On Writing #4: Autobiographical Fiction, A Cloud of Unknowing

 

DECEMBER 16 2017
Not Quite a Year Ago

            “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.”

 

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Recently,  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.  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 found more than I expected about the family without the help of the whole generation at the center of the novel, who are long dead and buried. I know a great deal about what life would have been like for any family 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 am circling the novel, working the field around it, but I am writing very little.

Perhaps this slow pace is the undertow that pulls me into this challenging and disturbing engagement with characters and story that both are and are not real.

I have read the accounts by famous novelists of their characters taking over, and I have usually considered that sort of thing an annoying bit of writerly posturing.   Unfortunately, although it might well be both pretentious and transparently affected–dammit–it’s true.  The characters do, in fact and literally, stake their claim to the story early on and continue to speak and act in ways that I have not planned. They do this to the outlandish degree of sometimes actually disagreeing with one another about where we are all going.  It is disorienting and terribly exciting.  I wake in the morning, eager for the next twist in the plot but much, much more than their actions, my characters greet me with revelations about themselves. I am getting to know them. I am entering into their lives and hearts at a depth simply not possibly in life. There is something about this combination of the person known and the person imagined that is pure magic.

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 months. 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’m not sure.  I know that I seem unable 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.

“My name is Emily Cade Ainsworth, and I am going to tell you a story about a family. In many ways, both the story and the family are like all the other families and every other story. But because this is a story about my family, it is also a story about the South. And that complicates things.

There are as many narratives about the South as there were crawfish in the creek behind my house in the North Georgia hills. One common notion about those of us born and bred in the Deep South is that we are stranded, permanently and more or less contentedly, that–immobilized by the heat or our genes–we are unlikely to move from the place or the state of mind in which we begin. Although I am not unaware of those sons and daughters of the South who will remain happily sweating out their July days by the pool at the country club or on the porch of a dirt farmer’s shack, the southerners I have known best are a restless and dissatisfied lot.

And because the South is a land haunted by the Scriptures, we have the perfect metaphor for our odysseys. Whether we are Baptists or Episcopalians, the image of the Promised Land, just over Jordan, informs our dreams. However–with no irreverence intended–promised or not, I’m afraid that in this particular version of the journey, you can only get to Canaan by way of bloodlines, memberships, an air of carelessness, and the casual cruelty of the question, ‘Who are your people?’

Our ‘people’ were pretty much a disgrace, but due to the monumental efforts of the generation before mine, we have achieved a reasonably convincing appearance of gentility.”

I am layering and interweaving time and place, which drives Alison crazy and sometimes, I will admit, even confuses me, but it just seems to be how I write.  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, parents, and aunts).  I have travelled from a dirt farm north of Birmingham to “Aunt Cade’s big house downtown” in Montgomery.

I spend long hours looking at the photographs of all the women whose story I am trying to tell.

Imagination and Memory. Imagination and Life. In my limited experience of writing fiction, I find that I can no longer readily distinguish them. What I find, in fact, is that by imagining them, by taking the risk of just showing up as they worry and decide and speak and act, I am coming to know and understand these women I thought I knew so well.

My cousins and I call them “The Queens.”

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“And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.”

  • Johnston, William; preface:Huston Smith (1996) [1973]. The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling. New York: Image Books. ISBN 0-385-03097-5. (first edition, 1973)

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