Category Archives: writing

Twick or tweet?

I’m in bed and it’s dark and still raining. Click and glow — the phone in my hand. First up, a hilarious take on Halloween candy, the kind of diversion one hopes for and almost never finds in one’s merry traipsing across social media.

The World’s Most Evil Candies Ranked,” by Dhiraj Naseen. You’re welcome.
(I’m in agreement about all except: candy corns — yuck! don’t like ’em.)

Tap, tap. Next up: an article about how scanning social media first thing in the morning rots your brain. I kid you not.

Click and down goes the phone — I’m no fool! — but carefully, having dropped it enough to have those spider web cracks typical of millennial devices (makes me feel young!).I listen to the rain. Under the covers, I stretch my hips.

Unfortunately, NPR’s on. Oh great, trump will prevent Obama’s student debtor protections from becoming law, because — why? Because we all want our young to be victims of predatory lending – of course we do! Certainly, Betsy DeVos does.Another kind of poison — the inescapable toxic cloud of indecency that is the news. It’s harder to click off. There’s no getting away from it. Not really.

I jog while Nozema-ing my face in the dark — as if it might make me live longer or at least, render my jeans a decent fit again. I don’t feel like a millenial now.

Descending the stairs for coffee and the day’s official start, it’s still dark. I cover the stove and microwave LCD clocks with post-it notes — their glare offends. Okay, leave me alone.

Then, it’s down to business — a vigorous editing session and then an almost-hour-long-walk with the dog in the rain.


Home to a ‘call me back, it’s important’ message on the landline.

Turns out, all I have to do is set a firm deadline to call forth the Gorgon of my sister’s need (did you know the three Gorgons were sisters? I’ll be Medusa! She can be one of the ones nobody’s heard of).

Okay, it’s really serious, having to do with ignored notices from MAHealth, cut offs looming, documentation required (um, two weeks ago?). Even a 1% contribution to medical costs — heck, even a 1% contribution to her DRUG costs — would savage my sister’s finances (or upset the apple cart of my brother’s help — equally catastrophic).

But, wait – what’s happening? No clenching of the jaw. No pleading (her) or heaving of big, resentful sighs (me). What’s changed? Is it the reduction in her meds, restoring mental alacrity and energy? Is it me, ferociously resolved not to be sideswiped by another’s need?

Whatever it is, I’ll take it. She’s handling it (seems to be?) — late, but handling it. I’m laudatory about that, only mentioning the lapsed deadline two (or was it three?) times.

Imagine having no car, needing a walker, owning no real estate, no stocks or bonds, having no savings, no credit or debit card, and paying rent that consumes 75% of a meager income, barely leaving enough for utilities (and certainly not enough for food) and then having to prove one’s poverty to the powers that be.

I’ll blame this on trump. What state wouldn’t want to clear its health insurance rolls of riff-raff in light of all the uncertainty that has so vindictively been inserted into the arena?

Shake your head and note: this personal thread substantiates the earlier point about trump being an all-pervasive toxic cloud.

But I’ll end with this — ‘Flake’ should be the new ‘fleek’ (not that I EVER got what that meant — in spite of some effort, mind). It should be a thing and a good thing — as in “the man spoke with the strength of his convictions. He ‘flaked’ in front of the entire Senate Chamber.”

 

Such good news!

I received intensely good news on Thursday, news that’s galvanizing my revised deadline.

  • (New deadline: January 6).

Are you ready? A friend pitched my book to a friend of hers who happens to be a literary agent, someone legit. The agent is “very interested,” loves the topic. Will read the manuscript when I’m ready — (“she’ll know when she’s ready”). She said, “It’ll all come down to the writing.” Well, yes — I’m ON IT!

The Universe is on notice. No more weeks lost to health issues — please! — mine or anybody else’s! Holidays — gotta be simple this year — for real! No travel til next year.

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Just prior to this incredible news, I’d set up an altar to my ancestors for the first time ever. Interesting, eh? What began as an exercise in learning about African American tradition already lifts my spirits and powerfully furthers my goal.

I’ve always known my parents would root for me and think me up to the task, but this is different. It’s faith-based and operates within non-linear constructs of time.

 

  • That’s me in the B&W. It must be in Rome, Georgia, because I look to be about two?
  • In the second photo (taken at Jones Beach, perhaps?), my mother wears plaid and my father is to the left. I wonder who that guy is to the right? Leaning in like that? This would’ve been some summer in between semesters at Pratt Institute (Brooklyn, NY — where they met).

Historic fiction before the internet 

I have a fair number books on South Carolina and slavery for the period I’m interested in, but what a boon the internet is!  I’ve found: the wills of some of my characters; botanical treatises compiled in the exact decade of interest; recipes for syllabub, jumbles, and terrapin soup; slave inventories, descriptions of what Oglethorpe was up to in 1735, and all kinds of historic maps of Charleston. It’s an amazing resource.

Yesterday, I needed help imagining how to butcher and skin an alligator and instantly found a YouTube video showing exactly that. I enjoyed fourteen minutes of some guy in Florida doing the job with a humorous and precise narration. “Here’s the best meat, the tenderloin, or ‘jelly role’. … “here’s the second best, under the jaw… ” “you can’t rip alligator skin off like deer skin — you have to cut every inch away.”

Learn something new every day: the erect flanges running down the reptile’s body are called “scoots” and are designed to maximize heat absorption. They’re also the hardest part of an alligator’s body.

Also, this: never, ever cut open an alligator’s stomach. Hmm, why? In my attempt to find out, I came across gruesome stories about the bones of children and large deer being discovered in various alligator guts. Maybe it has to do with potent acids?

In a subsequent google wander, I came across a great book about the fishing practices of bondmen in coastal communities [“The Waterman’s Song: Slavery & Freedom in Maritime North Carolina” by David S. Cecelski]. I couldn’t access all of the text, of course, but I could read a fair amount. Again: what an amazing resource!

There was a description of “gigging flounder and sturgeon by moonlight”. Don’t you love that? I’ll admit to not even really needing to know precisely what it means. I just want to keep saying it: “gigging flounder and sturgeon by moonlight.” [Cecelski].

Several things to note in brief: fish was very plentiful in the Lowlands in the mid-eighteenth century. Oysters, for example, could be gathered by the basketful without much trouble or a boat. Slave owners were ambivalent about the resourcefulness of their bondmen and women. On the one hand, such industry in supplementing meager rations saved planters a lot of money. On the other hand, it afforded the enslaved both tools and autonomy that made white people nervous, especially after the Stono Uprising in 1739. The slave code enacted subsequent to the rebellion was draconian (as all slave codes enacted subsequent to uprisings are), placing prohibitions on literacy, gardening (gardening!), hunting, and more understandably, perhaps, the possession of weapons. Because the economic advantages of the enslaved providing some of their own food held, however, many plantation owners turned a blind eye to the continued practices.

And then there’s the racial animus that has poisoned our country from its inception. Cecelski relates a story about an overseer who found a hidden fish trap and in his outrage destroyed the trap, stole the capture for himself, and pronounced fish “too good for niggers.”

According to Cecelski, slaves fashioned floats out of gourds, hooks out of fish bones, and nets out of hemp. Illicit traps and trot lines were camouflaged along the marsh edges and some slaves built cypress log rafts and hid those, too. So they could “gig flounder and sturgeon by moonlight” perhaps.

A large alligator would produce about 65 pounds of meat. Smoking and salting were the only methods of preservation back then and so it was customary among white elites to share cuts with neighbors.

I was doing this research because I want my mustee character to capture a notorious alligator and cut it up (‘mustee” = half Native American / half African). This character’s named Indian Peter and comes from the Lucas family inventory, but I’ve based him in large measure on another real person — a legendary hunter named Prince Alston. Mr. Alston worked up on the Santee River at Hampton Plantation for Archibald Rutledge many generations later. Rutledge wrote a beautiful memoir — “Home by the River” — in which he describes the man (emphasis mine):

Prince expressed a “kinship with nature as unfeigned as it was intimate” and although “untouched by any human school of philosophy, was deeply read in the oracles of God.” He could handle a cart with four vicious mules and once plowed a field with a bull so terrifying that other field workers routinely walked a mile out of their way so as not to go near him.

(Eliza Lucas Pinckney would spend her last years at Hampton Plantation with her daughter, Harriott).

What would a bondman have done with 65 pounds of meat if he killed the reptile on the sly? On the other hand, if the kill was done openly, say on a Sunday, would the meat have been apportioned between the enslaved and their owners?

After the rebellion of ’39, would Indian Pete still have been in possession of knives? It was controversial then to ‘allow’ such a state of affairs, even if the knives had been previously employed solely for the provision of food.

In other news, a novel about Eliza Lucas Pinckney was published last week. It’s called “Indigo Girl” and covers five of the six years that I cover. The author read Eliza’s letters, etc. If anyone wants to read it and report to me — go for it. I’ll even buy it for you — but I can’t look at it until I’m finished. The author, Natasha Boyd, is a romance writer from Denmark. I’m hoping that her book does very well and that it’s strikingly different from mine. 

As far as keepin’ on keepin’ on, my writing instructor quipped, “Do people ever think we have too many books about Lincoln — or Jefferson?” Good point.

 

All photos from Feb ’17 trip to South Carolina and taken by me. They include shots from the Caw Caw Conservation property, the Ashley River near Drayton Hall, Wappoo Creek, and the water near Boone Hall Plantation, Mt. Pleasant.

Wait and Attend!


A lot of waiting going on here. My sister went into the hospital the day K and I flew to Boulder last week. There I was walking along the foothills of the Rockies trying this hospital, then that, trying to find out where the ambulance took her. I sat on a rock in the morning sun. Cows lowed nearby, steam rising off their bulk. The nurse had called earlier to say the apartment was locked and appeared to be empty. I got good at leaving hospital web pages up in Safari and hitting the call button. She was in Beverly, turns out.

She’s home again but perhaps shouldn’t be. She cannot eat. Cannot keep meds down. Can barely scooch herself off of the (new) hospital bed onto the potty-chair. I am talking with everyone — the VNA personnel, the North Shore Elder staff, the PT who couldn’t get a hold of her, her psychic friend in Vancouver.

I’m googling all manner of depressing physical symptoms.


I spent the night with her before we flew to Boulder, sleeping on the floor. Her psychic friend had called that morning to say, “If I could SEE her, I’d know.” It’s hard to gauge these things. I honestly thought she might die while we were away, knowing how some people need that — the absence of their loved ones rather than their attendance.

[The nurse just called from my sister’s. They’re readmitting her. This is very good news. I asked a direct question and got even better news, “No, the end is not near,” she ventured. “She’s got a lot of life left in her.”]

Meanwhile, Finn ran away from his dog walker yesterday, running the mile and a half home along busy, well-traveled roads. There I was standing in the line at Marshall’s buying chocolate when I should have been at CVS buying a temporary mouth guard (more on that below). “He’s probably running home. Call your neighbor.” And so I did. I called the one that Finn tried to bite once. She let him in ten minutes later to my enormous relief, but it didn’t spare me the drive home during which I couldn’t help but scan the sides of the roads for an immobile, black heap.

And about that mouth guard. I left a messenger bag in the cab coming from the airport on Monday. This is me, off of ADD meds. I’ve been waiting (with diminishing hope) for a call from the Boston Airport Taxi Lost and Found (it’s not just me, as it turns out). The police officer James took down the hack number, time of pick up and drop off, the cab company and told me not to give up hope. But that was yesterday morning. Now, I’ve pretty much given up hope.

Are you ready for what was in the bag?

  • Laptop.
  • Bose noise-cancelling headphones.
  • New blue tooth ear buds (a total splurge).
  • A quilt I’d put umpteen hours into.
  • My $600 mouth guard.
  • My brand new, barely begun Michael Twitty book, “The Cooking Gene.”
  • A three page list of passwords.

Because I’d backed up my manuscript an hour before we left, I almost don’t care. About any of it. Seriously. It’s just money. It’s not four feet of water in my house. It’s not the prospect of no power for weeks. It’s not a town leveled by wind. It’s not a dead dog on the side of the road. And it’s not sleep interrupted to make watery squirts into a plastic bucket.

No, what bothers me about the loss is what this lapse of attention represents.

Because of an aberrant EKG two weeks ago (you may have read about it before I made the post private), as well as my first EVER high blood pressure reading, I’m off the stimulant meds. I WANT to be off for good. I’m committed. But to be this rattled?


“Where’s my phone?” I can be heard saying at any given hour of the day. “Where’s my phone?” (K says with kind realism: “You never can find your phone, you know, even on meds.”)

Okay. Okay.

But, I nearly left the same messenger bag in the Denver Airport four days earlier. And I DID leave my Daily Pages in a shop on Pearl Street in Boulder the day of our departure. We’re talking about a full-sized spiral bound notebook!

And so, I had to wonder — do I want to leave this writing project behind so badly I’d inconvenience myself to this astonishing a degree?

My brother says things will settle — in about a month. Meanwhile, I wonder what else I can possibly lose in the interim.

A silver lining must be mentioned before I trundle off to hunt down my Replacement Daily Pages (yes, I lose them in the house, too, and yes, it was that way before). I’ve missed my laptop. It’s almost like having lost a companion and so its loss is not quite purely pecuniary. But, here’s the silver lining — how great it’s been to want to work, to notice the longing to flip the computer open and GO. I cannot remember when I last felt this way. Have I EVER? There’s been a lot of bruising resistance, overpowering doubt, and the suffocating sense of obligation. Productive hours, too, but still.

So that’s good, right? Now I access the files on the PC and I’m reminded how much faster I type on an honest-to-goodness keyboard. So maybe that’s a good thing, too.

Needless to say, I will replace those expensive, noise-cancelling head phones (we are enduring the seventeenth week of jack hammering as I type. In addition, Aftercare has distributed recorders to the kids across the fence and a handful of them are tooting the same note over and over again). I’ve scheduled a dentist appointment for a new mouth guard (probably costs way more than $600 now). Plus, earlier today, I ordered replacement ear buds. Murphy’s Law says that if the bag is to show up, now would be the time.By the way, the folks at the Pearl Street shop who found my Daily Pages (“Oh yes! The notebook with a photo of a very pregnant Serena Williams in the front sleeve? It was in the restroom”) offered to ship it to me gratis. How incredibly nice! I have two parallel fantasies about this. One: they read enough to feel utterly sorry for me. Or, two: they read the rare powerhouse page and thought — this is some writer! We don’t want to get in her way.

It’s probably neither, but it’s fun to imagine.

Flash fiction found cleaning up today


Crossing the parking lot closest to the barber’s, Marianne walked through walls of smell. Non-natural. What was it – Desitin? So definite and remembered, nothing comparable — a chalky scent with overtones of cherry life saver. Couldn’t be, could it?

The heat of the three previous days had subsided but not the mugginess. A mass of grey cloud signaled rain, but so far, it held off. The traffic at the corner was obscene — a re-vamped right of way gone amuck. People were up in arms, zinging emails through neighborhoods and sponsoring data collection after the fact. The mayor was gonna have his head handed to him.

In the crosswalk, Marianne looked up to see the clouds spreading out. Or were they gathering other clouds into their mass? Church bells pealed. There was a sense of drama.

Was it just 24 hours earlier — her face crumpled in grief, the vet kneeling in sympathy — that she’d received the news about Ursula’s cancer? Even overwhelmed with the kind of unmitigated sorrow we can only feel for our animals, Marianne recalled her sister’s aggressive question from the day before, “What makes YOU cry?”

Marianne had been tightly unresponsive knowing that any answer would’ve been employed in the undeserved campaign to prove her failings. But she’d also been unable to recall a single instance of recent tears.

“Probably Stage IV,” the vet was saying.

“THIS makes me cry,” Marianne thought, “this.”

Just a few minutes into the wave of uncensored grief came the discomforting certainty that, to put it simply, cost would be a factor.

After hearing the price for chemo, Marianne wailed, “We have two kids to put through college!” The two vehicles in need of repair were not mentioned. The vet continued to kneel and nodded without judgment while Ursula sat between them in a quiet sphinx-like pose. Was the dog merely relieved the muzzle was off and the prodding over or did that posture now include a dignified toleration of pain?

The next day Marianne headed back to the van and wondered how long Sam’s haircut would take. Some days they took you in five minutes. Other days, thirty. That was the summer she coached the boys to say, “I want to wait for Sal.” No one should get a terrible haircut out of polite deferral to the random order in a barber shop.

The rain started its slow pelting after Marianne reached the mini-van. The heat being what it was, she sat with the windows open, letting the splatting drops moisten her shoulder and the window berm.

“What makes YOU cry?”

School had ended, finally, last week. Sam took himself to the barber routinely now, so why was Marianne offering rides and waiting, as if he were twelve? “The spiral of development,” her psychologist friend, Winnie, would chuckle. “Not just the kids regressing before transitions.”

Marianne rejiggered the bounds of dependence in both directions. ‘Here’s a credit card.’ ‘Let me pick you up.’ There was a haunting finality to those weeks between high school and college.

White clouds billowed above maple trees to the east, their curves almost precisely replicating the scalloped canopy below. Then the rain came down in sheets.

What would it be, then, this summer? The sad and inexorable cancer vigil, each night wondering if Ursula would still be breathing come morning? Indulging in trips to the beach, determined to make the summer worthwhile, unsettled by the knowledge that the dog was at home trying to breathe? What comfort could the crashing surf offer when the decision about euthanasia hung above the beach like a scythe and flashed in the summer glare?

They went to the White Mountains in July. Ursula’s last outing. The guys all hiked, while Marianne read a Franzen novel at the picnic table and fed Ursula chips of bacon. If it had been any other year, they would have boarded the dog. Now such a decision struck her as incomprehensible, just as how, at this distance, preschool seemed so radically unnecessary.

It killed Marianne that all those white haired women at the supermarket had proved to be right in the end. How she’d gritted her teeth hearing advice that was as predictable as it was intrusive: “Enjoy it while you can! It’s over before you know it!” Yeah, lady. I’m just trying to get through the next hour, she remembered thinking.

The next hour and the next hour adding up to an entire childhood. The penultimate haircut before college.

What makes you cry?

“The dog will let you know when it’s time,” the vet was saying. Marianne doubted her, but it turned out she was right. Ursula did let them know. The medication helped for six weeks and then it didn’t. Just like that.

During Ursula’s final moments, Marianne fed her nearly a pound of bacon. Her husband choked back tears. The sweet-faced Corgi was lying on a towel the vet had given them in case the dog emptied her bowels at death. Ursula was eager for pork one second and gone the next. Just like that. They wrapped her and the towel in a large swath of red silk. Then the vet showed them a private exit through the lab as a courtesy.

Her husband buried Ursula under the pin cherry out back. They used half of a broken paver stone Marianne and the boys had made ages ago for a marker. The shards of crockery and marbles had been stuck into concrete not quite mixed to last.

And here came Sam at last, looking dapper and ready to meet the world, impervious to the rain.

* * * * * * *

 Note: This is a little too long to be flash fiction.

On another note, I consolidated the plot map into one board. Turns out, it was hard to read over two panels and too much light was being blocked.
And, I did finally manage to download a countdown app. The home screen icon (lower right) gets a red number, as noticeable as the number for unread emails.

If I click on the icon, I see this:

(Those are slave cabins at McCloud Plantation). I still can’t really tell if this is a do-able amount of time to finish. Truly. But it seems to be helping me stay focused, so I won’t dicker with it.

After being called into service to help my sister supply the Salem housing authority with a bunch of documentation on Monday, I worried I might have to move the deadline. Fortunately, the task was a lot easier than expected. When and if she gets subsidized housing, I’ll let my brother pay for movers.

Next up. I plan to break the sections on the board into four chunks. Each will then get roughly twenty five days.

Dogged effort 

I tried to download a Countdown Clock to help me focus on an arbitrary deadline (to finish a first draft). But it’s too complicated, so I’ll just tell you. An October 30, 2017 deadline means I have 109 days left.

That’s pretty sobering and I guess that’s the idea.

A quick check in on progress —

— revising an early chapter when Eliza’s father and his newly purchased Barbadian slave sail back to Antigua, where the Lucas family lives.

“How long would that take?” was a question that suddenly needed answering.

Ugh, I spent an impossible amount of time trying to find out. First, determined the distance between islands was 492 kilometers. Then converted kilometers to nautical miles (a nautical mile = 1.8 km). Then learned that American nautical miles and British nautical miles are not the same and decided not to worry about that. Also decided not to worry about wind speed or direction, in part because I can never remember what ‘a northerly wind’ means — as in, does it blow IN from the north, or TOWARDS the north? (I’m pretty sure it’s the former).

My rough calculation: three days. For some reason, I’d been operating under the assumption that it was an afternoon’s sail.

So, now I need to think about: What else would have been on that schooner? Would a newly purchased slave be allowed to wander about at will? Where would she have slept? If there was human cargo on board, what would it’ve been like for her to see them, chained in irons in the dark hold below? And, if she was unable to see them, would she have been able to hear them? Would she have had any conversations with her new owner and if so, what about?

My character is musing about the power and variety of lies (in part because she understands that the stated reason for her purchase is a lie), but something needs to happen since pure musing gets boring.

Yesterday, I revised a chapter where skunk bones figure heavily. An enslaved man recently arrived on the Lucas plantation in South Carolina, is a trained priest (babalawo) from Ife and grieving a brother who died during the Middle Passage. He wishes to remain apart, hidden, even. But when he finds an entire skunk skeleton, he takes it as a sign that he cannot walk away from his power.

Pinning a plot


This morning I pinned half of my manuscript’s 156 chapter titles to design boards. I’m really hoping my cut and paste exercise exemplifies what success-guru Tim Ferriss calls, ‘taking weaknesses and turning them into competitive advantages’ — but I’m not sure, for you know, the Time Waster has a lot of guile at her disposal.

I am a visual/kinetic thinker with ADD — making me long on intuition and creativity and short on finishing and organizing skills. The one is as glorious as the other is treacherous. Some days all I can ask myself is — what good are these creative gifts if I don’t finish a fucking thing?

In college when I had a paper due, I got busy rearranging the furniture. Although the tactic took up a fair amount of time, it wasn’t pure procrastination — some important visual and kinetic organizing was taking place. I couldn’t explain it then and can’t explain it now, but it still makes total sense. Maybe pinning a plot to a design board operates with the same inexplicable logic?

With 156 chapters committed to word files, plus another 50+ scenes typed up and housed in word files I call, Silos One through Five, plus stacks and stacks of notebooks holding scenes that have not yet been typed up, plus stray pieces of paper notating important revisions arising from ongoing research — I am way past the point where my pea brain can easily remember, study, or evaluate what I’ve got here.


After a week away, it can be hard to get back in and for this reason, I turned to colored pencils. Anything involving colored pencils can’t be that bad, right? I added quick stripes of color to the chapter titles: Melody — green; Saffron — orange (naturally); Eliza — purple; omniscient narrator — blue; Mo — yellow paper. I love tricking the Time Waster with a wily maneuver of my own.

I’m pretty sure the plot-pinning on design boards does not constitute procrastination, but writing this post does, so let me share two very brief and immediate confirmations — and then, back to it! Each column tracks a character — Saffron on the left, Melody in the middle, and Eliza on the right. If you’re invested in Melody’s character, you will be disappointed and if you take umbrage at the amount of content devoted to the only white main character (Eliza), then you will be annoyed. I want to carry my readers along, not disappoint or annoy them! I have ideas about how to fix this.

The exercise also confirmed that I have too many many opening scenes, one of them coming at about chapter 25. This cannot stand. Some movie reviewer lambasted the most recent Batman movie for having seven opening scenes and I really took note of the critique at the time because I had a hunch it applied here. How to fix this problem is less obvious, but I suspect it will involved ruthless editing.

May you also turn your weaknesses into strengths this week — and, if you have a notion of how to do so, or how you’ve done so, I’d love to hear about it.