There is a reason I haven’t written a blog post for a while. I’ve been writing a book. It isn’t just any book, it a book about history that I now realize was probably the hardest type of book anyone can write because you basically can’t make stuff up. My next book (if I survive this one) will be pure fiction. Maybe sci fi because no one can predict the future—whereas people I respect know a lot about the past and will call me out.
The book is about a woman very few people have heard of – Emily Howland—who became better known around April of 2017 when a never-before-seen picture of a young Harriet Tubman that she had once owned came up for auction. The “young Harriet” was co-purchased by the Library of Congress and the African American Museum of History and Culture where it sits on display in a Civil War-era photograph album. At my most desperate moments I wander into the museum and stare intently at the Howland album (glowing behind glass like a treasured relic) hoping that all the puzzle-pieces of history that live on my computer—digitized letters, pixelated pictures, and Geo-tagged maps—will converge into easy to read and engaging prose.
I have begun to develop a fondness for podcasts that interview authors about their process because everyone is on the way to, or recovering from, an existential crisis about their writing. I don’t remember the names, but I take great comfort from listening to the stories. Like the person who hated their last three chapters so much that they put them in the trash, and then just to be sure, emptied the trash, only to go for a walk an hour later and . . . had instant regret (and luckily turned to an older draft). Or the person who dumped 80,000 words because they just weren’t that good (80K!). Or the person who can’t start to write until their desk is set up just so. (Full disclosure, I have a thing for computer screens.)
Reading the acknowledgements of accomplished (aka published) writers is also very comforting. Aside from thanking editors, partners, colleagues and other scholars, David Blight for example, thanks two generations of baristas at Blue State Coffee; Isabel Wilkerson cites a musical playlist that includes the entire score of the French thriller Diva, and Mary Beard thanks someone for tracking down a picture of a chocolate Roman coin on the Internet. I haven’t got to that point yet (except for the coffee—where I totally relate), but I can’t wait until I do.
Until that time, I'll try to post more often about my 'conversations' with Emily Howland who once said "Now, when acquiring knowledge is the strongest power a human being can wield, work with your might."
The Emily Howland Photograph Album on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.