On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My Spooky Writing Space: A Twisted Tale

Louisa May Alcott
     As a young girl I was very impressed with Jo, the heroine of Little Women.  I was especially intrigued by the description of the garret where she wrote.  An avid reader of Louisa May Alcott since probably the fourth grade, I had taken to scribbling poems and stories, which culminated with my piece de resistance in the fifth grade.
     I’d written for a class assignment a twelve-page, slightly over-heated story about six brothers and sisters having to spend Christmas with an aunt and uncle recently arrived from Norway.  Bereft because their parents had to go to the Southwest for reasons of the father’s health, the children ended up with an experience to remember.  My great-grandparents had immigrated from Norway, so I plumbed the memories of various relatives for anecdotes and pertinent holiday details to make my story seem more real.  At my teacher’s request, I read the paper aloud to my classmates amid mixed feelings of embarrassment and pride.
      Afterward, I believed, like Jo, I should have my own quiet, private place to write all those stories that would no doubt soon be published.  So I looked above for a solution–not for divine guidance but to our own attic. This space was a dark and cavernous room, particularly dark where the ceiling burrowed under the eaves.  It was, however, spotlessly clean and had decided possibilities.  I imagined Jo’s own attic was much like ours.  After all, we had an old house, too, built before World War I.
     To reach the attic, one ascended via a treacherously narrow stairway.  In the mind of a ten-year-old girl, that dark passage held uncertain perils--a corner landing that was pitch black, steep stairs, and no rails.  I don’t know what I expected–a criminal lurking in the shadows ready to pounce; a mouse scuttling across my path, though no self-respecting rodent would put up with my mother’s unrelenting attentions;  more probably, a slip of the foot and a painful crash down the stair well.
      A long cord hung from the top of the room to the foot of the stairs and when pulled would turn on the faint light above.  Nine times out of ten, the last person to exit the area would pull too hard and the string would fly back and catch on the steps above.  So I would have to climb with blind eyes, feeling my way on the curving, narrow treads.  Once I arrived at the top, it was not much better, illumination coming from two low windows a great distance from one another and a fifteen watt bulb in the center of the room.
      Nonetheless, because of zealous devotion to my craft, I tried to conquer my fears, seeing a large trunk that would make a fine writing table.  I hauled it to one end of the room near a window within easy reach of a homemade bookcase.  A small stool with a wobbly leg completed my arrangements; the young writer was poised for fame.
     But in arranging my papers, I noticed the trunk had a bumpy top that wouldn’t do at all.  My mother helped me cut out a piece of cardboard for a smooth writing surface but the glow had started to fade.  My work table had become non-authentic.  Would Jo have had a cardboard cutout?  And then the stool, unfortunately, was not suitable for long periods of sitting; it cramped my legs and strained my back to hunch on it.  I found I had to stand up and stretch a lot, albeit carefully, for though I was only five feet, two inches, the ceiling at that point was five feet high.
      What bothered me the most and kept me from writing as prolifically as I had expected was the strange muffled sounds I heard from time to time downstairs.  Bangs and thuds, thin human cries, and the faint ringing of bells (telephone? front door?) all necessitated my running to the edge of the stairs and yelling,”What was that?” or “Did someone call me?”
    I started quite a number of pieces of writing, but it was hard going when my pencil seemed to need sharpening after only a few sentences.  Also, the attic was as quiet as a tomb, and I couldn’t concentrate for lack of the usual distractions.  In fact, time seemed frozen..  How strange to spend long hours toiling over my writing only to be told by my mother when I went downstairs for a drink of water that a mere ten minutes had elapsed since my last visit.
    My writing was dull, unsatisfying; even my memoirs were lacking.  For inspiration I tried to write something based on a title stolen from one of Jo’s early stories, “The Repentance of Lady Clinton,” but I couldn’t decide what she was repenting about and gave it up as a bad job.
    As the summer days grew hotter and hotter, I discovered I could not think or write in the inferno our attic had become.  I moved to the more comfortable dining room table with unspoken relief, my mother diplomatically not saying a word.  The attic room was abandoned forever to old clothes and furniture, never again to be a haunt of the Muse.

Monday, October 3, 2011

New Life for an Old Haunt of Jesse James: Edgefield

In the late 1970s a German friend and I were driving down the main street of Hendersonville, a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, when we saw a wrecking ball working on an early 1800s house called Darlington. My friend commented wryly, “That’s just like the Americans; they don’t let anything get old.” Jolted into a new awareness, I began to volunteer as a docent and eventually got appointed to the boards of two historic homes in our county, first of Rock Castle and later of Rose Mont. At some point, I was asked to write the text for a small pictorial booklet about a Nashville neighborhood called Edgefield that was being reclaimed from dissolution. What follows is an edited version from that booklet that describes the neighborhood, traces some of its history, and gives a sense of its present state. My researches into Edgefield gave me the idea for my Foxhill Series e-books that have a fictionalized Nashville historic area as a setting:  Flowers at Her Feet, Neighbors, and newly published Ever After.
 In the shadow of Nashville's skyscrapers looming beyond the Cumberland River lies a fifteen-square-block residential area with the intriguing name of Edgefield. This inner-city historical district began as a suburban home site for John Shelby in 1818, who over time built two imposing homes there, "Fatherland" and "Boscobel." Both have long since vanished, but something of the earliest history of Edgefield remains with streets bearing those names. During the nearly two centuries since its beginnings, the area was subdivided and prospered, was struck by tragedy and rebuilt, only to eventually fall into a decline it might never have recovered from. Then a community group promoted the inclusion of Edgefield in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, the first neighborhood so designated in Nashville. Since then, Historic Edgefield, Inc. has achieved a small miracle of matching the aesthetic values of historical integrity to contemporary housing needs along with community responsibility.

A visitor to the area might be struck by the varied appearance of the architecture that denotes its history. An expert eye could locate the sparely elegant homes of the early classical period; the eclectic Victorian styles, including Italianate, Gothic, Romanesque, Queen Anne, and Eastlake; the four-square and solid turn-of-the-century homes and public buildings; the Craftsman bungalow styles of the early 20th century; and in muted echoes of the earlier periods, brand-new cityhomes and townhouses. Yet architecture is only part of the story of Edgefield, for familiar names of past residents should find its way into a history of the area, especially the notorious "Mr. Howard, Grain Speculator," alias Jesse James, who for a time lived on Fatherland Street. (He and his wife, Zee, took up residence there in 1875 as a hideout until 1881 when the place got too hot for them, and they decamped back to Missouri. During those Nashville years, the Jameses lived on his ill gotten gains as he continued his nefarious activities in outlying areas.)

When John Shelby, in 1854, decided to turn his estate into housing tracts, Edgefield was ripe for growth, and influential citizens of Nashville scrambled to build in what was to become the most fashionable location around. In 1868 the community was incorporated as an independent municipality. Soon its burgeoning residential population demanded the construction of schools, churches, and commercial enterprises. Eventually seeing an urgent need for more public services to the little city, in 1880 Edgefield officially became part of Nashville.

The bell of St. Ann's Episcopal Church frantically tolling a warning knell, calamity struck Edgefield when the great fire of 1916 cut a swath through the area. The devastation was enormous, the fire leveling over six hundred homes and other structures. With so many of the older homes gone, the look of the neighborhood began to change as new post-World War I houses filled in some of the vacant lots. (A 1933 tornado as well as another devastating one in 1998 wreaked further havoc on structures and the landscape.) Until World War II, Edgefield continued as a viable community, but the years of the late 1940s and ‘50s saw movement away from the old neighborhood into new, distant suburbs. Traffic-laden roads and highways were by-passing the once proud area, turning it into a nearly forgotten way-station. Edgefield was not forgotten, however.

Today, the streets of Edgefield are quiet but wonderfully alive. Neighbors may be found greeting one another along the broad, brick sidewalks that invite a stroll. An Eastlake cottage may be getting its wood siding retouched in one of the vibrant, earthy hues authentic to that period. A Queen Anne two-story may be having its garden replanted. While Edgefield is no longer on the edge of the city, it appears now to be on the edge of an exciting future, delicately poised between the ideals of preservation and the drama of continued renewal.