My Project

Three or four weeks ago, once I was satisfied that I’d completed enough of my long overdue “winter projects” around the farm, I finally got serious about working on a new writing project.

My idea was to write a history of this community in 1918, with the hope of publishing it in 2018.

Our memories of the past dim quickly, and that is only natural I suppose. Current events demand our attention and their importance is magnified by their immediacy. The past is, after all, past.

My hope was to draw some attention to life one hundred years ago, if for no better reason, to shine some light on the path we walked to get where we now stand.

I spent a few days in the library, reading the local newspaper from 1918.

There were some fascinating things occurring in 1918. The U.S. was preparing to enter the deadliest war in human history and, as if that wasn’t enough, the world was on the eve of the deadliest pandemic in human history. Here in the U.S. the states were in the process of ratifying constitutional amendments granting women the right to vote, and prohibiting the use of alcohol. As a result of the coldest winter in recorded history, and the demands of war, there was a severe coal shortage, leading the federal government to order all American businesses to close for five consecutive days in January. There were food shortages too. In January the President called on Americans to have two “meatless” days per week and at least one meatless meal per day. Meanwhile, the Great Migration of southern black folks was underway as they moved north for high-paying factory jobs. Virginia was debating whether to require compulsory education of children, with our local paper complaining that to do so would be “a hardship on the people” and a denial of the right of self government. Evangelist Billy Sunday was drawing huge enthusiastic crowds around the country. And so on. These were just some of the headlines in the first month of the year.

I never got around to reading the rest of the news from 1918. This story from January 4 stopped me in my tracks.

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For a while I plodded on, but the story kept coming back to haunt me. I started dreaming about it at night.

I wondered if that story should be my writing project. Who were these people? What happened to them? Maybe that’s what I should research. Maybe that’s the story I should be telling.

I ran down a few fruitless rabbit holes searching for them, then something unexpected happened.

The story started coming to me. And then it came pouring out. I started dictating voice memos as the details emerged, sometimes in the middle of the night, and now I have hundreds of them. I’ve been typing it out a little each day, but my fingers can’t keep up. Still, they’re trying. I have about 25,000 words now and I reckon the story is about 1/3 told.

It’s not the “real” story, of course. I don’t know what happened to the actual Mrs. Scruggs or her children. But there is a story, a family and a set of lives that I am trying to capture, and in a bizarre way they seem real to me.

It’s strange. I don’t feel like I’m inventing the story. I genuinely feel like it was already there and I’m just writing it down. Those of you who write fiction are probably thinking, “Well of course. How did you think it happened?” But this is new to me. And exciting.

I don’t know if this story will ever be published or not. But it has become my writing project.