Sometimes constructing a story is like collage, where you add layer after layer, hoping that the whole picture somehow works.
Sometimes constructing a story is akin to piecing fabric — moving around existing components until a pleasing design emerges, then adhering them.
Right now, editing resembles lipo-suction. Sucking out the fat in service of a tighter sequencing of events is harder than I thought it would be.
In part, this is because I have ADD. Having my kind of focus means I can endlessly and with rapt attention go line by line and make significant improving edits. But to take in the whole? To understand how big chunks work or don’t work? This is challenging. It took me two weeks of hand-wringing to convince myself I could even do it!
Here’s the upshot: my manuscript is way too long. Industry standard for unpublished authors is 90,000 words (in the neighborhood of 200 pages). Mine clocks in at 310,000 and worse, sags throughout the entire middle. I wish it were as simple as excising the middle, but that won’t get me to my goal of a readable, compelling 200 page novel.
Things to consider:
- they say to write the book you want to read. I like page turners (i.e. plot driven novels). Mine is character driven. Plot decidedly secondary (or absent?)
- I have let the actual events of Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s life inform her narrative and it’s been suggested that to do so is to handicap myself (a small example: her two closest friends were named Mary. I let that stand, even though as a reader it would drive me nuts).
- each scene demands that I ask, does this drive the story forward? Does this?
But! What if our standard idea of narrative progressing in an arc is not only limited, but based on an a masculine sensibility (and specifically, male sexuality) in ways that are limiting?
From Paris Review article discovered last night — Here’s critic Robert Scholes: “The archetype of all fiction is the sexual act … the fundamental orgastic rhythm of tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation.”think ‘arousal phase’ ”climax’.
Says author of Paris Review article, Jane Alison: “Well. This is not how I experience sex. Critic Susan Winnett says, “Meanings generated through dynamic relations of beginnings, middles, and ends in traditional narrative and traditional narratology never seem to accrue directly to the account of the woman.” And anyway, why should sex—this kind of sex!—be the archetype of fiction? Why should an art form as innovative as fiction have a single archetype at all?”
Food for thought. Having said that, without any explanation of setting or character, here are two deleted scenes. Make of them what you will. Both fall in the category of ‘too much back story for secondary characters.’
And so, it was on a windy morning in early December 1737, that a Barbadian Christian with something to hide parted with a half-Yoruban, half-Dutch temptress and pocketed the proceeds. As the buyer led his newly-acquired slave and her child down the tamarind-lined path, neither he nor the seller knew that Sally was with child — the cane grower’s child. But Sally knew, as women sometimes do.
Before the Barbadian cane grower even crossed the threshold back into his gracious abode, he was halfway to forgetting the whole unpleasant business. What relief! What shrewd calculation! Without even having made the decision to do so, his mind began to blur the outlines of his ugly (though thoroughly socially acceptable) transgression and its brief, tortured aftermath. Smudge. Smudge. How swift the gracious erasures performed by amnesia — how convenient the mechanism of blame!
He returned to the so-called seat of his empire and exhaled in relief. He patted the arms of his chair as if to say he was back, a man of society wholly in charge of his destiny, and perhaps also a man made generous by recent events. Even though the well-timed disposal of Sally might’ve allowed him to forgo the lavish fete, he would not renege. Wasn’t he a man of his word? He was planning a menu when his wife entered the room.
“Is that vile thing gone at last?” But her husband had moved on.
“I’ll say 200’s the upper limit,” he answered, forgetting that he had yet to mention the gala out loud. “And let’s make it memorable, my pumpkin. How about a masked ball?”
The cane grower’s wife sat down, befuddled for a moment but not a jot longer. She was onto it! They would roast four pigs! There would be dancing! She leaned toward his desk and said in conspiratorial joy, “The date must correspond to a full moon — think of the light on the terrace! Oh and Mrs. Thorp just this week made mention of an orchestra worth the hire!”
He concurred. She glowed. When had they last been this united in thought? He said, “A full moon – indeed! Always the one with the grand idea, you! Imagine it shining on the bay… won’t our guests swoon with envy, my dear, and high time?”
The cane grower dunked his quill into the bottle of ink rather too hard. Dunk after hard dunk. No wonder the point had been dull on that awful morning – but no — he would not think on it. He would take down his wife’s every idea. Nothing like a little scare to humble a person into conciliatory attentiveness!
Surely Mrs. Whittaker wondered at his softened tone, his posture of consideration? She said nothing more about Sally, which could have meant any number of things. Maybe the distraction worked. Four pigs! Mrs. Thorp’s orchestra! Then again, she might have thoroughly skunked him out, but in the interests of marital peace generally and a magnificent ball specifically, let the matter rest. If so, she was not quite as dim as her husband believed. Furthermore, she might be possessed of a larger spirit than he knew as well. Think on it: if his wife so freely abandoned what turned out to be a well-grounded suspicion in order to graciously leap into their shared future, without for a second demanding the consolation prize of being right, maybe she deserved his ministrations of care, not as decoy against his sin but as her rightful due. Had she always been more worthy of his esteem than he’d allowed? He committed to granting her a bit more warmth, a more frequent nodding alliance of opinion. Maybe a dance or two on the moonlit terrace come time? For once, she impressed him.
You could say, therefore, that in addition to preparing and serving meals, bundling alfafa, sweeping the veranda and house entire, watering bromeliads, and increasing the inventory with a son, Sally granted the couple the gift of a much-needed renewal. The fact that it was one the couple could not have engineered on their own made it all the more remarkable. It was the mulatto’s disruptive guile (for he at last concluded it was not diminished capacity but guile, guile, guile) that had generated a significant new conjugal arrangement. One spouse rose up, the other slipped down, causing the two to arrive somewhere in the middle where approach one to the other was possible. Like everything else Sally gave, it was bestowed (taken) without their having to fork out a single letter of credit or clattering coin.
In two months time, when the orchestra tuned up on the terrace and the bay shimmered with moonlight, our sugar exporter on Barbados would hardly be able to recall the mulatto’s voice. In fact, he wouldn’t even really remember that the wench’s voice had been singularly arresting. And, because amnesia does not carefully discriminate in its sweep of erasure, he would also forget that he had given the slave his small Bible. He’d forget how, when he held out his precious Bible – the one given to him by his sister all those years ago — the impudent slattern had had the gall to refuse it. You’d think such an exchange would stick in a man’s mind, but it did not. Smudge. Smudge. The cane grower’s amnesia so thoroughly swiped at that morning in the pantry, in fact, that he would later wonder where the Bible had gotten off to, even going so far as to question another house slave about its disappearance.
In conversation it never came out that Whittaker had placed an advert for the mulatto one week prior. And, just as the cane grower hoped, the Captain purchased the mulatto’s two year old son too, with nary a moment’s hesitation. All traces of the wench would be gone!
Perhaps the purchase of the boy could be supported by South Carolina’s ‘head system’– whereby land apportionments were meted out based on the number of persons in a household, even colored ones, and even two year olds, albeit at reduced count. Surely, the low cost of a toddling boy as compared with the land his head would facilitate surveying made it a shrewd transaction?
A shadowy notion of quid pro quo inserted itself just below the level of the Captain’s attention — not quite conscious enough to make him calculating, but present enough to render him a fool. By purchasing the Negress’s boy, he hoped to purchase the slave’s goodwill, for what exactly remained notional and to the extent any thought arose at all, it surely wasn’t about sexual congress. It did, however, occur to the Captain what a nice presentation the mulatto would make in one of Millie’s well-made frocks and wouldn’t it be pleasant to have the girl sing in the parlor after tea? A refined use. An acceptable intercourse.
And so, on a gray morning in December of 1737, with the purchase of Sally and her two year old son, Noah, Captain George Lucas became for the first time in all his years a man governed by more than mere duty. He renamed his acquisition ‘Melody’ and anticipated with a certain glow the pleasure of hearing her voice again. He was doubly satisfied, for he’d come into possession of valuable military information at the inn the evening prior. Spain was preparing to invade Georgia. Antigua’s Governor would be grateful for the news.
Had the Captain stepped outside of himself for a moment, he would have traveled back to Antigua empty-handed and discussed moving to South Carolina with his wife. A pro forma exchange, but not without value. He might have recognized that it was foolish to risk conjugal peace based on a ditty about peas and rice.
Furthermore, he might’ve recognized the folly of trying to recapture a momentary rapture with a purchase. His nebulous desires were unworthy of his character for a host of reasons, but there was one more flaw in all of this, one which stained his person with the darkest blotch of all and it was this: How on God’s green earth could a man expect rapture to flow from transactions in human flesh?
C and his girlfriend went away for the long weekend. As soon as they returned, it was time to drive my other son to the airport. Washing dishes at the sink this morning, I thought, “oh this phase of the empty nest is marked by transition,” and then a heart beat later, “ALL phases of life are marked by transition.” After all, I was washing a ceramic bowl that an hour earlier belonged to a downsizing friend.
Scanning her garage shelves this morning I said, “I’ll look because both boys are setting up apartments this fall,” but the truth is I find opportunities to receive free stuff irresistible. Perhaps my choices were puzzling to her. I took several decades’ worth of spigot and hose attachments, but not the complete set of enamel-handled silverware (surely handy in a young man’s empty apartment?!). I grabbed the funky, brass crab ash tray, but left the collection of vases from all over the world behind. It is not quite as fun as it used to be — this gleeful, thrifty form of acquisition — because I now understand the cost of HAVING things. The housing, the cleaning, perhaps the wishing I hadn’t. But still, can anyone doubt that those giraffe salad utensils look happy in their new home? Look at them, checking out the kitchen!
I could go on a framing spree to justify the big box of wooden frames I lugged home.
Or, I could go drink iced coffee in the shade before it rains. I’d like to finish Faulkner’s “Go Down, Moses” even though I may have less idea about what’s going on than the author intended. Can’t a read be like that? Just a letting of the text wash over the mind? And then it’s back to “Blood and Indigo” and Eliza and the enslaved Melody and the events during the week of the Stono Slave Rebellion (the second week of September, 1739). Imagining.
It requires research and a kind of patient waiting to describe a scene situated almost 300 years ago. What was in the minds of my white characters that week? What was in the minds of my black characters? The attempt to fully imagine those events feels like a fruitful one. I begin to understand the harsh tensions of that time, including the true costs of slavery. The void between white and black points of view is vast and unbridgeable, as I tell it, and perhaps one or even both sides are unknowable to me, and yet, I keep going for it.
Sadly, this research and patient imagining of violence brought on by racial oppression echoes across the centuries and helps me to understand OUR time as well. I wish that weren’t true.
All kinds of things tell me that we, America, might be at a tipping point. Don’t you think? Commentators a lot better informed than I are talking about the coming of the end of white supremacy (for example, here). Everywhere, I see signs of a willingness to take on our history with a fresh and more honest approach.
To be continued, of course.
Last fall, I found this nest on the lawn of The Royall House and Slave Quarters, in Medford, Mass., after spending a night in the quarters as part of The Slave Dwelling Project (blogged about here). How could I NOT pick it up? And how could I not feel a little ambivalent about picking it up? It spoke to me of fragile lodgings and displaced homes. The act of scooping it up as “mine”, referenced ownership, improper and otherwise. But I took it. And housed it with care.
Last week, this bird doll and the nest and a reading of “The Logbooks – Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory” by Anne Farrow all came together. (I am almost done with the book and sooo wish I had heard Farrow speak recently at The Royall House. She authored another book called: “Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery“). It felt proper to include some cloth that I dyed under Donna Hardy’s tutelage in South Carolina as part of The Sea Island Indigo Workshop (blogged about here and around there). Afterall, the indigo we used had provenance to the time of slavery, and the land itself had been worked by the enslaved. I marked 25 places in the hem, so that I could stitch blood-red beads — with each one standing for a decade of slavery. I poked around my studio and found some rusty bits, too.
To keep the nest visible, I selected a wide-mouthed jar for the base. (The white cloth was rejected).
A certain somebody, who likes all of my cloth projects, seems to have an especial fondness for this one. He stole it off the table and chewed it down in the dirty back yard twice, and stole it from the living room coffee table once, and managed to eat three or four of the silk beads during yet another unattended moment (silly me! — I have more, beads that is, and well, also, unfortunately, moments of not paying attention). The doll will get made. Finn seems dedicated to calling HER ownership into question as well!
The next post will feature some content from “The Logbooks” and some ideas about dealing with this particular ambivalence.
Something about two jays crossing a silver sky this morning got me thinking about July*, one of my enslaved characters. How she might think about suffering: one minute bearable, the next not. The jays squawked to each other in their language of season. Their language of season does not get weighed down by human travail. A measurement of light, is all. A call to a mate. “I’m here! I’m here!” They are high enough up that they look small and the vibrant blue of their bodies and wings is barely visible. But, I hear them. I hear them. And I take heart, for in their conversation, I hear references to spring.
* * * *
* The enslaved were often named after days of the week or months of the year. This was not an objectification that came with being commodities, as one might think at first blush, but rather, an African custom. “July” actually was a man’s name and is one of the few names of record from the time period. In the fall of 1739, a male bondman named July hid “his” family during the Stono Slave Rebellion, thus saving their lives. He was later rewarded with his freedom, a hat, a pair of breeches, and shoes. Since there is so little recorded history about the enslaved, fidelity to the record in the small matter of names feels important. For now, though, I am attached to one of the bondwomen being called ‘July’.
I ask Mercury, with his missing limbs and weathered face, what did you see? Perched atop a folly – shaped like a cupola and positioned to afford views of the Mystic – surely a bit of everything? An ornament for the Royalls, but a god with power nevertheless.
From your vantage in the garden, could you see the enslaved men chopping wood, shoeing horses, forking hay into mounds? Did you see the women whose ancestors were left behind, carrying trays of delicacies, which they prepared, from the kitchen to the folly under your feet? Did you see those same women carrying greasy fleeces into a barn to wash and card and eventually spin?
Did you strain to overhear the chattering, silk-drenched visitors as they strolled out of the folly through the garden, admiring its composition and variety? I suppose you might have snickered as the guests gushed their praises – as if the host had dug the beds and all the rest…
I wonder how well you gauged the feelings of the enslaved women as they bent to clip flowers for bouquets — from the garden that they planted, fertilized, weeded, and staked? Did you wish you could crane your neck or flutter forward on those winged sandals to see inside the manse, so as to watch them fill Chinese vases atop polished mahogany buffets? With what hidden thoughts.
I wonder what you might have recognized about inequity here beside the Mystic River, being, afterall, the only god capable of travel between Mount Olympus and the Underworld? What did you recognize as Heaven and what as Hell? Did it confuse you to have the two realms divided as they were, not by a steep ascent to a mountain peak above, and a costly river crossing and long descent down a winding path, below, but divided, instead, by merely a breath and the color of skin?
Whom did you root for, fickle god, and whom did you condemn? Or is that just a human thing – taking sides… constantly contriving to make sense of our world.
But surely you detested your fixed station – stuck there as you were in all kinds of weather in your tin cap. So unable to prank and spy!
And, what do you think of the scene in front of you now? Pegged to the wall at one end of the renovated room. Twelve bodies at dawn. We occupy the quarters once inhabited by the enslaved. Sleeping lumps covered in down-filled bags – REI logos scattered about, emblems of the modern world. At first, some are asleep and quiet. Some asleep and restless. Then, one in the bathroom. One with a pen in her hand. Another sitting in meditation. Then two, erect, with eyes closed. Fred. Ellen.
We’ve gathered, not in your honor (sorry, Mercury), but out of respect and concern and curiosity and love for those who slept here on pallets before us. Those who served and labored and loved and spun and cooked, pickled, canned and polished and harvested. Those listed on inventories. Those whose dreams took them back to the banks of the Niger. Those who prayed in tongues lost to their daylight business.
Those who carried embers in copper disks to warm the beds of their owners even knowing that their own sleep would find them atop barely stuffed pallets on a cold floor.
We are the children of slaves. We are the children of slave-holders. One of us might be descended from both. Some of us from neither – to the extent we know.
We come from the North and the South. We are ministers, writers, historians, and artists. We tend account ledgers, chair nonprofit boards. We have run restaurants, saved for retirement, and prepared notes to lecture on the Civil War. We lead plantation tours. We have dug into archives and probate records up and down the Atlantic Coast. We have made ourselves accountable.
We have made phone calls to landowners to say, “May I sleep in your tool shed?”
The asker of that question has brought the rest of us together. He has slept in dozens upon dozens of former slave dwellings – most more primitive and open to the elements than this one. Educator, Civil War re-enactor, visionary man of heart: Joe McGill.
The birds start up. I am awake and relieved it is six and not four. The glare of the EXIT sign and rumble of snorers made for abbreviated sleep. Not the hard floor. Not the disturbing thoughts of those who slept here before.
Soon, one of us sits up and leans into his palms. Does he pray or merely allow the spine to lengthen before trying to stand? Two phone screens already glare across the room. A cough. A nose being blown. One of us brought a box of Kleenex expecting to cry the night before and then, did not. But I think perhaps she cries now. Yes. She cries now. A second libation.
Her tears — a second libation on the wooden planks, not far from the first. Ase! Ase!
The air coming in and out of my body animates me, lets me breathe with her grief. Does that make you angry and jealous, Mercury? Or are you glad to be spared the entire mess of humankind? Would you, too, cry, if afforded lungs?
A white hand on a black shoulder. The grief of ages pouring through one, the power of touch through the other. The minister meditates. Ellen does too. I hope Fred will pray for us all. Joe gets up. He has done this before. Penny puts on her glasses. Maddie, stirs – hips hurting despite her youth. Ife cries and Ruth rubs her back. Ife cries and Ruth rubs her back. Clennon sits, his head bowed, forehead resting in his palms. Robert looks up and about, inquisitive, intelligent – a morning person? Then Catherine sits up, too, and soon, Jerry leans his back into the southern wall. They will turn to each other and speak.
I write and write as daylight enters the dark room, hoping to find myself. Hoping to find some band of truth. I write and write and write, hoping to craft a place from which to extend my hand…. Not asking for forgiveness, but rather, connection.
Mercury — since you are here, since you famously travel across disparate realms — can you make mercy and justice strong enough to bind us? We twelve share this intention — to honor and respect the past and to peer with bravery into its darkest corners. This makes us a family, for a moment. But our legacies are not the same and never will be. One affording privilege. One not.
Can any amount of humility, especially if paired with a life turned inward, ever generate enough credibility and trust?
I did not come here for friends but may have found a few. I’ll give you credit for that Mercury!
I also did not come to atone, though perhaps I should have. Even with relatives starving on the West Coast of Ireland for the entire ignominious chapter of slavery – I am not exempt. Even with an ancestor who served in the Union Army — the muster, aged and framed, spelling out the name that came down to my father and my brother – I am not exempt.
And how could I be? Safe. White. Well-educated. Never hungry.
To make quilts honoring the Middle Passage and quilts grieving the lopsided losses of Katrina or the execution of Trayvon Martin is not enough (– though a start). To educate myself through slave narratives and excellent histories is not enough (– though doors crack open). To visit plantations, and Chalmers Street, and the Avery Research Center, and to dye cloth with indigo in a pole barn near where the Stono rebels marched, again, not enough (– but gaining texture — making the history, the legacy, more real).
Safe. White. Well-educated. Never hungry.
What could ever be enough? And, if I recognize that perhaps that’s the wrong question, then what is the right question?
I will stop by saying ‘thank you’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘who knows why or how’ and ‘thank you’ again. And: ‘I am sorry’. I am sorry. Lame words? Lame gestures? Yes, perhaps. Maybe even, as the minister noted, ridiculous — but how much worse to fail to make the attempt. Am I wrong?
Here I am. Here you are.
Mercury could care less, I suspect.
But I do. I care.
This post springs from a night spent in the Slave Quarters of the Royall House, in Medford, Mass. Read more about The Slave Dwelling Project here. And there is much to be read about Joseph McGill online, but here is one particularly nice article. The Project has a Facebook page and is on Twitter.
This quilt has hung, unfinished, on a living room wall for a couple of seasons. I am finishing it now.
How often do I look at a thing undone and feel an unspoken but clear sense of failure? (like those dolls on the mantle — when?!)
What if I walked around assured that each thing was being finished in its proper time?
The standard 1/4″ black binding with mitred corners was the first idea. But it was too much. Not right at all. And, I didn’t want to use the machine.
I pawed through my bins and found an old cotton apron. Very old. Very soft. Not quite Emancipation Proclamation period (1863), but a lot closer than most fabrics I own.
It was a little heartbreaking to tear through some hand darning. But I did. As I ripped one, two, three, four, five strips, destroying the apron, hearing that destructive sound, I thought about the tearing action of the slave trade. Entire cultures being ripped apart — not just families. Africans ripped from their homes, their continent, stripped of language, bearings, family, culture, dignity — and finally, their status as human beings. Rip. Rip.
I am using a beautiful antique silk thread and starting on the top. A simple running stitch. You can see the edge and the fabrics below. I like that.
You can’t tell from these photos, but the apron at some point in its life shared a wash with a red garment. The garment bled all over it. That felt right, too.
This is the first of the Middle Passage quilts and will have a certain cheer and unity to the design. It is meant as a ‘semi-before’ picture. Terrible things have happened or are about to happen — traders kidnapping men, women and children, chaining them in coffles and marching them to the sea. Barracoons along the western coast of Africa warehousing human flesh.
But, it will get worse.
The next quilt will be darker and more fragmented. African patterning less recognizable. That will be THIS side of the ocean.