Amazingly, one can grow up in a specific location and become a part of it and yet know little about some of its most amazing history. For me, that place was Knox County, Tennessee, and I'm still uncovering unknown (to me, anyway) tid-bits of its history.
For example, I never knew until I was in a college history course that a major battle took place in Knoxville during the War Between the States. I grew up thinking that Fort Sanders was just one of the three major hospitals in the city: Baptist, St. Mary's, and Fort Sanders Presbyterian hospitals. Our teachers simply never mentioned the battle that Northern newspapers of the time ranked alongside the Battle of Gettysburg in importance.
Another example was the fact that a famous novelist had lived in Knoxville and a nearby town. Perhaps the name Frances Hodgson Burnett means as little to you as it did to me until a couple of years ago when I read an issue of The Journal of East Tennessee History, which contained an article on her life and work.
Although she was British born, Miss Hodgson emigrated with her family (sans her father, who had died in 1853) to the United States in 1865, when she was in her early teens. They settled in New Market, Tennessee, which is located a few miles northeast of Knoxville. She began writing there when she was 19, her stories being published in various magazines. In 1873, she married Swan Burnett, a Knoxville doctor. She continued to write while rearing their children.
Even if Burnett's name doesn't ring a bell for you, you no doubt have heard of some of her novels: Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885-86), A Little Princess (1905), or The Secret Garden (1911).
But this post is not about Burnett and her writing. Rather, it is about a quotation I read recently that reminded me of her works, one in particular.
Sol Stein (if you're a writer, you surely have heard of him) wrote, "In our not-yet-acknowledged secret garden lie the seeds of some of our best not-yet-written stories."
That quotation reminded me of Burnett's novel The Secret Garden and the movie that was based on that book. But it also brought to mind the truth of Stein's statement.
Deep in the dark recesses of our memories lie the seeds for countless stories. Once resurrected, brought into the light of our memories, we will be compelled to tell them, to write about them in an effort to preserve them for posterity.
The problem is that we will be tempted to resist that compulsion because some of those memories may prove hurtful, to ourselves or, we fear, to others. And we will be tempted to suppress the memories lest we reveal our own vulnerability or for fear of hurting someone else or because we doubt if our memory is trustworthy to tell it right or we doubt our ability to share it convincingly or entertainingly.
But we must resist the urges to suppress our memories and to leave our stories untold. If we don't tell them--let the chips fall where they may--who will? Perhaps somewhere out there is someone who needs our story.
But what if it hurts us to tell the story, to relive the memory, as we must if we are to tell it convincingly? Robert Frost declared, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." Sometimes writing causes pain in the author, but that often is what makes for the best, most effective, most memorable writing.
We must enter the secret garden of our lives, recognize the seeds sprouting wild in its corners and crevices, and cultivate and care for them--fertilizing, weeding, pruning as necessary--so that we can share stories that will inform, inspire, even entertain, and motivate to positive action those who read them.
Rather than leaving our secret garden to grow wildly, like the stereotypical chaotic and random "English garden," we must organize it, weed, plan, cultivate, categorize, and label our memories--and then write them.
What story seeds lie hidden within the recesses of your secret garden of memories? What are you doing to cultivate and share those memories in your writing?
Venture into that garden. Look around for the small, stray seeds. And find ways to cultivate them into story bouquets or crops that you can share with others.
On the walls of my office are two declarative statements that often have motivated me. One says, "Write your own life story." The other says, "Home is where your story begins." Within that home is an oft-neglected area, the secret garden.