>Today is my oldest son Jonathan’s 30th birthday. I wrote a little about dancing with my daughter, Beth, at a wedding last Sunday, but I’ve tried to leave my kids out of this blog, so as not to embarrass them. But how can I leave them out when they are so much a part of me? So today is going to be about my boys (with a nod to my daughter, who will probably end up front and center in a future post.)
>My favorite thing about Sundays is the Divine Liturgy served at St. John Orthodox Church, which is about six blocks from my home in midtown Memphis. It’s right up there with births and baptisms and weddings and everything that’s sacred and mystical and worth having in this life. From 10-11:30 am, I am transported into the eighth day, and if I’m prepared, I receive life’s greatest miracle—the Body and Blood of Jesus— “entering all my joints, my reins, my heart, cleansing my soul, hallowing my thoughts… enlightening, as one of my five senses….” as St. Simeon the New Theologian’s Euchaaristic Prayer says. Heavenly thoughts for a blog post, but needful, if one is going to write about Sundays.
But another, much less ethereal thing, that I love about Sundays is the New York Times Book Review, which arrives in my driveway in a blue plastic bag, inside its parent, the Times itself. I mention the blue plastic bag because it’s an important part of the packaging. Our sprinklers are set to come on at 8 am on Sunday mornings, so I’m diligent to retrieve the Times before that happens… but in case I don’t, I’m thankful for the blue plastic bag. (Our local rag comes in an orange plastic bag, and truthfully, I don’t much care if the sprinkler leaks into it or not, unless I’m house-hunting and need the real estate section, like now, actually.)
So, at 7:55 a.m. I rescue the Times and pull out the Book Review and blap! front page and center is “Family Blessings,” a review by author Darcey Steinke, of Mary Gordon’s new book, Circling My Mother. I met Darcey at Burke’s Books here in Memphis recently. She was reading and signing her newest book, a memoir, Easter Everywhere, which I loved. What I love about Darcey’s writing is that she brings her whole self to her work—preacher’s daughter, single mom, her struggles with stuttering, the dark sides of herself. She’s an earthy, contemporary novelist (who also wrote Suicide Blonde, Jesus Saves, and Milk, which explores the connection between sexual and spiritual longing) who grasps at a memoir like Gordon’s because she longs for a “third kind of religious book.”
What caught my attention in her review of Gordon’s book, though, was her contrasting of modern-day protestant evangelical “religious” writing with Roman Catholic writers like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day:
“Rather than pontificating on the state of religion, both [Merton and Day] tried to engage in a conversation with the modern world. Midcentury Catholicism captivated some of the most imaginative writers of the era: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy….” Yes!
Author Mary Gordon’s new memoir focuses on her mother’s religious life as a Catholic. Steinke says that Gordon’s mother “attends to the nourishment of her own particular religious vocation, a vocation less glamorous than Merton’s and Day’s but no less divine—a vocation as a single mother, as one afflicted by polio, as a woman in full belief of the love of God.”
It’s Steinke’s assertion that, “These days we seem to have two kinds of religious books, those like The Purpose Driven Life, the pastor Rick Warren’s self-help book, insipidly set out conservative precepts, encouraging us to join churches, obey their doctrines and center our spiritual lives around them, no matter how limiting those lives might be in that context alone. At the other end of the spectrum are gleeful repudiations of religion like Christopher Hitchens’ atheist manifesto, God is Not Great. But Hitchens’ definition of religion is childlike and reductive; he completely discounts the longing many of us feel for divinity.”
Steinke seems to be offering Gordon’s book as a “third kind of religious book”… an alternative to the extremes offered by Warren and Hitchens. I haven’t read the book yet, but I just printed off the first chapter from the Times’ online webiste, and it’s on my list now.
The day before I read Steinke’s review in the Times, I read an article in the Septemer issue of Touchstone Magazine called, “Writers Cramped: Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O’Connor.” The author, Donald Williams, pulls no punches as he begins by saying that his fellow evangelicals “have not tended to write anything recognized as having literary value by the literary world.” Then he says, “The modern Christians who are important writers are all from liturgical churches: Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox.” He praises O’Connor for imbuing her writing with three things she received from her faith: a “true world view,” a “definition of art that affirmed a spiritual purpose,” and a “sense of mystery.”
As an Orthodox I would hasten to add Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov) into the mix here for those looking for a “third kind of religious book.” But, like Steinke, I’d welcome some more books in this ilk by contemporary writers. (Two that come to mind on the spot are Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, and Stephanie Kallos’ national bestseller, Broken For You.) For that to happen, I think we need more writers who are seers … those who glimpse beyond the everyday and believe, as Dostoyevsky did, that “beauty will save the world.”
>Move over, Biggest Losers! I just cut 5,500 words from my novel. That only leaves 50,000 words, meaning I just cut 10 per cent of those precious babies I labored with and gave birth to over the past ten months (long pregnancy, huh?). Ouch! But I’m trying to look at this in a healthy way, like how I would feel if I lost 10 per cent of my body fat, which is essentially what happened to the book. So… if I weighed 150 pounds (this is hypothetical) and lost 10 per cent, I’d only weigh 135 pounds. With obesity running rampant in the South, this would be a good thing, right?
One big difference here is that I loved those 5500 words that I just cut, and I do not love my extra fat cells at all. Some of those words were beautiful, literary, tear-jerking, inspirational, (you get the picture) … but guess what? They didn’t belong to this novel. Some of them may show up in another book one day, but not here. Not this time.
So, how did I get the courage for this fat-removing operation? From my fellow writers, of course. Those who have gone before and have published wonderful, slim, fit, non-obese books, and even lived to tell about it.
Like Anne Lamott, who tells stories of similar surgeries her books have survived in her national bestseller, bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Now, I had read about 10 books by writers on writing (see list at end of this post)but until the Mississippi Writers Guild Conference a few weeks ago, I hadn’t heard of this one. Oh, my gosh … anyone reading this blog should click on Amazon.com and order this book immediately! Even after she was a published author, she once spent three years operating on a book until she got it right. Just yesterday I read her description of taking her book and spreading it out on the floor, sections and chapters and paragraphs lined up everywhere. Then she walked around cutting and pasting (literally) and jotting down notes for re-working sections later until she had gotten rid of the fat and put the rest back in working order. Then she picked up the piles of paper and took them back to her computer for re-entering. When I read this I almost cried. It was so close to what I had just done to The Sweet Carolines over the past few weeks.
And unlike the process of liposuction where one would not want to save the sucked out blobs of fat to use later, I did save many of these words and images and quotes and carefully researched information in a file to pull from should there ever be a home for them in a future book or short story or essay. Well, not all of them. Some of them really were cellulitic. sigh.
So now I’m having a copy of the new, skinnier manuscript printed off for my next “early reader,” into whose hands it will arrive this weekend. She’ll be happy to have a healthier product, I’m sure. My first “early readers” had to wade through the fat. Sorry ’bout that, folks.
And now I’ll close with that list I mentioned earlier, my favorite books on writing by writers. I’m doing this pretty much from memory, so if I forget anyone and think of them later, I’ll try to remember to add them in. And if any of you guys reading this have names to add to this list, please leave me a comment! So, here they are, my “how to write” top 10, but not in any order:
bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True by Elizabeth Berg
Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle
The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton
Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster
If You Want to Write by Brenda Euland
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
On Writing by Stephen King
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being edited by Sally Fitzgerald
>My feet are killing me, but it was worth it. Worth the Dance, that is. Sunday afternoon I went to the wedding of a dear friend’s youngest daughter. First of all let me say that Orthodox weddings are amazing… full of sacrament and mystery. The bride and groom wear crowns, symbolizing the little kingdom that their home will be, and also the martyrdom of their lives for one another. The priest, bride and groom, and their sponsors actually hold hands and dance around a table in front of the altar at one point, as the choir sings, “Dance, Isaiah, Dance!” It’s all there—joy and communion and sacrament and beauty and hopefulness.
Later at the reception there’s dancing of a different kind. A band plays favorites, old and new, and the pretty young lead singer is soulful and smooth on the ballads and bumps it up a notch on the fast numbers. The dance floor is hopping all evening, with celebrants of all ages enjoying the new couple’s party. Our table is right next to the dance floor, which is a great vantage point for watching … which I plan to do, at least for a while. And then I see her. My dear 85-year-old Greek friend, sitting directly across the table from me, pointing to me and then to herself, and indicating that she wants to dance by shimmying her shoulders to the beat of the music. There’s a twinkle in her eye, even though this really isn’t a good day for her. She has late-stage cancer. I thought she’d had her last dance at her grandson’s wedding. I point to myself and over the loud strains of music I mouth the word, “me?” She nods and I’m up and helping her to the dance floor, fearing that she might even fall down if I don’t hold on tight enough.
But she’ll have none of that … after a few minutes of hand-holding she breaks free and moves to the beat with joy and abandon. A few others join us and we’ve got a line going. Then I’m spinning her and we’re laughing and suddenly I’m remembering years of priceless conversations I’ve had with this amazing woman, my unofficial “Yia Yia.” Times when I was down about something in life that I thought was unfair or just too hard. Her words are flowing into my ears, even above the music. Words about always be thankful and trusting God to take care of you and accepting whatever life gives you with joy.
The dance floor is crowded now, with young friends of the bride and groom and baby boomers who never quit dancing, and an old friend from Mississippi pulls my twenty-four-year-old daughter out on the floor with us and my joy grows. I look at her, my baby who is now a beautiful grown woman, pursuing her dream in grad school for architecture, and I remember the time I gave her a book with a CD inside the cover. The book was an illustrated version of Lee Ann Womack’s song, “I Hope You Dance.” As I look at my daughter, Lee Ann’s words override the band’s music, seeping through the pores of my heart:
I hope you never lose your sense of wonder,
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger,
May you never take one single breath for granted,
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed,
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens,
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.
I hope you dance….i hope you dance.
I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance,
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Livin’ might mean takin’ chances but they’re worth takin’,
Lovin’ might be a mistake but its worth makin’,
Don’t let some hell bent heart leave you bitter,
When you come close to sellin’ out reconsider,
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.
I hope you dance….i hope you dance.
I hope you dance….i hope you dance.
Stay with me as I go back to the Orthodox Church for a minute and remember the services we just had for the Feast of the Mother of God’s Dormition… her death. Just five days before this couple’s wedding, a burial bier with an icon of the Mother of God had stood on the very spot where the bride and groom would be married. It’s the same canopied bier that is used during Holy Week when we sing the lamentations on Holy Friday. “Every generation to the tomb comes bringing dear Christ its dirge of praises….”
Every generation. They’re all here at the wedding feast. Singing “God grant you many years” to the bride and groom and then dancing together with joy. My four-year-old Goddaughter, Sophie, finds me and joins the dance, and I spin her round and round with five-year-old Mary, for whom I am unofficial “Yia Yia,” and the circle is complete. Well, almost. My sons are off serving in the Army and Air Force and can’t be with us this time. But I find my husband, sharing a glass of wine with friends who have come from as far away as California for the wedding, and we share a toast to “every generation” and he takes me home, with my shoes in my hands.
Later we look at pictures from our own wedding, thirty seven years ago, and smile because the father of today’s bride was one of our groomsmen… in 1970. You know, when you “stand up” for someone (serve as a bridesmaid or groomsman) at their wedding, it’s supposed to mean something more than getting dressed up and posing for photographs. It’s supposed to mean that you pledge to be there for them, to support them in their marriage. We’re still together… thanks in a big part to friends who stand by us. So now I’m thinking about other weddings… weddings where I stood up for someone and promised to be there for them. I’ve kept up with most of them, but to my shame, not all. Maybe I’ll look up the ones I’ve lost touch with. What would I say if I found them?
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.
I hope you dance….
>Yesterday I started working on a personal essay for a magazine that sets a theme for each issue. The issue I’m submitting to is about “Creativity,” and the guidelines mentioned “your Muse” in its list of suggested sub-themes. It set me to thinking about the various areas of my life and who/what inspires me in each of them. hmmmm….
I have a dear friend, Sue, who is a fine artist and a budding poet (and one of my early readers for my novel and short stories). She and I often explore the connections between our spiritual lives and art. Tuesday we met for coffee and tea and she brought me some quotes from the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). Why Rilke? In addition to his poetry, he wrote letters to his wife, letters to a young poet, letters about the artist Cezanne, and more. He raises the bar for all of us who aspire to embrace life fully, not only its joys, but also its sorrows. My friend knew that I was struggling with embracing sorrows, and the loneliness that often camps out on the hearts of artists and writers. Her gift to me was timely. I’ve been writing poetry again, which is always a wakeup call to my soul that something’s stirring.
As an iconographer, I love that Rilke was touched by icons on his trips to Russia. He called them “milestones of God.” There’s a description by Clara Rilke that describes his encounter with icons: “A Ukrainian peasant was so touched by the inwardness of Rilke’s appearance that he gave him an icon which until then had been the protector of his cottage. Rilke’s attraction to these works was not primarily artistic; there was a presence in them of the artists’ nearness to God, and it was this that moved him.”
So today I’d like to share some of Rilke’s wisdom. I hope his words inspire and strengthen you. If they do, please leave a comment and share your thoughts with my readers … or leave a quote of your own choosing. As Madeleine L’Engle says, “we all feed the lake.”
And now, a Rilke sampler:
For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.
What is required of us is that we love the difficult and learn to deal with it. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us. Right in the difficult we must have our joys, our happiness, our dreams: there against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are.
Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of this singularity…. Therein lies the enormous aid the work of art brings to the life of the one who must make it, that it is his epitome, the knot in the rosary at which his life says a prayer, the ever-returning proof to himself of his unity and genuineness, which presents itself only to him while appearing anonymous to the outside….
>Good morning! I’ve got a treat that will get your mind off the weather for a little while. What a joy to meet best-selling short story author John Floyd at the Mississippi Writers Guild’s first annual conference in Raymond, Mississippi the weekend of August 3-4! John was one of 6 faculty members for the conference, and I was blessed by him in at least four ways on those two days:
1. He was the author assigned to critique one of my short stories, which I’ve already edited, with his help, and sent off in hopes of finding a home in one of several literary publications.
2. Before the workshop, I purchased and downloaded two of his Amazon Shorts, “The Willisburg Stage” and “Appearances” and read them both in order to get a sense of his style. They were both great! I’ve already ordered another, “Midnight,” and of course I purchased his book while we were at Pentimento bookstore in Clinton during the conference.
3. John led one of the workshops I attended at the conference, on “Writing Short Fiction,” and boy, did he pack a lot into one hour!
4. We ended up sitting across the table from each other at the final dinner at Scrooge’s in Jackson on Saturday night, sharing lots of laughs as we wound down from an intense conference.
So … I thought I’d do a brief interview with John for today’s post, but first, a little bio:
John M. Floyd (of Brandon, Mississippi) is the author of more than 500 short stories and fillers in publications like The Strand Magazine, Grit, Woman’s World, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, he has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, and several of his stories are featured on Amazon Shorts. (btw, you can read this same good stuff at http://www.dogwoodpress.com/)
Rainbow’s End and Other Stories was published by Dogwood Press in 2006. It’s filled with thirty stories and has a little something for everyone―adventure, romance, mystery, and comedy. And now, a few questions for John:
SC: I’m wondering when and how and why an engineer got started writing short stories?
JF: That’s a good question. My first answer would be that it actually makes sense, because you have to be a little crazy to do either one. But the truth is, I got started writing fiction when I was traveling a lot with IBM, and spending so much time alone in airports, hotels, etc. I just found that dreaming up stories was a good way to pass the time. (Besides which, I worked with some pretty odd characters now and then, and they usually wound up in my stories.)
SC: You also teach a writing class at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, right? How long have you been teaching and how did you get involved, what’s it like and so forth?
JF: Yep, I’ve been teaching writing courses in the Adult Enrichment Program at Millsaps for six years now. I got started when novelist Jim Fraiser, who used to teach there, talked me into it. It’s actually great fun for me, and I’ve met some interesting folks. My former students include physicians, lawyers, cops, professors, bankers, published authors, accountants, judges, psychologists, journalists, truckers, artists, programmers, ministers, TV anchors, chefs, nuns, and many more. How’s that for a cross-section?
SC: Any advice to aspiring short story authors?
JF: My advice to any aspiring author would be this: Don’t get discouraged. All writers get rejections, and the trick is to not let them get you down. A quote I like is that “a professional writer is just an amateur writer who didn’t give up,” and there’s a lot of truth to that. I once heard it said another way, too: Writers have a high attrition rate—so don’t attrit.
>It’s 103 degrees here in Memphis … at 5:30 p.m.! To escape the heat, I’ve decided to write about something wonderful that happened last fall … when it was cooler here in Memphis! It was October. Close your eyes and imagine the cool breeze on your face. ahhhh. Now open your eyes so you can keep reading:-)
I had a life-changing experience. I went to the Southern Festival of Books in downtown Memphis, where I had the opportunity to meet and talk in person with three women who had a big impact on my growing interest in writing:
Cassandra King Conroy participated in a panel with three other authors and editors from the wonderful book All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, which includes a piece by yet another of my favorite authors, Sue Monk Kidd. Anyway, Sandra wrote about her book, The Sunday Wife, in an essay in All Out of Faith called “The Making of a Preacher’s Wife” which touched too many familiar chords to mention. But I mentioned a few when we were chatting later, and when she autographed my book, she wrote, “To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is!” As I read her description of the roles she was stuck playing and her journey to break free of those roles, I cried:
“…. I started a novel about a woman like myself… and I can see now that the writing of it was my salvation.”
>Thanks soooo much to the three wonderful women who sent in guesses for my “first lines” contest, which has been posted for 48 hours now, so I’m ready to announce the winners and move on to something else:
It’s a joy to have three of my icon students painting with me in my studio all day today and tomorrow. Laura, Kathy and Charles – I’ll put the coffee pot on first thing in the morning! For more information about commissioning an icon or taking a class, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for stopping by – please leave a comment before you go!