New Journey, Old Journey: Writing a Novel

Among the conditions to which every inventor must submit is the necessity for patience. The development desired may have to be waited for, even though its character has been clearly intimated. After the first suggestion which allows anticipation of anything at all, a long gestation may be required.

- The Creative Process, Brewster Ghiselin

This summer, when I began writing my poetry in earnest, I was unaware I was close to a breakthrough on an old project.

Ten years ago, I discovered a unique footnote in Civil War history: the last battle of the Civil War was fought after the surrender at Appomattox in the nether regions of the U.S. at the southern tip of Texas, Palmetto Ranch. Bizarrely, it was a Confederate victory (some say it was a skirmish rather than a battle but if you were one to plunge a bayonet in the gut of an enemy, I dare say you would call it a skirmish). Among the ranks of union soldiers at the Battle of Palmetto Ranch was the 62nd Regiment of U. S. Colored Troops (formerly the First Missouri Regiment of Colored Infantry).

I was intrigued.

Who were these soldiers? Where did they come from? How did they end up at the southern tip of Texas? What happened to them after the battle? What were their lives like during the war and after, particularly during that nebulous time of disillusionment in our nation's history, the period of Reconstruction and the immediate decades to follow?

As I began reading of these soldiers, truth-stranger-than-fiction revealed a multifoliate narrative, for example: these hardscrabble warriors, out of their poverty, established one of our nation's leading Universities. Their passion for education was relentless, it was also key to circumnavigating a dangerous post-Civil war world.

At the time, I was also reading about the Texas and Oklahoma cattle drives. I've always been intrigued by cowboy culture, it could hardly be avoided. I grew up on a ranch in a historic Texas town (Old Tascosa) and as a young man I walked the same streets Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett once walked one hundred years before. I also lived, for a time, in middle of the old Chisholm Trail, the main cattle thoroughfare that split through the center of Oklahoma. All my life, I have been surrounded by the history of the west. To me, it seemed perfectly plausible that some of these soldiers from the USCT 62nd could have hired on to drive cattle up the famous Texas and Oklahoma trails, particularly since both Oklahoma and Kansas were at one time destined to become all-black states (another unique footnote in history). Their desire for a better life would most certainly compel many to find work among cattle crews (this assumption is verified by historical fact with some estimates that number African-American cowboys involved in cattle drives to have been around 5,000). [1]

I had discovered, in my mind, an interesting story that needed to be told, preferably in novel form.

Still, I had yet discovered a "voice" for this novel. I attempted many runs at a third-person narrative. Nothing worked. Frustrated, I gave up to the extent that I even sold my collection of African American history books (some rare) vowing to bury this project and move on.

But I blame Wallace Stegner for its resurrection.

I read my first Stegner book this year, the Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose. Stegner, the "Dean of Western Writers" and consummate teacher, inspired me. Like most of my biblio-maniacal obsessions, I couldn't read just one Stegner book, I began to read his entire oeuvre. Starting with Angle, moving to National Book Award winning The Spectator Bird and on to Crossing to Safety and Where the Bluebird Sings (I'm still working through the Stegner canon), I was enthralled at Stegner's ability to rediscover frontiers through narrative.

About this time, I remembered yet another footnote in history: one of our nation's largest and most tragic race riots occurred a mere two-and-a-half hours from my home in what was (in 1921) the wealthiest black community in the United States. I was shocked to discover that many of my fellow Oklahomans had never heard of the Tulsa Race Riot. I grew up in Texas, as a student, I studied Texas history, I have remained largely ignorant of key events in Oklahoma history. I assumed many in Oklahoma were taught about the Tulsa Race Riot; they were not. Overlooked? Forgotten? Buried? Hidden? It's still shocking to contemplate its seemingly permanent silence.

Stegner's influence encouraged me to attempt this novel as a first-person narrative from the perspective of a self-educated editor of one of black Tulsa's leading papers. This editor, Liberty Adams, a former slave, former soldier in the USCT 62nd, former teacher, and former cattle driver, is writing his recollections on the eve of the Tulsa Race Riot. The character is perfectly plausible despite our ignorance. (Many who have only a cursory knowledge of slave and freedman history assume ignorance upon the vast population of African-Americans during the decades following the Civil War. True, literacy rates were, naturally, abominable after the Civil War but they began to rise as desire met and created opportunity, particularly through self-education and community led education).

In Isaac Babel's short story, "Guy Maupassant", he pens a haunting phrase, "The secret rests in a barely perceptible turn. The lever must lie in one's hand and get warm. It must be turned once, and no more". Each critical component I've mentioned so far: the bizarre story of the battle, the cattle drives, the establishment of a major University by a group of hard luck soldiers, the hopeful development of an all-black state, freedman living their disillusioned hope of freedom, and more surprises yet revealed - each a lever, warm in my hand from constant conscious and subconscious thought. Every time I turned a new handle, I heard a click: open door.

Still, why this topic? I don't know, other than the simple fact that it arrested my attention and wouldn't let me go. Brewster Gheslin hints at this alluring desire to traverse tramontane territory:

Every new and good thing is liable to seem eccentric and perhaps dangerous at first glimpse, perhaps more than what is really eccentric, really irrelevant to life. And therefore we must always listen to the voice of eccentricity, within ourselves and in the world. The alien, the dangerous, like the negligible near thing, may seem irrelevant to purpose and yet be the call to our own fruitful development.

- The Creative Process, Brewster Ghiselin

I simply stumbled upon a sublime story worth telling. If I am true to the historical record of what I've discovered and am able to flesh out this story accurately, the narrative will reveal the ordinary (yet extraordinary), noble (some would say, ignoble) pursuit of a determined man overcoming overwhelming odds.  If there is any philosophical thread running through the novel it is my sheer curiosity at the development of the mind of an ex-slave, post-Civil War, but it's not an overt exploration. For any moral or philosophical "purpose" to the novel, I dare to invoke a master of letters, Wendell Berry, in his introduction to Jayber Crow:

Persons attempting to find a "text" in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a "subtext" in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise "understand" it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.

This journey, my new journey, is rather an old journey. One I began ten years ago, one I picked up again this summer as I started writing poetry, and, now that I've discovered the crucial point-of-view in my story, one I can pursue with relish, tending to my "terrific hard gardening" as Katherine Mansfield would call it. 

In addition to releasing the chapters here on my website, I decided I would, from time to time, blog about the process of writing the story as well, following ever-so-humbly in the footsteps of one of my heroes, John Steinbeck. Steinbeck kept a journal during the writing of Grapes of Wrath and also wrote frequent letters during the writing of East of Eden, both were activities meant to "warm up" and prepare for writing but also to think through and propel the novels forward, his way of "getting my mental arm in shape to pitch a good game". Like a painter who must dab and stroke the canvas then take a few steps back to gain perspective or a workman who uses a fulcrum to move heavy objects, so I hope to use this blog, journaling my progress as I proceed. Blogging also helps flush the obliqueness from my writing, pushing verbose thoughts to the surface so that they can gasp for air and experience release. What remains for my novel -hopefully- are not merely the right words but the best words. So, expect pedantic posts en masse. Most will be short snacks and if I'm lucky, along the way some erudition might escape these mortal fingertips and I'll enlighten someone else on a similar journey.

I hope to publish posts frequently and more chapters soon but I'm always cognizant of the fact that I'm severely limited on time. Like most struggling, part-time artists/writers, I have responsibilities I take seriously (a career, a family) and, rather than think these a millstone around my neck, my job and my family support and sustain me. Were it not for the support of my family and the opportunity my employment presents, I'm afraid I would actually lose enthusiasm and most certainly discipline. I take as my credo the dictum I read on a sign at a conference recently: "Constraints fuel creativity".

Every second counts when you are pursuing a part-time passion.

Thanks for sojourning with me and helping me follow my own advice, 'don't let the watchers keep you from trying'. I don’t expect a heavy readership. I’m probably optimistic to assume any readership for quite some time but, if I fail at this, it won't be for want of an epic adventure.

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- Bobby Lehew

[1] Black Cowboys of Texas, Sara R. Massey