Category Archives: characters

The Lane Cotton Mill

Cotton fabrics from my closed storefront shop are now stored in a former mill that manufactured cotton fabric in the 1800s on Tchoupitoulas Street. The mill first opened in 1852 and operated until 1950 – today it has been reconfigured (adaptive re-use) into storage units. The history of Lane Cotton Mill is fascinating to me. But what I really found most interesting is this photograph of Lane Mill workers taken in the late 1800s, early 1900s.

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Lewis Hines, “Group of workers in Lane Cotton Mill, New Orleans,” The Historic New Orleans Collection

What’s the first thing you notice? The boy speaking to his buddy behind him. “Stop poking me.” Or the one directly behind him with that lock of hair and impish grin? The one beside him, on the right, standing proud, hat in hand? Every person had/has a story.

What I also notice is the worn-out knees of those pants, the youth who were expected to help support the family at 10-12 years of age. Child labor was a necessary thing at that time. Perhaps those are sisters, brothers, in the background.

Our house on Laurel Street here in New Orleans is located about three blocks from this mill complex. Built originally as a “double shotgun” with two apartments, each side of the house had a living room, middle bedroom and a kitchen in the back, with no indoor plumbing (more history about shotgun houses here). I don’t know if our house was built originally by manufacturers for their workers or not – probably not – but it was converted years ago into a “single” with three small bedrooms and 2 baths.

The evidence of streetcar rails can be found in certain spots along Laurel St, so the location was convenient for workers to travel to and from their jobs. Or walk to Lane Cotton Mills.

In my imagination, people were packed into these little houses. Living rooms doubled as bedrooms. High ceilings (ours is 11-12′) and numerous windows allowed for air flow and the closeness of these houses allowed for little privacy. Noise travels. Young women probably worked until they married and had children, usually very young. Here’s a pic of some of those young women, with their tin lunch buckets.lane+cotton+mill

I now work out of that same cotton mill, only now I’m set up in the wide hall and I cut fabric for my online shop while imagining those voices and noises from the past as those loud machines processed cotton from upriver and made it into cloth. During the Civil War the mill was commandeered by Union forces to stop the manufacture of Confederate uniforms, to destroy morale. This photo shows those oil-stained floors (where I set up to cut fabric) and some of the machinery that wove cotton cloth, now replaced with metal storage units.

img_4538Are those boys and girls longing to have their stories told? I think they are.
***

The photographs here are from the archives of Store-All, the current owners of these fabulous brick buildings.

 

lanemill letterhead

Letterhead from Lane Cotton Mills. The large building at the left of this photo is currently occupied by Rouse’s supermarket. The remainder of the complex has been adapted for storage. Cotton fabrics and all that we materialistic people hold onto.

Writers are inspirational … we support & encourage each other!

Thanks to my friend Ellen Prewitt for inviting me to join in Luann Castle’s Writer Site conversation on the creative process. Yes, we’re breaking more rules here .  .  . while I am a writer, I also create many other things as part of what gives my life meaning. These days, what I’m creating is my own shop: Uptown Needle & Craftworks (please “Like” my FB page), so I wanted to share with you a little about the process.

First, I want to share a little (well, a lot, actually) about how I got to this day.

I have not posted on my blog in a while. I stepped off one train and jumped on another in my life vocation. After many years as Episcopal clergy, squeezing in time for writer, sewist and artistic pursuits, I awoke one morning and felt a call to begin a new life dedicated to creativity. I turned 65 one month ago. Having breakfast one morning in a well-known New Orleans bakery while visiting family, I asked my companions to take a walk around the Magazine Street neighborhood. Right next door to the bakery was a yellow house with a very small sign: For lease; commercial. I pulled out my cell phone and snapped a photo of the phone number on the sign. My inner critic immediately chattered away. It’s probably too pricey for you. You have no business doing this at your age.

I argued back. If not now, when? If I wait five years I may not have the same energy and passions I do now. I’m energetic and committed to making a life change. I signed a two year lease and quit my job on the same day. Some say I’ve retired. I say I’ve re-fired.

For every creative I know, that inner critic is always on the job. No matter if we write, paint or sculpt – that tiny tyrant wants to be in charge. As I’ve grown older, that voice has become smaller and smaller. Today it is a mere leaf falling out of place. I completed my first novel when I was 15 years old. I’ve completed 4 more since then. Not one was accepted for publication. Not that I haven’t tried – one was very close to being a finalist in Amazon’s Great American Novel Contest. And it could be published already if I had the time, energy and funds to do about two year’s of edits. All are sitting in boxes until I have the time to edit each one – I will do this, later. And I still write. The stories are there, but my interests reflect my personality type. I’m an INFP on the Myers Briggs personality inventory chart. One description of this personality type reads, “you’re like a new puppy, always into something new.” That’s me. I write, edit, write some more. Sometimes I work on one of my novel manuscripts; sometimes I write a short story. Because there’s always a story. And sometimes I sew, paint or make something new.

I ride the train, “The City of New Orleans”, back and forth from my home to my new business site. In observing the people on the train I can see stories everywhere. But at this time in my life, my career change is my story. It takes courage, confidence and a little bit of moxie to outwit the critic and keep your heart, fingers and brain in sync with your passion – your true self’s deepest desire. When we overcome negative energy, the world wants to hear what we have to say. And real life makes for the greatest stories. Especially when our words come from that deep place called our true self.

When I think of all this as it applies to writing, I first have a picture in my head. Ex.: I found two chairs. Functional, but not perfect. Ordinary. Then I give them a little bit of attention, add some emotion, some color, some gorgeous fabric – voila! Entirely new chairs. Life is like that. Pay attention. Create something new. Gather your courage. You’ll amaze yourself. But back to the initial questions I’m supposed to answer:

  1. What am I working on at the moment? At the moment I’m grieving over having to leave my writing critique group after years of sharing with them in numerous phenomenal successes as well as a few dismal failures – they are all excellent writers and I will miss them. I am leaving Memphis to open my own creative arts studio in New Orleans – which will include creative writing classes. I will continue to work on short stories, as everyone knows New Orleans is full of them, from the woman walking down the street, body painted entirely in silver, to the little boy tapping his heart out for spare change of tourists in the French Quarter. Who are they, and what is inside them that drives them to live their dreams in this city?
  2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?  My work does not fall into a genre, other than the broad category of Southern writing and creativity based on my own life experiences. Working in several forms, whether in clay or textiles, I find that I always include words in my work. Like every writer, I’m in love with words and the myriads of possible usage and meanings.
  3. Why do I create what I do? According to my mother (she died several years ago), my soul has compelled me to create since birth. When a small child I made up stories with my paper dolls (this really tells my age). I created family dramas and named my Betsy McCall paper dolls different names (these paper dolls were printed each month in McCall’s magazine). Southern families are chock full of characters, and Southern writers can easily overlap fictional characters with people they have known, or people in their families – although we certainly do not have the franchise on this process.
  4. How does my writing/creative process work? All depends on what I am creating – sometimes a story or character takes up residence in my head when I’m at a traffic light or in a coffee shop. However, in order to write, to focus on a character and a story, I must have a quiet place and a non-anxious state of being. To fall into that “dream state” as Robert Olen Butler calls it, so that I become my character and exist in the milieu that I write about.

What do you need in order to create?

page, after page, after page …..

“Writing as a way of life, writing in a way that will save your life, has a very interesting dynamic to it. To be successful as a writer, you have to cultivate two oppositional sides of your personality: the secret-keeper you, and the public chatty bold you. They’re both in there, and they both deserve the honor of practice.”

Someone sent me this quote. If anyone knows where this came from, please let me know so I can give that person credit. I love it. Writing is indeed about writing about secrets, whether the ones you yourself keep or the ones your characters keep. I want my characters to keep their secrets to the very end, then surprise everyone. But they never do, they tell. They can’t hold anything in.

After writing about building characters the other day someone sent me a five-page character development worksheet template. I was a little overwhelmed. After all, most of the time my characters develop themselves on the pages, then grow and tell me who they are page after page.  How can I tell all their secrets up front? But the sender is right. I need to know everything about my characters before I can send them on their missions, save them from peril, or allow them to fall in love.  I’m going to try using this template, where I must list a character’s fears, longings, psychological problems, prescriptions they’re taking, past surgeries and their abnormal perceptions, among a long list of other attributes.

This character development thing is a discipline. I abhor that word. I run away from discipline. Which brings me back to the above quote. Hollywood has made dozens of movies involving emotional and physical abuse in the name of a husband “disciplining” his wife (most of the time).  “The Burning Bed” was one of them. A terrifying movie. I try not to watch these type movies because these bring back too many memories of my ex-husband, who has no idea he was or is abusive.  In his words, he was trying to “break” me of my nature.  Now my nature is and always has been an introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceiving soul. He wanted me to be more like his mother, who was dedicated to her husband and cooking and keeping the house clean.  To this day, and I think she is in her 80s, I don’t believe she has any interests outside her day to day home existence, and she lives in a one-dimensional world that she seems to have always loved. There’s nothing wrong with that.

We are not at all alike. I love to write and paint and go and do and teach and preach and create and learn and I’m like a new puppy wanting to get my nose in everything. And I like to contemplate. Most times while I’m alone. Sometimes this precludes dusting the mantle, darning socks, or making certain the magazines are fanned out on the coffee table just like the one-dimensional photos in those magazines. 

Last Year’s Words, This Year’s Brain

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language 
And next year’s words await another voice. 
And to make an end is to make a beginning. 
                                – T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding 

I never want to write the truth.  It’s too embarrassing. But this one I gotta tell. All writers know what it’s like to be “in the Zone”. You are writing along, words flowing from your heart like water. You are in that dreamstate that is so important to the creative energy to burst forth.

I love being in the Zone as I do my best writing there, in that special space between the worlds of reality and that other plain —  we know not where or what, but we know when we’re there.

The other day I took some advice passed on by my writing friend Susan Cushman. Susan said she likes to edit her writing as she goes along. Seems another writing friend of Susan’s has the same habit,  as do I. Slimy perfectionists, we are. So Susan says this other friend had taken to the practice of slipping a file folder over the computer screen to help take away the compulsive habit we share, that stops us in our tracks: watching every word that comes flowing from our fingers and backspacing or correcting bad grammar, awkward sentence structure, or misspelled words immediately so we can go on.

This sounded like a good idea to me.  Hide what I’m writing and let the blank screen push me into the Zone.  I had a story idea, inspired by a news story about a strange event. My brain would not let go of the idea until I developed it into a story. I couldn’t sleep or get anything done until I worked on this project.

So I got a file folder, opened MS Word to a blank screen, then slipped the folder over my MacBook screen and began banging the keys. Except I wasn’t getting in the Zone.  I was compelled to watch my hands, not the screen. Close your eyes, my brain says, so I do. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or capitalizing anything, just write!

Within seconds I had the milieu constructed in my head, the description flowing out of my fingers. I squeezed my eyes shut as I saw my characters. My fingers flew, and I knew this story was one of my best, words coming out of me that I had never before used. Words like lugubrious and callipygous and hegemony. The dialogue was brilliant, advancing the story and revealing details about my characters in ways I never thought possible. This is it, I thought to myself, this is the true writing Zone and I’ve found a solution for myself that will work.

After about an hour of hard writing on that melodious and sensual plain of creativity that artists long to visit, I paused. My fingers were tingling. I had an ending to the story in mind, but I knew I needed to give my brain a rest, let the story rest, before revisiting this wonderful and fun project. Publication would be no problem, I was certain.

I slipped the file folder off the screen and clicked on Save before I lost this luminous story, and gave it a name as the dialogue box opened.  Saved. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, breathed deeply, then opened them to give the story a once over.  Expecting that I certainly would need to make corrections, my heart sank at what I saw.

Gibberish.  All gibberish.  In my small window of brilliance, I had had my fingers on the wrong keys the entire time.

Not one word in the story made any sense to me at all.  Now I’ll have to begin all over re-constructing the story.  I know I can do it. Like T.S. Elliott says, To make an end is to make a beginning.

But next time I’m leaving off the damn file folder.

Writing & Race: Black Men, Cubans and Gypsies are Living in My Head!

Two of my novels include a Black man as the protagonist. In a meeting a few weeks ago, I overheard the statement that Anglos cannot write about Black people because they don’t have the experience and knowledge base.
I suppose the statement above would apply to my writing about Asians, Swedes or Native Americans or any other culture of which I am not a part.  I understand the point and agree that there are many compelling arguments for and against writing from the viewpoint of a cultural identity that is not one’s own.  On the other hand, when writing fiction, isn’t that what writers do as they get into the minds and lives of their characters? The statement became more and more absurd to me as I thought about the classics. But it called me to look at my own writing and why I write about the characters that are in my own stories. 
My desire here is not to haggle about whether or not I know enough about the cultures that I write about to include them in my novels and stories, but to look at the larger picture of the basic human condition with our imperfections, inadequacies, hopes, dreams and fears.  A writer must explore the questions of what is common to every family, every woman every man, every child.  What are our common bonds, and how do we strive to rise above adversity? What forms us at human beings, and what is our deepest yearning? I believe every human being comes into this world with unlimited potential, and then the world gets hold of us and leads us on our own hero’s journey. I believe each of us has an innate desire to do good and to try our best. I do not believe these traits are restricted to only one culture.  I believe hope and determination are what we all hold onto, no matter what class or culture society wants to drop us into. And some in our culture are not so nice.
I think that blanket statements like the one I first mentioned only tend to marginalize us and polarize us from one another.  Because to jump right to the conjecture that the inability of one person or another to write about another race is the norm is to not only miss the larger picture of our cultural need to love one another by understanding one another, but also to dismiss the great novelists of the world.
I have lived in the South my entire life and can write from the perspective of a southerner. No, it’s not always about race. But to leave race out of in my fiction is to deny my own history. My experiences with others of differing cultural backgrounds is part of what compels me to write. My interactions with African-Americans has been life-long.  No, I can never in reality get inside the head of a Black man and know his thoughts. Oh, but I can in my writing. I have a couple of Black men living in my head who wanted their stories told. I also have gypsies, mechanics, and a couple of Cubans living in there that have been transferred to the page.  I believe I present their stories with honor and honesty. If they were real live people they may or may not think so, especially if they are characters who behave badly. Ah, then comes the time for redemption. Or not.
If writers only wrote from their own perspective, only a tri-racial person could have written Huckleberry Finn.  And what about gender? Some of the best novels I’ve read are written by men using female protagonists. Wally Lamb immediately comes to mind as a contemporary writer who uses female protagonists. And then there’re religious denominations, professions, and endless other plot twists and turns that writers use for their characters.  Of course, there is a ton of bad writing in the universe to back up the argument that a writer shouldn’t write about something they know nothing about. To fully develop our characters writers simply must do our research. Writers cannot write without doing our homework. In a sense, we must become the characters we write about, immerse ourselves in their worlds.
I don’t think the argument is a matter of writing from another perspective; it’s a matter of bad writing or good writing. Writers are chameleons who can be any thing and any body. That is one of the pleasures and joys of writing, to get into that dream state of becoming our characters, seeing the world through their eyes, and revealing that world to our readers, while the newspapers pile up at our doors, while the outside world lives in chaos, and while characters keep developing themselves in our writing, telling us their troubles, their yearnings, and where they want to go.
What is your experience in writing from other cultural perspectives?

The Power of Rejection, and Why I Keep Writing.

Robert and I take our three rescue dogs to the Shelby Farms Dog Park often. Every time they go, it is the best day of their lives. As if they have never scurried after rabbits, splashed in lakes, or played with other mammals similar to themselves. Every time we go, it’s a whole new world.  The excitement builds from the moment they see me putting on my walking shoes. They hear the squeak of the chair, and that’s it.  When Robert picks up a leash, they sit and fidget until he attaches leashes to their collars. They rush the door and around to the back of the Jeep, so anxious to go. We drive with all windows down, and three heads with lips and ears flapping are seen in our review mirrors. They are together in a wad, metaphors for ecstasy.

On arrival at the dog park they don’t even wait for the hatchback to open, noses are at the ready. Down from the Jeep they bound, then off to the lake.  Only one dog, the Golden Retriever, is a swimmer. The other two are waders, but they want to be swimmers.  They waggle their bodies as if they are going in, then turn around and watch Buddy swim toward a tennis ball. He snatches it in his muzzle, and swims back, snorting out water with each breath. On shore he drops the ball and runs off in search of a dog trotting down the dirt path.  This, my friends, is doggie bliss. It seems there are no boundaries, and plenty of lakes, butterflies and small animals, humans who all love dogs, petting hands at the end of every arm.

After about two hours, this is all they can take of bliss.  They are panting and tired.  They know the Jeep and run back there and wait to get in and lie down.  This has been fun, and now it’s time to go home and rest. Until next time.

This is how it is with me and writing.  I know, it’s a stretch, but stay with me here. The anticipation, the build up to the process, the journey through the terrain of the story, the lovable characters (though many are odd), the appreciation of the opportunity, then okay, it’s time to get back on the road.  Then rest.  Then I do it all over again, and it is always brand new. Writers are those who write.  And I am one.

Over the past ten years or so, I have completed 3 novels, 35 short stories, about a dozen essays, and I want to add “so far”.  Some writers say writing is cheap therapy. Others say writing satisfies some inner urging, or that they believe they were one of Dickens’ characters in a previous life, or they believe their story is so unique people will line up for it, or they have a need to be famous, or rich, or whatever the reason may be. I don’t know about those latter reasons; however, the inner urging I do understand.  And of course the cheap therapy. But for me, that’s not the only reason I write. Truth is, writing makes me feel good.  Simple as that. 

Writing helps my deep memory. Those childhood events and stories that were long forgotten are somehow resurrected when I fall into what Robert Olen Butler calls that “dream state”. There is a zone of emotional connection that we tap into when we put words on paper and words fall together to describe a scene or a character that we are seeing in our heart and brain, and the words come effortlessly as if snowflakes drifting from the sky. The beauty of it is ethereal and we know it when we do it.  But only after the writing is done.  When writing is an effort – when we struggle to find just the write word or phrase or metaphor for a circumstance so we can compare and contrast what we want the reader to experience, when we find just the right sequence of words, then and especially then we sit back and we say where did that come from and we know.

Like those dogs running free, my mind runs free with words.

So what if I get a rejection now and then?  (And believe me, I’ve received plenty.) One rejection does not stop the flow of process or passion for the craft. Ellen Ann Fentress says, “You’re just statistically closer to a “yes” now, Emma”.  I believe her.  She would know.

Name. It’s all about the name.

My daughter is about to give birth to a girl in a few short weeks. They’ve chosen the name Lola Frances. A family name. I know they put a lot of thought into this choice.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about names. Parents begin to think about names as soon as the fact is known that a baby is on the way. And then there are all those baby naming books – Amazon has almost 1500 titles of books on choosing your baby’s name. A child’s name is extremely important.

My Great Aunt Emma was a nurse during World War II. After the war she became head nurse at the VA hospital in Gulfport MS. In my childhood I spent a week with her during a few summers when she would take me to the seawall and watch the waves roll in, and we threw bread out for the seagulls to snatch up. All through elementary school, I was the only Emma. When anyone was singled out because of bad behavior, such as talking, and it was someone named Emma, it was certainly me. I wanted so to be a Kathy, or a Patty, or a Debbie. I felt I did not fit in and the only reason was that I had this old-fashioned name. Nothing against Aunt Emma, whom I was named after, but back in the 60s it just was not a common name. When I was in 7th grade, I was the only Emma still. My middle name was Maria, so I decided to be known as Maria. My report cards and school records were changed. The first time I brought home my report card for my parents to sign, my father was apalled. Who in the world is Maria? he asked. When I explained that I didn’t like the name Emma and had decided to henceforth go my the name Maria, he and I had a sit-down. He explained to me the importance of the name Emma – that it was an old family name, and I should be proud to carry this name. He told the the story of how he and my mother had decided on naming me after his Aunt Emma because of how brave and tenacious she was. Aunt Emma had died a few years before that, so his feelings for her were still tender. I decided to go back to being Emma. Now I am glad I did. It’s the 2nd most common name for baby girls these days. What happened to the Debbies and the Kathys?

Over the past few years, I studied a bit about the act of naming. When the ancient civilizations “named” something, it became their own. In biblical terms, naming was extremely important because it gave a person dominion over that which was named. Most every religious denomination has a ritual around the naming of the child. In the Episcopal Church, we say at Baptism, “Name this child.”

In my fiction writing, I struggle with the names of my characters, because a name can tell the reader a lot about the person they read about. Sometimes the name comes right to me as soon as I begin a story. Other times I have to use Joe or Sue until the character reveals himself or herself to me through the writing. Then Joe or Sue might become a unique character whose name I have never even seen or heard before. One of my protagonists is named Goodlord Fenney. I never heard of anyone by this name and have no idea where it came from. But it fits the person I have pictured in my mind’s eye.

What is the origin of your own name?

Go back to your own birth. Think about how things were then. What does your name say about you? Or, try the opposite writing prompt: You are given a different name. Whose idea is this? What is the name’s origin? How will your life be different?