• Diane L. Fowlkes
  • Writing for My Life in the Face of Death, with Focus on the Writing Life and Competing Sediments
Writing for My Life in the Face of Death, with Focus on the Writing Life and Competing Sediments

Until a few days ago I was in a funk, missing B across the hall and also going through a rough patch with the chapter in my novel. Now B's family have cleared out her apartment, her memorial service has been held, and I am picking up my own life again. And I'm moving ahead with the chapter that was giving me trouble.

It's still the chapter about Mississippi Freedom Summer (1964) and most importantly how the pov character Sophie and her co-workers in the Adult Education Center at the little liberal arts college, from their close proximity to Mississippi in Memphis, Tennessee, engage with the news reports of the three missing civil rights workers. (By the way, I didn't plan to be writing this chapter at this particular time, but the news on NPR marking the 50th anniversary of this historical event is helping me get along, too. I feel like unintentionally I'm doing a little something to contribute to the national remembrance of all that happened that summer; I remember living through it myself so intensely, not in Mississippi but in Memphis.) Thanks to Carol Lee (Lorenzo, FictionIntensives.com), my teacher, and her thick skin and patience, whom and that I depend on along with the other readers in workshop, I am learning another lesson in how to write fiction. Talk about competing sediments within myself of a now retired political scientist/women's studies scholar and an aspiring novelist. Will my text shoot duds or fireworks? Carol Lee is pushing me to use what I'll call "competing sediments" to create more tension--sparks on the page--from them.

What are competing sediments? As I understand it from Carol Lee, sediment in a character is what a pov character and one or more non-pov characters each carry in their memories and feelings from past experiences with one another, each their own differing memories and their own differing interpretations, which are hidden from the other character by virtue of being kept private, not being talked about. And yet the characters observe one another and react to the other, not only on the basis of what behavior they actually observe in a moment, but also on the basis of sediment from the other that each is carrying within them from the past.

The place in my chapter that this kind of opportunity kept coming up, in more than one re-reading as I wrote and revised and Carol Lee read and re-read and commented and suggested, was following the previous chapter in which Sophie had missed her period and thought she was pregnant. She didn't want to have a child, ever, whether married to Alexander or to someone else. If she were pregnant, she wouldn't seek an abortion because they were illegal. She told Alexander of her fear of being pregnant and of her fear of the actual physical aspects of having a baby. He stayed with her through it, including helping her clean up herself and himself when her period finally started during one night when she woke up from a horrible bloody nightmare about having more than one child with long white hair and hollow eyes swim out of her body into a pool of blood rising around her. But neither Sophie nor Alexander had talked heart-to-heart, prior to this episode, about having children, and they avoided talking about it in depth after this event, maybe because they each suspected that they would disagree, and they weren't ready to make having children an issue in their marriage.

Then comes the current chapter. But it opens with Sophie, a few months after the pregnancy crisis, needing a new project, wanting to knit, from a soft cotton-linen yarn, a sweater for herself. She is to the point of counting her last cast-ons under her breath:

“What did you say?” Alexander was reading in his chair.

“Just counting. I’m starting a new sweater.” She looked over at him as she pulled up the yarn to lengthen it so she could finish casting on. “Here’s the pattern.” She held up the Vogue Knitting so he could see the picture. “I like the lace borders across the bottom and around the neck.”

In the original, all Alexander said in reply was: 

“Yes. Nice.” He smiled at her and went back to his book.

In this round of revision, after Carol Lee gave me her teaching moment, which I'll give following the revision, it reads:

“Oh . . .” He looked surprised when his eyes found the magazine page. “I thought . . . Yes. Nice.” He looked at her and went back to his book.

“Is something wrong?”

“No, . . . nothing.”

If he says so. “What are you reading?” [And he tells her and the story goes on.] 

Now the reader should figure, at the least, that trouble is brewing somewhere ahead for Sophie and Alexander. 

Here is what Carol Lee explained: "The caution is that 'knitting' has a stronger connotation than the one you attach. [I had Sophie going on to muse about freedom, from the spaces that finally show up in the lace along the beginning bottom of the sweater.] The other is motherhood, would fit in so strongly and actively with a logical startle from Alexander that passes like a short circuit to Sophie  This is the opportunity not to separate a moment as to what Sophie's thinking but, as fiction does at its strongest, to use what connects - not get focused on main char. w/o thinking what would be the reaction of another char. who isn't in the pov.'s thoughts  (It's what happens in acting all the time when the stage takes fire.)" [I've left Carol Lee's comments as are, to show the shorthand she uses to communicate so much for so many students' writings she reads and comments on. I received her permission to quote her here.]

In a later post, answering a follow-up question from K, who has also been reading and commenting on my chapter, Carol Lee says, "What interests me is the dynamic of the unexpected in fiction (and in acting).  Pov char. is intent on knitting because it comforts her and she makes it a metaphor of freedom.  However how would that look to the non pov. who looks up, and doesn't know her freedom metaphor, and reacts based on what he's just been through with her.  Knitting and baby.  Why wouldn't that touch off a startle in him?  One is more static, the assumption that it is fine w/him, no reaction?  She hasn't said anything to tell him the meaning of what's she's doing.  He has the visual. . . . And that's why held pov. is so special.  It's the way we live.  We can only listen, pick up clues, let them connect with what we know from experience w/char., and that's the complexity that fiction uses and unlocks.  Not driven by what this char. knows, then switch to what the next char. knows.  The electricity in the middle is often left out. . . ."
Carol Lee never ceases to amaze me with her careful constructive criticism, seeking to help me (and others) build their fiction into something stronger. And so now, after a few days of back and forth with Carol Lee and K, I'm way beyond that funk I was in. Carol Lee has given me, and K, via tutorial, this powerful tool with which to read and revise our work. I will look for more opportunities to put, as K says, complexity into my characters and their interactions with other characters; make the whole story more interesting, ready to jump up and grab the reader, pull the reader further in.


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  • Susan Hoyle

    You've got a good teacher there! Very interesting.