Take a Page Out of Zora’s Book

Zora-Neale-Hurston-9347659-1-402I have recently completed a draft of something long and feverish and I intend to send it out soon with my heart in my throat where it belongs and always does, I believe, its best work. At night I will tuck myself in and listen for the frozen thrum of snow on the panes. It is best to be alone.

I have been trying, at this time of little work and small projects, of one offs and minuscule poems only, to get a good deal of reading done. Take on the towering sculpture that is Murakami’s full body, for example, or hang out for a while with MFK Fisher in the tub. When at loose ends like this I find I have both ferocious energy and a short attention span, so it has to be good or at least soothing. And I am hungry not only for my next project– the whats and hows of that– but just hungry, all the time. Rice is always on my stove, beans on the burner and cans upon cans of welted tuna and sardines. I don’t own cats, you see, but I have a measure of the cat within me. Onward, winter. 

A long while back I had the pleasure of getting to know Victoria Sanders and her wonderful operation that oversees a stable of new writers while also taking care of some of the greats, Zora Neale Hurston among them. As I was leaving her office one day, Sanders pressed a copy of Hurston’s collected works into my sweating and supremely nervous palms. I swore I’d read it all but have remained, much to my chagrin, a bit of a greatest hits monger when it comes to ZNH. So Their Eyes Were Watching God is still one of her major works that I feel I know well. I will take the collected stories to bed with me tonight, but wanted to share the following from The Writers Almanac, which outlines just how Hurston came to write that book and the powerful inspiration that longing, heartache and, ultimately, resolve can provide:

It was on December 19, 1936 that Zora Neale Hurston finished the manuscript of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. She wrote the novel in Haiti, where she was doing anthropological research for a Guggenheim Fellowship. Hurston studied anthropology at Barnard College with Franz Boas before establishing herself as a writer, and she continued to work in both fields. Under her Guggenheim Fellowship, she studied Haitian Voodoo. She was also escaping an intense love affair. Hurston was in her mid-40s, and she had fallen in love with a 23-year-old graduate student.

She wrote: “He was tall, dark brown, magnificently built, but I did not fall in love with him just for that. He had a fine mind and that intrigued me. It seems to me that God must have put in extra time making him up. He stood on his own feet so firmly that he reared back.” They adored each other, and embarked on a passionate affair — she considered him the love of her life. But he wanted her to give up her career, marry him, and leave New York City. She wrote, “I really wanted to do anything he wanted me to do, but that one thing I could not do.” She applied for the Guggenheim Fellowship and escaped to the Caribbean, adding, “This was my chance to release him.”

In Haiti, Hurston spent most of her days researching. She conducted interviews, read scholarly articles, became fluent in Creole, and attended Voodoo ceremonies. She hoped that the research would make her forget about her love affair, but she still felt miserable. So Hurston began to write a novel, often working late into the night after her research was done to draft a story of a woman named Janie Crawford and her struggles to create the life that was hers alone.

Thinking of the man she left behind, Hurston wrote: “The plot was far from the circumstances, but I tried to embalm all the tenderness of my passion for him in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” She worked tirelessly and the entire novel took her less than two months. Hurston later said: “It was dammed up in me, and I wrote it under internal pressure in seven weeks. I wish I could write it again.”

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