Category Archives: work in progress

Handling disappointment

My adoration for the quilts of Bisa Butler and the pandemic began at roughly the same time. If you haven’t discovered her yet, you must, because she is a once-in-a-generation quilter.

Butler’s work is absolutely stunning, in construction, scale, color, and subject matter.

Her quilts document Black life with exuberant patterning and such an incredible ability to render faces and clothing without resorting to paint that she continually reminds viewers that they are 100% cloth. You squint agog wondering, How on earth does she do it?

She’s like Kehinde Wiley on acid.

Not that long ago, I vowed to myself, “When this is all over, I’m gonna see her quilts even if I have to travel to Chicago or Memphis to do so.”

So it might surprise you to learn that I just ordered a book showcasing her portraits rather than truck a few miles down Route 9 to see one of her pieces. A neighbor even lent me her MFA member card so that I could be admitted at no cost.

And still I’m not going.

Is it yesterday’s colonoscopy stopping me? Maybe. At the endoscopy center, there were half a dozen nurses, several doctors, an anesthesiology assistant or two, secretaries, and other patients. They managed risk expertly — everyone wore masks, curtains divided the gurneys, a careful protocol determined who came into the building and when. Still that feels like enough potential exposure for one week.

(P.S. Everything’s fine).

More delays in the editing process mean that I will finally spend two solid weeks polishing a query letter (not like creative writing at all!) and building a functional list of agents. I should have done this a year ago! I signed up for QueryTracker and will look into Submittable and Duotrope, two other literary submission programs. I’m going to be ready to aim and fire the second I get the last batch of edits.

Otherwise, I’ll just kill myself. I can’t keep doing this.

(I’m JOKING).

The situation reminds me of something I read in some book or other on happiness. It has really stayed with me, unlike the author and title of the book. It said something along the lines of this: except for the loss of a partner or a child, almost no disappointments result in significant changes in happiness five years out.

So in other words, if this book never sees the light of day, five years from now I’ll be dead — oops — I mean, my happiness quotient will be roughly the same as it is today.

This reminder is oddly comforting and in no way promotes defeatism.

All of this today makes me feel the fragility of life. It’s so important to breathe, and to be kind to one another, and to make haste slowly.

 

 

The 22nd

Finn likes my heating pad almost as much as I do.

New manuscript, old manuscript, notes on both, laptop repository. It’s slow going. But at least it’s going. My consultant chisels here, there, making the form clearer, not unlike a sculptor working in stone. It’s pretty exciting, though also daunting because it turns out I don’t know jack shit about comma-usage.

Notre Dame + PCC image + paper collage + iPhone scribbles

The temperature is supposed to drop down to 29 degrees tonight. You’d be amazed at how many leaves are still in the trees.

PCC image + photo of bulletin board in my studio

Among the many upsetting manifestations of red wing lunacy and racism lately, today of all days it feels particularly awful that QAnon followers still gather in Dealey Plaza. People of a certain age remember exactly where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot. Where were you?

I was six (earlier I’d written eight! Fell asleep thinking wait, that’s not right). My mother was ironing and crying in front of the television. My brother’s birthday party was cancelled.

Back to basics

Getting back to basics includes expressing gratitude, so let’s start there. I’m grateful for my new juicer, for walks with the dog, especially when K comes along. I’m grateful for hands that still work well enough to be able to make myself a new dog-walk-bag (i.e. one actually commodious enough for treats, poop bags, phone, and masks).

I’m grateful I know what an Oxford comma is, that bleach works on dirty toilets, that I now have chargers in four critical spots in the house.

Also for the gratitude file: the tiny health thing that had me worried even though I pretty thoroughly tamped the worry down, turned out to be 100% nothing. Whew! I was flying high yesterday.

I’m grateful for friends that care about me enough to say: take a news break, Dee, even if I have yet to really manage that.

Besides noting gratitude, historically another basic blog task has been to record progress on projects.

My studio is cleaner and neater than it’s been in forever! How nice is that? Still awful but progress is progress. Also, I’ve been sewing a fair amount without comment here.

For instance, this doll came off The Shelf of Unfinished Creatures last week. I’m calling her the Patron Chicken-Saint of Delayed Success. Maybe just Chicken of Trust would do?

As I wrapped her pipe cleaner arms in fabric, began her wings, and gave her an elegant black lace slip, I toyed with the idea of trusting the timing of things (see note about waiting, above). What if things really do happen when they’re supposed to?

Can you spot the Oxford comma in the paragraph above? I know Liz and Deb will, in any case. Speaking of Deb, the wings will be made of Georgian Magic and I’m pretty sure the polka dot fabric for the arms came from Tina. More gratitude.

Lastly, isn’t it nice to have neighbors with a sense of humor?

Gather up

After writing alone and with others for a while, you have to gather up what you’ve been putting down on the page. Review. This morning I find some scrawls that are an Epilogue to current novel and some other meanderings that may or may not be a second novel.

But it was too cold to sit outside. Even with fleece, blanket, and Oliver Twist-style gloves with the fingertips cut off.

I am officially fully vaccinated now. Wahoo!

Yesterday was a big deal: Shot two DONE and edit three DONE.

Maybe all that happy chatter I’m hearing about Aquarius has something to it.

Novel excerpt — Freedom

Freedom

Sept 1739, SC

             The dream of freedom was tangible like a sinew pulled taut in pleasure. It had heft. The dream of freedom could be felt as a push, like the wind blowing rice husks off the grains when women jerked the fanner baskets in efficient and elegant rituals of home or it could be felt as a pull, like a rope hauling a barge upriver. The dream tugged nerves and sleep, and underlay casual conversations about trivial matters. It pulled a body toward the future and also curled in the twists of memory, both a beautiful haunting of things to come and ancestral whispers of things gone by. The wounding clime of bondage built arguments in support of freedom as naturally and with as much necessity as skin growing over an ugly gash. But to be clear, scars spoke the language of resilience, which was related to the dream of freedom, but not the dream itself. That spoke in shining eyes, secret language, and sly disguises. Or in violence.  

            Brewing coffee for the family, setting out parasols for walks, making candles, serving guests at parties, being afraid to love, to go off-plantation, to speak one’s thoughts — all evidence of a tainted universe. It was the white person’s pleasure that mattered. Their need. Their piles of sterling. Their margins of profit. Their luxuriant strolls along the river. Their indolent, well-tended naps. Their Madeira, Barbadian rum, Meyer lemons, and hyssop honeys. Their sparkling gatherings. Their baths after sunset, with captive hands to light the lanterns, scrub the scalp, and hold out the towels. Daily inequities both small and transient and weighty and monumental all built arguments toward freedom without a slave having to utter a single word. Proof after ugly proof of despotism, proof after ugly proof of the delusion of their owners’ claimed superiority, proof after ugly proof of theft on an ungodly scale — all the arguments readily made.

            Despair both stifled and enlived the dream of freedom. Sometimes sorrow laid its damp hand on the shoulder of the enslaved and whispered mournfully, ‘The hound is fed better than you.’ Clarifying. Inescapable. Sometimes the weight of exhaustion and defeat made the bound ones turn eyes heavenward, where on many a night even the cold glitter of stars seemed against them. Suffering was a place, a task, a state of mind, and all of the enslaved dwelt in it even as they sometimes knew they were not of it.

            The dream of freedom showed up as a complex counterpoint to their weary or rage-filled situation or as a simple expression of basic humanity. Complex and simple, both. How could anyone so thoroughly deprive a people of their essential selves and on such a large scale? What god allowed it to happen and then let the damage accrue through the generations? What could be harder to correct?

            For instance, what would it take to get Moses on a ship to Baltimore or Philadelphia, under whose watchful eye and with what money passage purchased? Could the dream of freedom, so ever-present but generally lacking particulars, coalesce into a plan for Maggie and her mother, Saffron, providing both a map to a maroon community in the swamps and the courage to get there? The codes exchanged. The secret slips. Literacy grabbed and then hidden. Currency tucked under conspiring earth in burlap sacks. Mo turning deadfall into rice pestles, selling them on the sly. Quash earned his legitimate carpenter’s fees. There were some means, some measures of will (large and small), some hearts exploding with desire to live else-wise. There were a thousands of pitfalls to avoid.

            Little did the planters know that in two weeks’ time, the dream of freedom would announce itself in the blazing specificity of blood and fire. Near the Stono River. Direction: south. Means: stolen muskets, strikers and flints, powder, strong legs. Leaders: Jemma and Cato. Required: all manner of bravery – the bravery of leadership, the bravery to trust and follow, the bravery of youth, the bravery of experience, the bravery of men with nothing to lose and those with everything to lose, the bravery of men acting as men can and should in holy alliances forged with their fundamental right to live. 

            It was a cruel irony that this dream of freedom, acted in a crescent of violence with such rugged hope, would end up dashing Mo’s chances at learning a trade, a trade that would’ve offered him a shaky but potentially viable path to manumission. As for the other slaves at Wappoo, one would eventually sail north aboard a ship where his pale skin would fool the sailors and their captain, and then, perhaps more critically, deceive the vicious slave catchers and traders who roamed the northern cities with menacing greed. The boy’s freedom would rely on the sacrifice of many, on their successful collusion, and on luck. Freedom at the cost of his mother’s heartbreak was worth it, always worth it, even to her — offering not just one young person his chance, but giving others testimony that glittered in the telling, a telling to be handed down for twelve generations, even as they knew there was no shame in staying put.

            Another would eventually be freed through the so-called ‘charitable grace’ of his owner. He would change his name to ‘John Williams.’ Mr. Williams would proceed to buy his wife, free his daughters, and buy land with the help of a prominent slave owner named Dr. Alexander Gardner.  Williams will buy slaves too, of course, because that was how once succeeded in a slave-economy. A simple-minded reader of history might condemn the former-slave-turned-slave-owner, but presumably his ‘property’ was treated better than that belonging to his white-skinned counterparts and presumably, too, he trained them in the skills for which he was renowned: carpentry. 

            Further along in time, Williams’ obvious wealth and success would itch and wound his white land-owning brethren, causing them to ask: ‘how dare he succeed with such flourish?’ thus precipitating the free black man’s swift exit north in the direction of the Santee River, ending the carpenter’s known story and for all we know, his life as well. We don’t know. The dark blot of silence that surrounds so many black lives of history leaves us unsatisfied, uninformed, and guessing. Ignorant.

This chapter came out because, to use John Gardner‘s metaphor, it interrupted the dream. He has said that novelists invite readers into a dream, and our job is to maintain that dream. Anything that interrupts, should be rewritten or jettisoned. Typical interruptions: inconsistent POV, showing off, placing style over the needs of the story, inconsistent character.

There are several places in my draft where I switch from first person to omniscient narrator, and who knows maybe they will also need to come out, but this one was a clear interruption. Sometimes making sense of history generally, and of slavery in particular, I needed to write like this — almost to explain to myself the raw and brutal dimensions of my subject matter.

There is a lot I could tell you about the Stono Slave Rebellion, but I don’t have the energy for it now. You can get a quick sense of it with a google search.

We have Big Wind today. Sirens going all morning — I’m certain for downed trees and not corona virus [even though Massachusetts is vying with Florida and Pennsylvania for third most cases (after New York and New Jersey)].

It’s a cool wind and so, so assertive. I spent a part of the morning sitting in the shelter of the garage and just witnessing the effects of it — clouds scudding by, maple tops dancing vigorously, gulls blown inland from the coast.

Upstairs, I was so happy to open windows and snuggle under a small humble quilt that Deb sent to me not long ago. Where she is in the south, even bigger winds blew through.

Don’t ask why WP has offered such a variety of font changes. Beats the shit out of me. How interesting to LET IT BE and not fuss!