Why “rememoir,” not just memoir?

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One day I hope you’ll look up “rememoir” in Wikipedia and see the word credited to me, and “The Other Mother.” Right now each time I type it, Word underlines it red as a misspelling, like a red flag of warning. Something’s different here! Pay attention!

It would have been simpler just to call “The Other Mother” a memoir. But I invented the word rememoir because it’s the truth as I remember it. I am the only one who could tell this story – it’s about a relationship that defined me. The thoughts, dialog and emotions I write about come from my own recollection, from the stories Byrne shared with me, the womenisms she told her other collected daughters, quotes she gave to reporters (including me), letters she invited me to read and events she documented in her personal journal. I sifted through these memories and arranged them in a way that represents the truth to me.

Me (and Wipeout) helping Byrne sift through her own memories -- this was the visit where she met the man taking this picture, my husband Gary
Me (and Wipeout) helping Byrne sift through her own memories — this was the visit where she met the man taking this picture, my husband Gary

There will always be a place for the pure biography. At its best, it is research elevated to an art form. But in this age of instant access to worldwide “facts,” readers want something more than readily knowable facts when they buy a book.

I’m not frightened by this, as a writer I find it freeing. Truman Capote gave us the nonfiction novel, with every cold blooded detail recorded and reconstructed by his photographic memory. Not everyone can do that. So luckily there’s a whole genre out there of creative non-fiction, and now there is novelization, the art of imagining the story and thoughts behind a person already in the public eye, like “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” but no longer an anonymous character.

Rememoir, a remembered memoir, is even more personal – it finds the story in a personal truth, told by the imperfect human being who experienced it.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Unless you can’t write.

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Parents often ask me if it’s “worth” sending their kids to art school. I cleverly read between the lines and realize they’re actually wondering if their child — and his/her paint brushes, pottery wheels, tripods and assortment of laptops — will ever move out of the house and be able to make a living as an artist.

The answer is yes, IF. And this particular IF is non-negotiable. But before I explain, I should give my tepid qualifications to respond in the first place.

I assume these parents consider writing an art or they’d never ask me in the first place. And while I’m not likely to get rich off my first book, my writing skills are valuable far beyond the tiny bubble of memoir. Every job I’ve had – from newspapers to broadcast, public relations and freelance video – I got because I can write.

I moved up the management ranks at Ogilvy PR Worldwide because I can write. And in that capacity, I hired art-school grads. So I know they can be employable.

So the question isn’t really where an artist gets his/her degree, it’s IF that program also emphasizes writing. Check SCAD’s course descriptions. Beyond the actual degrees they offer in writing,  SCAD students can choose from almost 100 courses with the words writing in the title.

SCAD administrators don’t offer all those classes out of some sense of liberal arts legacy. They do it because most artists also work in other fields. In the waking hours when artists are not creating art they teach, they promote, they design, they code, they raise money, they publicize, they report, they research. That part isn’t new.

What has changed is that all artists today have to be entrepreneurs, even those in the purest, classic art forms.  You want to paint landscapes for a living? You’re going to have to describe that work in order to sell it. Want to teach studio arts? You’re going to have to write a fabulous application essay for grad school. Want to exhibit your work? Try getting a grant without solid writing skills. Want to open your own photography studio? Someone’s got to post blogs and write press releases to submit to local media. Fancy yourself a gallery owner one day? You’ll be writing everything from content for your website to articles about openings. Want crowd source funding for your aboriginal sculpture research? Those clever You-Tube documentaries have scripts. With words that somebody wrote. Want to collaborate with other artists on a big project? You’ll have to write a creative brief and project summaries.

No one will know your work better than you. No one will be able to convey your passion more articulately than you.  No one is going to do your marketing and messaging for you (at least not for free). The key is realizing that all working artists are their own brands. And you can’t build a brand if you can’t write.

So my advice to parents (and students) considering a degree in the arts is yes, IF. Do take the plunge IF the program also teaches you practical writing.  As an artist, writing skills will give you the self-sufficiency to build an audience, reach investors and communicate your vision. And even if you end up choosing not to make a living as an artist, you’ll have a skill set that transfers to almost every field connected to the arts.

Hello Baby! Welcoming a book into the world

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Hmmm... great idea
Hmmm… great idea

Regular moms make cute little photo albums when their babies arrive. I’m about to bring a new book into the world — “The Other Mother: a rememoir” so why not create an album for my baby too?

kickoffinvite2So here goes. It takes more than the author to make a book. It takes a great story — burlesque dancer choreographs a life with unrequited novelist and teaches a young TV reporter the dance of truth, becoming her “Other Mother.” It also takes a partner — and for almost five years my husband Gary has been cheering me on.

He knows this story, inside and out
He knows this story, inside and out

But “The Other Mother: a rememoir” wouldn’t have happened without — okay here comes the baby  analogy — without midwifery of my publisher and editor: Susan Kammeraad-Campbell of Joggling Board Press. She took the manuscript of a former journalist and helped me deconstruct it. The story started fifty years before I was even born and I was trying to tell it chronologically, through stories Byrne told me over glasses of wine on her screened porch. It felt distant and restrained — nothing like the story that emerged after she showed me how to polish and string together the pearls.

Susan didn't care that Byrne wasn't famous. She saw the deeper story.
Susan didn’t care that Byrne wasn’t famous. She saw the deeper story.

And so began four years of research, writing and rewriting — interrupted by documentaries and video work to pay the bills. The former journalist in me loved the deep dive into Byrne and Duncan’s past. Even things I hadn’t thought important, turned out to be pivotal.

Duncan's unpublished manuscripts, after I finally figured out where I had buried them. In my own yard.
Duncan’s unpublished manuscripts, after I finally figured out where I had buried them. In my own yard.
I couldn't have verified the "pearls" of Byrne's story without the Special Collections at the Beaufort County Library
I couldn’t have verified the “pearls” of Byrne’s story without the Special Collections at the Beaufort County Library
I interviewed every sister-and-brother-by-Byrne I could, to corroborate the story. This is my Navajo brother Ben - one of Byrne's first collected children.
I interviewed every sister-and-brother-by-Byrne I could, to corroborate the story. This is my Navajo brother Ben – one of Byrne’s first collected children.
Me, outside the apartment in Greenwich Village where Byrne first lived with Duncan, fresh off her stint as a burlesque dancer on Vaudeville
Me, outside the apartment in Greenwich Village where Byrne first lived with Duncan, fresh off her stint as a burlesque dancer on Vaudeville
At the Lincoln Center, I watched films of Byrne's most celebrated teacher: the modern dance pioneer Harald Kreutzberg
At  Lincoln Center, I watched films of Byrne’s most celebrated teacher: the modern dance pioneer Harald Kreutzberg
I tracked down the exact spot where Byrne's first work of choreography was born - St. John's College in Santa Fe
I tracked down the exact spot where Byrne’s first work of choreography was born – St. John’s College in Santa Fe
Here she is, leading Ben Barney and other young dancers in "The Walls Between" -- fifty years ago.
Here she is, leading Ben Barney and other young dancers in “The Walls Between” — fifty years ago.
I knew I had a story that connected with people when the crowd at TEDx in Charleston gave Byrne's "womenisms" thunderous applause.
I knew I had a story that connected with people when the crowd at TEDx in Charleston gave Byrne’s “womenisms” thunderous applause.

Eventually the research phase was finished and Susan and I began the process of editing each pearl — chapter by chapter. Coming up with

a title was the hardest part… we called it everything from “Dancing with Byrne” to “The Adagio” before settling on the phrase that defined

her. Once we had that, the marketing phase began. I gave a TED talk and created business cards featuring Byrne’s sassiest womenisms.


Byrne would have loved the design process — Torborg Davern did the spectacular cover and Shanna McGarry made the interior just as beautiful. Will Green got the social media ball rolling, making me Tumble, Tweet, Pin and Blog while the advance review copies went out to media, literary competitions and bookstores.  So far the reviews are amazing — from Lowcountry Weekly and the Beaufort Gazette.

Will, Susan and interns Jess, Izzy, Lizzy and Maddy all weighing in on changes we wanted to make to the advance review copy.
Will, Susan and interns Jess, Izzy, Lizzy and Maddy all weighing in on changes we wanted to make to the advance review copy.
Proofs of the book jacket - I love the happy Byrne on the front and fierce Byrne on the back.
Proofs of the book jacket – I love the happy Byrne on the front and fierce Byrne on the back.
I wrote a whole blog about the fashion of book covers.
I wrote a whole blog about the fashion of book covers.

While the books were being printed — in Minnesota, USA thank you very much —  we got to work planning the launch. Byrne taught

me well. Everything can be a party — from combing through mailing lists to figure out who died, remarried or moved, to

addressing envelopes. Byrne’s “collection” of children is still growing — even in her absence — because of this book.  I’m sure

she’s leaping through the air somewhere at the thought of it.

My sisters-by-Byrne, original and new, getting the word out.
My sisters-by-Byrne, original and new, getting the word out.
Lisa, Lolita and Larry -- making sure I don't forget anyone
Lisa, Lolita and Larry — making sure I don’t forget anyone

Yesterday, the books finally arrived from the printer. Six pallets worth. All of which had to be muscled from the end of Susan’s driveway to her warehouse — good thing for girl power. But at the end of the day I got to hold, in my hands, my baby. I just wish its Other Mother could have been there too, directing the new arrival.

I have trouble imaging the publisher of a NY house doubling as manual labor. That's me with the hat, doing the author's part as well
I have trouble imaging the publisher of a NY house doubling as manual labor. That’s me with the hat, doing the author’s part as well
She's perfect! (of course, the baby's a she) All embossed letters intact and touchable :)
She’s perfect! (of course, the baby’s a she) All embossed letters intact and touchable 🙂

Fun with commas in sex scenes

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2013-05-04 Other Mother 6x9 cover 300dpi

“The Other Mother” is finally at the printer – where it will be transformed from a gigantic electronic file to a 417-page,  hardcover memoir with a beautiful embossed cover in a satiny matte finish. That last part makes my publisher and her staff moan and drool. Though I know nothing about the subtleties of paper textures and finishes – the team at Joggling Board Press does.

I was handed sample after sample of hardcover books and told to touch and feel. I pretty much commented on the heft and weight of tome, which elicited more groans. Apparently gloss is uncool and satin matte finishes are sexy. I wanted sexy for Byrne and figured the design phase was the end of it.

Turns out there’s sexy in the proofreading process too. Take, for example, commas. I’d like to blame my woeful inadequacy in comma placement on the fact that I was raised in South Africa, a country more influenced by British grammar than American. That’s what the proofreading team at Joggling Board Press assumed when my propensity to use the “Oxford” comma became evident. But in truth I just toss commas into sentences based on reading my own work aloud.  I did pass AP style class in journalism school, honest I did. But I immediately began writing scripts instead of articles and in the world of broadcast, punctuation is a rhythm not a rule.

So how, you ask, are commas sexy?  Take the moment Byrne first meets Duncan. She is 24, he is 18 and wears a twist at the corner of his mouth that makes her wonder if he’s smiling or laughing at her. This is how the sentence looked before a marathon, nine-hour proofreading session before we put the book to bed .

“I’m a Southerner who misses the water,” he said. It was a genuine smile, she was certain of it, once she saw the sparkle in his eyes.

 Alas, the interior designer and the future-editors who are interning at JBP were not as certain of my meaning. So this is how they fixed it.

“I’m a Southerner who misses the water,” he said. It was a genuine smile; she was certain of it once she saw the sparkle in his eyes.

The first sex scene in “The Other Mother” comes on page 63 – when Byrne and Duncan consummate their almost-instant attraction in Central Park (back then the section known as “the Ramble” really was overgrown and possible to hide in.) But before they’d even unlocked limbs, the unconventional, free-spirited Byrne popped a question that shocked the younger Duncan.

“What kind of wedding shall we have?” she asked him when the spasms of his release still ricocheted through his body. She held him captive for an answer, her long, bare legs               wrapped around his solid waist under the cover of her swirling skirt.

Can you spot the problem with the sentence?(and I don’t mean to imply that she should have waited until after the wedding to be tumbling in the Ramble.) The JBP team decided “when the spasms” should be “as the spasms.” I never thought I’d be discussing the grammar of a sex scene in such detail, let alone with super-smart interns, some still in high school.

It turns out nothing shocks them, except bad punctuation. In a scene where a much younger Teresa butts heads with an immigration official, there is much mental cursing. In the book, I indicate inner-dialog by italics, and in this sentence I’m insulted by the immigration official’s assumptions.

Fuck you mister, I don’t owe Sonny anything.”

 Before I could even blush at my own language, the youngest intern at JBP pointed out that I missed a comma after fuck you. Sorry, dear readers, it appears I have a lot of commas to catch up on.

Caves of Time

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The hiking brochure they hand you when you get off the shuttle begins with: “Evidence of Human Activity in what is now Bandelier National Monument dates back more than 10,000 years.”


I was about to embark on a trip back in time that made me question the nature of time itself. I’ve never been one to ponder many existential questions; I’m too busy setting goals and rushing to meet them to do anything but wonder where time went. But after a morning at Bandelier I’m no longer sure what constitutes wasting time.  Consequently I probably am, just thinking about it.

In school, natural history never seemed as interesting as it did in the James Michener books I stole from my parents. But in the Frijoles Canyon history is mockingly relevant. I’ve felt the awe of National Parks before – the way places like Yosemite make you feel so puny and inconsequential. But at Bandelier it wasn’t just the physical grandeur of nature that humbled me, it was that damn first line of the brochure: evidence of human activity.

Somehow, in this most isolated and environmentally harsh place, ancient peoples not only survived but thrived. I was worried whether I’d get carsick on the shuttle ride out of the canyon but the Ancestral Pueblo people contended with threats monumentally more serious. The heat, for one thing. It reached 97 degrees on the day I visited —  a dry, high-altitude heat that reminds you that a few days without water and you’d be a pile of bones picked over by coyotes. These amazing people, without the wheel or a single written instruction, literally carved a life out of a desert canyon.

Which brings me back to the human activity part. The Ancestral Pueblo people figured out how to use tools to enlarge the openings of small, natural caves in the canyon’s cliff face. It’s called Tuff rock – the eroded remains of volcanic ash that compacted over time. It conserves the coolness of the desert night. It also serves as a permanent blackboard for ancient attempts at art.  I say attempts because the figures and symbols seem less visionary and inspirational than utilitarian. If there were creative outlets for these ancient people they were stories, songs and dances lost to time.

You can still climb into the caves at Bandelier and see the discolored walls where fires burned thousands of year’s worth of nights ago. What stories got told around those fires? Were the cave dwellers dreaming of enough free time to pursue the arts or new worlds to explore? Or were they just staying warm?


What really gets overwhelming is when you sit in the cave openings and look out over the canyon valley floor. By virtue of a small stream these Native Americans did something radical – they raised crops to augment hunting. They built a village whose remains are still visible from the rocky overlooks.  The brochure again:

Imagine this village filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of daily activity. Women grind corn between two heavy stones. The air is filled with the enticing scent of ground corn as it bakes into delicious flat bread. Loud thumps reverberate in the air as a stone axe meets a heavy wooden beam. Men are busy constructing new homes. Children laugh and shout while dogs bark; together they herd turkeys and play games. As today, each person has his or her role and responsibility.”


I tried to imagine me in this village, ten thousand years ago. Would my life have had meaning or true fulfillment? What “human activity” would have kept me motivated? The Ancestral Pueblo people had religion- their faith was part of every aspect of their lives without sectarian separation. I do not identify with any one religion. I have no useful farming skills. I don’t even have children. If more than a weekend goes by without writing something I get fidgety. I feel like I’m wasting time and yet I have more of it to fill in the manner I choose than the Ancestral Pueblo could even imagine. It’s the mark of progress, we’re told, when labor becomes so specialized that not everyone has to spend their days on redundant, common tasks of survival.

Yet what does it all mean when “progress” means spending hours each day tweeting and blogging? It’s part of every writer’s job – building a platform so that readers will buy the books that keep publishers in business – so I’m not complaining. But is my multi-tasking life really any more advanced than the brochure’s hunting, weaving and heavy construction? My gut says no, but my brain says it is more fulfilling. I’m happiest when I’m swimming in the creek in front of my house — thinking of nothing and thankful for everything — but I couldn’t let myself float in that happiness if I didn’t spend the days planning the next project, the next challenge. I can change the circumstances of my life at will if my will is strong enough.

The caves of Bandelier haven’t left my thoughts since I returned to South Carolina. I keep going back to that cool, dark window on a world I can barely imagine. The closest I can come to understanding what the “human activity” of survival was like ten thousand years ago was how it felt when Gary and I drove through Latin America in a camper. Despite all my mental fidgeting and fastidious documentation for a future book, we had to stop driving by two each afternoon to begin the menial tasks of finding a place to camp, buy food, get water and bathe. I was happy. I learned I could survive without alarm clocks and internet access and deadlines. But would I choose that “simplicity” permanently? No. I need external stimulation like art and museums and daily challenges to what I think I know.

Bandelier made me appreciate just how little that is.

Duncan’s Sante Fe

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Memoir is usually written in first person, a slice of biography told by the person who lived it. But “The Other Mother: a rememoir” is only half traditional memoir. I visualize the book as having two movements: one is mine and the other is Byrne and Duncan’s story. That other half is why I call it rememoir – it is the truth of their lives as they and I remember it.

This doesn’t mean that I just sat around and typed out conversations from memory. I’ve used every available source to get at the truth – from interviews with other “collected children” to newspaper articles written about Byrne and Duncan wherever they lived around the world. Another great source of information is Byrne’s papers – including a sporadic journal – which she donated to the Beaufort County Library’s Special Collections.

I’m blogging from Santa Fe today because I had the chance to see, first-hand, one of the places the Miller’s lived and left a lasting mark. They moved here after a sojourn on St. Thomas in the 60s. Right away, Duncan managed to get selected to write a stage play for the annual Santa Fe Fiesta. It was a big honor, especially for an outsider. The headline of a July 31st, 1966 article in the New Mexican declared “Miller Pair to Direct Fiesta Melodrama.”

The melodrama portion of the fiesta continues today – a new one staged each fall in conjunction of the burning of Old Man Gloom. But I’ve always wanted to see why Duncan chose the title and topic he did. His melodrama was called “The Sinister Secret of the Sawdust Sepulcher, or, A Capital Conspiracy.”


I knew from archival research that he was referring to the newly built New Mexico capitol – a controversial building that replaced the traditional capitol dome with what was called a Territorial Design. Duncan hated it and thought the round, stuccoed building looked like sawdust. Apparently he had company – it was quite a controversy in the mid-60s.

But I wanted to see if for myself, to see if Duncan was just being curmudgeonly. The first thing I noticed was how unpretentious and egalitarian it is. We pulled our boat of a rental car right up in front and parked without any meters or guard gates. We walked into the building itself, cell phone camera clicking, without being stopped. Guides, not guards, greeted us with information brochures and invitations to look at all the local art on display. The heavy wooden doors to the House and Senate chambers were unlocked – practically inviting admirers. I wouldn’t call the architecture beautiful but it felt so American to me, in the best possible way. Government by and of and for the people.


I walked out of the capitol thinking Duncan arrogant, even a little mean spirited for satirizing the statement the architect was trying to make at the time.  Byrne used to tell me he never liked it here in Santa Fe – too dusty, monochromatic and void of water. He didn’t see the beauty in it she did, that now some 68,000 people who live here do. But then again, to be fair, in the 60s it wasn’t nearly the artsy-glamorous mountain town it is today. Compared to Charleston, where Duncan was from, it must have seemed a desert outpost. He took no comfort in the company of other artists and writers who had discovered the town and made colonies and studios here.

I have no script of “The Sinister Secret of the Sawdust Sepulcher, or, A Capital Conspiracy.” For all I know Duncan might have meant it as a joke, making fun of the controversy more than protesting the architecture. But given how happy Byrne told me he was to leave Santa Fe for Beaufort in 1969, I suspect he lived here as an expat in his own country.

It’s part of the mystery of rememoir. One of my dearest sisters-by-Byrne is a yoga instructor in Savannah. Judean said that when her mother died, her siblings had such different memories — even resentments — that she wondered if they were remembering the same woman. She told me to expect the same confusion as I wrote about my “Other Mother” and the man who shaped her life.

What it comes down to is being true to the truth of the person I knew, and I knew Byrne’s Duncan. All I have left is Byrne’s memory of the man who wrote that snarky play. She saw the Santa Fe Fiesta and it’s annual burning of Zozobra (Old Man Gloom) as a way to discharge demons. She hoped Santa Fe’s dry mountain air would clear the cobwebs in Duncan’s mind and allow his creativity to blossom. When it didn’t, she didn’t judge him – as I find myself doing.

What I learned on my tour of the Santa Fe capitol is how difficult it is to withhold judgment. Byrne could, because her love for Duncan was so strong and tested. Santa Fe released the gloom and reaffirmed her faith in the power of their partnership instead.

Byrne’s Santa Fe

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I’m about to step into a time warp, only it’s all in my head. I’m flying to Santa Fe tomorrow, one of the four key settings in my memoir about Byrne Miller. She lived there in the early 1960s, a contemporary of Georgia O’Keefe. Santa Fe, not Beaufort, is where she started the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre.

I’ve never been, unless you count back porch conversations with Byrne and research for the book. Santa Fe exists only as a backdrop for me, a place frozen in time, and I’m a little nervous that the contemporary city won’t feel as magical.

Byrne reveled in the chance to reinvent herself and Santa Fe was a willing stage. This is how I described her driving the family out West.

Of the three westward-bound Millers, only Byrne allowed the stark freedom of the landscape to lift and thrill her. She drove with the front seat pushed all the way back to accommodate legs meant more for the stage than a station wagon. With her chin up-thrust and wrists draped over the top of the steering wheel she could just as easily have been racing a horse-drawn chariot around a Roman coliseum.

The Millers arrived at the tail end of its artistic heyday, when writers formed colonies and housing was cheap enough for artists to afford. Byrne rented a house at 203 Canyon Drive and turned it into the studio that would become the mother ship of the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre. That address will be my first stop in Santa Fe – to see the building where it all started.

I know that Canyon Road today will be a very different place – it’s been discovered and prettied up – the heart of the city’s gallery district. But I’ve braced for this kind of reality check once before, in the course of writing this memoir, and I’m learning to appreciate even whispers that places still offer from the past. Last summer, I found the building where Byrne and Duncan lived when they were first married, in Greenwich Village. Morton Street is nothing like the bohemian, immigrant-filled place it was in Byrne’s day, but I still felt a connection.


In Santa Fe, I feel certain I will find a sense of connection again. I am about to launch “The Other Mother” so it seems fitting to visit the place where Duncan also began a new novel.

For months he paced the portal that ran along the length of their Adobe house at 203 Canyon Street, his pipe in one hand and a writing notebook in the other. When ideas came to him, he shoved the pipe between his lips and exhaled through the corner of his mouth, keeping his hands free to scribble down dialog or exposition.  He eased into a curved leather Equipal chair to sharpen his pencils or refill his pipe, catching the loose crumbs of tobacco in a soft Mexican blanket folded on his lap.

I suspect that one of the reasons Byrne and Duncan decided to relocate to Santa Fe was because Byrne hoped the company of other writers would inspire Duncan to write something fresh. She couldn’t have known that almost 50 years later, it would be a place that inspires one of her collected daughters to write the story Duncan never could.



Cleaning up Duncan

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Until the winds of Hurricane Sandy made it impossible, I spent the last week trying to dry and clean up three unpublished Duncan Miller manuscripts I never wanted to see again. When a small group of Byrne Miller’s “adopted” children gathered to read them the first time, in 2009, we decided as a group that it was indeed not Byrne’s fault that her beloved Duncan’s work had never been published. Byrne had described Duncan as having “borderline schizophrenia,” and he ultimately died from complications of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But even those of us considered part of his extended family never realized how much his mind must have tormented him until we read his manuscripts.

I won’t go into detail but nobody in their right mind would want to read what Duncan wrote, let alone publish such thoughts. Gary and I buried them in 2009 as a sort of compromise – getting them out of our house but not going as far as burning the last known copies of a man’s life work.

It turns out three years being buried in black plastic lawn bags does little to preserve typed manuscript pages that were already fifty years old when they went into the ground. Dirt I expected, but water somehow seeped through the plastic lining of the manuscripts and spores of a bright yellow mold now crust each page. The archeologist who helped us find the hidden stash, Larry Lepionka, advised me to divide the stacks into smaller piles and when they were completely dry, to take a pastry brush to every page. While I dusted off each page, on the very same porch that Duncan loved to watch the river from, I forced myself to re-read one of the manuscripts. After all, that was the whole point of digging them up again.

I am writing about Byrne and Duncan’s years in Santa Fe and “The Air-Drawn Dagger” was the first of two novels Duncan began there.  Ostensibly, it’s about prejudice toward a group of people he calls “Hispanos” by which I gather he meant Mexicans of Spanish descent. But the plot doesn’t matter because you can’t get past the sexually explicit language. The vocabulary might have been a factor of the times – Duncan’s later novels would have been influenced by the beat generation and authors like Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg. But what disturbs me is more than the shock value of profane words. Duncan wrote in first person, about everything from rape to incest. I can only imagine, as I’m sure Byrne did, that these scenes came from something deep and wounding in his past. All I know of it is that he was estranged from his Charleston family and never allowed Byrne to make contact with them even when he died.

Reading the work of someone whose long-ago death means he can’t explain himself is a little like finding your father’s secret stash of pornography. You want to believe that it doesn’t mean anything, that reading nasty isn’t the same as being nasty. But you never see him in quite the same light again, and you judge his future actions, and the stories of his past, through a different lens.

What I struggle with now is how much, if any of it, I should reveal in the book I am writing about Byrne’s life. Duncan’s writing is an integral part of Byrne’s story – for the sixty years of their love-filled marriage she introduced him as a brilliant novelist. Yet after he died, she told me that her only regret in life was never getting him published. Her life included struggles like one daughter get electro-shock therapy as a young child for schizophrenia and the other daughter being killed by a drunk driver.  But it was this sense of failing Duncan that kept her up at night and I think she hoped that I would find a way to remedy that after she died. Maybe I have. Perhaps through writing about Duncan and his great love for Byrne, the essential truth of him will have a voice. But deciding how much to reveal will be what keeps me up at night.

Night of the Living Manuscript

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What lies beneath the sandy soil of Pigeon Point? No ancient Duncan Miller manuscripts, at least not anymore. Last week I wrote about our trench-digging efforts to exhume them, which, since we couldn’t remember exactly where we’d buried them or how deep or even how long ago, was an exercise in futility (accent on exercise).  But one of my sisters-by-Byrne, Lisa Lepionka, left a comment on this blog that changed everything. She reminded me that her husband Larry, who used to smoke pipes and read Shakespeare with Duncan, is an archeologist with the proper tools for digs such as ours.

Gary, under supervision this time

Larry, verifying by hand


I am not proud. I readily admit when I am in over my head and need help. Larry bicycled right over with a pair of industrial strength clippers for buried roots and a bonafide archeologist’s probe and put Gary to work. It turns out when you jab into the soil with a long pointy rod it’s as much about sound as resistance. Metallic pings are usually signs you’ve hit an oyster shell, and tree roots make a sharp, cracking noise when probed. Three thick, hand-typed manuscripts create a resonant thud when you stab through their outer wrapping – and after a week of digging that’s a wonderful sound.

The whole search took ten minutes, once the professional arrived. Larry crouched down, started scraping away the earth and professorially announced “we have contact with plastic.” I would have cracked open the tequila to celebrate right there and then, but Larry reminded me that some of manuscripts were 60 years old when the paper went into the ground and if any water had seeped into the pages since then the results would be discouraging.

We pried the manuscripts from their grip of secrecy and ripped open the layers of plastic covering. It didn’t look good. The flimsy cardboard boxes that encased each of the three manuscripts disintegrated in my hands – wet globs of musty dirt. The title pages were spotted with yellow mold and the one that had been on top was now decorated with a cluster of probe holes. Still, Larry says he expected worse. Inside, the pages are still legible – and he says I should be able to read them safely once they’re completely dry and I’ve taken a pastry brush to the clots of dirt.

The special collections director at the Beaufort County Library also commented on the last blog – she suggests that after I’m done referencing the manuscripts for my book about Byrne Miller, I store them with the rest of Byrne’s papers. The thing is, Duncan suffered from what Byrne always called “borderline schizophrenia” and his writing is, well, “ribald” might be the best way to describe it. Still, it’s his life’s work and maybe after we’ve all read “Fifty Shades of Grey” it won’t seem so disturbing after all.

Exhuming a body – of work

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Tuesday’s dig at 2400 Wilson Drive

I knew it was only a matter of time before the neighbors wondered about the dirt piling up in the woods beside our house. But I should have guessed our defense-attorney neighbor, Scott Lee, would be the first to comment.

“How tall you figure Gary for?” he asked, on an afternoon stroll with his daughter.

I shrugged, wondering what silent little Olivia was thinking. “Why?”

“Oh nothing. That grave you’re digging seems plenty long enough to bury his body by now,” he said.

He’s right. I’ve been at it for a week and the trench that started it all is now surrounded by enough holes and offshoots to hide a dozen bodies.  But it’s a body of work I’m digging for – one that I’m desperate to unearth.You see, Duncan Miller’s unpublished manuscripts are somewhere in the soil behind our shed, between Wilson Drive and the house where he and Byrne once lived. I know because I buried them there.

Gary actually did the original digging, but he can’t remember exactly where. Neither can I – we were both in too much of a hurry to get the books in the ground to bother marking the spot. All we’re sure of is that we wrapped three thick bundles of manuscript pages in layers of plastic lawn bags. Picture a stack of telephone Yellow Pages wrapped in black plastic and you’ve got the approximate size, density and shape of our buried treasure. How far down? Well that’s a mystery too – we were shooting for deep enough to deter dogs and that’s as scientific as it got.

It all seemed like a logical plan two or three years ago – we can’t even remember exactly when we buried the books. Byrne Miller – the woman whose life I’m writing a book about – spent a lifetime trying to get them published. She kept them under her sofa in bankers boxes and saved  –  I’m not kidding  –  hundred of rejection letters. I had just started to get rejections of my own  – New York publishers not being interested in the story of a not-world-famous dancer and her writer husband  – and it felt like bad karma. Gary made a bonfire and we burned the bitter letters of Duncan’s defeat but I couldn’t bring myself to destroy the work itself. They represented a lifelong endeavor and I felt Duncan’s pain.

So I read through the manuscripts and culled a beautiful poem from the pages of his many drafts. As luck would have it I found a wonderful publisher in Charleston who loved the poem and the story of the marriage it represented. We planned for the poem to be an epilogue of sorts – a way for Byrne to finally get Duncan published. You can read the poem if you dig  – I mean scroll  –  through enough earlier blogs on this site – it’s in there somewhere.

Gary and I figured if we buried the manuscripts, like a time capsule, maybe someone would unearth them in another lifetime and find them bizarre and antiquated enough to print. But now, months into the editing process, it’s becoming clear that Duncan’s disturbing, unpublished novels are essential to Byrne’s story. The poem isn’t enough. I have to exhume the manuscripts. So far, we’re coming up with lots of oyster shells and shovel-stopping roots but nothing else. Next week we’re going to try to find a pointed metal stick to use as a probe. Maybe that’ll look like I’m just aerating the soil, instead of preparing a mass grave. But then again, it is approaching Halloween….. Hmm. Stay tuned.

Taking a break – for now