Writing for My Life in the Face of Death

First, a short update: B is away this afternoon, seeing a doctor, so that means she's up and about. I'll try to catch her later this afternoon. And now another neighbor down the hall is in distress; she is moving to the third floor, assisted living. She is 98. Her daughter told me it is time, though M is "mad as a hornet" about the move and having her son and daughter clear out her apartment, which she doesn't want to leave. I empathize with her. In the process of writing these blog entries, I've come up with an image of Death that is different from the skeletal man in Bergman's "Seventh Seal." Death is an old woman wearing a long dress of violet velvet. Her head is covered with a cowl of carmine silk. She smiles at everyone who gets angry at her approach.

I changed the title of my blog to emphasize that writing is the key to living for me. I want to tell you about the novel I am writing, my first one. I've been working on it for five years now and am about to finish the draft of the mss. I'm not yet ready to say much on what it's about except to say it's about a woman like me. Her name is Sophie.

Right now I'm starting a new chapter that takes place in Memphis, Tennessee, during the summers of 1964 - 1966. I read my first six pages in my writers' workshop this past Monday evening and was taken aback by one line of questioning raised by other members of the group. I always come away with good constructive feedback from this group and the teacher/leader Carol Lee Lorenzo (www.fictionintensives.com). I did so this past Monday evening. But this line of questioning made me wonder if newspapers in print format are really dead, if a younger generation of online readers and writers has missed out on the history lessons of the 1960s, since most of my writers group, I think, were born after 1964 or were too young then to be aware of what was happening. That's what I want to reflect on here today, but first, I need to tell you something about this part of the story.

Sophie works as a secretary in the Adult Education Center at the local college; she graduated from the college three years earlier, is married to a classmate; he works at a bank downtown, waiting to go back to finish law school. The AEC offers liberal arts book discussion groups, both Great Books and AEC-designed groups on topics such as "Man's Search for Meaning." The other three people who work there include two professors at the college and the woman who directs the program. A fourth person comes in every morning--a retired business man who also leads discussion groups--and brings in clippings from The New York Times for them to dissect over coffee and cigarettes. This is Sophie's favorite time of day at work; she wants to be connected to the larger world, in contrast to her upbringing in a family that has grown more and more conservative (anti-Communist, anti-civil rights); and she thrives in her liberal environment of co-workers.

As the chapter opens, the news is of three civil rights workers gone missing in Mississippi, dateline Philadelphia, Miss, June 22. Claude Sitton wrote the story. The group peels back the story, talks about what it means, the danger for the missing men, and so on. The story is above the fold, front-page, but has a normal-size headline, to the left of the lead article. Sophie notes all that to herself since she has already heard a short clip about it on the CBS morning radio news and expected a larger headline. In the course of the discussion of the news article, the AEC group talk about Philadelphia and Neshoba County, down in Mississippi, how scary the backroads are down there--Sophie tells them about a road-trip she and her grandmother took down to Charleston, Miss, a few summers ago, Tallahatchie County and the Tallahatchie River, where Emmett Till's body was found after he was lynched--her grandmother is from that part of Mississippi, and Memphis is like an extension of Mississippi. "All the back roads down there are scary."

In class, the line of comment that floored me was wondering how events in Charleston, South Carolina, and in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, got into this story. Several said they heard "Charleston" and "Philadelphia" and thought S.C. and PA. I asked if they heard the dateline was Philadelphia, Mississippi; and they said no, they didn't hear the "Mississippi." I wonder if they didn't catch "dateline" either. And we went on for a minute or so more, and I said, "OK, what I'm hearing is that there is confusion. I'll take that back to the drawing board and see if I can write it so that readers get it more clearly." But I also said something about what a national event this became through the daily attention to it in the news, not to mention what it must have been like to live through it on the ground in Mississippi for all the civil rights workers, be even more aware than usual of the dangers they faced there. I wondered if people haven't been learning about this major event of Freedom Summer in their history classes and elsewhere. And is there a disconnect between a culture of newsprint and inky fingers and a culture of online text and photos and videos? How to "read" a newspaper layout and how to read online?

By the way, this morning I "googled" Philadelphia, Mississippi, and after the Fair, which came up first (who remembers when Ronald Reagan staged one of his presidential campaign events there, to make a point?), most of the following references were to the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. I did feel vindicated somewhat in thinking this event had that kind of national significance. But I will write about it in the 21st century in a way I hope will connect readers to what happened then and there. I am writing fiction, but I do include historical events in Sophie's story.

And I don't expect answers to my rhetorical questions about disconnects, but I am re-working the opening of my chapter, getting closer in to Sophie as she gets to work that morning in the AEC and the group talks about where this horrific event is unfolding a hundred or so miles south of them, in Mississippi, as they read Sitton's article on the top front page of the NYTimes. 

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  • Diane L. Fowlkes

    Susan, so glad you made it through the beaded curtain to SheWrites! I'm writing a bit of dialogue around the "problem" town names to make them more "there" in rural Mississippi. Such interesting writing challenges come out in workshop. I've mostly learned how to roll with them and learn from them, even after they floor me particularly. By the way, this summer is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, and I just heard a story about the Mississippi Summer on National Public Radio. They talked to Robert Moses, among good bits. He's one of the many greats from back then who is still alive. I didn't plan to be writing this section this summer, but it's a great synchronicity for me and my readers in class. And above all, I work to avoid exactly what you refer to, "potted history"!

  • Susan Hoyle

    Fwiw, Diane, it was news here in England at the time. I can remember its being reported, though the actual names do not resonate now. A good part of the problem is probably a specific inattention of your group, which would be largely solved when your readers were actually *reading* the words rather than listening to them. It might help a younger generation if you gave them a few more details -- not a potted history, but enough additional flavour for a reader who didn't catch the reference to know what kind of event you mean, and that it did really happen.

  • Kiersi Burkhart

    It sounds like they were focusing on some minute details for lack of anything better to say, and perhaps not listening very well. I wouldn't listen too closely to minutiae like that. Focus on the big stuff, the plot and pace and progression, because all the little pieces come later after you've nailed down the structure and character.