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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Writing of Home – and One Southern Black Man’s Home Ground

Writing for me is discovery. If I knew everything when I began a novel, I’m afraid it would be boring to write. I do not know everything that’s going to happen in the book. I don’t want to know everything. I want to discover, as you, the reader, want to discover, what it’s all about. Those little unknown things that happen on the train between San Francisco and New York keep me writing and you, the reader, turning the pages. Oprah Winfrey asked what I try to reach for in my writing. And I said something to this effect: I try to create characters with character to help develop my own character and maybe the character of the reader who might read me.
 - Ernest J. Gaines, “Writing A Lesson Before Dying,” in Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays
There is always time for reading in a bookseller’s life -- or in a writer’s life or, definitely and by definition, in a reader’s life. In fact, most gardeners I know are readers, too. So yes, even in the midst of downsizing and moving, de-acquisitioning and remodeling and painting and planning and planting and gearing up for what we call “The Season,” I carve out little pieces of reading time here and there.

Home – what it means, what we mean by the word -- is much on my mind these days. Recurring throughout my life has also been the question of how much any writer can know about his or her characters before writing their stories. The two questions would not necessarily be related in every mind, but because I have been thinking about home and reading Gaines – and because home and writing are both central to my life -- they do occur together in my thoughts.

Again and again Gaines emphasizes that much of his writing career has focused on trying to reconstruct the porch conversations of the old black people in his part of Louisiana. Writing of himself in the third person in “A Very Big Order: Reconstructing Identity,” he recalls the day he left home to go away to school.
[He] realized that to find the tree from which the leaf had been broken was to go back to those who sat out on the porch the day he left. What were they talking about that day while he was inside packing? What did they talk about the day before, the year before, the years and years and years before?
Louisiana (but not New Orleans) is the place Gaines knows best, the place he grew up, but to carve out a literary place for that rural Louisiana required thinking about it, reflecting on it, researching its past, and writing, writing, writing. Because that is what he wanted to do: to write about “the people at home,” the people who had not yet been given a place in the American literature he read in college, to create that literary place for them, to give them life on paper, to introduce them to the world.
I wanted to smell that Louisiana earth, feel that Louisiana sun, sit under the shade of one of those Louisiana oaks, search for pecans in that Louisiana grass in one of those Louisiana yards next to one of those Louisiana bayous, not far from a Louisiana river. I wanted to see on paper those Louisiana black children walking to school on cold days while yellow Louisiana buses passed them by. I wanted to see on paper those black parents going to work before the sun came up and coming back home to look after their children after the sun went down. I wanted to see on paper the true reason why those black fathers left home – not because they were trifling or shiftless, but because they were tired of putting up with certain conditions. I wanted to see on paper the small country churches (schools during the week), and I wanted to hear those simple religious songs, those simple prayers – that true devotion.
Gaines, Southern and black, is unmistakably American, his stories rooted, like those of Wendell Berry’s Kentucky farmers, in a very specific American landscape whose people readers from elsewhere in the country and in different situations would not know but for his work. The place and people existed and are in some true way the source of the stories, but they had to be -- brought forth? That cannot be the right way to say it.

A famous sculptor spoke of subtracting from the stone everything that was not his subject, the subject being “always already” there (“toujours déjà,” comme disent les français), but can stories pre-exist their writing? And does the sculpture, really? It sounds good, but is it true? I for one don’t believe it.

A different sculptor would, I’m sure, have found a different subject in the stone. Another writer would have found his own very different characters in this “same” terroir. It cannot be the limits of geographical region and actual and historical inhabitants alone that determine stories of any particular place, because there is also the unique voice of the particular author who wrote the stories, and that voice did not simply pour out when tapped, like a vein of oil or an underground spring of water, but had to be developed over time, through work, through the continued and dedicated practice of writing. The writer had to show up for work, sit down to work, and keep at his work. He had to write and edit and rewrite and discard and start all over again. And he had to be open to discovery, to letting characters emerge in their own truth. The characters of Gaines’s work are true to those people he knew when he was young, to people he has known all his life, but no character is simply translated from life to the page. His characters are new beings in the world.

Read that long quoted passage again, the one in which the name “Louisiana” sounds over and over like a bell. Can you feel the sun? Can you smell the earth and the grass and see the children? That is the setting, very different from my northern Michigan home. Next, to enter the lives of Gaines’s specific characters, you must read his stories and novels.

Every successful writer of fiction creates a new world for us. If we give ourselves a chance and let ourselves trust a writer, we can slip out of our own lives for a while and into a place other people call home, and in this way, we can broaden our own sense of being at home on this earth.

Feeling or not feeling at home. Wanting a home, finding a home, losing a home. Homelessness, alienation. Being at home in one's skin and in one's language. The feeling for home is universal, but every instance of it can only be specific.

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