I’m participating in the National Novel Writing Month challenge, NaNoWriMo, to write (at least) 50,000 words of a rough draft by November 30th. On the last night of October, Coretta’s story was opening up for me as I jotted down notes for the next Embodied Character conversation. That night I had a dream about another character, a healer named Lady Ziomi, but when I woke up I couldn’t remember who she was healing in the dream. Then when I saw the NaNoWriMo announcements, it came to me that Coretta was the second character in the dream. I decided since Coretta synchronistically appeared with a new dimension to her story in time for NaNoWriMo, I would take a leap and join the hundreds of thousands of people diving into the novel writing process this month.
This whole thing, of course, is quite the experiment. From the start, Coretta’s story emerged as an epistolary novel, written in the form of letters, like Alice Walker’s classic, The Color Purple. When Coretta first illuminated herself to me in the embodied character process, I was in a season of deep grieving over the loss of a life in mid-March of 2012. I was very angry, but felt conflicted in expressing that anger because I thought it would be more polite (to the universe, or God, or whatever reasoning I made up in my head) to practice a quieter healing this time. Instead of unleashing my total feelings, I attempted to focus more energy on my gratitude and my newfound strength, having survived the tragedy and all.
It didn’t work. The anger still beat out the other emotions and I was stuck. I didn’t have a plan for shifting and was content, for the moment, to hide under my covers with continuous episodes of something online. At first when Coretta’s tirades started to fill the pages of my fiction lab notes, I didn’t immediately connect it to the rage I was myself feeling. After a few days of experimenting with her plot, I realized I was feeling less stuck in my own process. I was genuinely surprised because my childhood and choices as a woman looked nothing like Coretta’s, and her background was completely from my imagination. However, from an emotional landscape, she acts in many ways as my mirror. I am writing her into being with a deep understanding and the lived experiences extracted from the creative fertile grounds of trauma, loss, guilt, grief, regret, depression, hope, wonder, and even, numbness.
I would never have chosen Coretta to be an ally in my healing. But the more I wrote her story, the more I saw how fleshing out her journey was helping me gain new perspectives on my own. Fueled by a bubbling curiosity, I kept writing in her voice and discovering where it all went. Unlike most of my characters, Coretta appeared as an adult from the beginning. She initially spoke through letters written to her mother while in recovery from substance abuse. That part of her narrative had always been clear to me. The material I used to develop her character was inspired by many of the beautiful and courageous mothers I met while facilitating movement workshops in a Washington, DC prison and a Maryland substance abuse rehabilitation center.
After writing many letters in Coretta’s adult voice, I was curious to discover who she was as a child. In the spring of 2013, I wrote an epistolary short story about Coretta and her deceased twin sister’s 10th birthday celebration. This helped me to start working backwards from her challenges with adulthood and motherhood, to what could be possible triggers from her childhood. Now with NaNoWriMo underway, I am excited to devote so much attention to Coretta’s evolution as a part of the embodied character literary experiment. Also, at the end of the month I’ll have written my first novel! I’m really just trying to stay in the flow and trust the process. Coretta Is Here was never the story I thought would come together first…looking forward to what happens.
Coretta Gray is writing these letters to wash away the guilt of being a bad mother. In her last month of rehabilitation, she begins writing to God because, after three attempts to get clean, she feels her mother’s prayers might have been worth something after all. She is about to be reunited with her family after eighteen months away and really wants her daughter, Sparkle, to finally know what it feels like to have a good mother. What starts out as Coretta’s honest attempt to walk toward forgiveness, stumbles painfully into parts of her past where she felt invisible to God and everyone who prayed to Him. With each letter she grows more bitter, angry, and overwhelmed at the horror she has caused in the lives of those she loves. Fearing that God won’t be able to rid her of so many wrongs in time, she desperately searches to find refuge in writing to the best “listener.” If successful, she’ll be able to secure a place where once and for all she can lock away the ugly things that have kept her from being a better mother. As the days move her closer to what she hopes is a new life, she struggles to understand whether or not the past is really something she’s supposed to leave behind.
Excerpt from Coretta Is Here
It’s Tuesday. My mother tells me you can fix me.
I always tell her, He ain’t fixed me yet, has He?
Then she’ll say, He’s the only reason you still alive. I got one dead daughter. Don’t need two.
Same thing every time she comes to visit. I don’t ever reply with what I’m really thinking: Might as well be. Look at me. That would just be mean, and I’m not mean.
But as much as I know my mother is the smartest woman in the world, I have to admit that she is a fool in her faith. She believes you can do all things, heal all things, fix broken things like me. Well I don’t believe in your alpha or your omega. I’ve seen what falls apart when you let it go. It’s ugly. Look at me. Ugly grows all in my garden and praying never cleared out these weeds.
But my mother had one tear in her eye the last time she came here.
She said, I want you to be a good mother this time, Coretta. I want you to ask God to make whatever ain’t right, right. You can be good again. I know it. But you got to do this. You got one daughter left too.
So, this is me. All stripped down with nothing to say really except I’m sorry for too many things. But for my mother, I will dig deeper. In one month I go home, and something needs to have changed in Sparkle’s eyes when she sees me. I need to look like a better mother.
Coretta is trying.
It’s Wednesday. I was once a whole woman. And then all of the sudden I wasn’t.
It’s still Wednesday. I am staring at this page. Celia is blasting that damn music in her headphones so loud I can make out every word. Same song for the past hour. Order my steps in your word Dear Lord / Lead me, guide me everyday. I wish she would turn it off. But I can’t say nothing. This is the common area. And she technically is wearing headphones. But you can see why I would be distracted.
I don’t care if this doesn’t make any sense. Mama didn’t say we had to speak about anything of substance. So I could really just be like blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and fill up this whole journal and show her that. I mean the journal was my idea anyway. Still, she gave me envelopes in case I want to address these letters like they can actually go somewhere. My mother said whatever will make this thing real to me, I should just do it. Though Satan is busy / God is real / Order my steps.
I give Celia the side-eye. She so deep in prayer she don’t even notice. Ms. Peter is more irritated than me and throws a pillow at Celia’s head. The others snicker because Celia don’t even break her pose to see who did it. But we know she know it was Ms. Peter. Ms. Peter always picking with somebody, but she has a good heart underneath all her tattoos. She’s like the class clown. Except this ain’t school. She one of the ones who been in jail before. A big scar runs down her left arm like a snake from when she tried to break up a fight. Somebody died in that fight. And she got a good recommendation from the warden to the judge because without her, two more guards would have been stabbed.
Ms. Peter always cracking jokes, but nothing is funny in here. Don’t nobody wanna be here. But we here. I’m here. Why am I here. I slipped up. No, I fell. I crashed. I’m still very much a wreck. But a lesser wreck than when I came. Mama says I’m doing the right thing. Says this is for Sparkle. Sparkle. Naomi named her. And never got to meet her. Fuck. This hurts.
Dinner time. Celia still in prayer.
Whatever, whatever, whatever,
Coretta has more to say.