My Name is Emily Cade Ainsworth: A Life Remembered and Imagined

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            “When I refer to Aunt Cade’s ‘big house downtown,’ I am talking about a house that, to my child’s eyes, was a castle. It had turrets and towers and lots of slanting roofs, and it was dark, looming over the street, completely shadowed by the big trees that surrounded it.”




Two months ago, in “Biting Off More Than I Can Chew” ( October 5), I reported having written a little over four pages of a novel about my family, with a great deal of compulsive “make-work” in between the sentences that were trying to carve their way into paragraphs. In the two months since October 5, those four pages have  grown to almost fifty, and I am stopped again.  Two months. At this rate, I don’t imagine I’ll live to see the end of it. I continue to tell myself that all the signs suggest that the wise course of action would be to abandon it and get back to something I have a chance of completing.

I haven’t been entirely idle, of course. I have done considerable research about the family as far as it’s possible,  with the whole generation at the center of the novel dead and buried, and about what life would have been like in rural Alabama during the period that began in the late nineteenth century.  I have polished sentences, taken as great care in my word choice as I imagine Emily Dickinson did, read aloud to myself and to friends, enhanced dialogue. I have found a photograph of my aunt’s house that figures prominently at least in the scant beginning of the novel.

But I am not moving forward very quickly.

I have written here, too, about the odd experience of writing fiction, which I am doing for the first time. I wrote about my passionate identification with characters and about their apparent independence. In my own writing at least, they do, in fact and literally, take over the novel very early on and continue to speak and act in ways that I have not planned. It is, if nothing else, disorienting.

My friend and sometime co-author, Alison Daniels, encouraged me in a recent email to take my time, to plan on a year, even more, of writing. Alison and I have been turning out novels–and pretty good ones–every few weeks. She assures me that this one is different, that it has the potential to be a serious piece of writing, that I should think in terms of a year, at the least. I don’t know. I know that I do not seem able to make the decision to simply walk away from it. So I suppose I will continue. And thinking of this as a year-long project has relieved me of some of the pressure I tend to put on myself.

In the novel’s  Prologue, I have written,
“It really is a shame about families. In my experience of my own family—who are, for the most part, charming and kind people—there is a thumb on the scale on the side of conflict . . .  [and] because this is a story about my family, it is also a story about the South. And in central Alabama—where half my relatives live–Family begins with a capital letter, both poverty and success have a slightly different flavor, and names are often markers for that terrible category encompassed in the question, ‘Who are your people?’ Since our ‘people’ were pretty much a disgrace, we tried to focus on other things.”

I am doing my usual layering and interweaving of time and place, which drives Alison crazy and sometimes, I will admit, even confuses me.  I have begun with a present-time first person narration by the main character and have laced in chapters that travel back to the late nineteenth century (my great-grandparents) and forward again to the 1920’s (my grandparents).  I have travelled from a dirt farm north of Birmingham to a family mansion in Montgomery.

I have added some dialogue and have marked the places where I think more will help the story. I have not, as is my habit, included elaborate physical descriptions of my characters.  Alison pointed this out, and I have followed it up with, again, markers to indicate the places where those details will work.

Although there will be no illustrations in the book, I spend long hours looking at the photographs on my walls and chests of all the women whose story I am trying to tell.

I remember this is a novel, a work of fiction, of the imagination. This is not a memoir, nor a history. It is, therefore, if it is to be anything worthwhile, not even a novel about my family. It is a story in which my family becomes the metaphor for all families, in which my grandmother and my mother are everyone’s mother and grandmother. In which my father is every woman’s father.

Imagination and Memory. Imagination and Life. In my experience of writing fiction, I find that I can no longer readily distinguish them. What I find, in fact, is that it is by imagining them, by placing them in certain situations, by giving them words to speak, decisions to make, actions to take, I am coming to know and understand these women at a depth I never achieved in life.

Photographs in this blog, numbered from the top: photographs from life; names from the novel.

#1 John Warren and Nell Mason 

#2 Charlotte Cade Mason, Aunt Cade

#3 Kendall Ida Mason

#4 Pictures on a Wall
(from bottom, clockwise)
a. Charlotte Cade Mason
b. Virginia Mason
c. Adela Mason
d. Stamford Mason
e. Kendall Ida Mason
f. Nell and John Mason
and some of their children

 #5 Margery Helen Mason “Nell”








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4 Responses to "My Name is Emily Cade Ainsworth: A Life Remembered and Imagined"
  1. Alison Daniels says:

    Fascinating to see the family resemblance in these photos of the lovely women. Looking forward to reading more of this excellent new novel. Think of Margaret Mitchell writing Gone with the Wind for ten years, And it took about 2 years for Thomas Wolfe to write Look Homeward Angel. So I think you can expect to settle in with these characters for a while and why not?

  2. Kat Varn says:

    I love the project! My step-father was from the Ashland area of AL and my father’s family eventually relocated to Oneonta, AL. As I researched my family’s history in regards to my current writing project, there is a symbiotic relationship that exists in so many of the social structures of small towns especially. Love the old pictures and portraits that peak a writer’s interest in: What happened during that lifetime? Keep weaving, Dean!

  3. myra frost says:

    From the first day I met you I’ve admired your intelligence, wisdom and eloquence. My parents are from Tuscaloosa and Mobile, Alabama, and I don’t know much at all about their families. I can’t wait to read your book on it’s merit alone, not to mention how much fun it would be to relate/imagine my family’s history. Thanks for sharing your gift with us!

  4. javsimson says:

    This sounds like a marvelous project. How is it progressing? Fictionalizing family has got to be a touchy business!
    I’m just catching up on email from the Christmas holidays! My grandson came to town for three weeks and helped me clean out the garage. Still stuff piled in the living room. And some stuff (not much) still in the garage. He’ll be back in a couple of months! And I’ll pay him and feed him again for his help.

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