Progress. And the Lack of It.For all of us, Christmas brings some kind of memories, maybe it’s best not to dwell on what kind. Since I am working on the first draft of my next memoir (probably not my next published book), Little Brother, I’ve been looking at a big set of black and white glossies my sister Eleanor loaned me. They show in endless detail the Christmas play we five children presented on our mother’s Christmas Eve birthday the winter we were all living in Paris. The Christmas play was a sacred tradition but this one, a version of Rumpelstiltskin, seems to have been particularly elaborate.
Jonathan, my little brother, the subject of my memoir, was Rumpelstiltskin, a role that suited his tempestuous nature. Rumpelstiltskin was a malevolent dwarf in the German fairy tale who stamped himself through the palace floor in fury when the queen discovered his name. Clearly, Jonathan hated having his face made up—I was in charge of that—but I think he rather enjoyed the shouting and flailing.
We were all in makeup, my father as king the most resplendent, pretty as a peach in mascara, eye shadow and lipstick. I wore my pink party dress as the Queen and was responsible for trying to organize everyone—my two older brothers were rather difficult—to rehearse, put on costumes and make-up, and appear promptly on the improvised stage at the end of the living room.
I don’t know who wrote the play; probably it was mainly ad-lib, but the occasion like many others displayed a notably theatrical family—theatrical without necessarily possessing any talent.
Thinking of that play, and its place in my memoir of my little brother, reminds me of how hard it is to give the taste and smell of a time long past, and to grant these sensuous impressions, faded now as old rose petals in a drawer, equal if not greater weight than whatever analysis and conclusion I may, as the writer, eventually draw.
Always the challenge is to create the life rather than the theory or the explanation of the life—as Adrienne Rich wrote, “The wreck, and not the story of the wreck.”
I’ve had a special advantage in writing this memoir. For several months now, I’ve been driving sixty miles north to Taos, New Mexico, to read five new pages of Little Brother every Tuesday to my group of writer-friends there. This is the first time I’ve submitted a raw first draft to scrutiny, and I’ve found it amazingly helpful. I hope I’m equally helpful to the six other writers in the group.For example, the Rumpelstiltkskin photo I’m including here is one I’d like to present to the group, to see if my description carries the emotional tone I find in the photo. Whether or not this photo or others are included in the book itself, my writing must always surpass the images.
Something of the same challenge is occurring as I move into the third—or is it the fourth?—editing of my forthcoming book Doris Duke: the Invention of the New Woman. The amazing black-and-white shots from Doris’ extensive archive at Duke University put my writing to test. Can I possibly convey in words the strange glamor of her fashion portraits or the raucous merriment of her Hawaii snapshots?
That remains to be seen as I wait to hear what new cuts and additions my editor at Farrar, Straus in New York will want.
I am not used to working with an editor at a commercial house, and here I’ll pass on a note of warning to all writers who aspire in that direction: you cannot know the aims of commercial publishing. With my beloved small press, Sarabande Books, I know the publisher well and I have reason to trust that she will continue to publish my short stories even if they make little or no money. This is the fate of short-story collections and has nothing to do with their quality or value. Rather it is the result of decades of literary critics saying and writing, “No one reads short stories”—like all projections, it has become self-fulfilling.With the big commercial houses, it is impossible to know what the enterprise is all about: making money? Breaking even? Filling what the editors see as a gap in their inventories—books written by women and about women, for example? Or something else even more mysterious. I’m not sure the editors themselves know the answer, twisted as they are between the demands of a relentless publishing schedule, the strictures of their sales department and the terrors of their lawyers. It is all patch-work, and most of it is invisible.
So if you can find a good small press for your work, it is a better way to go. You won’t make money either way, and even the big houses now seldom print more than five thousand copies of a book as a first run. Everything depends on a publishing budget likely put together before the book was even written. And more writers should know that the so-called Best Seller lists are based on pre-publication decisions about how many copies of a book to print rather than on the number sold.
Further down the line, I’m going to be tidying up a big collection of short stories for Sarabande and adding some new ones, shorter and—I hope—more startling than what I’ve written before. I love this form; I began my life writing short stories, and I will always believe in them, not as “little jewels”—often the critic’s way of praising—but as valiant struggles to express the inexpressible.In the next year, I’ll finish the research for Taken by Indians: Margaret Erskine’s Story, a different kind of captivity narrative which Margaret herself—my four or five times great-grandmother—never had a chance to write. I’m tempted to write it in terms of the objects she would have known, both in a colonial settlement in North Carolina and in a Shawnee camp, using as my inspiration Deborah Lutz’s The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects (W.W. Norton,2015). I’ve started to accumulate photos of some of these eighteenth-century objects, gathered at Fort Harrod in Kentucky, the kind of pioneer stockade Margaret would have visited.
And what about these big scrapbooks from yard sales? These collections of holiday cards sent to someone long dead? These curious travel collections of foreign postcards? Is there anything to do with them?
The detritus of the past, or a gold mine.
All in the everyday life of this writer.