I’ve come to that cross-road in a writer’s life where she has to choose between writing what she wants and writing what earns her bread. It might even be one of those modern five-way stoplights where several roads merge and one must decide whether to turn gently to the right, to join the path ahead, or — most alarming of all — veer to the left and go against the traffic, hoping for a break in the rush to slip across. What to do?
And I think I might go for the difficult and risky choice.
This is absolutely one of those moments where, if speaking to young writers, I might say, “Do as I say and not as I do.” Because who would counsel a writer to leave off the path toward Easy and instead push forth into the Difficult? You want success? Don’t do this.
But then I think of all the advice given to me, especially in the past few years, about “Follow your bliss,” and “Do what you love.” Let the angels lead you where they will. I think of the quote from poet Mary Oliver, “I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbably and beautiful and afraid of nothing as though I had wings.” Angels, again. So, I think, well, maybe I should. Maybe it’s time to chase this.
What is the this? It’s a long story, so to speak: My family history, reaching back into long ago when my people first put foot on American soil. Before it was American. Or after, just a century ago, before two great wars and women’s suffrage and Prohibition. I’m looking at my roots, of getting here, of what was left behind and what they came for, and what they achieved, and what it cost. And whom it cost.
So think of slavery and the Trail of Tears. Think of the British Raj and the Industrial Revolution. Think of the Orphan Train, of blood and bones. And — of healing, atonement, and mercy.
Oh, I don’t know how to write any of it, either. I’ll have to get there and see. But I’m finding myself obsessed with the vision I have for this story, and the possibilities. Maybe I’ll give it a year and see what happens.
Maybe I’ll be afraid of nothing as though I had wings.
I just finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. I read Go Set a Watchman when it first came out last month, and read it before reading the beloved old favorite. And despite all the drama, histrionics and harrumphing by TKAM’s defenders of the holy tract and the way things have always been, I must say, I don’t see the issue. Atticus Finch is a racist. How is that shocking?
Small-town Alabama, in the Great Depression (TKAM) or in the fifties (GSAW), was racist. It’s still quite racist, from what I hear and read. (I’ll be traveling there in October and will give a first-hand account of my experience then.) But so are lots of places in the USA. Racism is still prevalent, pretty much everywhere. I grew up in super liberal Marin County and I learned racist slurs and rhymes. Racism is everywhere. To express shock that the fictional character in a book written about either of those time periods — but especially in the thirties — wasn’t racist seems naive.
Since I don’t have the baggage of having read TKAM a dozen times (or even once) since my adolescence, I certainly don’t have the same attachment to envisioning and sanctifying Atticus Finch in one particular way. But I can relate, to an extent. A set of books I grew up on, The Little House books, has a character, Pa (Charles), based on the author’s real father, who is also just, true and faithful. Always loving to his daughters, always dreaming of a better life. What would I say if Pa had been exposed later as a racist or a man with feet of clay? Would that show me the angst people are feeling now over the loss of their dream-daddy, Atticus? It might.
But that event, in fact, has happened. I have read everything I could find about Laura Ingalls Wilder precisely because I am such a fangirl, and some of that reading has been distinctly eye-opening. Pa was a fly-by-night poet and a dreamer who “married up” to Ma’s social class, and she (a shameless racist herself) had to fight to keep them in one place long enough to get an education for her daughters. Laura’s loving glances at her father, and his returned gaze, have been interpreted as incestuous by some critics. And the family stories themselves were doctored by Laura’s probably bipolar daughter Rose, a staunch Libertarian (and cofounder of the political movement) who urged Laura to fudge the facts to make a better story.
How did I feel about that? Chagrined, of course, but also not surprised. Stories are stories, and facts are facts. I don’t think it’s possible for this white family in TKAM to have lived in small-town Alabama in the 1930s with a Negro housekeeper and a segregationist society and not be affected. Aunt Alexandra was affected. Uncle Jack, Atticus, not so much. The kids saw color. They didn’t understand the background so much, but they knew there were issues.
In TKAM, Scout and Jem attend church with Calpurnia and are confronted by a black church member who doesn’t want them to attend. At that moment, the children understand fully what it’s like to be excluded on the basis of race. The rest of the church allowing the two white children (of a prominent citizen) to come in and feel welcome shows less openness and more — well, maybe self-preservation. Just as Tom Robinson was doomed from the moment Mayella Ewell saw him passing by and asked him to come chop her firewood or whatever else she wanted — the church couldn’t refuse hospitality to Calpurnia’s employer’s children. Tom couldn’t say no and live; the church membership, despite all appearances of merely being hospitable, also couldn’t say no. That’s how ingrained the racism was.
It seems clear that Atticus is a man of character. He sees injustice in Mayella’s (or her father’s) accusation against Tom. He hates an unfair fight (which is why he stopped using guns as a youth, when it was clear he would kill anything he aimed to shoot). And Atticus is a man of duty — he was assigned the case; he didn’t seek it out. He saw through to the end, as far as he humanly could, that the case got his best work. He is a solid man of his word, and he remains that way through both narratives. In other words, Atticus doesn’t change substantively in TKAM, any more than he has “changed” in GSAW. And the mark of a central character is that he or she changes. The arc of growth is the story. Atticus himself is static in TKAM — and he’s still the same, only older, in GSAW.
So the focus of both stories is Scout — what she sees and knows. She grows up by three years in TKAM and learns that people are multifaceted and not always trustworthy. Her experience of getting to know Boo Radley, of working for the hated Mrs. Dubose, and of seeing Calpurnia in the world (Scout’s house) and at home (Calpurnia’s church) taught her that there is more to most people than meets the eye — a worthy lesson: Don’t judge. Scout, as the adult Jean Louise, has also learned about people, having broadened her horizons in New York City. Coming home, she sees at last how small-minded her neighbors are, her Aunt Alexandra, and even her father. She has changed — and again has to grow and change to accept people (even her social inferior, her fiance Hank) for who they are.
Either way, these are Scout’s stories. This is her arc. Although Harper Lee wrote GSAW first, and her editor set her to rewrite, bringing us TKAM, I don’t think it’s the lesser story. I’m perfectly comfortable with GSAW as a sequel — or even a prequel — for TKAM. I believe they are both necessary and valid, now that they are both out in the world.
I wonder if I could have concluded thusly had I read TKAM first?
I’m writing while I sit by my husband’s bed awaiting his back surgery.
I’m writing while I drive home late at night.
I’m writing when I get up at 3 a.m. to let the cat in. Or out.
I’m writing when it looks like I’m reading. Or spacing out. Or chopping vegetables.
Because, for me, writing doesn’t look like writing until the last 10 percent.
“Genius is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.” — Thomas Alva Edison
Writing — for me — is like that, too, sort of. It’s all in my head until the last bit, which is writing it down (on paper or screen). I don’t sit at my desk and wonder what will come. I write all the time, and then sit down and let it out.
And that’s about all I have to say. Tomorrow I have an essay to write. A chapter to finish. Some poetry that is weeping my name.
I spent Saturday digging through old newspapers to see what frolics my great-grandmother was up to as president of the Daughters of the Confederacy in Portland, Oregon, 100 years ago. Let’s just say there plenty of genteel hijinks that involved white women doing the Virginia Reel, reading nostalgic poetry in “slave dialect” and guest speakers telling “many clever darky stories.”
Can you tell I died a little bit inside when I read that?
I did a lot of family research while working on the two volumes of the Doris Diaries (I’ve Got Some Lovin’ to Do and Reaching for the Moon, from the 1920s). In those hours of internet and library research, some at home and some in other states, other cities, I went looking for Doris and her father for the books, and often found her mother instead. Willie Doris Bailey, nee Upshaw, was my great-grandmother, and she was a Southern lady. She left the south when she married my great-grandfather in about 1901 and they moved to Boston so he could study architecture. When he finished, they moved to Portland, Oregon, where they remained almost the rest of their lives (except for a brief stint in Phoenix in the early Depression years).
And in all that time, she never lost her accent, Doris recalled. I keep reading about Willie Doris, whom I remember as a very old lady (she lived to be 99, dying in the late 1970s). And in everything I read about her – well, I’m not sure I would have liked her. She was a fervent admirer of Robert E. Lee and claimed that they were distant cousins (I have traced our names through the Sewell line and there is cousinhood there, but still quite tangled).
She was a leader in the Daughters of the Confederacy, holding teas and exhibitions to celebrate Shiloh Day and Jefferson Davis’s birthday, in Portland, decades after the war ended. She was even a DOC delegate to the veterans’ reunion in Atlanta in 1919, one of the last, since few veterans remained. She did not shrink from her heritage, not at all. She owned it like her family had owned slaves.
I follow her activities in hundred-year-old news tidbits and I shake my head in dismay. Your side lost, lady, I want to tell her. Let it go! Slavery was not a sustainable model. It was bad for everyone – and the aftereffects are still damaging today. I sit here, a California progressive, a Green Party member, looking back at my slaveholding ancestors and I have no words for the apologists. What is there to say but it’s over – and yet, just this week I have been signing petitions to tell South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag that waves over the dead bodies of nine people who were praying in a church when they were gunned down.
It remains to be seen what I will find in my quest for answers. I’m not even sure what I’m seeking. But I sense, as a West Coast native with nothing but love for my multicultural, gender-fluid, tree-hugging, pot-smoking neighbors, that I will have a pretty rude awakening ahead of me. The reckoning between what was then and what is now remains to be seen. Come along with me, won’t you, as I figure it out?
You’d think I had other things to do, but I just reread this how-to and wanted to share some thoughts while they were still fresh in my mind. I’m a great re-reader of books (see last Monday’s blog), and needed a kick in the pants this month to get me back on track with my revisions. Herewith, my review of SK’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
Stephen King began writing his book on the craft of writing to delve into the language and show fledgling writers something about how it’s done, or how he does it, anyway. Midway through the manuscript, he was gravely injured in a well-publicized accident and almost died. That experience shapes the rest of the book and gives the ultimate section of On Writing a particularly poignant tone. This section was serialized in The New Yorker, and those who haven’t read it already may turn directly to it with good cause: King’s story is powerful personal drama. But turn back to the beginning for an equally powerful, if much lighter, look into King’s development as a writer.
In the first section, “C.V,” King mines his memory for early glimpses of the evolving writer, in hilarious tidbits. King is not the pop-horror hack that many of his critics claim him to be; in On Writing, King is on his game: intelligent, bluntly honest, profanely funny. He tells how he came to succeed as a writer and what mistakes he’s made along the way, including an alcohol and drug problem that nearly cost him his marriage. In the center section, “Toolbox,” King gives the nuts, bolts, and how-tos of writing, none of which are unexpected nor too revelatory. His advice is mostly practical: “Avoid bullshit,” he says, among other bons mots. As a how-to-write book, you could do worse, or better, than this one. As a peek into the King psyche and wit, On Writing is a must-read.
* * *
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
by Stephen King
$25.00 288 pages