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.