Writing makes it all better, believe me.

When I look at Jericho (Greenwillow) now, it seems self-contained, complete, orderly, as if it were always intended to be just as it is today. I’m tempted to forget how much time, how much doubt and indecision and loss of direction are part of this story’s history. When I look at other people’s books, the same temptation threatens. In the bookstore, or the library, or in front of the bulging shelves in our little office up on campus, I flirt with the notion that each of these stories must have sprung clear and complete into the author’s head. Then, I think, the author took her pencil or typewriter or word processor and simply transferred the story to paper and voila! There it was. But of course I know better.

I have been, still am, a teacher. We teachers have learned to be mindful of the process of writing, not just the product. And the process isn’t just the putting of words on paper, but the starts and stops, the waiting and thinking – everything it takes to get it done. The process of writing Jericho took an extraordinarily long time, or so it seemed to me.

First there was the prewriting. I don’t know just how pre I ought to be. I might go back as far as when I was a little girl, not yet able to write or read but determined to create my own stories, so I made them up and spoke them aloud to myself. There were always beginnings and middles, never an end. I was known among my older brother’s friends as “that kid who talks to herself.”

Or I could tell you about my very first written story, when I was seven. It did have an ending. It was titled “A Cowgirl Romance,” and in it, a little western beauty rode in pursuit of a Roy Rogers look-alike. I can still quote the last sentence: “They got married and had twins and they owed it all to Uncle Bill.” It was years before I understood why my parents laughed.

But I should stick to the point. In the summer of 1980, I had finished my Ph.D. and, with the summer off from my part-time teaching at Ohio State, was busy writing a book for children, which was eventually published as The Thunder-Pup (Macmillan). I know that it’s customary to talk about one’s work as if it really represents what’s going on in one’s life. But like working people everywhere, and especially working women, I lived, and still live, a parallel life in my family as wife, mother, daughter — a variety of consuming, often conflicting roles.

That summer my husband and I had a daughter just short of thirteen, a son two years older, and, in the tiny town where I grew up, half an hour from home, an old house that needed cleaning, scraping, painting, wallpapering — you name it. We spent almost every weekend that summer plugging away at one grungy job after another. The house had been in my family for generations and had come to us by way of my maternal grandmother, who some years before had moved a hundred yards down the road to live with my father and mother.

That summer Grandma was ninety-one, wheelchair-bound, plagued by several life-threatening ailments, and confused about almost everything. She thought someone had somehow hidden her familiar hometown, the very place where we were all spending so much time that summer. “I don’t know what they’ve done with it,” she said to me one day in real bewilderment. And it must indeed have seemed gone to her. She had grown up there at the turn of the last century when, like so many other little villages in the Midwest, it was known by a name from the Bible — in this case, Eden. It must have been a very different place, that Eden.

Grandma couldn’t recognize everyone in the family that summer. She knew our son, called him by name, lit up in a smile whenever he came near. She couldn’t remember our daughter from one minute to the next. “Who was that girl?” she would say to me. We all worried. My mother wanted to continue to take care of her, but Mother was herself no longer young. How could she keep on with such a physically and emotionally demanding task?

Now and again when I had a break from the wallpaper sizing and Grandma was napping, Mother and I would sit at the kitchen table and go over the snatches of stories we knew about Grandma’s childhood.

She was about five years old when her mother died, and one of her earliest memories was looking in her mother’s casket and noticing the scissors that had been used to trim a memorial flower. She didn’t tell, and the scissors were buried with her mother.

Grandma was the baby of a large family. After her mother died, several relatives and friends offered to take her as their own little girl. Instead, a sister who was fourteen or fifteen mothered the family as best she could, until the year she had a son of her own to look after.

One of Grandma’s brothers had the end of his finger chopped off on a dare that backfired. She couldn’t bear to look at the scarred stump of it. When he wanted an extra piece of pie for breakfast — he always had pie for breakfast — he would just touch Grandma’s share with the offending finger, and she would quickly hand it over.

Grandma and her nearest-age sister, as young women, both worked in a hotel in a bigger town nearby. They were offered the jobs when the hotel housekeeper saw them meticulously putting wet lace curtains on a stretcher frame in their yard. The sister was chosen to wait tables in the dining room. Grandma cleaned rooms and emptied chamber pots — but not happily.

After the hotel, she did cooking and housework for a farm family that needed to hire help. Later, when she married a man several years her senior, the reason she gave was this: “If I have to work in a kitchen, it might as well be my own.”

These stories were some comfort to me. Talking about them reminded me that there was more to my grandmother than a bent shape in a wheelchair. But I do not think the stories were any comfort to her, not at least on any conscious level. They belonged to another time. I would ask her now and then about something specific in the past, and she would only say, “I don’t remember.”

Eventually the old house was refurbished and rented, school began, my children were released from weekend bondage to the custody of their friends at home, and life resumed its familiar outlines. But Grandma continued to fail. Before the next summer came, she was buried in the hillside cemetery where her father, my great-grandfather, had once been the caretaker.

That’s only the prologue. It took me more than ten years to draft the story inspired by all of this. At first I didn’t intend to write anything with a real shape to it. In the beginning what came out on paper was simply therapy by typewriter. Although Grandma’s death was expected, even anticipated as an earned release, I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I would sometimes see her face as I tried to sleep, would sometimes dream about her. Once in a dream she stood in a shower of snow, waving her apron and shouting — but there was no sound. I began to think more and more about what a powerful force she had been in my growing-up years, how loving and proud she had been, and sometimes how very difficult. What could shape such a person, I wondered.

I began to make a few notes about the stories that my mother and I had shared. Midnight was my writing time. I wasn’t thinking too clearly by that hour, so it was something more dreamed than planned that came scrolling up out of my old Smith Corona electric. There on the page was a little girl named Arminda (a name I had seen on a nineteenth-century document), her slightly older sister Lucy, their half-grown sister Delia, and their older brothers — all gathered for supper with their father on an evening not long after their mother’s death. After almost a dozen years of fussing and rewriting, that piece stands almost word for word in Jericho as first written.

On another night I wrote myself a bit of the here and now, the family of descendants struggling to get the aged Arminda’s house in order. That was harder. I continued to write in chunks of two or three or four pages. Some were inspired by the stories of my grandmother’s childhood. But I also found myself writing from the viewpoint of a character in my generation and my mother’s, and my daughter’s. All four perspectives felt necessary. I felt that in some way I could be all four of those characters. Maybe we all have a sense of how our own lives change, so that we look back on our past or ahead to our future as if they were other lives, our own selves as other persons. A reader in North Carolina wrote to tell me of Naomi Lowinsky’s concept of the “Motherline” — the notion that four generations of women in a family are an especially powerful conduit of influence and ideas. Maybe.

At any rate, I wrote, always at night. There didn’t seem to be any time during the day. Some nights I was simply too tired, and eventually I was always too tired. The beginnings of Jericho lay fallow for several years while I thought about writing other books, but didn’t.

Then, sometimes after I became a regular faculty member at Ohio State University, my colleague Diane DeFord and I convinced each other that we should offer a seminar on writing for children. It was to be essentially a writing course, and we wanted people to write and to offer their own work for group comment. “We’ll have to build trust,” we said. “One of us will have to go first.” That’s when I remembered that I had something on the shelf at home.

So the first pieces of the Jericho manuscript, still untitled, came to class. Surely the most effective motivation for a writer is a genuinely appreciative audience. The responses of those seminar students prompted me to begin adding pieces to the story and to begin thinking seriously about troublesome things like sequence and plot. And from that summer seminar a small monthly writers’ group was born that still meets and is still a major source of support for me, especially when it comes to sleep apnea, what is commonly known as a sleep disorder. I think I never really know how I would stop snoring, I just assumed it wasn’t a problem – but when it began to affect my waking life, I decided I needed some kind of sleeping remedy, or I would perish.

It’s embarrassing to have to admit that with all that encouragement I didn’t charge immediately forward. At a conference somewhere, I chatted with an author about wanting to find time to write. He looked at me sternly and said, “Anyone who really wants to write makes time to do it.” I was secretly furious. I’m always furious when someone tells me a difficult truth. I muttered things under my breath like, “If I had a wife, I’d have time to write, too.” But still the writing didn’t happen. Other commitments seemed just too pressing.

The always classic Virginia Hamilton.

I have to thank my colleague Rudine Sims Bishop for bringing Virginia Hamilton to our campus as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in 1988. Virginia offered a seminar each quarter for students interested in her work and in writing their own. I managed to find time to sit in during the first term; the second quarter I had a schedule conflict. When Virginia announced she would work with students interested in writing novels during the spring term, I declared my intention to sit in again. One of the fall quarter students heard me. “Listen,” she said, “you’re a published author and you sat there in the fall and listened to us and never shared anything. I don’t think it’s fair.” Difficult truths again. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll write.”

I dusted off the manuscript, read it through, and made some decisions. I realized that I couldn’t really give equal representation to voices from all four generations in my story. For one thing, balancing that many perspectives was a juggling act beyond my skill. For another, there seemed to be no natural audience for such a story. But if I focused on the great-granddaughter and the great-grandmother, I thought, Arminda’s story might find a home in children’s and adolescent literature. I would go back and start at the beginning and alternate between the youngest and the oldest voices. I kept much of what I had already written about Arminda’s childhood, transferring my typescript to a computer disk as I went, because by this time I had taught myself to compose on screen. I rewrote most of what focused on the great-granddaughter and added a few new sections. Virginia Hamilton’s response to this effort was tremendously encouraging. I was energized by the new focus I had found and by the possibilities that began to crop up for connections between the two layers of story.

No Comments :(