One of the reasons I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo this year was the pressure. I don’t mean just write a bunch in November. I mean sign up at the site, with a profile and picture and everything; I mean post regular updates and excepts on the site and in Facebook and here in my blog; I mean do all this out in the open. I need that kind of transparency or else I’d never be able to pull this off.
I know a lot of people who participate–and do so gloriously–without bothering to sign up at the site, and I think that’s cool. NaNoWriMo is supposed to be for fun, damn it. I also know plenty of people who do sign up but don’t bother posting updated word counts, and that’s cool too. Really, this isn’t a contest. But when I signed up I decided to commit not only to writing each day and to posting daily updates at the NaNoWriMo site, but also to posting those regular updates on Facebook and to making these occasional comments in this blog, and all my friends out there in the cyberverse caught on pretty quickly as to why: I needed the pressure of public exposure to keep me moving. I’m not a very self-disciplined person, I’m afraid, so in my academic and writing career I’ve had to develop tricks and gimmicks to force myself into a disciplined situation. Nothing has worked better for me than a sense of responsibility to others. When I’m teaching, for instance, I often explain to my students that because I expect them to meet deadlines for their assignments, they should expect me to meet deadlines with their grading, and if I start falling behind I make a deal with them: They don’t have to turn in their next paper until they get the previous paper back with my comments. For the first novel I wrote, which was my undergraduate thesis, I asked my director and reader for a schedule and they both shrugged and said, “Whatever works for you,” but I protested: “I need a schedule, guys! Discipline me!” So I told them I’d get them 20 pages every week until the draft was finished, and then I’d get them 20 pages of revisions every week until they said the book was good enough. Turns out they had plenty of other work to do and I was just making their lives more complicated, and it wasn’t long before I’d piled several weeks of writing on them and they hadn’t even gotten around to the first 20 pages, but I never would have finished that book if I hadn’t convinced myself that they were sitting across the campus tapping their fingers and waiting for me to hurry up and send my pages.
So this year, when I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo, I knew I needed to do it publicly, not because what I’m writing matters but because I needed to trick myself into thinking it mattered to someone, I needed the illusion of some impatient audience out there in the world tapping their fingers and saying, “All right, dude, show what you did today.” It’s worked so well I’ve already surpassed the official 50,000-word NaNoWriMo threshold, in only half the allotted time (I broke 50k on November 15), and it’s continuing to work so well that even though I could quit now, I have kept working on the novel and plan to finish the first draft before the end of the month, not because I need to but because I have this vision of disappointed friends and family staring at my empty updates and saying, “Damn it, Sam, you brought us this far and then you just quit, left the novel unfinished? Not cool, man.”
But here’s the genuinely amazing thing, and the reason I started this post: I actually have people out there monitoring my progress. Much as I have to pretend to get any work done, I don’t seriously delude myself that anyone is logging onto Facebook or checking my blog every day to see how many words I’ve written. And while I think most of my friends would take a look at my draft out of kindness and maybe even legitimate interest, I don’t imagine anyone is hankering to get their paws on this thing. (Though if you are anxious to read it and you know an agent or a publisher, we need to talk!) But none of that matters. What matters is that a whole slew of my friends have recognized my need for support and have been fantastically generous with it. Hardly two updates go by without at least one expression of incredulity at my rapid progress or voice of encouragement on the discipline I’m engaged in, and at least a few times each week someone has stuck up a Facebook wall post or sent me an e-mail expressing interest in the book or supporting my continued work. When I sent out a call for research help the response was swift and tremendously helpful.
I’m not going to call anyone out by name here in this blog because I don’t know who would mind and who wouldn’t, but you know who you are. If you’ve ever commented on my work here or in e-mail or in Facebook, I owe you, and I’m extremely grateful. I just wanted you to know that.
And now, for some excerpts:
from day 9:
[the women try to trade their stolen goods in the swamp store but learn the war is over and there is no more of their kind of business to be done, a discovery which endangers and infuriates them]
At the hut they fumed for some time, dragging the pail of soaked clothes still warm in the sun out to the pond to rinse and scrub them and rinse them again, their fists tight around the wrung skirts and uniform shirts, the knuckles bright against the dark blues and grays of the cloth and the remaining purple and fuscia stains. They whipped the clothes into the air over the pond so shake the water off the ends of them and they carried them back to the hut to string up between two poles and dry in the warm breeze. They sat on their stump and bucket out front and watched the clothes blowing, both the women with their jaw muscles jumping, their fingers interlocked and gripped white. Finally the old woman said To hell with it then and she disappeared into the hut. When the door opened one of the packs shot out it like it was fleeing some brawl within, and another pack followed, then the woman emerged bent under the weight of the remaining packs.
Let’s re-sort these here goods and figure what we ought to keep for ourselves. Then we can see if it’d be worth a run into Texas ourselves.
Where would we go?
Don’t seem to matter. That fight we come across the other night must of come from that direction, so I figure we head toward the Sabine we’s bound to run into one army or the other.
That still feels a long ways for just a chance of coming on something, and who knows what they’d do to us either army and us just two southern women among all them men. Maybe we just take this stuff on up into Leesburg, see if anyone wants it for they home defense like you said.
That’s a good idea and maybe we do that first, then see where we stand.
They pulled apart the assorted gear, a few cook items and some personal effects like watches and tiny photographs but most of it knives and swords and rifles and pistols. A few lever-action Spencers and one short Henry, even a Colt revolving rifle though the cylinders had fired all at once and the rifle was bloody and blown half apart. A collection of big Bowie knives many with the names of men carved into the hilts, Jesse, Sam, Pedro. They separated all the money both Confederate and Union, sorted them by denomination and issuing country and stacked the coins and cam e up with seventeen dollars and forty-three cents all together, though what was the worth of either nation’s cash they couldn’t determine. They wrapped the bills of each country around each country’s coins and tied the bundles in string, then they put the bundles together in a filched tin mess pot and tied the lid down tight. In the hut they flipped up the mattress and the woman held the pallet at a high tilt while the girl dug a hole in the earth floor with a large metal spoon and dumped the tin pot in. Back outside they bundled the rifles like kindling sticks and wrapped them in a blanket and tied it, and they did the same with the sabers and long bayonets. Among the pistols they found a pair of engraved Slocum side-loaders, barely longer than the girl’s hand from palm to middle finger, and they set them aside and sorted through the ammunition till they found a collection of bullets that would fit the cylinders, and they kept these revolvers one apiece for themselves. The rest of the pistols they collected in a knapsack with a few hats and some shoes. They found four mildewing books in the sundry personal effects, a bible and three dime novels: The Hunted Unionist; Zeke Sternum, the Lion-hearted Scout; and The Imps of the Prairie, or, The Slasher of the Cave. They set aside the bible then sat thumbing through the novels but soon gave up and tossed in the novels with the pistols and hats, and after considering it for a moment the woman tossed in the bible as well.
from day 11:
[in the worn-down shop of a free black man in Leesburg, the women tried to trade but the old woman’s hatred of black men gets the better of her….]
We’ll do you a trade, nigger, but according to my own terms. I don’t let no nigger boug dictate to me.
She opened the sack and flung out a pair of worn shoes and a Kepi hat, a wooden canteen, a brass belt buckle. She grinned at the man. For the fields, cause free or not we’ll get you in em.
He looked at the small collection before him then raised his eyes.
What the hell I gonna do with a bare belt buckle out in some field.
Whatever the hell a white man tells you to, the woman said.
He laughed and crossed his legs again and waved a hand toward the door as though swatting at mosquitoes. Shoot, y’all is crazy. Y’all get on out my store afore you get me mad.
The woman screwed up her face in a fury and reached into the sack, fumbled in it with her eyes locked wide and wild on the man while the girl watched, her own features settling into a dangerous calm. The girl reached for the second sack and began to drag it toward the counter as the woman produced a pistol and aimed it at the man in his chair.
He regarded her.
I done checked that gun already, maam, so I know it ain’t loaded.
Maybe I loaded it, she snarled.
Maybe I can see the cylinders empty from where I set, he said, his voice calm. His eyes flicked toward the girl then back to hold the woman steady in his gaze. His voice a level louder he said, Missy, I’ll ax you not to put none of my wares in your sack less’n you plan to put some of yours on my counter in trade.
We’ll just take whatever we damn please, the woman said.
The man uncrossed his legs and with his hands on his knees he unfolded from the chair, stood tall before the woman with her empty pistol shaking.
Y’all ain’t gonna rob me, he said.
The girl had shoveled what she could into the bag and she turned to the woman. Let’s go now, mother, we got what we can.
The man reached and closed his big hand over the pistol the woman held in her left hand. The hammer retracted and clapped closed, then again, the woman pulling frantically on the trigger. Don’t you touch me nigger, don’t you touch me!
I’s just taking recompense, the man said. He stepped forward and twisted the pistol to break it free of the woman’s grasp but as he neared her she leered at him and he saw her right shoulder jerk, realized too late she’d been waiting for him to come to her. The pain in his side was fierce and hot, and with own right hand still holding the pistol he calmly stepped backward and put his other hand over his side, the shirt slick already with his blood.
Run, mother! the girl shouted and with the sack swinging heavy over her shoulder she lumbered behind the woman and out into the street. The woman with her knife outheld bent to pick up her sack but the man reached across himself and with one great swipe he backhanded her with his pistol fist and sent her reeling to the floor. He coughed once and swayed where he stood, his dark hand gleaming in his blood.
No maam, he said, his voice low but strong still.
The woman scrambled to her feet and with the knife raised in her fist she ran screaming at him but he twisted with his feet rooted on the floor and he hammered her another blow that sent her flying against the doorjamb, where she spun and sat down half inside and half out on his store’s front step. He faced her but stayed put.
I done told you, you ain’t gonna rob me.
She looked up at him from her place on the threshold and for a moment they regarded each other. Then he stood one deliberate step toward her and she rolled backward down the step hollering Save me, save me from the nigger! but when she’d got to her feet in the road the girl grabbed her arm and they ran together out the wrong side of the town. It took them an hour to circumvent Leesburg, another half hour hiking north along the river to find a crossing point they could wade through, the bridge too near to town for their liking, so it was humid orange dusk before they managed to aim themselves west again, and by the time they staggered into the brake and collapsed exhausted into their own small hut it was well past midnight.
from day 16:
[a violent hurricane has flooded the bayou and Buford and the girl are adrift in his shack]
Oh Lord, Buford shouted. That’s Lake Calcasieu done jumped its banks–these two currents is merging. Hold on! though with nothing to hold on to they simply continued clinging to each other. They hit the wall of rapids in a spray of foul, salty water, and they spun in long crazy ellipticals in the water until finally they’d settled into some diagonal course up the bayou toward the swamps. They rocked and rode the current and watched through their two open walls as items floated past them from Leesburg, many with their own passengers in refuge from the storm. A wooden crate of oranges and a gang of oranges loose and following like ducklings, a thin snake coiled in the crate and seemingly asleep. A wardrobe on its back and the doors flung open, with a dog inside peering overboard wide-eyed and panting with his tongue out. An uprooted sapling with a cow tied to it, the cow choking on the leash and thrashing in the water. A little while later they saw an old black woman, tiny and frail with her hair the color of brushed steel and her skin heavily wrinkled, floating on top of a hay stack somehow still intact. She waved to them and called out for help but neither person in the shack moved. They regarded each other, the pair and the old woman. Then the old woman shook her head and shouted across the water, Well, thass all right. God bless you anyways. And she floated on. Later they caught up and past the tied cow again and the cow was dead. A locked trunk floated past and Buford watched it a moment as it drifted near them, then he scuttled across the floor and slung out the ax and chopped at the trunk. His first swipe missed and the ax went in like an anchor and nearly dragged him after, and the girl screamed, but he held onto one of the wall-less stud timbers and brought the ax around and hooked the trunk and dragged it aboard. He hacked at the lock then ripped up the lid to find a collection of fine dresses wrapped in muslin. The interior layers were still mostly dry, and he hauled out all the clothes then kicked the trunk overboard again. They rode the rest of the day and into the evening draped in silk dresses like blankets. As dusk settled and the sky glowed hot amber in the wake of the storm the gable of a two-story house with the roof and walls still intact floated slowly past them, and through the broken glass of the gable window sprawled a lady limp and with her arms in the water and blood running down the siding. Her, too, they watched pass in silence.