‘The Curing Season’ – excerpt

May 11th, 2010

I began work on this novel in 2002. I was often coming up with short stories then, and wrote this sentence thinking it would be one. Yet once I looked at it, I realized that sentence held a novel. I became bound to uncovering all the sentence held. You may also download a pdf here.

The Curing Season
Novel excerpt

August came as usual that year, but the tobacco trucks — with their tall mounds of honey-brown sheaves, the lingering sweet fragrant trails and the bumpity sound of rickety old wheels going to the warehouses — did not.

I had been away for some time and despite regular visits, until that spring, had sloughed off the gray, silty dirt that once held me. My sister, Nina, had stayed at Winterhaven and became its caretaker, the job I was supposed to have, but when Mother died I left for boarding school, college and then my work abroad, and as I would say with some pride but also sadness to my friends at the Universite where I taught, I had at last escaped those backward eastern North Carolina fields and woods and would never again see a tractor in spring, nor feel the dripping sweat of an August afternoon around my neck. So my life, while solitary, was busy and I enjoyed my English students and the research I’d started years earlier.

Nina called just before Christmas and left a message with the English Department. Since I didn’t have a telephone, by the time I finally got word it was too close to the holidays to book a flight. Her sentences, short and ghost-like, told me a curtain was drawing closed and I’d better get home soon before whole chapters of my life ended there. Likewise, that meant the curtains were closing here and I would never wander through the streets of this city again the same way. I gave notice to the dean, finished what I could of the academic year and packed my belongings into cardboard boxes for shipment to Winterhaven. I flew home on New Year’s Day.

When the plane set down in Raleigh, even that renovated airport had a worn-down feeling, and before I got out of Wake County, I was met by the familiar tired fields and tumble-down barns to my left and right. Driving along the familiar highway, the only one connecting east and west, I fell through the circles of distance and time. A few counties beyond, the fields, trailers, exhausted sheds and broken fences consumed the landscape and I knew I was getting close to home.

Soon I existed the highway in my rented car and drove along N.C. 33, where I took the curves without thinking, the same curves I drove so many times with Mother and Grandmother and Nina, the curves that separated and defined my world, slowing at the Battles’s pasture for the sharp turn, then pausing at the Mosley house, where Ann and Cecil raised their boys, and coming to a full stop for the sign, the only one for miles, I took the last stretch not seeing another car, just the large open fields and rows of faun-colored crops.

At last I saw Winterhaven. From far off, the second story appeared as I rounded a high place in the road, then I pieced together the driveway and the porch. The gate posts grayed with lichen nevertheless stood firm; the trees along the driveway were black and barren this time of year, their spidery arms grasping at each other above me. It must have rained, because there wasn’t any dust, but the crunch of the sandy dirt road beneath was familiar, like the hug of a relative you see differently with age.

I parked in the horseshoe driveway before the front porch, left my bags and walked up the large stone steps.

c 2010 by Marion Blackburn

Heroic Women

January 21st, 2010

Or, A strong fictional woman is hard to find

Tech Thursday

An interesting query this morning that comes via a Facebook friend. We’re charged with finding a photo of a fictional character we believe best represents our character. Naturally, she had already my choice, which was Scarlett O’Hara.

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I racked my brain, then, thinking of fictional characters that I identified with. Jane Eyre? Yes, a strong woman but … waiting for Mr. Right. The second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca? Yes, but … mousy and without self-direction.

I scraped my mind and came up with the narrator of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and thought, That’s just way too obscure for a superficial Facebook gesture.

Anna Karenina, suicide. Madame Bovary, suicide. Lara in Dr. Zhivago, a woman defined by Yuri Zhivago.

I thought about using Dr. Zhivago himself, since that’s the fictional character I most identify with, but refused to subvert the need for it to at least be female!

So I’m left with the Lady of the Lake … just mysterious enough to be fun, and significant enough in her own right. A giver of power.

In the end, the fictional character I most associate with is the one in my mind: Delia LaGrace, the narrator of the novel I’m working on.

Now that would be an obscure reference.

Till-ing Time

January 15th, 2010

Figuratively Speaking

Today, a long-overdue look at an Old English word written in many ways and having many meanings.

Yet it’s a simple word of four letters, sometimes three.

Till allows us to dig in the ground, since it means to prepare and cultivate land for planting crops. My grandparents would till their land each spring to raise food crops for the summer.

This form of “till” comes from the Old English “tilian,” which means to strive for, or obtain by effort, from German, zielen.

Till also reflects our interest in money — a word I learned working in restaurants (along with “chit,”referring to money owed and in the restaurant business, the money totals for each wait staff. It comes from the Hindi word for note).

The till is the cash drawer in a store, bank or restaurant. We know the expression to have one’s fingers in the till — meaning to steal from the place where one works.

This form of till comes from Middle English in a general sense of a drawer for valuables.

Interestingly, till also refers to boulder clay or unstratified sediments, from a Scots word for shale.

Last, I’d like to mention till as a short form of until, which is often shortened to ’till or written as ’till.

I never know how to write this shortened form. I always vacillate between ’til and ’till, feeling that ’til is just to short. The dictionary says till is a short, informal variation of until, and that until usually appears in writing.

Until is a composite of till, which came from the Old English til, related to Norse til. Until came about when we tacked on und, meaning “as far as” from the Old Norse.

By the way, this sense of until — “up to (the point in time or event mentioned)” comes from the combination of und, as far as + till, cultivating the land for crops.

Back to till and til, ’till and ’til — a look at the AP Stylebook cleared things up. Till, but never ’til.

Too bad I waited until today to figure that one out.

Anne Frank’s protector dies

January 12th, 2010

Miep Gies preserved the famous diary of that horrible time

The news this morning opened with a reflection on a great legacy of humanity, and the lady who saved it from destruction.

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Dick Coersen / EPA File

Miep Gies has died at 100 years old, after a brief illness, in Amsterdam. She was an office secretary, a modest occupation, but she was a giant in heart and bravery. Along with her husband, Jan, a resistance fighter during Nazi occupation, she shielded the Frank family, bringing Anne reading materials and keeping the family fed and safe. (Read the Associated Press article here.)

After the war, she safely delivered Anne’s diary to her father. In the years since its publication as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” it has become beloved around the world for its message of hope and tolerance.

News reports say she did not consider herself a hero; on the contrary, she said her actions should be considered normal, that we should look after each other as an ordinary action.

When Otto Frank returned to their house after the Liberation, he learned of his daughter’s death in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen of typhus (it’s in the north of Germany).

As a personal note, I have never read the Diary of Anne Frank. I was never required to in school and have not done so on my own. It is too unbearable for me, I admit. I can’t accept that humanity allowed the Holocaust or that today, we continue to allow such destruction of human lives and souls as in Sudan.

Perhaps it is wrong of me to avoid the hardship of reading her diary, but she is in my heart just the same, a hopeful teenager who can’t understand war, violence and hatred, looking forward to a better day.

Not So Simple

January 4th, 2010

It’s a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains.
— From the movie Bull Durham

A friend asked about writing and editing, wondering if writers like Kerouac, who has a reputation for spontaneous narrative, struggled.

I don’t think any writer, anywhere, doesn’t struggle. Now, the question becomes, does the writer enjoy the struggle? For some writers, I suspect, it doesn’t seem like a struggle, this act of creating. It is akin to cooking, which some folks just adore. I do not.

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Blossoming Almond Tree, 1890, Saint-Remy by Vincent Van Gogh

Process is how we do things. Otherwise, really, we are like babies wailing or children playing. It has a place, and it feels good at the moment, but it’s not creation.

Looking then at a writer like Kerouac, whose “On the Road,” legend has it, was written in three weeks on a single scroll of paper. It’s true. That novel came whole cloth from Kerouac’s mind. Yet prior to that, for years he wrote character and episode sketches. In his mind, he rehearsed the writing, again and again.

Going even further back, it’s important to remember that Kerouac’s mind was prodigious; he was known as “Memory Babe” because of his ability to remember things. He ran an entire major league baseball season in his mind with stats for every team and player. So for him to have a novel roosting up there isn’t hard to imagine.

Charles Bukoski comes to mind, too, as a somewhat spontaneous writer. Yet if you look at his total body of work — several novels, 13 short story collections, and more than two dozen short story collections including “Love is a Dog from Hell,” it’s clear he worked at it. Although his gravestone reads, “Don’t try,” his advice in a poem to those who asked how to write.

It always comes down to Scott Fitzgerald, who said, “Writing is rewriting.” (Or was that E.B. White?)

I also found this quote by Vladimir Nabokov, “I have rewritten–often several times–every word I have ever written. My pencils outlast their erasers.”

When I read Vincent Van Gogh’s “Letters to Theo,” what struck me most about the painter was his hard work, sketching, studying, doing and redoing. Yet regarding his canvases, we see light, energy, life — not overworked or too studied, the confident hand of someone for whom painting is breathing.

Looking at the year ahead, it means hours and days writing and rewriting. If I do my job, that is. That’s because the struggle is the meaning.

Novel House-Work

January 1st, 2010

New Year’s Day 2010

Looking out on the gray morning, the titmice, cardinals, juncos and sparrows breakfasting in the yard, the year ahead, too, appears before me, now empty but for a few birds of thought. The steps and turns, the hopeful dreams.

With new obligations of work and City Council, I wonder how I’ll make progress on the novel. A friend in theater shared with me her own story of how, when she was in college, and had a leading role in a play, she’d make dean’s list, too. With all the demands, she excelled at balancing; with no room for slouching, she focused with greater intent.

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Hugh Laurie as the good doctor House

Her story made an impression on me. It reminded me that no matter our obligations, we can make good use of our time, use it in meaningful ways. And still have time to loaf around watching House, M.D.

It’s a matter of centering on what’s important. Not losing time procrastinating. Working with direction, and if possible, delight in creating.

Thinking through the novel as I often do, I’m imagining a quicker pace, more intensity, and a regular schedule of writing.

Mostly I’m thinking about the whole coalescing in my mind, all the parts together, with meaningful episodes taking shape from the large currents of plot.

Novel Approaches, Part 2

December 30th, 2009

Last night many thoughts kept my mind turning, among them, the ongoing soup of how to get back to the novel. My last approach worked only in part; I had big ambitions but struggled with the day-to-day events of the book.

After reading Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, I am rethinking that approach, as I wrote in Monday’s entry.

Rebecca reads almost like a short story. While it moves forward powerfully, it is not a “page turner,” those novels that force me to turn the pages too fast to enjoy (The Firm comes to mind).

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Anna Karenina likeness by Ivan Kramskoi. “Portrait of a Woman,” 1883

No, Rebecca moves through episodes steadily. It opens with the young narrator retelling a dream she’s had about visiting a place called Manderly. Then she gradually takes us to the vacation in Monte Carlo, where she is the paid companion of a fussy older lady, and meets the mysterious Maxim de Winter.

Page after page takes us into her romance, marriage and the crisis that defines the book. No detail is scrapped, yet we keep moving.

I compare that approach with the Russians I love so much, for instance, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. If he had written Rebecca, we would have known all about her childhood, all about the family life of Mrs. Van Hopper, the lady she works for. We would have Maxim’s childhood, and probably the childhood of his parents and grandparents, all the way back through several czars and even tribal rulers of the steppes. While Tolstoy is incredible reading, is it my voice?

Another observation about du Maurier and Tolstoy: No doubt Mr. Tolstoy would have given us amble judgment about the characters along the way, just enough to feel authentic, but not enough to keep us from reading (or to keep him from writing about them, either).

Du Maurier is a woman’s voice, a voice that’s unfortunately been overlooked in recent letters.

Looking at my own work at hand, though it is narrated by a woman it is filled with many other characters, living, dead, men, women, children, good and evil. I hope I can get all their voices right.

It is also important to have enough detail, but not too much. Maybe it will be neither Anna Karenina nor Rebecca, but some hybrid or new approach that will allow me to get everything in my mind down in words.

Novel Approaches

December 28th, 2009

I climbed onto the couch (with our 95-pound Walker, Mayberry) to read, and found myself racing to the end of Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. It was a day of little activity, as we largely recovered from the merriment of the holidays and a visit with the ‘rents in my hometown including a day with my niece, who’s 5.

Rebecca has long been a personal classic. I read it quite young, about 8 years old (I know) then read it again and again throughout grammar school just to experience those moments of fear, joy and mystery, each reading offering more revelations to my still immature eyes. Whether it was growing up in the isolated country, or just my young, romantic bent, that book and its twin, Jane Eyre, formed the bedrock of my grammar school reading.

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Reading Rebecca as an adult gave me new hope for completing my own novel. Having read so many Russian writers in the past few years — Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pasternak — I envisioned the novel as a long, exhaustive summary of every detail in a character’s life, every turn of plot, every sunrise and winter storm.

Likewise, my own novel, “The Curing Season,” grew in my mind, became more complex, with plot tendrils reaching into every dark place of mind and character. When I sat to update an outline last year, I found that for all its big intentions, there was very little to move it forward. Few moments between characters, little accounting for day-to-day episodes.

Rebecca showed me how to write a great book in a manageable form. It is complex, dramatic, rich — but also moves forward at every turn, seamlessly.

Reading this novel again showed me how one finds stepping stones through a great book. Given infinite ability, one can spent infinite time getting across the river. Given finite ability, as I suspect is true for me, I will spot the big rocks and step forward on them, hoping to capture some of the foamy, roiling river beneath me.

Miracle on 40-Second Street

December 23rd, 2009

Launching into the routine this morning of warming the kettle, dishing the coffee and the fairly tedious act of filling the coffee maker without spilling water all over the counter and myself, I waited for the reassuring sound of coffee brewing.

Hildegarde the cat was meowing (and it’s quite a lot of racket). I’m scooping food into three tiny cat bowls, pouring oats into another one for me, and I peer up at the counter, listening for the popping, steaming and dripping, the coffee miracle.

That sound did not come. I don’t know what would be worse, going without coffee, or driving in Christmas traffic to a retail store to buy a new one. The blank shelves, stripped of their contents, the half-opened boxes and shelf models all that remain. The sheer panic of seeing all the strangers that emerge from their hiding places at Christmas, that remind me the South is still a bizarre and Gothic place.

Fortunately, we have a press pot on hand for times like these that needs no filter or electricity. In the end, it’s the fail-safe option for coffee.

Never one to give up, I unplugged the coffeemaker for a few minutes, then tried again — after I’d had coffee from the press pot — and waited, my hand on the hotplate, for warmth. And got it! Yes, the coffeemaker seemed to come back to life.

Of all the Christmas wonders, this one may top the list this year. A working coffeemaker!

Santa, you’re too good.

Narrative as Life

December 16th, 2009

In which the writer describes her change of heart

Writing a short story seemed a most ridiculously difficult endeavor when I first tried way back in 1994. It was humiliating. This, I told myself, is where I will focus as a writer. I will work on the hardest task I can imagine. I wrote my first real story in 1994, sitting in my living room, about a blues player I’d seen in a club.

I had no idea that story would unleash a river of them. By New Year’s 1995, I was applying to graduate schools in creative writing and by fall of that year, I was living in Prague, among a community of ex-pats and writers. Finding my voice.

I left for Prague with these words, “I’m going to write a novel.”

During my time in Prague, I became enamored of non-linear writing — and declared in my Manifesto of Prague Writers, that traditional narrative,

… that moving from point A to point B — must be demolished. For centuries, the greater masters have told stories, and told them well. They have pulled characters through events with skill and compassion, but that route has been thoroughly explored. For us to write as they did is to treat our characters and their experiences like performing circus animals, telling them to sleep, eat or walk; laugh or cry; or kill themselves over a miserable life we created for them. Instead, we must provoke our readers to find themselves in new ways through our works ….

I would not write traditional fiction, I claimed! I would find a new way!

Then I read the Russians — Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekov. I softened inside. I moved back to the states; I fell in love. I adopted dogs.

The novel I thought I was going to write didn’t happen, but in 2002 as I sat to write a new short story, a line emerged I knew was more than a story; it held a novel.

August came as usual that year, but the tobacco trucks — with their tall mounds of honey-brown sheaves, the lingering sweet trails and the bumpity wheels of rickety old trucks going to the warehouses — did not.

Today I believe in narrative more than any other form of literature. Narrative is meaning; narrative is hope. Story is all we have, with the other pillar of human expression, poetry and song.

Each breath is a story; each time we walk across the room to get a cup of coffee, we tell a story.

And when our world collapses around us, we draw from stories to keep going. Who can read of Dr. Zhivago, his many losses during the Russian Revolution, even losing his great love, Lara, and not feel moved? Who can read Jane Eyre’s story and lose faith in love, which comes through in the end?

For these reasons I am fully committed to narrative, just as to my next breath.