Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Out With the Old, In With the New

2010 ended in a frenzy of work as I tried to finish up the revisions of two manuscripts. I wanted to start the new year working on new projects. And for the most part I succeeded (We all know that a book is never really finished; there are always questions to answer, a caption to rewrite, etc., etc.). But there I was last week trying to put together a book proposal and finding myself frustrated.


On the surface, the book will be about Vivien Thomas, a brilliant African-American man growing up in the Jim Crow South who wasn't able to finish medical school because a bank failure wiped out his savings. Fate led him to a job as lab assistant (his job title was really janitor) with Alfred Blalock, an equally gifted white surgeon and researcher who recognized Thomas's intelligence and drive. They had a complex thirty-four year long partnership that ushered in a new era of cardiac medicine and helped launch modern heart surgery.


Information on their important work and their working relationship is reasonably easy to come by. They were known and remembered by hundreds of colleagues and students. And Thomas's autobiography is a extrodinarily detailed study of what they did together and how they began to rely on one another to advance various medical research projects. And we know something about each one's personal life and feelings. For the most part the latter information is all surface, the obvious, observable things that make up the framework of any biography. But for me something vital was missing.


I wanted to know what Thomas felt about his place in life and in Blalock's laboratory. What he really felt. Did he feel trapped, abused, frustrated, angry, disappointed? Was he ever sad about how his life had turned out or annoyed at how his hard work was rarely acknowledged in the world of medicine outside Blalock's lab? There is nothing in his autobiography to suggest deep resentment; in fact, he comes across as remarkably even-tempered and content. Saintly even. But below those calm waters there could have been (should have been?) some swirling current, some bitterness or distaste or confusion. Or maybe there wasn't; maybe Thomas was able to accept what had been dealt to him through some powerful, inner calm. And what about Blalock? What did he really feel about Thomas? He liked and respected him, that much is clear? But what else? Never once in their many years together did Blalock invite Thomas or his family to dinner. And when Blalock celebrated his 60th birthday with a grand party attended by scores of his peers, Thomas was there -- as the bartender. Was living in the South and unbendable social customs the answer? Or was there something else? It's this deeper connection between the two men or the lack of it that I wanted to find.
Searching for this information wasn't what was frustrating me; that's half the fun of putting together a book. It was that without knowing what I might find, I wasn't able to 'see' the shape of the book or even envision a loose narrative line.


That's when I had the dream.


In it I was standing on NY City subway platform, waiting for a train. A man appeared nearby and I nodded to him and said, "Happy New Year." He smiled and answered, "Out with the old, in with the new." I recall thinking that was an odd response when the light of an in-coming train appeared and the platform began to shake. The next second a beautiful, old-fashioned Santa Fe streamliner went sailing past almost soundlessly, a great, improbable blur of shiney silver metal and running lights. Where did it come from, I wondered. I leaned out and saw its red lights fading, fading, fading away as it sped up the tunnel. And where was it going? Certainly not to the 72nd Street station. Somewhere distant and exotic and unknown.


And the next day when I went back to the proposal, I remembered that streamliner and its disappearing up the tracks and suddenly the route my book would take became clearer. It would be about Thomas and Blalock, of course, but also about the search for their inner lives, the angels and demons, those distant feelings that are often kept hidden from public view. It would be a guide to how the information for a biography is rooted out, sorted and analyzed. And if I couldn't find what I was looking for? Well, the book would be about the unknown areas of history and how we have to deal with them as well.


Not that the actual text would unfold as easily or in as orderly a way as that last paragraph suggests. Life (and book writing) is messy and filled with the unexpected and I assume that whatever I write will be much different than the proposal. But at least the New Year has left the station and is gathering speed.


Gretchen Woelfle said...

Cool dream!
I love your idea of narrating the search and I hope it comes to pass. I'm just as interested in the writer's creative process as I am in the story s/he has to tell. That's why I love the special features on the DVDs, especially the director's screenwriter's/actors' commentary!

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

I also wonder what certain historic figures in my books were thinking when such facts aren't easy to find or don't even exist. Take Meriwether Lewis's probable suicide, for example. We have very strong theories about his reasons, but nobody seems to be 100% sure what was on his mind at the time. (And a few people still think it was murder.) You've hit upon a terrific way to approach your story - I love your ideas about framing your book around the search. can't wait to see what you find out!

Linda Zajac said...

I am fascinated by the way our brains take thoughts and experiences and turns them into clever stories. Often When the conscious mind can't find the answer, the subconscious works through the night. When I was debugging computer programs and I couldn't figure out why they were behaving a certain way, the solution would often come to me at night. The same is true when trying to piece together a sentence that isn't working. Someone on FB mentioned a book by Robert Moss - Conscious Dreaming that sounded like an interesting read.