Kitty Flanagan and the writing life

I am four chapters into writing the historical novel about my ancestral Flanagan family, trying to get them out of their worker’s paradise in Leclaire, Illinois, and back to coal-blackened St. Louis.

FACTS form the bones of this story, while my IMAGINATION is conjuring up scenes, dialogue, and motivations. And I swear that my both my research and my imagination are guided by the spirits of this talented, bold, and tragic family.

I’ve done pretty well so far, sitting at the keyboard and bringing my characters to life between known events. This week I was stumped. What possessed them to leave Leclaire? Focus! Call down Moses or Kitty to drop ideas into my brain! But I’m continually distracted by side research. Could Moses sing “A Bicycle Built for Two” to Maggie in 1896? Could drunken Uncle Charlie Keville sing “Whiskey, Yer the Devil”?

So this week, I use Natalie Goldberg’s method of “writing as practice.”

A writing practice is simply picking up a pen — a fast-writing pen, preferably, since the mind is faster than the hand — and doing timed writing exercises. The idea is to keep your hand moving for, say, ten minutes, and don’t cross anything out, because that makes space for your inner editor to come in. You are free to write the worst junk in America…

I consider writing an athletic activity: the more you practice, the better you get at it. The reason you keep your hand moving is because there’s often a conflict between the editor and the creator. The editor is always on our shoulder saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t write that. It’s no good.” But when you have to keep the hand moving, it’s an opportunity for the creator to have a say. All the other rules of writing practice support that primary rule of keeping your hand moving. The goal is to allow the written word to connect with your original mind, to write down the first thought you flash on, before the second and third thoughts come in.

Keep the Hand Moving: Natalie Goldberg on Zen and the Art of Writing Practice

Fast pen. School-girl notebook. Early morning. Timer set for thirty minutes. Go. Bring it, Moses. Bring it, Maggie. Bring it, Kitty.

Thirty minutes turns into 90 minutes, three days running.

My first draft is done. Now I can indulge my search for historical details.

But when actually did they leave?? Child #4 Moses Rafael is baptized in Illinois, Jan. 1897. Child #5 Mary Ethel is born in St. Louis, Dec. 1898. I’ve searched countless times for a fact to anchor what happens in between, to no avail. But last night, my mind relaxed, the TV droning a repeat of a crime show I’ve seen before, I was inspired to alter my seach into the Edwardsville Intelligencier. (Was it Moses or Kitty who whispered in my ear?) Up popped these two entries from the “Local Happenings” column

From Oct 1 , 1897:

FLANAGAN Moses, announcing his departure back to STLFLANAGAN Moses, announcing his departure back to STL Fri, Oct 1, 1897 – Page 1 · The Edwardsville Intelligencer (Edwardsville, Illinois) ·

From Oct 8 , 1897:

FLANAGAN Moses leaves job for Crescent Planing MillFLANAGAN Moses leaves job for Crescent Planing Mill Fri, Oct 8, 1897 – Page 1 · The Edwardsville Intelligencer (Edwardsville, Illinois) ·

Oh, what a treasure trove of information in just a few lines — how long he’d been Superindendent, his place of work before, his place of work after, his date of departure. And the fact that he exited appreciated (not run out of town for some malfeasance).

My heart was seized with love and gratitude. The saga continues…

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