Watseka Weighs on Me, Pt. 2

They’ve changed their layouts over at Ancestry.com and so, even though I’ve looked at the information on the Roff and Vennum families a million times, this is the very first time I noticed that Mary (the spirit who possessed) Roff’s brothers Frank (b. 1859) and Charles (b. 1861)* were the same ages as Mary Lurancy (the girl who was possessed) Vennum’s brothers Henry (b. 1859) and Elmber (b. 1861). I knew one boy from each family was the same age, but I hadn’t realized there were two.

This pretty much exponentially ups the chances that the families knew each other (even if the parents were not lying when they said they didn’t know each other). I’m also trying to quickly pin down a hunch and so I’ve written the church secretary at the Watseka United Methodist Church and asked her to check the roles to see if the Roffs and Vennums attended and I’ve threatened to stop in on Thursday to help look, if need be.

In my book, the Watseka Wonder is an elaborate hoax, something the children did to try to bring Mrs. Roff some piece of mind after the loss of her young daughter. It happened in 1878, which is just as the Spiritualist movement is starting to lose steam and peter out into elaborate cons. Eh, not that it’s unfair to interpret the early women sleep-preachers of the Spiritualist movement as con artists as well, if you so choose, but I think you have to acknowledge, in those cases, that they were also conning themselves. They believed as deeply or more in what was happening to them than their audiences.

The women whose male partners nailed them into sacks on stage? More obviously a side-show con.

And I know I’ve said it before, but I’m still struck by what those scholars pointed out–that at the start of the Spiritualist movement in the early 1800s, you had lone women traveling to speaking in public with authority, a sight so strange people would come from all over to see it with their own eyes, and by the end, in the late 1800s, you had men nailing women into sacks on a stage.

But I guess the thing that strikes me is how long it took this stuff to permeate. Both the Watseka Wonder (1878) and the Bell Witch (supposedly 1817, but not written about until 1887) are talked about like they’re these early verifiable possessions, unique in their own ways. But really, they work as stories–and I’d argue worked as stories at the time–because of how thoroughly Spiritualism and Spiritualist ideas had permeated. These stories are actually a part of a supernatural tradition in our country, not early signs of new-age nonsense to come.



*It’s a little known but easily verifiable fact that every Midwestern family in the 1800s was required by intense social pressure to have sons named either Frank or Charles or both. No, not really, but damn it seems like it.

Watseka Weighs on Me

I’m actually getting very excited to go to Watseka. I hope to go by the Roff house–though I couldn’t work out a tour, I think it’s okay since my characters never actually go in, the Vennum house, the town museum, and the cemetery. I don’t have goals for the trip. I kind of just want to see what comes up as I’m there, but I am hoping to get a better sense of how big Watseka was at the time (obviously small) and how many schools were in the county. My theory of the Wonder depends on the youngest Roff boy going to school with the oldest Vennum boy, but even though they’re the same age in a small town in a sparsely populated county, that’s no guarantee.

Not that it matters at the end of the day. Fictional Watseka doesn’t have to be plausibly real Watseka. But I like to have my fiction tied tight to reality in spots, so that when I ask my readers to leap with me into a world where people turn into birds or struggle not to turn into dogs, they get the thrill of imagining that it’s not impossible that it’s this world I mean.

I have been having major, major book anxiety. Dreams where the contents of the novel cause me to have to go into hiding and I have to stay with bloggers I’ve never met in real life. Or that the book sucks so terribly people snicker about it and teach it in MFA programs as an example of all the things not to do.

I’m just going to admit that this is the thing that is hardest for me about making the switch from how I was raised to being an adult. If you tell me what you want from me, what you want me to do, if it’s within my skill set, I can do it and, after a short time, do it very well. And, after a slightly longer time, I will have ideas about how to innovate and expand what we’re doing. But I really thrive in situations where there are, at least at first, clear expectations of me and a lot of structure.

I write well. I might not be the best writer on the planet, but I write well. I write engaging things people enjoy reading. So, writing a book is completely within my skill set. It’s something I can do and I have no doubt that, even if this novel is not the greatest thing ever, as I get used to the form, I can write some really interesting, entertaining things.

What is difficult for me, so difficult that I’m having nightmares about it, is that I have this overwhelming need to know if I’m doing it “right” and to want to make adjustments now, before it matters, if I’m not. That there’s no objective standard that says “A book MUST start this way and go through these ten steps and then end with one of these three endings” is very, very difficult for me. A City of Ghosts was weird to a lot of people in its structure, I know. But I knew that it is like Invisible Cities, a book I adore. So, if I worried about how short the stories were or whether they made a whole piece, I knew I was ripping off… er… paying homage to Calvino. Even if no one else got it, I knew it.

But this novel is much different. There’s not exactly some existing structure I’m borrowing. I’m just trying to tell this entertaining tale as best I can. And the question that keeps me up at night–“Is this right? Am I doing it right?”–isn’t even a question that matters. I should be worried about whether I’ve tried my hardest to tell the story I want to tell as best I can. But I know I’ve done that.

It’s the “I want to do exactly what you want me to do exactly how or better than you want me to do it” impulse I just can’t shake. And it’s eating at me.