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Summer Writing Resident Mary Cate Curley: Write into the Layers of History

Mary Catherine Curley joined us as the third of four writers in this year's cohort to spend her week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and repurpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.

Mary Cate came to Woodlawn with her head full of fiction, and was inspired by the house and its inhabitants (past and present) to imagine what lives are lived, how, and what dictates them. She tells us a bit about her experience in the blog below... read on! You can read more about Thu and her fellow residents here.


Write into the Layers of History

By: Mary Cate Curley

I applied for The Inner Loop residency because I was deep into a draft of a work in progress that involved a house, and layers of history – a story concerned with time travel, women, mysticism, and how we can’t escape the debts of the past. Spending a week writing at a historic site with as many layers as Woodlawn/Pope Leighey House/Arcadia Farm seemed like the perfect way to dive into that.

A clock in the Woodlawn mansion made by an enslaved person (name unknown)

My time here, and the reading and research it has inspired, have left me more convinced than ever before in the unique cultural power of the historic home – more than museums, more than lectures, historic homes invite us into the intimate domestic spaces of those who came before us. They have the power to bring you up close to the people involved—in all their private messiness—and in doing so, they can reflect back the ways in which we aren’t so removed from the past.

Walking through the Woodlawn mansion, I found my eyes drawn to the way the sun fell through the window onto the floor, or the cool shadow of a wall. Once, long ago, an enslaved person walked across this floor. Once, long ago, Nelly Custis stood at this window and looked out. Once, free black travelers from New Brunswick lived with many others in this house after Quakers purchased it, planning how to buy land and start new lives. To be inside a historic house is to imagine yourself standing where long-dead figures stood. It positions you inside of history in a way I believe has powerful implications – similar to fiction, it asks you to imagine yourself so fully inside a story, you cannot look away.

Photo of my writing spot in the bridal preparation suite

I spent much of my time this week writing in a small room in the corner of the house. Inside this room hangs two paintings of Nelly Custis’s wedding day. Today, the room is used for brides preparing for their own wedding day here at Woodlawn. A bride in this room might be wearing a dress that looks just like the one Nelly wears in the portrait. Their face might be lit up with joy just like hers, their hands might be clasping their loved ones’ hands just like hers.

History invites us to get intimate with all parts of the past – not just the joyful ones. A painting of Nelly’s wedding day is also a painting of the day she was bestowed the gift of human beings, held in bondage to serve her. In one painting, a single black face stands in the shadow of the staircase which Nelly descends. In the other, George Washington holds his hand out to her, as though to give her a present.

Writing outside at Woodlawn

To look closely at the people who participated in this system—particularly those who share parts of our identity, as I reflected on Nelly’s white womanhood, and my own—is to wrestle with ourselves. What injustices might we be accepting today as “just the way it is”? As a white woman, what are the instances of power I accept as my due that comes at the cost of others? What are the ways in which we have limited our own imagination, our ability to picture a more just world, and accepted the one we have now?

This, to me, is the profound power of the historic home. The intimacy it makes possible draws us that much deeper into these questions and what they mean for us, now – not just in public, but in the private, unseen spaces of our own lives. Like fiction, we are invited to imagine things here, and in that imagining, re-envision ourselves.


Mary Cate Curley is a novelist and short story writer living and working in DC. Her work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Barrelhouse, River & Sound Review, and Eleven Eleven Review, among others, and her story "Elbows" was chosen by Danielle Evans as one of Wigleaf's top 50 short fictions of the year. She earned an MFA from Hollins University and served as an Assistant Editor for YesYes Books. Mary Cate is currently at work on When the River Knew Our Names, a novel.

Follow Thu on social | Twitter @catecurley | Instagram @marycatecurley

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