earlier, and I knew he must have lost his place on the screen.
“You’re way back. You’ve got to scroll down some more.”
“Oh, ok,” he said and found the spot again.
When he finished he told me, “Ok, that’s it… It’s very good.”
The nice part about the emails was he had a record of what we had already done and could easily retrieve them to read.
“Did you make those corrections?” he asked me once. “I was looking at it earlier and it didn’t change on mine.”
“No, that was an email. I’ll send you a new copy.”
“Oh, it won’t change on my Facebook?”
“Not until I send you a new one.”
Later, I told him I had sent him an updated copy of the story.
“Ok, did you send it to my Facebook?”
“I’ll study up on it.”
Eventually, I think he got tired of reading on “Facebook” and began hinting that he would prefer hard copies. Double-spaced, if possible.
So I bought a printer and now provide double-spaced — “according to your specifications,” I told him once, and he grinned — printouts for him to mark up, which he does, promptly. He signs all completed edits with “OK” and his initials.
Though he no longer has an archive of electronic drafts, he seems to find the paper copies easier for his editorial work.
Once, while going over a story, he told me, “I didn’t rewrite every paragraph.” He flipped through the papers. “You can just ignore this,” he said, indicating most of the pages I had typed up, “and write that.” He pointed to several sheets of paper covered in his traditional cursive.
Recently, I stopped by and saw my folder on the table. I asked, “Oh, did you get to look over this one? Should I take it back?”
“If it has my initials and ‘OK’ it’s ready,” he replied with a hint of impatience.
I suppose I should really know the process by now.