You Ought to Write a Novel
On a visit to see my mother in Montgomery in aside – probably unrelated to the conversation we were having – she surprised me with, “Mick, you ought to write a novel. You’re a good writer.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I said – embarrassed but pleased at the same time. “Maybe when I retire.” Not long after, when retirement came, I had no other option but to write that novel!
So, what did I do? I just started writing with just two thoughts in my head. First, I remembered the only advice that I heard about becoming a writer: write what you know. Second, I decided that I would learn to be a writer by writing. No creative writing courses for me.
At the time, the ignorant destruction of images of Southern heroes was in full swing, and often I asked myself, “How can I love the South as deeply as I do with evils of slavery in its past?” Finally, I realized that these two contradictory notions that formed a conundrum in my mind would just maybe make a good plotline if they occurred in the mind of a Southerner at the time of the Civil War.
I wanted to see if I could construct a readable story, and accordingly, I decided that I would put myself in the mind of a surgeon in the Army of Northern Virginia. I did not give him a name or describe him – that would all come much later in my writing if this writing thing actually worked out. The setting I chose was a few days removed from the Battle of Gettysburg after Lee’s Army had crossed the Potomac back to the relative safety of Virginia.
To describe his thoughts, he wrote them in his diary – a literary device I carried forward throughout the novel. The surgeon recorded his observations, feelings, and emotions in his diary that he knew he could not tell to his wife back in South Carolina.
The excerpt from Angry Heavens below is still largely the same set of words I wrote on that first attempt that I posted Facebook to see if it struck a chord with anyone. After many words of encouragement, I started on the three-year journey that would yield the novel, Angry Heavens: Struggles of a Confederate Surgeon.
The words that follow are not enjoyable, but I trust you get a feel for the overpowering images that remain with me still today – years after first writing those words.
July 15, 1863
Nothing prepared me for the sheer awfulness I was to face at Gettysburg. I thought that this would be much like previous battles, where our work was intense for hours, but at the end of the day, we found a time to reflect on the good done that day in our field hospitals. At Gettysburg, there was no time for anything except for cutting and sawing and tossing away limbs from young bodies.
There were so many wounded that there was utterly no time to probe a wound, remove the lead projectile embedded in the muscle, and suture the wound. There were so many boys waiting for our attention that a rifle wound where the lead remained in the limb often meant the leg would be amputated in the hopes that the time we saved would save others who waited for our ministrations.
Limbs were amputated, cauterized, and sutured up with no anesthesia unless the patient lapsed into blessed unconsciousness. So much blood. So much pain. Such a hellish din. Long after we’d left the field of battle, I continue to feel the grind of the saw’s teeth on bone, the feel of the blade cutting through sinew and muscle. I taste the coppery essence of blood. I smell the reek of abdominal wounds and cauterized flesh. The sounds and feel and taste and smells reside with me constantly.
I am a beast of burden for the screams of the boys whose limbs I have removed—so mangled were they as to be unrecognizable as human appendages. I think that I shall never be rid of these sensations the rest of my days.
My mind is unable to grasp with any logic known to me the sheer magnitude of the dead and dying left on the battlefield each day. Indeed the manhood of entire towns was lost on those days—and with it, weddings, and births, and families—to be replaced only with an unending grieving for what was, for what is, and for what shall never be. How shall they sensibly ever deal with such loss? I do not know. And for us, Gettysburg’s survivors, we have abandoned any hope of returning to the innocence of normality. We only seek to endure to the end of this national disaster.