Trickle of life

Recent health issues have had unexpected effects on my mental state. In particular, I have not been able to write or to actively read.  I reasoned that both my subconscious and conscious minds were working so hard on healing that my creativity and my discipline were being channeled, willy nilly, toward self-preservation and restoration.  Recently, I wrote a song about mourning the loss of my mother–another thing I had been able to do only a little, blinkered by the demands of my own cancer, its treatment, and its after-effects. I posted the poem and noticed how many of the responses to it came from people whom I knew were grieving a recent loss, and it occurred to me that others might be responding from losses I didn’t know about. The act of writing the song, the act of sharing my grief, and the feeling that I had touched other lives all combined to make me feel that something that had been frozen was beginning to thaw into a trickle of life. Shortly afterward, Mary Oliver died, causing me to consider how much of her poetry was an invitation to feel life as we live it. I don’t know when I will get back to writing in earnest, but I will not be the same writer I was, and I think that the experience of sharing “Song of Dawn” (my mother’s name was Dawn) and the poetry of Mary Oliver will be part of that difference.

I have felt the support of my fellow BACCA members throughout this time, and I am grateful for it.

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The Troll and the Bully

Have you cultivated your relationships with your inner bully, troll, or monster? In my writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, I include a tool named “Objection, Your Honor!” that acknowledges the presence of our own inner mean voices. The tool recommends scripting replies to the mean voices, and keeping them handy for when you are feeling susceptible.

For instance, to that classic challenge, Who do you think you are?, one of my clients created little signs he keeps posted in his workspace. Each sign contains the nasty question – and his response to it, in this case, “I’m the one writing this book.” A novelist I met got excited about saying back to her bully, “Who do I think I am? I’m the author of a four-volume saga. The first book has been well-received, and I’m already done with the first draft of book two, that’s who I think I am.”

I’ve been exploring this further, in conversations with clients and fellow writers, and continue to learn about these inner voices. As I mentioned in a blog post elsewhere, I’ve come to see that we can engage with these voices — give them a seat at the creative table. While it’s handy to keep our swift, pointed replies handy for use in a crunch, I recommend setting aside calmer moments now and then to initiate a dialogue.

Here are sample vignettes of imaginary conversations with the troll and the bully, followed by a sample re-write of the second one.

Auntie Troll

auntie troll walks inShe launches herself into the library and commandeers the one comfortable chair, opposite you. Adjusting herself and her shawls and scarves, she begins, with her sweet, insinuating voice:

“You look busy, dear. Too busy. What’s your hurry? Where’s the fire? Speaking of fire, there’s a lovely tea shop nearby with a fireplace open to two sides. We’re sure to get a table there. Wouldn’t it be nice to treat yourself to a cozy afternoon? Surely this so-called work you obsess on can wait. Who’s paying you for this, anyway?”

“It’s creative writing. I haven’t sold it yet. At the moment I’m writing it.”

“Ah. I see. So let’s pack up your things, dear, and head to the tea shop. You won’t begrudge your auntie a cup of tea will you?”

Powerless to oppose her, you notice yourself packing up your notebook and laptop. As you hold the door open for her, you wonder how she was able to derail your writing session with just a couple of sentences.

This is troll behavior, intruding on your work session, diverting you with promises of comfort and ease, and, for good measure, adding a nice dollop of straight-up guilt.

Here’s another vignette.

The Bully

He’s there when you arrive. Lying in wait, it feels like. He speaks first, issuing the challenge.

drawing of an alien-looking creature the bully“There you are.”

“Am I late?” You realize, as soon as you speak, that you’ve blundered already by showing weakness.

“Late? Who’s to say? This is all so free form, who can say if you’re on time? Or years too late? Can you look me in the eye and promise me this project of yours is ever going to see the light of day?”

He looks like he’s enjoying this.

“Uh.” You feel so useless. Where’s the energy you had ten minutes ago?

“Right. Moving on. And if it does — say, for example, you get it printed yourself — can you explain to me how it’s going to be seen by anyone who doesn’t already know you?”

“Uh.” Well, he’s got you there.

“Say no more, buddy. Say no more.”

You exit, looking nearly as dejected and discouraged as you are feeling. No more writing for you, on this day or the next several days, as it turns out.

So far, this is a classic bullying session, which may even ring a few uncomfortably familiar notes.

The Bully 2.0

Now we’ll bring the scene in for a re-write, to turn the scene into an actual conversation.

Bully: “There you are.”

You: “Hey, good to see you. I’ve been wanting to have a chat.”

“You have? You want to talk to me?”

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking maybe we have more in common than I thought we did.”

“Well, yeah. Maybe. I mean, I am a part of you.”

“You raise an interesting point. I’ve always thought of you as the bully, this character from outside who somehow got inside my head and exists to disrupt my creative flow by questioning and diminishing all my ideas.”

“Wow. That hurts.”

“Excuse me? Are you telling me you have feelings?”

“I’m part of you. Do you have feelings? You do the math.”

“Well, that’s — a new perspective. Uh, what do you want me to call you? Do you have a name?”

“Call me BB.”

“Tell me more, BB. I need to understand how it is that you and I are on the same side.”

He sighs, whether more from relief or impatience it’s hard to tell.

“All right. I’m going to overlook – for now –  the fact that you have maintained a hostile attitude and basically wished I would just go away. That said, I will now explain how this works. Pay attention. I don’t intend to repeat myself.”

“I’m listening.”

“Let me ask you this — why do you think I ask you about whether your project will ever see the light of day?”

“To make me feel small and inadequate and sap my energy?”

“Okay, that’s one interpretation, I guess….try this on for size, instead. First of all, in case you aren’t aware, I’ve been with you all along. Ever since you’ve been here. Since before you could talk, or form sentences.”

“Huh. How is that rele–”

“So it’s relevant because it occurs to me that we may need to update my settings.”

“Your settings? What are you? A robot? A chip implanted in my brain? What the –?”

“Basically, you sent me away a long long time ago.”

“I did what?”

“I can see you need some deep background before this can make sense. You think of me as your bully because you effectively froze me into a role that I played when you were a kid. Technically, when we were a kid.”

“Froze you into a role?”

scared kid 11289228893_ee995ca3f4_z“Okay, so remember when life at school got really hard?”

“Which time? The playground bully, or the weird neighbor, or the monster teacher? Or something else?”

“I was thinking of the playground bully. what was that – third grade?”

“Yeah. Sounds right.”

“Didn’t have a lot of defenses then, huh? Didn’t want to involve the parents, who had their own problems. Kept switching schools, so no time to make close friends.”

“It was a lonely time.”

“Agreed. So my job became keeping you alert to danger. I was protecting us. Better to be ready when the next bad thing happened.”

“Be prepared, and all that.”

“Right. So I think you didn’t like how it felt, having me on the lookout like that all the time. So you put me in a corner of the attic somewhere and shut the door. And ever since then, all I’ve been able to say, or at least all you’ve been able to hear me say, are warnings of gloom and doom and failure. There was a time when that was helpful. I’d like you to understand that.”

“This is weird. But yeah, I can get that when I was a defenseless kid you were helping me out by looking out for trouble. It’s just that nowadays, that’s not what I need. From anyone — part of me or friend or stranger — anyone. What I need now is support of another kind.”

“What kind of support?”

“If we went back to the first question you asked me today — do I really think my writing project will ever see the light of day — could we look at things differently? Like, if you want to look out for me nowadays, ask me what I’m doing to cultivate my author platform and build buzz about the book before it’s even done. Encourage me to become a better literary citizen, keeping in touch with the people I know and want to know. Help me to venture into uncomfortable situations, introduce myself to authors I respect, post book reviews online, link to other writers and publications in my blog and newsletters, all of that.”

“Hmmm. I guess that makes sense. You know more about this writing and publishing stuff than I do. I’ll need to get up to speed, but I get the gist. Looking for existential threats isn’t the order of the day now, is it?”

“Nope. Not helpful.”

“Let’s do this again, okay?”

“It’s a deal, BB.”

–end scene–

smiling 11165453423_420ed1164b_z

Might it be worthwhile to check in with your own versions of the inner bully, troll, and/or monster? Might it be an interesting exercise to initiate a conversation?

Just as with the bully and the troll in these vignettes, you may be able to spot your versions of these characters delivering some script lines that are in urgent need of rewriting. And who better for that task than a writer?

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides book coaching and manuscript development services to authors. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. #becomingunstuck 

— All images courtesy the British Museum on flickr

— Special thanks to Artie Wu of Preside Meditation for his way of framing conversations with our “inner board members.”

Haunted at a writing retreat.

I moved aside the wooden block holding up the ancient window and carefully lowered the heavy pane, not wanting to smash my fingers. I was in my bedroom at The Porches in Norwood, Virginia—an antebellum farmhouse lovingly transformed into a quiet, contemplative writers’ retreat.  I’d come to work on a difficult chapter in my nonfiction story about the murder of John W. Funkhouser, the geology professor who discovered the earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant back in 1970. With the heavy window closed, I turned on the air conditioner.  It was almost ninety degrees outside.  I opened my laptop and placed the binder with my files from the courthouse beside me. I clicked the only photo I had of the killer— from his senior high school yearbook.

Ray William Cook, Jr. was a good looking boy. Dark hair, sincere eyes, and perfect lips.  Hollywood lips.  Lips that could have been outlined by a professional makeup artist. I turned the page to the photocopy of his signed confession:

December 3, 1974

I, Ray William Cook, Jr., do make this statement to Det. H. M Shelton, Chesterfield County Police Dept., after having been advised of my constitutional rights and understanding these rights I make this statement freely and voluntarily…

I flipped page after page, recreating the crime. After a couple more hours with this murderer, it was time for dinner. A shared meal with three other writers followed by a settling stroll in the lush Virginia countryside. Weeks of rain had finally ended and the results were spectacular.  Colorful coneflowers, ubiquitous Virginia creeper, and trees competing for every inch of sunlight. I walked to a small church with a few gravestones. One or two cars passed by, the drivers waved and I waved back.

I returned to my room, to my computer, and to my binder. My chapter on Ray Cook’s family life, his physical and mental health, and his jumbled reasoning for shooting Dr. Funkhouser in the head was inching into existence.  Outside, the long June day finally gave in to the night.  The deeper I dove into the life and crimes of Ray Cook, Jr., the darker the windowpane became. Moths banged against the wavy glass. I dragged my fingers through my hair. His yearbook photo was still on my computer screen. My face was in the windowpane, lit by the screen. His face. My face.  I rubbed my arms.  It was too cool in here. I adjusted the temperature on the wall air condition.   Just a tad warmer, please.  I sat on the corner of my bed. The locked armoire beside the bed had a full length mirror.  I was tired and should have gotten some sleep, but I returned to my computer instead.

VIRGINIA:

IN THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE COUNTY OF CHESTERFIELD COMMONWEALTH

VS.

RAY WILLIAM COOK

The defendant, Ray William Cook, having been charged in this court at the March term 1975, on two felony charges; to-wit: Armed Robbery and Murder, and pursuant to the Order of the Court, having been conveyed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia for observation and reported to the Court, at which said hospital he was received and the Superintendent of the said hospital having reported to the Court that the said Ray Willian Cook is not mentally ill, it is, therefore ORDERED that the Sheriff of Chesterfield do proceed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia and take into his custody the said Ray William Cook and commit him to the Chesterfield County Jail, Chesterfield, Virginia to be there confined until he shall be ordered by this court to be produced before the Court for the trial of the crime of which he stands charged.

A deep quiet had settled over The Porches.  The other writers had gone to bed. Even the moths had stopped their suicidal banging. I had to get my mind off murder.   I showered, brushed my teeth, and changed into my nightgown. The brass bed was as soft as feathers with a half-dozen pillows.  I read for a while then took off my glasses and turned out the light.  The room glowed. I looked up.  I’d left my computer on. Mr. Cook’s high school yearbook photo was staring at me. I tried to ignore him. I built a fortress of pillows to block the light. But there he was.  I turned the light back on and walked to the desk. I closed the file and shut down the computer.  I returned to bed and turned off the lights.

It was too dark. It was too quiet.  I strained to hear anything beyond the rumble of the air conditioner. I couldn’t get Mr. Cook out of my head. Robbery. Murder. Prison.  Someone was watching me.  I sat up.  I switched on the light and grabbed my glasses. The mirror on the full-length armoire.  That’s all it was.  I stacked the pillows so I couldn’t see the mirror and turned off the light.

Mr. Cook was standing beside my bed.

Lights back on, glasses back on, I picked up my book and read until I heard the birds singing.  At breakfast, I told the other writers of my sleepless night. I returned to my room and my white binder, and wrote about a killer’s ghost stalking me in this lovely antebellum farmhouse.

Porches bedroom - legs

My bedroom at The Porches.  I should have put my robe over that mirror!

 

 

Carolyn O’Neal is a Charlottesville author.  She highly recommends The Porches writing retreat. This historic farmhouse built in 1854 on the James River offers a unique experience for authors and artists.

 

 

 

 

2018 Blue Ridge Writers Book and Arts Fair! Saturday, October 27th, at City Space on the downtown mall, Charlottesville!

Come for the books, stay for the events! Crafts, workshops, author readings, and music!  Need a map?  Click here!

5 by 7 updates

 

Almost time!  Come to downtown Charlottesville for the 2018 Blue Ridge Writers Book and Arts Fair!

Poster with book covers

Don’t miss it!

Show your support for local talent!    Help spread the word everywhere you go by wearing the Blue Ridge Writers Book and Arts Fair t-shirt.   Premium quality, multiple colors, men’s and women’s sizes.  Only $19.99.   Available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07G4JXSB6   A1D5DcuV7CL._CLa_2140,2000_A17jwu6+vqL.png_0,0,2140,2000+0.0,0.0,2140.0,2000.0

A Mind of One’s Own

The act of writing, getting words down, can feel like a fragile feat of magic—a meticulous balance of time, space, and solitude, and those even more unpredictable ingredients that comprise inspiration. If it sounds convoluted, sometimes it feels that way too.

A lot of writers form a ritual for this: a schedule, a place, and a set of tools or totems—some magic words—all of which, together, unlock the doors to their work. In contrast, there are the brilliant and prolific that purportedly produce with ease, like William Carlos Williams, who changed the landscape of modern American poetry while tending a thriving medical practice—whipping out poems on his typewriter between patients. Maybe there’s a middle way, something reasonable, something modest, perhaps along the lines of Virginia Woolf’s criteria for a good writing practice: a little money and a room of one’s own.

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The question of territory is critical—for the women writing in Woolf’s day and now. Carving out and claiming a space for thinking, for writing, for painting, can be a radical act, an audacious move, a declaration of independence. I find that it’s not just a question of taking ownership of rooms, but of guarding boundaries around selfhood too—body and mind.

More and more, the mind space is assaulted. Constantly steered by outside forces, shuffled into ever narrowing corridors of thought, directed to look this way or that, to feel this or that, I find it’s getting harder to know what really needs my attention, where my focus might truly do some good and where it merely feeds the frenzy.

If I want to write something of my own, I have to defend myself against the words that come in waves, entreating me to spend, own, or act; to hate, or to hate the other haters; to speak up, or to shut up; to get out there, or to get out of the way; to prepare for weather that is or isn’t coming; to declare my allegiance to the superficial; and to bow to the pretty packaging masking a destructive hidden agenda.

It helps to have a physical room of one’s own, but if I really want a safe space, I’ll need locks that work against these messages, as well as traps for ads, sound-proofing to keep out political rants and propaganda, and firewalls and Faraday cages to guard against texts, tweets, barbed comments, and non-news. I might as well build a moat.

Even if I could silence everything coming at me, what about the echoes in my own mind? If I retreat to my retreat, but carry all that noise with me, have I really gone anywhere? If I took someone else’s train of thought into my creative space, I’ve been for a ride, but have I traveled at all? Sometimes a room of one’s own isn’t enough. To find what’s real again, I might need to find a space beyond language, to visit what’s bigger than words, so that I can hear my own mind.

As someone who loves words and studies them, I could wonder why it feels essential to put them down, but sometimes we need a break from what we love. We need to be in the presence of beauty or wonder or power that can’t be shaped or limited by our methods of framing, our attempts to summarize and control. We seek out the ocean at times like this to let the roaring take over, we go to the mountains, the sanctuary, or we try to find a safe, warm spot to witness a storm.

In the presence of what’s bigger than our words, an energetic exchange happens, a settling of questions and of self-contrived debts. Finally, the gnawing stops, the faint pain of background angst that never crescendos enough to be dealt with by the conscious mind somehow gets resolved, handled completely by the beauty and by the wordlessness.

What am I preparing myself for in these moments? I want to be wiped clean, but for what? The ability to discern rightly again and become attuned, more sensitive still? From a stunned state, answers come—the truth about our most guarded wants and needs, about the unfit compromises we’ve made. Solutions to life problems and story problems rise up too—as if they were waiting for uncontested ground on which to emerge.

Maybe I want to hear the quietest sound more clearly. The other gift from this kind of time is the all-too-brief ability to interpret upon re-entry, to hear the clamor that one has acclimated to and to understand it for exactly what it is: noise. Maybe that noise has served as a distraction, diverting us away from what we might do, substituting its messages for ours. But maybe that noise has also done violence, shaping the world for us into its sharpest, most damaging version. If I want to recognize the difference, I need to recover the weight and value of words, to become a better instrument for measuring them. So that I can start again.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photo by the author.

Lifelines

It is sometimes in the midst of catastrophe that we find out who we truly are. It is as if some sort of façade is blown off the self, and one sees inside.  I have one sister and one mother, and each of us has had a cancer diagnosis this summer, one after another. There has been no particular family history in this direction—it just happened. They are in New York and I am in Virginia, and we are comforting each other as best we can and blessing modern technology for making that possible.

Right now I have quite a bit of pain, and managing that and the side effects of chemo is more or less a full-time job. My son is here and also working very hard to take care of me and keep me good company, bless the lad.

When you are in a situation in which you fear for your life or the life of those close to you, you enter a kind of liminal space—an in-between state where ordinary rules of consciousness don’t seem to apply. War veterans speak of such a state, and many of them miss it when the war is over.  Maybe that is why I do not seem to feel depressed. On the contrary, I feel I am dwelling now only among the essentials of my life, which I find to be creativity and love.

The only active non-medically related things I’m doing right now are reaching out to friends and futzing around with poetry—submitting and arranging, not yet writing. My current experience is a little too unprocessed, I think, to generate writing. The first people to step up when I was bowled over were the ladies I dance with and the ladies in my writing group—those with whom I share the life-giving processes of creativity. That bond has turned out to be deeper than I realized, as has my passion to create. It’s not that I didn’t know it was there, but that it was covered up by the façade of everyday life, which can make one ignore the most important things.

Women of BACCA, please know how thankful I am for the lifeline of our shared passion..

Turn! Turn! Turn! – A Writer Group Evolves

I could practically hear The Byrds harmonizing to McGuinn’s twanging 12-string, doing their famous rendition of Pete Seeger’s song adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The morning of our annual June retreat, our writer group received the news that one of our own would not be joining us for the weekend. In fact, she was leaving the writer group altogether.

Her note was moving and heartfelt. Good things in her life were superseding her writing in importance. I knew this to be true. I shed some tears and thought about how different the weekend was now going to be. So much depended on the four of us who remained.

I felt optimistic, because we already had some experience with changes. We got started back in 2011, when four of us attended a fiction class at WriterHouse , our local writing nonprofit, and decided to continue as a critique group. We adopted – and then adapted – the critique guidelines from Luke Whisnant that our teacher had recommended to the class, and established a reliable monthly schedule which we all observed.

Gang of Four

We thrived as a foursome for a number of years. We wrote, published, funded our projects, promoted them, and all the while sent in monthly segments of new work for discussion. We grew as writers, and as a group. We even did a series of public presentations on the benefits of committing to a writer group.

the first BACCA logo (2011) with four berries on it

Our original logo, for the four-writer membership

Then one of us made some big changes to her life. She got married, accepted a new professorship at a university far from our base in Charlottesville, and had a baby. The combined distance, responsibilities, and changed focus meant she could only meet with us sometimes, and via Skype, not face to face in the usual coffee shops, offices, and living rooms where we congregated.

Changing Numbers

So, in effect, we were a more often a group of three than four. Undaunted, we put out the word that we sought a new writer to join us. A few interviews later, we wound up with not one but two engaging new voices to join the chorus.

The six of us rallied for one final retreat, all together, last summer in Virginia. Then our far-flung writer announced that it was unlikely she’d be able to join us in future, even by Skype, what with teaching, the baby, and a forthcoming academic book in the works.

It made total sense, and we helped where we could, beta-reading portions of her book, and cooing over photos of the new baby. We missed her, each in our own ways, and welcomed the two new writers to our circle. We evolved.

A new five-member vibe emerged. Then another of our original writers let us know she’d be withdrawing for a time. She had exigent priorities, related to the events of 12 August 2017. Those of you not in the Charlottesville, VA area may not have felt the urgency that the day created among many of us to do something in the wake of the horror and violence. In the aftermath, our writer was drawn to investigate, and withdrew for a time from the rhythm of sending in several thousand words per month to our writer group. We supported her decision, needless to say. In fact, many questions remain, almost a year later, about who did what – and did not do what – to and for whom on that day, not to mention what factors led to the conditions that resulted in so much harm – to individual people and to the community.

So we were, temporarily, four. Knowing that our fifth writer was likely to return, we left an extra seat at the table for six months or so. Sadly, at the end of her leave of absence, she had found no resolution. Like many Charlottesvillians, she discovered the answers to her questions remained stubbornly out of reach.

She rejoined active participation in our group, once again a circle of five writers. It felt good. The number gave us more flexibility. If one of us were out of town, we still had a satisfying foursome at the monthly critique. I remember reflecting that our writer group had its own life force, its own reason for being. In addition, we each demonstrated our care for the group itself, tending to it with kindness and intelligence.

Life went on this way for a little while. Earlier this year, we all anticipated the retreat, scheduled for mid-June. As in prior years, we’d rented a place, planned shared activities, along with ample solitary time, and looked forward to sharing dinners assembled in the kitchen, enjoyed by all.

Then on the morning of what was to be our first day together, we got the email. Our instigator, the person who in 2011 first invited three other writers to do a critique, had come to the end of the road with BACCA. Just as had happened a year before with the new mother / academic transplant, her reasons were overwhelmingly positive and beyond reproach. As I re-read the email, I saw how happy her life had become. A new career, marriage, a home in the country – all these developments were worthy of celebration.

Now We Are Four – Again

When the remaining four of us met up at the retreat, we all had some adjusting to do. Now half of us were old-timers – around since 2011 – and half of us had been involved for eighteen months or so. What effects would that new balance have on our equilibrium?

It didn’t take long to find out. By the next day, at our scheduled critique meeting, we found ourselves already functioning as an effective, collegial, purposeful, compassionate, and committed group of four.

Happily, as do the other BACCA writers, I remain connected to the two writers who have departed from active involvement with the group. It is a great pleasure to know both of these fellow writers, now friends, and to enjoy the conversational styles and senses of humor unique to each of them. I am filled with admiration for the ways each of them has designed a life that gives them joy.

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We’re keeping the six-berry logo.

Turn, Turn, Turn

And as for BACCA, once again, our shared intention to serve the group overcame the uncertainty. As the song goes, to everything there is a season. Once again, BACCA reconfigured itself and evolved. May your writer group do the same.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and manuscript development services to authors. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. #becomingunstuck 

Searching for Dr. Funkhouser

Finding Fault

All I wanted was to research manmade earthquakes.  I was pulling together ideas for a new novel about villains  triggering an earthquake under a nuclear power plant.  I had visions of them rubbing their hands together as they watched chaos unfold. But how could I research such a thing?  Where would I go to find something as unlikely, as farfetched, and as absolutely insane as a nuclear power plant built on top of an earthquake fault? Well, lucky for me, there’s one in nearby Louisa County, Virginia.

North Anna Nuclear Power Station

North Anna Nuclear Power Station. Photo is from image of the North Anna Nuclear Power Station at the front entrance of the visitor’s center in Louisa County.

The North Anna Nuclear Power Plant was announced in The Daily Progress in 1968 and a couple of years later, after clearing and excavation had begun, a geology professor named John W. Funkhouser discovered the earthquake fault. That was in February, 1970.  I found many interesting articles about the building of the nuclear power plant and the discovery of the fault but one that really stuck out was a small piece about what happened to Funkhouser three years after he discovered the fault.  He was murdered on December 3, 1974 via a single gunshot to the head.

Professor Funkhouser taught geology at John Tyler Community College in Chesterfield, Virginia. He was scheduled to testify before the Atomic Energy Commission (now called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) in early 1975, but his murder quashed that appearance.  Twenty-four year old unemployed electrician Ray W. Cook, Jr. was convicted of his murder. The more I read, the more questions arose.  What brought Funkhouser to the power plant’s construction site back in 1970?  How did he uncover the fault?  What happened after he told the Virginia Electric and Power Company?

I tried to return to researching for my novel. I found reports of certain human activities triggering earthquakes. Activities such as damming a river to create a massive lake on a previously quiet earthquake fault. This is what geologists call reservoir-induced earthquakes. The construction of Hoover Dam, for instance, created Lake Mead in a part of the country with no previous record of seismicity. Even before the lake was completely full, people reported feeling the ground shake. Another suspect is fracking. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “wastewater produced by the hydraulic fracturing process can cause induced earthquakes when it is injected into deep wastewater wells.”  I contacted geologists and a couple of engineers to ask about the plausibility of my villain’s dastardly scheme. Yes, they speculated, a lake on a fault line plus fracking might trigger an earthquake, so I was rather pleased with myself as I moved forward with writing the first few chapters.

But this man, this Professor John W. Funkhouser, the man who discovered the fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant and was murdered, kept surfacing in my mind.

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Photo from the Washington and Lee University yearbook, class of 1947. Taken when Dr. Funkhouser was 21 years old.

Who was he? What was his background? I searched the internet and found articles about Funkhouser and about his murder, including a copy of his death certificate.  I faced the fact that I had to set aside my fictional story.  I had to investigate the real one.  I printed out the death certificate.  Funkhouser was murdered in his home at the Chester Town House Apartments in Chesterfield, Virginia.  I searched online for Chester Town House Apartments but found nothing.  Since the murder was back in 1974, the apartment complex could have changed its name or may have been torn down.  That led me to contact the Chesterfield Planning Department and the Chesterfield Historical Society.  Indeed, the name of the apartment complex had changed.  I typed the new name into Google Maps. There it was.  I typed in John Tyler Community College. The apartments were about eight miles from the campus.  Professor Funkhouser was slowly becoming a real person.  This was where he lived. This was where he taught. This was where he died.  Each new discovery made me want to learn more.

Court Records

I’d never asked for court records before.  I’ve been on a jury but that was my only brush with the world of judges, prosecuting attorneys, and witnesses.  I had to do a bit of research even to know where to start. I wanted detail about the trial of Ray W. Cook, Jr.  Maybe trial transcripts would give me insight into why he shot Professor Funkhouser. I went to the Chesterfield County website and found what I needed.  I contacted the Clerk of Court, The Honorable Wendy S. Hughes, via email and quickly received a polite reply from Karla Viar, Criminal Division Supervisor/Pre-Court, Chesterfield Circuit Court Clerk’s Office. She told me that they’d pulled the files from the murder trial and had them available for me. I emailed Karla. I’d be there the next afternoon.

The drive from my home in Charlottesville to the Chesterfield Circuit Court took a bit over an hour.  I parked, grabbed my purse and notebook, and headed to the door. I didn’t know what to expect. Would they hand me a small file with one flimsy document? Would they have a thick file with stacks of evidence?  My plan was to take photos of each page with my cell phone. That seemed the easiest.  I stepped into the courthouse and was greeted by baggage scanners and armed guards.  “No cell phones. No cameras of any sort allowed in the court house.”  I returned to the car and dropped off my purse.  I returned with only my keys, my notebook, and a pen.  That’s all. This time, I made it through security.

Chesterfield County Court Building

Chesterfield Circuit Court

Ms. Viar was good to her word. The file was waiting for me.  I opened it and began writing.  I wrote down every word.  “Form No. 716 (REV) Virginia: In the Chesterfield General District Court January 29th, 1975, Commonwealth of Virginia V. Ray William Cook, Jr. Order This day came the Attorney for the Commonwealth, and ….” after writing a few full pages my hand began it cramp. The clerk assigned to sit with me while I had the file must have felt pity on me.  “Um, you know we can make copies for you,” she said.  “Fifty cents a page.”

“Do you take credit cards?”

“Yes.”

I ran back to my car for my wallet.  It took an hour or so for her to make and compile all the copies. She copied over fifty pages, most letter length but a few legal papers.  There was also a brown envelope taped closed in the file. “What’s that?” I asked.

“Sealed documents.”

“What do I have to do to get a look inside?”

“You need approval from the judge.”

“What judge?”

“Judge Hauler.”

I wrote down that name.  The information I had in my hands was already pretty incendiary. The copies I held contained details of the crime, a handwritten confession, and a photo; I could only imagine what the sealed documents might hold.  Looks like I had some more legal research ahead of me. How to request a judge to unseal court documents?  I’d work on that when I got home.

I still had a couple hours of daylight left so I drove over to the John Tyler Community College campus, where Professor Funkhouser had taught. It was winter break. I asked a guard where the geology building was and he sent me in the right direction.  I had researched enough about John W. Funkhouser to know he was a brilliant man.  Magna Cum Laude at Washington and Lee and a scholarship to Stanford University for his PhD where he was an Atomic Energy Fellow.  After graduation, he was hired by Carter Oil (part of Esso/Standard Oil) and was sent on expedition to South America where he revolutionized the field of paleopalynology.  In the mid 1960’s, he left big oil for small academia.  Peeking through the windows into the dark and empty classrooms I couldn’t help but be struck by the loss.

I still had one more stop before heading back to Charlottesville. I wanted to see the old Chester Townhouse Apartments. I wanted to see where Professor Funkhouser had lived and where he had died. At the very least, I wanted to drive the route he’d taken when he left work at John Tyler Community College and headed home on that final day in 1974.

The apartment complex was laid out like a tree with a road down the middle and cul-de-sacs branching out on either side. I drove down the first cul-de-sac.  Some of the two-story townhouses were larger than others, perhaps an extra bedroom.  I wanted to take a photo so I’d remember.  I didn’t want people or cars in the photo so I found a quiet townhouse and snapped my cell phone camera. I drove to the next cul-de-sac and saw a sign for the apartment complex’s office.

The young woman who greeted me wasn’t even born when Professor Funkhouser died. The office was a converted townhome, a showroom for potential renters to see before they sign.  I asked when the complex was built and she guessed in the 70’s or 80’s.  I asked if I could look around.  She encouraged it.  I wandered through the kitchen as if it were Professor Funkhouser’s, touching the surfaces as if he had touched them.  He was shot in his kitchen. I’d seen the photo in the court records.  He was killed at 4:30 in the afternoon, dressed in a white shirt and dark pants, his pocket protector neatly in his breast pocket, still filled with pencils and pens.  I returned to my car and drove to the next cul-de-sac and to the next one after that.  Up and down the streets, not knowing what I was looking for.  Clues to which townhouse was his, I guess. Something that looked different from the rest, something that would say a genius once lived here.

I was ready to set my GPS for home when it dawned on me that somewhere buried in the court records had to be his apartment number. Yes, the name of the apartment complex had changed and maybe the numbering had too, but I had to give it a try.  I found his address in the Virginia Uniform Traffic Summons, a report filled out by the detective who arrested Mr. Cook.  The number was there.  Five digits.  I started reading the townhouse addresses. They fit the same five digit pattern. I retraced my steps, winding back through the apartment complex, carefully reading the addresses until I returned to where I had begun at the very first cul-de-sac.   I looked at each number. Not that one.  Not that one.  Then I found it.  There it was. The address was on the front door. I rechecked the summons.  Yes, it was the same number.  Wait a minute.  I checked my cell phone. There was something familiar with that particular townhouse.  I opened up the photo gallery. I enlarged the photo I’d taken when I first arrived.  Could this be Dr. Funkhouser’s townhouse?  There must have been forty or fifty townhomes in the complex, how did I happen to take a photo of his? What were the odds? I reread the number on the front door and immediately felt a connection.  All the time I had spent searching for Dr. Funkhouser and he had found me.

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Photo taken from my car window.

Carolyn O’Neal is continuing her research on the life and death of Professor John W. Funkhouser.  She wrote Judge Hauler of Chesterfield County and did indeed receive permission to open the sealed files.  From those files, she was able to track down a witness and interview him face-to-face.  She has also interviewed (via phone) Dr. Funkhouser’s daughter and one of his John Tyler Community College students.  Carolyn would like to connect with anyone who had worked at the North Anna Power Plant when it was under construction or lived nearby.  She would also like to find anyone involved with the North Anna Environmental Coalition.  And of course, she would like to talk to anyone who knew Dr. John W. Funkhouser.  Contact Carolyn at carolynoneal@comcast.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding yourself in new country

 

egg and book

It’s time to get serious about writing a second novel. Well past time.

I have been warned by other writers, and now I know it’s true: just because you’ve written one novel doesn’t mean the next one will be easy to write. Starting over is hard, especially at first. It’s much more comfortable to just keep tinkering—to keep honing and shaping that first world you have created.

It makes sense to finish before you start something new, but polishing for years, that’s a different story… a cautionary tale, in fact. In college, I remember hearing of a professor, who, after a brilliant start, frittered years of his career away rewriting that first book over and over, never declaring it finished. I can’t let this happen. I don’t want to wake up ten years from now and find I’ve written nothing new. Fortunately, a deadline looms. (I’ve learned to love deadlines in that way you love a person who tells you the truth, no matter how hard). In a few months time, the writers of BACCA will have finished reading what I’ve written. Soon, I’ll need to deliver something new.

I’ve known some artists and musicians that somehow always seem to have seven pots simmering on a four-burner stove, but that’s not me. I can only pour my full creative energies into one concoction at a time. I’m learning that both creative methods have merit and both have challenges. While idea wranglers never have to ask “what’s next?,” they might struggle with focus, follow through, and knowing where to begin. They might also have trouble ever finishing any one thing. Idea monogamists, on the other hand, might toil happily on and on, right up until they start to see that quiet dark at the end of the work, looming like the vast unknown of space. Then, watch us as we cling, lingering over what’s left to do.

Some compare the creative process to giving birth, but for me it’s more like allowing myself to be born into something new, reincarnating, or dropping myself into unknown territory. Leaving the comforts and familiar details of my first novel to explore something foreign feels a little like leaving a city I’ve loved and moving into a place that hasn’t made space for me yet.

I’ve packed up and moved over a dozen times: across towns, across states and across the short side of the country more than once. Allowing one’s self to be a stranger in a strange land is difficult medicine, a conditioning of a certain kind. My great-grandmother used to say—three moves equal a [house] fire, and I’ve puzzled over this bit of wisdom. I assume she was calculating losses: items broken, misplaced, or left behind. Before bubble wrap and packing tape, the potential for breakage during a move must have been great, and the consequences severe. Before moving vans, whatever possessions didn’t fit in the truck probably had to be given away. Perhaps it felt better to some people to just stay put.

After changing my scenery so many times, I’ve learned to pack well—things rarely break, and if I give stuff away, or leave it behind, I’m usually glad. Still, there are losses, intangible ones, that somehow always get left out of the equation: familiarity, job connections, roots, the ease of well-known routes and roads, and those casual, comfortable acquaintance-ships that make life feel just a little warmer and more welcoming. When determining what I’m leaving behind, I always forget to factor in the barista, who starts making my drink before I order, the neighbor across the street who always waves, or the cheese monger that I worked with once, who’s going to lead me straight to the wedge of triple-creme brie, which has just been freshly cut, but not a second before it had ripened. And none of this begins to cover the long-distance tax placed on real friendships, which inevitably erodes all but the strongest of connections. On the other side of a move, these losses don’t seem so intangible after all. Knowing and being known, being remembered—these are powerful elixirs that bolster hope, purpose, and connection.

 

Gifts come, too, from learning how to move: resilience, humility (being the new girl over and over is tough), map-reading skills, perspective, and, very often, some good stories.

After so many transitions, I should be an expert by now, and I do have some of it down: packing and lifting, finding a great space, and setting it up quickly. Learning how to feel at home, though, and knowing how to let go of what I’ve had to leave behind without a long mourning period—these challenges are sticky every time.

It shouldn’t surprise me, then, that instead of mapping out the unknown territory of a new novel, I’ve been hanging out in the first one—revisiting all my favorite spots one more time. I’m already nostalgic, even though I know that every book is a world that can be returned to over and over again.

For the second novel, I’m searching for an un-erodable center around which the rest can accumulate, manifest—a character, a plot, an image—that will not wear out. Something essential will come, something elemental from which I can forge more. While keeping an ear open for the call of the muse, I also find it helps to hang out often by the sacred pools where they congregate, so I’m writing every day. That way, wherever I wander, I’m never a stranger to the page.

It’s time, now. It’s time to get brave, to find myself in a new country, to learn the unfamiliar faces, and to memorize the names.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a new member of the BACCA Literary group. Photo by the author.

Legwork

Legwork

My son is an aspiring actor and was complaining yesterday about having to make fifty copies of resumes and headshots for an upcoming “cattle call” audition. “The art is easy,” he said. “It’s all this crap I hate.” I felt the same way at his age. Submitting work to agents and journals, formatting manuscripts, and even “networking” require, it seems to me, very different parts of the brain from writing, and they are not parts to which I have easy access. Liam is a chip off the old block.  But I find that as I get older I become fonder of those sorts of actitvities.  No, they are not the wonderful rush and wallowing of the creative act, but I feel good when I have performed them.  For me, it’s like the experience of being a mother.  All sorts of formerly repulsive things, from changing diapers to filling out financial aid forms, become more welcome parts of life than one would have thought possible. Also, just as introspective mothers tend to form groups and socialize more when they have children, so I have found that a writing group is a wonderful way to connect with people who are, like me,  performing this difficult-to-describe balancing act, and who think it is worth doing.  “It’s like having a child,” I tried to explain to Liam, but of course he hasn’t had one, and it’s one of those things you really have to experience to understand. I hope he comes to appreciate the pleasures of legwork earlier than I did, but there’s no way I can really bring that about.  I’ll have to settle for trying to be a good example. So, off to get the novel manuscript ready to send of to a contest. Onward.