“Begin with yourself,” said several of the panelists at today’s Memphis United People’s Conference on Race and Equality. They were talking about racism. “Begin with yourself and ripple out from there: to your household, your family, your neighborhood, your community.” This ls a paraphrase, but the concept was repeated many times.
This is where I begin today:
We went to the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum for a Door of Hope Writing Group outing. Every other month we go for lunch and a field trip. The site usually is picked by the group but, at the last minute, our site for this month’s trip proved unavailable. With a hasty substitute, we set off.
I was walking through the museum, noticing that all the initial voices on the tape leading us through the museum were white. I also noticed an exhibit describing crooked landowners cheating sharecroppers—I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an admission before. I listened as Rufus Thomas described sneaking into the WDIA control room to learn how to twist the knobs. He wanted to learn but WDIA—which I thought was a Black-owned radio station because its audience was African-American and the writers who wrote about playing for the baseball team were African American—was owned by white folks, hence the sneaking. All through the museum, I noticed Whites Only signs and other reminders of the times. I noticed these things because how we choose to tell the story—or not—is important to me.
The next day we wrote about our trip. I reminded the group they could write about any aspect of the trip, and sometimes what we experience in a place is not what the organizers intended. I said this because on the way home from the museum, one of the African-American writers told me how hurtful the initial exhibits on sharecropping were to her. Because she’d been in the fields with her grandmother. She remembered as a little girl what the words were describing. Others chose to write about this aspect of the museum as well. The pain caused by the Whites Only signs. How much these reminders hurt.
Earlier that week, I had mentioned to a friend that my husband and I visited Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. I’d gone to the museum because I’m from Mississippi; I live in Memphis; race is an important issue to me that I’ve responded to by reading books, attending lectures, listening and learning, trying to educate myself. My friend told me the way she and I experienced Slave Haven would be different. “Because I am Black and you are white,” she said. “It’s different.”
I heard her then, but I did not understand until I went to the a museum that had nothing to do with race; experienced the museum, including its racial aspects; then heard African-Americans write about their experience of the same museum. Then I understood.
here’s to creative synthesis . . . .
There is a religion in New Orleans that I don’t know.
In this religion the windows open outward.
The joy vibrates and you are asked, “Are you Italian?” No?”
Then you are told about the blessed bean.
In this religion, hands wave, the food is spread and waiting.
Sometimes the religion is about the saints. Sometimes it’s about the floats you worked on for six weeks until you got it just right.
Sometimes it’s about your group, your tribe, the feathers you sewed onto your costume and made resplendent for all to see.
Always, this religion invites.
In the streets or in the church or in the house: open to all.
That’s my kind of God.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
Oh my goodness—I just typed “THE END” on the Door of Hope writing group’s book!
It’s not the end. But the hard part is over. The assembling of five years of handwritten pieces; the typing of those pieces by volunteer typists. The merging of all that work into a single document that can be called a manuscript. And last, but not least, the mass shifting of content—like when South America picked itself up and said, “I’m gonna be my own continent”–a task that makes my head hurt. Such is in the rearview mirror.
Now I will rake through the document, combing it into untangled order. This is something I enjoy, the gentle lifting and separating, like a mother playing with her child’s lovely locks. Also, I must write the introduction, the only place in the book (other than my dedication and my remembrance of Robb Pate) where my voice will be heard.
This last part is my greatest accomplishment. Early on, when I would describe my desire not to follow the standard narrative for this book—well-off white person gets involved with actual livers of a life and writes a book about her experience—time and again I was told it wouldn’t work. I was advised to include my voice, that my voice was needed to hold the book together—to, in effect, make the book mine.
I doggedly refused. And if, by organizing and editing, I have created a narrative that readers want to read, I will have done my job.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
I am refilling a manuscript with a contest I entered last year at this time. To do so, I must justify the refilling, describing how the manuscript has changed. Thus, I’ve had occasion to review what last year I thought was a nearly complete version of The Bone Trench, this novel I can’t seem to give up on. This earlier version of the manuscript is terrible. This, as my husband would say, makes me happy as a squid.
So much of the time, writing to me seems like slogging through quicksand: lots of hard work with no discernible progress. in this light, encountering something I thought was nearly finished, only to read how thoroughly unfinished it was, could have been very depressing.
Instead, I read the chunks of exposition, the dearth of scene detail, the unnecessary switchbacks in narration, and I rejoiced: I’m making progress!
This euphoria was immediately squelched when I began a simple, final review. How could the character know this person’s name? What was the tiny professor really trying to say? Why on earth did a reference to the Renaissance Project pop up 41 pages in?
Three days later, I (again) felt the manuscript much improved.
Now, here’s the bad news: last year, the terrible version of The Bone Trench was named a short-list finalist in the contest. While this might lead one to conclude I’ve got a really good shot at going higher with a better manuscript, therein lies the problem. I’m secretly a “chicken-counter.” As in, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. I do. I count my biddies before the mama hen has settled her butt on the nest.
So I’m hoping to file the manuscript and forget about it. Just put it out of my mind. Ignore those little peeps. Go work on something else—wasn’t I supposed to be recording my short stories for podcasting?
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
In my mother and father’s house, a neighbor brings the morning newspaper to the back door. Six-thirty and the paper leans in the dark against the steps. Another neighbor, every trash day, rolls the garbage can to the curb. Yet another carts the mail down the long driveway. If this neighbor finds herself busy with life, she has a backup, to bring in my parent’s mail.
In my mother and father’s house, my sister sits at the dining room table. The papers form a protective crescent around her spot. She bends over, figuring. Tonight, 2:00 will pass before she creeps toward bed. “Marcee?” Daddy will call as she takes her leave, and she will see what he needs.
In my mother and father’s house, my mother stands at the head of the driveway waving goodbye. It is 32 degrees outside. When I was hefting my luggage onto my arm, my father – 87 years old – said, “Is there something I can help you with?” I roll into the dark and my mother waves.
My parents live in Charlotte, a city that prides itself on its hustle and bustle, its go-go capitalism. But when I take my leave in the dark of early morning, there waits the paper leaning against the steps. My Father’s house, our Mother’s house – this is the house of the Lord.