It’s snowing as I write this on a Sunday afternoon in January. The white stuff has been coming down in central Virginia steadily and relentlessly for more than five hours. It’s expected to continue for quite a while, after which it might shift to freezing rain tonight.
When it snowed here two weeks ago, my neighborhood lost power. Living in a completely electric-powered dwelling, I was left without heat, light, and internet, and did not have the use of kitchen appliances. Lucky for me, the power came back on later that evening. (For some people in the area, the power was out for as long as a full week. The public utility – cough – Dominion Energy – cough – has a lot to answer for.)
When the weather predictions about this snowfall began several days ago, reports differed from one source to another. The chatty woman at the UPS store told me to expect over a foot of snow. NOAA’s forecast predicted half of that. Two apps on my phone disagreed – because it’s impossible to predict the future. Even for weather experts.
I noticed I was feeling keyed up and udgy this weekend, and I knew why. Those cold, dark hours earlier this month, when the public utility gave us no projected time the power might be restored, were uncomfortable and full of uncertainty. Were a lot more of those hours heading my way? Thoughts – planning, list-making, trading bits of advice with friends – occupied my attention as I went through the steps. Do the laundry. Whiz up extra nutrition-packed blender drinks and keep them outdoors in a thermal carrier. Doublecheck that the shelf-stable food supplies are plenteous and accessible. Fill the thermos with boiling water. Go for a long walk the day before the storm was due, even in cold weather, because there may not be any walking possible for a while. Complete all the next several days’ essential desk tasks, just in case I won’t have the use of a computer. Make contingency plans with friends who have 4-wheel drive and/or a spare room, if my power goes out and theirs stays on. Sad to say, I’m developing a bad-weather routine. It did not include creative writing – not even this blog post.
My usual weekend sort-of routine has been disrupted. I’ll admit that I enjoy a certain amount of routine in my weekends, especially during the past 20-odd pandemic months. If it’s Sunday, it’s time for a long walk in the woods, followed by a laundry or two. If it’s Saturday, I get to read a book. I might do more in the kitchen than during the week, fixing something for dinner that requires longer prep time, or baking. Typically, in an aspect of my weekends that I treasure, these activities all happen without deadlines or timetables. I mosey from one thing to another, taking breaks as they happen.
It felt like all those relaxed weekend possibilities went – poof – once it was clear this snowstorm was coming. The “gotta-gotta” engine was running things. That engine used to run my life a lot, and am grateful that it doesn’t so much, these days. My body remembers how, though. The elevated heart rate, shorter breaths, easily distracted thinking – oh yeah. Like riding a bicycle. As I explain in the “Come to Mama” tool in my book, FLOAT, “A self-defeating, buzzing energy I’ve come to call ‘gotta-gotta’ takes over when I’ve been in the land of windowless light, filtered air, and hard surfaces for too long. Gotta-gotta is the welcome mat for workaholism, compulsion, and further depletion. In the throes of gotta-gotta, proportion and balance don’t have a chance to be taken seriously.”
I noticed gotta-gotta taking over this weekend. While I understood the wisdom of making plans to take care of myself and my short-term obligations, I didn’t want to see my hard-won equanimity buried in a snowdrift until springtime. I wanted to use the gotta-gotta when it was called for, and then drop back down into something that works better long term – something calmer and deeper. There’s good news on that front.
I’m glad to report that, although it’s still snowing, I’m getting to the end of this blog post. This wasn’t possible to write while in the throes of gotta-gotta. So, although there are now several inches of snow outside my front door, and they’ll need to be dealt with before I can venture out, it’s also true that indoors the lights are still on, my heartbeat is back to normal, and I plan to fix another cup of tea as soon as I wrap up this post.
Stay safe and sound, everyone. Here’s to calming down enough to write.
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.
The date was Wednesday, March 20, 1974. The place was the Louisa County Courthouse. The event was a hearing to determine whether the geologic fault running beneath the nuclear reactors at the North Anna nuclear power plant was safe. The existence of a fault wasn’t in question. Neither was whether Vepco purposely hid the existence of the fault from the AEC and from the public for three years. At issue was the age of the fault and the likelihood that it was currently active (or could be reactivated) and could jeopardize the four proposed nuclear reactors enough to flood the surrounding cities, towns, and farms with radiation.
The three-man Atomic Energy Commission Safety and Licensing Board had set up the hearing in Louisa County to listen to testimony from Vepco personnel, paid experts, upset landowners, and concerned scientists. Neither Chairman John B. Farmokides nor the other two men on the board, R. B. Briggs, a nuclear safety engineer from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Lester Kornblith, Jr. an Atomic Energy Commission engineer, had any idea the hearing would go on for twelve long days when Chairman Farmokides called the hearing to order. (The Central Virginian, April 6, 1974, AEC Panel Concludes Twelve Day Hearing)
Most of those testifying were male. All three board members were male. All the Vepco personnel as well as their subcontractors were male. All the lawyers representing the AEC, Vepco, the state of Virginia, and the North Anna Environmental Coalition were male. It’s possible that on some days the only woman in the entire Courthouse was June Allen. Forty-two year old June Allen most embodied the North Anna Environmental Coalition yet it’s more than likely every man in the room thought she would soon give up. They probably thought she’d return to cooking or cleaning or whatever middle-aged women from Charlottesville did in 1974. What could one lone woman and a handful of cock-eyed environmentalists do to halt Vepco’s plans to build one of the largest nuclear power plant in the world? How could this middle-aged schoolmarm stand up to the combined might of the Atomic Energy Commission and largest taxpaying corporation in the state?
What neither Vepco nor the Atomic Energy Commission knew was that June Allen had never been content to watch injustice from the sidelines. She wasn’t about to scurry back to Charlottesville. What neither Vepco nor the Atomic Energy Commission knew was that June Allen had a history of advocating for the most vulnerable members of society against the most intractable foes.
Uphill battles & seemingly lost causes didn’t discourage June Allen. They spurred her on.
In the 1960 United States census, over one fifth of the population was living below the poverty line. In 1962, social critic Michael Harrington estimated there were between 40,000,000 and 50,000,000 relatively invisible poor people: Unskilled workers, migrant farm workers, minorities, people for whom work was sporadic, demeaning, and demoralizing. They were without adequate housing, education, and medical care. (American Social Policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s, by Jerry D. Marx, Ph.D., M.S.W., University of New Hampshire) Civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., explaining the cause of the 1965 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles, focused on the poor in a land of plenty:
“I believe what happened in Los Angeles was of grave national significance. What we witnessed in the Watts area was the beginning of a stirring of a deprived people in a society who had been by-passed by the progress of the previous decade. I would minimize the racial significance and point to the fact that these were the rumblings of discontent from the ‘have-nots’ within the midst of an affluent society.”
(On 17 August 1965, Martin Luther King arrived in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the riots. His experiences over the next several days reinforced his growing conviction that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) should move north and lead a movement to address the growing problems facing black people in the nation’s urban areas. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University)
In January 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared “unconditional war” on poverty. As Johnson put it in his 1964 State of the Union address, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” His efforts resulted in the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (which established the Job Corps, the VISTA program, the federal work-study program and a number of other initiatives), and, most importantly to millions of disadvantaged children, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (Washington Post, January 8, 2014, Everything you need to know about the war on poverty By Dylan Matthews)
Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was created to distribute federal funds to school districts that had a high percentage of students from low-income families. It was designed to close the skills gap in reading, writing, and mathematics between children from low-income households who attend urban or rural school systems and children from the middle-class who attend suburban school systems. Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act supported special education and became the basis of the Education of the Handicapped Act. (Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 by Catherine A. Paul) School districts all over the country rushed to find educators and administrators capable of implementing the massive intricacies of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
In January 1966, June Allen became the first fulltime coordinator of Albemarle County’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act programs making her one of President Johnson’s unsung heroes of his war on poverty. Born in 1932, June Stone Allen was a native New Englander. She was Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Vermont. She had a Master’s Degree in Music Education from the University of Arizona and graduate work in English at Harvard. Before moving to Albemarle County, she taught high school English in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. She came to Charlottesville in 1963 when her husband, Dr. Phillip Allen, joined the University of Virginia medical school faculty. Before being recruited to implement President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act in Albemarle County, Mrs. Allen taught music at the Trinity Program in Charlottesville and at Head Start. In 1965 she taped “Patterns in Music,” a series of fifth-grade music lessons for WCVE, the Richmond educational television station.
As the first fulltime coordinator of Albemarle County’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act programs, June Allen started several of Title I and Title III programs including “Summer Skills,” “Greenwood Grows,” “Prime Time,” and “Candid Classroom,” but it was in the two language programs she designed that her gifts as an educator shined: “Language Lift” and “SP-EAR”
“Language Lift” was designed to stimulate oral language and reasoning ability. The premise for this combination was that both were essential for success in reading, especially for disadvantaged children. The program was widely admired and was recognized by the Office of Education as “outstanding.” (There was no mention in the source article of whether the “Office of Education” was a local, statewide, or federal Department of Education.) Two reporters from the Charlottesville newspaper The Daily Progress won prizes in writing for their pieces about the “Language Lift” program.
Like “Language Lift,” the “SP-EAR” program was a joint effort between the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. “SP-EAR” focused on the “hearing handicapped and the speech impaired” with particular attention on oral language.
In 2021, Albemarle County has Title I programs in 6 elementary schools. Funds support reading and math instruction through teachers, teaching assistants, instructional materials, professional development, and program support for over 300 students in the county. (From Albemarle County Schools website https://www.k12albemarle.org/our-departments/instruction/title-i)
After years of fighting in President Johnson’s war on poverty, taking on Vepco must not have seemed nearly as daunting. A month before the Atomic Energy Commission’s Safety and Licensing Board hearing began, Richmond Times Dispatch reporter Jean Purcell interviewed June Allen. This same insightful reporter had interviewed Louisa County High School Councilor Mr. H. Spurgeon Moss as rising waters from the dammed North Anna River threatened to cut across his driveway and strand him in his home. As with her article about Mr. Moss, reporter Jean Purcell saw the David versus Goliath battle shaping up as another dedicated educator tangled with Vepco and their billion dollar nuclear power plant. Modern eyes may read Jean Purcell’s description of June Allen in the February, 1974 interview as too flowery, even condescending, but in 1974, one professional woman interviewing another professional woman was certainly a rarity in Virginia and perhaps a rarity throughout the world:
“Willowy and gentle, a poet and a musician, June Allen’s interest had been largely in the fields of music and language arts, and in developing language teaching techniques for disadvantaged children.
But she can be aggressive without being abrasive, courteous without taking on the qualities of a Uriah Heep. Her birth and upbringing in a puritanical environment in New England have fused in her a strong streak of what she considers the rightness of things.
Membership in Phi Beta Kappa attests her academic achievements. As a friend said of her recently, “I never cease to be amazed by her basic intelligence, her articulation and her smoothness.”
All those qualities have been useful—more than that, necessary—in her work with the North Anna Environmental Coalition to block construction of the power plant as it is now planned.
In preparation for a March 20  hearing on the safety of the North Anna site in light of the geologic fault, Mrs. Allen and others in the coalition are hard at work.
‘I think it is a matter of survival. I genuinely do. We are developing something that has the power to destroy us,’ she said.”
(Richmond Times Dispatch, February 25, 1974, Atomic Power Plant Foe is an Unlikely Adversary by Jean Purcell)
June Allen and the North Anna Environmental Coalition had reason to distrust Vepco. They had reason to be wary of the Atomic Energy Commission as the hearings began. Far too many voices echoed the sentiment that the AEC had already decided to support Vepco long before the hearings began. Rumors rippled through the Courthouse that the AEC would give Vepco permission to continue building the North Anna nuclear power plant regardless of what was uncovered regarding the earthquake fault under the nuclear reactors.
Author’s Note: I’ve found very few articles about June Allen and nothing on her life after leaving Virginia (other than her obituary). If you knew June Allen or any member of the North Anna Environmental Coalition, please leave a message below. I’d like to learn more.
Albemarle County, Virginia, is located about thirty miles west of Louisa County (site of the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant.) In the middle of the 726 square-mile county is Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. Albemarle County is where President Thomas Jefferson built his famous mansion Monticello, and President James Monroe built his less famous mansion Highland.
Headline image of two workmen atop the North Anna Dam courtesy of The Central Virginian Newspaper
This month the deadlines are stacked up like flapjacks, but I do not want to work. All I want is to go outside and soak up as much of the light and color the short days will allow.
For once, October wasn’t a diva and saved some glory for November. Usually, we only have the subtle pink and burgundy oak leaves left by now. But this year, the sassafras leaves are still waving, the ginkgo is more green than gold, and sunset-colored maples are competing with the Christmas lights that have already gone up. Autumn is taking its time in spite of the calendar, and I just want to be in the middle of it while it’s happening.
Meanwhile, that little pile of to-dos I thought I had under control is cascading into chaos, threatening to take me with it. I’m using my tools—I’ve got the whole mess micro-mapped, broken into baby steps. I thought I’d be less daunted if I broke it down. I thought I’d just soar through, but I’m moving at more of a meander.
The potency of liminal time
Lucky for me, I have Brenda Ueland backing me up. In her slim, hope-packed manifesto, If You Want To Write: A Book about Art, Independenceand Spirit, first published in 1938, she proposes that the “idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong.” Instead, she promises, “the imagination needs moodling,—long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”
I love this. In this light, afternoons spent pondering, strolls outside spent gathering petals, rocks, leaves—all have value. It isn’t laziness or just avoiding the inevitable to stay in bed for a few extra minutes some mornings. Maybe those quiet, just-waking moments, when pieces of dream and thought drift down together in new interlocking orders, are as important as the work I’ll get around to after. In that liminal time, crucial creative energy accumulates, banks up, gathering in potency so it can fuel the creative work of another time.
I know this from dabbling in other disciplines—recovery days are as important as running days. If I want to run next week, or when I’m 75, I have to give myself days in between to stretch and rest, refuel and heal. The garden teaches this too. You can’t plant tomatoes in the same patch every year—the soil needs fallow time so it can be replenished.
For the sake of today and tomorrow
I try to hold this all-too-appealing permission slip in balance with other advice that I know to be true, including the undeniable prescription that, to be a good writer, you need to write everyday. Still, Brenda Ueland makes good sense when she says that “what we write today slipped into our souls some other day when we were alone and doing nothing.” What she calls a “span of idling yesterday,” therefore, is essential. Racing from one task to the next so that we can get it all done doesn’t lead to the best work, she argues, because “good ideas come slowly” as a result of “clear, tranquil and unstimulated” time—and the more slowly they come, she says, the better they’ll be.
Still, deadlines loom, and I can’t pretend otherwise without disappointing myself and others. So today, I do a task and cross it off the list. Then before the sun goes down, I give in to “unstimulated” time. For the sake of the novel I hope to start next year, I get myself under the ginkgo branches to check on the progression of green to gold.
Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.
A coaching client of mine emailed the other day to ask why I hadn’t yet begun the “heavy lifting editing” on their book manuscript in progress. Turns out that previous experience with an editor had taught my client to expect cutting and pasting — or slashing and burning — from the start. My behavior wasn’t measuring up to the client’s expectations.
I got to thinking. I saw that, especially with this project, there are multiple kinds of heavy lifting involved in the collaboration between writer and coach, and they each have their own timing.
I reflected on where we were with the project and what had happened so far. They’d sent me 80 or so pages, and asked for an edit of the first portion of those. I did a line edit on those pages, with marginal comments and questions about structure and context. We met a couple of times to discuss these things, and to plan a working outline for the book. After those coaching sessions, the client requested time to think through some new ideas we’d brainstormed about the architecture of this book-length project, and the basic design of each section and chapter within it.
It wasn’t yet time for me to get into any heavy lifting. We were still defining what we were building. With several hundred more pages to write, the client was doing plenty of heavy lifting already.
Along those lines, my client also said: “I think after we get through this first chapter we will have a better idea of how to proceed in the future.”
With that thoughtful sentence, the client was exploring our working process. Makes sense, since they’ve never done this before. And we’ve never done this together before. They’re right about the “heavy lifting,” too — and there’s more than one kind involved for this project. It’s a good metaphor.
After reflecting on these things, I wrote back to the client: Yes, you’re right. I wait to move blocks of text around until I feel we both have a strong sense of the way we’re going to structure the book. For me, that kind of editing makes sense only when the overall architecture — the plan for the book — is clear. Once we have that in place, I’ll be glad to dig in and sling paragraphs around.
Another kind of heavy lifting
The paragraph-slinging I’ll be undertaking is one kind of heavy lifting. There’s another important aspect to this project. It’s the client’s first full-length book — a complex braid of memoir, the science of trauma, and wisdom — and it contains sensitive subject matter. So not only do they need to find the words and make the sentences, and organize them into chapters and sections with an overall arc, flow, and momentum — they also need to find the inner resources to develop and sustain an arms-length stance to the entire enterprise.
Writing about difficult topics from their own life, particularly those that are likely to trigger some members of the intended reading audience, this author has the extra challenge of distancing enough from their own past trauma and growth to be a clear communicator with a consistent perspective. Doing that involves building some strong muscles, and allowing for plenty of recovery time.
The inner work my client has already done — to be capable of this kind of writing — is impressive. That preparation has made it possible now to immerse in deep and painful memories, then surface enough to express in language things that have become possible to articulate, and then climb all the way out, shake it off, go to work, feed the cats, have supper with the spouse, etc. It’s a kind of heavy lifting that takes all the time it requires. From the pages I’ve seen, it’s already apparent that the client’s voice is clear. Their purpose is well defined. People will benefit from this work.
And another kind
Also, it’s the first time they’ve worked with a writing coach. As with any relationship, trust builds over time. We first met a few years ago, when they came to me for a quick creative boost. They had a short deadline for a presentation that needed some finishing touches. So initial trust was there, but now we’re developing a deeper working relationship. Things are going well, and we’re already making real progress defining the book and its architecture.
But last time I contributed the equivalent of a car wash and detailing for a vehicle that the client had already built and road tested. Compared to our prior work together, our process this time is more like designing and assembling an airplane. It makes sense for us to do this work on the ground, not mid-flight.
In short, a project like this requires several kinds of heavy lifting. The author has to bear the most weight, and for the longest time. You might say they’ve been carrying a lot of it their entire life. In fact, this writing project has the potential to lighten their load, if we proceed deliberately and with care. I’m really looking forward to doing my part.
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from Central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.
My sister is an excellent quilter. She knows everything about quilting, from presser foots* to Prairie points**. In her sewing room are drawers of needles and sewing machine equipment, organizers full of measuring rulers of every shape and size (straight, triangle, curved), and bookcases of quilting books and magazines.
Lots and lots of fabric. She has fabric with tight patterns of flora and fauna. She has fabric with large panels of complete images. Majestic mountains, smiling sunrises, slumbering moonbeams. She has fabric in every imaginable color and hue. Go to her “green” drawer and she can find anything she might need to add a touch of nature to a quilt. Shamrocks, leaves, frogs. The same with her yellow, red, and blue drawers. She and I often visit fabric stores to add to her collection. Cottonwood in Charlottesville is my favorite fabric store. She’s partial to Patchwork Plusin Dayton.
Recently, she’s begun teaching me how to quilt.
She began by giving me a task that made me comfortable with the tools of quilting. The sewing machine, the iron, and the rotary cutter (a sharp, round blade attached to a handle, looks like a pizza cutter).
Putting together the pieces of a story isn’t very different from putting together the pieces of a quilt. The best way to start is with a strong and thoughtful mentor. I began my work as a serious writer by taking a Creative Writing Class at Writer House in Charlottesville. My teacher was David Ronka. Like my sister, he was both patient and instructive.
After you find your mentor, gather your tools and build up a supply of the bits and pieces to create your story. Characters, setting, plot. Beginning, middle, and end. The basic framework and the personal touches. You’re not going to use all the bits and pieces. Some will be thrown out. Some bits will be tucked away for a later project. Patience, creativity, and love.
Just like with quilting, if you don’t love the project you are working on, if it doesn’t give you both satisfaction and challenge, you’ll give up before it’s finished. Find the love.
* presser foots: The removable sewing machine accessory that holds fabric in place against the machine bed and accommodates the needle. A variety of presser feet styles are available for most machines.
** Prairie points: Folded fabric triangles used as a quilt border or embellishment.
I’ve returned to my old stomping grounds: the classic fairy tales. Rereading has always been a happy pastime for me. I was one of those kids—ready to start over with Once upon a time as soon as I’d heard The End. It’s comforting to revisit a story, to be delighted again by characters and ideas, even when you know what’s going to happen at the end.
Under the guidance of some master storytellers and interpreters of the form (Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Robert Bly, Angela Carter, and others), I’ve learned that rereading can uncover new things, too. Especially if I’m willing to pull back traditional interpretations to search with fresh eyes, or if I’m ready to examine gaps and silences instead of just leaping straight over them. This time through the Brothers Grimm, I’m looking around the corners in the stories, mining fissures to find what may be hiding there. I’m also trying to peer back into the eyes of the storytellers to see if they have anything else they might like to say. Here’s an example…
Remember The Frog Prince? (A princess drops her golden ball in a well, a frog offers to retrieve it—for a price. She agrees, but as soon as her favorite toy is recovered, she runs off, leaving the frog in the lurch.) Conventional analyses of this story tend to focus on the importance of integrity and keeping your promises. In the story, when the king hears the details, he makes his daughter fulfill her obligations. So, Froggy gets to eat from her plate and she even has to carry him up to her room. There’s nothing wrong with learning to keep your word, but I can’t stop thinking about what happens next…
When the frog tries to crawl into her pretty, silken bed, the princess slams him against the wall. Now, for the record, I do not condone violence against animals—it’s just the princess’s anger here that fascinates me. There’s a line she can’t cross, even to please the king. She made this bargain in haste without really considering the consequences, and when payment comes due, it’s too much. So, she gets mad.
Here’s the funny thing—the pothole in the story that I’ve always been encouraged to skate past—her anger IS the necessary catalyst required for transformation.
After Froggy hits the wall, he pops back into his original, charming prince form—no kissing required! It seems like the original storyteller here understood that keeping your word is important, but protecting your boundaries when you’ve entered into a bad bargain might be even more rewarding. That little facet of this story really holds up—in fact, it seems made for readers today.
There are a host of reasons why teachers and mentors and gurus have used stories to pass their wisdom down. Stories are easier to remember, for one thing. But they can also be elastic—they can grow and bend and twist with us. Narratologists have noted that fairy tales were likely never meant (just) for the children gathered around the fire, but told for the benefit and entertainment of everyone listening.
For me, all of this means that I never have to outgrow these tales—but I know if I return, I might discover that my allegiances have changed. I’m sure I’ll always want to see Hansel and Grethel escape the cannibalistic witch, but I’m less excited to see a damsel in distress get rescued and married off to her champion before she’s had a chance to grow up properly, to rescue herself, or to see the world. It’s likely that the endings might change for me too; I expect them to feel a bit more ambiguous. The sense of justice in happily ever after or they all got what they deserved depends entirely on who we’re cheering for.
Increasingly, I’m much more intrigued by the wish-granters and the catalysts now—those enigmatic figures lurking at the edge of the forest or in the bends of the path, offering help and advice and resources to the worthy and the curious. I confess I’m also sympathizing more and more with the solitary crone—minding her business, growing herbs in the forest— who’ll defend her territory if she has to, even though she might much rather just be left in peace. I must be entering a new phase.
I know of readers who reject the notion of going over old ground, but some books seem to be worthy of a return trip. I’m often tempted to seek out a good story again and again so I can see it from all sides, examine its facets, and imagine myself in each one of its thousand little worlds. And, as a writer, it’s one of my goals to make stories that are worthy of a second look—to create books with capacious themes, and ideas that bloom, and characters that hold new gifts in their hands every time a reader comes around.
Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author. Illustrations in photos by Arthur Rackham.
Writing habits differ and writers define success in a variety of ways. But a universal truth is that distractions online, at home, or at the office are abundant. They can easily sneak into your everyday routines.
As writers, how do we go deep and get work done? It’s so easy to get lost online and realize an hour has passed since you stopped to research a fact for your book. Authors like Dan Brown have set hours in the morning for work and they make sure apps are not open during that time. It is focused writing time. Other authors prefer more flexibility, but be careful.
If you need to research a name or a story detail, will it send you down many interesting rabbit holes online? If that’s the case, you need to set a time for that kind of exploration and just leave a blank in your story or document until you can get to your research.
Since covid, many more writers work from home. That comes with so many distractions. I need some water, maybe a snack. I should use the bathroom. I can throw those things into the washer and get that done while I’m working… It’s as bad as the internet.
Writing classes, workshops, and writing groups can also be distractions. Joining writer groups in person or online can be helpful in making connections, but at some point, you need to decide which groups serve you. Does the group allow you to contribute and grow as a professional? Is the group just taking up your limited writing time? The same can be said of classes, and even writing opportunities for anthologies, magazines, and blogs.
Contests, magazine submission calls, and deadlines for anthologies can serve as opportunities, but also as distractions. The first question is why are you writing for this deadline. It’s good to be published and it can add to your credibility, but make sure what you’re writing furthers your career and moves you forward in your genre. Chasing contests can keep you from finishing your novel.
In the end, what’s important is learning your craft and knowing/finding your audience.
The four best things you can do for your writing career?
Read recent works in your genre
Pamela Evans is a writer and teacher. She is best known for The Preschool Parent Primer, The Preschool Parent Blog, and The Preschool Parent Book Review which can all be found at www.ivyartz.com
As described in another page in more detail, the writer group BACCA formed after four of us met in a fiction class at WriterHouse in Charlottesville Virginia.
After the final class session, the four of us wanted to meet again for one more critique session. Then we realized that we all wanted to create an ongoing writer group.
That was ten years ago. Wow – it almost seems impossible that it’s been ten years, but there it is in my 2011 calendar – “writer critique swap” at noon on Saturday the 25th.
We immediately adopted the critique guidelines that had served us well in our writing class. Later, when we created a website for our group – by then we had named ourselves BACCA – we asked permission from Prof. Luke Whisnant, whose guidelines we’d been using, to reproduce them on the website as a resource for other writers. He graciously consented.
At our (pre-pandemic) workshops and in personal emails, we often referred other writers to these guidelines – along with a bundle of other writer group resources.
Changes over Time
Our membership has changed over the years. We now include two founding BACCA writers, another who’s been with us for many years, and one who is a guest member for the duration of her book manuscript. Three other writers were with us for a time, over the years.
Naturally, because of the variety of writers and the passage of time, our critique process has evolved.
A few months ago, we decided to take extra time at our monthly critique session to focus on the guidelines, and see where they might need expanding or refocusing.
Why the Guidelines are Like the US Constitution
I was shocked, when I looked a few months ago at the Whisnant critique guidelines, to see how much I’d added on to them – in my mind. Turns out, the actual guidelines only addressed works of fiction intended for adults, for one thing. Our group has produced, read, and critiqued in many more categories than that.
Kind of the like US Constitution, the underlying document had accrued a lot of additional meaning to over the years. But when I casually suggested to a new writer that a look at the guidelines on the BACCA website was all they needed to get up to speed, I had forgotten that none of that extra stuff is actually written down.
The US Constitution is written down.
So we went to work and came up with modifications to address not just adult fiction but also narrative nonfiction (from Carolyn O’Neal), children’s fiction (from Pam Evans), and self-help / instructional manuscripts (from me, A M Carley).
In addition, we now have a wonderful preamble by Noelle Beverly who gives every writer a high-altitude view of the critique process. Her suggestions are thorough, generous, and deeply insightful. You may recall seeing Noelle’s blog post here about this recently, as well.
Amendments Take Time
Also like the US Constitution, making changes to the underlying document requires deliberation and careful thought. Our process is not as glacial as, say, passing the Equal Rights Amendment – waiting since 1972 – but it has taken us several months.
We really hope that writers find them useful. As Noelle points out in her preamble, preparing critiques benefits the critiquer as well as the critiqued. It’s already been a great experience and opportunity for us to reflect on the key features of an excellent critique.
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.
Spin a blindfolded child and ask her to pin the tail in the middle of a map of Virginia and she could do a lot worse than Louisa County. East of Charlottesville and north of Richmond, Louisa County is about five hundred square miles of small towns, old family farms, and a tangled crisscross of streams and rivers.
In 1926, fourteen year old H. Spurgeon Moss faced a choice. Moss was a tall, bespectacled lad who loved to read but seventh grade was the end of the line for black children in the segregated schools of Louisa County, Virginia. The Virginia Constitution of 1869 had mandated the creation of free public education for all, provided that “white and colored persons shall not be taught in the same school but in separate schools under the same general regulations as to management, usefulness, and efficiency.” (Louisa Historical Society)
Sadly, the education of African-American children in the Jim Crow south seldom lived up to this mandate. The few schools that existed for black children were usually poorly equipped log cabins, church buildings, or rooms in private homes, funded by African-American churches and northern philanthropists. (Louisa County Historical Society)
Moss’s family valued hard work and education. Grandfather Boykin (his mother’s father) had purchased five hundred acres beside the North Anna River in the northeast corner of Louisa County in 1877. How did Grandfather Boykin save enough to buy such a large plot of land? Mining gold? Or did he have a skilled trade? Either way, the land he purchased may still have had remnants from one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The Battle of the North Anna took place along the banks of the North Anna River the first week of May 1864. Sixty-seven thousand Union forces against fifty-three thousand Confederates with a casualty count of forty-two hundred men.
Economic conditions in Louisa County were extremely difficult after the Civil War. Combined tax revenues in 1870 were one-fourth of what they had been in 1863, when property tax on slaves alone earned the county $58,389. (Louisa Historical Society) Grandfather Boykin purchased the land bordering the North Anna River, registered the deed for his land at the county courthouse, and hired an attorney to draw up a will so that when he died, the land would go to his daughter. Some neighbors thought it foolish to pay good money to a lawyer just to prove the land he was raising hogs on was actually his, but Grandfather Boykin had lived in Louisa County long enough to know that everything had to be written down, certified, and in the court house or some sheriff would come knocking on his door to take it all away. Sections were sold off over the years, a few acres here, a few acres there, some to pay for education, some to cover hospital bills, eventually whittling down the farm to 116 acres in 1926. (Daily Progress, July 26, 1970, A New Dam Brings an End to Old Ways.)
Fourteen year old H. Spurgeon Moss had grown up fishing on the banks of the North Anna River. He’d grown up raising hogs, chickens, and cattle. His precious few spare moments were spent reading under the large oak in his front yard. Moss wanted to further his education so he could help his people, but that meant leaving Louisa County. It meant leaving the farm his grandfather had built and moving one hundred miles north to Washington D.C. He packed his clothes, kissed his parents goodbye, and road in the back of a segregated Greyhound bus up to Washington DC for high school. Relatives met him at the bus station. He made the honor roll at Dunbar High School, (The Washington Post, February 24, 1929) and worked his way through school as a dishwasher then as a waiter, graduating from Minor Teachers College with a bachelor of science in education in 1934. (Miner Teachers College was the principal school to train black teachers in Washington DC for more than 70 years.) Mr. Moss would eventually take graduate level classes at Virginia State College, Virginia Union University, and Boston University, and earn a Master’s Degree in Guidance Counseling at the University of Virginia.
His first teaching job was at segregated Mount Garland Elementary School. He taught fifth and sixth grade. The arrival of this tall, handsome educator must have caused quite a stir. Mr. Moss was quickly promoted to principal. A couple of years later, in 1940, Louisa County consolidated white schools and converted some of the surplus white school buildings to black schools. Mr. Moss decided to go back to teaching at Plum Tree Elementary School. He transferred to the Louisa Training School, Louisa County’s only black high school (built in 1929, too late for Moss to attend.) He taught biology and chemistry, and served as assistant principal. In 1953, Louisa County closed the Training School and opened the A.G. Richardson High School with an enrollment of 293 students and eleven teachers. Mr. Moss was the social studies teacher and assistant principal. As the social studies teacher, he’d take busloads of students on field trips to the state capitol to see how state government functioned and to shake hands with their representatives. “Hitch your wagon to a star,” he’d tell them. Mr. Moss’s concern for his students was legendary. (Interview with Rev. Larry Lewis, November 26, 2018)
Teaching full time didn’t cover the costs of raising a family and maintaining a one-hundred acre farm. Even with the added responsibilities as an assistant principal, Mr. Moss needed to supplement his income. For year he traveled to Atlantic City, New Jersey to wait tables during summer break. “I made more money there in the summer than I made teaching the rest of the year,” he said (Daily Progress, July 26, 1970, A New Dam Brings an End to Old Ways.) Former students remembered Mr. Moss with affection. “He was a very down to earth person, personable. He was so encouraging to students. In the summers, he always went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to work, and he would bring a group of high school students with him. He secured jobs for these young people at the various hotels there along the Boardwalk. He gave them work experience and he was their chaperone during the time they were away from home, and he took very good care of them. He made sure they went and did what they were supposed to do while they were there in New Jersey.” ( Interview with Rev. Larry Lewis, November 26, 2018 via telephone)
In May, 1954, the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case came before the Supreme Court. In a rare unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court effectively overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of “separate but equal” and declared racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional. Virginia Senator Harry S. Byrd was outraged. He proposed “Massive Resistance” to the court’s ruling and in 1956 the Virginia state government adopted a policy to block the desegregation of public schools. Schools shut down in Prince Edward County, parts of Warren County, Charlottesville, and Norfolk. Unlike these places, schools in Louisa County never closed. Segregation remained deeply entrenched in the cities, but in the farmlands and outlying areas segregation was less pronounced. In areas that had only one grocery or hardware store, a kind of natural integration occurred, even friendships.
Mr. Moss came together with other educators to develop a plan to integrate the public schools. This was locally referred to as the “Freedom of Choice” plan and was sent to parents and announced in the local newspaper, The Central Virginian, on March 30, 1966. The intention was the elimination of segregation based on race, color or national origin. Students and parents had thirty days to choose the school the student would attend the next school year. (Louisa County Historical Society) Mr. Moss encouraged several of his students to choose white schools. The plan did not achieve total desegregation but it began the process. In doing so, Louisa County didn’t experience the anger, turmoil, or closing of public schools that many other Virginia counties and cities experience. Peace and civility were maintained largely due to the foresight of Mr. Moss along with other visionary educators such as Mr. Harry Nuckols. (https://www.culturaltourismdc.org/portal/miner-teachers-college-building-african-american-heritage-trail)
By 1968, Mr. Moss had taught school in Louisa County for thirty-six years. His wife, Ruth Moss, had taught for thirty-eight years. They’d put all three of their children through college. His oldest daughter taught English in Fairfax, his son taught industrial arts in Fairfax, and his youngest daughter, the wife of a former Army officer, was secretary to the Dean of the College of Dental Science at Howard University. He’d stopped going to Atlantic City every summer to wait tables and looked forward to retirement. He raised brood sows and would sell about forty young pigs each fall. He had eight cows as well as turkeys and chickens. His favorite animals were his six saddle horses. Farming was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He still sat under the large oak tree in the front yard to read. This was where he wanted to grow old. This was what his grandchildren called “Grandfather’s Zoo.”
In late February 1968, when the forsythias were starting to bud, two white men drove up the newly paved road to his farmhouse in a truck with the county seal on it. Chickens scattered when the white men drove up. “Mr. Moss,” one of the men called out, “the county sent us to survey this section of land. I just wanted to let you know we’ll be working on your property.”
“What’s the survey for?”
“I don’t rightly know, Mr. Moss,” one of the men answered. “The county says jump and we jump.” Mr. Moss smiled good-naturedly and waved the men on.
The white men were still on his property when he came home from work that evening. He saw their truck drive away just after sundown. They came the next day, waving to Mr. Moss as they drove by. After the second day of strangers on his property, Mr. Moss decided it was time for him to take a look at what they were doing. He saddled his favorite mare and rode the well-worn trail down to the river. Springtime was still a few weeks away and no place on earth was prettier in the springtime than his farm. He felt a deep pride in all his family had accomplished. Neither slavery nor Jim Crow could stop his grandfather from building the farm. In time, he would pass the land to his children and grandchildren.
He rode past the stretch of pines where the deer herds liked to settle down for the night. They left their imprint on the soft beds of pine straw. He was coming up on his cattle pasture when he saw the orange survey markers. Rows and rows of them, all the way down to the North Anna River. What was the county doing? Putting in a new road? Building a new bridge across the North Anna River? Either way, he didn’t much appreciate the county not sending him a notice that the surveyors would be on his land or what they were doing. He’d lived in Louisa County almost all his life, just stepping away to go up to Washington DC for his education. He’d paid his taxes and contributed his time and talents. The very least the county owed him was to tell him the truth.
By April, Mr. Moss was making real progress bringing black and white students together. He was guidance counselor for the newly integrated Louisa County High School. A.G. Richardson High School, where he used to teach social studies, had been converted to an elementary school and renamed Thomas Jefferson Elementary school, much to the disappointment of the African-American community. As Reverend Lewis would recall, “The only thing was that when they were renaming schools, we weren’t abreast of that so much that the names of our schools were maintained. That got away from us and that’s how Thomas Jefferson Elementary and Trevilians Elementary were renamed. Those schools were originally named for a black person because they were black schools during segregation. So we lost the names of those schools.” (Interview with Rev. Larry Lewis, November 26, 2018)
Four days into the month of April, 1968, the news of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination swept across the nation. Students came into Mr. Moss’s office with tears in their eyes. He’d listen to their fears, share his wisdom, and remind them that they were not alone. On the day of Dr. King’s funeral, four hundred Louisa County citizens, mostly African American, gathered at the First Baptist Church. A few clouds marred the morning sky. Daffodils beckoned and azaleas barely hinted at their true colors. The mourners clutched handkerchiefs and held hands as they waited for the pastor to call for their pilgrimage to begin. He gave the signal and they walked in silence the three blocks from the church to the Louisa County Courthouse. If they spoke, it was in reverential whispers. No music. No singing. No band played on this spring day, not at this memorial. They walked past the old confederate war memorial, erected in front of the courthouse before most of them were born. The single confederate soldier cast in bronze, holding his rifle at his side and nestled within a granite block, indifferent to the grief-stricken mourners.
The pastor of the Trinity Parish walked up the courthouse steps and addressed the crowd. He stood in front of white marble pillars and offered up a heartfelt prayer for peace, love and brotherhood. The pastor of the Church of Christ of Charlottesville spoke next. He acknowledged the fear that had gripped all who gathered. “We won’t be afraid anymore,” he said barely above a whisper.
Those in attendance answered, “Amen.”
“Our quest for equal rights will not be denied.”
The world was off-balance, as if the solid land under their feet had shifted. After the speakers, after the final prayers, they all left in silence. They returned to their homes and their jobs, and if Mr. and Mrs. Moss were among the mourners they returned to their farm. (Richmond Times Dispatch, April 10, 1968, Several Hundred Attended Memorial Service for Dr. King at Louisa Courthouse)
Spring was a busy time for farmers. Mr. Moss took a few minutes extra with his favorite mare that morning, brushing her mane. She rubbed against him, as if she knew what troubled him. Mr. Moss had kept saddle horses all his life and still marveled at their strength and gentleness. He stopped and pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket. He’d felt so tense since he’d learned of Dr. King’s assassination. He was worried about his children and grandchildren. Worried about his students. Worried about the county’s tentative steps toward equality. Sometimes life was nothing but a truckload of worries. Only his farm gave him peace.
“Spurgeon,” he heard his wife call from the farmhouse. “Spurgeon, you have a phone call.” Their neighbor from a nearby farm was on the phone. “He says it’s important.”
“Tell him to hold on.” Mr. Moss put away the brush and headed to the house. Ruth handed him the receiver. “Hello,” he said.
“Spurgeon, did you see the news? We’re about to be boiled out.”
Mr. Moss didn’t understand. He’d seen images on the television of buildings on fire, of the police with dogs and guns, of people running and screaming. “What? What are you talking about?”
“Front page news,” the neighbor said. Moss grabbed his hat and car keys and was halfway out the door when he stopped. These were uncertain times and he didn’t like the idea of leaving his wife all alone. He kissed her on the cheek and told her to keep the doors locked.
Mr. Moss handed the drugstore clerk a dime and picked up the April 10, 1968 Richmond Times-Dispatch. The main headline was about Dr. King’s funeral. Thousands Attend King Rites. “My, my, my,” he murmured under his breath. Below the headline was the haunting image of black-clad mourners walking beside a mule-drawn wagon bearing the shrouded coffin. Jackie Kennedy was in attendance, the newspaper said, as was Bobby Kennedy. But it was the other, much smaller headline that mentioned Louisa County: Vepco Plans Louisa County Nuclear Plant.
VEPCO, short for the Virginia Electric and Power Company, planned to turn part of the North Anna River into an 11,000 acre lake and to build on its shore a half-billion dollar nuclear generating plant. The power company said the plant would have a total output of four million kilowatts, which equal the present generating capacity of the entire Vepco system. The plant would be built in three or four units. The first would have a capacity of 800,000 kilowatts and would be completed in 1974, Vepco said.
The newspaper reported on a meeting between Vepco’s senior vice presidents, T. Justin Moore Jr., Vepco President John M. McGurn, and Virginia Governor Mills E. Godwin Jr.. Other Vepco officials sat down to a two-hour private meeting in Louisa with the county’s business and political leaders and told them of the plant and the lake. No one bothered to tell the affected landowners.
Mr. Moss walked out of the drug store without even realizing it. He was standing on the sidewalk reading the newspaper. Shoppers walked by but he didn’t see them. He felt the burning sting of betrayal. As Mr. Moss would later tell a reporter, “Then I read in the paper that county officials had given Vepco right-of-way, and assured them that the citizens of the county would cooperate 100 per cent. Surveyors had been on my land months before and when I asked them what they were surveying, they said they didn’t know. I wonder why the supervisors didn’t tell us. We didn’t know one thing about it until we read it in the papers or heard it on the television. It was a terrible bombshell.” (A New Dam Brings and End to Old Ways, Daily Progress, page C4, July 26, 1970, by Jerry Simpson)
Mr. Moss looked down Main Street. There was the police department. There was the hardware store. There was the County Courthouse with the statue of the confederate soldier in front. Did everyone know except him? He kept reading:
Besides the boating and the recreation business the lake was expected to bring into the predominately-agricultural county, the plant itself was expected to add more than $900,000 to Louisa’s annual tax revenues. It would employ between 75 and 100 persons and add a payroll of $750,000 each year to the county’s economy. “It’s the biggest thing and has more potential than anything that has ever hit Louisa. It is terrific,” said one of the business leaders who attended the Louisa meeting.
“The supervisors have assured Vepco that Louisa people will cooperate with them in every possible way,” said another leader, the Rev. Joe T. Carson, who heads the Louisa County Industrial Development Corp.
From neighboring Orange County, R. Lindsay Gordon III, chairman of the county’s board of supervisors, call the lake “manna from heaven”. Most of the profits will come to Louisa and Spotsylvania, Gordon said, but Orange will benefit also. “Anytime that much money is being spent, some of it is going to rub off on surrounding areas,” Gordon said.
Vepco planned to form the lake by building a 75-to-100 foot high dam across the North Anna River near Smith’s Mill Bridge, just west of the Hanover County line. The dam would form a 17-square mile lake, with 100 miles of shoreline. Most of the lake site is wooded. A Vepco spokesman said no more than 75 homes would have to be evacuated to make way for the lake.
“No more than seventy-five homes!” Smith’s Mill Bridge was only two miles from Mr. Moss’s farmhouse, as the crow flies. His property touched the bank of the North Anna River. Was his farm going to be flooded? What would happen to his pigs, his cattle, and his beloved saddle horses? What would happen to all the wildlife on his property? The deer and rabbits and wild turkeys? Today of all days, first Dr. King’s funeral and now this, it was a punch in the gut like he’d never felt before.
The generating plant itself would go up about five miles up the lake from the dam, on the Louisa shore. The plant would use an entirely new type of water cooling system. The plant would take in water from the lake, use it power the generating units, and then release it into cooling lagoons, a series of large ponds that would be diked off from the lake. As the water passed through the lagoons it would cool to normal lake temperature. Then it would be fed back into the lake.
“Company officials gave no date for the completion of the second unit, and they said they had no idea when the final units would be added. However, it is believed the second unit is being planned for 1975 and 1976. Ragone estimated that the total cost of the dam, the lake site, and all the units together would probably come to more than $500 million.” (April 10, 1968 Richmond Times Dispatch, Vepco plans Louisa County Nuclear Plant)
The article concluded with a map of Louisa County showing the proposed dam and power plant sites. The proposed lake was right on top of Mr. Moss’s farm. How would he break the news to his wife? How would he break the news to his children? The land was their legacy. He folded the newspaper and returned to his car. He returned to his beloved farm and quietly handed the newspaper to Ruth. She read it with the same shocked disbelief he had felt.
His heart could barely take it, one piece of bad news after another. He walked down to the small creek on his property and sat on a fallen log. Small frogs jumped in the creek at his arrival. April was a beautiful month in central Virginia. Warm enough to enjoy the sunshine but cool enough to keep the mosquitoes away. Now he knew what his neighbor had meant when he said they were about to be “boiled out.” The surveyors had left orange markers all over his property, now it all made sense. They must be for the proposed dam, lake, and nuclear power plant.
The history of Mr. Moss is part of a larger work by author Carolyn O’Neal exploring the impact of the North Anna Nuclear Power Station on the citizens of Louisa County. She is also exploring the impact of Lake Anna, which was built to provide fresh water to the nuclear power station to keep the reactors cool. Many farms were condemned and much private land was confiscated to build the lake and power plant.
If you or your family were impacted when Virginia Electric and Power Company dammed the North Anna River and built the North Anna Nuclear Power Station, please share your story. Leave a reply below.
Three schools in Virginia were named for Dr. Archie Gibbs Richardson: elementary schools in Culpeper and Blackstone, and A.G. Richardson High School in Louisa. Richardson was a prominent African-American educator and a prolific speaker and writer. His papers can be found at Johnston Memorial Library, Virginia State University. The Lexington native graduated from Virginia State University in 1927. He held a Master’s Degree from Butler University in Indianapolis, a Doctorate of Education from Columbia University and an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree awarded in 1957 from Virginia State University. Richardson served eight years as principal of the Mecklenburg Training School in South Hill. He worked for a year as director of academics at Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville. (Saint Paul’s College was established by former slave Russell Solomon James, a contemporary of Booker T. Washington, in1888.) In 1936 he was appointed Assistant State Supervisor of Negro Education with the Virginia Department of Education. When that post became obsolete with school integration, he was appointed Associate Supervisor of Elementary and Secondary Education. Then, in 1966 he was named Associate Director of Education, a position he held until his retirement in 1966. Dr. Richardson was the first African American to be named to the staff of the Virginia Department of Education.
Writers need help to be our best. We need careful readers with sharp, unwearied eyes looking at our work, shining the light of what they know on what we’ve written. We might prefer to avoid it, but in the quest for excellence, a little aid is absolutely necessary. So…
How do you find (and give) helpful help?
How do you create an environment where respectful and rigorous critique is possible?
What are the essential elements of a beneficial critique?
The members of BACCA have been thinking and talking about this lately. We’ve put our heads together and gathered some of our thoughts here. In my own thinking about these questions, I’ve uncovered a point of origin—an opening strategy I use when I approach the work of another writer.
Assume it’s there for a reason…
I begin with this: everything is intentional. I assume the writer has something in mind and figuring that out is my first job. Simple enough—but it goes against the grain. A book feels finished, complete, but it’s natural when handling a manuscript to assume that it’s flawed—it’s a draft, after all. But if I assume from the start that every surprise, every unfamiliar turn is a flaw and not a carefully chosen move, I miss an opportunity—a chance to learn something, to see from a new perspective.
After enduring disappointing critique experiences of my own, I’ve learned that it’s best to identify a writer’s project before I do anything else. This summary becomes my north star as I spend time and get to know a manuscript, mapping out its tendencies, its borders, and its open ends.
Believing that every part of a manuscript is intentional, included for a specific purpose, doesn’t mean that there is nothing more for me to do and no way I can help. Useful comments are in conversation with the project summary I’ve identified. Positive comments highlight parts of the writing that support and enhance the goals of the project. Questions I have may indicate places could undermine or conflict with what I believe the writer is trying to do.
If you find yourself in unfamiliar territory…
It’s human nature to privilege the familiar. We like to know where we are and what kind of story we’re in. Roughly knowing what to expect—a series of predictable surprises—makes us comfortable. But, assuming that a draft needs to be remade to look familiar can cause real damage. I know this first hand.
In one graduate-level workshop, my writing was chewed up and spit out, over and over. Criticism is never fun, but some of the feedback I received in that class was legitimate and some of it was not. Some of it made me a better writer and some of it threw me off track. It took me a long time to sort out the constructive comments from the lazy, arrogant ones.
One student (I’ll call him Mark) indulged in what I now regard as a careless, irresponsible style of critique. Every time I submitted work, Mark would speak first, but he would always say the same thing:
I just don’t know where I am in this poem.
The comment itself seemed innocent enough. As a jumping off place for discussion, it might have been. But Mark, once lost, dismissed my poems entirely and refused to go further. If he didn’t know where he was in the poem, he assumed it must not be good. Inevitably, the rest of the class would follow his lead, even though I knew from their written comments that they’d had different reactions. Unfortunately, the facilitator of the class allowed him to dominate discussions of my work with this same comment, over and over. The indulgence helped no one in that room.
The problem with his comment, which he never realized and (to be fair) I never revealed to him, was that it was based on a false assumption: if he got lost in my poem, I had failed. But, it was never my project to locate him in a known place and time. If he had known where he was, I realized later, that would have been a failure. Mark’s poetry was full of trains and clocks and suburban sprawl—things I wanted to escape. I wanted to explore wildness, myth, and emotional rawness; I wanted to illuminate the edges between civilization and uncultivated territory.
Of course Mark didn’t know where he was!
Sadly, he was unwilling to push past the shock of being in unfamiliar terrain to discover the qualities of the world I was trying to create. So, we both missed a chance to learn from each other. If he had stretched his imagination past comfortable, if he’d thought to identify my project instead of just pointing out what it wasn’t, there might have been meaningful critique—which could have helped us both.
The best first gift…
Several artists I know—writers and painters and musicians—have told me that the most thrilling moment is to have someone encounter their work and really see it, to spend enough time with it to know it and really get it. Maybe this is the best first gift we can give each other in a meaningful critique. To say, yep, I see what you’re doing…
At the very least, it seems a decent place to start.
Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by author.