Her own words:
Writing fiction is a deeply personal undertaking—creating complex characters, getting them in and out of fixes, spinning tales inevitably based on one's own interpretations of life. In order to create a compelling story the writer must transport him- or herself into the work. But writing about family members, even when most of them have been dead and buried for nearly a century, as I did in my first novel, Cane River, a fictionalized saga about four generations of colored Creole slave women, carried additional challenges.
All writers face the risk of revealing more about themselves and their worldviews than they might intend. In cases like my own they must also worry about disclosing more than their family might be comfortable with and interpreting this personal history differently from other relatives. The writer might be accused of employing a thinly disguised description of one or all family members, and they may not be happy about it. It makes for interesting family gatherings.
I came to fiction writing late, after a long corporate management career. Cane River was the first word-related project I had undertaken in years that didn't have a business plan attached. (To be fair, in retrospect, some of those business plans did have fictional elements associated with them.) I had to adjust quickly to the harsh reality that if a writer doesn't do it (whatever it is), it doesn't get done. There are no backup teams ready in the wings, no motivational speeches to deliver, no need for "all-hands" meetings where you gather everyone who works for you to outline expectations. All I really needed was a spiral notebook (narrow ruled), a plentiful supply of pens (Uniball blue ink, Sanford fine point), and a minimum of three dedicated hours a day. Every day.
On the one hand, as a first-time novelist it was helpful to tell a story shaped by real places, real people, and real events. On the other, trying to recount the circumstances surrounding a fiery 1907 newspaper editorial about my ancestors, entitled "The Sin of Miscegenation," left me so emotionally spent that for weeks I was afraid I wouldn't be able to communicate anything at all.
I wrote the entire manuscript for Cane River in longhand first. I found it impossible to tackle the virgin page on a computer, as if my brain couldn't override the numbing power of that blinking cursor without handwritten crib notes. I had to spend extra hours in the afternoon or evening after the day's creative purge typing work into the desktop for subsequent editing. The old, efficient me (corporate) was appalled by the wasted time and effort, but the newly emerging right-brained me (writer) reluctantly accepted the limitations and went with the flow.
I will admit to having been surprised by the things that I found the craft of writing was not. It wasn't channeling, divine inspiration, predictable, or fun. It was wonderfully exciting when a character took the narrative in directions I hadn't anticipated, but that character always refused to hand me the descriptive words I secretly hoped for.
When I finished writing Cane River, I was enormously satisfied that it captured the story of four such remarkable women from my past. Writing is personal, sometimes wrenching, often drudgery, but I have to admit, when I held the first finished copy of the book in my hand, the agony vanished, replaced by an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction. (Courtesy of Barnes & Noble.)
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