Writer's Watershed

(In memory of my mother, Artie Vann)

By: Maxine E. Thompson

The parable goes that there were three men chopping wood all day. Two men worked steadily and never stopped to take breaks throughout the day. However, one man stopped working several times during the day, and from what the other two observed, was walking around, whistling, smoking cigarettes, and in general, lolligagging. Yet, at the end of the day, when it was time to get paid and settle accounts, the first two men were surprised to find that the latter had the most wood chopped, therefore, received the most money.

In amazement, they couldn't help but ask, “We don't understand how you got more wood chopped than we did. Just what were you doing when you were taking those long breaks?”

The last man paused and laughed. Finally, he answered. “I was sharpening up my ax.”

This moral could apply to writers today. In this busy world as we know it, everything is fast-paced. We use computers to cut our time in half. We fax documents to save time. We fly so that we can get everywhere faster. So time is of the essence. But at the rate we move during the nineties, we seldom have enough time to introspect, or to “sharpen up our ax”—a very necessary tool for writers. And actually, I made this discovery through happenstance.

The summer of 1997, time delays notwithstanding, I decided that taking a train on my vacation would be a desirable mode of transportation. And ironically, during my travel from Los Angeles to my hometown, Detroit, I spoke to many like-minded travelers in my midst who were of the same mind. At any rate, as a writer, I found that during this period of "downtime," there were other serendipitous benefits, more spiritual in nature, which were a payoff in this trip. Trains, for my ancestors, have always held the connotation of freedom. In general, in African-American literature, trains have been a symbol of freedom.

Consider “The Underground Railroad.” “The Freedom Train.” Furthermore, trains have played a significant thematic role in the works of great writers, such as James Baldwin's “Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone,” or August Wilson's play, “Two Trains Running.”

And true enough, as the train rocked from side to side, lulling me with the same soothing emotions that a cradle gives a baby, I somehow felt free. Free from the demands of my social work job. Free of the pressures of my day-to-day writing life. Free from the hurry-sickness.

On the way back to Los Angeles, I pondered over my first visit home since my mother's death in 1993. I had read somewhere that the death of a parent is considered a watershed in one's life. I also read, that as a writer, our censorship often ends with the death of a parent. Given the fact that I didn't finish my first novel, The Ebony Tree, until a year or so after my mother's death, perhaps this is true. As I considered the promotion done on my novel while I was at home, I wondered if I would have had the nerve to do this before my mother's death. I don't know. But trying to stay grounded and know that this experience has happened in some form to other humans, and that other humans have dealt with it, has helped.

Due to the slow pace of the train, I found myself reflecting over being at the crossroads of my life, career wise. Just as a train is often used as a metaphor for the journey of our lives, the delays, or the derailments, often happen to clue us as to when we are on the wrong track. Crossroads are the paradox we face when two desirable courses are presented to us. The paradox is that we can only choose one.

Will we always wonder about the road untraveled?

As a writer, I had reached this fork in the road. Should I pursue my writing full-time, or was it possible to continue writing in the evenings and the mornings, while working a job which involved writing court reports, dealing with the most complicated of family lives—families involved in the court system for child abuse and neglect?

My answers didn't come easily. As I watched the Colorado River unfurl and snake behind the train window, I saw people riverboating. Suddenly, I decided I want to ford rivers, scale mountains, even, if only in my writing. Then, I realized that, as I overcome my fears as a human being, I will do so as a writer.

Staring out the window at the Rocky Mountains, I thought back to a lifetime of experience. Juggling the demands of small children and working as a social worker during the seventies, before it was commonplace for mothers of preschoolers to work, wondering if I had made the right choice, but pushing forward, because nothing else felt right. I remembered the loss of all my comfort zones and trappings when I left Detroit and relocated to Los Angeles in 1981.

How, in addition, to the unexpected, cataclysmic nature of earthquakes, the figurative ground of my life kept shifting under my feet. How there were days when I didn't think we would pull through as a family, or how I would be able to survive one disaster after another without reprieve.

I had spent my twenties conforming to the ideas of what others thought that I should do. During my thirties I began my forays into the writing world, first through poetry, then short stories, and one failed novel. My early forties dealt with my first true self-invention, as well as confronting some of the larger issues of life.

Getting older. Being a grandmother. But then, on December 1, 1993, without warning, my mother died of a sudden heart attack. All prior crises, all previous adversities, were suddenly eclipsed by this tragedy. The demands of life continued on, while my grief enshrouded everything I touched. From then on, everything was measured in its importance and usually diminished by this “Bigee.” Nothing could daunt me at work or at home. What used to register on the Richter scale of stress for me, no longer caused a ripple. So what? If the court is going to sanction you, and you're in contempt of court at work over a subpoena you never received, “So be it.” Of course, no such disaster ever became of it, and I'm now wondering if my new attitude had something to do with it. My motto at work has become, “There is no emergency. The only emergency is death.”

So somewhere, in this twilight-zone, state-of-being, I discovered my right to be heard as a writer. To say my truth, unapologetically and without censor. Through the darkest days, teetering on the very edge of endurance, I survived. In time, I healed. And my writing returned. Renewed. Stronger than ever.

Sweet adversity. Lesson learned. We are all mortal. It is out of our mortality that we created immortality—our art, our writings, our music.

Recently, at a small book signing before a women's group, a reader paid a compliment to the main character in my story.

“Jewel (the protagonist) reminds me of myself. I have a sister who is a president over an advertising agency. I have another sister who sings. I am the plain one. But after I read this book, I realized, 'It's okay to be ordinary. We can't all be center-stage. It's usual those of us in the back ground who hold everything together.'”

The main character, Jewel, was loosely based on my mother, who was a connoisseur of people. In addition to the legacy of love that she left her children, she left behind a batter recipe for homemade waffles which I understand has traveled to Zaire, Japan, Thailand, and Paris via my sister, who currently lives in Japan. This was another insight gained during this train trip.

After our deaths, we live on in so many little ways.

In retrospect, my train trip and the time it gave me to reflect, helped me to understand why the last woodsman had chopped the most wood. For it was during a time where I had had to move slowly, that I found my answers. Yes, I can continue to work for now and write. It is generally during my working—my downtime from writing—that my material comes.

Because I had slowed my pace, I discovered something else, too, which had, heretofore, eluded me. And that is, that out of the depths of the blackest grief I'd ever experienced, I found the strength to recreate a facsimile of my loved one, my mother, in my writing. For it was through her death that I learned that love does not die. It continues. And it is the only thing that matters in this life.