Sunday, September 29, 2013

Samson or Sampson? What's in a name...

As the days (okay, still months...) tick down towards publication of Revolutionary (January, folks!) all the final details are getting extra attention.  Many of these points are trivial enough not to deserve expansive description, but one task came across my plate this week that is worth getting into.

Namely (pun!), the question of how to spell Deborah's maiden name.  In my novel, I chose to spell it Samson.  Most sources list it as Sampson.  Thus, it might be easy to assume that I made a mistake in my spelling, but really it is a deliberate choice.

I find it fascinating that no signature of Deborah's exists prior to the war -- there is nowhere a place where she penned her own name (Samson or Sampson).  We have, of course, her signature as Robert Shurtliff (which is variously spelled Shurtlieff and Shurtleff -- there are both variant spellings as well as hard to read penmanship).  We have her signature as Deborah Gannett.  But no indication of how she spelled her maiden name.

After the war, there is no question that others spelled it Sampson and did so prominently.  Here, for instance, is the frontispiece of the "memoir" written by Herman Mann (with whom she collaborated closely) Mann Text that has her named spelled "Sampson."

But before the war, Baptist records (Deborah converted, or was "received" as a Baptist in 1780) mark her as "Samson" and then, two years later, when she was excommunicated, list her as "Sampson."  Even further back, all family records indicate that her father and her father's ancestors spelled it "Samson."  (I am indebted, as with many facts about Deborah, to Alfred Young.)   It was for this reason -- the clear family and historical precedent -- that I chose to spell her name "Samson."

My selection aside, the point I wanted to make here is one about the historical period (and history in general).  First, there is the variation in spelling (and my study of letters and journals of Revolutionary War soldiers bears this out) -- as long as it sounded right, the spelling didn't seem to matter much.  Second, there's the lack of documentation and "official" status to identity.  Deborah was Samson or Sampson; she was Robert Shurtliff or Shurleff or Shurtlieff.  No licenses, no passports, no papers.  Just say-so.  Just here-I-am.  And third, the idea that one's material self disappears.  That she lived in a time when she would right her own name so infrequently and on substance so ephemeral that it doesn't remain, except when others wrote it.

Identity and how we forge our own expressions of ourselves lies at the core of Revolutionary.  This minor (what does spelling matter?) factor is just one more way to consider how different the presentation and recording of self was back in the 1780s.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Source? The Muse?

My reading for grad school has me immersed in poetry -- not just the end product, but the process as well.  (I will pause here to say what a true delight it is to be a student again and have the luxury of exploration and patient study.)  This week brought not only a visit from Mark Doty and a simply exquisite reading of his new work, but also reading and discussion of Marina Tsvetaeva's poetry (and some of her prose as well).

In all the wonderful lines that I read, what struck me most was Tsvetaeva's wrestling with the question of what a poet is (and, relatedly, where poetry/poems come from).  The formulation that seemed most fitting:  "A poet is answer."  In explaining what this answer is -- where the response comes from, she elaborates: "it always existed, only hadn't yet reached time; thus the opposite shore has not yet reached the ferry."

That final image struck me as wonderful metaphor for the writing process.  Are we reaching towards a fixed goal (the far shore)?  Does our writing, like the steady oar or paddle or motor, gain us, inch-by-inch, progress towards a destination?  Tsvetaeva's formulation both suggests that and resists it: there is a fixed goal (the shore) but then she gives it motion.  Is the motion an illusion?

I think this is where the idea of inspiration or the muse comes in.  Even if the shore's motion is an illusion, it is one that prompts creativity, that suggests possibility.  We write towards the poem, and the poem seems to be written towards us; that perception leads to new synergy.  I like this.  We are our own muses.  The process of writing begets inspiration.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Points of Origin

Having just put aside a novel draft, I'm taking a "break" and reworking some creative non-fiction essays.  Perhaps it is this endeavor that made me so attuned to the radio commentary I heard this morning, the excellent broadcast of "On Being" that featured Nadia Bolz-Weber.  (Here's the interview if you want to listen.)

Among the many great comments (on many great subjects) made, this one stood out to me (here in paraphrase): I write from scars and not wounds.  In other words, when trying to get down on paper something that is authentic, something that caused trauma, it is important to leave enough space and time to get to a place where the writing can be done productively (and without generating more injury).

A few years back, I was lucky enough to take a creative non-fiction workshop with Connie May Fowler and Sue William Silverman.  Connie's mantra (echoed and augmented by Sue) was: Write from the hurt place.

I like the combination of these two pieces of advice.  To Connie's point, you do have to write from the place where the hurt occurred (and perhaps where it still resonates).  But to Bolz-Weber's claim: there is no merit (and possibly some danger) to writing to a hurt that hasn't healed.

The language here might sound extreme.  And I wouldn't want to suggest that creative non-fiction writing is all about trauma.  In fact, the broader concept of these maxims is about perspective.  You have to have the proper distance (scar) and you have to have the proper mindset (hurt).  The second point might be more twitchy... it isn't about pain, but about emotional truth.  You have to have something to say - some feeling to evoke and you have to be willing to reside in that feeling. (That is, things don't just happen.  A piece of writing/story/essay/memoir/etc. isn't just a string of events.)

Both of these pieces of advice apply equally, I think, to fiction as to creative non-fiction.  I would call them the values of reflection (scar) and resonance (hurt). For me, at this moment and stage of composition, I found these to be words of wisdom, a reminder not to rush into a piece and not to overlook the important of an emotional center.