The Power of Story

(Keynote Address at the Blue Ridge Writer’s Conference 2014)

He was Georgia’s best-known Western legend, infamous in his own time and famous in ours for the part he played in the Gunfight at the OK Corral, becoming a celebrity in literature and film, with his character featured in more than 70 movies and TV shows. She was Georgia’s first superstar, her every activity chronicled in newspapers and magazines, with crowds of admirers camping out on her lawn. At Davison’s Department Store, where she’d gone to buy a dress for a big premiere, she was followed into the dressing room by fans who pulled at her hair and tore off her clothes as souvenirs. Yet neither of them was looking for notoriety; they just wanted to live ordinary lives. It was the power of the story that make their lives extraordinary. And amazingly, Doc Holliday and Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind had a family connection.  And to explain that surprising bit of Georgia history, I first need to share some of my own history.  You might call that the story behind the story. 

And my story starts here with my own Mormon pioneer ancestors who crossed the Great Plains in covered wagons to settle the American West in the days of the real cowboys and Indians. One of my grandfathers became president of the Cattleman’s Association in Portland, Oregon. The other left the silver mines of Eureka, Utah behind to mine a different kind of fortune in early pioneer Hollywood.  And that’s when my mother’s cousin came to stay with the family and became a film actress, costarring in a series of movie Westerns, like Silver on the Sage and Hidden Gold with cowboy actor Hopalong Cassidy. Her name was Ruth Rogers—that’s her on the right playing the pretty but plucky love interest. She even did a film with a young John Wayne in The Night Riders.

I grew up hearing stories of Ruth’s Hollywood career, and my favorite of those stories was one about her real-life suitor, the actor Errol Flynn, who was filming his own Hollywood Western, Dodge City, at the time. It was a lavish Technicolor production that featured a romance between Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, who would later that year play Melanie in Gone with the Wind. But the real Errol Flynn wasn’t quite as upstanding as his movie hero character. One night after having had a few too many drinks at the bar, Errol came to my family’s home looking for Ruth, who was out for the evening—so he tried to pick up my mother, instead, who was barely into her teens at the time. She thought he was creepy! So, having that sort of back lot view of Hollywood, I didn’t have the same kind of movie star fascination that other young girls did, but I always loved big dramatic stories, especially those with a sense of history. So it’s likely not surprising that I started college as a history major before changing to English and making a career as a writer. But it was a move to the South that tied real history together with movie history for me, when my husband’s career took us to Georgia. “Go West, Young Man,” said Horace Greely. “Go South, Young Woman,” said Ron Wilcox, first to Atlanta for four years of dental school, then south to Fayette County where I found a Southern house with a Western history I had never heard before. 

It was a classic Southern beauty, a white columned Greek Revival style mansion standing on a tree shaded street just off the Fayetteville town square.  Although I didn’t know if it were actually historic—it could have been one of those mid-20th century colonial reproductions like the ones scattered around Los Angeles—somehow I knew from the first time I saw it that it was special and that someday I’d have something to do with it.  Maybe I’d buy it and open a theme restaurant: “Belle Watling’s Place,” perhaps, playing on the Gone with the Wind look of it, although I don’t like to cook all that much and I never wanted to own a restaurant.  And being a young mother back then, I didn’t really have time to pursue the thought. Then my parents came to Georgia for a visit and wanted to see something historic. I took them to see Macon and Savannah, both filled with wonderful old houses and lots of history. But my father wondered if there wasn’t something historic right there in Fayette County. So I made a phone call to the local historical society to ask about the white-columned house with the long windows and the wide veranda, and got the surprising answer that the house was not only authentically old, circa 1855, but was built by the uncle of the famous Doc Holliday, who used to play there as a child.
“You mean THE Doc Holliday?” I asked, amazed, “from the OK Corral?” 

With my Western heritage and history background, I knew a little something of the dangerous dentist from Georgia who’d had his own Hollywood career in movies like the classic John Ford western My Darling Clementine with Henry Ford as lawman Wyatt Earp and Victor Mature as a hard-drinking medical doctor from Boston named Doc Holliday. Or the somewhat more factual Gunfight at the OK Corral, with Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and a Southern Doc Holliday played by a young Kirk Douglas. Or the epic adventure Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner with a very skinny Dennis Quaid as a very irritable, and irritating Doc Holliday (by the end of the movie I just wanted him to hurry up and die!). Or the fan favorite Tombstone, with Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as a dapper Doc Holliday. But if I ever gave Doc Holliday a thought beyond the movie images, it wasn’t set against the background of a white-columned mansion in Georgia. Yet there he was, a young boy during the Civil War, coming to visit with his Holliday cousins in Fayetteville, in a house that looked like it was right out of Gone with the Wind. Which, in fact, it was. Because for a time the house was used to board students of the local private school, the Fayetteville Academy, a school mentioned in the very first chapter of Gone with the Wind. According to Margaret Mitchell, “Scarlett…had not willingly opened a book since leaving the Fayetteville Academy…”

Of course, there were other Southern Belles who attended the Fayetteville Academy in those long-ago days, including a girl named Annie who was a whole lot like Scarlett O’Hara. Like Scarlett, Annie’s family lived on a big cotton plantation in neighboring Clayton County. Like Scarlett, Annie’s father was a feisty Irish immigrant named Gerald. Like Scarlett, Annie’s mother had green velvet drapes hanging in her parlor windows. And like Scarlett, Annie moved to Atlanta and survived the Civil War with a little bit of grace and a whole lot of gumption. Who does that sound like? Sounds like Scarlett! But there was one rather major difference between the two girls. Scarlett was fictional while Annie was real. Her father wasn’t Gerald O’Hara, but Phillip Fitzgerald, and her mother who owned those green velvet drapes wasn’t Ellen, but Eleanor—and she was Margaret Mitchell’s grandmother.

This is Margaret Mitchell at her writing desk here in the Atlanta apartment building where she wrote Gone with the Wind, and where she insisted that none of her characters were based on real people. And there’s a reason for that. Mitchell’s father was a copyright attorney, and he warned her that she was likely be sued by family members who didn’t like their stories being told. But although Mitchell was always careful to say that her characters were not based on real people, some of them were clearly inspired by real people. But there was one family member who was more than just inspiration. She was Annie Fitzgerald’s cousin, which made her Margaret Mitchell’s cousin twice removed. She was an elderly nun living in Atlanta when Mitchell went to visit her, asking permission to name a character in the book after her. “Just make her a nice person,” the nun said. And who’s the nicest person in Gone with the Wind? So now you know the cousin’s name: Sister  Melanie, and the character named after her was Melanie Hamilton, Ashley Wilkes’ wife.

This is Melanie as portrayed by Olivia de Havilland in the film version of Gone with the Wind. And this is the real Sister Melanie before she became a nun and was known as Mattie Holliday. And amazingly, Mattie Holliday too had a connection to the white-columned Holliday House, as the owner was her uncle and she was one of the cousins who often visited there.  And her favorite of those cousins was a boy named John Henry. According to family stories, he and his cousin Mattie were close as children and sweethearts when they were older.  He was nineteen-years old when he went away to dental school in Philadelphia, and that’s where he got the nickname “Doc” Holliday.  He practiced dentistry in and around Atlanta for awhile, then went West for reasons that are still uncertain.  But some say it was a tragic love affair with his cousin Mattie that sent her to the convent and him running far from home and into a life of legendary Western adventures. So you might say that Melanie from Gone with the Wind was in love with Doc Holliday from the OK Corral, like the Old South meeting up with the Wild West and falling in love.

So if you think, like I did, that the Holliday House looks like something out of Gone with the Wind, you’re right. In fact, it looked so much like Gone with the Wind that Margaret Mitchell is said to have visited at the house and suggested it as a filming site for the movie.Of course, Hollywood wanted something grander, and came up with their own version of Scarlett O’Hara’s upcountry Georgia farmhouse and gave us this magnificent mansion, which was actually just a two-sided set piece with a pair of those native Georgia birds, the white peacock in the yard. But in spite of its literary and legendary connections, there was talk of tearing down the Holliday House to make way for that thing that all cities need: a new parking lot.

So I did what any lover of history and old houses does: I formed a community group and then a non-profit organization to save the Holliday House and turn it into a museum of history. And that’s how I became founding director of the Holliday-Dorsey-Fife House Museum, named after the three famous Georgia families who lived there over the years. We opened to the public in July of 1996, on the day the Olympic torch came through Fayetteville on its long run toward Atlanta. And I learned how hard it is to run a small museum, using every creative opportunity for publicity and funding. My volunteers and I gave house tours and ladies’ group talks and cemetery walks. We put on Old South Balls and held auctions. We hosted spooky evenings of Southern ghost stories in the dark and unrestored rooms of the Holliday House. I wore my blue velvet hoop skirts so often that the children at our local elementary school thought I was Mother Goose.  A clairvoyant who came to the house hoping to see dead people thought I was the ghost of the Holliday House. “The lady in blue!” she cried as I drifted down the staircase to the breezeway between the twin parlors.  “That’s the woman who haunts the Holliday House!”  She thought she’d made the paranormal discovery of the century.  I thought, “Maybe someday.  But I’m not dead yet!”  And I still had work to do. 

Part of that work was telling the story of the Holliday House everywhere I could: in interviews with newspaper and TV reporters, in local and Western magazines, at government meetings and other museums sites. And soon the story had grown into the start of a historical novel, and I knew just what it would be: part Gone with the Wind, part Lonesome Dove, the story of how a Southern boy became a Western legend.  It would be Doc Holliday’s story the way his cousin Mattie might have told it, a Doc Holliday never seen before. For as Mattie said, “He was a much different man than the one of Western legend.” Only problem was, Mattie didn’t elaborate on her comment.  How was he different than the legend?  Why was he different?  And what exactly was the legend?

Short story of the legend is this: Doc Holliday was a Georgia born dentist who was diagnosed with the fatal lung disease called consumption (tuberculosis) shortly after finishing dental school, and was told he had only a few months to live if he didn’t relocate to the high, dry plateau of the Western United States. So he packed his bags and took the train to Dallas, Texas, where he quickly tired of dentistry and made a new life as a gambling gunfighter. Depending on the who’s telling the story, he was either a great shot with a long list of dead men to his count, or a terrible shot who missed every enemy. Since there’s no record of those shootings, it’s anyone’s guess.  But all the stories agree that his fatal diagnosis made him fearless, as he’d rather die in a gunfight with his boots on than die in bed. Meeting lawman Wyatt Earp was the high point of his Western life; taking up with a dance hall girl named Kate Elder was the low point. And fighting alongside the Earps in the famous gunfight at the OK Corral was the best thing he ever did. He and Wyatt were bosom buddies ever after, and Wyatt wrote a touching tribute to him before he died, not with his boots on, but in bed in a sanitarium in the Colorado mountains.

And almost everything I just told you turned out to be not true. But that was the legend and all I had to go on when I started writing. So I started there, planning to use the family history I’d learned at the Holliday House, along with some of the anecdotal information that couldn’t be proven, but seemed to fit. For his Western life, I’d just dramatize the legend as it was already told in several biographies. But I had barely gotten started when I came up against a problem. When I tried to make a timeline based on the several biographies about his life, I discovered that the lines on the timelines didn’t match, the facts didn’t agree—in fact, the facts likely weren’t facts at all.  As Mattie had said, he was a much different man than the one of Western legend, and the legend was mostly wrong. And I came to the realization that if I were going to write about the real Doc Holliday—which was what I wanted to write, real history brought to life—I was going to have to find him first.

So thus began, not the couple of year of writing I had envisioned, but 18 years of research and writing as I followed Doc Holliday everywhere he went. First all over Georgia, from Griffin, where he was born in the last days before the Civil War; to Fayetteville, where his family gathered at the Holliday House; to Jonesboro, the setting of Gone with the Wind where Mattie’s family lived; to Valdosta, where his father refugeed ahead of the advancing Yankee army; to Atlanta, where he practiced dentistry after the War and lived in a big Victorian house with his Holliday cousins; to Savannah, where he took ship and sailed away to dental school. Then I followed Doc Holliday’s story across the country: to Philadelphia, St. Louis, Pensacola, Galveston, Dallas, Denver, Trinidad, Pueblo, Las Vegas, Prescott, Tombstone, Tucson, Leadville, New Orleans, Glenwood Springs. I went everywhere Doc Holliday had been and discovered that what Mattie had said of him was true: he was indeed a much different man than the one of Western legend.  As he said in his own words, “Some few of us pioneers are entitled to credit for what we have done.  We have been the fore runners of government.  If it weren’t for me, and a few like me, there might never have been any government in some of these towns.”

By the time I was done writing his story, it filled three books, because his life was epic. It went from the Gone with the Wind territory of Civil War and Reconstruction to the Wild West and the edge of the modern era. And although the story is huge, it’s very personal, as well, the story of John Henry Holliday. And I was very honored to be named 50th Georgia Author of the Year for Inheritance, the first book in the saga. Gone West, the second book, came out last year and is doing well, and now I’m looking forward to the release of The Last Decision next month.  Doc Holliday’s story has changed my life.  But it’s also changed the towns where his story began.

This was the Holliday House in Fayetteville when I first saw it, an old dowager of a place with peeling paint and cracked windows, its history forgotten and its future looking bleak. Without the story it held of a Western legend and a relationship to Gone with the Wind, without the community interest those stories ignited, the house would likely not be standing still, and a Georgia historic site would be lost. But because of the story, this old house became this new museum, visited by history lovers from all over Georgia and around the world. Because of the story, the Holliday-Dorsey-Fife House is now protected as a site on the National Register of Historic Places. And because the story had something to do with the old Fayetteville Cemetery there are now annual Cemetery walks and a project by the City of Fayetteville to beautify the cemetery grounds and the graves of the ancestors of Doc Holliday and Margaret Mitchell. Their story, the story that inspired my books, has changed Fayetteville. But it took someone telling the story to make it happen. And the same thing happened in his hometown of Griffin.

This is the Griffin building that was John Henry Holliday’s inheritance, and that inspired the title for the first book in the Southern Son trilogy. Old folks in town remembered hearing that his dental office space had been located on the second floor, with a painted sign in the window: J.H. Holliday, D.D.S. But because of the movies filled with images of gunfights and drunken brawls a more modern generation wasn’t interested in saving his history, and then just forgot his history, and the old building was just getting older. But as the story of Doc Holliday’s real life started to be told, things in Griffin started to change, and the old inheritance building was sold and restored and became first a club with a Wild West-style saloon in the basement, and now Doc Holliday’s, with a beautiful memorial plaque marking the site. It’s the first of six memorial plaques erected around the city, marking important places from the life of a historic Griffin character. I was in Griffin recently, doing some photography of the inheritance property, when a woman working in a store across the street got curious.

“What are taking pictures of?” she asked, as there didn’t seem to be anything special going on.

“Doc Holliday’s dental office,” I replied, and then told her about the building across the street from her store. She listened, and then said something extraordinary: “Wow!  I’ll never look at that building the same way again. I won’t think of Griffin the same way again.” The story hadn’t just changed what she thought of Doc Holliday; it changed what she thought of the place where she lived. Because of the story, Doc Holliday’s hometown has changed its opinion of him, of their own history, of their own potential. Now, in addition to the memorials, there’s a bus tour and a proposed trolley to take visitors around. There’s a new festival in the planning, radio shows, newspaper articles. The stories we tell have power. Even, sometimes, the stories that aren’t true. 

When I was directing the Holliday House, I got a phone call from a well-known folklorist and author of ghost story books.  She was working on a new book about Georgia ghosts and wondered what stories I might have to share about the Holliday House. But although we did tours of the old cemetery and told literary ghost stories at Halloween, the Holliday House isn’t haunted, so I had nothing to tell her. Instead, I told her the real story of the house, of Doc Holliday and his cousin Mattie and their interesting relationship to Margaret Mitchell. We had a nice conversation, she thanked me, and that was the end of it. Or so I thought.

Until two years later, when I was in Savannah having dinner with my husband and friends at the historic old Pirate House restaurant. There in the gift shop I found the ghost-story author’s new book about Georgia ghosts, and hoping that I might find in it some new stories for our Halloween haunted tales, I bought it and eagerly started reading—and discovered to my surprise the story of the haunting of the Holliday House by the ghost of Doc Holliday, quoting me! Of course, I called the author and complained about how she’d used my name to make it look like I had told this completely make-believe story about the ghost of Doc Holliday. 

“Oh that’s all right,” she said, “everybody knows ghost story books are just make-believe, anyhow.  No one thinks they’re real hauntings!”

Really?  Well, tell that that to the family that drove across the country from California just to see the ghost of Doc Holliday! I wasn’t happy having to explain to them that Doc didn’t haunt the Holliday House and hadn’t been back since he’d left as a child. But at least it was just a book, and eventually it would go out of print and be forgotten. But then came Amazon and Google, and now the story is all over the Internet: Doc Holliday haunts the Holliday House. I’ve tried to correct the misinformation, but I usually get an answer like, “You’re just not believer!” I’m the one the story started with or didn’t start with. But try as I might, I can’t make that story go away, and the Holliday House is now haunted by a story.

So what is it about stories that makes them so powerful, able to change people and places, and even sometimes, the truth?  Stories are just words, after all, just creative writing. Right?  But they’re more than that. According to recent breakthroughs in Neuroscience, the study of the brain, the stories we hear and read and tell actually change our brain chemistry. As Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal notes, “The human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story.” And some of the most powerful stories we tell are the ones we tell ourselves, whether they be memoirs of a painful past that we’re still holding onto, or hopeful romances, or fantasies of what might yet be. Since we are shaped for story, since the stories we tell ourselves can literally change us, we need to make sure that those stories are not only true, but useful—that we’re not driving across the country to see a ghost who doesn’t exist. Do the stories we tell ourselves hold us back, or push us forward in a good direction? 

Take, for instance, the stories told by three writers who wanted to become authors—not just the stories in the books they wrote, but the stories they were telling themselves. 

Let’s call the first writer Joanne. She started writing a book on a napkin in a restaurant, because she had an idea and it just had to get out. It took her five years to finish her story, and when she was done she had the good fortune of a good friend who was a book agent, and Joanne believed that her book would be published. But in spite of her friend’s honest efforts, the only publisher they could find was a small house that did mostly schoolbooks, and even that publisher would only print 500 paperback copies of the book, because most books don’t sell more than 500 copies. But Joanne still believed that her book could be a success.

John was another hopeful writer who had even worse luck finding a publisher. He couldn’t get anyone to look at his book, and finally had to pay to print it himself, the original self-publishing.  But still believing that what he had was what people would want to read, he loaded his boxes of books in the back of his station wagon and drove them around to all the little bookstores he could find, begging them to take a few books on consignment. It wasn’t the big publishing deal he’d hoped for, and still believed he could land, but at least it was a start and he was willing to keep working at it.

Kathryn’s book was a memoir about her family’s life in the 1960’s, and though it was well-written, it just didn’t seem like the kind of thing the publishing world was waiting for.  She kept a running total of the agents who rejected her query letter: sixty and counting. But the story she told herself was that she just needed to keep trying and eventually she’d be successful. And it’s a good thing she listened to her own story and didn’t give up, because agent #61 thought there might be something to the book and took her on as a client, and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help became a New York Times Bestseller and a major motion picture, winning an Academy Award for its leading lady. 

As for John, he kept writing, and when his second novel found a publisher, his self-published first novel was picked up as well and became the New York Times #1 Bestseller: John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, then a major motion picture starring Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey, and now a play on Broadway. He believed in his work, and it worked.

As for JoAnn, her little book of only 500 copies did a bit better than the publishers had thought it would, as the first of a young adult series that turned the world of publishing upside down and became J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and the Harry Potter movies, and “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Universal Studios in Florida. 

The point of all this isn’t that your book can or even should become a theme park or a hit movie.  Or maybe it can. But it won’t happen if you don’t believe in your own story, both the one you’re writing and the one you’re living. So what’s your story? Is this the year you will TRY to finish that book, or the year you WILL finish it? Is this the year you will THINK about finding an agent or WISH you could find a publisher? Or is this the year you will do the WORK it takes to become a published author?

When I won the Georgia Author of the Year Award, someone asked me what had kept me writing for all those 18 years. The answer was, I kept writing because I had a story to tell and I knew how it ended, and I couldn’t stop until I got there. I believed in the story I was writing, and I believed in a story about myself, as well: that I had been given a gift and I was meant to use it.  More than that, I was meant to write this particular story and my whole life had led me to it.  In my family, we like to joke that my birthdate was a sign: I was born on November the 8th, Margaret Mitchell’s birthday and the date that Doc Holliday died. 

You have stories to tell as a writer, but the most important story you will ever tell is the one you tell yourself about who you are and what you can accomplish. Believe in your gift, believe in yourself. Don’t let false stories hold you back or send you chasing ghosts. And don’t stop until you get to the end! Because THE END of a story is a very nice place to be!