The other day I was driving in the car and on Radio National an interview came on that really peaked my interest:
Elizabeth Gilbert was being interviewed live at the Perth Writers Festival (you can listen to the podcast here).
In the interview, where she was discussing her book, The Signature of All Things, she mentioned how it had taken her three full years to research the novel as it was an historical novel set I think in at the turn of the 17th century and she wanted it to be, as all good historical novelists do, as plausible and sensitive to the time as possible.
Liz, as the interviewer was calling her, mentioned that one of the greatest resources she discovered was the letters of a housewife who lived in Philadelphia at the time in which Liz’s book was based. She said that these diaries were such a rich source of every day living, gave such an incredible insight into what the every day person’s life was like, that any historical novelist worth his weight in salt would refer to these letters. She explained that letter writing in those days were much like email is today. For the very literate, 60-odd letters would be posted using four mails a day and so these letters were an incredible gift to the historical writer.
Fast forward to the twenty first century and a couple of weeks ago I read this article saying how we are at risk of losing an entire century of memories because largely we write via email, and store all our photos electronically, and because technology moves so incredibly rapidly, the programs used to access those things will very soon become defunct. We are already victims of this. How many of us have floppy disks we cannot access, or video cassettes of family we are unable to watch?
So when I listened to Elizabeth’s interview, I was moved.
I find as we get older, or at least as I get older, I really long to know what life was like for women of my age in years gone by. Life for my grandmother at the age of 47 was vastly different to mine today. I love history, and stories, especially stories of people going about the business of living their lives. I love the thread that binds us in this generation to the ones before us. How did I evolve into the person I am today?
And it occurred to me that I am a housewife, living an ordinary life.
Not much in that really, you might think, to write about. Hardly worth the effort at all. Except, had not that housewife in Philadelphia taken the time to sit at her desk, probably using letter writing much like we use Facebook to break our boring day, Elizabeth Gilbert and other novelists like her, writing 200 years after that housewife had died, would never know truly what living an ordinary life in 1800 might be like. And maybe, just maybe, that book, drawing so richly on what everyday life was like back then, may never have been written.
I once read that if you want to be remembered after you are dead (and I have mentioned this before I am sure), you should do something worth writing about or write something worth reading. I bet that housewife had no idea that her letters would be studied and gleaned over a million times: she just wrote because she felt she had something to say. She had her story to tell and letters were her vehicle. Who is to say that what we write isn’t worth reading?
It’s worth documenting how we live our lives every day. The routine of it, the mundanity of it, the sparks within an otherwise boring day that somehow make life worth living. We don’t have to think of something original to say, or pick out the best bits. Just tell it like it is. Write those letters and if you blog, blog those letters, and then print them off for safe keeping.
I’m going to start doing that. It’s important. An informal memoir of our lives, a legacy. And who knows perhaps your ordinary life will form the basis of a novel in a couple of hundred years. Certainly something to consider don’t you agree?
Until next time,