Tuesday, July 17, 2018

. . . And Theme

I've been rewriting one of my manuscripts--yes, again. This particular manuscript has been through, no exaggeration, twenty distinct versions. This thing is nothing at all like the original. And as I rewrite it, I'm still finding my way. I'm trying to hit the right tone for characters, plot, and--importantly--theme.

I'm writing about the antebellum south. So, yes, there is a whole "can of worms" as far as themes go. It's almost bottomless, the tangle of themes. But I didn't want "slavery is bad" to be the primary theme, or at least not the only one. Not because it isn't true--it is--but because it's obvious to our modern sensibilities. Of course, that isn't to say there aren't echoes of the old sensibilities in the twenty-first century. But it always seems to underplay the complexity of reality to focus on that one theme. Like I said, it's a tangled web, with other moral threads weaving in and out of the ugliness of slavery.

So one of my goals on this rewrite has been balancing the themes. I have at least two major thematic threads in this WIP ("Channing"). There's the thread regarding slavery (y'all, it's bad). There is also Caroline's slow emergence from self-abnegation after a moment of exploitation--it's the story of her losing her identity (and sense of agency)  and then finding it again. And it's wrapped up with the issue of slavery, which is wrapped up with her husband, the one who exploited her. The trick is to not lean too heavily on one or the other and leave the other languishing for a scene--a chapter--two chapters. I don't want it to seem like the characters have forgotten about a thematic thread in their lives while something happens with the other. It's wrapped up with character as well, obviously.

I'm not much of one for moral nuggets--for moralistic nuggets. But I was pleased with the following passage, and I thought it summed up something important, bringing Caroline's theme to its end. Now, I've edited it a bit for the sake of spoilers, but here it is:

There were different kinds of inheritances. Money was useful—vital, in fact. But what was more vital—what was the very stuff of life—was love, real love. Not the sort that Harry practiced, but the sort that was open and warm and had a sense of humor to it. The question was not whether she would give up her son’s financial future for her own selfish desires; it was whether she meant to provide him a life in which he could come to a full understanding of love. And she would give up anything—anything—for that.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

. . . And Mud at Ball's Bluff

I took a trip early this afternoon to the Ball's Bluff battlefield. The bluff in question is on the Virginia side of the Potomac, not too far north of Washington DC. The battle took place in the fall of 1861, and it was a massive disaster for the Union forces. A U.S. Senator, who happened to be a good friend of Abraham Lincoln's, was shot dead, and the battle ended with a pellmell retreat off the bluff by terrified Union soldiers.

It was damp today and has been unconscionably damp and rainy for the last, oh, forever and a half, so the wooded battlefield was sticky and thronged with the most voracious mosquitoes I've ever had the displeasure of meeting. They followed me on the guided tour, followed me down the narrow cow-path that is the same exact cow-path Yankees took up and down from the river, and the damn mosquitoes followed me back up from the river and to my car. They did not, as far as I can tell, follow me home.

In any case, going down the cow-path, things started getting muddier and muddier until I was slip-sliding down the sloping path. I decided not to go on because I didn't feel like losing my flip-flops or falling on my butt in the mud. So the last picture here is as close as I got to the river. You can see the water, nice and muddy, through the trees.

I didn't get a picture of it, but there is a marker for Edward Baker, the Senator who was killed.

The national cemetery at Ball's Bluff.

Ahead: the river trail, down to the Potomac. This is the trail Union troops
took up and down from the river during the battle.

Just a snake skin hanging from a branch.

Washed out, very muddy gully; we've had a lot of rain
and flooding here recently.

The super-muddy path to the river. The brown
strip is the river. I didn't want to lose my shoes in the muck.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

. . . And Clara Barton

A few weeks back, I got the chance to visit Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office in downtown DC. Clara Barton has a compelling story, but so does the museum itself.

Prior to the Civil War, Clara Barton was a longtime teacher and then a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington DC. She actually received equal pay to male clerks but was soon demoted because of opposition to women in the federal workforce. She was subsequently fired because of her political (i.e. Republican) leanings and spent several years at home in Massachusetts, until war broke out in 1861. She returned to Washington City and the Patent Office. In April 1861, shortly after the first shots of the war were fired, the passage of a Massachusetts regiment through Baltimore sparked a riot. Wounded men were brought to Washington City, and Barton immediately went to help nurse them. She would go on to perform herculean feats on behalf of the Union army, collecting provisions and nursing sick men. She was nicknamed the Angel of the Battlefield.

Near the end of the war, Barton rented rooms in downtown Washington City, near the Patent Office. During the Civil War, there were no dog tags and no systematic way to track the wounded and dead. Old methods of informing loved ones simply weren't adequate anymore. The sheer scale of death and destruction meant that tens of thousands of dead went unidentified, and the fate of tens of thousands of men was never known. Barton had realized that loved ones across the North were left not knowing what had happened to their sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, and friends. It became her mission to discover the fate of these men. She advertised, and loved ones would write her with the names of their missing men. She had long lists published in newspapers, in hopes that someone might know what had happened to the missing men. She also traveled to the prison camps and helped compile lists of those who died there. The information she found was then relayed to the families. She was able to discover the fate of over 22,000 men.

And then, having done all she could, Barton moved out of the office. She wound go on to found the American Red Cross and undertake many other humanitarian ventures. She was an extraordinary woman, but over the years, the Missing Soldiers Office became "lost". Partly, this was because it was rented space, and the building was put to many purposes over the ensuing decades. Partly, this was because at one point the city of Washington reordered the street numbers. Historians knew the office had been there but didn't know exactly where it had been. Doubtless, they figured it had been torn down in the ensuing years.

Fast forward to the 1990s. The property has been sold and is about to be redeveloped. A worker named Richard Lyons is surveying the third floor, which has gone largely untouched for decades and decades. He goes into a back room and notices a piece of paper poking out of the corner of the hatch leading to the attic space. He takes a closer look and realizes it's a piece of very old paper. On further inspection, it turns out that there was a treasure trove of documents and other items up in the attic, including a sign reading: MISS BARTON'S MISSING SOLDIERS OFFICE, 3RD FLOOR, ROOM 9.

Here's a video about the unlikely discovery:


The federal government owned the property and decided to partner with the Museum of Civil War Medicine (in Frederick, MD; a GREAT museum). The third floor was preserved and restored, with some of the original wallpaper patterns and the original doors and woodwork. I went on a chilly, sunny day, with bright light flooding in the windows. Downstairs is a modern welcome center, with a video for orientation and a gift shop. You can tour yourself or take a guided tour. Me and a few other visitors went on a guided tour, which took us up a set of narrow, dark stairs to the restored third floor. Those stairs were the entrance that Clara and other boarders would have used. At the top of the stairs is a narrow, dark landing. You turn a hundred-eighty degrees to retrace the length of the stairwell down the length of the landing. Beyond the stairs to the right is a long hallway with doors off each side. The rooms that Barton used are on the left and look down on the street below. They are furnished sparsely and would have probably been fairly spartan when Barton was there, too. In the next room, you can see the ladder that Richard Lyons climbed to find the trove of Clara Barton items. Across from that is a room set up as it might have been for Edward Shaw the man who owned the building and leased space to Barton.

While I was there, there was a temporary exhibit on Alexander Gardner's photography. Reproduction photographs were arranged essentially as they would have been for the famous Dead of Antietam exhibit that shocked New Yorkers in 1862. I spent a long time gazing at the old photographs through magnifying glassed tethered to the wall with a long string. I've seen many of the photos before, but seeing them flash briefly on a television screen isn't the same as standing close to them and really studying them, especially in detail. The photography might have been black-and-white, but it could capture astounding levels of detail--it was "high resolution".

So, if you get a chance, the Missing Soldiers Office is worth a visit. It won't take you long to see the place, and it's a heck of a story.
The sign found in the attic that hung outside
the Missing Soldiers Office

The landing on the third floor.

Reproduction wallpaper.

A list of the missing.

The surviving wallpaper and the reproduction. 
The ladder (the diagonal line in front of the bed)
leads to the attic where the cache of Clara Barton
and Civil War-era artifacts was found.

The note that was sticking out of the hatch to the attic.

The Dead of Antietam.

The long, dark staircase that boarders took.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

. . . And An Englishman in (Bleeding) Kansas

...Or Squatter Life and Border Warfare

While getting into the spirit of rewriting an old WIP (Channing, by name), I started brushing up on the events of Bleeding Kansas. It's surprising to me that more people aren't acutely aware of this episode of American history, but I think most people would stare at your blankly if you asked them about Bleeding Kansas. (Kansans would probably be the exception.)

In the mid-1850's, small-scale civil war broke out in the territory of Kansas, just a few years before the Civil War engulfed the nation as a whole. It was a preview of what was to come, with bloody little battles, high passions, and remarkable characters. John Brown and his sons famously hacked five pro-slavery men to death at Pottawatomie Creek. The Free State town of Lawrence (where my grandmother's family lived) was sacked; the hotel, the biggest building in the territory, was destroyed, and two printing offices were ransacked and the presses tossed into the river. The violence never really stopped until the Civil War finally settled the question of slavery for good.

So what caused this crisis in Kansas? Specifically, it was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Ever since the Constitution in 1789, there had been a series of crises and compromises to do with slavery: the three-fifths compromise, the Missouri Compromise, the Nullification Crisis, the Compromise of 1850. The trouble was that these were thin veneers over the very real, very deep-seated differences between the North and South (which isn't to say that the North and South weren't intimately interwoven in myriad ways). This was becoming more and more apparent by the mid-1850's, and Abraham Lincoln stated it best when he said that ultimately the country must become all one thing or all the other. There was no way it could continue to be so divided. There was no middle ground, as the failure of the repeated compromises demonstrated. Either slavery was acceptable, or it wasn't.

In 1854, Kansas and Nebraska were being organized as territories, and the old difficulty reared its ugly head: would these be slave territories or free territories? This was more than an existential question of what was best for Kansas and Nebraska The carefully-maintained balance in the Senate between free and slave states was at stake. Tensions rose. But in stepped the Little Giant, Stephen A Douglas, Senator from Illinois. He proposed "popular sovereignty" on the question of slavery: let the people vote on whether to allow slavery. After all, this is a democracy, is it not?

The difficulty is, of course, that questions of morality can't be put to a vote that way. Democracy can't mean that 51% of the people can simply do whatever they please. There has to be a "higher law", as Seward put it.

But the law was passed, and Kansas and Nebraska became "popular sovereignty" territories, though apparently it was Kansas everyone cared about (sorry, Nebraska). In short order, Missourians started pouring over the border to vote fraudulently in Kansas elections, while Emigrant Aid Societies in New England sent Free-Soilers to settle the new territory. Rival constitutions and governments were established, and it didn't take long for the Border Ruffians (Missourians) and the Jayhawkers (Free-Soilers) to begin clashing.

In any case (and that explanation was much longer than I meant it to be), I came across a book called An Englishman in Kansas, or Squatter Life and Border Warfare, about the experiences of an Englishman named T.H. Gladstone in Kansas during the crisis there. It's entirely evident that he despises the Border Ruffians, but I'm alright with that. He paints a vivid picture of the ugliness of the whole situation and of Kansas as a place at that time--a dangerous, violent, almost absurdly topsy-turvy place where right is wrong and wrong is right.

Also of interest to me was the introduction by Frederick Law Olmsted, who was, among other things, the man who created Central Park in New York City. He makes very pointed remarks about the hypocrisy and moral ugliness of slavery. Perhaps the most striking passage for me was the following one. It may be an entirely, or partially, fabricated, but it has power because it's entirely plausible. The last phrase ties in with the first sentence and neatly sums up the point: terror was the order of the day. Any appearance of safety and of obedience from the enslaved people was only a product of well-founded and constantly-cultivated fear:

But, ‘Planters sleep unguarded, and with their bedroom doors open.’ . . . 
It is but a few months since, in Georgia, or Alabama, a man treated another precisely as Mr. Brooks treated Mr. Sumner, coming up behind him, with the fury of a madman, and felling him with a bludgeon*; killing him by the first blow, however, and then discharging vengeance by repeated strokes on his senseless body. The man thus pitifully abused had been the master of the other, a remarkably confiding and merciful master, it was said—too much so; “it never does to be too slack with a nigger.” By such indiscretion [i.e. being too lax] he brought his death upon him. But did his assassin escape? He was roasted, at a slow fire, on the spot of the murder, in the presence of many thousand slaves driven [from their homes] to the ground from all the adjoining counties, and when, at length, his life went out, the fire was intensified until his body was in ashes, which were scattered to the winds and trampled under foot. Then “magistrates and clergymen” addressed appropriate warnings to the assembled subjects. 
It was no indiscretion to leave doors open again that night.

 *Famously, Mr. Brooks, a Southerner, attacked Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, beating him senseless. Brooks felt that Sumner had insulted his family in a speech Sumner gave about the slavery question. Sumner was famously anti-slavery.

Friday, February 16, 2018

. . . And How Aly Raisman Informed My Writing

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will almost certainly be aware of the upheaval that has been taking place in USA Gymnastics. Just in case you aren't aware, former team doctor Larry Nassar pleaded guilty to sexually abusing well over a hundred and fifty young women and girls, all of it under the guise of "medical treatment." He worked with the national team for decades, and so many of the gymnasts I have known and loved were among those who came forward publicly as victims: Alexandra Raisman, Gabrielle Douglas, Jordyn Weiber, Simone Biles, Jamie Dantzscher and many, many others. These facts were in the news; the story was getting a lot of coverge. But what really gave this story its power (and got the attention of newspapers and the evening news) was the sentencing phase. Part of the sentencing phase was the "victim statements". Since Nassar had already pleaded guilty, the only question was how much time he would serve for his crimes (hint: a very long time). Originally, something like 80 young women were going to make statements. However, as things got underway, there were more and more of these young women (I don't like the terms "victim" or "survivor", really; "victim" seems to take away any sense of power, and "survivor" makes the thing they went through sound passive or internal, like cancer). Over 160 women and girls ended up telling their stories.

"Little girls don't stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world." --Kyle Stephens

I'm not the only one who was moved. People from all over the world were blown away by these young women's stories and the power with which the stories were told. Their words were put on banners for women's marches and repeated all across social media. Their words became soundbites. There stories were everywhere.

I may have been more touched than your average person (though less so than some!). I knew so many of these young ladies as athletes, because I follow gymnastics avidly (and have done so since 1996--and if you look closely, you can see Larry Nassar at Kerri Strug's side after she injured her ankle so famously). So I was floored to hear about all this sordid slime going on behind the scenes. And while I do, of course, mean Nassar, I also mean the enabling, destructive atmosphere that allowed him to continue his abusive behavior.

Make no mistake: those who are familiar with the sport know--have always known--that ugly things are always lurking around its edges. Things like verbal and emotional abuse and eating disorders and political intrigue are open secrets. To hear this all cracked wide open, however, was intense and illuminating.

It was so intense and so illuminating because this was about sexual abuse, but it was also about so much more. It was about how abuse happens, how people are manipulated and brainwashed and tricked. It was about what happens to the psyche of those who experience it. It was about what it does to individuals and families.

"The tables have turned, Larry. We have our voices, and we are not going anywhere." --Aly Raisman
Mattie Larson talked about banging her head on the tub so that she wouldn't have to go to practice, because she couldn't stand to be there anymore, in an environment of mental and sexual assault. Several young woman talked about suicidal moments. One woman's father didn't believe her when she told him as a girl about Larry; when he finally believed her, his guilt may have contributed his suicide.

It was only tangentially about Larry Nassar, only tangentially about even these particular cases. It was about the human toll that it all takes. One thing that was repeated over and over was the fact that the people who experienced the abuse thought it must be alright--he's a doctor or he's worked with so many Olympians or I'm making too big a deal of this.

I took so much away from what I heard from the 156 people who gave impact statements, and it informed me as a writer. I'm currently working on a project where the main character, a young woman, is taken advantage of and then abused physically and emotionally. The question is, what does that do to a person? I've never experienced such abuse. Many of those who suffer abuse don't speak about it openly (as is their right).

Listening to the impact statements at the trial helped me understand the way such abuse seeps into the minds of the abused and causes all kinds of havoc. It causes doubt--it causes confusion--it causes shame--it causes a disconnect from one's own personality and feelings. Over and over, those who were abused described being confused, because everyone and everything around them told them that what was happening was alright, that their feelings of discomfort were simply wrong. They began to doubt everything they thought and felt. It didn't just affect them sometimes, or when they were in the gym. It affected how they thought and felt all the time.

I wanted to show how such an abusive atmosphere could affect my character. I considered the way it might change her entire thought process. Will it make him angry. I thought of how it might change her reactions to things and how she sees herself and even what she does. Most of all, I wanted to show that she was still very much herself.

There are a thousand reasons why the stores of these young ladies are so important. The real impact of abuse is so often hidden away. It's important for such stories to be told.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Moving the Lock-keeper's House

A little while back, I posted an update on the old Lock-Keeper's House on Constitution Avenue here in DC. In case you haven't been keeping tabs on this (who are you and why don't you care, by the way??), the Lock-keeper's House is one of the oldest structures in DC (c. 1836). It used to be home to the lock-keeper, who watched over the C&O Canal Extension, which connected the C&O (that's Chesapeake and Ohio) with the Washington Canal, which was located where Constitution Ave is now. The Potomac came up nearly to the base of the Washington Monument and the front lawn of the White House. Today, of course, it's been filled in to form the National Mall.

It's a little hard to tell, but that's the building there just right of center, and it's moved back
from the street (see the cars on the left?).

After years/decades of being neglected, the poor old Lock-keeper's House was in pretty bad shape for a long time. Part of the problem was its proximity to the very-busy Constitution Ave. It was about fifteen feet off of the six (or eight? my memory is failing me) lane street. But, luckily, the NPS got funding to restore it, and work got underway last year. A few weeks ago, I took my usual walk up Constitution Ave. from work, and lo and behold, the house had been moved! It is now back a respectable (and respectful) distance from the street.

And look, here's a video here of the move! Very neat:

 I came back two days later and saw that the entire place was encased in a kind of tent of plastic sheets. That must mean the serious work is taking place underneath. When done, the place will serve as a visitor's center for the National Mall (this work is part of a revamping of Constitution Gardens).

The Lock-keeper's House's current status.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Quick Announcement

Not that there has been any confusion of any kind, but I thought it best to note here that I recently split with my literary agent, Erin Niumata. I will not go into the whys and wherefores here but will happily email or talk with anyone who comes across this and has questions.

This is hardly the end of my literary career, though it's a severe blow. I'm working on some projects now that need to be whipped into shape before being sent to agents. I hope that I will be able to find an agent willing and able to take me on as a client and that from there I will (someday?) end up with a book deal.