The Writing Life

By Bernice McFadden
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Remember the movie "Stir of Echoes," starring Kevin Bacon? Well, in the movie Bacon's character is hypnotized, but something goes terribly wrong -- or terribly right, depending on your belief system -- and he is suddenly able to receive messages from a dead girl who, in effect, uses him to find her body and bring her murderers to justice.

In Hollywood we've seen this plot device time and time again: A character survives a traumatic incident or experiences a life-changing event and is suddenly able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, spit webs from his wrist . . . or receive messages from the other side.

I fall in the last category. I am a receiver.

At the age of 2, I was involved in a near-fatal accident. My mother has recounted the story for me a number of times: the impact, the flames and me caught in the space between the passenger and driver's seats, my mother tugging with all of her strength to free me. And then later on, the quiet words from the doctor, "Mrs. McFadden, we don't think she's going to make it."

I was on the brink of death, teetering on that invisible line that separates the here and the hereafter, floating in that white light our ancestors inhabit. I believe that during that ethereal moment I was given an assignment, a purpose -- a gift -- and then sent back.

I don't remember any of it, the accident or what followed, but I have the scars to remind me that it actually happened. I also have the gift of storytelling, and while I won't deny that some part of what I write is of my own imagination, I feel that 80 percent is being shared with me by people who have been dead and buried for years.

Yes, I believe the dead talk to me, or through me -- whichever claim makes you less uncomfortable.

I see more than I hear. For me the experience of communicating with the dead is more like watching a movie. Technicolor images, dialogue, voiceover narration. I have to admit, it's quite impressive.

I can't quite recall the first time it happened, and I guess that's because I just assumed it was my mind churning away, but over the past decade, I've really begun to pay attention to it. The scenes are jarring sometimes, coming on abruptly and in the middle of a conversation, causing me to lose track of what I was saying. I imagine that if I were to press my index fingers to my temples and dramatically announce, "Hold on a minute -- I'm getting a message from the other side," people would freak out, so I just utter the acceptable, natural explanation. "Damn, I didn't take my Ginkgo Biloba today, so I've forgotten what I was about to say."

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that since childhood I've been partial to old people, old homes and historical sites -- places and people with plenty of stories. Just the other day I was walking past a boarded-up building on Broadway, a commercial street that runs through the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. It was just after 10 on a weekday morning, so the streets were full of pedestrians. I was alone with my thoughts when out of the blue the movie projector in my mind clicked on, and there I was smack dab in the middle of 1940s Bushwick, complete with the Italian grandmother perched at the living room window of her three-story walk up. Her head was tied with a black scarf, her fat cheeks trembled as she yelled down to the grandchild who was standing too close to the curb. For a brief moment our eyes met, before she turned and looked away, folding her thick arms and bringing them to rest on an old pillow that functioned as a cushion. Somehow, with that one motion, I knew that she spent the majority of her day at the window, looking down on her grandchildren and the children of neighbors, and that she and that pillow disappeared from view only at suppertime, bedtime and when the seasons changed and the temperature dipped too low for the window to remain open at all.

It is like that for me.

When I was writing my fourth novel, Loving Donovan , the line "before she was Luscious" kept streaming through my mind. This went on for weeks, day and night. I had no idea what this broken phrase meant, and certainly no idea that it had to do with what I was writing. One evening while I sat watching television, trying my best to concentrate on a mindless sitcom and ignore the insistent declaration that was haunting me, I realized I couldn't take much more of it and yelled out: "Before she was Luscious, who the hell was she?" And just like that, Luscious's story unfolded for me: "Before she was Luscious she was Rita, little wide eyed Rita, daughter of Erasmus and Bertha Smith . . . ."

Yes, sometimes you have to ask.

In my latest novel, Nowhere Is a Place , a family saga rooted in the rich history of America, Lillie and Lovey, mother and daughter -- and almost mirror images of each other -- have a passion for red. A passion that they were imposing on me before I even knew they existed.

Back in 2003, when I began writing Nowhere Is a Place , based partly on my own family, I realized that the majority of purchases I was making for my home or personal use were red. Not that I dislike the color, but ordinarily it would not be my first choice. That year, however, it had suddenly become just that. It was as if I craved it, as one would ice cream or cheesecake. I thought about it all the time, and those thoughts led to new red drapes for my parlor window, a red throw for my couch, red open-toed stilettoes and the red Jackson-Collins original painting that hangs on the west wall of my bedroom.

Now that the story is written, I understand that the red wasn't about me at all. It was Lillie and Lovey introducing themselves, preparing me for the story they eventually shared. And what a story it was.

Last year, before I began renovating the lower level of my brownstone, I was sitting at my kitchen table having a cup of tea and just relishing the silence when I felt the distinct presence of two women. I didn't need to see them to know that they were there, they didn't need to speak aloud for me to understand what they wanted from me. They wanted what all of my ancestors want, a chance to have their say.

Once I'd finished my tea, I climbed the stairs to my office, settled down at my computer and typed out what became the first 20 pages of my seventh novel, Glorious .

I believe I am what I am and do what I do because my life was spared 38 years ago. Perhaps these spirits were the very souls that gave my mother the strength to pull me from that car wreck. Perhaps this gift of storytelling is my debt to them. Not a bad debt to pay, as debts go. ยท

© 2006 The Washington Post Company