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Setting sail with Margaret Wrinkle

“I’m going to get a little woo-woo here,” Margaret Wrinkle says. That’s code for going deep down in it – for talking about things with elusive definitions; things we must analogize.

“Your rational mind is a boat drifting on the ocean of your subconscious,” she says. “Do you want to tell the story from the tiny boat or from the ocean?”

Wrinkle keynoted yesterday at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs. The room was dim, hushed as she described the 15-year journey that lead to the publication of her first book, Wash, in 2013. It’s her life’s work: a 418-page opus about a fictional slave used for breeding on nearby plantations.

It hurts to read. It’s haunting and beautiful – almost too real at times. It’s as if Wrinkle herself walked those plantations, rode the wagons, slept in the stalls. Maybe that’s because her own ancestors owned slaves. For seven generations, her family’s called Birmingham, Alabama, home. And that’s where she grew up as the daughter of “Southern intellectuals.” The family even had a black domestic worker, Ida Mae Lawson Washington, who Wrinkle says had a profound impact on her upbringing.

“Our ancestors live inside of us,” Wrinkle says. “Their stories live inside of us.”

And she heard both sides; stories from her parents, stories from Washington. When Washington passed away in 1989, Wrinkle moved back to Birmingham and started shooting a documentary (along with Chris Lawson) that focused on black domestic workers. It was a tribute of sorts to Washington, and the interviews with Washington’s family changed her life’s trajectory. She stopped working on a PhD at Yale and switched to a Master’s in early childhood education. “From 1992 to 1997, I taught in inner city Birmingham schools and used painting, photography, video, and writing to work with children from the poorest income ZIP code in the United States. I taught them to read by asking them to tell their own stories.”

All the while, she worked on her book. And she talked about it a lot, too – more than she should have. She was at a party once when a friend said, “You know, you remind me of a professor I had. He was always talking about the book he was writing. When I went to my reunion, he was standing on the porch talking about the book he was working on. Ten years later, I went back for another reunion, and the same professor was standing on the same porch, talking about the same book he was working on. Twenty years later, I went back, and there he was.”

Wrinkle didn’t talk about her book after that, but she got serious about writing it. She started fighting for writing time, clawing for it. She’d tell her friends she was going out of town, park the car around back and write all weekend. She unplugged her router. Turned off her phone. She left the land of the living to inhabit the land of story. She fell deeper into herself, deeper into the stories of her ancestors.

Reflecting on writing now, she sounds monkish.

“The way to the universal, the way to reach people is to go down in you. Your ego is the boat on the ocean of the subconscious. It’s the engine for getting things done. It gets very nervous when it’s dealing with things bigger than itself.”

If that anxiety and nervousness isn’t there, it’s a clue that what you’re working on isn’t big enough.

Then, she said something that really shook me.

“Freedom is the aberration. When I started Wash, I thought slavery was the aberration.”

All of us long to be free, and most of us think we are. But it’s too easy to let society tell us how to live. If freedom is the aberration, let us be aberrant. Let us leave the boat, dive deep and open our eyes. The answer’s down there somewhere, and it’s waiting.

Fredrick Marion

Fredrick Marion

I like books that refuse to let you sleep at night. I like coffee, talking animals and hearing from readers. Sign up for my email newsletter, and I’ll send my latest blog posts to your inbox!

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  • Christina C

    Very wonderful write-up here! You captured the essence of her talk. Thank you!

    April 13, 2016 at 10:14 am

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