Six years ago I started writing a novel about the attack on Harper’s Ferry. During my research, the concept shifted from a focus on John Brown, the leader of the raid to run slaves off into the Alleghenies, to his co-conspirator, a fugitive slave, “Emperor” Shields Green. I’ve read now, perhaps, a dozen books about the period, including David Reynold’s John Brown, Abolitionist, the Man who Killed Slavery, the papers of Frederick Douglass about Brown, accounts of the time by many journalists, authors, and leading thinkers, including W.E.B. Dubois and James Redpath. I have even read the account from one of the black raiders himself, A Voice from Harper’s Ferry, by Osborne Anderson. Needless to say, I’ve absorbed the story and the history. I can provide you with needless details and sit down with any Brown scholar and debate–why didn’t Brown leave before Lee’s army mustered? Why did he lock himself in an arsenal with no means of egress? Why did Frederick Douglass choose NOT to participate in the raid, when his valet Shields Green chose too? I’ve visited Harper’s Ferry, walked its streets and traced history’s footsteps on the grounds (or what’s left of it). I’ve even meditated inside the actual arsenal. My concept has shifted from novel, to play, to screenplay and back to novel again.
All this to say, I’ll never be more ready to write this book than I am now. I even have the luxury of time as I’m no longer at my agency. Is there anything holding me back? No, not yet. I’ve re-engaged with the novel after a year away and plan to quite literally “pay” myself to write five days a week for the next six months. All I need know, is the discipline to write.
Recently, I’ve realized that I need to be doing my one true passion, writing. More than that, I need to put it before other things, and invest in it the same way I’ve invested in my other professional career. I need to assemble the tools, and the right talent and mentors around me. And I need to confront the demon that has chased me all my adult life. It has so many names and faces I’ve lost count, and yet, there it is, always lurking under the surface, behind the mask, a real motherfucking trickster god.
I’ve come to know this trickster god more intimately through Steven Pressfield’s book, Do the Work, which lays out a clear plan to beat the enemy of creation, what Pressfield names Resistance. The book was a gift from a dear friend who has shared an uncannily similar path in life; top education, jobs in the arts and theater, writing, then meteoric rises (and falls) in business and advertising. I could say its because we’re both hardworking, talented and gifted, but its far simpler than that. Writers are chameleons, capable of turning on the charm, smart–too smart, adaptable and we therefore we love change. Its because we get bored easily and we need to morph–so we invent, re-invent, and we tell stories. In many ways, change is a sometimes form of Resistance, another face of the trickster god. Because when you’re writing, or creating anything, the one thing you don’t need is change. True, you need change to form new habits, but then later you need routine. You need the safety of repetitive action, to gain real ground.
Yes, I know that Resistance lives within me. That I contain both the potential for action and negation. Certainly, the subjects of my book, all were familiar with Resistance. Spurned on by a Calvinist fire and brimstone God, John Brown battled it his whole life as it took the form of bankruptcy, the death of four children, hardship, a price on his head. Shields Green had to battle Resistance to escape to the North from Charleston, SC. Given all that, my task seems simple, right?
Years ago while living between Philly and NY, just back from a gloriously productive year in London, I was sitting on three excellent plays (two full-lengths and a short) that were easily producible. I had good luck in London, with all of them getting multiple readings–but then back in the US, nothing, a drought of attention. I think I still regret leaving London too early. Nonetheless, I started focusing on getting produced when I should have continued the writing. Here Resistance was the seduction of seeing my words mouthed by actors on stage. I did take a play, Hearts and Minds, to the Cherry Lane Theater in NY, but Resistance kept me from truly pursuing it to full production, a damned delay with months of work, and no lasting outcome. The trickster strikes again!
Well, years later, older, wiser, and definitely more knowledgeable about success (thank you Mr. Spike Lee, my former boss for a time), I have come to realize that nothing else matters. Zero. Nada. The game is simple. Write or die (eventually). Resistance hopes you good to your deathbed having done nothing. Therefore, all that matters is that I write. I must write, to live now, and yes, to make ends meet, but also to truly live. I must write because every word, every character turn cuts deeply into the trickster god’s hide. I must write now, because I’ve lived enough to have dangerous opinions. I must write now because finally, in all my research about Brown and the black raiders of Harper’s Ferry, in the letters of Dangerfield Newby and Jonathan Copeland to their families from the gallows, in the back story I have created that drives Emperor to choose to RETURN to the south to free his enslaved son, I have found that their voices flow through my mind, swim behind my eyes, and sing in my ears.
“Write to bring our voices back from the dead. Write to keep your own voice alive. If you need strength to continue, if you need the discipline and will, call on us, write through our lives.”
My mentor once told me “writing is thinking.” True, but I also know, “writing is living.” Writing is proof against death, against the dark, against the void. Writing is light, life, the spark–the act of creation, the most potent force in the Universe. SO, I will write. And I will slay that motherfucking trickster god.