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Why This Blog?

Years ago, my daughter was struggling to write an essay for her high school English class. It was about 11:00 at night, the paper was due the next day, and she had a major case of writer’s block. More specifically, her perfectionism and — bless her heart (because she gets this from me) — her procrastination had created this last-minute panic. She was frustrated, I was frustrated, and things were going downhill fast.

Finally, I just blurted out: Just write some shit down!

I know… not my finest moment in parenting, but dang it, it was good advice. For her and for me. There’s no other way to write than to just… write, dammit!

So I kind of guess that’s what I’m doing with this blog. Just writing some shit down and seeing what sticks.

I want to use this blog to help me process the myriad of revelations, thoughts, and questions I’m generating as I research a specific series of events in America’s relatively recent history, which is the backdrop for the novel I’m working on. This blog will be my own internal sounding board as I grapple to integrate what I’m learning about the civil rights movement in the late 1960s into my own consciousness as well as into my storyline. I find that putting thoughts into written words helps solidify ideas.

A wonderful bonus would be any conversation that might come out of some of those ideas and commentaries. Voices other than my own weighing in on these issues are very welcome – from other writers, from anyone who would be a potential reader of my story, and especially from anyone with lived experience closer than mine to the subject matter.

I know that I am treading on sacred ground. I wish to tiptoe lightly and respectfully over this territory without causing damage to the landscape, while also perhaps shedding some exploratory light into the more shadowy areas that many of us may not be fully aware of.

Baby Steps

The more I READ,
The more I think,
And the more I think,
The more I understand,
And the more ideas I have.

The more I WATCH,
The more I think,
And the more I think,
The more I understand,
And the more ideas I have.

The more I STUDY,
The more I think,
And the more I think,
The more I understand,
And the more ideas I have.

The more I LEARN,
The more I think,
And the more I think,
The more I understand,
And the more ideas I have.

The more I WRITE,
The more I think,
And the more I think,
The more I understand,
And the more ideas I have.

The more I TALK,
The more I think,
And the more I think,
The more I understand,
And the more ideas I have.

The more I LISTEN,
The more I think,
And the more I think,
The more I understand,
And the more ideas I have.

Read. Watch. Study. Learn. Write. Talk. Listen.
Think, understand, form new ideas.
Rinse and repeat.
These are simple actions that could change the world.

“White People, Just Don’t.”

I belong to several online Facebook writing groups. Mostly I just lurk. Sometimes I’m encouraged by the activity I read in these groups, such as when someone posts that their book is finally self-published – so what if it’s not selling, it’s FINISHED – or when someone reports that they finally found an agent (these are really encouraging, since it seems from all the self-publishing buzz that it’s virtually impossible to snag one anymore).

Anyway, one particular thread in one of these groups really caught my attention. Someone, a self-reporting white person (ha!), was asking for tips on how to write black characters. There were some seemingly helpful responses, such as “make sure you’re hanging out with black friends and just watch them” and “get black beta readers to ensure that you don’t say something stupid or insulting”.

This type of feedback of course essentially applies to any form of writing outside our own experience. If you’re writing about a certain socioeconomic group, or geographical group, or age group for example, of course you would try to place yourself within that group as much as possible to learn about how those people live, act, speak, move, dress, look, and think. And if possible, you’d get feedback from either people in those groups, or people who are very close to those groups: experts.

However, one response to the question of whites writing black characters really shook things up and started somewhat of a debate. This comment, with the small profile picture of a clearly black woman, simply said: “White people, just don’t.”

This sparked some conversation, but the gist of her position was she felt it simply can’t be done well. White people cannot know the experience of the black community, and therefore their writing of black characters will always at best fall flat and miss the mark, or at worst, perpetuate negative stereotypes, causing actual damage.

And furthermore, not only did she think it can’t be done well, she seemed to be saying that it shouldn’t be done at all. Almost as if writing black characters is a privilege that should only be reserved for those who share the black experience.

Now, at the time I read this thread in this writing group, I had begun writing bits and pieces of my own novel, which — while the time and place changed from the 1930s to 1968 — has always centered around black characters. So my attention was definitely snagged by this exchange.

It’s not that I hadn’t already thought about how my being white and writing about primarily black characters might be a problem. It was always in the back of my mind, but I didn’t give it a whole lot of attention beyond knowing that I would need at least some black beta readers when the time came — and I’d need to be prepared to change some things that I was unable to recognize as off-base, unrealistic, or offensive.

(Let me interject here that my trepidation about writing black characters is not primarily being offensive, in the purest sense of the word. I believe people have the right to be offended but that doesn’t curtail others’ freedom of speech and action as long as real damage is not inflicted. Being offended is not being damaged, necessarily. And being offended is not the same as mental damage. The type of “being offensive” I fear in my writing is contributing in any way in perpetuating negative, harmful stereotypes of any group of people because of my lack of real, lived experience — and beyond even that, I realize as I am delving deeper into this subject matter, because of my own blindness to what is perceived as negative and hurtful in the first place! More on that as this blog progresses…)

So this topic is definitely on my mind. I’ve decided to move forward with writing this novel, regardless — for many reasons which I plan to detail further as I continue writing in this blog. However, I am making certain changes to the story as a result.

For example, I’m expanding the story to include many more white main characters. The two black boys who kick off the story are now mixed race. I’ve slashed out some early scenes that were just frankly SO poorly written (I’m getting better at recognizing stereotypes). And… I’ve stopped writing for the time being, so I can as fully as possible immerse myself in researching the events around the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and the civil rights movement of the times. Hopefully this conscientious effort will make my writing palatable.

Finally… honestly, I don’t think black people are my audience. White people are. I hope my story will shed some light on the events of the time and their effect on race relations even today, from our perspective and for our knowledge. I want to write about human beings, and maybe help find some common ground somehow, or at least better understanding. I just need to include black characters to do that.

I hope that woman in the writing group will understand.

Information is Everywhere!

Gosh, how did writers do research before the Internet? Before Netflix and Prime Video?

Sure, there were libraries, and libraries did (at least in recent history) have videos you could check out… but dang! I’m feeling so lucky to live in this Information Age, in which so much information is available.

Books? Yep, I’m finding oodles of them. I’ve ordered so many, I don’t know when I’ll find time to read them. History books full of details on the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, the civil rights movement in general. Biographies of important figures at the time. Anthologies of popular culture of the time. Fiction books that demonstrate how similar topics have been portrayed by successful novelists of our time. And so many more!

Videos? For sure! Documentaries galore! They’re in my watch lists, and I’m absorbing them daily – some, I’m even planning to watch multiple times to let them really sink in. Movies either made during or about the 1960s are helping me get the “feel” of the times.

I feel like I’m gorging myself on so much information that I may never actually continue writing on the manuscript, but it’s all helping so much. My original plan was to vomit out a first draft and then go back and add the historical details and time-and-place feel in a second draft, but I’m realizing that if I continue much further with my rough draft, I might become too “married” to a subpar storyline and lackluster, unrepresentative characters.

I now know this time spent learning and absorbing upfront will make my novel infinitely better than it would be if I dove in now.

I need more hours in the day!

The Challenges of Realism

Once I decided to place my story within the real, historic events of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, I knew that the research required was not only going to be arduous, but absolutely critical. Any time an author attempts to weave actual history into a work of fiction (or, rather, fiction into actual history), he or she had better be sure to “get it right” — it must ring true because (hopefully) there will be readers who will know if it doesn’t.

And for this particular story, I realized that not only must I get the historical events and players down pat, I also need to do my best to immerse myself in the not only the flavor of the time and place, but also the experiences and even psychology of the various social groups involved. Whites and blacks. Bosses and workers. Unions and businesses. Christians and Muslims. Activists and pacifists. The list goes on.

One good thing about setting my story during this very turbulent time is that it gives me plenty of material for tension. But for that tension to work it must feel authentic. I need to transcend my own limited environmental and sociological boundaries as much as humanly possible to authentically represent the various groups who were (and still are today, to a large extent) at odds — to put it mildly.

This could take a while.

The Initial Book Idea

Several years ago, for some reason, I — a white woman in my 40s at the time — had this completely off-the-wall (for me) idea for a story:

When their grandmother and sole caretaker dies, two young African American boys must travel by foot to Memphis to find the father who abandoned them.

Why Memphis? I don’t know. I’ve never even been there, but it was clearly Memphis in my mind, and the working title was On the Road to Memphis. Why two little black boys? I don’t know. It was just important to me, and I couldn’t shake the idea.

The original time frame for my story was the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, as I began researching Memphis I ran into a much more intriguing possibility: the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. I found an article about two men — Robert Walker and Echol Cole — who were killed by faulty, old machinery in a city garbage truck. This event sparked a revolution in the black community and attracted national attention when union organizers descended upon Memphis and the civil rights movement grew like wildfire in the streets of the city, literally. The series of events culminated in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

1968 it is!

And the story in my mind became much less about a lonely and dangerous roadtrip and more about the boys’ arrival during the chaos of the strike. The more I began researching the events of those first few months of 1968, the more excited I got about using them as the backdrop for my story, and the more ideas I began to have for a colorful cast of fictional characters’ involvement in the unfolding real-life story.

So I dug my heels in, found/bought/rented various resources, and took a dive. And MAN, am I learning so much!