I “attended” a three hour seminar with Anne Lamott this weekend. I’ll probably be talking about it for a while. She went over many of the tools explicated in her famous book on writing, Bird by Bird, but first let me say how happy I was to hear that she includes research in writing time!
Here’s a little taste of the rabbit hole I went down this week for my novel.
“Wherever Africans were enslaved in the world, there were runaways who escaped permanently and lived in free independent settlements. These people and their descendants are known as “maroons.” The term probably comes from the Spanish cimarrón, meaning feral livestock, fugitive slave or something wild and defiant.”
Smithsonian article about The Great Dismal Swamp and its long history of maroon communities. Written September 2016 by Richard Grant featuring the archeology of the intrepid Dan Sayers.
“By downplaying American marronage, and valorizing white involvement in the Underground Railroad, historians have shown a racial bias, in Sayers’ opinion, a reluctance to acknowledge the strength of black resistance and initiative.”
It is well known that researching the history of the enslaved is difficult, partly because there are so few primary sources. But there’s also the business of who is writing the available histories. Much white ignorance and racial animus infects secondary sources.
Even in the instance of the Federal Writers’ Project, which collected first person accounts from Black survivors of slavery, the narratives are inherently unreliable because they were recorded by white people.
Think: white person with a clipboard.
Think: Black person talking to a white person with a clipboard.
Even with the best of intentions, we can assume that white minds listening to Black thoughts and speech applied some kind of filter. And we can also assume that Black speakers shaped what they said in some way because of their white audience.
Enslaved people had little by way of possessions. A community in a remote swamp likely owned or collected even less than those dwelling “on the street” (a common naming for a collection of slave quarters).
Slave communities are nevertheless of great interest to archeologists, as evidenced by Dan Sayers in this article and by recent excavations at Monticello and Mount Vernon.
My research has also turned up references to maroon communities in the swamps north and west of Charles Town (Charleston). It seems that these groups may have initially been comprised of Natives, who then welcomed fugitive slaves. The Smithsonian article posits the idea that whites fleeing indentured servitude also found their way to some of these remote areas.
Update on Second Edit of my novel: the sagging middle is getting slashed (good example of another thing Lamott talked about, the famous advice to “kill your darlings”) and the ending is being expanded.
I’m back to the pin board for the final year of chronology. (Lamott also uses this visual trick, by the way, though she tapes pieces of paper around her entire living room).
It’s important to have a map of your story SOMEWHERE. I can’t keep it all in my head. For some stretches, this pin board had every chapter pinned to it, color-coded by POV. After a while the directory in Word on my laptop served as an outline, because I put each chapter in a separate word doc and used a consistent naming protocol that arranged them chronologically.
A second edit is so, so important, Lamott said, so much so that she won’t show her work to anyone until she’s done one. (oops!)
Before the second edit comes what she calls “the shitty first draft.” That’s a liberating shorthand for all kinds of things, but perhaps mostly as encouragement to forgo perfectionism or debilitating ideas about inspiration at the outset. To borrow Nike’s slogan: Just Do It.
The heat has been brutal. Today a little less so. Do you know what it’s like walking a dog on paved sidewalks in 97 degree heat?
And lastly, I call yesterday a good day. How unfamiliar the sensation of relief twinned with hope! Biden and Harris both gave great speeches. You can view on YouTube (August 12).
PS WordPress screwed with typefont again. Ugh.
I’m so glad you found her inspiring and valuable (I had a feeling). Your meticulous research, but more important, your open mind will surly serve you well in your writing endeavors! Yay!
Poor old Finney-boy looks hot! Is that a ball in his mouth, it’s so camouflaged!
Thank you so much for alerting me to the seminar, Nancy. It really was a good thing.
I left a comment on your blog this morning and of course google account doesn’t take them I really have to figure that blotch out. But first thing this morning I watched footage of the Lake Fire and prayed that they get the thing under containment soon.
I love Anne Lamott and Bird by Bird…you are so lucky to get to spend a good chunk of time with her. Your information about the marrons (a name I encountered for the first time very recently….I think through Isabel Wilkerson….is new to me and compelling. I am so looking forward to your book.
Maroons, I mean. Yay to shitty first drafts!
Ha! You made me double check. The more proper derivation from the Spanish might’ve had two r’s instead of two o’s, but language evolution is messy.
am reaching the conclusion that pretty much any time I actively enjoy what I’m writing I’m also indicating where to cut. Although yesterday I did think of a wordplay chapter title name so hilarious to me that there’s no way I’m not using it.
I’ve learned so much from what you share of your research. Many times for me your posts such as this one are like a museum diorama.
Go for the title. Who doesn’t love a little wordplay?
One thing AL talked about was how we don’t need to try to be interesting or funny because life is interesting and funny enough.
I meant to say re: the slave narratives. They are incredibly valuable and fascinating reads. I have two collections from South Carolina.
Anne Lamott is one of my top-ten favorite authors and Bird by Bird is likewise a top-ten read
She is so great. I loved Operating Instructions. I’ll admit to not having read a single novel. Do you have one you recommend?
I’m honestly not a fan of her fiction … but all her non-fiction titles have a permanent home on my bookshelves
Yay for second edits! I’m reading Isabel Allende’s “Island Beneath the Sea” which dives into the time of the Haitian Revolution in the late 1700s, had no idea that Haiti provided most of the wealth for France through slavery at that time.
Interesting. Sugar was such a big, big business.
Can’t wait to be far enough along for second edits. Hard-drive failing on my laptop and has not saved changes for the past two days. Have printed everything I have and will be doing working draft edits old school for a few days until T can bring and install the new hard drive.
looking at your paper timeline and wishing it was fabric. Or had a fabric/visual ‘blink’ timeline companion like the middle passage quilts
Hard drive fails. Ick! I don’t save often enough. Your message is a good reminder.
How swell to listen to Anne Lamott for three hours! We heard her speak last year. As always, so enjoy reading about your process. You sent me to my bookshelves- found Bird by Bird, but haven’t spotted a middle reader from 20+ yrs ago that you’ve brought to mind- “Sarny” -an enslaved girl is taught why the risks of learning to read are worth it, that they need to be able to tell their own stories.
An enslaved person’s ability to read could be a game changer. Which is why the Slave Code of 1740 outlawed it. It was illegal for white people to teach their selves how to read.