Tag Archives: Fiction

The Ghost of the Ashley Wilkes Archetype Haunts Me

Ashley Wilkes; effete, tortured, loading with fear and self-loathing. And fascinating to me.

Ashley Wilkes; effete, tortured, loading with fear and self-loathing. And fascinating to me.

My head is a swimming blur of conflicting priorities. On one hand, I have William Ellis Jones, II, the Civil War Diarist and book publisher demanding that I “get back to original programming”. On the other hand I have his grandson, William Ellis Jones, III, and his dead daughter and his two living, but very tormented children, agitating for an expansion of the fiction “assignment” I produced for Mr. McNair.

I shipped McNair the deeply revised story (Is it a short story? Is it a novella? Is it a draft of a book I didn’t know wanted to be written?) yesterday – with tremendous trepidation.

I’ll tell you why I have trepidation. It isn’t about my weak verbs, or too many adjectives, or lulls in the prose, or even the fact that the damn thing is too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel. All those things can be resolved if the thing has any legs underneath it at all. My trepidation has to do with something that I have dealt with my whole life, and can’t do a damn thing about.

It’s about who I am, where and who I come from – and what that all means – in this case, to Mr. McNair as a person.

Yeah… yeah… yeah. I know I’m not making any sense.

I’ll spell it out for you.

McNair’s protagonist in Pickett (and I suspect Land O’ Goshen too, tho I have not read it yet), is an Alabama “cracker”; a man from the dirt-farmer class of southern folks who make fantastically tough, very colorful characters in modern literature. They’re just interesting to read and write about because they’re so damn uncivilized and irrational that they’re actually “novel”, in the original sense of the word.

When McNair and I first met, and I told him I was writing a bio of my g-g-g-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War, he instantly recommended a book for me to read. He said it was the best piece of autobiographical / historical prose he’d ever read, and it demonstrated near perfectly how to draw out a character and bring him to life.

That book is ‘All Over But The Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg. And I agree that it is incredibly well-written. It’s a great book about a whole lot of tragically broken, complicated, very colorful misfits.

But here’s the thing… Bragg’s misfits, like McNair’s protagonist, are of a “class” of Southern stereotypes that, while interesting, are about as remote from my experience and understanding as it gets (I could come up with a lot of nifty comparisons here, but that would just be trying too hard.)

Bragg, in his memoir, writes “White people had it hard and black people had it harder than that, because what are the table scraps of nothing? This was not the genteel and parochial South, where monied whites felt they owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather. No one I knew ever had a mammy.”

Well guess what? My own Mother (born 1936) had a Mammy. And her Daddy had a black wet-nurse. And both sides of my mother’s parentage descended from the “Plantation Class”. And I grew up with an overwhelming sense that we “…owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather…”, because the fact was that we knew every advantage we had (and even by the 21st century, there are still many) came at the expense of someone who our ancestors “owned”. I grew up understanding that my intelligence and ability to converse and move with ease through any social or business setting was literally stolen from the descendants of the people my ancestors enslaved.

I find the struggles and torments of the fallen southern aristocracy to be dark, often quite tragic, but more than anything else – complicated. And I’ll never be able to shed my fascination with the concept or the characters – because they are the people I know. They are, in fact, me, as well.

All that said, I wonder if Mr. McNair– given the characters and culture he knows best and who he respects – will be able to stomach reading about a somewhat effete, fallen aristocrat, who is full of self-loathing and guilt on so many levels that he can’t think his way out of his wet paper bag of pathos.

Looking at me and my characters from his (or better perhaps, from Rick Bragg’s point of view), we’re not a very sympathetic lot. We’re the people who built the system that stole every opportunity from everyone “below” us on the social ladder, and now that the ladder has upturned we’re sitting in the dirt feeling sorry for ourselves, trying to figure out what happened and where we went wrong. Pathetic really.

The reality is that we’ll probably never escape the class issues that define and divide us at least as much as the race issue. It makes me sad. I wonder whether this issue is enough to sink any hopes I might have had that McNair might actually help me become a better writer, and then do something with it.

I’m just hoping that all the above is just my own pathetic insecurity – and not what Mr. McNair actually sees in me or my work.

Maybe I just think too much.


Or Maybe Not

Sad Rooster

Sad Rooster Crows No More.

People, I told ya’ll I’d let you know “either way” what McNair had to say about “my assignment”. Well… It could be better, it could be worse. I don’t know what I expected (hoping for an atta-boy; guess I should be happy I didn’t get put on “ignore”.)

A few hours after I sent the document, I got the following response:

“Dear C.,

 Assignment two.

 Go back through this draft and change three of every four uses of the passive de facto conversational verbs “was” and “is” and “were” and “had + verb” to energetic active verbs. The passive verbs leak energy and authority from your sentences. Be aggressive – it takes work to write without using conversational verbs … but writing requires a higher standard than conversation to be convincing and to immerse a reader in a fictive world worth accepting and entering. I’ll have a look at the next draft when I get back from travels on Nov 13.”

That’s it.

I had to go look up what passive vs. active meant, just to be sure I actually understood. (Been a long time and I was no great student.) That put me in my place.

Yeesh… okay. So I have a lot to learn and a lot more work to do before I can actually crow about anything.


I Can Write Fiction; on Demand

This is me gloating if all goes well.

This is me gloating if all goes well.

Well… I completed my assignment. Sort of.

Let’s see… the good Mr. McNair asked for “fiction”. Okay… “Check” in that column (let’s say “fictionalized”, just for the sake of specificity.)
– He asked for 14 pages. I gave him 59.
– He asked for the product delivered on Tuesday night. I sent it a day and a half early, in the wee hours of Monday morning.

 

So much for my ability to follow instructions. Zilch.

I have no idea whether this was a test to see if I could write to length on demand, sit on my hands till the project was due, and then hit all the check boxes with everything at perfect “spec”. Honestly, if that’s what it was, screw it. That isn’t how I write when I write for myself. I’ll never write like that again (I had enough of that shit in the corporate world.)

I think what I wrote was pretty good. Not perfect. Not the whole story by a long shot, but not bad considering I was writing on a very short deadline, and writing considerably different stuff from what has been occupying my brain for a year or more (academic, non-fiction.)

I’ll publish it here after I change some names in the story. Just for the sake of expediency, I left all the characters names in the story I sent to Mr. McNair as the “real names” of actual people. Before I put the thing up anywhere, I need to “protect the guilty” and put a disclaimer in (“Any resemblance to any person, living or dead is purely coincidental…”), because I’m pretty sure there are some cousins out there who might just sue me.

And I guess I need to wait until I hear from Mr. McNair, just in case he thinks the thing is Pulitzer material (ha!) and has a publisher lined up to take it to press as soon as its fleshed out.

I’ll let you know what McNair says, either way. If he hates it I’ll own it right here, publicly. If he likes it, I’ll gloat like nobody’s bidness. I get so few opportunities to feel good about myself these days, you won’t mind if I gloat, will you?


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