November 17, 2009

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WHERE IT ALL BEGAN Posted by Sheila Connolly Since the Thanksgiving holiday is upon us, we thought we'd take a look at different aspects of the holiday and what it means to us. Since I'm first in the queue, I'll talk about the first Thanksgiving. I live about fifteen miles from Plymouth, Massachusetts, site of the first permanent settlement in the colony that would become the United States. Okay, I know that the Roanoke Colony came earlier, but they couldn't hang on (thus generating one of the first mysteries on our soil). There were also plenty of trappers and traders who roamed the lands and rivers (spreading germs to the Indians), but they didn't stick around. Which leaves those hardy Pilgrims of Plymouth. We probably all got hit over the head with the Mayflower story in elementary school (at least if you lived on the East Coast as I did). The romance of Priscilla Alden and Miles Standish. The happy natives sharing their lore and their corn and fish to help the settlers survive the first winter, for which they were woefully unprepared. They should have known better than to land in November, but that wasn't altogether their fault–the boat ran late. Anyway, recently I've had a chance to get to know modern Plymouth. It's an interesting place. I first saw it decades ago, although I didn't do a lot of sightseeing–more like, yup, there's that rock. We moved to southeastern Massachusetts six years ago, and when I first revisited Plymouth, I thought it was kind of a stodgy, seedy little town. The rock was still there. I did visit Plimoth Plantation, which is perhaps the best living history museum in the country, and worth the trip if you have any interest in history. Over the past few years Plymouth has kind of reinvented itself. The main street downtown is dotted with interesting restaurants and shops of all sorts. A couple of upscale malls have sprung up on the outskirts. My doctor has an office in The Pinehills, a huge residential development that's like a little city unto itself, with a market, a bank, and a variety of shops, all in sparkly-bright and very clean new buildings, and not one but two golf courses. A derelict rope-making center on one end of town has morphed into an interesting industrial and office park now called Cordage Park. But that's the modern city, and I was talking about history. I've may have mentioned before that I'm a genealogist (no! really?), and, yes, I have identified one Mayflower ancestor. Poor guy, he died less than a month after the Mayflower landed, and he may never have set foot on the ground (his wife came over on another ship three years later, with their two daughters, and I'm descended from one of them). For years I felt like he was kind of a second-class Pilgrim, until I learned that fully half of the original passengers died in that first year. In fact, the settlers were so worried that the Indians would notice that their ranks were dwindling rapidly that they didn't even set up a burial ground for the dead–they buried them by the dark of night in unmarked graves. For the tri-centennial of the landing, the townspeople collected all the bones they'd been unearthing for years and had squirreled away in various places around town and installed them all in a substantial granite sarcophagus, so at least they're together, for perhaps the first time since 1621. But the settlers survived that first hard year, and more settlers arrived (along with food supplies), and as people kept dying, they did in fact create a cemetery. It's up on the hill above the town, where the first palisade stood. Several years ago I visited that cemetery for the first time, and I was surprised by how much it moved me. Strip away all the buildings and the docks laid out below, and imagine open space along the shore, with a few people moving around, maybe a few cattle or pigs. Behind you stands the pitifully small wooden fort, large enough to contain the handful of citizens and the precious livestock. And behind that? Nobody knew. Imagine the weight of those endless miles of unknown territory, peopled by unpredictable natives, while you and your tiny band clung to the coast and hoped that you'd survive, which was far from guaranteed. I came away from that place with a heightened respect for those first settlers. Their reasons for coming–financial, political or religious–may have varied, but whatever the reason it took a lot of courage to make that leap into the unknown. They survived because they were lucky: a couple of plagues in the years before they arrived had wiped out over 90% of the local Indian population, which left already-cleared land for them to occupy and cultivate–and nobody left to resist them. And the settlers didn't exactly cover themselves with glory in their ongoing relationship with what few Indians remained: they robbed the survivors, and even plundered the graves of their dead. It's a wonder the Indians helped them at all. But they did. The first Thanksgiving took place in the fall of 1621, after a good harvest, with some 90 Wampanoags attending. Here's Edward Winslow's account from A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, in 1621: "Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others....
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The Red Pen or The Shredder? Posted by Kate Flora Boo. Hoo. Where is Joshua Bilmes when I need him? The last time I was up to my ears in the pages of a promising, but flabby manuscript, he led me through the forest of rewrite with firm but calm advice. I cut. And I cut. And I tightened and I tweaked. And in the end, I had a book I could be proud of. So here I sit, the week before Thanksgiving, facing the grim fact that the book I just spent a month cutting needs more than word removal. It needs a plot lift. It needs greater focus. It needs scenes that economically move the plot and develop my characters. It needs tension, not whining. Showing, not telling. And a dump truck load of inner monologue hauled away. If I were my student...I'd know what to do. I'd make myself sit down and do a chapter by chapter and scene by scene analysis to see what isn't working. But today, I sat and looked at the size of the task and promptly reverted to Plan B. I would continue to indulge my obsession with National Novel Writing Month, and see if I could add a few thousand zippy words to my unserious novel in progress. Not a smashing success. For twenty-nine chapters, I'd managed to keep my characters from actually having sex, despite a number of times when they'd come within a whisper of the deed. Ringing phones, buzzing doorbells and the arrival of nosy cops had kept them apart. But finally, their moment had come. And once it had come...and gone...I lost my ertia. I couldn't think of the next interesting thing for them to do. On to Plan C. Flip over to eBay to see if I could do a little bit of holiday shopping. I went to Costco and bought gigantic amounts of food that wouldn't fit in my refrigerator, including way too many perishable berries. I zipped into my favorite clothing emporium, Global Thrift in Waltham, and picked up a Jil Sander jacket, an Italian designer skirt, a lovely bejeweled peasant top to wear to a holiday party, and two pairs of corduroy pants, all for the price of a sandwich lunch and a cappuccino. I practiced a fine form of busy avoidance. I knocked lots of things off my list, prepared a delicious dinner, and did my sit-ups. But the book is still out there, lurking just at the edge of my consciousness. Waiting for the attention it deserves. Tomorrow, I promise, I will take Mr. Laptop to the library, away from all distractions, and handcuff myself in a carrel. Tomorrow I will act like a grown-up. I will be diligent. I will carry my laptop to the library and I will edit the heck out of the little beast. I will not move until the first three chapters are slim and lovely and irresistible, with powerful forward momentum. But first, of course, I must go to the gym. Can't be typing novels with flabby arms, can I? And then there are batches of books that must go to the post office. And don't I have to be at a bookstore in Exeter, New Hampshire? Oh dear. It looks like I'm too busy for rewrite tomorrow. It's hard to believe that after twenty-five years in the writing game I still can't always see the forest for the trees, but that's my reality. Every book is different. Each one has a rhythm and a personality. Some come easily. Some are dragged out and nailed to the page. And rewrite is always its own challenge. Sometimes I can see what needs to be done; other times, I'm like a monkey at a typewriter, with the occasional good word or sentence coming out. Like every writer, I prefer those moments of obsession. I love it when the prose just flows and I can't type fast enough to get it down. But I've been in this chair long enough to know that what makes me stronger, and a better writer, is fighting my way through times like this, when nothing is easy. Nothing flows. And even though I'm practically bleeding on the page, the story won't behave. Persistence. Faith. Experience. Banging my head against the desk. And keeping myself in this chair. In the end, these will help me through rewrite. Something else will, too--my friends who have offered to read a few chapters and give me feedback. So far, my ego is badly bruised, but my mind is starting to tick away, evaluating suggestions and assessing avenues for change. By next week, when I'm thoroughly dug-in, it's going to be hard to get up and go cook that turkey.

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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