Last winter I came to the Fountain of Youth intending to jumpstart — and hopefully finish — The File on Margot Black, the historical novel project inspired by my academic work on the 1947 film Crossfire and the House Un-American Activities investigation into Hollywood radicalism.
Even as I was working on my PhD dissertation and later revising it for academic publication, I had wanted to write a novel from this material. I made a few fitful starts, but really struggled to step back from the forest of my academic research and find the trees of a fictional story. In 2008 I attended a Key West Literary Seminar workshop on historical fiction, where the brilliant Mary Morris told me — more than once — that it’s all about the story. With her help, and that of my workshop comrades, I began playing with a fictional FBI agent, which eventually sparked the plot and characters behind The File on Margot Black.
I continued to work on this project for another ten years. I worked on it around the edges of my paying work in the humanities institute world at the University of California. I took writing classes and attended master workshops; I got a scholarship to attend the Squaw Valley Writers Community one summer. Over the years I worked with truly amazing and supportive writing teachers: Denise Hamilton, Mark Sarvas, Mary Morris, Peter Ho Davies, Francesca Lia Block, and others. I connected with a fabulous cohort of other aspiring novelists, several of whom have become dear and lifelong friends.
The File on Margot Black was the center of my creative identity, the core of my desire to see myself as a professional historian turned historical novelist. In the decade I worked on this novel, I easily wrote a thousand pages or more, pursued dozens of narrative strategies, new characters, plots twists. I produced some damn good writing over those ten years, work I’m very proud of. Never, however, did I actually finish a complete draft, even a shitty one, of this novel. And that failure rankled.
And so, I came to the FOY in early November 2017, hoping to ride the collective commitment and energy of NaNoWriMo to jumpstart and possibly even finish a draft. I had a fresh writing trajectory: I had reset the story from 1951 to 1947, the year that HUAC first targeted the “radicals” of Hollywood; I had a new female protagonist I loved (modeled on Martha Gellhorn) as a foil for the mysterious German emigre Margot Black; and a fabulous ripped-from-the-headlines 1940s #metoo twist. This time I would make it work!
But every time I approached the manuscript, I was seized with a debilitating combination of anxiety and resistance. And overwhelm: so much work, so many pages, so many ideas: where to start with revisions, with new material. I was stuck and miserable in a way that went well beyond run-of-the-mill writer’s block.
Nevertheless, I persisted, putting butt in seat and slogging through, day after day, my misery increasing exponentially, for nearly three weeks before I finally pulled the plug. Auf wiedersehen, Margot Black.
Here’s what I’ve come to know about myself: it takes me a long time to commit to something, but once I do I have a really hard time letting go. I look back at any number of major undertakings in my life — graduate school, marriage, my work in the humanities institute world — and can see so clearly that the writing was on the wall long before I finally walked away. And that my failure, if there was one, was in the digging in, the powering through until I became a complicit in my own suffering, a collaborator in my disempowerment and despair.
Letting go of Margot Black last year demanded that I let go of all the very good reasons that I should write that book — because it was an outgrowth of my academic research, because I’d already put in so much work, because the topic was timely and important, because everyone said I must write that book. Because I had staked so much of my identity on writing it.
And yet. Hadn’t I already written that book — twice, first as a dissertation and then radically revised for publication? I’d first begun working on Crossfire and the Hollywood blacklist in the early 1990s; surely it was time for me to move on, to explore something new and different?
Letting go of Margot Black forced me to grapple with deep-seated conflicts around creativity and perfectionism, autonomy and approval. And it pushed me to recognize that just because I should do something doesn’t mean I must do something.
And that opened a space for something powerful and necessary: a fresh start, a new project.
And the new project emerged as Fiona and I were on the return leg of our Heart of America tour. The initial glimmer came as I was driving across Iowa, former prairie become endless farmland, and listening to a book-on-tape: Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Prairie Fires brought me an arresting image, which quickly turned into an inciting incident for a new novel: a white man, the Indian agent for the Dakota territory, murdered, his mouth stuffed with grass. I noodled it, taking notes here and there, as we traveled west to California and home; as summer turned to early fall, I worked up an outline and a few key character sketches.
Then in November, I launched a new NaNoWriMo project and ended up with more than 56,000 words before I left Nevada City for the Fountain of Youth. Yeah, it’s a bit of a hot mess but it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and that feels pretty f’ing good right now.
I don’t want to jinx anything but I have to say: this was the easiest and most joyful writing I’ve done in the last decade. I feel fairly certain that I will revise and finish this book, and that it will be good or at least good enough.
And right now that’s enough.