Happy Autumn. It’s been a productive time! I had spent the fall and winter of 2021-22 reading more than a thousand letters between two of my ancestors. The letters gave me a personal view of American history before, during and after the Civil War – and an up-close look at the tedium and heaviness of women’s domestic labor. Even better, I witnessed a novelist slowly being born within my ever-so-great grandmother Julia after her fourth daughter entered high school.
In spring I joined Biographers International and attended their online conference, mulling over how we give true stories their shape. Truth be told, I would have spent another year just researching and not writing at all. I wasn't sure how to get started, still wanted to rest after a corporate writing career. But NOT writing was not doing me any good. Some meetings with coach Joey Garcia gave me a reality check and helped to relight my fire. I began to write essays about different parts of the research, and send them out.
A writer I met at the Biographers conference, Susan Bailey, graciously allowed me to guest post on her blog called Louisa May Alcott is My Passion. I was finding connections between reactions to American art students in Europe in 1897, and a guidebook for art students written by Louisa's younger sister May in 1879. Here is the post. That led me to a Facebook group for fans of the Alcotts, where I found some important answers to my research questions!
Santa-Cruz based Catamaran Literary Reader accepted one of my essays, and I was invited to their amazing conference in Pebble Beach.
In this creative atmosphere I read, wrote, walked, even painted a little. There's nothing like having your meals prepared for you in between bouts of creativity.
The teachers were great, the community of creatives was sublime. Our week culminated in a grand performance in the property's beautiful Forest Chapel.
In the meantime, a friend asked me to review his forthcoming book of poems. Luckily I had gotten some training from the sensitive and articulate poet and reviewer Erica Goss, so I reread Marc’s entire book once a week for three weeks; by the time I wrote the review, the book had opened to reveal gems. He seemed pleased with the review – and I sent it off to the Rumpus. No word from them yet.
No word either from several other places to whom I sent stuff this summer. But it really doesn’t matter because I’m slowly getting the hang of the 'brainstorm -> pitch -> write -> wait -> publicize results -> repeat' cycle of becoming a contributing literary citizen. Meanwhile, the research continues -- and so does the brainstorming.
I've been getting gentle nudges from my great-grandmother, Helen van Loben Sels -- and so is my cousin Karen Minton, all the way in Whitefish Montana!
Here in San Jose, I was discussing creative blocks with my friend Marc who is a superb creative development advisor. You can read more about Marc and his wisdom on this page. During that conversation I realized that I wanted to give Helen and the Masters a bigger and better push into the world, so that little book will find its way into the right hands. When I published the book in July 2020, I had Covid-tide mental exhaustion, was working full-time, had downsized our family home and was waiting to move into the smaller one. I could scarcely gather the energy to put up a web page about the book. But time plodded on, my circumstances slowly shifted and I recovered my focus and passion.
As Marc and I were talking, Karen, a remarkable painter, gave herself an assignment of 100 watercolor portraits in 100 days. Somehow, our 'Amama' keeps popping up for her. One of the things we are now discussing among cousins is the color of Amama's eyes. I'm pretty sure they will be confirmed as blue, but the brown-eyed portrait that Karen painted seems to be filled with Helen's spark of life. She's looking at me and encouraging me. Isn't it interesting when one ancestor inspires descendants who live so far apart?
I know readers will enjoy Helen and The Masters -- both for the biography of this fascinating California ranchwoman-turned-mystic, and for the many messages from her Masters toward the end of the book. For a while I drifted along with only TWO copies of the book in my home. What if a workshop opportunity had come up? Now I've ordered enough to be ready. I lovingly checked and repackaged these fresh copies, printed on demand in Indiana, and they are ready to find their new homes!
Julia Palmer met Morris W. Smith in New York City in the fall of 1845. At twenty-nine, she was ten years his elder, and they became friends, comrades. Several men closer to Julia's age took her to the opera, to art exhibits, to dine, but she also enjoyed quiet evenings conversing with Morris in the parlor of their shared boarding house. (There were about 60 boarders there, mostly young men studying or starting in the professions.)
After Julia returned home in February 1846, they continued their friendship through letters, jokingly addressing each other as "brother" and "sister." Morris's family business kept him in New Orleans through the fall, winter and spring months. In April 1848 Morris visited Julia at her parents' home in Brockport, New York, and they became engaged. That's after TWO YEARS of writing letters, first as just friends. Over time, I think they both began to realize that they could speak frankly about their hopes and dreams to each other, something they had not found in the people actually surrounding them.
Morris and Julia were both smart, and they shared a passion for books. They each loved their parents, and they worked hard at whatever was in front of them. They admitted to faults, and tried to be good people, and to help each other become better. And they teased each other about small things, but kindly.
Over time the tone of their letters changed. They became more tender. And one February day in 1847, Morris signed his letter: "Your brother, servant, slave, or anything so long as I can call myself yours."
Julia did not answer that letter directly.
Eight months later, Morris slipped another taste of romance into his letter, calling her "mavourneen," Gaelic for "my beloved." Four months after that, she actually addressed him for the first time as "Dear" Morris. Subtle, right? The next month, they met again and were engaged.
More to come soon.
This post, and the next few, are about love. But not modern love.
I recently borrowed, from one of our family archivists, about a thousand letters between my great-great-great Grandmother Julia Palmer and my great-great-great Grandfather Morris Smith. I am reading a few letters every day, seeking a story I might write about their extraordinary lives. In order to write letters, you need absence, love, and a strong desire to communicate -- and for nearly forty years, Morris had to stay in New Orleans to work for his brothers from six to nine months out of each year, while Julia and their four daughters stayed up North in Hartford, Connecticut.
Reading these letters of love and longing, of domestic details and gentle teasing, I begin to see scenes and cloudy outlines of America in the 1840s through the 1880s. I'm less than a third of the way through, but already I am fascinated, and I thought I'd share some pieces with you, who might be thinking of getting married or officiating at someone's wedding. I'll post some words soon that Julia and Morris told each other as they fell in love, and in future posts, some of their more mature love as it shines through the letters. Julia went on to become a successful novelist, even earning enough to build a wonderful home! But between you and me, it was a few of Morris's letters that actually brought tears to my eyes. Stay tuned.
I nearly didn’t go this year – work was busy, and 2020 had already induced massive Zoom fatigue. But I was intrigued by the promise of the conference, so I registered, tested the new platform, and dipped in, and the 2021 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference was not just a silver lining of the pandemic for me – it turned out to be a platinum lining.
Let’s take a step back. I’ve been to two other AWP conferences. Seattle (2014) was my first, I was alone, and my adrenalin rushed the entire time. Navigating three hotels and downtown Seattle, I made it to two or three panels and a keynote, and spent two full, full days at the book fair (imagine: a football field full of tiny tables of books. And tchotchkes). At the end, I left my clothes at the hotel and packed books and magazines in my suitcase instead, tossing it into the plane’s overhead compartment and developing frozen shoulder that required months of physical therapy. Talk about memorable.
I brought home better souvenirs, though. That sweet, crazy sensation of being surrounded by more than 14,000 people who loved writing. Two publishers who said they’d like to see my work. I heard Gary Snyder read. And I began to work seriously on a biography that would take seven years to complete.
Then there was Tampa (2018), an excuse to visit Florida in early spring. I talked my husband into coming with me and we explored the river city at night, hearing readings in galleries and cafes. I think I saw four panels that time. We listened to George Saunders, enchanted. I had a mission to pitch my biography, but never found traction. The crowds were overwhelming and not quite as charming as the first time. Still, this time I brought home subscriptions to beautiful literary magazines, along with pins (Read Local! Today I Shall Create!) and pens and a book about how to manage the business of writing.
This year, the organizers pre-recorded the sessions and those panels remained accessible for three weeks. This one move elegantly removed my greatest AWP frustration – wanting to attend simultaneous panels. Like the other years, I selected about 25 events without hope of attending them all. I was wrong. The conference lasted five days, but the recordings are still up as I write this post. I have listened to 24 panels in 12 days, most of them all the way through, and found ten more to attend next week. It’s been like an MFA on steroids.
There’s an art to managing the online panels. I like to examine the chat history first, because both panelists and attendees often list interesting links and tools. I download the files that the panelists provide, sometimes pages of tips or booklists. Then, as I listen, I check out the panelist biographies and what reviewers have said about their books-- unless I’m taking notes on what they are saying. Or I stretch and do pushups while listening.
I’ve thanked panelists and they’ve written back! I’ve completely filled a new notebook, and certain things I’ve learned have informed how I’m going to write this new book that has me firmly in its jaws. And because there were no plane or hotel fees, I allowed myself to buy books – like, thirty of them (something I’ve never done before): poetry, essays, craft books, novels, biographies. Books that AWP panelists and attendees collectively raved about – from independent presses when I could, and from Amazon, because budget.
I also listened to conversations about helpful ways to publicize one's small or self-published book, and ways to make money in the meantime, and how to teach different groups to write. I heard from writers over fifty, and Appalachian writers, and Muslim poets, and poets who write nonfiction, nature writers, and screenwriters. . . . And I got to watch national Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s magical jazz poetry session three times, and she’s that great, that amazing.
Now books are arriving on my porch a handful at a time, a couple of new subscriptions will kick in, and I’m feeling fortified with Vitamin AWP for another few years. I didn't stay up late once, or have to find a seat in a smoky bar. When I go again in person, it will be fun, and new in a hundred different ways. But I doubt that it will top this intensive, private education -- one panel at a time, in my sweatpants, eating my own sandwiches. This was a colossal gift.
I’ve been writing one book in particular since about 2014. First, it served as my MFA Nonfiction thesis. When it was accepted by the committee, I chose to embargo its academic publication. I wanted to give this little book a chance to be published before it became fodder for future academics and scholars. But the question of who would publish it grew tough. Who would read a story about a woman in the early twentieth century who becomes a medium for interesting voices, through automatic writing? A woman who, unlike Sarah Winchester, did not become famous. And unlike Jane Roberts or Sylvia Browne, did not publish her writings for a commercial audience. My book seemed to be too much of a family story to be literature, but too lyrical to be a straight-up biography.
While I hunted for publishers and agents, the entire book had to be overhauled anyway – the academic tones rinsed out, and new transitions inserted. Pieces I loved all the way to the last draft had to be ruthlessly axed, while other items from an early draft marched back in.
From 2017 through early 2020, I alternately cast it down and took it back up. I hated myself when I wasn’t writing, a common writer trait. I began to bargain with my Higher Power. ‘Show me what to do,” I demanded. “Make it really obvious!” The first break in the mist was an email from my uncle, saying he’d help me publish the book for the family. I began to realize that this was an offer of real freedom – I would not have to change the book to fit the agenda or category for an agent or a publisher.
Then the pandemic arrived, changing my daily routines -- no more commute, no movies, no restaurants, no gatherings. Many people talk about how they are cleaning their closets and gardening during this COVID era. I don’t have a garden and in 2020, most of my worldly goods were in storage. So I came back to the book. I kept coming back until one day, it felt done.
Then a good friend decided to self-publish using an online behemoth you all know – and she told me how easy and straightforward the process was. She was right! Within two weeks I had a cover design, a formatted interior and an ISBN number. Thanks to my uncle, I was able to order about 50 copies of that little book and gift them to family members. Sending all these good people a book that I wrote about channeling spirits through automatic writing was a bit like going to a big reunion and taking my clothes off. I wanted to go into hiding for a few months until I felt safe again.
But I finished the book, and I made it the very best I could. The response has been warm and positive. Writing the book grew me as a writer and as a historian, and as a member of my communities. And I am pleased to realize that, whatever good readers can find in it, by bringing their own spacious minds to interact with the page, that is a little bit of good that would not otherwise have existed in the world. That scrap of good is my legacy.
Helen and the Masters: A Portrait of a California Mystic is available as a paperback on Amazon.
My mother was packing in preparation for a move. "Would you like to take this home with you?" she asked. "I'm not sure but it may have belonged to my mother." I liked the image, and took it home.
Two years later, I was packing in preparation for a move. This print of the lady had been on my wall but frankly, it had not added a lot to my decor. It's a very quiet image, and the colors are a little muted, though warm. I called Mom and asked about it, but she couldn't remember any other details. Without a compelling family story, I wasn't sure this print would make the cut. But like anyone who's read Marie Kondo's The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, I sat down one more time to really look at the image, and perhaps thank it before releasing it.
That's when I saw this:
Who was S. Arlent Edwards, where was Williamsbridge,New York, and why had he handwritten the copyright, I wondered. Then I saw this rather extraordinary statement, which, it turns out, accompanied much of his work:
"Engraved and printed in color at one printing without retouching"! Turning aside from all the office work that I should have been doing, I began my research.
The plate was likely destroyed very soon after this print of the lady in the pink dress was made. Online I saw plenty of prints by Edwards, but nothing that looked like this one, so it could be rare.
It appears to be a copy of "Lady Sheffield" by Gainsborough, but whereas the original is in blues, Edwards warmed up the image considerably by giving her a pink dress and bow in her hat, with a black brim as an accent. I began to like S. Arlent Edwards very much. He copied classics, which is a noble venture in itself, but then he made them his own.
I learned that he was a one-man shop. Here is a wonderful description of Edwards and his mezzotint process. It's from an exhibit in the Georgetown University Library, and there are also mezzotints by Edwards in the Smithsonian. According to the curator of his exhibit, "Edwards himself inked and printed each plate for every copy, and therefore no two prints were exactly alike. He made only a limited number of copies of each work, insisting that each be sold framed, and then he destroyed each plate."
"The process is unforgiving of error or impatience, but allows unsurpassed delicacy of line, color shading, and texture. It was perfectly suited to Edwards' interest in such fine aspects of old masters' work, and his attention to the details of their paintings resulted in creative reinterpretations that are far more than mere reproductions. Not only are they acts of homage, they are also original works of art in their own right."
I wrote to my mother, telling her all this, in case she wanted to keep it. But now I felt affection for this print, affection for the printer, and curiosity about Lady Sheffield. What was her story? Would it be something I could research and write about? And which of our relatives chose her from a New York gallery and framing shop around the year 1900? And why did they choose this one instead of Edwards' more popular "George Washingtons" and Bellini copies? Could they have also been intrigued by the substitution of the pink dress?
Mom replied, "this is great research - more power to you! (About the family members) Frankly, I don't remember - somehow I think Amistad [her father's parents' home], but it may have been Grammy, too [her mother's mother] - it doesn't much matter at this point. I just like to think of her being well cared for. . . "
And maybe after all, the family story that was once attached doesn't much matter at this point. I appear to have formed my own, and the print will stay with me and my family. With some of the research in an envelope, taped to the back.
Right around Thanksgiving, people start looking for wedding coordinators, wedding books, and wedding officiants. In the flurry, I'm reminded of the months I worked with my Dad, learning how he officiated at weddings.
Dad had an insatiable interest in human beings, great curiosity about what made them tick. He coupled this with a sense of calm authority and warm humor, and his wedding clients found this combination irresistible. They trusted him right away, and formed longstanding relationships. A few sent him cards years later, and came to his memorial service.
Dad loved the theater of a wedding. "It has everything," he explained to me. "lights, costumes, music, scripts." He loved orchestrating, and he also enjoyed sitting back and watching the other professionals, the wedding coordinator, the florist, the photographer, the DJ, do their work.
Dad taught me to bring a sense of calm to the wedding. He taught me that you never know what will go awry at a wedding, but you can count on something, given that weddings are large groups of diverse people, with agendas, agreeing to show up at one place and one time. And that as long as the couple are married, everything else is really small potatoes.
He maintained that calm when a groom swallowed his own wedding ring during a drunken rehearsal (it did show up, cleaned, at the wedding). He even held his equilibrium during a hot air balloon wedding.
Finally, Dad taught me how to keep on being surprised by the ceremony, even as he performed more than a thousand weddings. It's easier to do this when you tailor the script to your couple, but still! "You've read your words lots of times," he would say, "but for everyone in front of you, it's the first time they really hear it. So don't rehearse it too much, and enjoy it." And I did.
I've been writing my Masters' thesis, a slim biography about my maternal great-grandmother, for three years. At first the book was mostly in my head as I struggled with structure and voice. Finally, scenes began to find their way onto paper.
During year two, I constructed a long, awkward 'spine' of a book with clunky pieces. I was still in the gathering and placing phase, and many of the pieces went off in all directions. It was such a mess! I shared it with friends who gently reflected back that yes, it was such a mess. Still, the book had come alive now, and we were in a rather obsessive relationship.
This summer, in shifts of between one and four hours of work on it every day (and dreaming about it all the time), I managed to cut and sand away the rough edges, find an internal logic, and let the story begin to shine by itself. I didn't answer all the questions I had about her, but now I could see parts of her life more clearly.
I'm a month away from submitting it to the first committee for their round of edits, and I have not performed a wedding for a year. And yet. Weddings are around me, I remember them, I think about them. Here is a clipping about my great-grandmother's engagement to my great-grandfather. . .
And here is what the wedding was like:
Somewhere I have a blurry grey and white photo of the couple, but I actually think the reporter's breathless words do them better justice. A gown trimmed with Valenciennes lace! Orange blossoms on her veil! My family remembers that the wedding took place in the 'keeping room' because it was a little too chilly to hold outside. The keeping room is where dairy products were kept at a steady temperature. My guess is that the milk and butter were removed, and the room was filled with flowers.
Thank you for reading, and wish me luck on this thesis.