In my early twenties, I ached to be a writer, but the stories I wrote were never as good as I wanted them to be. Even worse, sometimes a story idea that had initially seemed promising would fizzle out midway through. I thought that surely this didn’t happen to “real” writers, who, in the grip of the Muse, produced fully-realized stories from the get-go. And then I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, in which she insists that nearly all good writing starts with a “shitty first draft,” that writing is an inherently messy process, that the bulk of it is, in fact, re-writing.
Now, with four published novels to my name, I can attest that Lamott’s words have proven more than true. Still, I had hoped that over the years, as my confidence grew, my process might become a teeny bit more efficient. Nope. In fact, my most recent was the most challenging to write so far, requiring not one, but two abandoned manuscripts (one clocking in at 78,000 words!) before I finally figured out what it was about.
This is somewhat ironic, given that I first contemplated writing the story more than fifteen years ago. Back then, I had watched the documentary, The Weather Underground, which examines a group of young, white militants who formed during the Vietnam War, calling themselves “Weatherman” in reference to the line, “you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows” from Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Weatherman committed to, in their words, “bring the war home,” believing that if they started detonating bombs in the United States, the country might lose its appetite for bombing Vietnam.
It would be another ten years before I sat down to write the book. In re-watching the documentary, I was fascinated by two members in particular, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, a married couple who to this day remain unapologetic, viewing their past actions as the collective equivalent of David heroically slinging a rock at Goliath.
I wasn’t alone in my fascination. The unrepentant Ayers also captured the imagination of the far right during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run, when it was revealed that as fellow residents of Chicago’s South Side, Ayers and Dohrn had hosted a meet-and-greet for Obama when he first ran for state senate, and that Obama and Ayers had sat on a couple of boards together. Sarah Palin, ever the provocateur, claimed that Obama was “palling around with terrorists.” At some point, an inherently racist conspiracy theory blossomed: that Ayers, not Obama, had written Dreams of my Father, as if the former president of the Harvard Law Review couldn’t possibly have written the memoir on his own.
While accusations of Obama’s deep connection to Ayers were clearly spurious, other rumors about Ayers and Dohrn appeared to be true, including the fact that Dorhn once commended the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson Family. While giving a speech at the Weatherman’s 1969 “War Council” meeting in Flint, Michigan, Dohrn said: “First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into the pig Tate’s stomach! Wild!” To this day, Dohrn and Ayers claim that she was being ironic, making a pointed joke about America’s obsession with sensationalized violence. But, given that the Flint War Council ended with the group deciding to go underground and engage in guerilla warfare against American imperialism, it’s hard to detect any irony in her statement. The more I researched Weatherman, the more it seemed to me that Ayers and Dohrn had a habit of whitewashing their past when convenient. What I couldn’t figure out was whether or not they actually believed their own bullshit.
With that question in mind, I began writing a novel with the working title of Document Based Question, about a married couple who were once militant activists, now tenured professors in Atlanta. I told the story from the perspective of their daughter, Sarah, who, while doing research for a school project, discovers the extent of her parents’ involvement in a militant antiwar group that once planted bombs all over the United States.
It was fun to write about Sarah being raised by left-wingers in Reagan’s America. But I studiously avoided writing anything about her parents’ former lives, in which they engaged in real violence. To do so, I would have had to put myself in their shoes, when they were young and enraged and so deeply disillusioned by their country that they committed to do “anything for the revolution.”
Despite being fascinated by the subject, I realized I wasn’t ready to take a deep dive into revolutionary violence. I had just had a baby and didn’t want to lock myself away from my husband and son to write about building and detonating bombs. Also: I fretted that by writing about “the lunatic left” I might become a darling of the right, even though I was literally a card-carrying liberal. (Don’t ask me why I carry my Planned Parenthood and ACLU membership cards around with me in my wallet; I just do.) Why shine a light on the radical fringes when I was so grateful for the decades-long activism of countless progressives that had resulted in such meaningful social change in the United States? Case in point: During the time that I was struggling to write my novel, same-sex marriage was made legal in all 50 states, and our country’s first black president was in his second term. Clearly the arc of the moral universe had bent toward justice. Why journey back to such a fraught time? I put the novel aside.
And then a dear friend died by suicide, just weeks shy of her fortieth birthday. Soon after, I felt compelled to return to the novel, under the new working title of God Sisters. Whereas before I had focused on only one family, now there were two, each with one daughter. The two moms were best friends, as were their daughters, and each mother was the godmother of the other’s daughter. I also included a suicide, which helped me process my own friend’s shocking death. When the daughters are in their early 30s one of them, naïve and kind, kills herself after getting exploited by a religious charlatan.
It was a good story, but it didn’t have much to do with the aforementioned radicals. That didn’t stop me from trying to ram the radicals’ story into the narrative, allowing me to repurpose four entire chapters from Document Based Question. In the early fall of 2016, I sent all 78,000 words to my editor. In November, she called to say she loved it—but starting on page 160, when the story of the young woman’s involvement with the corrupt pastor really takes off. She suggested I start the book there.
Hanging up, I realized I needed to double down on the radicals that had inspired me so early on, to dig into their stories fearlessly, to not shy away from parts of their lives I found disturbing but knew I needed to explore. It also occurred to me that, while writing a fictitious version of my friend’s death had been therapeutic, it was not the story I was actually trying to tell. And, I realized (and knew deep down) it wasn’t really mine to tell.
I don’t know if I would have had this realization if my editor hadn’t called two days after Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016. My previous assessment of the arc of the moral universe had been naïve, or at least wildly premature. There was so much I had failed to recognize about our country. Of course, I had been aware that the far-right operated in an increasingly toxic echo chamber, but I had underestimated how firm a grasp white supremacist ideology had on much of our country. And I had been blinded by my own considerable privilege from seeing just how many people felt hopelessly left behind, and how cynical pundits and politicians could manipulate their hardship, replacing valid economic grievances with a culture war.
I returned to my original exploration of Vietnam-era radicals with a renewed sense of purpose. I kept the Atlanta setting, and, as in Document Based Question, one of my former radicals was, by middle age, living the sort of comfortable, bourgeoise life that her past self would have excoriated. I kept the character set-up the same as it had been in God Sisters, continuing to examine the lives of two women and best friends whose daughters were also best friends. But this time around, I took time to explore the mothers’ burgeoning friendship, back when they were eighteen and just becoming aware of systematic injustice. One woman joins a militant antiwar group; the other embraces nonviolence. Later, once they are both mothers and the turbulent Vietnam era is behind them, they find each other again. The former militant is so ashamed of who she once was that she buries her past, reinventing herself and her life.
I like to imagine that what eventually became We Are All Good People Here was the story I was supposed to write all along, as if it had always existed in complete form, deep in my subconscious. But that is a romantic notion. The truth is more complicated, and has something to do with how profoundly we are influenced by the moment we are living though when we sit down to write. Had I not had a baby, had my friend not killed herself, had Trump not won, I surely would have written a different novel. Even so, it wouldn’t have come to me fully-realized, but rather through a series of false starts, dead ends, and unexpected influences and inspirations. My messy process remains the same, even if the outcome is indelibly shaped by circumstance.
Susan Rebecca White is the author of four novels: Bound South, A Soft Place to Land, A Place at the Table, and We Are All Good People Here. A graduate of Brown University and the MFA program at Hollins University, Susan has taught creative writing at Hollins, Emory, SCAD, and Mercer University, where she was the Ferrol A. Sams, Jr. Distinguished Chair of English Writer-in-Residence. An Atlanta native, Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband and son.
Image: Peter Lewicki