So an interesting thing happened with my family. I was asked (at the last moment) to write my grandmother’s obituary, and for a whole minute, I was really proud. This was something I could do. I wanted to use a few brief words and paint a picture of my grandmother as an extraordinary woman. I was in the middle of getting feedback (everybody wanted to change something) when my uncle took my words, completely rewrote them, and said, “Okay, how’s this?”
And I was devastated.
Words were my grandmother and grandfather’s playground. They read, they played scrabble, they wrote stories. Grandma worked in counter espionage during WWII, and her mind was sharp and literate, even til the end, when she would sit for an hour with a bowl of bananagrams and make word puzzles just as she saw them. She loved my writing–she didn’t give a shit which genre I wrote in, she loved that I had books, books in print, and that people loved them and reviewed them. She’d once contributed to a book that sat in the Library of Congress. She told me, with dancing eyes, that every now and then she got a teeny, tiny little royalty check from that, and, back before I’d published, I thought that was the absolute shit. That was awesome. I wanted to do that.
Nobody even thought of asking me to write the obituary for grandpa. That was fine–I wrote a tribute to him in the blog, and I’m still proud of that, but this was acknowledgment, I guess, from my family, that I could honor a memory and do it well.
The thing my uncle wrote was very ordinary.
That alone isn’t something to hold against him (although I do, very much so, since that’s what’s going to press) but what I truly, truly am angry about is this:
He knew not what he had done.
Words were sacred to my grandparents. They understood the power of a well placed word. They were, as far as I know, the source from which my love of language sprang. They must be–it’s either that, or I just popped, fully formed, under the base of a mushroom like any other changeling.
To take someone else’s words, mutilate them, and smear them out on the page like thought-jelly and call it art–another writer will understand my pain. At the very least, it was a dick move. At the worst, it was a real statement that my thoughts have no value unless they’re digested through his brain first.
My grandmother would have gotten it. She would have known that you don’t do that to another person’s words–not when you’re working in a group. That’s rude, and obnoxious, and completely disrespectful.
My uncle didn’t understand at all why I would be offended. He’d just made the obit “more palatable”. I spent a day putting together information, boiling it down, choosing stuff to write about, embedding quotes. That was a day to produce 595 words. (I found out later that my uncle had a hard word limit—at the very least, that would have been good to know going in.) Those of you who know me, and know how hard I work to put out 2,000 words at the very least, per day, know that I was doing some hard thinking, and some diligent work to make this perfect. I would have cut, honed, word-picked and word-smithed to make this amazing, if only I had been given the chance.
But that’s because I know that words shape our history, our ideas, our world. The difference between a horrible experience and a funny story is all in the telling. The difference between a citizenry and cattle is the understanding of language. The difference between an old building and a church is all in the words.
So my uncle called to say he didn’t understand why I was offended, and I wanted to tell him that he had kicked down the door of my sanctuary and shat in my temple, but he wouldn’t understand. The very act of co-opting another writer’s work and regurgitating it as something less makes him almost incapable of understanding. He simply wouldn’t get it, and me?
I was at a loss for words.