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Recollecting Ourselves

Elizabeth West

As a writer, I discover so many things that evoke emotions.  This summer, I was doing a COVID cleanout and found a treasure trove.  My mother had saved all of my letters I sent to her when I was 20 and went to London.  I spent the next couple of hours reacquainting with my 20-year-old self.  Only I could read between the lines in those letters and know the true story behind all of those forgotten words.

So many of our memories are intangible, but artifacts – like the letters – are real accounts of times gone by.  We are able to interact with these words, feelings and observations in real time. We can also find meaning in other non-literary items.

As I look around my kitchen, I find several artifacts of my life. The loaf pan, the “fancy” measuring spoons, the never-used espresso set…. These inanimate objects speak to me in ways that no one else can hear.

As a writer of creative nonfiction, I am fascinated by the power of everyday things. I can even look at a homemade Christmas ornament and be transported back to that central New York classroom in the 1980’s when I made it for my family. Here is an excerpt from a story I wrote about our Christmas trees growing up – yes, I said trees – we had two. One was the family’s tree and the other was Mom’s:

Mom’s tree was different. It had a theme – either silver or blue – and had beautiful ornaments. Although I viewed it as impersonal and a little too fancy, I get it now. This was Mom’s tree. All Mom’s. And she could do whatever the hell she wanted with it. This resonates with me so much this Christmas, as I am now a mom and missing my mom who we lost in 2016. If I could have her back now, I would gladly give her whatever kind of tree she’d like.

Christmas is different since she left us. Sometimes, I stare at our tree, and it reminds me of all we have lost. It brings up searing feelings of loneliness and grief. However, two things have brought me out of my haze. Obviously, the kids do not let me brood for long. However, this year, an article made me remember what the Christmas season is all about.

Invite them in – despite the recipe you burned, no matter the dirty house or sink full of dishes. No one will remember these things. All of these imperfections make a home. The love and kindness will be the souvenirs.

Gather up your things and write about them. Share your stories! We need to hear them.


ABOUT ELIZABETH: Elizabeth Adinolfi West is Associate Professor of English at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. She is also faculty advisor to the student creative writing organization, SWAG. Elizabeth published an essay about her son in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hopes and Miracles. She writes a weekly blog entitled “Turning Arrows into Flowers” at elizabethwest.com.


GET INSPIRED WITH ELIZABETH: Join Elizabeth for Recollecting Ourselves: Using Artifacts to Guide Your Writing on December 9th, from 6-8 PM in person at Charlotte Lit. Discuss finding artifacts from the past and get some guidance on how to create artifacts to fuel your writing. These artifacts can serve as inspiration for poetry, fiction, or creative non-fiction (memoir). See how much fun it can be reacquainting yourself with the past or planting seeds for future writers through the magic of artifacts. More information is here.

Historical Fiction

Paula Martinac

Paula Martinac is the author of the forthcoming historical novel Dear Miss Cushman.

The Past Comes Alive on the Page

The task facing the historical fiction writer is to bring research to life. In a journal article or history book, you might read that 19th-century American theaters were rowdy places in which audiences frequently booed actors off the stage. In contrast, a historical novel would take you into the boxes and “parquet,” or orchestra seating, and show the repercussions of a poor performance. This excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Dear Miss Cushman, set in the New York City theater world in 1852, demonstrates this idea.

 

When the audience began hissing, I knew Othello wasn’t going to end well. The response jolted me. We weren’t at the Bowery Theatre, where the audience in the pit tossed apples and vegetables onto the stage if a performance didn’t please them. The Prince Theatre was one of New York City’s finest establishments, catering to the upper ten.

Worse, the actor they hissed at was my father.

I was attending my first theatrical performance. Incredible, given that my father was a renowned leading actor, but Mama maintained that theater wasn’t a place for young ladies. For my eighteenth birthday, she gave in to my pleading and permitted Uncle James to accompany me to my father’s performance of the Moor, one of his most acclaimed roles. Mama insisted I have a new dress, and my sister Maude oohed and aahed over the sky blue taffeta until I wanted to take it off and give it to her. I myself put little stock in puffy lady things, especially in pastel hues. Plus, the heavy horsehair crinoline the skirt required for shape made beads of sweat trickle down my stomach.

Still, I could abide these discomforts if it meant I got to sit beside my dapper uncle in his lushly adorned box, draped with red and gold silk, and marvel at the glistening gas-jet chandelier that lit the space. Best of all, I got to watch my father tread the boards as I’d imagined him doing, in full costume and makeup for the Moor and sporting his prize sword.

We were barely one act in when Pa dropped a few lines. Then more—even the ones I ran with him that morning “for good measure,” as he’d urged. He’d appeared in Othello dozens of times, but now the role appeared to baffle him. Although the movement made my stays pinch, I leaned forward, mouthing the words, willing them into his memory.

Taunts rose slowly through the cavernous parquet. Pa squinted toward the footlights in bewilderment….

The audience response crescendoed into boos. Uncle James colored crimson. “We’re leaving,” he announced, spittle collecting at the corners of his lips. He tugged me to my feet. “Now, Georgiana.”


Paula Martinac is the author of the forthcoming historical novel Dear Miss Cushman (Bywater Books, December 2021), and six others, including Testimony; Clio Rising, Gold Medalist, Northeast Region, 2020 Independent Publisher Book Awards; and The Ada Decades, a finalist for the 2018 Ferro-Grumley Award in LGBTQ Fiction. Out of Time, her debut novel, won a Lambda Literary Award. She has received fellowships from North Carolina Arts Council and the Arts and Science Council and teaches in the creative writing program at UNC Charlotte.


EXPLORE HISTORICAL FICTION WITH PAULA: Join Paula for Writing Historical Fiction online. Historical fiction has the power to bring people and places from the past to life. If you’re drawn to this genre (or one of its sub-genres, like historical mystery or romance), this class will provide you with motivation and skills to start writing. By the end of the class, you will have a scene or chapter for a work-in-progress or an outline and character biographies that give you a solid path forward. This class meets on three Tuesdays, November 30, December 7 and 14, 6:00-8:00 p.m. More information here.