Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Gone with the Wind, a counter argument or a scene from my novel

So I’m guessing Gone with the Wind was on television last night.  I don’t have cable… and more to the point I was only interested in Mad Men in the brief hour of alertness I found at the end of my Monday after an exhausting weekend.  But judging from the multiple posts and quotes on Facebook this morning, I’m guessing there was a broadcast.

I wrote a blog about my sentiments over the novel and film five years ago.  Most of that hasn’t changed… except that I am back to writing the manuscript to which I alluded and getting inside the head of characters who might read this novel/view this movie differently.  I also saw and read 12 Years a Slave which shed a completely different light on the glory of the ole South.

I wrote a scene set in 1939 to attempt a reconciliation of my 13 year old fan girl belief and my more critical view of race.  I’m not sure where it fits now.  I recognize some of the rough edges and incongruity to the latest round of edits.  I’m not sure if it will be necessary to the overall narrative… as another scene I wrote may have more to do with what I hope to say.  So maybe this will be its one chance for the spotlight.

December 1939
Agnes peered down the hall and saw the reflection of Helen pursing her lips to get the right coating of lipstick.  In the corner of the image she saw the person she sought imitating the motion.

“Evie,” Agnes took the steps down the hall.  “It’s time for bed.”

“I want to finish helping Mommy get ready.”

“You will help her by getting in your pajamas,” Agnes met Helen’s grateful eye in the reflection as she reached out her hand to Evie.

“I will stop in to say good night,” Helen stared into her jewelry box.

“I wish I could go to the party,” Evie pouted with her reluctant steps into her bedroom.

“We can pretend you are dressing up,” Agnes pulled the pajamas out of the drawer.

“Like Scarlett O’Hara,” Evie’s eyes lit up excitedly.

“Fiddle dee dee,” Agnes laughed, remembering Ginny’s favorite quote from the movie.  

“Fiddle dee dee,” Evie tossed her shoes off her feet.  “Fiddle dee dee,” again as Agnes lifted the dress over her head and once again as the nightgown replaced it.

“Go brush your teeth,” Agnes picked up the dress and hung it in the closet.

“Fiddle dee dee,” Evie giggled again and picked up her brush.  “Mammy, will you do my hair?”

“Evelynn Bradshaw!” Helen’s voice chilled the air.

“Yes?” the little girl dropped the brush, her hand trembling as much as her lip.

“What did you call Agnes?” Helen came into the room, behind Evie, forcing her with her stature to meet the angry brown eyes.



“We were playing Gone with the Wind.  I’m Scarlett O’Hara,” Evie attempted a smile.  “Agnes is my slave.”

“Agnes is not your slave,” Helen slapped Evie’s cheek.  Both mother and daughter froze as the echo of hand hitting skin echoed soundlessly.  Helen’s lip trembled as she slowly dropped her hand.  Evie gulped in several deep breaths until they escalated into sobs.

“What’s the matter?” Andy froze when he saw his mother still standing as her arm fell.

“Evelynn was disrespectful to Agnes.”

“It wasn’t… I don’t mind,” Agnes reached for the sobbing little girl and then saw Helen’s face – beautiful and wild and cold.

“Put her to bed,” Helen’s heels were heavy on the carpeted hallway.

“Helen, we’re going to be late,” Andrew came up the stairs and paused, hearing Evie’s wails.  He came in immediately and took her from Agnes’ arms.  “Why are you crying Evie, darling?”

“Mummy is mad that I was playing Gone with the Wind.”

“She said you were disrespectful to Agnes,” Andy hung in the doorway.

“Your cheek is all red, Evie.  What did you say to Agnes?”

“She was playing Mammy.”

Andrew glanced at Agnes.  “Will you play again?  Maybe Andy can be Rhett Butler.”

Andy shook his head and went into his room.  “Will you let Agnes finish putting you to bed?”

Evie nodded her head reluctantly and crawled under her covers.  Agnes listened to the footsteps that followed Helen’s heels.

“What just happened with Evie?”

“She called Agnes her slave.”

“Honestly, Helen.  It was just a game.”

“I do not have slaves.”

“You read that book.  You went to that movie.  You know it’s just a story.”

“Agnes is not a slave.”

“What does this house do to you?  You are an entirely different person when we come here.  Sometimes… I don’t recognize you.”

“Are we going to the party or not?”

“Your eyes are red.  Do you think that’s a good way to go to a party?”


“Helen, what’s wrong?”

“I’m tired.”

“Then we’re staying home?”

“We’re staying home.”

Agnes looked down at Evie, frozen in the same attention to her parents yelling.  “Agnes, will you call the Madison household and send our very sincere regrets but Mrs. Bradshaw is feeling unwell.”

“Yes,” Agnes agreed as Andrew picked Evie up in his arms and leaned against the pillows.

Agnes saw Andy’s open door as she left the room.  She paused, but didn’t go in to turn him over.   His shoulders were shaking, but he kept the sobbing silent.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

changing what I see

A couple nights ago on Facebook, I lamented how mushrooms seem to diminish after cooking them.  A few days before that, I posted a picture of zucchini shredded into spaghetti strands.  In between, I made some snarky remark about the Ben Affleck as Batman brou ha ha.  Those were my most popular posts in the last couple weeks.  Not that you need a play by play, but merely some context.  Because pretty much every other thing I’ve posted has been about race or civil rights.  Sometimes these things get a like… sometimes I think it is just lost in the vacuum of Facebook hullabaloo.  And maybe my opinions are hullabaloo to some people.

But that won’t stop me from speaking them.

I guess I am subject to the winds of pop culture right now.  Today we celebrate a 50 year anniversary of a speech.  An uplifting speech – one worth remembering.  One that some have declared a pinnacle of a great movement.  It’s also the easy thing to remember.  The easy thing to quote.  To like and share on Facebook.  Because it makes us feel good and hopeful.  Not sick.

Maybe that’s why less than a handful of people like these posts… because they don’t want to think about things that make them feel icky.  Like politics.  It’s just easier to not talk about it, avoid conflict, and pretend there isn’t a problem.  Or better yet, that the problem is solved because hurray!   we now live in a world where a child is not judged by the color of her skin but the content of her character.

Seriously, you think that?

Are you still with me?  Or have you turned away because this post isn’t about food or pretty landscapes or a scene from my latest novel… but okay, let’s go there.  Because I have reflected on why I feel the need to stand on a soapbox about this issue.  Not that I’m shy about soapboxes (especially in a blog or on Facebook).  But why this issue?  I’m not black or brown or anything that isn’t so pasty you can see my blue veins.  It isn’t my problem.  Am I justified to shout about it?  Because I wrote a book?  And… not even a book, really.  It’s a rough, rough, rough first draft.

That’s the thing about writing.   Especially this novel.  I have two characters who are women of color.  I was scared to write them.  Scared to do them justice, I told myself.  Scared I would use the cliché of white savior with my other narrator.  Scared I would buy into stereotypes and lack honesty.  But really… when I think about it, I think I was scared to see the world through their eyes.

These women are phantoms of my imagination… so really, how is seeing their world different from how I experience reality?  I can’t unsee my white, Catholic, small town upbringing.  But I have used that small town as a setting and put these characters there.  I imagine Bekah going into a coffee shop and getting an unsettled look of not belonging.  I imagine Agnes going to school and getting a dishonest grade on her test.  Would these things really happen?  Maybe not.  But looking at history of decades and days ago, I wouldn’t doubt the probability.  And imagining it, both the blow to one’s spirit and the necessary resilience to not react changed the way I see things now.

Does that mean I see things that aren’t there?  I think my friends might be annoyed with me sometimes.  Invoking the word racist about things that weren’t intended to be so.  Does that mean I am judging them?  But how different is that from judging someone who walks into a coffee shop and just doesn’t look like everyone else in town?  Is judging anyone the right thing to do?  No.  So, let’s talk about it.  Please.  

I speak through my writing.  And, I have no doubt this writing causes me to pay attention to things I normally wouldn’t before.   A year ago, I would probably link to the video of MLK Jr.’s famous speech and proclaim it the philosophy to which we must all strive today.  Instead I posted Langston Hughes’ words urging the reader to hold fast to dreams.

Because as much as it is a nice thought to think we can live in a colorblind society… I have to say I rather prefer that I see the color now.  In all its messy, sickening, hopeful, infuriating, surprising, promising, thought-provoking history and present day struggle.  It helps me to write better characters, to see them better, to feel for them.  Which I like to think, in turn, makes me a better, more empathetic human being.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

procrastination and real life inspirations

I have a story.  Tonight I will flesh out a few more scenes after the which I can consider the first draft complete.  Of course, that’s when the work really begins.  But… I’ve realized that when writing a book, having a complete story – no matter how much is deleted or bulked up in later versions – is an important peak on which to declare victory.

Especially since it took me fifteen years to climb this mountain.

There were a few points over the last year when I wondered if it was worth writing something I started so long ago.  In a lot of ways, I have a different view of the world than I did at age 23.  I shook off a lot of naiveté, changed priorities, and… I’d like to think gained some humility even as I accomplished more.  

I mean… at age 23 I was obsessed with war movies.  I spent my days talking about weaponry to the public and bitching about museum drama in all the other hours.  I still wanted to be the star of every show.  I had dreams of fame and wealth.  I still believed success was going to be the number of zeroes in my pay stub or an engagement ring.  I was in love with Kenneth Branagh… okay, maybe not everything has changed.

But a lot has.

Except my love for this story. Some of it has changed with me.  The root of it stays the same… which is funny because I consider myself more jaded about love these days.  And yet, it really is kind of a sappy love story.  Plus.

I realize, of course, as I weave together the different chunks of manuscript from the years that I had to live to this point to make it a better story.  I better understand … and grieve… the degeneration that comes with old age.  I feel the sorrow of a major grief.  I also understand curiosity a lot more.

Even just a year ago, I questioned the cliché of my frame story.  A young-ish woman taking care of her dying grandmother.  How overtold is the story that in seeing one life take a curtain call one discovers the value of her own life?  And maybe because a year ago I hadn’t reflected much in that way, it did seem contrived… because that’s how I wrote it.

But then I started sifting through old pictures.  Some I was lucky enough to ask my grandmother about firsthand.  And then I found many more that ignited a mystery of the story behind them.

A dashing silhouette of a WWI soldier that had the message “Thinking of you,” scribbled on the back.

Two best friends caught in a spontaneous moment of joy.

A husband and wife igniting the life of a party.


I found myself writing these stories in my own mind.  For some I had details to come up with an idea.  And then… questions… like who was that best friend?  How long did they know one another?  Who lived longer?  Did they stay friends even after marriage?  

Or… who is the dog in so many of these pictures?

None of these questions informed my oldest narrator’s history.  Her story has remained essentially unchanged throughout the fifteen years of my writing… just some tweaking to the level of her romantic world view.  But it did make me realize that these questions are ones that may go through a woman’s mind as she looks death in the eye and contemplates the meaning, the heartache, the reward, the love of a life.  And so my present day character, Bekah, ended up getting a lot more muscle… and was much less a servant to the story of the past.

There are other serendipities that have fueled me this summer and last.  The fact I spend many nights in the house where I first conjured the idea.  Especially after summer evening walks with my dog around the neighbor’s lake.  The character in all three storylines of this book is a great old house – whose aesthetic has changed as my walks around Boston and Central Mass lead me to discover different architectures I like. But the grounds are entirely based on my neighbors’ properties, which include a lake, a once abandoned (although somewhere in the last decade it has been restored) tennis court, and two overgrown foundations in the middle of the woods.  

And lastly… maybe most importantly… or maybe incidentally… current events.  Race.  Gay marriage.  The redeeming quality of our society is that there have been baby steps and giant leaps of progress made… all while there have been retreats into a past during which the more historic scenes of this book take place.  The racial conflicts of this country have always fascinated me… at least since I was twelve and able to comprehend discrimination.  I think my father has something to do with that, as does my mother… as do the paths down which I have chosen to lead my life.  I’m less scared of the subject now.  Less intimidated to insert my imagination into a character who is a different skin color.  More willing to write the villainy that makes it real.

I don’t have a title for this book yet.  The one I had fifteen years ago is somewhat irrelevant now.  But I do have a skeleton.  And a love story. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

There's something happening here and what it is ain't exactly clear... or unclear

So if you follow any of my Facebook posts, you may have noticed I got my writing mojo back this summer.  Some of that is just sheer force of will to get a completed, readable draft by the time I turn 38 in August.  And then… some of it comes from the collision of real life events fueling my inspiration.  

It is part of that age old question, where does the writer end and the fiction begin?  Certainly, I find myself writing better scenes now that I’ve known what it is to lose my grandmother.  And while there are things these characters go through that I haven’t experienced personally (thank God), I think things I have felt and grieved and survived make it possible to write this story.
On the flip side, I find this story adds to how I feel and grieve current events.

I have a character who goes to Mississippi in 1964.  So when the Supreme Court decided a couple weeks ago that the voting rights act wasn’t necessary to enforce any longer, I thought of her.  I thought of the real life heroes who inspired me to take her on that journey… and I felt so frustrated and defeated and… sad.  

But that is, truthfully, a periphery to the main narrative(s) of my novel.  I found myself focusing more on the romance of my two parallel love stories.  That led me to one of those silly consequences of writing, developing a crush on these fictitious personalities.

One of them is a young black man.

There is a bit of a mystery -  a lot of a mystery – so I don’t want to say too much.  But I will say the news this weekend made me think of him.  Maybe because there is something about the injustice of Trayvon’s murder.    The double standard for a black man standing his ground versus a man of paler complexion.  Or maybe there is something in the photos of that young, still almost boy.  Something I’ve thought about as I write Tom.  A bit of a cavalier foolishness, the stupidity of hubris… but someone who just ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Someone’s son.  Grandson.  Brother.  Beloved.  Full of hope.  Not entirely aware of the danger it is just to be.

I suspect it is a piece of my white privilege that I can say I imagine these emotions surrounding a fictitious person.  But I think of my friends.  I think of co-workers.  I think of the students I see sing every fall and winter.  I think of the friendly faces I see while getting my iced coffee in the morning.  I think of their beloveds.  Their sons.

I think of the trigger happy white men I know and live amongst.  And… sometimes… love, too.  I created one of those in this novel, too.  Someone who makes my skin crawl.  Someone who, when I describe this book, I say is more monstrous than any vampire I conjured from imagination in my last novel.  Because, this type of monster is real.  Because we let these monsters walk amongst us.  And get away with murder.

I also think of my own fear.  My prejudices.  My conclusions to which I jump with my fictitious scheming.  What I think is justice.  The ideals that in the present day are an impossible fantasy.  I like that I can create a balance to the ecosystem of my pretend universe by the end of my story… but even that comes with a price and echoes through the hearts and minds of generations.

I do think writing has helped to clarify focus in real life for me.  Sometimes it just helps me heal a broken heart.  Sometimes it makes sense of a world that infuriates me.  And sometimes… sometimes, it lets me see what’s happening and really feel it.

But you know, this time around, I wish it was just something I made up.