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Digging Up Sapphires: Of Research, Writing, and Fear

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As I continue to work on You Will Not Be Forgotten, each Wednesday I am going to post about something I’ve learned in the process of writing this book. Maybe it will be something about myself or about slavery or about history in general; I’m not sure. One thing I do know is this – writing this book has changed me in more ways than I will probably ever know. I hope you’ll check in each week to see what I’ve discovered in the process. I hope you’ll share your thoughts, too.

I’m in the final stages of the book – just 5 chapters left to edit, a full read-through to do, and then comments from my beta readers. I’m so close I can almost feel the heft of the printed manuscript against my forearms.

Yet, still, I stall.

Yesterday, I spent two hours researching Cato rather than rewriting the chapter about Dilcey, the woman who was the focus of that chapter. Cato is important, but he comes up later – in the next to last chapter. I needed to spend time on Dilcey, but research is so much easier for me than writing. I could spend all day there.

Since this book is entirely dependent on research, I’ve had to do a lot of it. Hours on hours in the Uva Special Collections library finding documents. Hours and hours pouring over those documents again and again looking for clues and names. Hours and hours searching genealogies online. I’m really good at research.

The thing is – I’m not a researcher; I’m a writer.

But writing is so much harder for me. In research, I can scour page after page, and when I find something I need, I feel like I’ve just tripped over a huge sapphire behind my house.* In writing, I can write for page after page, and when I hit that place where suddenly something breaks lose and I find the sapphire of rhythm, it’s only after I’ve been digging in the hillside with a pickax for hour upon hour.

Here is what I have learned though – as wonderful as that sapphire I accidentally kick on a leisurely stroll through history might be, it doesn’t compare at all to the ones I find within myself as I write these stories down. I feel elated when I find that Dilcey ran away from the plantation where she was hired out, but that sensation does not compare at all to the way my chest cracks open with joy when I realize that there is no further mention of Dilcey in the record, when I realize that this absence of records may mean she escaped, got to freedom, was never enslaved again. There is no amount of research that will ever compare.

So why then do I keep going back to research? The answer is easy: fear. I’m afraid that I might have missed something crucial in the records (and surely I have since I had more than enough material to write from even with 3/4 of the boxes still unread at UVa). I’m afraid that some reader will call me a hack or poke holes in my book or discredit every single thing I’ve said. I’m afraid that somewhere on a tiny slip of paper there’s a note that says Dilcey did escape, that she’s living in Philadelphia, that she’s free.

Any of these may happen, and they each probably will in some way, and I could avoid them if I just kept using research as an excuse to not finish this book.

But here’s what I know deep in the part of my belly that rests against my spine – there is a bigger risk in not finishing. These stories will go untold. No one will know of Dilcey or Cato or Nelson. These people will be left as files in a basement library at a prestigious university and may not ever receive the prestige they deserve for themselves. I cannot bear that.

So, I write on. Fear lurking. Researching promising. I write on. Five more chapters beginning today with Kessiah.

What fears hold you back from writing? From finishing? What is the greater risk if you don’t?

*Incidentally, this happened to a friend of my dad’s. The largest sapphire in the world, in the field behind his house. So awesome.

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Author: Andi

I'm a writer, teacher, and editor who is currently working on a book about the slaves who lived and worked on the farm where I now live. I blog daily at http://www.andilit.com I have three cats - Oscar, Emily and Charlotte - who have taken to living on the farm quite well - bird-, frog-, and butterfly-hunters all.

8 Comments

  1. “I’m afraid that some reader will call me a hack or poke holes in my book or discredit every single thing I’ve said.”

    Yeah, that about covers 99% of my fears in a nutshell. It’s always a good feeling to know I’m not alone. I think fear likes to tell us that we only have one chance, and that EVERYTHING is on the line with each decision that is made. That’s one of the biggest lies of all.

    Thanks for your honesty. I can’t wait to read this book!
    Jim recently posted…Attack of the Ruthless CriticMy Profile

    • Indeed, Jim. This idea that my worth is built on this book is one I battle and that the book won’t be worth anything if someone finds a flaw. Thanks for reminding me that these are lies. And thanks for the enthusiasm about my book.

      • I love that you wrote “The idea that my worth is built on this book is one I battle and that the book won’t be worth anything if someone finds a flaw.” I completely struggle with the idea of “my” worth vs. “my writing’s” worth, often behaving as though they are the same thing. In all honesty, I am often terrified to even post a comment on a blog like this because it seems like an indelible definition of who I am. The other day I realized that it’s more like a picture – a snapshot of who I am in that moment. Don’t be scared. The book is true to who you are and what you know about these people now.

  2. Andi,
    I can not wait to read your book. I WANT to learn more about these people, to read the stories of their lives. No, your book won’t be perfect, but I will know more via the work that you are doing. And then I will want to read what you discover next….. :) There will be a next book won’t there?

    You are doing a work that no one else is doing…….it will be plenty good enough. Their stories will be heard.

    • Oh, Donna, thank you. I can’t really begin to think about a next book until this one is done, but you never know. . . And thank you so much for wanting to read it.

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