Let Me Tell You a Story My Dad Told Me About a Girl Who’s a Bird and a Dad Who’s a Tree

Oh, you guys, a while back my dad brought me a faded print-out of a story he had written for me when I was a little girl. As far as I know, it’s the only copy. He wanted me to have it because of Flock. And it’s the story of a little girl who’s a bird who goes around to an alligator, a toad, and a tree and asks if they’re her father.

I can’t be sure, but I feel fairly confident this is the kind of story a man writes after about the 24th time through Are You My Mother? and he decides it’s not nearly weird or charming enough, so he’s going to write something better.

And I kind of love that all the things my dad imagines himself to be in the story have similar coloring.

Anyway, he brought me this story and I was just blown away. And then I lost it! I couldn’t find it anywhere in the house and I was just heartsick about it.

But last night, as I was brushing my teeth, I began to wonder if I was smart enough to have stuck it in my closet “for safe keeping.”

And thank the gods, there it was.

Hurray for Stories

On my walk this morning I was thinking that seeing your story in someone else’s formatting really is one of the nicest things in the world. I fret a lot about whether my stuff is any good, and then, there it is, in someone else’s formatting and it lets me finally see if I like it or not.

One thing that I really like about “Zilpha Murrell” is that I can see how I’m becoming a better writer in it. I don’t know what all my own writing shortcomings are (maybe you don’t until you learn how to fix them?), but I’m definitely getting better at holding the reader’s attention how I want it held for as long as I want it held. Pacing, I guess. I’m getting much better at pacing.

I’m also lately, and obviously, if you’ve been trudging along here, obsessed with which stories get told and passed along and why.

But I feel like I should say that, I now feel pretty confident that Zilpha Murrell wasn’t ever a prostitute. I don’t think we can blame that part of the myth on Virgil Stewart–it seems to have come a little later–but it’s from that same made-up vein. But it is kind of cool to see that, in some versions, Zilpha is the one actually running the Mystic Clan, not her son. Which, I guess, explains how it went on even when he was in prison.

1835

Keeping in mind that John Murrell gave this kind of speech to people he later murdered, if Stewart was telling the truth, or didn’t give this speech at all if Stewart was a big fat liar, liar pants-on-fire, it still fucking blows my mind. Here’s what Murrell was going to say to slaves as he attempted to incite them into a nation-wide rebellion:

We find the most vicious and wicked disposed ones, on large farms and poison their minds by telling them how they are mistreated, and that they are entitled to their freedom as much as their masters, and that all the wealth of the country is the proceeds of the black people’s labor; we remind them of the pomp and splendor of their masters, and then refer them to their own degraded situation, and tell them that it is power and tyranny which rivets their chains of bondage, and not because they are an inferior race of people. We tell them that all Europe has abandoned slaver, and that the West Indies are all free; and that they got their freedom by rebelling a few times and slaughtering the whites, and convince them, that if they will follow the example of the West India negroes, that they will obtain their liberty and become as much respected as if they were white, and that they can marry white women when they are all put on a level. In addition to this, get them to believe, that the most of people are in favor of their being free, and that the free States, in the United States, would not interfere with the negroes, if they were to butcher every white man in the slave-holding States.

I remain stunned to see someone so clearly articulate that the wealth of this country comes from black people’s labor in 1835. Even if they meant it to be evil and ridiculous.

Chapter Three May Do Me In

Chapter Three is divided into three parts–the Harpes, John Murrell, and Isaac Franklin and John Armfield. Basically, if you ever cut open someone’s belly and dumped them in a creek, I have room for you in this chapter.

But Franklin is just such a sick fuck it’s kind of ruining the fun of the chapter for me. The research is just grueling. UNC has some of Franklin’s letters scanned in so that you can read them yourself without having to travel to North Carolina and, good god damn, it’s just so fucking… Like I was relieved when I couldn’t make things out, because his handwriting is so crappy.

And, on a more minor note, I swear, there’s no way to do even a tiny bit of research into John Murrell before you start to suspect he was framed. Not very well, but framed. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure he was a “thief of horses and negroes,” but to the extent people claimed he was? No, that was a frame-up job by a guy I think was a great deal scarier in his own way. No one can put a body count on Murrell, but his “biographer” leaves a trail.

Historians, Hear My Plea

So, I’m working on the third chapter, which is now called “In Which Quite a Few People Get Sliced along the Belly, Stuffed with Rocks, and Thrown in Creeks.” And the point I want to make is that, while Indians did attack Nashville and while the Harpes were really evil and really did bad things, we also can’t ignore that their stories all start to have a certain shape–and not just the Harpes, but on into John Murrell and Isaac Franklin and Nathan Bedford Forrest. I’m trying to trace a narrative trope across historical (and, in John Murrell’s case, semi-historical) events in order to make the argument that there’s this kind of “ur story” that Nashville loves, which goes something like this:

Out there in the woods are some scary-ass people. You could be just minding your business in your own home or walking along the road or out on vacation and you’re going to run into a small band of them. They’ll seem fine, if very different than you, but you go a little further and you’re in deep shit. More of them are going to appear. They’re going to attack you and your group. People are going to get raped, killed, and, likely, you’re going to be assaulted with a blade, stuffed with rocks, and tossed in a river (hence the title). If you luck out, you may escape and may have some sort of revenge.

How powerful is this story? Ask yourself this–how closely does the plot to Deliverance hew to it?

But is it cool? I feel like it is–that you can say, “Yes, these things really happened” and acknowledge that the way they got told, what elements were played up and which were played down, is to give the incident the right shape so that it fits a preferred and expected narrative structure. And that I can then trace that narrative structure a hundred years or so.

But some part nags at me that maybe it’s unfair to facts to do this to them.

It’s Going to Hit 100 This Weekend

Which means, if I procure a shower curtain, I can block the Kool-aid afghan out in the back yard. I really hope it doesn’t run.

I have done my first row of broomstick lace on the red afghan. I really, really like it. I’m going to do three rows. I love the color of this yarn, but I’m not really digging the yarn. It’s a little too stringy, too cotton-feeling, even though it’s mostly acrylic, wool, and nylon. So, I’m glad I got something lovely, but, eh, now I know I don’t like that.

I finished a draft of this year’s October thing. It’s not really scary. It’s just weird and funny. And it doesn’t take up all thirty-one days, but I’m hoping I might have something special on the 31st, just for y’all.

So, well, fuck. I guess I’m about wrapping up everything I need to have wrapped up before the surgery. I wish that made me feel better, but it kind of doesn’t.

Dates, Upcoming Dates

September 13 is the Proto-Pulp show in East Nashville. We’re going to try very hard to have copies of the children’s book. Did I try the name out on you? I had been leaning toward “Granny’s Ghosts,” but that was stupid, so we settled on “Tom, Under the Tree.” If the book isn’t there, there will at least be some art.

September 26-28 is the Midsouth Book Fair in Memphis. They’re telling me to bring fifty copies of A City of Ghosts and to have some in the trunk of my car if they burn through those. Holy shit. If I sell fifty copies of A City of Ghosts in Memphis, I will fall over.

October, perhaps pre-sales of Project X? We’ll see. My fingers are crossed.

And, also, in October, I’m going to have print copies of “Allendale” which you should buy because weird things have been done to it.

It’s a Big Pine Forest, With Room for Lots of Sleeping People

You guys, I spent a lot of last night listening to different versions of “In the Pines/Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” and I feel a little like my mind is blown. This is the best thing. Not best song. But I am completely enamored by the song’s ability to completely transform meanings just based on what gets left out or added. In some versions, the singer is a man whose woman is being unfaithful in the pines and he’s heartbroken and calling her on it. In other versions, she appears to be a woman who has to prostitute herself because her husband has died in a train accident and the singer is just someone observing her plight. But in other versions, it’s the woman who loses her head in the train accident and her body has never been found and it is her loved one who is desperately asking her to reveal the location of her body.

I want to write a story like that. I’m not sure how or what it will look like, but, oh, damn, that’s some good shit.

Taste the Rainbow

Taste the Rainbow

Here’s what each of the squares in my afghan will look like. I’m really pleased. I love this yarn so much. I know I say that. I wish I could get a picture that would capture just how beautiful it is, the way the plies wrap around each other is just about the most pleasing thing to look at. I can’t decide why. I like my cheap-o acrylic yarn, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something about wool that just feels more magical.

I am completely drained from yesterday. My meeting with the artist went great. I worry that I don’t seem excited enough, when really, I’m just kind of overwhelmed that this is even happening at all. Like my needle is buried in “excited.” I can’t really seem more excited, even though I’m really thrilled. When she starts putting the prints together, I’m going to go get to see her studio! And she’s going to make sure that there are crows tucked in the book. We’re hoping to have books ready for the Proto-pulp show in September, but, if not, we’ll at least have some prototypes to show people. And, holy shit, you guys, of course I want you to buy my book, but if she sells the art separately, some of you are going to fall over for the spread that’s poor Tom, just a skeleton entwined with the roots of a tree.

The reading went very well. I think the other guy who was there and I were both kind of on the same page, that we were there to support Sara and to make her day go well. And I think she felt that it did go well and that she was well-loved and I feel like that’s also about all you can ask of a book signing. I did laugh, though, as I was coming home because all of Sara’s people are people I think C. and his wife would really enjoy and I’m was like “maybe my job here is just to try to figure out how to make these people run into each other.” I mean, we had an awesome argument over Hamlet. I can’t remember what about, but people toasted at some points and slammed their fists on the table emphatically at others and what more do you want in a fight about Hamlet?

I said the truth about how I felt about Project X as true and straight-forwardly as I know how to be. I don’t know if it will make any difference, but I have now done everything I know how to do.

Now I need to come up with a grocery list.

Stress

The Butcher is grouchy. It started before our parents got here, but it continues. And I’m grouchy, too. Tomorrow, I need to get my oil changed, which means getting up before the birds or being there all morning. Then I have to go meet with the artist for the children’s book and see what’s going on with that. Then I have to run to the store and get things for the 3-6 thing (but seriously, stop on by any time during that time and eat some of the cookies I’m bringing). Then dinner with folks from said event. And then home I hope.

Some things in my fiction-writer life have just been dragging on so long that I think I’ve lost the ability to feel excited about them anymore.

But you keep on keeping on. What else is there to do?

Franklin and Armfield

I keep hoping that I will hit some end to the depravity of these guys, but there is none. One of the critics I read says that, to truly understand slavery in the U.S., you have to come to grips with how it functioned as a sexual… he uses the term fetish, which I don’t quite like because it reminds me too much of Freud’s “everyone’s worried about castration!” nonsense and “compulsion” makes it sound like these men just couldn’t help themselves. But, you know, I’m thinking some about the research they’ve done on rapists these days and how the rapists will often–especially if you don’t call it “rape” in the interviews–brag about how that’s the kind of sex they like to have, that resistance and tears or frightened silence is what they want in a “partner” (“partner” is such a crappy term in this context, but roll with me). And that’s true for Franklin and Armfield and the men they were selling their “fancy ladies” to. They liked sex where the other person involved could not say no, was frightened, where her humiliation was an important component.

So, let’s say that slavery was, in part, in important ways, a sexual preference of white men. It was linked to how power was distributed in this country at the time (and in ways now) with the person with the most power being able to prove it through his ability to dominate others. The more people he could dominate, the more powerful he was. Sexual domination was just awesome proof of his power. That helps illustrate the threat inherent in white women partnering with black men. If the white women were raping their slaves (which certainly happened), white women were being powerful in a way that was supposed to be reserved for men. If black men had sex (consensual or not) with white women, they were displaying power that was reserved for whites.

Not all white men, and even not all white slave owners, raped their slaves. But in order to be seen as men in their society, in order to display the right kind of power and status as befitting men of their station, they had to be open to the possibility. It was an essential component of slave ownership.

I have two thoughts reading this stuff. Maybe three. One is that everything that was so terrible about the Harpes or the Mystic Clan was also perpetrated by slave traders. Franklin joked about hiding the dead bodies of his sick slaves in the ravines around Natchez. He even got in trouble with the city because of the stench. He raped women and destroyed families. But Franklin’s money is why we have Belmont University. Armfield was even more directly involved with the founding of the University of the South. So, two, how do you reckon with that?

Maybe there isn’t a way. Maybe we just all wander around in the wreckage of countless previous tragedies. But it seems like we have an obligation to know that’s what we’re doing and to remember the cost of what we have. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates is right, too, that also what slavery is is a kind of warfare. We recognize our veterans, even the Confederates, and find ways of talking about and acknowledging their sacrifices and the hardships they endured. But we haven’t developed, as a country, that skill for the people upon whose lives our country is built.

Third, I’m starting to appreciate Andrew Jackson in ways that disturb me. Yes, he was a genocidal madman. But at least he was forthright about what it would take to live the kinds of lives white people wanted to live in this country, as opposed to the strategy of being outraged by, say, the Mystic Clan but completely cool with slave traders. The other thing I find interesting is that a man of Jackson’s status didn’t marry for love. You married a woman who could give you children. If you were a man and hadn’t been married before, you didn’t marry someone who had been. It’s simply not how well-to-do people did (of course, it happened, but it wasn’t conventional). I think part of why people dogged him so much about the bigamy was because you didn’t come straight out in public and say “Ha ha, you like your wife.” But, of course, there wouldn’t have been the bigamy problem if he hadn’t been eager to marry her. If it had been arranged more like a business transaction, he would have known or made sure about the divorce.

The other, other thing I’m intrigued about is that Jackson stole that Creek kid and gave him to Rachel to raise. Which is pretty much what happened to the Brown kids, but in reverse. They were divvied up as battle spoils and passed out to women who needed children. We draw firm lines between “Nashville” and “the Indians,” but a lot of people living in and around Nashville had extensive dealings with the locals–families killed by them, and importantly, time spent with them as hostages. It’s silly to assume that we could live with people so intimately and not be changed by our encounters. And here’s Jackson, giving a child to a woman who needed one.

Everything you think is a clean line of demarcation is blurry. It all leaks through.

One Thing I Hadn’t Anticipated

The research for the Nashville book is, in parts, soul-crushingly sad. I stumbled across a mention of Isaac Franklin, Adelicia Acklen’s first husband, in a book and I mean, I’m not even to him yet. I’m still back in 1792. But I’m trying to make sure that my portrayal of black life in Nashville is as fully informed as I can make it.

And Franklin. Jesus Christ. No wonder every black person who heard of him hated him.

I don’t know. You start to get a feeling that the whole story of the gentility of the antebellum South was not only a PR move, but an attempt to tell Southern white people a story about their fathers you could live with and still sit at Sunday dinners with them. The Civil War functions as a way to have a devastating break without having to have it with the people who deserve it. Otherwise, you’d have to look at your grandfather and ask, “How could you do this?” and your father and ask “How could you have wanted to do this?” and then you’d have to vomit on them, burn the family house down, and leave, never to return.

Isaac Franklin was a well-respected man. Not in spite of the fact that he invited his friends out to his auctions so that they could all joke around about raping the women they were about to buy, about raping the women they knew were the daughters of their colleagues, as if that were part of the thrill of it, but because he did those things. Because he had so much power that he could openly state that he was going to let these men rape the daughters you sold into slavery and you, because of your complicity in the system–because of the sale in the first place–laughed along. That’s an evil with tendrils.

Traffic Jams

Things are moving, but they feel like they’re moving so slow. Project X? No matter what I’ve been told, I believe it to be in limbo. I’m disappointed. The children’s book may or may not happen, just depending on timing. I’m more optimistic about that, but prepared for it not to happen. I’ve only got one short story out on submission. I’ve got to get back on that horse. I need to send Sue out to more agents. I need some time to read for the Nashville book. And the afghan is still coming along. And I need to do a final draft to submit for that anthology. Plus the October stuff. The thing on Saturday I’m doing to support Sara Harvey, who’s been a good writer friend to me over the years. I’ll be reading some, but mostly, I’m there to make her feel like the launch of her new book is special. I hope anyway.

If there is an emotional constipation, that’s how I feel about my writing.

Trade is Trade

I’m reading for my Nashville book and the more I read, the more I’m kind of shocked that no one has written a book like this before. I’m also feeling more confident that I can come to have a reasonable hypothesis for why Richard Finnelson changed his mind and decided to warn Nashville about the impending raid. I wish we knew anything about his wife. Because what seems obvious to me now is that we can’t say that Finnelson was Chickamauga. Yes, he was living in Nickajack and wintered in Crowtown. But with his wife and son. Cherokee men lived in their wives’ villages, among their wives’ families. Finnelson’s wife was a Chickamauga. There’s no reason to believe that Finnelson was.

I’m still struggling a little to find my voice, which is funny, considering how much experience I have blathering on in non-fiction form. But making a sustained, multi-pronged argument over pages and pages while still keeping it interesting is a lot more difficult than writing a post or an article.

Humbling

I started the Nashville book last night. It’s already terrible. Which is fine, since it’s just a first draft. But it’s also like, damn, this is going to be hard.

But, also, though, what’s the point in knowing history if you don’t learn from it, draw some conclusions about it?

Still, I just want to admit out loud that this is some of the hardest writing I’ve done.

Changing Plans

Okay, I’ve talked this through with a couple of people whose opinions I respect and I’ve been doing a little preliminary diggings, just to assure myself that there are resources I could use and I think I’m going to do it–to write a history of Nashville. I feel like I need a unifying theme–something that lets me know what to leave in and what to leave out–which I do not have more than wanting to provide a moment for thinking about Nashville history in ways we don’t normally think of Nashville history. Maybe a history of everyone in Nashville who got metaphorically and sometimes literally kicked in the teeth.

I’m not thinking of something comprehensive. I’m really not capable of doing a comprehensive book, nor would I want to. I want to talk about the way we talk about Nashville’s history and the ways we could talk about it, if we just changed our focus. I think I could do that in 80,000-100,000 words.

I feel a little strange, though, about just setting aside the fiction shit long enough to do justice to this. Well, not completely set aside, but no longer let that be most of my extra-curricular writing. But it seems like this is the direction the muses point in and I have to see if I can do it.

If You Try Sometimes, You Just Might Find

Friday, at lunch, we went out for hot chicken and contemplated Elvis. I came up with an idea for October that makes me happy. After work, I went over to the Scene‘s party and saw people I hadn’t seen in a million years. Plus people I see pretty frequently, so that was nice. I had conversations that made me feel better about my writing life in general–“Yes, I know that feeling”–and in particular–“Don’t worry. Just wait it out.” People said nice things about my writing and were happy to see me.

A couple of people asked me about when I was going to write a book about Nashville history, but I just don’t think they understand the scope of the problem–I would like to, but I am utterly unqualified to write the book I think deserves to be written. I don’t know nearly enough about Nashville’s Native American history (and by nearly enough, I mean, I basically know that Native Americans lived here) and to really understand Nashville’s history, you obviously need to understand why the landscape looked the way it did when white people arrived here, which means understanding how people were using the area before white people got here. And I would want to go back all the way. I don’t want any 1,000 year old farms escaping notice.

I understand next to nothing about the history of black Nashville, though at least I’d have some idea how to go about rectifying this to my satisfaction. Still, I’m not sure my satisfaction is good enough. I’m not sure I even know what I don’t know.

The history of Hispanic Nashville has never been written. No one has properly contextualized Nashville’s current Hispanic population with our long relationship with Latin America from our dalliances with becoming a Spanish territory through to us inflicting William Walker on Nicaragua and our pipe dream of creating a vast Southern U.S. white guy-lead slave empire throughout Latin America. A few critics have made the argument that, due to the South’s slave-owning and our dream of conquering Latin America, we’re tied to the Caribbean in ways we don’t usually acknowledge. But looking at how we might  understand Nashville as just a far north outpost of a certain strand of Latin American history would, I think, go a long way to undermining a lot of these “what are they doing here?” narratives.  We see ourselves as historically provincial in order to pretend to be surprised to find ourselves at this place.

But another thing that stops me in my tracks is how to account for Nashville’s gay history? This is a place my shortcomings in knowledge of Nashville’s black history bring me up short. I know that there were gay clubs in Nashville at least as far back as the 50s that were located in areas considered black neighborhoods (though I think at least some of the clubs may have been informally integrated) and Alain Locke spent a year at Fisk in the 20s, I think. But figuring out Nashville’s gay history, especially in a climate where it’s still risky for people to talk about it, let alone to say what their grandparents may have been up to, would be tricky.

So, all this is not to say that I haven’t thought about it. I’ve thought about it extensively. I just don’t think I have the skills to write the kind of book I’d want to write.

And then we went and saw the Dave Rawlings Machine at the Ryman and it was fantastic. I really love the Ryman and I don’t know if it’s just because my butt is getting bigger or because I’ve built up callouses, but they played from just after 8 to just before 11 and I didn’t want to amputate my ass by the end of it. I did end up thinking a lot about how it is that I feel like I know that, when they sing a song like “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire” they aren’t sincere about believing in a God who’s going to burn your life down if you don’t follow him, but when they sing “I Hear Them All” and it bleeds into “This Land is Your Land,” I feel like that’s real. Is it because we’re all singing along sincerely? Or is there something else that signals “this song we just like” vs. “this song we mean”?

Anyway, even the guy behind me going on to his date nonstop with his “insight” into the band couldn’t ruin it for me (though, lord, I did laugh. I mean, everyone in town knows someone who knows someone. Unless his date has only been in town ten minutes, why would she be impressed at that? It doesn’t make you special that you know someone who knows Dave Rawlings. It makes you a Nashville resident.). I was completely smitten. It was lovely.

Puzzle

Getting rejected sucks. It does get easier. Thank goodness or else how could you keep sending things out? But it does suck. I think the difficult thing is that I assume there’s some trick, like if I can just get the words in the right combination, everyone will want it. So, if my story’s rejected, it must be because I have failed to puzzle over it enough.

Or I’m not a very good writer, but with one good fluke.

Or I just don’t know.

It’s kind of terribly funny, to feel so driven to do something I might never be good enough at. I mean, at least athletes know what the goal is. If you go out and shoot 30 free-throws and never hit the basket, you know, at some basic level, that something is wrong with your form or your eyesight or your talent, because, if things were working, the ball would go in.

But who even knows what the goal is here? Am I failing to hit baskets? Am I scoring, but they’re just looking for players with other strengths?

I don’t know. But onward, anyway.

The Reason We Have Goals

I have nothing for October yet. My favorite month of the year and I haven’t come up with a plan. Emotionally, I really need some stuff to shake loose. I need Project X to move along or die so that I can try to sell it elsewhere. I need to approach more agents about Sue. I need to get some other things out for submission.

This morning I woke up with this thought in my head: “You can’t fart for someone else.” And I just assumed that it must be a hilarious, but little known aphorism. I can’t find it in Google, though. So, now I have this worry that my sleeping mind is coming up with all these words of wisdom and, because I’m asleep, most of them are not making it out into the world.

But, take that, dear readers. “You can’t fart for someone else.”

Dreams, I Have Dreams

I have three goals:

1. To have a short story published at Tor.com.

2. To have a book published by someone other than me, a someone prominent enough that I can go into my local bookstore and see my book on the shelf.

3. To be on a real panel at the Southern Festival of Books.

I balled up the second skein of yarn last night and made three squares with it. It’s marvelous. I hope I have enough yarn coming, though. I always fret about this, and I think we all know I will continue to through the whole afghan. I had planned on making it 10 squares by 14 squares, but I think I can cut it down to 10×12 if it looks like I’m going to run out of white. Anyway, here are the squares we have so far:

The first square.

The first square.

The second square

The second square