Thursday, June 02, 2005

Lessons from "Zion"

What started out as a challenge and a project to keep myself occupied while my husband studied for his M.Div became a life-enhancing event. Not only did I beat the clock and write 50k words in less than 30 days, creating a story that made sense and had form and substance, but to my surprise, I grew considerably in the process.

I'm always one for learning, and consider the acquisition of new knowledge my daily duty. As Mary Alston wrote in 1818 to her then 15 year old daughter Mary, I strive to "employ (myself) as I ought, gaining some information every moment...Reflect(ing) that the opportunity may not possibly be retrieved, and that 'the mind untaught is a work wasted' where fiends and tempests howl."* So why was I surprised? Because I found out I didn't know what I thought I did.

My growth did not occur just in the area of my writing, though I now realize I have much to learn in that arena. I'm more aware of my grammar and sentence structure and am also utilizing more resources to help improve those items. I'm working on description, critical in a novel. I often employ the use of "writing on the spot," letting the words flow as the moment occurs. But on a cultural level I feel like a new person.

Due to the nature of most of my stories, my point-of-view is usually written in first-person. While I have written short stories from a third-person perspective, the character is usually someone much like me. For Zion, I completely stepped into another role and looked at the world through another pair of eyes, (in this case, grey ones.) The research needed to understand this person's life, and the role playing that I did by writing from this perspective was enlightening. Perceptions were blown away, leaving a stark reality in its wake. More on that later.

I also picked up new information on the real-life subjects that appear in my story. I knew that the ministers mentioned were dedicated to preaching and teaching the Scriptures, but I didn't know about their extreme diligence in practicing their faith. I was surprised to hear that Benjamin Morgan Palmer stayed in New Orleans during the malaria outbreak that killed thousands of people in that city during the late 1850s. With little regard to himself, he ministered to the living, sick and dying, even to those whose pastors left, (as I would have, I'm sure) after the outbreak. The Reverend John L Girardeau pastored a church in Charleston whose members included the affluent and the owned. The largest church building in the South at the time, Zion Presbyterian Church was a place where blacks and whites worshipped together.

One of the scenes in my book takes place in the cemetery associated with that church. After talking to Dr. Nick Willborn, a professor of Christian history, and Girardeau biographer, at the seminary where I work, I realized the cemetery is now "lost." This seems to be the general consensus, as the Charleston Historical Society and the public library have no information that would indicate where it was located. I was referred to, and tried to contact, the Avery Research Center, a branch of the College of Charleston who specializes in African-American studies, (I'm told they're researching slave cemeteries in Charleston) but I haven't yet received a response. Dr. Willborn provided information about the individual who purchased the land for Zion so I'm trying to organize a research group to go to Charleston to search the county records. A December trip that was planned fell through, but a June trip is expected. I hope to have more information on that soon.

My goal is to finish the research and writing on this draft by the end of the year. A knee injury and other obstacles have slowed my pace, but not my desire to finish the project. Would you like to help? Feel free to send your encouragement and your challenges. Accountability is a wonderful motivator.

Next Post: Excerpt from Zion

*Cote, Richard N., Mary's World, 2nd ed., (South Carolina: Corinthian Books, 2004), 26

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