BIRTH of a NARRATIVE
I continue to create because writing is a labor of love and also an act of defiance, a way to light a candle in a gale wind.
Margo, the hypersensitive, obtuse, and decidedly obnoxious antagonist of Unfinished Business: A Celebration of Black Life, Love, and Institutional Memory, sprung to life, unbidden in my consciousness, about eighteen years ago. I can still remember sitting in my sacred writing space, creating her in a piece I entitled, The Prologue. Once the initial draft was written, I set it aside. I didn’t have a vision for its future. I can’t tell you what was on my mind, certainly not a novel. I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, confident North Carolina was forever in my rearview mirror. It wasn’t, but… while I was there I composed a narrative around The Prologue. Ex-Husband Number One, was, and is the protagonist, however my attempts to bring him to life were hampered by an inability to see him. He was more of a shadowy presence with one, or two potentially meaningful characteristics. Despite feeling frustrated, I kept writing.
Margo, whose disappearance from Ex-Husband Number One’s life is a significant element, reemerged during my initial effort to draft the story. I fought, with myself, to make the plot, the setting, and the characters work. Ex-Husband Number One was my challenge. He was elusive… he wouldn’t talk to me. He stubbornly refused to introduce himself and I ignored the messages he communicated, unable to receive them. Undeterred, I wrote thirteen chapters. I charged ahead producing portrayals who weren’t fully realized in a mythos which wasn’t clearly or carefully defined. I won’t qualify my first offering with adjectives intended to embellish an unfocused process. I didn’t have a synopsis or a working outline; I simply wrote with neither an understanding of, nor an appreciation for what I believed I was creating. The result was awful. The characters were stodgy, one-dimensional depictions, lacking personality or credibility. The storyline was a meandering thread riddled with inconsistencies. There was no setting; it just didn’t exist. What I had was a hodgepodge of words, phrases, and uncoordinated passages. Only The Prologue remained untouched. Margo was a character in search of story, or was she?
After completing my second novel, which I wrote in 2010-11, I gained insight into the creative process. I quickly delved into Family, the original tentative title, and the plot emerged. I was back in North Carolina armed with genuine resolve and a new attitude. I continued to talk about my desire to be an author and in 2013 I took definitive steps toward realizing my desideratum. I taught writing classes at High Point Public Library. The experience opened my eyes to what creating literary prose is really all about. Working with people who, like me, had stories floating around in their subconscious minds begging to see the light of day taught me the importance of organization, the benefits of the synopsis, working outline, character, and plot development. Together we learned the basics. We spent time writing and explored options for getting published. Gradually, and I do mean bit-by-bit, I realized I needed to devote time to Family. More specifically, I owed the manuscript my undivided hands-on attention. I wasn’t sure how to get from point A to point B, however, the evolving chronicle was always on my mind.
Publication of Anna May and the Preacher: A Collection of Short Stories in 2014 was a major accomplishment. It represented significant firsts in my quest to transition from wannabe scribe to published author with a book on Amazon. I had arrived. Fulfilling a goal is indeed satisfying, and rightfully so. However, after basking in the glow of hard-earned success, I came back down to earth and discovered I was at a fork in the road. Where would I; where should I; or where could I go? What was next? My mind was made up: Family would be my next literary offering. Every time I sat down to review the draft, I felt a nagging desire and a niggling reminder of how much I wanted to get back to it. I also understood, intuitively, the need to commit, but… I wasn’t there… yet. I was consumed, instead by peripheral concerns I have since conquered. My yearning was deep, very real, and palpable. I talked a good game, but I was all yak and no shack.
Friday, April 24, 2015, I was up and dressed, ready to go to the gym. It was shortly after five a.m. and I cannot recall if I had eaten, something I do before working out. My phone rang, and I recognized the ringtone. I knew my brother, Everett Williams Jr., was calling. I also knew why, yet I braced myself for what was coming. Mama was dead; she died in her sleep. Another chapter in our lives closed. Everett, Allen, and I began shifting gears preparing for east and west coast homegoing celebrations in memory of the most influential woman in our lives. She and Daddy were united in eternity; we were left to cherish her memory and adjust to our loss. My mother believed in me and genuinely felt I was meant to be a writer. Four months after her death, I began working on Family. It was time to get down to business.
I spent 2016 trying to write and teach; floundering repeatedly in an awkward move to make a transition I hadn’t fully embraced. I decided to give up consulting but didn’t close the door. I knew I needed to let it go. I had had a flourishing and meaningful career as a freelance writer, however my desire to be an author of fiction was powerful. I was tired of producing content for everyone but myself and it showed. With a few notable exceptions, I wasn’t attracting work I enjoyed. The signs were everywhere, but… I convinced myself I would accept anything worth my time to generate a potential revenue stream supporting my literary aspirations.
My mind was still fixed on the external stuff, however, the Universe had one more surprise for me. I wanted to freelance as a writing instructor. I envisioned this venture as an opportunity to teach all the topics near and dear to my heart. My intention was to trot out and teach all the classes I’d designed. Well, I got my chance… My students were wonderful. Fortunately, we were a small group. Managing the logistics, teaching the class, reviewing classwork, homework, and writing lectures proved far more daunting than I imagined. As grateful as I was, by the time we wrapped up, I was physically and emotionally drained. I got the message! I was ready to tackle my magnum opus. I was ready to embrace my calling, let go of everything else and devote myself to Family.
Earlier in the year, I had the pleasure of seeing the title story of my collection acted out in a genre known as reading between the lines. For two incredible nights in the little theater on the campus of my Alma Mater, Bennett College, student Belles supported a colleague delighting audiences with a fresh, humorous live reimagining of Anna May and the Preacher. There was even an artist talk back which was great fun. It appeared I was on the brink of a new venture. Two months later the collaboration abruptly ended; my colleague and I parted ways. I was left to ponder possibilities, the proverbial what ifs and what might have been. As I sorted through my feelings and reviewed the material I’d created, I began connecting the dots from another perspective. The Universe, ever the timely and beneficent entity led me to a profound AHA! moment, gently suggesting, ‘Here’s the right name for your work,’ and Family became Unfinished Business: A Celebration of Black Life, Love, and Institutional Memory. I was amazed by the fit and excited about its future.
Beginning in 2017, and ever since, I’ve devoted my being to loving, appreciating, and transforming this yarn from a rough draft into art I look forward to publishing. Total immersion opened me to an edifying experience I cherish. Ex-Husband Number One became real for me. He introduced himself and began sharing his story, from his childhood in Thomasville, North Carolina to his education at Howard University and beyond. He explained how he and Margo met and the substance of the narrative took shape. Ex-Husband Number One unlocked the door to a story which continues to capture my imagination. I met Ex-Husband Number Two and a cast of fascinating characters whose combined stories have woven a tapestry depicting the richness, beauty, lyricism, and resilience of Black life and love. Institutional memory is something we children of the dust live with… new pages are added every day. I have matured into my writing… a year of total commitment taught me powerful lessons in humility, self-discipline, and the importance of attention to detail. I have completed the first read-through of the entire manuscript; and I am at a loss to describe the depth of the impact. Taking time to read the narrative, not just in its entirety, but word-for-word, sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, and page-by page, from chapter-to-chapter, enabled me to see and hear my art. I grappled with issues of internal consistency, chronology, meaning, and significance. I deleted pages of content which didn’t fit. I added passages and new chapters to honor the characters, thus enabling them to tell their stories in their own words. Unfinished Business, to paraphrase Alice Childress, is labor of love and an act of defiance.
African-American literature occupies a unique space in America’s cultural dichotomy. These works of art continue to proliferate but appear less often on the front pages of book reviews in respected media or on the shelves of featured artists in either big box or independent book stores. And therein lies another conundrum: disseminating stories of Black Life, love, institutional memory, and the protracted fight to protect, promote, and pay homage to our humanity while prose celebrating our existence trickles out into society.
African, African American, and Afro-Caribbean authors continue to emerge, yet their art doesn’t receive recognition comparable with what is afforded white writers on general principle. There is always the occasional breakout belletrist, however, the breadth of the pantheon of recognized authors of the African Diaspora remains shrouded in disinterest. Our offerings are more likely to be found on lists of banned books than anywhere else. Unfinished Business aims to call attention to the myopic nature of the world of prose. This novel is a proud, potent consciousness-raising salute to Black Life, love, institutional memory, and our never-ending quest for dignity, positive recognition, and a broader appreciation of who we, children of the African Diaspora really are. Political discourse focused on us as specimen worthy of analysis overlooks our collective cultural identity as people who live, love, laugh, cry, marry, rear families, build communities, worship, procreate, slip, slide, survive, and thrive. Unfinished Business fills in the intentional blank spaces and empty spaces, illuminating the human side of black life.
I really hope no white person ever has cause
To write about me
Because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
Probably talk about my hard childhood
And never understand that
All the while I was quite happy.
[Yolande Cornelia] Nikki Giovanni Jr.
Unfinished Business is bigger than me and I humbly acknowledge my role as the vessel through whom it has come to life. Its journey, although far from over, has been remarkable and the future looks bright. Why does it take so long to produce literary art? My experience, thus far, suggests it’s a combination of the growth and seasoning of the author coupled with the refinement of the plot. Despite a reputation for being a jerk, Margo has been patient. On paper she’s a piece of work… in life she’s been good to me. Unfinished Business: A Celebration of Black Life, Love, and Institutional Memory is coming… soon!
©March 6, 2018 by Theresa W. Bennett-Wilkes. All rights reserved.