>Life Follows You… even to the Beach!

>I’ve been at Seagrove for 48 hours as I write this post, thinking that I would have written 20 pages on my novel by now, you know? After all, that’s the reason for the month-long writer’s retreat on the beach, right? But what I’m discovering is that wherever you go, life follows you.

I left home on Wednesday, where I had spent many hours over the past two weeks dealing with maintenance problems, including washing machine (3 visits from repair folks and it’s still not fixed), security alarm/smoke alarm (also took 3 visits from technician), automatic gate (fixed once, broke again), and printer (still wasn’t working when I left Memphis on Wednesday.)

As I drove down here I thought, “ah, no more maintenance issues.”

And my first two days have been filled with hours of writing, walks on the beach, and a great time at Crush (in Seaside) at their free wine-tasting and half-off sushi last night. But they’ve also been filled with:

Note on the drier saying a repair man is coming “some time Thursday” because the door won’t stay shut. But I got the door to shut and it runs fine, so I called the owner and he cancelled the service call.

Somehow I managed to pull the icemaker out too far in the freezer and the door wouldn’t close, but I didn’t know why it wouldn’t close. So, my frozen food thawed last night and half my refrigerator stuff got to an unsafe temperature and I had to throw it away… after I carefully shopped for it as I drove into Seagrove Wednesday afternoon. (I’m headed back to Publix tonight.) Dark, bloody-brown liquid started pouring out on the kitchen floor (which smelled strangely like Worchestershire sauce, but must have been something from inside the mechanical part of the fridge ‘cause nothing was leaking in the fridge itself) and I had to keep cleaning it up. Got the owner on the phone (again) and he walked me through inserting the icemaker again and voila! Door closes and everything cooling back off.

The condo has a DVD player, so I borrowed a friend’s copy of Mad Men Season 1, which I’ve been anxious to watch since I got hooked on the show AFTER Season 1, but I can’t get the player to work. Called the owner AGAIN and he walked me through all the steps (which I had already done) and every time it says “loading” the DVD, then it says “no disc.” The owner’s friend, Phil, was here (he owns 2 units in the building) so he came by to help me, but he couldn’t make it work either, so he went to Panama City and bought a new DVD player today and just DROPPED IT OFF. Yes. He said, “I don’t install these things. Good luck.”

So here I am on beautiful Friday night at the beach, headed back to the grocery to replace the foods that spoiled, and then I’ll be crawling around on the floor unhooking the old DVD player and hooking up the new one. No techies around to help. Just me. I’ve learned from watching my husband and daughter do these things that as I unplug each part of the old one, I’ll make a little note on a piece of masking tape saying what goes back in there. Kind of like leaving a trail as you go through the woods so you can find you way back, right? How hard can it be, really?

I am happy to report that the wi-fi has worked from the get-go, and my portable printer is now working fine, after I put it through a series of alignments because it hadn’t been used in a year or two. This weekend I’ll probably head to Office Depot in Destin or Panama City to pick up some more ink cartridges, since I just put my replacements in and it’s only Day 2 of my writing retreat!

So, if you were expecting my blog to say how many words or pages I’ve written each day while I’m here, that’s not my plan. That puts way too much pressure on me. My plan is to write 4-8 hours a day (some days less, some days more) and to get in two hour-long walks on the beach every day. Also to only eat healthy, low-fat foods (no chips, bread, sweets, etc. in the condo) and to limit my alcohol intake. If you’re thinking, “how’s that working for you” I’m happy to report that for 2 days, it’s working great. Even with a refrigerator/freezer crisis. Oh, and I’ve slept 8-9 hours each of the first two nights. I think as the days go on I’ll probably get in a writing mode some nights and stay up late, but the good news is that I can just sleep in the next day. No schedule.

Haven’t had time to get lonely yet… my characters are keeping me company. They are in my head all the time now, especially when I’m walking on the beach. And tomorrow I’m meeting a new friend for coffee in Seaside… she’s an artist that I met in Milan, Italy (yes) and we exchanged business cards. She lives in Destin. I’m going to the Seaside Saturday farmer’s market in the morning and then meeting her for coffee, so I’m taking Saturday morning off from writing. But I’ll be back in the chair tomorrow afternoon.

It’s such a joy to be here, and I’m so grateful to my sweet husband (of 40 years) for “sponsoring” me for this writing retreat! I’m going to see him half-way through, when he meets me in Oxford, Mississippi, where I’ll be taking a break to help co-direct the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference. Then I’ll head back down to Seagrove for 10 more days of writing after the conference.

Gorgeous weather today: sunny, high 74. The water is smooth and I saw my first shark! Just a small one, and the folks on the yolo boards weren’t scared of him. They say he’s a harmless one. I’ll just watch from shore, thank you very much.

Perhaps the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. Couldn’t capture the dolphins who were jumping in the sunset. Called my hubby while watching it. Wished I could feel his arms around me.

>The Crossroads of Circumstance

>It’s my turn over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find! (the Southern Authors’blog)

Please read my post and leave a comment:

“The Crossroads of Circumstance: Setting in Southern Literature.”

Off to the beach in the morning! Ciao!


>So, it’s almost my turn to post over at the Southern Authors’ blog, “A Good Blog is Hard to Find.” At first they said this month’s theme was “favorite authors and why?” and “Who is your author best friend?”

I thought about those questions for a while, and then I got an email saying the “optional themes” are “writing struggles” and “setting.”

Since I’ve already blogged on and off about my favorite author, Pat Conroy, I decided I’d chose one of the optional themes. (Read my review of Pat’s latest novel, “South of Broad.”) I’m still chewing on it…. but I’m drawn to “setting.” Why? Because setting can actually be a character in a novel. But I won’t say more… that’s just a teaser until my post on Wednesday at A Good Blog.

Meanwhile, back here at Pen and Palette, I know some of you have been waiting for me to blog about our trip to Italy. We’ve been home for a week, and just today I downloaded my (500) photos and began going through them, and frankly it’s overwhelming. If there’s a disadvantage to digital cameras, it’s the license it gives to shoot so many pictures! Back in the day of film (and yes, I know a lot of serious artists still use film) I would choose carefully as I shot my pictures. Now it’s just here a click, there a click, everywhere a click click. (And yeh, that gladiator guy was hot.)

And I know the last thing anyone wants to read is a travel journal. Just buy Rick Steves’ book for that. So, I should take time to write stories about the special people and places that stirred my soul on our trip, and maybe I’ll do that one day. But not today. If you want to see lots of pictures, I’ll have them up on a Facebook album later tonight. On this post, I’ll just slip in a few favorites.

Meanwhile, back to “setting”… when I first read that it was an optional theme for A Good Blog, I actually thought, “do they mean the setting of the book, or the setting in which the author writes?” Of course they must mean the importance of setting in the book (which I’ll address in my post on Wednesday)… but for now, I’ll address the importance of setting for the AUTHOR.(That’s me hanging out laundry at our villa in rural Tuscany. Now that’s a setting I could write about!)

As you know I live in Memphis, Tennessee, with my husband of 40 years, (that’s my sweetheart, left)and many wonderful friends. I’m active in my church, and keep a fairly active social life, meeeting various friends for coffee, lunch or drinks a day or two each week. In our home, I share a very small office with my husband, who is a physician and writes scientific papers, which he can do while: (a) talking to me, (b) watching football on TV, (c) playing games on his iPad, and (d) texting or emailing on his laptop or Blackberry. So, he doesn’t understand the amount of TIME and SPACE I need in order to do creative writing. Well, perhaps he understands more than I think, because he has just agreed to “sponsor” me for a month’s “writing sabbatical” in Seagrove Beach, Florida.

Yes, I’m leaving on Wednesday morning for a month on the beach, alone, writing.

I thought that sentence needed its own paragraph. I’m packing up my laptop, monitor, portable printer, paper, research notes, storyboard, and off I go to a SETTING where I hope to be able to finish the first draft of my novel-in-progress.

Oh, I’ll have wi-fi and cable TV, so the usual temptations will follow me. What I won’t have? A schedule. I can write, sleep, eat, walk on the beach, etc. whenever I want to. Since I was barely 19 when I got married, I haven’t ever really been alone, as an adult. Here’s hoping the muse will follow me to the beach! I’ll be posting from Seagrove on a regular basis, and I’ll be taking a weekend break for the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, in the middle of my writing retreat, which is really great timing, since I’m always so inspired after these workshops and really only want to WRITE WRITE WRITE.

And honestly, the best thing I can say about “setting” and the beach is that the SUNSETS are fabulous! Watch for few in coming posts. My second-floor condo is right on the beach, with a view of the ocean through the sliding glass doors, and a western (sunset) view through a side window. That’s where my “desk” will be set up. This sunset? It’s in Rome. Ciao!

>[Over 250] Outstanding Mississippians

>I received a wonderful gift in the mail this week, from my friend, Neil White. As you know if you follow my blog, Neil is the author of the memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, which I reviewed a while back. But he’s also the Editor of the newly published coffee-table book, Mississippians.

This book was born of Neil’s love for Mississippi, and his desire to counter the “oversimplified often sensationalized, reports about Mississippi” with his own “list” of influential people who have at one time or another called Mississippi home. Having been born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, I understand that desire. I did a short post about it last year:

“Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write.”

There’s something for everyone in this book, whether you’re a sports fan, into music,movies, television and stage, literature, politics or whatever. Mississippians would make a terrific Christmas gift, Neil suggests that you buy it from a Mississippi bookseller (see his list here) but you can also order it online.

There’s also going to be a launch party on November 2 at Off Square Books in Oxford, and signings at ten different towns in Mississippi and in Memphis over the next few weeks. See the schedule here, and catch up with Neil and get an autographed copy.

>The Miracle of Mercy Land and Crossing to Safety: My First Two Kindle Reads

>Not sure how I ended up with my first two Kindle reads being set in the Depression era, one in Alabama and one in Wisconsin, but reading them back-to-back while traveling in Italy was quite a trip!

My friend, River Jordan, has outdone herself with her latest, “The Miracle of Mercy Land.” I was going to do an interview with River—as I did when her last novel, “Saints in Limbo,” came out–but then I found this excellent interview, “River Magic,” over at Chapter 16, so I think I’ll let you read that one.

Instead, I’ll try to just give a hint of what is so magical about River’s latest work. Set in a very believable place, with very believable characters, she surprises the reader with the interjection of something mystical, magical, that happens in their otherwise very ordinary lives. A magical book appears, and with it, powerful potential for good or evil, depending upon how it’s used. I couldn’t stop turning the pages (or rather, hitting the forward button on my Kindle) to see what kinds of life-changing decisions each character would make next.

Would Mercy give her heart to John?

“And just like that, my heart went out to the man before me, and the die of a thousand years was cast.”

But would John make the right decisions, or would he be forever a victim of his past? With Mercy in his life, he would say, “I believe I feel myself returning.”

But then, would evil triumph over good?

“I wouldn’t have moved in an earthquake, but just then something more dangerous walked in. She entered the room like smoke moving just ahead of a fire—a forewarning that something was coming that would scorch and burn.”

Oh, the pain these characters experience due to the choices they’ve made in life—even good old Doc. And Mercy felt his pain, as well: “There was a rush inside my soul then of something I couldn’t reach. A deep-seated pain like that of a wounded animal.”

The ending surprised me (and I won’t spoil it here) which is kind of a nice thing to have happen at the end of a good book, isn’t it?

And then there’s the modern classic, “Crossing to Safety,” by Wallace Stegner in 1987. I’d never heard of him, or the book, which was suggested to me by a close friend just a few days before I left for Italy. I immediately downloaded it to my Kindle and off we went on our journey together.

[In case you also don’t know him, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, Wallace Stegner is the author of a dozen novels and as many works of nonfiction, including Angle of Repose, The Spectator Bird, and The Big Rock Candy Mountain. The founder and director of the graduate writing program at Stanford University, he spent much of his life in northern California and Vermont. He died in 1993.]

“Crossing to Safety,” like “The Miracle of Mercy Land,” is set in the Depression, but also spans several other decades, as it follows the lives and relationships of two couples—the men both college professors. One couple is poor, the other born to money. But their struggles (polio, cancer, job security) are shared as they travel from Wisconsin to Vermont and even to Italy. (It was fun reading the part about Italy while I was in Florence, near where the two fictional couples lived!)

I loved the characters, and found myself identifying strongly with one of the women—Charity:

“All her life she has been demanding people’s attention to things she admires and values.”

“She could never have a good time without calling her own and others’ attention to what a good time she was having.”

But I also loved Sally and Larry and Sid… and was fascinated by the way Stegner laid out for us their broken humanity with all its beauty and flaws.

“What I am sure of is that friendship—not love, friendship—is as possible between women as between men, and that in either case it is often stronger for not having to cross sexual picket lines.”

I know I’m not giving you much of the plot, but that’s on purpose…. I don’t like reviews and trailers that give away too much. All I can say is I loved this book on many levels. For the sheer beauty of its literary prose, for the life lessons the characters learned (and the readers, if we allow ourselves) and for the descriptions of place and time as we traveled with the characters through several decades of their lives.

I’m a slow reader, so the fact that I read both of these books in two weeks (and yes, I did have lots of time on airplanes to and from Italy) is a testament to their entertainment value. But also to the Kindle. I’m a fan, now. Don’t worry, I’m still buying hardbacks and love to have them autographed, but for traveling, the Kindle is terrific.

>The [not so] Deep Rest Room

>Not sure whether to laugh or not… just spent an hour trying to sleep in the “Deep Rest” Room inside the KLM Lounge at the Amsterdam Airport. We’ve got a 5-hour layover and since we got up at 3 a.m., we thought we’d catch some shut eye before our flight to Memphis.

Have you ever seen one of these “deep rest” rooms inside a KLM lounge? The design is pretty cool. There are lots of little cubicles with really comfortable reclined lounges to nap on. The lights are extremely dim and the floors are carpeted. Bill and I chose two across from each other and settled in. (He set his phone alarm to vibrate in 2 hours.)

Within a few minutes the symphony started:

First there were just a few äverage snorers. Sometimes they were in sync and other times random. I couldn’t help but try to find a melody there somewhere, but after a while they faded and I thought maybe I could sleep.

And then the sleep apnea guy started up. He must have been just one cubicle away. He was unbelievably LOUD… and then comes that silence where you know he’s stopped breathing, and you hold your own breath, hoping that he’s okay, and then there it comes–AHHHHGGGSSSHH! He breathes. I wondered what I might do if he didn’t breathe. Would I run around the corner to his cubible and give him CPR? Would I just yell out for help? (Of course my husband, the physician, was sound asleep and missed all the excitement. This has always been true. There have been times in our marriage when I thought someone was breaking into the house and I would shake him and whisper, “wake up! Listen! what is that?” and then I’d hold my breath and break into a sweat and 10 minutes later I’d realize he was sound asleep. I think it’s a gift given to all physicians so they can survive being on call.)

After 45 minutes I thought I’d keep trying, and then some guy’s cell phone ALARM started going off. It started quietly and got louder and LOUDER and L O U D E R. This happened 3 times. Yes. So I got up and went into his cubicle (yes, I invaded his private space) and touched him on the arm gently. He had on a sleep mask. I had to shake him to wake him and he looked started. I said, “excuse me, sir, but your alarm just went off 3 times.” He got it. I went back to my cubicle to try again.

It gets better. Some guy FARTED right there in the “deep rest” room in the KLM Lounge. Oh, yes he did. That was the deal-breaker for me. I was out of there immediately.

And then I realized why I’ve never stayed in a hostel while traveling in Europe.

>The Sistene Chapel by Wheelchair

>As I hinted at on Facebook the other day, here’s my brief story about seeing the Sistene Chapel by wheelchair! (I’m on the hotel computer in Venice… first time on a computer in Italy… so this will be brief.)

Our wonderful guide, Carol, took us to the Vatican to see the Sistene Chapel. The day we went, the lines to get in wrapped around the block and took an hour and a half… usually only take 15-20 minutes. We found out at the door that St. Peter’s was closed, which was crowding the Vatican museum. Once inside the door (and AFTER paying) we saw the the lines continue for another hour and a half! I’m feeling really sick, and my back and knees are hurting, so Carol gets me a wheel chair, and we go to the front of the line!

Everywhere we go, crowds of people part like the Red Sea. I even ride a wheelchair lift at one point. I’m a little embarassed, but at the same time, I felt so bad, physically, that it was worth it. I enjoyed the Sistene Chapel immensely, and afterwards was a bit rested after so much walking and standing the rest of our site-seeing days.

Being in a wheelchair gives an unusual vantage point…. of how it is for those who are always in such a situation. As this was happening, I was reading a terrific book, “Crossing to Safety” by Wallace Stegner, in which one of the heroines gets polio, so her world is changed forever. (It’s a terrific book, by the way… the first I’ve ever read on my new Kindle!)

So… tonight’s our last night in Venice, and tomorrow we take a train to Milan to see The Last Supper, and the next morning we’re on a plane back to the States. It’s been a fabulous 13 days… and I highly recommend it for YOUNG PEOPLE!! (I realize the irony is that most young people can’t afford it, and by the time you can afford it, your body can’t keep up!)

That’s all for now. Ciao!

>Preparing for a Pitch Fest at a Writers Conference

>[Another post I scheduled before leaving for Italy.]

In response to an email I received last week from a woman who has registered for the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference (I’m one of three co-directors) about how to prepare to pitch her work to the agents and editors at the conference, I shared a three things with her:

1. At this conference, you don’t make appointments ahead of time with individual agents or editors or publishers. During the pitch fest, the agents, publicists, editors and publishers will be sitting at tables in a room, and everyone gets in line to pitch to whichever person they want to. If there’s time, you can pitch to several. In 2008, I pitched to an agent, an editor, and two publishers. Someone will “monitor” the session, being sure that everyone moves to the next person in 5-10 minutes.

2. Here’s a good article by Vicki Britton (who has a great blog with writing tips) at Suite101.com on “How to Pitch a Novel at a Writers Conference.”

3. I was encouraged to prepare a “one-pager” which I took with me, along with business cards, to the 2008 Conference. The last paragraph in this article (#10) from a 2009 issue of Writers Digest explains what a one-pager is. You can leave the page and card with the agent, etc. Don’t offer to hand them a manuscript unless they ask for one.

A couple of months ago I did a blog post, “Choosing, Prepping and Networking,” which also might be helpful if you’re a first-time workshop or conference attendee.

So, whether you’re coming to the CNF Conference in Oxford or another writer’s conference, I hope this information and the links have been helpful. What other tips do you have to share with fellow writers who are attending a workshop or conference? Please leave a comment!

>The Color of Coffee the Way Women Drink It

>[I’m in Italy vacationing with my husband, but I set this to post before I left home. After doing three blog posts/week for three years, it’s hard to be away from Pen and Palette for very long!]

My friend, Tom Franklin, has several novels and collections of short stories out there, but his latest, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” is my favorite. Why? Not to diminish its noir side—I’m not a big fan of noir—his latest is toned down a bit in its darkness and toned up a bit in its literary quality, in my opinion. In fact, Memphis Flyer book reviewer, Leonard Gill, calls it “Country Dark.” [It’s too early to link to this review, which is in the October 7-13 Flyer: “Tom Franklin: Deep South storyteller.” You might try this link after October 7, and then click on “Books.”]

In Gill’s review of Tom Franklin’s latest novel, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” he echoes other reviewers who have said that Tom’s latest novel is “a gentler take on what Franklin’s fans have come to think of as his signature territory—the violent, male-dominated, backwoods Deep South….”

Oh, the violence and good ole boys are there, but so are the rich relationships and complicated culture of the South. And beautiful prose:

“Her drawn face pretty despite how the cold made her lips tiny, her skin the color of coffee the way women drank it….”

And Heminway-ish sentences that go on and on with the cadence of a poet, even when his subjects are “The confluence of pickup trucks” and “rebuilt carburetors.” He writes about mechanics, about fathers and sons, and about “what must have been happiness.”

Tom’s metaphors are always point on, as he writes about how “saws screamed out like people burning in a fire” and the “breath torn from her lips like tissues from a box.” His character descriptions are vivid:

“Rather than his father’s tall, pitcher’s physique and blond curls and dark skin and green eyes, Larry got Uncle Colin and his mother’s olive skin and straight brown hair and brown eyes with long lashes which, attractive on women, made Larry and Uncle Colin soft and feminine, seat belt users who ate tilapia.” (Tracking back to earlier references about seat belts and talapia.)

I’m loving the book and had a great time hearing Tom read from it at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, last week. He was at Off Square Books in Oxford on October 6 and Davis Kidd in Memphis on October 7.

If you didn’t get to one of Tom’s readings, you might enjoy his NPR Interview: “Unlikely Friends Color Novel’s Deep South.”

Want more about Tom? Read my blog post from two years ago about my first visit to the Neshoba County Fair, where Tom was reading.

[I still owe you a beer, Tom! Remind me when I’m in Oxford in November for the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference.]


>Today is my husband’s 62nd birthday. We celebrated on Sunday night by going out with our dear friends (and Godchildren) Damon and Madeleine Boiles. We do this every October, because Madeleine’s birthday is October 5 and my husband’s is October 6.

But October 6 will also live in our memories for another reason—it was the date on which our dear friend, Urania Alissandratos died, in 2007—three years ago today. She was very much like a second mother to me… to many of us.

I did two blog posts about my experience being with her during her final days, so I won’t repeat those memories here. If you’d like to read them, just click on the titles:

“Watching, Dancing and Fishing.”

“Catch and Release, and Watching, Continued”

I’m packing for our trip to Italy (we leave this afternoon!) so this will be brief. I often look back at things I’ve written a year ago when I’m preparing a blog post, and it’s interesting to me that one year ago today I was in a bit of a funk, as I am today, actually. You can read it here, if you weren’t following my blog this time last year:

“Why Does Sobriety Have to Come With Feelings?”

I went on a walk this beautiful afternoon and talked to my best friend in Little Rock on my cell while I walked. I told her I was depressed, which feels so weird on the eve of such a fabulous opportunity as a two-week trip to Italy to celebrate 40 years of married life with my husband. But it’s true. I can’t really say why, but I do hope that I’ll find my “happy place” while I’m in Italy. (We’re going to Rome, Tuscany, Florence, and Venice.) I’m such a social media junkie, but I’m leaving my laptop at home, taking instead a sketchbook/journal, a really nice pen and a few watercolor pens, and a camera. I’m sure I can find an internet café if the monkey gets too heavy on my back, but I’m hoping to learn to just be present, with my husband, and with the beauty of the country and people we are visiting.

So…. If you don’t hear from me for a couple of weeks, don’t worry that the terrorists have gotten me. Just send up some prayers and wishes that our time together in such a beautiful country will be peaceful. And as always, thanks so much for reading. Ciao!

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