My Apologies for Shooting a Blank Yesterday!
Dear Blog subscribers:
I apologize for the errant email that Mailchimp sent you yesterday. I’m having my website transferred to GoDaddy, and a new version of WordPress installed. According to my guy Cory, an old plug-in (don’t ask me–I don’t know a plug-in from a bathtub stopper) triggered Mailchimp to post the notice that the new WordPress sent–not just to me, but to all of you. Hello World indeed! Sorry!
Cory is Cory Laux at OverdogArt.com and he’s swell. If you need a website or help with WordPress, I recommend him. He knows a widget from a washer and communicates in English clearly.
I haven’t posted lately because I’ve been running around a lot. First there was Bemidji, where I gave a reading and workshop at the Literary Festival. I wanted to be photographed hugging the giant leg of Paul Bunyan, but I was embarrassed to ask a tourist to shoot me in such a compromising position. My workshop was entitled (by me) “From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: Everything I know about Creative Writing.” I told the participants that I had covered the ridiculous in the title, and that in a two hour workshop there wouldn’t be enough time to get to the sublime. Then I tried to tell them some of what I’ve learned the hard way about writing. Mainly that ultimately you have to teach yourself. In the process it helps to read a lot, not just as a consumer but as a writer. Hopefully you learn how to read your own stuff as a reader would read it, not just as the author. There’s a big difference.
The last two weekends we’ve been running up and down the road to Madeline Island, Wisconsin, to the house my mother-in-law rented. The first weekend was for her big 90th b-day celebration. Catered dinner for 30: fresh Lake Superior whitefish rollades with artichoke-chevre-lemon-parsley filling; warm potato salad; and there was supposed to be a green vegetable, beans or sugar snap peas, only the caterer forgot them. In case you’re wondering, a “rollade” is not something you take for indigestion; it’s a little pile of whitefish-artichoke-chevre-lemon-parsley stuffed in a puff-pastry pouch. Let’s just say that the food on the plates looked a little . . . white . . . and a bit spare. Jeff and I went out at 10:00 that night to try to find a hamburger, but Tom’s Burned Down Bar only served drinks, and the other two restaurants on the island had stopped serving food. Nonetheless, the birthday was a big success, and quite the occasion.
Then last weekend we drove up again (5 hours) to bring my mother-in-law and her car back to the Twin Cities. Madeline Island was really beautiful. One of the best parts was letting the mutt run free, play in the water (once—brrrr), and have a ton of family to pet and praise him, whose napkins he could pull off their laps at every meal. The saving grace of all that driving was listening to the audiobook of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Spellbinding.
I’m reading a bunch of stuff as part of research for my Willie Earle novel: The Desegregated Heart; New York in the Fifties; Negroes in Greenville, 1970: An Exploratory Approach; Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement; Toward the Meeting of the Waters: Currents in the Civil Rights Movement of South Carolina during the Twentieth Century. A Furman history professor, Stephen O’Neill, has an invaluable (for my purposes) essay in Meeting of the Waters called “Memory, History, and the Desegregation of Greenville.” He’s been helpful to me and I look forward to meeting him in Greenville sometime. Being a young white girl when Greenville (S.C) went through desegregation, I barely knew what was happening, and had no way of processing it even if I had known. I remember things like the city filling the public swimming pool in Cleveland Park with seals rather than letting blacks use it. But my parents weren’t the kind to talk about any of this, and I doubt they themselves knew what to make of it. So now I’m going back and learning about things I’m deeply interested in.
Just yesterday I started writing the final section of the book, from the point of view of the character I know the least about, Betsy, who was 18 when Willie Earle was lynched. Every morning about 6:30 I walk down to Minnehaha Creek and along the path where I stop to touch the bark of the Cottonwood Gods, and pray to them to help me with my various problems and troubles. Sometimes the novel doesn’t cross my mind on the walk, but other times that’s all I can think about. Writing fiction comes from a totally different part of the brain than the part I usually use, the part I think of as “thoughts.” It comes from the story-telling part. Yesterday I finally understood where to start Betsy’s story, because a voice started up in my head that began telling her story.
I read an article recently called “This is Your Brain on Writing,” which described a study purporting to show that during brainstorming, novice writers activate their visual centers, while experienced writers show more activity in the regions involving speech. When the two groups started to write, “deep inside the brains of experienced writers, a region called the caudate nucleus became active. In the novices, the caudate nucleus was quiet.” The caudate nucleus plays an essential role in skills that come with practice. The researcher theorized that it’s possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the more advanced writers are narrating it with an inner voice.
Interesting, and probably useless information, given the size (small) of the study. But it resonated with something I believe. I think every writer, experienced or novice, knows that it’s hard to write without a voice starting up in your head, narrating. I’ve hammered on this many times, including in “From the Sublime to the Ridiculous”: You have to both show and tell your stories. You have to narrate from that voice in your head that knows how to tell the story. And the voice has to make you see what it is telling.
One final thing: the garden is so lovely this year! We had the wettest June in recorded history in the Twin Cities (or maybe in the history of mankind). The flowers and mosquitoes liked that, if not always the people.
Thank you for subscribing to my blog and hanging in there with me. And BYW, if my contact form isn’t working (always sumthin’), email me at email@example.com.
I hope the rest of your summer is everything that summer should be!