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Affirmations-366Days#175: I make a  literary pilgrimage as a purposeful act of devotion.

For new readers, here’s why I’m committing to writing affirmations, about the creative process, during the next 366 days.

In a few days I will travel to London for both work and pleasure. I’m super excited. The last time I visited London was 25 years ago, right before I started graduate school. How time flies! Unfortunately, the last time I was there I didn’t get a chance to explore much of London’s great literary history. That won’t happen this time. I can’t wait to walk the same streets of Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf and be immersed in their specific histories.  My upcoming trip reminded me of the importance of making literary pilgrimages, hence my affirmation. Pilgrimages are purposeful trips meant to show devotion and help foster insight and gratitude. Making a pilgrimage in service of our creativity is fortifying. My trip also reminded me of a post that I wrote on this topic in 2014. Below, I share the powerful experience I had of taking my first literary pilgrimage to learn about the remarkable Harriet Jacobs, escaped slave and author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

 

Tips for Writing at Mid-Year: Make a Literary Pilgrimage

I decided to use a recent visit by my godsons as motivation to make a literary pilgrimage to visit the town of Edenton, NC where Harriet Ann Jacobs lived and made her escape from slavery. Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself originally published under the pseudonym Linda Brent in 1861. I read about her remarkable life in college and have been fascinated with her story ever since.

A literary pilgrimage can take many forms. It can mean a visit to a deceased writer’s home or estate, or a walk about their favorite town or city, exploring places that were important to them. It can be refreshing to take a break from your writing routine and connect with a writer that you admire by visiting places that shaped them.

Not all literary pilgrimages are arduous, but this one had elements of difficulty. My partner Tim and I were going to begin our trip with our godsons (visiting from Minnesota), by first going to Edenton and then ending up on Ocracoke Island. When I initially called the Historic Edenton Visitor Center to arrange a tour, I discovered that they would be closed on the first leg of our trip. And, I also discovered that only certain docents conducted the Harriet Jacobs tour and work on certain days. So we rearranged our trip so that we could get there later in the week, thus ending our sightseeing in Edenton before heading home.  A few days into the trip, I called a second time to arrange a tour.

During this call, the person explained that the main ‘Harriet Jacobs docent’ was out on vacation, but perhaps another person who occasionally did the tour could fill in. But, the person on the phone sounded skeptical that this other docent was going to be available.  She said that there were materials available for a self-guided tour.  I thought OK, we’ll just show up and do the self-guided tour. Not ideal, but doable.

The afternoon we arrived in Edenton, we were tired and it was already close to 90 degrees. This the last leg of our trip after watching wild ponies in Ocracoke, seeing the Lost Colony play in Roanoke, and feeling the exuberance of invention at the Wright Brothers’ exhibit in Kitty Hawk. It also looked as if it was going to rain which made me doubt everyone’s willingness to do a self-guided tour.

We were in luck, however, for when we arrived at the Visitor Center, we were met by an older woman named ‘Miss Carolyn’ (a native of Edenton), and she graciously walked with us and gave us a thorough 90 minute tour. Although not the primary docent on Harriet Jacobs, she was a great resource and an enthusiastic guide.

The brief story about Harriet Jacobs goes as follows: Although they were enslaved, the Jacobs family had a great deal of relative freedom in the small town of Edenton. Her father was an accomplished carpenter, her grandmother, a well-known cook. After her mother’s death, Harriet went to live in the home of her owner Margaret Horniblow; Margaret taught her how to sew and read. It was assumed by Harriet and her family that Horniblow would emancipate her. Unfortunately, this was not the case and Harriet and her younger brother found themselves in the home of Mr. Norcom (there seems to be some historical evidence that Mr. Norcom somehow interfered with  Horniblow’s wishes and/or will). Mr. Norcum became obsessed with young Harriet and made many sexual advances on her. At the time it was common that enslaved women were often sexually brutalized by any white man that lived on the plantation (or off).

After dealing with this terrible situation for several years and trying other remedies (including beginning a liaison with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, an unmarried, powerful white lawyer and future US Congressman), Harriet ran away and went into hiding. She first hid in the homes of friends, in nearby ‘Snaky Swamp’ and later in the home of her grandmother Molly. Harriet hid in her grandmother’s small attic above a storeroom for six years and eleven months. Norcom continued to search for her and briefly jailed her children (children from the liaison with Sawyer), her brother and an aunt hoping to flush her out. She successfully escaped in 1842 and made a life in New York. Norcom and other members of his family continued to search for her.

She was able to buy her children’s freedom and became prominent in the abolition movement. She completed Incidents in 1858. She had bad luck initially as two book publishers who acquired the book both went out of business before it came to print.

Harriet purchased the plates of her book and had it printed in 1861. This endeavor I imagine cost a small fortune. I had forgotten that self-publishing options were often a route for disenfranchised people to make their voices heard. She published it originally under a pseudonym as to protect the living members of her family still in slavery.

We were able to visit the church that Harriet and her family attended, the jail where her family members were imprisoned and the harbor where she escaped as part of the Underground Railroad.

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We also walked and looked at places where houses once stood that Harriet hid in. The property of the Visitor Center has created a replica of Molly’s attic where Harriet hid.

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She was able to sit up, but could not stand up. She had a small peep hole to look out of and the entire area was about 11 feet long, 4 feet wide and 3 feet high. Her grandmother would bring her food and occasionally she could come down, but the majority of the time was spent there. I can’t imagine the ways in which Harriet had to keep her mind occupied. Amazing.

My eldest godson Andrew, who is 14, had read the book last year for class, so he knew many of the details. It was so nice to share a piece of history with them.

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The power of the word is remarkable and has often been used to fight injustice. I felt truly moved walking around Edenton and thinking about Harriet. If any of her family members’ graves had been marked, I would have left something on them as an offering, but unfortunately that was not the case. I have only scratched the surface in recounting the highlights of the life of Harriet Jacobs. For more, read Incidents in Life of a Slave Girl, and visit this site.

I’d love to hear if you’ve gone on a literary pilgrimage or are planning one.

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I am fortunate to live in a community known for its writers. But, Chatham County, NC isn’t just home to any type of writer. You’re more likely to find writers who are also small farmers and/or have a strong connection to the land they live on. Judy Hogan is one such writer. She’s a small farmer, editor, teacher and founder of the well-regarded Carolina Wren Press.

Judy Hogan--Debbie photo--3--Nov 2011

Judy attended a workshop I facilitated, in September, about identifying one’s relationship style to the creative self. I enjoyed meeting her and I so enjoyed hearing about her life- long love affair with creativity and creative writing. She’s one of those people that have always had a strong connection to their creative self and she has actively nurtured that relationship. I felt lucky to have a seasoned and esteemed writer participate so heartily in the workshop. Judy went on to write a blog about one of the exercises from that day.

She’s also very vocal about creating more space for what she calls ‘postmenopausal zest women’ in both literature and life. She is doing this with the debut of her main character, Penny Weaver, in her first novel, Killer Frost. We have so few complex archetypal models that explore women in their 50s-90s. I love how Judy is creating this new paradigm for our culture. May we all be as zesty, at any age, as Judy Hogan is now.

Where did the idea for your novel, Killer Frost, come from?KillerFrost-cover-2-15-12

I taught at a historically black college a few years ago. I enjoyed the students very much, and I saw many grow and change, improve their reading and composition skills (my classes were to prepare them for the regular freshman composition), but I had too many with such poor skills, reading and writing at third grade level or too convinced that they couldn’t learn and wouldn’t try, that I wanted to call attention to this problem.  I had already been taking up community issues in the previous novels I’d written, like unsafe storage of nuclear waste, air pollution, and unethical behavior in local political races.  This problem of young African Americans who were admitted to college when they had no real hope of success troubled me. They believed they could graduate from college because they had been admitted. They couldn’t even succeed in high school level work, although they had graduated from high school. They were like an endangered species with the high likelihood that they would continue, or turn to, a life of crime in order to survive.

What’s your process like when you’re working on a novel?

Once I get an idea, I work out the characters, using Elizabeth George’s prompt sheet from her book on writing fiction: Write Away.  I want to know the background, what they look like, any speech peculiarities, what they do under stress, what their goals are in life and in the novel, incidents that may have shaped them, even if I don’t use all this information.  I deliberately set up characters that will tend to have conflicts with each other. I do know my killer and my victim. Then I draft as many scenes as I can, usually to the end of the novel. This is the hardest work.  When I begin writing, I like to have a couple of months relatively free of teaching and other commitments, and then I try to do two hours in the afternoon and two hours in the evening, or about a chapter a day.  Sometimes the plot changes slightly, but generally I follow that outline, adjusting as needed.  Normally, it flows well, but I use “bum glue,” as George recommends.  I stick in my chair for my hours and do the best I can.  I can go back later and add or subtract.  I do then type it up, revising some, and I send it to the two readers I now have for their reactions, not as editors, but as readers.

You manage to pack a lot into your day! You run a farm, blog, and teach classes.  How do these different activities feed into each other and you?

My farm is very small, all, with the house, on half an acre: gardens (flower and vegetable), orchard, and chicken coop and run. I spend an average of two hours outside working in it, more in the growing season, less in winter.  It’s a good healthy balance to my writing and reading life. I also preserve a lot of food for the winter, and I normally provide half my food for the year, which saves grocery bills and gives me variety and the best possible organic food, freshly picked.

The blogging (postmenopausalzest.blogspot.com), which I began in January 2011, has been fun.  I can write about whatever I want to: health, recipes, poetry, aging, my own book Killer Frost, and other people’s books.  My whole life is connected to my zest in these years, so it’s all apt. Since I do a lot of writing every day (journal, emails, and once a week, a poem normally), it’s not hard to find something I’ve already written to post on Sunday morning.  I also like to read other mysteries and novels, so I do post reviews of them.  It doesn’t take me long to write a review, because I write so easily now, having been writing since age seven, nearly seventy years now.

The classes I teach these years, usually only one creative writing class, in which we read good literature, and several backyard chicken workshops, do take some time.  I need more income than my social security and some farm sales (eggs, figs, leeks) provide. Teaching is my second vocation, and I enjoy it. Literary classes take more preparation time than chicken workshops, but I teach books I love and enjoy rereading, most recently Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and the novels of Virginia Woolf.  They also nourish my writing, feed my mind.  For me this all balances.

Who are some of the writers that you continually mine for technique, style, or phrasing?

I don’t exactly mine them.  What happens to me, and it also happens to my students, is that, as we read and study fine writers, we absorb and learn their vocabulary, sentence structures, content, and this enriches the creative mind, which I liken to a field to which has been added the nutrients it needs, the compost, etc. I’ve been reading classics, in Latin, Greek, Russian, French, and both English and American literature since high school. I have favorite writers I go back to over and over, Homer, Proust, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James. I’ve decided to reread all of the James novels this winter.  I rest more these years and give two or three hours a day to reading.

Will we see more of your main characters?  What’s your next writing project?

Yes.  Killer Frost is the sixth mystery in a series involving Penny Weaver, a postmenopausal zest woman, and her lover/husband Kenneth Morgan, a Welsh police detective. Two novels are set in Wales, where they met; the other eight, soon to be nine, take place in Riverdell, a central North Carolina village in the fictional county of Shagbark. They are part of an interracial community of activists who take up community issues. I love all my characters, and I hope to get all the books in print over the next five years.

Right now I’m working on the eleventh in the series, Fatality at Angelika’s Eatery.  I hope to finish the draft by Christmas and to start the typing. The typing works better when I’m also teaching than the composition stage, when I need more time alone to focus in on my imaginary world.

What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Write what you wish to write.  A writer is one who writes. I like and often remind myself of Virginia Woolf’s words in A Room of One’s Own (p. 110): “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.  But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bit in comparison.”

Judy Hogan founded Carolina Wren Press (1976-91), and was co-editor of Hyperion Poetry Journal, 1970-81).  She has published five volumes of poetry and two prose works with small presses. She has taught all forms of creative writing since 1974. She joined Sisters in Crime in 2007 and has focused on writing and publishing traditional mystery novels. In 2011 she was a finalist in the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic Mystery contest. The twists and turns of her life’s path over the years have given her plenty to write about. She is also a small farmer and lives in Moncure, N.C.

web:  judyhogan.home.mindspring.com

blog: postmenopausalzest.blogspot.com

email: judyhogan@ mindspring.com


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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