The Only Way to Answer the Question My Grandfather’s Papers Left Us

My uncle inherited my grandfather’s old papers. He would read them all one day, he told himself… he digitized them without reading them… because he would read them later… and then one day, over 25 years after my grandfather died, he started reading my grandfather’s autobiographical writings. One of the first stories he stumbled on grabbed him so hard he organized the autobiographical scribbles into a memoir.

So far, I’ve only read Volume 1, which includes the story which lit a fire under my uncle’s butt. What’s makes this 15-page story strong enough to end decades of procrastination?

I also just finished reading The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne… which has an explanation.

According to the book, all stories have an External Genre and/or an Internal Genre. A purely External Genre story can entertain, but to stay with the audience long after they read/see/hear it, a story must combine External and Internal Genres.

This story from my grandfather which grabs people (or at least my uncle and I) has both an External Genre and an Internal Genre. The External Genre is ‘Love Story.’ The Internal Genre is ‘Worldview/Maturation.’

But having both an External and an Internal Genre isn’t enough; they must also have opposite valences. ‘Valence’ whether a story moves from negative to positive or positive to negative. By the end, has the situation gotten better, or worse?

At the beginning of this story, my grandfather was 19 years old. He’d already had sex with women his own age, and he wanted more. In these relationships, he cared about pleasuring himself, not how the relationship affected his partners. By the end of the story, my grandfather was very concerned with how his actions affected his sexual partners and whether they were happy. Obliviousness -> empathy. This is a positive valence.

Since the Internal Genre story “Worldview/Maturation” has a positive valance, to make this story memorable, the External Genre story, “Love Story,” needs a negative valence.

By now, you can figure out what the major plot twist in my grandfather’s story is.

He didn’t even have a way to contact her. He never heard from her again.

I haven’t told you who the love interest was, or where this took place, or how they met, or why they interested each other, or anything like that. Those details add depth to the story, but Love Story/Unhappy-Ending plus Maturation/Happy-Ending forms this story’s beating heart.

No, there’s more. We have a mystery: where did she go? This question forced my grandfather to think about the situation from her point of view.

Now we’ve inherited the unanswerable question. My uncle searched for photos. Though he found photos of other people featured in this story (such as the guy who introduced my grandfather to this woman), he found no photo of her.

I’ll never find out what happened to her as an individual. So instead, I’m learning about what happened to people like her. So far, I’ve picked up two books to help me on my quest. My grandfather guessed that she went to Bordeaux, France. My research, however, suggests that people like her most likely went to Argentina or South Africa. Perhaps she has descendants living in those countries. But this is speculation.

Maybe if my grandfather had a definitive answer, even something like, ‘she went to New York City’ (unlikely, but not impossible) this story would lose gravitas. Because we don’t know, the audience—in this case, my grandfather, my uncle, and myself—must imagine ourselves in her shoes. That’s the only way to find any answers. That’s the empathy lesson.

This mystery keeps this story alive long after my grandfather’s death.

Sometimes the stories which teach us most about the craft of storytelling are not the ones from professional storytellers, but the ones from our own memories—or our families’ memories.

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