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Original Essays | August 18, 2014 1 comment
Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
We Tell Storiesby Edward P. Jones
There are those who write because they believe they have something so marvelous that it will make them famous and wealthy, a lauded commodity who will be invited to a lifetime of cocktail parties. But there are those, like that radio woman's father, who write because of some bizarre and ancient compulsion. I think that I am one of those. It took more than ten years to "write" The Known World (nine plus years of planning it out in my head and about a year of physical writing).
I did not have a publisher waiting for the book, someone who would say "Yes" no matter how bad the final work might be. No one had given me the money and then said, "Now go off to your quiet place and do what I paid you to do." I was guided only by my own need to create the book, and had twenty publishers said "No" before I gave up trying, I would have grieved. And then I would have had no choice but to go on to the next story or novel that they my heart and brain and that indescribably ancient force told me had to be written.
Those of us with this ancient compulsion to tell stories sometimes start with a single kernel of something. A man stands in the dark before a mountain, holding his staff as his sheep are sleeping all around him. The Earth is so young that fire is still a novel thing. The man, uncertain that he is good enough to talk to God, asks of the darkness and the mountain, "What was it like when God decided to create the world?" And another man, eons later, emerges out of the American South and begins to write after asking, "What is it like for a people to become invisible in a country that the world sees as offering hope and promise to so many others?" The talking or the writing can begin with such questions. The men talk and they write to give themselves the best answer possible at that moment in their lives. And often they do it when there is no audience waiting to receive the answer.
I've spoken a few times about learning about black slaveowners (one of the subjects of The Known World) when I was in college. But that was not the kernel; discovering that one fact only gave me license to write about a world where blacks would go so much against their own kind as to buy and keep them as property. Had there been no black slaveowners ever in America, I would not have felt I had the okay to venture out and manufacture a time and place where they did.
No, coming upon that fact was important, but it was not the kernel, the real beginning, because I never once thought about writing a novel when I was a college student. Something happened during the 1980s perhaps the political climate of that time that caused me to ask how a people would become part of a system that oppresses their own people. I wish I could say that thought came to me on a particular day while I stood before a mountain and heard the wind, but that is not so. (Perhaps if I had set out to write The Known World because I enjoy cocktail parties, I would have kept a diary, believing everyone would want to know about it all one day.) It must not have been long after that that I remembered the fact of black slaveowners and the novel took root. There was really nothing much there, except the one giant fact of black masters.
Then, perhaps in the late 1980s or the early 1990s, I saw for the first in my mind's eye Henry Townsend on his deathbed. And, again, I don't know what happened to me on that day I saw him dying. Maybe I was cleaning my apartment. Perhaps I was walking down a supermarket aisle. Maybe I heard about some event, tragic or otherwise, in some foreign land whose name I have difficulty spelling. It is enough that I saw Henry and from there I began to give life to him and all the other people in the book.
I have said with as much sincerity as I can muster that if I were thrown into a dungeon with a sentence of one hundred years, with my only company being an illiterate guard who came twice a day with meals but who never spoke, I would still write on coarse toilet paper in the dark if I could spare it. Or scratch the words onto the dirt-encrusted walls with my fingernails. I would have no choice, as that radio woman's father had no choice. We are doomed to it, even when we know we will be our only readers.
We are doomed but perhaps we also tell these "lies," these tiny fictions, with some hope that at the end of it all, we will have one piece of the larger truth. And we are not noble, just human. We get up to our day, however wonderful, however horrible, as they have been doing since before there were white blank pages, before the blank computer screen, when there were only grunts and hand gestures, and we tell stories. Some of us talk to God, and some of us talk to the mountains and the wind. We cannot help ourselves. People come into our heads and they begin to live, or die. We begin: "Once upon a time, there was a woman, a dying woman, a childless woman, who believed in a man far more than he believed in himself...."