I just got the bad news that my Friend Joyce McNeill passed away. I first met Jo several years ago, when I was invited to join a writers group for children’s book writers. There were only 5 of us, and for a couple of years we would meet every week, drink hot tea and read each other a chapter or so from our latest novel and offer up critique on each others work. The heard both of my books before they were published (and helped a lot to improve them too).
Jo was our host for the weekly meetings and walking into her rambling country home was always a treat, especially on cold and snowy nights. She would prepare a warm and gooey snack for us, like a baked eggplant dip, or a warm cheese bowl, and after a few minutes of eating and chit-chat we’d bring our mugs into her living room and sink down into her couches in front of the wood stove. In the summer we’d sip ice tea, eat cookies and on occasion have our meeting on her screened in porch with her huge black dog Sam curled up at our feet.
I loved listening to Jo read her stories to us. She had the best, most soothing reading voice and I remarked (many times) that I wish she would come to my house and read me a bedtime story. In fact while she was reading I would often forget that I was suppose to be critiquing her story, and find myself drawn into the story and being carried away by it. I know I wasn’t the only one who felt like that. Many times other people in my group would encourage her to go on even when her chapter was finished.
And what stories they were! Over the years we got to hear 3-4 completed novels from her. All her books were widely different (one about a girl with Aspergers, another about a family growing up in 1800’s rural Vermont). The last book I heard from her was a fantasy book about a boy who took care of pigs that discovered there was more to him that just being a ‘pig boy.’ But no matter what time period or subject, her stories always felt 100% real and possible. And the stories seemed to pour out of her flawlessly. Oh sure, I don’t know what kind of internal struggles she had, or how many times she re-wrote things before we saw them, but many times after her reading the rest of us would just sit around silently unable to offer any valuable critique. (Sometimes when it was just her and I at the meeting I wouldn’t even let her read anything because I knew I wouldn’t find much flaw with her story and so wanted to wait till more ears were present. In those cases we just sat and chatted for the 2 hours.)
And this is what I mourn for as much as her passing: I mourn for the stories she never got to tell. She was wildly creative and inventive and the death of her means the death of all the characters and stories that were inside her.
Which makes me think: We all have stories inside us. Maybe not literally a novel, but a song you hum absentmindedly, or maybe an idea for a new computer game. Maybe you just want to capture something on canvas, or photo paper. We all have a story tell.
I think each of us has something inside, something that wants to come out, yet we often hide it, or push it away thinking, “my ideas are no good,” or “Why do I think I could be an artist. I don’t even know how to paint,” or the classic, “Who do I think I am that anyone would be interested in what I have to say.”
But when you are gone, so is all the potential, all the opportunity. It’s selfish of you to keep it to yourself when it could inspire, entertain, teach, or change us somehow. I consider myself lucky to have known Jo, and to have heard her stories for so many years. So do everyone a favor and get your own story out where the rest of us can see it!
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