Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Theory of Grace: guest post by Ethel Morgan Smith

Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

I spent a couple of weeks in November as a resident at VCCA, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a truly wondrous home for the arts. I've been there many times, and each time, it's an amazing experience. While there, I worked on revisions for my novel-- still working on them-- and will tell you more about that soon. But I came home in time for Thanksgiving!

Today we welcome Ethel Morgan Smith to the blog. She will share an overview of her forthcoming book, A Theory of Grace: Voices & Visions of the Civil Rights Movement.

It sounds fascinating and relevant, and I look forward to reading it. Take it away, Ethel!

Ethel Morgan Smith

Theory of Grace tells us stories we’ve not heard before about The
Civil Rights Movement. The voices of the 10 individuals interviewed
offer more than personal stories; they afford a fresh historical
perspective. Their stories will move us, teach us, and take us on a
compelling journey. This work is dynamic and will raise new questions
about what it means to be human beings who seek justice against
tremendous resistance.

One narrow and prevailing view sees the TCRM in terms of Martin Luther King, Jr. 
and/or Rosa Parks, marching and making speeches. Many others consider that 
it ended with the Obama presidency. The TCRM is so much bigger and deeper than that.
It grew from intellectual and historical efforts; and it continues to
advance. The Movement is and was powered by mostly people like the
individuals I write about, ordinary citizens, stepping into big
moments by working behind the scenes, whether it was our teachers, our
parents having bake sales, or car washes to raise money for civil
right workers, or volunteers who helped with voter registration in our
churches and homes. This work expands the TCRM to the present and
future. Some of these brave warriors worked at the elbow of icons, and
others were clearing new paths, all passing through history without
wide recognition. The beauty of this book is the implied notion that
there were–and still are--thousands, and thousands more, each doing
their bit to achieve social justice for all. Theory of Grace
introduces us to some new witnesses and new voices that most people
haven’t heard. It takes a giant step forward toward negotiating the
narrative of a continuum of time periods, making it a work of social
change. And like the narrative that it is, it writes a new chapter in
history; a new culture is born.

We cannot talk about TCRM without visiting earlier movements that
began planting seeds of hope and freedom: slavery, Reconstruction, Jim
Crow, the Great Migration, WWI, and WWII. Many of my interviewees:
Emma Bruce, John Canty, Andrea Lee, Ann Cole Lowe, and Virginia
Blanche Franklin Moore, can trace their ancestry back to slavery,
which provides a direct chain of narrators. We will learn not only
about their contributions, but also about the extraordinary impact on
dozens of others. The book will view contemporary events, in all of
their catastrophic and challenging potential, through the lens of the
brave individuals who overcame equally extraordinary obstacles of the

Ethel Morgan Smith is the author of two books: From Whence Cometh My Help: The African American Community at Hollins College and Reflections of the Other: Being Black in Germany. She has also published in The New York Times, Callaloo, African American Review, and other national and international outlets.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Guest Post: Footnotes on the Cutting Room Floor

A guest post today by Marlena Baraf, whose lovely, lyrical memoir about growing up Jewish in Panama, resonates deeply with all of us who--to use the title of one of my essays-- "live between question marks." Marlena writes:

"I love words that illustrate different perspectives. Hybrid. Hyphenated. Bilingual. Multicultural. Synthesis. They point to the richness possible with human groups."

I asked her about the stories she couldn't tell in her memoir, what she had to leave out....
Take it away, Marlena!

 My memoir, At the Narrow Waist of the World, is a mother-daughter story set in Panama that moves with me to the United States when I was fifteen. It began with a single scene. A memory of my mother under the calabash tree in our brick patio. She had just received shock therapy, “the sugar kind,” my uncle said, which referred to the use of insulin to induce shock treatment many years back. It’s an image I’d buried until it surfaced during a creative writing exercise. That scene opened the door to the story of my mother’s overwhelming anxiety that pushed away the fledgling love of her children.

There was always someone’s telling line, or a snapshot in my mind. Me as a five-year-old, waiting at the door for my father to arrive from work, feeling my heart soar like a pink, party balloon. My mother’s manicured hands placing tiny boxes of matches on the bridge table, her bracelets clinking as she set them down. I built the story on scenes, scenes with emotion--show not tell—because I felt that the real truth had to arrive unvarnished.

However. There is a “however,” of course. My story happened against the backdrop of a country few Americans know, the tiny Isthmus of Panama, within a family of Sephardic, Spanish-Portuguese Jews ensconced in Panama since the 1850s. Readers could not read my mind and all I knew. (How I wished they could!)  I had to provide grounding information.

I used scene and character--my great grandmother, Julita, a matchmaker of hearts--to tell the early family story. Through family legend about my wildly creative grandfather Jicky, I was able to comment on the building of the canal and the early life of Panama City. But some information did not fit within the roller coaster of my mother’s illness and the lyrical memoir that was taking shape.

In his novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz--feeling he had to ground readers in the story of the Dominican Republic and the 31-year rule of dictator Trujillo--provided extensive footnotes. It was a controversial move, and I had understood its necessity. I considered adding footnotes to my manuscript to catch the compelling facts I was uncovering.

In my book, I describe morning mass in the nun’s school I attended. In those years there were few options for Jewish children in Panama. About three years after I left Panama, two Argentine Azkenazi brothers arrived in Panama and founded the first Jewish school, open to all religions. My little brother went to “Einstein” as the new school was called--but that was long after my story. Many of my cousins and some Catholic children attended Einstein as well. This I felt was a sidebar, but an interesting one, to orient Jewish readers.

There were also details about the treatment of mental illness in Panama and the US in the 50s and 60s. I’d visited my mother at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. Father and son, Charles and Karl Menninger, are said to have introduced psychiatry to the United States. They railed against the conditions at asylum facilities in the mid-twentieth century and believed in providing psychiatric treatment in a humane environment, certain that people with chronic disorders (like my mother’s) could return to their families and lead productive lives.

I got advice from “beta readers.” One reported, “I love the footnotes. Why don’t you put them in the back of the book, so they don’t interrupt the flow.” Another reminded me of the nature of my memoir: textured and immediate. Footnotes might give it an “academic feel.” I wavered back and forth for months, and finally I decided. I wove into the narrative information I couldn’t bear to leave out. And I dumped the rest.

Here’s a scene from the memoir and the matching footnote that landed on the cutting room floor. In the book (on page 119) I’ve just returned home from college in the United States and traveling in a rickety train along the cinch belt that was the Canal Zone that cut through the narrow waist of Panama:
 “…It would be hot. My clothes would stick to me uncomfortably. The backs of the double seats inside the train would be shifted forward or back so that members of a family could face one another, though I’d be riding alone, looking past the open windows at swamps, tall grasses, and jungle—bamboo reeds sticking up in low-lying water—scenes that made me think of Vietnam, deep in my consciousness after a year of campus protests at Oxy.”

On the cutting room floor:
“At that very moment American soldiers were training for Vietnam in the jungles of Panama and in the towns I was crossing on that train ride home.”

The footnotes live in a Word file on my screen.

Marlena Maduro Baraf is a Jewish Latina who immigrated to the United States from her native Panama. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine, Lilith, Lumina, Sweet, Huffington Post, and other publications. In past lives Marlena was book editor in New York City. She also studied at Parsons School of Design and the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. You can visit her at

Monday, October 14, 2019

9 Tips for NaNoWriMo

At a recent writing workshop I led, everyone was talking about NaNoWriMo with varying degrees of panic and excitement. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month or, as non-writers call it, November.
            NaNoWriMo has become a global phenomenon with thousands of writers participating, joining in online communities, charting word counts and progress, sharing stories of success and failure, and providing pep talks for each other.
So what’s the deal? You try to write a novel in one month. Can it be done? Sure. At least a first draft for fast writers. Writers who move to a different beat may not get a complete draft down, but they can get an overview of the novel and quite a bit written, often more than they thought they could. At the very least, it’s a catalyst that gets your ass in chair and your mind moving. It also forces you to focus on narrative momentum and getting the story in gear.
To that end, I’ve put together a few tips that writing colleagues and I have found useful, and that I hope will help put this journey in perspective. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo before, and I’m going to do it again! I’m at the tail end of one novel and hoping to plant the seeds for a new one.

Here goes!

1. Prewrite!!! Start prewriting now, if you can. Write a tentative outline, draw a map, brainstorm circles and connections, list key scenes and beats, motifs and symbols… whatever it takes to help you envision the big picture.

2. Clear the decks of other obligations as much as you can. But hey, life goes on. Families, jobs, responsibilities—we’re not islands. Do what you can with what you have. Make that enough, and it will be enough.

3. Dive right in and write what excites you, what you’re dying to write, the reason that drives you to write this novel. You can work your way out from there, and back and up and forward. Start at the throbbing heart of your story.

4. Maintain a regular writing schedule. Whatever your lifestyle/work habits, wherever you are-- train/bus/coffeeshop/library/your own study—create a time that is yours, preferably the same time everyday, devoted to writing. But make it realistic, the kind of schedule you can keep up for a month.

5. Try to get the big research issues dealt with before you start writing, but inevitably questions will arise. You can sink into the quicksand of google and spend days looking up details. Keep it to a minimum. Wherever I need to research, I type: XXX. When I’m looking back over the manuscript, that’s easy to find. I tell myself: “I’ll XXX it now and look it up later.”

6. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t get too precious with your words. There’s a time for that. It’s called December.

7. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t expect perfection in a first draft. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not a speedy writer who races to the finish line. Focus on getting as much done as you can.

8. Don’t stop writing on November 30th. Be thankful you’ve started a great practice. Try to maintain it, with modifications of course. The reason diets don’t work is because they’re intense and exaggerated for a brief period, and impossible to maintain over a long time. What does work is changing your attitude and lifestyle. If you make writing a part of your daily life, NaNoWriMo will simply intensify what you’re already doing.

9. Have fun with it! Don’t get so tense and obsessed with daily word counts that you can’t be playful. Think of this month as an adventure, a voyage you’re embarking on. Look at the blank page as a place where anything is possible, your Queendom or Kingdom. This is the beginning—every road beckons, every door is unlocked, and your imagination is the only limit.

Here’s my writing mantra:

            Say it hot.
            Say it short.
            Say it you.
            Say it now.

Writing is such a solitary practice that whenever we can connect with other writers and form a community it helps on many levels. If you’re in a writing group, you may decide to work on NaNoWriMo together, sharing encouragement and experiences as you go through the month. If not, you may find it helpful to get a writing buddy, online or in person, with whom to compare notes. The most valuable part of this experience may be the heightened awareness that although we write alone, we are not alone.   

Good luck and happy writing, you wizards and witches! And if you have any tips to add, please share them in the comments!

Happy Halloween!