Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Men of Kent Street - Working Title for my latest writing project

The current spate of voting rights legislation sent my mother into a meltdown.  Every time she speaks to me about it, she gets agitated and starts telling me things she's never brought up before.  I have no idea if she had forgotten the things she was telling me until the latest news about voter suppression started happening, or if she just chose not to tell me things she found disturbing.  Either way, lots of stories have started percolating out of her.

I've always known some of the stories that shaped her life.  She told me about the time she and her grandmother were on a bus and the 'white's only' section got full, and the bus driver moved the black section to the back of the bus and she and my great grandmother were forced to get up and move.  She was little, but she's always felt embarrassed by that event.  So much so that she has never, in her 67 years on this planet, ever gotten onto another city bus.

I've also known stories about the discrimination she had to deal with living in segregated Texas in the 50's and 60's.  What i didn't know about was the voter suppression tactics practiced throughout the community.

When North Carolina, the state where I reside, began scaling back access to blocks of voters that would most likely vote for Democrats, my mother was furious.  She called me to demand an answer to how any of this was in the least bit Constitutional.   She talked about watching her grandparents scrape together the money for poll taxes. She told me about something they called 'white riots' where white men would ride through the black neighborhoods breaking windows, burning crosses, going into people's house and stealing their food, putting holes in their walls, killing their chickens and doing other bouts of damage to intimidate blacks so they wouldn't register to vote.  People were beaten and all manner of violence was an ever present threat during these times.  These 'white riots' had another purpose.  Blacks had to choose between paying the poll tax, or use the money to fix your home and replace food and clothing that had been stolen or destroyed.  It also kept the black population in a perpetual state of privation,  their properties in a state of dilapidation, and promoted a sense of despair.

The more I heard about the events of her childhood surrounding voting, and the more I spoke to my uncle, the more amazing I found the parallels between some of the things going on today and some of the things that happened in the 50's to discourage black voting.

I decided I needed to try to tell this story.

I've spent the last three months neck deep in the characters, personality, and perceptions of the world of Beaumont, Texas in 1954.  When I'm not writing on the project, I'm thinking about it or contemplating how best to capture the feel of the place.  I've google mapped the entire area of the book and spent an hour virtually walking through the four blocks in which this story takes place.  I've gone by the site where my great grandparents used to live and stood in front of the lot that is now empty, remembering my own visits there when I was a child and the house was still standing.

Last night I finally finished my first draft.  Now, the editing.  I will be asking a few of my friends to give me a first reading over the next couple of weeks.  My hope is to get the book to some agents by October of this year.

My writing energy has been poured into this project more than anything else this summer, and I expect it will continue to be so for the next few weeks.

Getting lost in a writing project is a lovely thing to do.  I'm glad to be here, but I will be happy when I can leave this world which has as many loving moments in it as horrifyingly dark ones, and go get lost in some other place.  Preferably one that has lots of actual dragons instead of the much more terrifying human ones.

Be Well and Happy Writing

Thursday, August 22, 2013

the stories we tell

Recently I was at the Kennedy Center participating in an arts integration workshop.  I had a wonderful time there, but the most interesting events happened over lunch.  We sat at huge circular tables and got into the art, culture and importance of what we were all doing.  This led to several heated discussions about race, religion and education.  I don't mind heated discussions, in fact, I enjoy them as long as everyone is being respectful.

At one point, I was talking to a wonderful photographer about primary documents.  I was explaining that since he uses the Preamble of the United States Constitution as the jumping off point for one of his arts activities he could check off the 'primary sources' box when looking at common core national standards for high school students.  I said, "I mean, honestly, you don't get much more primary document than the Constitution."
He said, "What about the Bible?"
I said, "Don't ever tell a storyteller that the Bible is a primary document."  (Well, actually, you can tell a storyteller that, but if you do, that's a good way to spend the next hour hearing versions of stories that predate the Bible.)
At which point he said, "Yes, but none of those other sources are true."
I said, "That depends entirely on who you ask.  How we move through the world, the way we treat people and what we do is dependent entirely on the stories we believe."
"So," he says, "you're saying the Bible isn't true?"
I responded, "I don't think what people believe has any bearing on what is true.  I didn't say we base our lives on true stories, just on the ones we choose to believe.  We fight and die for the stories we believe whether or not they are true."

This conversation sparked a whole set of side discussions about perceptions of race.  We talked about the house slaves vs the field slaves and the 'paper bag test' in the African American community.  We learned about the troubles Muslims face not only in America but in their own countries from an immigrant, talked about how the Daughters of the Confederacy spent a generation redefining the Civil War so that it was no longer about slavery, but about the amorphous claim of 'state's rights'!  We discussed the stories in Nazi German that led to Kristallnacht, and the stories that led to the ridiculous cries of 'Obamaphone' and 'Death Panels' and 'welfare recipients using their money to go on lavish vacations' and the rest of the claptrap that bogs us down as a society and prevents us from going forward.  We talked about the 'resettlement' of Native Americans and the damage done to our young people over generations by close minded, terrified, bigoted, powerful people.  We discussed how art can transform these conversations into something positive.  We discussed how giving people new hope and new stories to challenge the decrepit ones of the past was something we needed to do.

Then, a couple of days ago I turned on my computer to the horrifying news that there was a gunman shooting up an elementary school in Georgia.  My heart constricted.  I found myself hoping against hope that this was not going to be another round of horror where parents were burying tens of children, and families were going to be growing up without mothers and fathers.  Well, it turned out, that prayers, hopes and dreams all over the country were answered.  What saved them?  Stories.

Antoinette Tuff was in the office when that young man came in ready to kill and then be killed.  She talked him down with stories.  She told him the stories of her own life and anything she could think to tell him.  She let the stories of their lives bind them together, and he got to see the world a little differently because she was sitting there.  Because of their shared story, he didn't use the 500 rounds of ammunition he'd brought with him.  Because of their shared story, nobody had to die that morning in school.  Because of their shared story, no police officer was put in danger.  Because of their shared story, she survived.

 I am not a naive person who believes that if we just tell stories, everything will be better, but what has always astonished me are the people who believe that their understanding of the world is the only possible 'true' one; their needs are the only ones that count or matter, and their perception is universal.  Being able to reach another person, speak to them, understand them, and hear them is a powerful tool.  It is more powerful that weapons, because all weapons can do is destroy or cause fear, while stories can build and show us the way to belong.  They are more powerful than violence because all violence can do is break, while stories can build.  They are more powerful than hatred, because stories can build bridges across misunderstanding.  of course, the opposite is true as well.  You can use stories to cause hatred, build walls and keep people apart.  If you do that, then the thing you must always fear is that your stories will encounter other stories.  When the other stories make themselves known, they will begin to erode the basis for the fear, and many times the thing you built will come crashing down around you.  This is why repressive regimes so fear the internet.  Information and differing perspectives are dangerous to anyone who has been manipulating a story for their own benefit.

I have always believed that human beings are the sum total of the stories that they believe, but perhaps I have been too limiting.  We are also the product of the stories we share.

Be Well and Happy Telling

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

I'm Still Recovering From The Summer

Hello Everybody!  Back from my hiatus...sort of!  I have a few posts planned for the space in the next few weeks.

First - I spent an exhausting week at the Kennedy Center learning about Arts Integration.  I will get into the bones of it.

Second - I showcased at the United Arts event in Raleigh.  I'll give the blow by blow of that experience.

Third - I'm writing a book about an event that occurred in segregated Beaumont, Tx in the 1950's.  I'll get into what that's been like...and in truth, that's the reason i haven't been blogging.  I need to get this book done in the next couple of weeks so I can get it out to publishers fairly soon.

Fourth - I'm going to Hong Kong...getting ready for that

Fifth - We are into the crazy season of booking and making choices about things that are not going to happen for months

I joined Pinterest...I'm not one hundred percent sure what this is for, but there you have it.

I've had some wild adventures, and some wild thoughts...well, that's not terribly surprising.

I've been bogged down by the politics of my state and I am trying to keep it out of these pages, since it doesn't belong here.

Did some Vegan cooking.

Let's see, I'm sure there's more, but I will catch up on my thoughts and whatever over the course of the next couple weeks as my kids get back into high school and begin the routines of homework and bargaining to stay up later than they should.

So, all of those things are happening right now at the same time.  That's just the life.

I hope the rest of your summers went well and everyone is charged for the mad rush that seems to be fall.

I'll be back here soon dishing my limited wisdom and my dubious observations.

Be Well.
Happy Telling