The Road to the Overlook

Writing about writing is usually boring except to writers, and when writers read writing about writing it’s often because they’re procrastinating or blocked or otherwise not writing.

In this blog post I’m writing about writing, but I’m going to dress it up with Vineyard photographs to make it more bloggish.

The Squatters’ Speakeasy (working title) has been evolving. This is good. But it keeps running into walls. This is not so good. I know what I want to happen. I want some characters to start a grassroots movement to demand affordable year-round housing. But this is so far from anything that’s ever happened in real life that I couldn’t even begin to imagine such a thing. I was stuck.

do not enterHow about introducing a magical element to make it happen? No go. Fantasy only works if the writer believes it, and I didn’t. My fictional Martha’s Vineyard obeys the same physical laws as the Martha’s Vineyard I live on. I came up with a few other halfhearted ideas. My plot director, who’s been observing Vineyard life pretty closely for almost 30 years, shot them all down before they were airborne.

Meanwhile, the mysterious force that I call my muse was playing in the background. As I was falling asleep one night, she dropped an image into my head: people camped out on the Tashmoo Overlook.

Wonder of wonders, the plot director was intrigued. Who were these people? No idea. How did they did there? No idea about that either. “Maybe I could draw or paint them in?” I suggested. “How about Photoshop?”

“You can’t draw or paint worth beans,” replied the plot director, “and last I looked, you couldn’t Photoshop to save your life. If you want campers on the overlook, you’re going to have to plot them in. Ha ha ha.”

“OK,” said I, “but you’re going to have to help me out here.”

Turned out some of the pieces were already in place. I started connecting the dots. The story so far takes place in May. I’ve already written a big, portentous set-piece of a scene for the beginning of Memorial Day weekend. (If you’re curious about this, see “Benefit Art Show.”)

Every Memorial Day, the town of Tisbury throws a big picnic at — guess where? — the Tashmoo Overlook. What if a few of the picnickers stayed late? What if they camped out all night and were still there in the morning?

The plot director loved this idea. Squatters, like Mud of the Place, is an ensemble piece with several viewpoint characters. Which one was going to pull the campers into the story? At this point I didn’t know who the campers were, so it couldn’t be one of them. Shannon, of course, said my muse as Travvy and I walked one morning down the path behind the West Tisbury School.

That was almost two weeks ago. Shannon’s route to the Tashmoo Overlook was, of course, longer and twistier than I’d imagined. Best of all, it turned up a villain I didn’t know I’d been looking for until he showed up — at an AA meeting, of all places. Yesterday morning I finished a very rough draft, in brown ink, annotated here and there in a red-orange ink called Fireball. Yesterday afternoon Travvy and I headed into Vineyard Haven to retrace Shannon’s route to the Tashmoo Overlook. If there were any impossibilities in my draft, I wanted to know before I started typing it into a shape my writers’ group can read tomorrow night.

Baptist parish house, William St., Vineyard Haven

Baptist parish house, William St., Vineyard Haven

The AA meeting was what brought Shannon into town on a Monday night, to the Baptist church parish house. It’s not a meeting she usually attends, but the meeting has been struggling and the current secretary asked her and another veteran AA to lend their experience, strength, and hope to the regular members, most of whom are fairly young in the program.

During the meeting, Shannon helps head off a member who monopolizes the floor and is intimidating other members. After the meeting, her buddy (whose name is currently Jack) waits for Shannon outside, smoking a cigarette. I had him leaning on a stone wall parallel to the parish house. There is no stone wall parallel to the parish house. Oops.

Smokers' corner

Smokers’ corner

The real stone wall is parallel to the church just next door. Fortunately this works just fine. Better than fine: see the butt-disposal unit next to the wall? Jack, who is trying to quit, stubs out his cigarette when it’s only half smoked. Now he won’t be tempted to relight it.

Jack knows and distrusts the disruptive meeting member. Breaking the man’s anonymity, he tells Shannon who he is and warns her to be careful. “See, see, see?” says my plot director. “Have we got a part for him or what?”

water works signShannon heads off down West Spring Street, which at night is dark and quiet and offers an alternative to State Road, which in late May is neither. West Spring bends sharply to the left and then climbs past the headquarters of the Tisbury Water Works, which is down an asphalt driveway and almost out of sight from the road. On the other side of the woods is the Tashmoo Overlook.

The path through the woods, with Travvy, who so far is less than enthusiastic about this research project

The path through the woods, with Travvy, who so far is less than enthusiastic about this research project

Approaching State Road just uphill from the overlook, we hit a snag: No way could Shannon spot lights in the meadow from West Spring. The woods are too deep, the trees too dense. She has to see the lights from State Road. I’ll figure that out later.

The good news is that the path I remembered is really there, leading from West Spring to the meadow, and wide as a boulevard. Shannon and her flashlight will have no trouble following it in the dark.

More good news awaited me at the other end of the path: A small camp — at the moment it’s two four-person tents and an old-fashioned canvas pup tent — could nestle at the end of the meadow. The dropoff from the lay-by, where tourists park to photograph Lake Tashmoo in the distance and the cell phone reception is good, is steep enough to conceal a clandestine camp from the road, at least at night. Trav and I had to wade through tall grass and shrubbery to photograph it from a good angle, but the field is mowed for the town picnic so it should make a good campsite.

hollow

That’s State Road curving up the hill on the right; Malvina Forester is parked on the lay-by. The woods Trav and I walked through are dead ahead, across the meadow. I hear voices; the tents are flickering in and out of existence. Can you see them yet?

What happens when Shannon emerges from the woods, flashlight in hand? I’ll leave that till later. Needless to say, she and I were both surprised by what we saw and heard. The plot director is unabashedly thrilled. She’s got an illicit encampment and a zealous town employee who wants to shut it down. What’s not to like?

This is what most people stop at the lay-by to look at, so of course I looked at it too.

This is what most people stop at the lay-by to look at, so of course I looked at it too.

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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10 Responses to The Road to the Overlook

  1. Juleann says:

    Of course, in real life there WAS a grassroots movement to demand affordable year-round housing. It began in the early 90’s with a group of eight people at the Housing Authority who understood the problem and hammered on about the issue relentlessly. Their efforts culminated in the “Preserving Community” event at the Grange Hall in 2000, drawing in hundreds of people. From that event came the Island Affordable Housing Fund and the Housing Trust; adoption of the Community Preservation Fund; permanent funding for the Housing Authority; establishing the rental subsidy program and the creation of homeownership opportunities that will remain permanently affordable. There was a sea change that made a difference.

    Your statement that “this is so far from anything that’s ever happened in real life” is kind of disrespectful to those of us that put in hard time on this issue. While the real grassroots effort was not as magical as the one you are envisioning, it did happen and it’s the only reason people understand affordable housing as integral to the community today.

    However, your photo perspective of the lay-by is great!

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    • True, that was organizing of a sort, but I’m talking about political organizing — people organizing on their own behalf, as workers organized labor unions, black people organized the civil rights movement, women organized the feminist movement, Indians threw the British out of India, etc. Housing didn’t become An Issue till it started to affect, among others, employers (who couldn’t fill jobs — not just low-wage jobs but, e.g., teaching positions) and the children of property owners who weren’t going to be able to buy land if they worked Vineyard jobs (unless they had access to family money, of course).

      There wasn’t much pressure from below, from those most affected — for complex reasons, of course, not least that when you’re struggling to get by you don’t have the leisure to think ahead and organize for a future payoff. What Milt Mazer wrote in People and Predicaments also comes into play here.

      So the affordable housing movement developed more like social services. As with so much Vineyard civic life, the momentum came from the go-to-meeting classes (I can’t remember who I stole that phrase from, but I don’t think I made it up): people who like going to meetings (or they like bitching about having to go to meetings), have the skills to make themselves heard at meetings, and are well connected to the politicos et al. who go to other meetings and can make things happen. It hasn’t addressed the underlying causes of the housing crisis, esp. the second-home market — for good reasons, e.g., either they were part of the second-home market or they owed all/part of their livelihoods to it.

      And despite all the “youth lots” and rental units established since then, the housing problem is as bad as ever. The fabric of the community continues to fray. In the current talk about the “affordability gap,” the emphasis is generally on the high cost of housing rather than the other side of the gap: low wages. Why? Plenty of reasons for that too, but I’d suggest that one of them is that the go-to-meeting classes tend to be more interested in preserving scenic Martha’s Vineyard (aka “the rural character of the island”) than in developing economic alternatives to tourism and the second-home market.

      In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, I couldn’t help wondering what Occupy Martha’s Vineyard would look like. Nothing like the OccupyMV that briefly existed, that’s for sure. I’m still wondering, but I’m 99% sure that it would be focused on housing. My campers at the overlook might even raise that banner themselves . . .

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      • Juleann says:

        Wow . . . you so have NO IDEA why those of us who did all the work, did all the work. You weren’t there helping us. I don’t know why you insist on disparaging and belittling. Do you think POLITICAL organizing happens without going to meetings? You have jumped to conclusions without doing your homework. (Actually, ZERO youth lots have been established since then . . .). I’m sure it is much easier to write a fictionalized story about OccupyMV than to actually do it.

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      • Juleann says:

        I am now trying to write a more thoughtful reply, though you really hit some soft spots.

        I do think you belittle the hard work done by good people and in the process you simplify what happened and the outcomes. No, the AH efforts were not perfect and the results are mixed at best. But, our work got the issue out there and helped people understand the nuances in a way they weren’t understood before.

        You are wrong when you suggest that people only talk about AH from the standpoint of cost of houses rather than low wages. Did you read the latest report? It’s talked about extensively. There are other things about the report that I believe are flawed, but not when it comes to examining the local wage structure.

        I have two long-standing disagreements with how AH is managed on MV:

        1. Affordability is determined by federal (one-size fits all) guidelines. No consideration is taken for the additional 20% cost-of-living expenses here on MV — food, health care, transportation, heating, expensive child care etc. So, when determining what one is able to pay for rent or mortgage, the math will always have people paying more than they can afford here on the island.

        2. All guidelines — state or federal — determine what you can afford to pay (for anything!) based on your gross income. I have always felt this was misleading. Most workers know how much they bring home after taxes. The amount of money I have left after paying the government is how much money I have to pay my bills. Not the other way around. Determining what one can pay for rent or mortgage based on gross income places most low-income workers at a disadvantage.

        Getting a ‘movement’ to take hold and make progress takes all kinds of people — not just the people directly affected. So yes, people who own second homes and people who earn their living building second homes were involved — and they all made a positive difference. Sometimes people need people who look like them in order to listen, understand, and buy in. That’s how change works.

        You are unwilling to give credit where credit is due. The builders who have been involved with AH have all contributed toward making the units that have been built sustainable and built to much higher standards than most other AH units. Isn’t that a good thing?

        Finally, I am someone who believes it is possible to both preserve the scenic aspect of this island AND address the AH needs — what hope is there if we don’t do both? Polarizing people into opposing camps is following the example of our two-party system. It’s just not useful anymore.

        I realize this particular blog was meant to be about your writing process, not really about AH. But, you take cheap shots at those of us who put in a lot of time & effort and believed that what we were doing was helping to preserve this community. Your analysis falls short and is critical in places where generosity is warranted; a nod of acknowledgement to the people who came before them would go a long way towards helping your campers gain some measure of success.

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      • Juleann, thanks for the follow-up. I was sitting on my fingers until I could come up with a rational response. 🙂 From firsthand experience and lots of reading, observing, and listening I have a pretty good idea of how political organizing and social change happen. Most movements have complex internal dynamics — factions with different priorities pulling in different directions, sometimes even working at cross-purposes. Often there’s a “radical” faction that’s less willing than the “moderates” to work or compromise with the powers that be — think Malcolm X or SNCC in the civil rights movement, socialist and radical feminists and separatists in the women’s movement, etc.

        That’s what (I think) my thought experiment is about: What if people who move twice a year and renters and others barely hanging on to their homes came together in such a faction, along with whatever allies they could muster? What if it were proactive rather than defensive? What would it look like? How would people respond to it? What influence could it have? Could it last? (It’s set in the present, btw, not 20 years ago. It’s building on what’s already happened, not trying to erase or rewrite it.) I don’t know how it’s going to play out. It’s already looking as if the encampment is going to turn into a tourist attraction, to the delight of some and the dismay of others. Maybe it’ll go viral . . .

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  2. Sharon Stewart says:

    I liked this a lot. Fiction writing is a mystery to me, and this behind-the-scenes work is fascinating.

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  3. Really enjoyed this pictorial view into the creative process, Susanna. Just wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing.

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    • Thanks, Debbie. I never know when something I find fascinating is going to bore other people to tears. I had fun writing it, though, and tramping through the woods and down into the meadow. That’s usually a good sign.

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      • debmmorgan says:

        It is a good sign. I teach creative writing here in Liverpool. My priority when coming up with ideas for a class is fun. This works. I’m thinking of a way to use a similar idea with my students. Thanks again for the inspiration.

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