Judith Richards, Fairhope novelist who wrote this among other works, asked me to join her for coffee at The Windmill Market, the emporium for crafts, gifts, food, and, incidentally, coffee, and I jumped at the chance. Before I jumped I tried to think of things to talk with her about.
Surely she would want to know what I was writing, and I'm not really writing anything. I brought two old manuscripts that have been moldering in my various drawers, cartons, and file cabinets for over 20 years, on the pretext that maybe I'd get back to them someday.
Originally I had looked upon my Fairhope trip as an opportunity to write. I knew I could do some research in the library I've written about here, and maybe put some things together that have been percolating in my mind, stories about the women in the 19th century who paved the way for the voting rights act of 1920. The more I thought and talked about the project, however, the less interest I was able to stir up. I still enjoy learning all I can about the women, and maybe there's a book in there somewhere, but I became more and more certain that the world is way less riveted by the subject than I am, and that if I self-publish I will not be likely to find readers. Certainly not enough in Fairhope, my main market.
The two old manuscripts were different. One, begun in the early 1990s, was my first attempt at a novel, and it was only three pages long. They are exquisite pages, unlike anything I've ever written, somewhat poetic and very gripping. I was so excited about having written them I couldn't go any further. First of all, I didn't have a full outline in mind, no idea of a story or what my characters were going to do, what would happen to them, or even what the theme of the work would be. In the three pages I had introduced four compelling characters, including the narrator, who was clearly based on myself. Daunted, I shoved the pages out of sight, only to show them once in a while when I was trying to prove my worth to someone. They never failed to impress my carefully chosen readers.
My other work was a novel I embarked upon when Jerry Newell, my best friend from childhood, died suddenly at the age of 56. I wrote it in an emotional state, as a way to capture her personality, as a penance for being less worthy in my own mind than she always thought me. Jerry was witty, larger-than-life, one of those people you just can't imagine being snatched from the earth. In the novel Trav'lin' Light, I wanted her voice back, I wanted to make her real to the whole world. I wrote 50 pages and could write no more. So I brought it with me, with a promise I would look it over and see if I was inspired to transcribe it to my laptop and make something out of it. I began reading, liked it better than I expected to, and then began to do a rewrite on the first pages on my Mac. The next day I read what I had written and deleted it.
I did write and publish a novel about a schoolteacher who visits Fairhope in order to learn from the visionary teacher Marietta Johnson. This one was designed to recapture that vanished Fairhope in its utopian beginnings, and to resurrect Mrs. Johnson, an unsung hero of Fairhope and of the world of Progressive Education. I think to a point the novel accomplished what I wanted it to. That Was Tomorrow is still on sale online and at the indie bookstore in Fairhope and one in Starkville, MS.
That Was Tomorrow is a valentine to the Fairhope I imagine from my knowledge of its history. It is romantic, slow-paced, and I tried to write as tenderly as I could about a group of people who banded together in a remote place with the aim of changing the world for the better.
I have a friend in Fairhope who loves all my books and blogs, but her latest soap box is that I should stop writing about Fairhope and create something totally different, prose that soars above subject matter and touches the heart. I wish I really understood what she thinks I can write, and maybe then I can do it, but as of now I'm perplexed and uncertain I can meet the challenge.
But surely Judith and I would be talking about what I might write and how to go about it. When I was working on That Was Tomorrow I had confided in her "I don't know who would read this..." and she said not to concern myself with that. "Just write," she said. "It's an adventure!" And so it was, and so I did.
So I thought I'd tell her about the women-of-the-19th-century project, and of the books I'd brought here with an idea of working on, and I'd ask how to motivate myself. I began planning what we would talk about, and thought it would be a good idea if I transcribed the three pages of the autobiographical novel to my laptop just to see if I could spark some internal interest. I reread the pages, began thinking about the obvious theme of my life as described in the three pages, and knew this was one I wanted to do. I changed a word or two and added four paragraphs.
At coffee Judy and I talked about our lives. I realized what a special person she is, how courageous and strong she is, how hip and bright she is, and the next thing I knew it we had been through our coffee and rolls and she had another appointment. We hadn't discussed my writing problems at all.
I came back to the laptop and wrote a couple of pages on the book. Funny how things like that happen.