WHAT THE HECK IS THIS STORY ABOUT?
That’s the critical question every author, fiction or nonfiction, has to answer. In my case, I had so much material–the thousands of pages of letters, diaries, documents, etc. I found in my parents’ attic after their deaths, I felt overwhelmed, but knew the only way to start was to read through it all.
- My first instinct was to write about the racial change in our West Side Chicago neighborhood, but I found so many fascinating details and long-hidden family secrets in the archives, I decided to expand the book’s scope.
- After all, an important part of the story was the fact that my family made its home in West Garfield Park shortly after my Grandpa Gartz (Josef) had landed a good-paying job in 1912 at Joe Nelson’s Saloon. He made sandwiches, which were free with every five-cent schooner of beer.
- I read letters, diaries, documents; marveled at photos, business cards, court records, diplomas, and newspaper articles. Wouldn’t everyone be as enamored as I was with––
- my father’s detailed and sensual description of his discoveries on his travels?
- Of my mother’s diary entries of falling in love with Dad?
- Of the secrets I found in the World War II letters to and from my uncle – and the irony they revealed of his destiny?
- Well, not all of it.
- There were two key questions I wanted to explore in the book, which I believe were intertwined.
- What had led to the riots and eventual devastation of our once thriving community?
- What had caused my parents’ marriage to unravel right alongside the unraveling of our community?
- To answer the first question: I read thousands of pages of letters and diaries.But how would I ever remember–or find again–the most salient quotes–the ones I could use to piece together a narrative? I created multiple spread sheets to keep track of the subjects written about for any particular date.
- This is where my documentary-producing background came in handy. I could use my parents’ words and thoughts to create scenes and back-story, but could also interweave direct quotes within the story, just as I interweave interview soundbites into a documentary narrative.
- Both my parents (well before they met each other) kept diaries. They wrote letters to each other during Dad’s thirteen years of travel. Their words revealed a behind-the-scenes view of the stresses that clawed at their relationship.
- Everyone in the family wrote letters-hundreds of letters–to and from Dad’s younger brother, Frank, during his Army Air Corps service in World War II.
- Mom wrote about the details of our racially changing neighborhood and the twenty years she and Dad nurtured buildings and tenants in West Garfield Park-after the first African Americans had moved in. Mom was never one to hold back what she was feeling or thinking, so I could be pretty sure that what she wrote is exactly what she thought.
- Dad was much more circumspect. Even his private diary entries rarely reveal the emotions he felt as he recorded events, whether disappointments, arguments (he wouldn’t engage), or even anger. Only a few times does anger come through-and even then, it’s restrained. Knowing my father well, I was able to infer feelings he didn’t express outright.
THE SECOND QUESTION:
What had led to the riots and eventual devastation of our once-thriving community?
- To answer the second question, I had to dive into research about racially changing neighborhoods. What I discovered was disturbing.
- We all know (or certainly should know, if we’re right-thinking people) that African Americans have been treated shamefully from their beginnings in this country. The Civil Rights Movement made progress toward more fair treatment, but we have a long way to go.
THE GREAT MIGRATION
- Blacks fled north in The Great Migration, seeking a better, more fair life. Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is must-reading for every American. It’s the history we were never taught in school.
- The North didn’t deliver on the freedoms blacks had yearned for. Sure, there were no longer white and black drinking fountains nor back-of-the-bus laws – but blacks were still terrorized if they tried to move out of their segregated neighborhoods.
GOVERNMENT SANCTIONED RACISM
- The FHA and other government agencies worked together with the real estate sector to disallow blacks from getting mortgages. The result was negative consequences for blacks and whites.
- But the impact on blacks has been far greater. Today the disparity in wealth between blacks and whites can be traced to mortgage discrimination.
JUST WRITE IT
I decided to just write the story from start to finish, taking advantage of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – every November) in the fall of 2012. The manuscript ended up with about 140,000 words! That’s about 60K words too long for a readable book!
GET AN EDITOR
- That’s when I started relying on outside eyeballs to tell me what didn’t fit. I can’t stress enough the importance of getting help to hone your story. It’s sometimes hard to see past what you love (The “Kill your darlings” idea). But it’s critical to ruthlessly cut the parts that prevent the story from moving forward.
- It took my Writers’ Group and three successive editors before I had a manuscript I’m proud of.
The result is my book: Redlined: A Memoir of Race, Change, and Fractured Community in 1960s Chicago.
I hope you’ll come along on the journey of Redlined: exposing the racist mortgage laws that ravaged a Chicago community in the 1960s, told through the story of one white family navigating the uncharted shoals of its neighborhood’s racial change.
To be published by She Writes Press: April 3, 2018