Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is ever really lost.
~ Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings, (1983)
I often hear other authors say that their characters take on a life of their own —— sometimes pulling the story in unexpected directions. I’ve had that experience frequently while writing novels. I also have new characters pop up, seemingly out of nowhere. For me, it’s part of the wonder and the pleasure of being a writer.
Of course, the opposite can happen, as well. I have characters who suddenly stop talking to me. They seem to disappear in the mist and it’s like pulling teeth to bring them back. I’ve had characters who wouldn’t die, no matter how many times I sat down to a fresh chapter with exactly that intention. And just when I think that the current book is slogging through swampland and will never reach dry land, it’s as though they release the exact nature of the ending I had already envisioned. Rescue!
Every time I finish a project, I have a free-floating anxiety that it was the last idea I’ll ever have. At that point, I’m often not convinced that the most recent one was any good —- it has to sit and ripen for awhile. I scrub the baseboards and clean out a closet. I call friends I haven’t talked to for awhile and we get together for coffee. I start thinking about all the sewing projects, the quilts I bought fabric for, the dusty piano keys, relatives and friends who would love a handwritten letter.
Then it happens again. I wake up from a nap with somebody brand new talking to me, pouring out a story that MUST be captured. It happened this week. I’m not done with the last one yet, but this gal is tapping her toe and whispering in my ear. I took notes. I put her in my “Fabulous Ideas” folder. But she’ll just have to wait her turn.
I sometimes wonder, when “real life” becomes as unsettled and disturbing as it has been lately, how I can keep writing fiction. I think, aside from giving me quiet time apart, it is as Eudora Welty said —- it gives me the ability to pull the threads of my own life and those around me. I don’t have to stay stuck in the disorder and despair of the present moment, because I’m a novelist. What a wonderful gift.
Who we bring to the “Real World”
I’ve been reading Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, “My Beloved World” this week. I requested it from the public library in January and it finally came to me 6 days ago. It must be very popular.
I remember the media furor during her confirmation process, some of which centered on having once defined herself as a “wise Latina” —— horror of horrors, might her background bring an ethnic and gender-skewed point of view to the high court? Because certainly the old white men who traditionally hold those seats have an entirely neutral (i.e. normal) point of view.
For the most part, this book is an almost Horatio Alger tale of the rise from poverty to ultimate success. There is no taking away from this woman’s accomplishments and intellect. But she also acknowledges, and even celebrates, the many forms of help she received on the way. Leveling the playing field through affirmative action gave her entrance to an Ivy League education that she would not otherwise have had access to. A foot in the door. The chance to compete against others who already had benefitted from the advantages that go along with class, wealth and legacy. And she did it.
We all bring ourselves to whatever arena we occupy. I was born into a family in the midwest of the United States. My earliest life lessons, the sensory impressions that are wired into my brain, the language and sensibilities that oriented me to the world, are still extant. I’ve added layer upon layer as I moved around, met different people, learned new things. But they are still there, especially in the sound of a beloved voice, the scent of my mother’s skin, the sight of rolling cornfields or the strains of Chopin on the piano.
I’ve lived in North Carolina far longer than I did in Iowa, and I have formed myriad memories, sensory triggers and visual pathways, but the ones from the earliest days are still the most potent.
I’m glad we have a “wise Latina” on the high court. It takes many voices, all kinds of experiences and points of view to bring our system of justice into the world we all share. Whatever her motivations for publishing this book, it’s a valuable contribution to our national conversation, and I welcome it.
Abigail and Louisa Alcott
I heard a story on NPR last night about Louisa May Alcott and her mother Abigail. Like girls of many generations, I loved “Little Women” and “Little Men” and the other Alcott books. At first I wanted to be Jo March, but I revised that to wanting to be her creator, Louisa. I don’t know if or how that has contributed to my interest in writing historical fiction. I do know it has heavily influenced my identification as a “lady author”, as Louisa might have said. I even learned to write with a pen and inkwell, which still sit on my desk, though the computer now takes precedence. I carry her image of ink-stained fingers always in my mind.
What caught my attention last night was the intersection between Louisa’s writing and her mother’s journals. According to this program, it had long been thought that Abigail’s journals were burned around the time of her death, but some distant descendant found them in the attic and brought them to light. They give us a window on the life of this family and the relationship between mother and daughter.
Women’s journals of that time, when encouraged as both Abigail and Louisa were, served the purpose of expression at a time when women were not to participate in the public square, were not to speak out. Respectability was more important than self-expression, appearances took precedence over reality.
The Alcott family was a shambles. Bronson Alcott, for whatever contributions he may have made to the world of thought, philosophy or education —- and that’s debatable —- was not a man who would take care of his family. His four daughters and his wife were often without basic necessities, including sometimes a place to live. His rich life of the mind meant they were subjected to whatever social or educational innovation he was experimenting with at the moment. He was a reformer, it seemed, with no firm grasp on what or how to reform.
As I have read and heard more about Louisa’s actual life, not the idealized March family in fiction, but the real, often chaotic family life of the Alcotts, I have felt ever more kinship with her. I, too, was raised in a family in which music, literature and art were highly regarded, but with a father whose devotion to his music led us to be itinerant at best. He practiced six-eight hours a day for the ever-elusive concert career. When it finally became apparent that it would never happen, he turned to the stage, where his success was local and nearly as limited. While his contributions to our family consisted of a resentfully obtained paycheck from teaching reluctant students, it was left to my mother to create the family ties that bind us still. We all knew he lived in another world, an important world, far more important than any of our childish prattle. Unless we, too, were performing or rehearsing —- on stage, in school, he rarely noticed or listened to what may have occupied our interest.
Like Louisa, who is reported to have moved 30 times in 30 years, my childhood and young adulthood were a series of moves —— 32 domiciles in 30 years, spanning the US and Europe. The consistencies in my life, oddly enough, were what contributed most heavily to the instability. Every day I heard beautiful piano music from the grand piano that followed us everywhere. I played under the piano, I sometimes sat on the bench and watched his fingers fly over the keys with amazing certainty. Every night, one or the other of my parents read aloud, mainly from the classics, as we were tucked into bed. We kids always knew that money was scarce, hand-me-downs from friends and cousins came in batches, my mother grew and preserved food part of the time, baked her own bread, made us delicious butter and sugar sandwiches for our lunch boxes. And every year or so, we moved.
I don’t lament my childhood. Much of it was great. My younger sisters and brother were my friends, we formed a tight group of support and resistance that continues to this day. If I had been a different child, with a different upbringing, I might never have spent long play hours making up stories and games peopled with fantastic characters assigned to my siblings and played out in the basement, back yard, and barn. I might never have taken up a fat first-grade pencil to begin a diary when I was 7, a necessity that has persisted now for more than half a century. I might never have come to be a novelist.
If I have had any muses, Louisa May Alcott would be the first. She opened the door for me to dream my way out of confusion and chaos. She is one of the many women who have looked over my shoulder and helped me find my way.