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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.”




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.”



“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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Book Covers

I thought I would get this bit of flaunting over with.  Here are the covers of all my books.

The first is a professional job by a fine publisher in Virginia Beach, Virginia–Koehler Books.  The next two I designed as part of  publishing independently using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. KDP is not a perfect system, nor is the product equal to the one turned out by Koehler Books, but I had a grand time doing the whole thing, the books look good, and I learned a tremendous amount about things like formatting and layout and how they get those bottom lines all the same.

The first piece of fiction I ever wrote was a novel called Memory Is The Seamstress, co-written with a friend, Alison Daniels. My first name is Patricia, hence “Patricia Allison.” We fought bitterly during the writing of that novel, nearly lost our friendship, but somehow managed to come through it with a pretty good novel, a stronger friendship, and both of us better writers.

After that, I wrote two novels solo, based on the real woman, Lydia Roper, who was the object of a great deal of frustrating research.  When I asked her great-granddaughter what she thought of the idea of my writing a novel about Lydia, her answer was, “Maybe imagining Lydia is the way you will find Lydia.”

She was right.  The “Jessie” of my two novels is a Lydia I can live with.

Finally is the novel closest to my heart, the one for which it now seems the others were preparation. It is a novel about my mother, her sisters and brother, and their mother.  It is the story of my family and myself. I have submitted it to no publishers, nor have I attempted to publish it myself. I have entered it in three literary competitions and, while I wait for a fall decision, I have already rewritten it extensively and so anticipate sending it off again next year.  It has had four or five different titles and the same number of covers, but it is I’m Not Going to Heaven. I’m Going to Birmingham. A Story of the South and, as far as I’m concerned, that cover is carved in stone.

You will have to read the book some day to discover what that title means.

LydiaCover  51nOOApcF1L     518dkVO7JPLfullsizeoutput_4113


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On Writing #1, 2017: A Retrospective. A Few Problems, Fewer Solutions, Several Entertaining Anecdotes. A First-Person Account


A Sort of a Journal of What You Do After You Finish Doing What You Thought You Could Never Do.

SEPT 26 2017
Two novels completed. Not one viable idea for a next book. I find I can’t simply take a break. I am now no longer capable of not writing.  And so, the question arises. What in-between writing can I find this time to keep my hand in, to keep my brain fresh, to operate like playing scales back in the days of piano lessons?

I cheat unashamedly. I go online and I find the hundreds of sites that offer lists–of twenty-five, fifty, a hundred, five hundred sentences to use as the first sentence in a short story or novel.  I don’t know if any of them will ever turn into my next novel, but I chose five today and have written on one.  It was wonderful fun, almost like automatic writing or a ouija board.

  1. By the time I reached the train station, she was gone.
  2. There was a time when my family was extremely happy.
  3. Flowers came to my house every other Monday around 1 o’clock.
  4. Bouquets of flowers filled my living and dining rooms but how did they get in here.
  5.  They say Old Weezie’s been reading palms out of her run-down shack for a hundred years or more.

 First attempt (10-15 minutes)

Bouquets of flowers filled my living and dining rooms, but how did they get in here?

First things first, as my grandmother always said. Before I address the question of how they got in here, I would like to establish exactly what it was that “got in.” When I say “filled,” that is precisely what I mean.

I do not mean that there were a great many of these bouquets, say twenty or thirty or possibly even forty, that seemed to (but actually did not) cover every available surface of the two main rooms of the first floor of my house. Those rooms were not, in any literal sense, filled.

I do not intend you to imagine a number of bouquets, however large, that it might be possible, with any amount of effort and concentration, to count. Granted, most of what I am calling “bouquets” were in containers, vases of every size, shape, and color, crafted out of glass or metal or wood, some even looking like children’s creations made from cardboard. These, I suppose, one could count, although I would not like to tackle it.

But in addition to these flower arrangements, for want of a better word, there were what I would estimate to be thousands, possibly tens of thousands of bouquets, that is flowers tied together in bundles, tossed around the room so as to cover entirely the spaces in between the vases. On tabletops and on the floor, was an uninterrupted carpet of flowers. These uncontained bouquets were of varying sizes, ranging I would guess from bunches of three or four stems to the largest I was able to see that must have contained at least a hundred white roses.

And that, obviously, is the next question to be addressed. What kinds of flowers were they that had taken over my home? Did there appear to be anything consistent? Any color or type of flower? Any association as, for example, the lily that is often associated with funerals? And that is one question to which I can give a definitive answer. All the flowers were roses, roses of every shade I had ever encountered and many, many bouquets made up of roses in colors that hardly seemed natural or, in any event, not any that I have ever encountered in nature. And yet, they didn’t look artificial or dyed.

So, having satisfied my grandmother’s dictum, I shall proceed cautiously to the second question at hand. You now have a full knowledge of just what I saw when I opened the door of my spacious, renovated 1920’s bungalow in the very center of a busy neighborhood in a medium-sized city in the South. How did they get in here?

I will save you the trouble and wasted time of thinking about his as a locked-room mystery or, indeed, as any kind of standard mystery, or whodunit, at all. There will be no puzzles to assemble in what is to follow.

I am a retired teacher of literature and tend rather toward the personal and the narrative than the mathematical or strategic. The first question that occurred to me when I opened that door wasn’t “how” at all. It was a burning desire to know who would have done this, and why. And, as I prepared my solitary meal to be eaten with one of Margaret Drabble’s early novels propped up in front of me, I began to go over the list of the people with whom I have had significant relationships over many decades. There seem to be quite a few.

Is there the beginning of a novel here? I have no idea.
I write four blogs about writing, one consisting entirely of experiments with opening sentences.
I write a blog about gun violence.
I write a long introduction to a guest blog by a friend.