Category Archives: writing

Feedback on chapter five

Yesterday was my day to get feedback on some manuscript pages. Much was very positive (always nice to hear) — the prose was “vivid” “raw,” “transporting,” with credible characters. The rapes described: ‘disturbing without being gratuitous’ (but would they have used the word ‘rape’? –  good question).

The more critical feedback addressed some of the ongoing difficulties. These difficulties are listed below in no particular order:

1). It’s my first attempt at writing a novel. 2). There’ve been some ongoing (sometimes heartbreaking) caretaking responsibilities during these same years. 3). Voice. Voice. Voice. 4). Race. Race. Race. 5). Tempo (is this section too interior? have I spent too much time describing the light?)

Voice goes to research and it goes to structure and it goes to race (including but not limited to problems of cultural appropriation) and it may be the single biggest ongoing challenge I face. If I ever dump the project (and believe me, I consider it often), this will be the reason.

To put it another way:  How, as a white suburban Yankee in the 2000’s, do I craft a southern landscape with authentic (or at least not mortally offensive) white and black characters set in the mid-eighteenth century? 

I chose to tell the Eliza Lucas Pinckney chapters in first person and the bondwomen sections in third person close. I didn’t think I could pull off first person for the enslaved characters, a decision that seems alternately respectful and cowardly. Even third person close is very very hard. Until a professional asks me to revisit these two overarching decisions, I’m sticking with them.

But, can I rethink the complete absence of an omniscient narrator? Not having one means that historic conditions have to be explained vis-a-vis the characters. It can be cumbersome. Plus, I’m denied any opportunity to make modern observations about human bondage (which, in the thick of things, believe me, I do really want to make).

Some historic junk I’ve assimilated so thoroughly that it flows into the narrative easily and then the issue is — does my reader understand what I’m talking about? what’s a ‘factor’? is a ‘Guinea’ a ship? why say ‘rigger’ when ‘sailor’ would do?) Other times, it’s just clunky and it’s hard for me to know if I’m showing off (look what I’ve learned!) or whether the historic business at hand is essential to the story.

“working in the brakes… certain winds over Barbados brought the smell of a slaver long before its sail appeared on the horizon… Noah was a quadroon… the cutter monkeyed to the ground, hand still clutching the machete”

Anyway, when the idea was floated to allow myself the occasional insertion of an omniscient narrator, I was very open to it. And, guess what? I’ve been hearing this new voice talk all day and it’s not at all who I expected (i.e., white, female academic). Instead, he’s a sly and humorous bondman. I suspect his forceful commentary will ‘lay some learnin’ on me way before he does on you. I don’t think he’ll get a name. We’ll see. I’ve also kept the Barbadian cane grower who rapes one of my main characters (Sally aka Melody) nameless.

Tomorrow: how what I learned about accountability at the Organizing on (Safety) Pins and Needles anti-racism training on Wednesday applies to manuscript feedback.

(Note next day: Nope. Can’t go there yet).

Photographs were taken February 2017, at MacLeod Plantation on James Island.

The act of tiny fingers

Here’s a 6.5 minute crude lament from today’s writing class. The prompt was to begin a piece with the line, ‘he steps a foot away and spits’. I stumble a few times and need to figure out how to turn pages more quietly, but hope the mistakes aren’t too distracting.  Please let me know if viewing is problematic. Maybe YouTube’d be better?

Here it is in print (I fix a mistake in the 1st paragraph):

 

The Act of Tiny Fingers

He steps a foot away and spits. His phlegm lands in a glistening lump. He is a master
of distraction and will impose no bounds on his tricks… certainly not propriety or hygiene.

He will steal your dog, rifle through your purse just for fun, and decapitate your peonies some moonlit night in June.

You wake heartbroken at the pink debris, no idea he’d been by.

He picks his teeth and scratches his balls — especially in front of young women — as if those young women didn’t already feel the menace of his maleness.

He’s a ticket to hell. He’s hell itself.

But, don’t take it personally. He will do whatever crosses his path.

Of course he has a predilection for things with slits between their legs — see how even in calling out his sins how his sick cosmology taints our capacity to name ourselves!

But yeah, he’d prefer to fuck with girls or women but boys don’t get a free pass because of course by now you know that our gross master’s magic depends on opportunism.

He’s a sneak, but only for fun because he has the power to impose blatant violations openly. Day in and day out, he commits his atrocities. A fallen building here, starvation mid-Africa, soul-stealing all along the streets of Detroit.

I hope I don’t need to tell you who funds our clever sinner, now do I?

Big pharm, gun makers, gas and oil dealers and all their unmanned, creepy minions. Is it easier to sit atop your high horse, Mitch McConnell’s of the world, when your balls have been handed to you so long ago you can’t remember where you hid them? Did you hide them? A trophy of shame and compromise.

Oh the calls how they come! The justice mavericks need money more than ever and I’m just trying to eat my lunch, watching bad crime show re-runs. The insistent demanding fundraiser wasn’t having my refusal — kept on sputtering her message — Emily’s List! Georgia! 2018!  I stopped being annoyed and became something like amused. But the wallet remained clamped shut until she misspoke (did she mispeak?) and called the Koch brothers, ‘the Cock Brothers’.

At that point, I might’ve handed over my first born. “Just for that,” I laughed, “here’s my Visa number, expiration June 2018.”

It is no glum, exaggerated prognostication to think we might not be here come June 2018.

He grossly clears another load of phlegm and lobs it through time and space so that it almost hits my shoe. Such precision! Such calculation! Of course he’d slobber on my foot if he so chose. I know it and he knows I know it. It’s all a game to him — tally and torment. Grabbing and removing lawmakers’ manhood one minute and violating an anchorwoman the next.

But! But! The predator’s ratings rise — like his purple veined member! Apparently, the dollars of hard working folk and the dollars of companies willing to take a stand don’t matter as much as we’d like to think.

Did he use a microphone? Was it greased with spit?

And you want to call ME gross? Does the reporting of violation constitute violation?

In the morning we rise, no longer unclear about what the matter is. Remember those frosty mornings in November — in that early time of disbelief when you’d wake and scramble through memory wondering, “Now what is it that’s so god-damned awful?”

Oh. Yeah.

The prankster works at all ends of a crisis — first (but not first) mortgage scams denying people of color entry to the middle class, then a so-called war on drugs (the Devil loves euphemism in case you don’t know), then the double, triple standards of education, employment —

Oh Christ! The line of sin is so long just recounting it takes more juice than I possess, but for now think: LEAD. Lead in the water. Not an iffy contaminant, but a known poison with known, documented harmful results upon ingestion, especially to growing brains.

Oh how we worried about paint chips in our 200 year old house! Waited for the blood work. Sighed with relief. Such privilege!

Syrian babies make buffoons cry on television. Or was it the man-baby’s wife-daughter who cried and inspired his missile attack? Talk about compensation! Maybe half our problems would go away if the giant fool could simply (simply?) fuck his daughter.

I am prepared to wipe my shoe if need be.

But am I brave enough to launch a kick — particularly when I am too short to reach any tender pieces above the knee?

The Devil operates in abstractions, too, but revels in the bawdy, the crude, the parts that smell and tug and shove and release. It’s not me reveling.

I can’t even make a gob of spit like that. Is phlegm production related to lying in any way? If so, there must be rows of spittoons in the House and Senate and along the corridors of our formerly esteemed White House.

The overwhelm of destructive might be working — shock and awe, they said, shock and awe. Or was it fire storm? I mix the metaphors — proof in point. When we turn on the news and the most recent, singular, and shocking revelation makes you reach for the clicker, that’s the Devil’s work, too. He wears us out.

Pandora has a place here, too. Let’s ask — how? How? How on earth do we stuff this bile and vitriol and regressive policy back into the box?

Don’t we already pay with pained childbirth and cancer? Must we also suffer as witnesses to the act of tiny fingers turning a clock back decades? Undoing, undoing, undoing.

Oh please, spare us — just go fuck your daughter.

 

Possible keys

Mary Oliver : “The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and absolute but to the extravagant and the possible. Answers are no part of it; rather it is the opinions, rhapsodic persuasions, the engrafted logics, the clues that are to the mind of the reader the possible keys to his own self-quarrels, his own predicament.”

In class this week, we read Sunday’s NY Times Book Review interview with an author: Fran Lebowitz. These columns invariably make me feel stupid: the books on the author’s bedside are weighty; I’ve often never heard of their favorite writers, never mind read them; their pithy, intellectual observations about books I have read, don’t ring any bells. That’s part of why Fran Lebowitz’s responses were so refreshing. They were so NOT that. Also, she’s just hilarious. Read the interview for a wholly different take on the best use of literature.

Meanwhile, it snows. Time seems out of joint. REALITY seems out of joint. My sister is not well. In between tough personal conversations and the outrageous stories of intrigue coming from Pennsylvania Avenue, I sew, I clean, I walk the dog. And sometimes I edit. This was a good week. I may have put four chapters to bed.

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And, there’s always food! Tonight: roast chicken with cornbread stuffing and a delicious salad. The bird’s sizzle and aroma say: home, comfort. Plus, it’s Friday.

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Lastly, from a TED talk about belief and doubt that I listened on my way up to Salem yesterday, one person’s answer (I think it was Billy Graham) to the question: so what has surprised you the most in your many years? He said, “the swiftness with which life passes.”

“The swiftness with which life passes.”

That, too, is on my mind.

Who do you come from and to whom do you pray

ripCary & Nana 7-4-95I don’t come from a faith that much honors the ancestors (that is my mother, above with my first born. The B&W is me, circa 1981). That’s why when I read about African belief systems that make ancestor worship central, it feels foreign.

The ancient Celtic bent toward Nature as guide and source, on the other hand, fits like a glove. No wonder I love the writing of Mary Oliver — her poems read like 9th century monastic poetry from Ireland. I find sustenance in her words. Wisdom.

In writing about human bondage in early America, I have often wished for (and on occasion asked for) some sign from the ancestors of the enslaved. Should I be writing this story? Is it okay? Am I okay?

Thundering silence.

Hard not to wonder. But because I am such a master of doubt, it’s hard to give it much weight either.

IMG_7910(A little aside — This cloth, from my Middle Passage series, is somewhere. I never backed it because of the beautiful stained glass effect when hung in a sun-filled window. The others in the series use my favorite house motif to examine both loss and sustenance of culture from one side of the sea to the other. This one, though, explores the sails. All those sails, riding the currents, powering ships packed with black bodies, flapping signals of wealth to some and horror to others).

IMG_7521Anyway, maybe because the anniversary of my mother’s passing was two weeks ago, maybe because there is so much transition in the lives of my sons, making me reflective and sometimes sad or anxious, and maybe because one of my characters is modeled closely on my mother, I have been thinking a lot about my parents.

And duh! It is the guidance and help and esteem and love of my very own dear parents that I should be calling up. My ancestors know me. They dwell in me. They know where I trip up and why. And they (most importantly in this business of moving forward), understand fully my strengths.

They’re the ones to call upon — even about writing a novel about black and white people with NO GENETIC links to me whatsoever.

And so I did. Call upon them. And they did answer.

Losing things and finding them

Are you a person who loses things a lot of the time or just now and then? A recent New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz takes a beautiful wander through the topic. Subtitled, Reflections on Two Seasons of Loss, Schulz examines not just the business of losing things, but also what it means to lose our minds and loved ones.

Things go missing so much in this house that I have categories for lost objects, not unlike the childhood game of calling out ‘warm’, ‘cold’ or ‘HOT HOT HOT’. I usually can tell that I’m going to retrieve a lost object before I find it and often sense its general vicinity. Lest you think that gives me some sort of advantage, know this: even a ‘hot’ lost item with a felt sense of place can take DAYS to find.

In my early twenties, my checkbook went missing so often that the bank tellers on North Street rolled their eyes to see me coming. I’ve gotten somewhat better. Medication helps.

In spite of my incapacity, family members are right to ask me where things are, since in addition to being an over-the-top loser of things, I’m a good finder. Is that uncommon? My mother used to call me “old eagle eyes” and ask me to round up her scissors.

When the “where’s my” question is posed to me, it feels like more of an imposition that it might otherwise, because I’m kinetic. Being kinetic means I have to take notes to remember anything and that to find a lost object, I have to move my body. When both boys were home over Christmas, I really enjoyed cooking for them and felt neutral about loaning the car and picking up. But the “where’s my?” routine was annoying.

“Where’s my jacket?” “Where’d I leave the fob?” “Did you move my paycheck?”

I was asked to find things I hadn’t used, touched or seen. Being winter, I’d have to unearth myself from a blanket, heating pad and lap top (that’s two cords and a lot of fabric). My joints hurt sometimes. I’d groan. Then I’d wander around the house, maybe finding their lost thing, maybe not.

Objects can move from one category of lost to another. ‘Fucking vanished’ is a category, but believe it or not, a mutable one. Some things that I could swear after a vigorous, multi-day hunt have been taken by leprechauns do in fact show up. (‘taken by leprechauns’ is a whimsical name for ‘fucking vanished’). It is especially hard when something that feels retrievable shifts into the ‘permanently gone’ category.

Frequently losing things teaches you about attachment, sharpens intuition, and inspires resourcefulness in coming up with substitutes. Humility is involved. But those are topics for another time.

Let’s instead descend into my studio, which is really messy (also a topic for another time). Yesterday when I went downstairs to find some xerox color copies I’d gone to some trouble to make a few months back, I wasn’t sure how readily I would find them. That they were pretty much right where I’d thought they’d be felt like a gift.

There are about forty-five collages ready to be mounted to card stock. Then, at last, they will be SoulCollage cards.

Because I hate to measure and really suck at it, it took a good long while to mount just five of the collages. At five a day, I’ll need eight days to get through the pile. But guess what? After an especially demoralizing day of writing, the task actually satisfied. I took my time. I enjoyed working toward a goal with manageable and discrete steps — so unlike finishing a novel (am I finishing? is it a novel?)


Off to walk Finny, then back to my laptop (wish me a more productive day!)

  • (thank you for posting on FB Michelle ! Even though we get The New Yorker, I might have missed it)

Done, done, done

A ditty from a prompt in class this week. “Peas and the rice done, done, done” comes from a song sung by bondmen and women during the age of slavery.

Speckle, spackle lint
Globe, orb, light
Star prick, potato cut – Fie!
Cookie cutter, duster buster —
IMG_7148
Done. Peas and the rice,
done, done, done.

In the dark, we tag along in
ignorant clumps. Safety
in numbers? One arm
finds a rail, a toe stubs
rock. “Ho there!”
A single organism, we turn.

Out on the deck early, a
powdery blue sky offers its
solace — beauty
that can be referred to again

and again, lasting and constant.

Except it’s not
lasting. Or constant.

Look how swiftly the clouds
cover the setting and
glorious moon — in the short interval
it took you to dash inside for your camera.

view-from-bed

What happens when the shifting
markers of beauty verge
toward extinction, not merely sway
and decay with time?

“Ho! There! Ho!” No one
corrects course. The inevitable crash
sparks discussion, as if pinpointing the
cause of the wound trumps all other action.

In this season of cold, shattered bones and
bruises are nothing next to damnation.
Who knew lying would win
the hearts and minds of so many?

Sprinkle, dash, salt and mire.
Blood stream, character, impossible glow.
Peas and the rice, done, done, done.

Catastrophic, relentless capture
of the future: too swift to
block; too pervasive to illuminate.
It threatens to be so cold, there
are warnings.

The party lanterns bob and strain on the deck
rail, hanging, forgotten, so long
past their June flings. Remember June?

The moon hangs like a darling,
punctuating the morning with
soft, ridiculously sweet loveliness.

Just above the eave – “Ho! There!”

She runs inside for her camera, but it’s too late. The grey fuzz of
cloud shoved by a cold, cold
wind has changed everything.

She missed the moon
but caught a dream of power — a friend gathering her skirts to make an entrance. Stately. Invested. Prepared. She will
study everything, consider all the
players, account for the force of history. Seventy years of wisdom coming to bear.

Such a dream!

Mighty beech. Singular gate.
Ho there! The icy air seeps
through the window frame.

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In the kitchen, you watch the
tiny grain moths zig-zag
against their doom.  Slap. Slap.

The dog pants beside the fire.
Dots and dabs of light on the festive tree
blur after you take off your glasses,
offering another version of pretty.
Remember Wallace Stevens
trying to decide which to prefer:
the blackbird’s cry or just after?

As if calibrating how much reality you can stomach is anything like weighing
the relative beauties of music and silence!

poppy-egyptian-close
We slide into a
Bosch painting – celebrities being eaten by plants,
destroyers appointed to protect, eggs sprouting legs. Babies cry all the way
from Aleppo. We are
cursed and lack the explaining mythology.
Stab, slice, potato cutter — fie!
How quaint a cut to the finger. Apply pressure,
glue and presto — no more blood.

There goes the moon, behind its periwinkle
shroud. Time feels a foe this season.
Arctic air whips up its icy announcements
and someone, somewhere takes it as proof
that everything is as it always was.

Who will measure the cold and with what instruments
after they round up the scientists?
They’ll say: ‘Study moles and circuits. Or lumps of coal.’

“Ho there!” How about darkness? Make
a chart that nobody will believe
and store it somewhere in Canada.

The money will disappear along
with the truth, so button up.

“Ho there! Ho.” We smile and drink. We bundle up. We exchange
sweets and trinkets while frigid air sweeps down from the north.

So, go ahead – dream of power
or dream of extinction. Dream of
capturing the moon with your

bare hands. But when you wake,
with thermal underwear and corrective lenses on, gather your skirts and make an entrance. Somewhere. And speak.

“Ho there. Ho” Peas and the rice
done, done, done.

Erasure Poems

1). Start with a source document. Mine is a letter written in 1740 by Eliza Lucas Pinckney to her father.

2). Black out some words (or select some) or both.

3). Type up and read, edit if desired.

4). Repeat. Enjoy the variations.

I followed two rules: 1) all words in the Erasure Poem must be in the order that they appear in the source document and 2) all words must remain in their original form (i.e. the same tense or person). I made an exception to rule two and updated archaic spellings.

This technique, very popular in altered book circles, is one I’ve used for collage, but never for poetry. Relative to the historic fiction I’m writing (Eliza is one of the main characters), I was curious what might be revealed — anything new or useful about Eliza or her circumstances?

All of this was inspired by a poetry reading a few weeks back at Sam Durant‘s “The Meeting House” in Concord, Mass. (an Arts and the Landscape event sponsored by Trustees of Reservations). Four poets read. One of them was 2015 National Book Award winner for Poetry, Robin Coste Lewis (pictured above), who offered an erasure piece. It was intensely moving (you can hear her read three of her poems, here).

Letter from Eliza
to her Father, 1740
ONE

Honorable Sir,

Words to express the situation
beyond expression

the fearful immediate
danger

as I must own some
advantages
such as honor, perhaps profit too.

Put in with my just cause
the love you avoid
by unjust means.

The assurance that this life
depends on Dear Sir,
you.

Injurious to imagine
Heroism.

I deserve
this time.

You always persevere
Honorable Sir.

Your Daughter

***

Letter from Eliza
to her Father, 1740
TWO

To Colonel,

I want words
from you.

The situation terrifies us.
Immediate danger.
I must own

You are sensible.

Might some advantages arise
such as honor, profit too,
mere trifles
in the balance?

A just cause in preference
to every other means.
Courage enough
to will the thought
unworthy of you.

To pretend to Heroism
should conceal fears

and affections.

Always prayer.

Your most obedient
Daughter

***

Letter from Eliza
to her Father, 1740
THREE

To Sir,

I want words under you, us
Beyond and increased

Some place to differ

There, when put in the balance

Life
A just cause
Love

You avoid the assurance
that this welfare
injurious, I deserve.

To pretend
Heroism, I conceal
perpetual apprehensions.

I am always the prayer.

Your Eliza

***

Letter from Eliza
to her Father, 1740
FOUR

I am sensible and
I esteem the fight
as well as the love

Advantages arise

These mere trifles
honored a just cause
as well as every means
to retract anything more
than I deserve.

Mama and the Almighty
The constant prayer

Your obedient Eliza