On a clear October night in 1847, a young woman stood alone on a Nantucket rooftop while her family and friends remained unaware in the house below. She peered into the night sky through a telescope and discovered a discrepancy that would change science forever and win her awards, catapulting her to fame. Maria Mitchell saw a new comet. She set eyes on something that had never been seen before, because Maria was the girl who was looking.

I love her story for so many reasons. If you read about Maria Mitchell you’ll learn that she grew up a Quaker, well-educated for a female of her time, a teacher and a librarian with a sharp and eager mind. After her discovery of the comet, she led an influential life. She was the first American female professional astronomer, first professor of Astronomy at Vassar College, an activist for women’s rights, and a renowned educator. She traveled to the south and spoke against slavery, then traveled to Europe where she hoped to view the sky through the Vatican’s observatory, but because she was a woman, was only allowed to tour it during the day.

On this, she commented, “I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.”

Later, she encouraged her students at Vassar, saying, “First, no woman should say, ‘I am but a woman.’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be? Born a woman, born with the average brain of humanity, born with more than the average heart, if you are mortal what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power. Your influence is incalculable.”

Maria Mitchell died July 28, 1887, but she was right, because here I am all these years later, remembering her. I close my eyes and see that deliberate, optimistic girl gazing into the firmament, uncompromising, and she asks me to inspect myself.

How often do I go about my writing with the attitude that I am but a woman?

Do I select the truths and stories I think are more valuable or powerful through a filter that keeps me inside the house, where family and friends are most pleased with me? And what would happen if I dared to be the girl who is looking, unafraid, unapologetic, up on that wide open rooftop, alone? Would I discover the ugly truths that hold us apart, or learn the virtues that might bring us together?

I wonder, if we dared to fearlessly write the comets that are our stories, would they change our lives forever?

Maria believed. Incalculable. As the stars. Imagine.

I’m Not Meryl Streep

June 22, 2011

Married fifteen years today, and here’s the thing I believe has made my long-suffering husband’s marriage to a writer a happy one.

Do you know the scene in the film OUT OF AFRICA, where Robert Redford dares Meryl Streep to concoct a story from random bits of information, then he sits and gazes at her in wonder as she weaves a tale of intrigue with the grace and confidence of Scheherazade? Well. My sweet husband looks at me like that. Believe me, that’s love. Because I’m not Meryl.

I’m a writer. I spend all my time in front of a glaring computer, not bathed in candlelight. Some days I forget to run a brush through my hair; typically, I have a foggy expression or a scowl on my face, lost in my struggle to pin down a metaphor. My plots come in starts and stops and my dialogue runs in circles. My characters are stubborn, dull, contradictory and evasive. All of this makes me a crazy person, not a gracious or confident one. When he asks me what I’m writing, more often than not I rattle on about incoherent threads of  some dead end idea, or I snap at him that I can’t talk about it. I’m frustrated. I’m afraid. I don’t know if I can take the dare to find the story inside myself.

But he knows. And he looks at me like Robert looked at Meryl.

And then I remember, the story is us.

Lucky girl.

She Began to Sing to Me

June 17, 2011

The wisdom of a mother’s song remains a mystery, until her daughter makes it her own.

In writing The River Witch, I wanted to explore the timelessness of that core feminine wisdom, passed down through the experiences, memories and traditions of several very different communities of women. What made them the same? What made them different?

Music is very prevalent in my own memories and specifically the hymns I recall from my childhood. One of the most poignant and quietly influential musical traditions in America is the Sacred Harp. Singing and dinner on the grounds still take place in many communities all across the United States, and in other places in the world.

The main character, Roslyn Byrne began to reveal herself to me by reflecting on the music of her childhood as part of a congregation that sang from the Sacred Harp songbook. In the prologue, she is haunted by the loss of her southern Appalachian heritage as part of her identity. As the novel progresses the music becomes a guiding voice, the wisdom of her grandmother.

“These were the first things I heard, the sounds of women and water on a cool, November morning just south of the Cumberland River. My grandmother and two ladies from the Glenmary Baptist church sat in the living room and sang number 159 from the Sacred Harp as my mama labored. Later, the midwife who was also a Keller cousin, told the story of how there’d been a storm that flooded the hollow and the rising water threatened to come in the door all night. Stranded in that little house for three days, they swaddled me in a flour sack quilt, decided what to name me, and predicted all the days of my life. Granny Byrne always said they’d never ate as well, fellowshipped as sweetly, or sang with hearts that full of the Spirit.

I was a grown woman, lost and stranded by my choices, before I realized I’d forgotten that story. And then I heard my Granny Byrne. Day and night, she began to sing to me again, an old song, a lesson of water and time. 

Listen.”

Does music play a part in your own sense of place and identity?

This photo of a solemn little woman was sent to me by a cousin. “This is Granny Hyde,” she said. I sit and look at this face and it just bothers me to death because I keep expecting her to say something to me. And I regret that I can only imagine her secret. Because knowing the Hyde’s, I bet it’s a doozy. The kind of thing I’d write about. Probably why she keeps her mouth shut.

In my family, if you sit around long enough, the women will start to talk. Stay at the table after the eating is done and the men will wander off to stand in the back yard. There’s a familiar repertoire that we stick to, beginning with what our kids are up to, running on to the health of our parents, then ourselves, a few jokes at the expense of our husbands and brothers, but nothing we haven’t heard before. If you’re visiting, we’ll make sure to laugh a little louder.

Clean up the dishes and by then we’re telling our childbirth horror stories like we’re comparing war wounds. Wander out into the flower beds and you’ll get news of the community. Gossip makes a garden grow, didn’t you know?

By then, the sweat will start to tickle the back of your neck and if you’re lucky, you’ll settle on a porch some place with a rocking chair or a glider and a glass of something cold and sweet.

And this is where you get your money’s worth. Where you want to be more than any other place on earth, if you’re like me. You won’t believe what will happen.

No apologies. No censoring. You’ll hear girlhood dreams. Settle back for yarns of young love, heartbreak, sorrow – and maybe where she buried him if she’s got something good in her tea. You’ll get ghost stories, the good kind about babies that still cry or soldiers that are still trying to find home or old dogs that come running across fields years after they’ve gone to the happy hunting grounds. You’ll hear about midnight moonshine runs and gypsies and Cherokee Indian gold buried on a creek bank and never found again.

And trust me, you will believe every word of it. Later, you’ll go and look at yourself in the mirror and it will be the stories that stare back at you, because without even knowing it, somehow they’ve always been your own.

I wonder, did you ever listen? What stories do you hear? What stories will you tell?

Hello!

June 11, 2011

Welcome to the blog!

I hope you’ll visit often to learn more about my writing life and my journey toward May 2012, the publication date for The River Witch.

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