Carnegie Mellon University

Sayre Olson

Sayre OlsonMajors: English and Creative Writing
Minor: Hispanic Studies
Adviser: Sharon Dilworth
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Memoir through Fiction

My project is a creative project involving memoir, fiction, and elements of anthropological research. I intend to piece together and complete a largely autobiographic novel written, but left unfinished, by my late grandfather. The story focuses around the life of a young boy named Adam who comes from a small Appalachian town, modeled after the town that my grandfather is from. Adam tries to reconnect with his older brother, who dies in battle after joining an elite division of the air force during WWII, by reliving his brother’s incomplete life, a narrative that is very similar to my grandfather’s own experience. Through the process of reconstructing my grandfather’s novel, I will focus on completing the novel in a way that I believe is true to his voice and truly reflects the social and cultural contexts of the book as a rare example of Appalachian literature, as I believe that the book gives voice to a traditionally underrepresented culture in media. However, I will also complete a separate text in the form of my own memoir, reflecting on the process of recreating an already constructed narrative and drawing parallels between Adam’s experience living out his brother’s legacy and my experience attempting to do the same for my grandfather.


My name is Sayre, and I am one of those people who cannot use their real name at Starbucks. In fact, I come from a whole family of people who wouldn’t be able to give their names to a barista. For example, my great-grandparents on my mother’s side were named Sherbert Day, Oscar Deryl, Bertha Buck, and Evangeline. My mother’s father, who is in many ways the star of this story, was named Chick.

Chick McKinney, born in 1931, grew up in western North Carolina in an extremely small mountain town near the Toe River Valley. He had over ten siblings, few of whom survived into adulthood. His oldest brother, Claxton McKinney, died suddenly as a teenager. From this point on, Chick made it his mission to live the life that his older brother would have lived. He moved to Raleigh, went to college at UNC, and started from the ground up his own advertising agency. Before he died of brain cancer in 2008, Chick was in the middle of writing a novel about a young boy from a mountain town, who tries to relive his dead brother’s legacy. (At this point, you can see where I’m going, however I’m going to hit the nail over the head and explain that this so-called novel is indeed very much a memoir of my grandfather’s life.)

As a granddaughter who always idolized her grandfather, it was sad to see his version of the Great American Novel remain unfinished. The book in its current state is just a massive stack of handwritten papers. As a student studying English and Creative Writing, I’m drawn to the fact that the book is a sort of puzzle that can only be solved by someone who knew him and understood him deeply. Is destiny calling? Well probably not, but the fact remains that I’ve been handed a pretty amazing opportunity. My grandfather was a seventy-year-old man with a story to tell and no writing experience whatsoever, while meanwhile, I am a twenty-year-old woman with three-fourths of an English degree. (Not particularly impressive, but it’s better than nothing.) And even though I know that I’m vastly underprepared for the process of completing another person’s memoir and understanding the full emotional context surrounding his writing, I also feel strongly that I should be the one to try.

I think it would only be fair to say that the rest of my family is well aware of the fact that I’ve been working on the novel, and a lot of them have doubts as to the validity of the story. (This is mostly considering the fact that my grandfather wrote it while largely incapacitated by a brain tumor, often unaware of himself or his surroundings.) But in my opinion, these dissenters are quite mistaken. The manuscript, even in its current state, is smart, hilarious, and most of all, it tells an important story that deserves to be heard. Besides, where else would you actually hear the phrased “laughed so hard you could hear it from Timbuktu” used seriously and earnestly by a real adult in a literary novel? This book is certainly unique, and I fully intend to preserve and celebrate its quirks. Those little moments of weirdness remind me of why my grandfather and I always got along—we’re both a tad unusual.

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