“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.
My friend and sometime co-author, Alison Daniels, encouraged me in a recent email to take my time. 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 Chapter One, 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.
Margery Helen Mason “Nell”