>A Secret Word

>Every day during the Fairhope Writers Colony Retreat, we are treated to lunch and an informal session with one or more of the area’s resident authors. It’s fairly unstructured, to leave room for what Sonny Brewer calls “meditative” interaction. On Wednesday we were treated to a double blessing.

First, a conference call with William Gay, who wasn’t able to attend in person. We sat, cross-legged on the floor around the coffee table at the Fairhope Writer’s Cottage so that we could better hear William’s voice coming through Sonny’s cell phone, set on speaker mode. (For a treat, watch this video of William reading from his novel, Provinces of Night, during the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. He talks about the affect of music on writing.)

At lunch and in the afternoon, we were joined by Jennifer Paddock, author of A Secret Word and Point Clear. I had read Point Clear (her second novel) a couple of years ago, but yesterday Jennifer gave me a copy of her first book, A Secret Word, and I stayed up late last night enjoying its opening pages.

Jennifer’s day job is tennis pro at the Grand Hotel’s tennis club. Since I played quite a bit of tennis when I was younger, I love the way she weaves the sport and its venue into her story:

“The maples are the first to turn here in late October. Orange and red among the persistent green leaves of oak and elm. To see the orange and red fall on a freshly swept green soft court…. To hear the lights click on. To hear the whirring, chirping mating call of the cicadas who have shed their skin and grown wings. To see below the windscreen their abandoned sells still clinging to the chain-link fence from the dusk before. To take on in my hand fragile and blonde and lifelike, and show Paul. To be the only ones here in this world.”

In our brief conversation with Jennifer yesterday, I asked her which elements of the novel were important to her in her writing. She answered:

1. Honesty
2. Place/Setting
3. Plot

I can see how she remained true to those elements in Point Clear and in the early pages of A Secret Word, and I hope to take some of her wisdom with me as I continue to work on my novel-in-progress.

Mostly I enjoyed meeting Jennifer, the person, beautiful young woman who studied in Arkansas and New York City and now makes her home in Fairhope.

>Wordless Wednesday: The Poet of Tolstoy Park

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Sonny Brewer
, author of The Poet of Tolstoy Park, giving a tour of the round hut that the book’s protagonist built in the 1920s. The tour was part of the Fairhope Writers Colony Retreat, in progress this week.

>Fairhope Writers Colony Retreat

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If you’re hoping for one of my usual posts on the latest writers workshop I’m attending, I hate to disappoint you. Here I am at the inaugural Fairhope Writers Colony Retreat, hosted by Sonny Brewer, taking copious notes and thinking about what I’ll write about the retreat when Sonny says:



“What happens at the Wolff Writers Cottage STAYS at the Wolff Writers Cottage.”

Let me just tease you a bit by saying that Day 1 (Monday) of this retreat was already worth the price of the week. And I think it’s okay for me to say that our guest author was Frank Turner Hollon.

This morning we’re gathering at Latte’ Da, the coffee shop adjacent to Page & Palette Bookstore. I’ll leave you with a picture of some of our group in front of the Wolff Writers Cottage, and Frank and Sonny in action during Day 1.

Maybe I’ll have more pictures for “Wordless Wednesday.”

>I Can’t Find My Panties*

>When I stopped in Jackson (Mississippi) to visit with my mother at the nursing home today, the residents were already sitting at their tables in the dining room, although it was only 11 a.m. The folks in the front half of the room were all watching a local church’s worship service on the big screen television on one wall. But the people (including my mom) in the back half of the room were just sitting around their tables, staring at the white tablecloths or each other, waiting for their lunch. As I looked around the room, it became evident that the residents were seated according to their ability to interact with the world around them. Only the people in the front room were able to follow the television show. (If you missed my post about Mom and television, read “The People in the Box.”)

Mother’s table was a microcosm of the room at large. Starting at 3 o’clock and working clockwise around her table, were these four lovely ladies:

“Helen” smiled as I approached the table and said, “Look, Effie, someone’s here to see you!”

I hugged Mom, and watched her smile light up as she said, “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to visit, Mom. I’m on my way to Fairhope, Alabama, so thought I’d drop by to see you.”

“I’m so glad. It’s been ages since I saw you.”

“Well, it was just a couple of weeks ago, Mom. Remember when I cut your hair?”

“It needs cutting again.”

If you missed that post, check out “Cutting Effie’s Hair.”

It really just needed washing. They say they wash it twice a week, but I’m not sure.

Continuing around the table we come to “Jane.” Mom doesn’t know her name, and neither does “Helen,” but I introduced myself.

“Can you help me?” Jane started pulling off the terry cloth bib the aides had just put on each of the residents at Mom’s table and was trying to push her wheelchair away from the table. “I need to go home.”

“But, it’s almost lunch time,” I said, helping her with her bib.

“I’m not hungry.”

“I’m not hungry, either,” Helen piped in.

“Me, either,” said Mom.

The fourth lady was asleep, and didn’t wake up until lunch was served.

“Jane” took her bib off again and kept tugging at something in her lap. “I can’t find my panties.”

(*Any likeness to songs by Tiffany Foxx or Snoop Dog is purely coincidental.)

Mom just stared at her and Helen winked at me. I’m sure she’s in diapers, like many in that half of the room.

“Um, lunch will be here soon,” was all I could offer, as I helped put her bib back on.

Helen and I exchanged knowing looks and talked about our families. She’s from Shreveport, Louisiana, but her family moved to Jackson years ago. I reminded Mom that some of our folks used to live in Shreveport, but neither of us could remember their names. We talked about haircuts and nursing homes and wheelchairs and Alzheimers (yes) and finally Helen said, “We’re all just doing the best we can.” And then she smiled this beautiful, peaceful smile.

I looked at Mom, who mirrored Helen’s smile.

On the drive down to Jackson I had wept quite a bit… just sad from dealing with some of my own difficulties. But after I left Helen and Mom and “Jane” and “?” at the nursing home in Jackson, I felt my emotions lift a bit on the rest of my drive down to Fairhope. I listened to Neil Diamond singing “Pretty Amazing Grace” and then Ronnie Dunn singing “We All Bleed Red,” and I settled into a place that felt a bit more content in my soul.

As I drove across the bridge over the Mobile Bay and turned down 98 to Fairhope, I remembered childhood summers at Daphne, Alabama, (right next to Fairhope, also on the Mobile Bay) and searched for happy memories to outweigh the sad ones. At the end of the day Helen’s words were what kept me afloat: “We’ll all just doing the best we can.”

>5 Things More Important Than Talent

>Yikes! It’s Friday afternoon and I haven’t posted here since Tuesday. Been too busy with “projects” this week… like cleaning out/re-organizing my office (again) and reading the feedback/critiques I received on my novel excerpt at the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writer’s Workshop.

But I don’t want to leave you without a good read, so I’m going to share an exceptional post by Jane Friedman, who is guesting at Writer Unboxed today:

“5 Things More Important Than Talent.”

It’s a great read–inspirational and chock full of practical help, so typical for Jane.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

>Living With a Writer’s Brokenness

>I’m not an easy person to live with. Just ask my husband.

And please hop over to the Southern authors’ blog, “A Good Blog is Hard to Find,” and read my post today:

“Living With a Writer’s Brokenness.”

(This round’s theme is what it’s like to live with a writer or other creative type.)

I always love to read your comments, so please visit the post and join the conversation!

>Face to Face

>On Friday I did a short post about the humorous story that Metropolitan Kallistos Ware told at the beginning of his talk at the women’s luncheon during the conference hosted by my parish here in Memphis. As funny as that story was, I haven’t been able to get the meat of his talk off my mind, returning to it over and over all weekend. His topic, again, was “The Fire of the Spirit.” He was talking about what it means to be a lay person in the Church–one who has received the gift of the Holy Spirit. “It’s a personal Pentecost when the tongues of fire descend on each of us at our Chrismations. We are Spirit-bearers.”

He went on to talk about three aspect of FIRE:

1. Fire is FREE.
It’s never still, always moving and not to be confined or held fast. This movement, he said, signifies freedom. He related the story of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, and then went on to say that life is less challenging if we don’t have to exercise our freedom, so we often run away from it. And we sometimes try to take it away from our fellow human beings. This struck me in a powerful way, because I react strongly when others try to take my freedom away, but I rarely think about ways that I might be doing the same to my fellow man, even by judging him for making choices different than my own.

2. Fire SPREADS. A little flame can become huge. Tongues are given for communication, for relationships. We all begin as individuals, but the Spirit calls us to become PERSONS IN RELATIONSHIPS. The Greek word for person is “prosopon,” which means “face.” We are not truly persons unless we are in a relationship with others. It’s about “we,” not “I.” Met. Kallistos told several more wonderful stories, but I especially liked the one about the person who was asked to describe what it was like to be in Hell. He said, “We are strapped to another person, back-to-back, so that we cannot see each other’s faces.” Unless we come face-to-face with others, we cannot relate; we cannot love.

I thought about ICONS when he was telling us this. Saints in icons are always painted fully facing the viewer. The only figures in icons that are painted in profile are non-saints and demons. Notice in this icon of Judas’ betrayal of Christ that only Judas and three soldiers are portrayed in profile. The other disciples and Christ are shown facing forward.

3. Fire BURNS. It purges, defines and devours. And yet this spirit of fire that judges is also a spirit of compassionate love. This part of his talk was a little confusing to me. I understand that the Holy Spirit can burn off the dross in our lives if we let Him, so maybe that’s what Met. Kallistos meant. But I don’t want to be a burning fire to others, and I don’t receive this type of “love” well myself. I’m sure I need to learn how to apply this purging, defining, devouring aspect of the Fire of the Spirit to my life.

After weeks of celebrating the Paschal season and then the season of Pentecost, we are now beginning the Apostles’ Fast, which culminates in celebrating the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul on June 29. Perhaps I can allow the fire of the Spirit to cleanse me and burn some of that dross during these days. I suck at fasting, because I react to “rules” and I’m very undisciplined in my spiritual life. But this is only 9 days. Maybe I’ll try….

>The Fire of the Spirit

>What a treat to have Metropolitan Kallistos Ware as keynote speaker during our parish life conference hosted by St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis this weekend. As a prolific author (my favorite of his books is The Orthodox Way) Metropolitan Kallistos is also a terrific speaker. He spoke at the women’s luncheon today and will bring keynote messages tonight and tomorrow night during the conference. Since he was introduced as being both a speaker and an author, he opened his talk at the luncheon today with this story: (I’m paraphrasing.)

Two men died and were both in cauldrons, presumably in Hell, after their deaths. There were demons putting flaming logs under the author’s cauldron, which was getting hotter and hotter, while the other man seemed comfortable in his. So the author asked the other man why he was there and he said, “I murdered my wife.”

This seemed unfair to the author, so he asked the head demon, “Is there no justice? Why is this murderer receiving better treatment than me?”

The head demon answered, “The man’s wife forgave him. But your books are still selling and causing hurt to many. So every time one of your books sells, a demon puts another flaming log under your cauldron.”

After telling this story, Met. Kallistos went on to give a wonderful talk on “The Fire of the Spirit,” but I couldn’t quit thinking about the fire that was burning under that poor writer’s cauldron….

>Writers Are Haunted Creatures: Making Sense of the World

>This past weekend was my fifth time to participate in the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop in Oxford, Mississippi. You might be asking, “How can you get something new out of it over and over?”

For one thing, the other participants. All the faculty this year said the writing just keeps getting stronger, and I agree. I read and critiqued 200 pages (my fellow writers’ manuscript submissions) in preparation for the workshop, and I was blown away by the talent amongst the sixteen people who came to Oxford to hone their writing skills this past weekend. Those folks included a retired physician, a lawyer, a life coach, a young woman from Moldova who barely survived the horrors of a TB hospital, a college writing professor, two journalists, four college/grad school students, and a handful of emerging middle-aged writers who keep plugging away because we love it. What a joy to read their work and to hear their take on mine. (And Cherry Bomb left her mark at Taylor Grocery on Saturday night!)

Okay, this is starting to sound like a newspaper article, but I just want to give a big shout out to all the great faculty before I focus on what was, for me, the pivotal event of the weekend.


Neal Walsh
, who teaches in the MFA program at LSU, was our workshop director, who kept everything running smoothly, and also took the time to read and personally critique each of our writing, even though he wasn’t the critique leader. (That’s Neal, our host for catfish at Taylor Grocery on Saturday night. I just couldn’t resist capturing him beneath the No Smoking sign.) Neil White, John Brandon, and Ann Fisher-Wirth all gave superb readings and craft talks throughout the weekend.

I already knew Neil and Ann, but this was my first opportunity to hear and meet John, and what a treat that was! His writing is pitch perfect, and his talk on how to write dialogue was nothing short of brilliant. (That’s me with John, who is signing his novel, Citrus County, before his reading at Off Square Books on Saturday night.) John was the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss in 2009-10, and then was asked to stay and teach Barry Hannah’s classes (after his death in 2010) until a long-term replacement could be found. (Richard Ford will be there this fall!) All that to say that it was a treat to learn from and hang out with John this weekend.

And now we come to the pivotal event of the workshop, at least for me. Every year, Scott Morris gives a craft talk on Friday night that is, well, legendary. (That’s Scott, with his fiancé, Katie, outside Taylor Grocery, where we went for catfish on Saturday night.) Read about his craft talk in 2008, “Learning to See and Write Sunsets,” and in 2009, “The Writer’s Cross: Transcending the Existential Shorthand,” and last year’s talk, “Empathetic Imagination: Exploring the Interior World Through Writing.”

This year he hit it out of the park, again. (Scott is also the manuscript critique leader, and yes, he’s amazing in that capacity as well.) His topic was “voice,” but that was only part of what he addressed. I’m almost afraid to try to share much about his talk, because anything I say will only be scratching the surface. But I’m compelled to try.

What is voice? One aspect that Scott addressed is that voice is “using a language that bears the mark of your personality.” When you read something by Hemingway, O’Connor, or Faulkner, you know who wrote it. What does it take to get there? As Scott says, “any writing that aspires towards art demands prolonged attention.” He talked about how serious writing has to do with being truly human. It matters. It’s arduous and lonely. “We are haunted creatures…. and our work is an essential part of what it means to be human.”

I’ve felt this about myself for some time, but I haven’t been able to come to peace with this knowledge until this past Friday night.

“We use words to make sense of the world.”

I don’t think that’s original with Scott… I know I’ve heard it before, although it could have been from one of his talks. But it stayed with me. And then he upped the ante:

“To write is to long for something that exceeds your grasp…. We’ll never be that person we strive to be, but our primary responsibility (as writers) is to craft stories. It’s how we come to terms with our suffering—to grant it dignity.”

Wow.

I should probably just stop right there. At that point in his talk I was weeping. The only other time I’ve ever felt that way in a literary event was back in November when Robert Goolrich was reading from his memoir, The End of the World As We Know It, at Off Square Books. (Goolrich’s book also inspired my first guest post at Jane Friedman’s Writer’s Digest blog, this past January: “Writing Memoir: Art vs. Confessional.”

But, as I told Scott later that night, this was about more than what to do with my writing. This was about what to do with my life. With my wounds. With my anger and regret. Here’s where he went next:

“The novel will just sit down in that place of suffering and spend time there…. The great novel trades in regret…. This type of writing is up against the dominant culture of the day…. Great writing is about going to those wounds and staying there.”

Wow, again.

He also mentioned that alcohol and other escape mechanisms so common with writers and artists are about dulling the pain. It’s no coincidence that people of the page (and the palette) are prone to addictive behaviors. It’s not that our pain is greater than anyone else’s. It’s that we strive to make peace with that pain through our writing.

So here I am, more convinced than ever that while I will always long for something that exceeds my grasp, I am—possibly for the first time in my sixty years of life—at peace with that truth. I think I’m finally ready to “sit down in that place of suffering and spend time there,” not looking for a fix, not believing in a cure, not hoping for healing. And if that sounds fatalistic to you, then I’m not communicating well. I’m ready to grant my suffering dignity, which is exactly what I think Robert Goolrich did when he wrote his memoir. I am so ready to make art, even if I have to spend the rest of my life in this place of suffering. As Scott says, sometimes “the best peace is to make peace with that.”

>Cutting Effie’s Hair

>Some people might wonder why I was so nervous about cutting my 83-year-old mother’s hair at the nursing home yesterday. It’s just a blunt cut, after all. How hard can that be?

It wasn’t the physical act that frightened me–I’m actually not bad with a pair of scissors. When I was in sixth grade I cut several friends’ hair and even gave a few permanents. It was one of my many entrepreneurial pursuits, and I loved playing beauty parlor.

The fear goes back to a lifetime of verbal and emotional abuse dished out to me by my mother. If you were to meet her now–diminished by Alzheimer’s, sweet and timid–you’d never believe it. But growing up in a home where I was chastised for everything I ate (“that will make you fat!”) and how I wore my hair (“It’s so flat–it needs some poof!”) and how I dressed (“You’re not leaving the house in that skirt–it makes you look fat.”) you might understand my anxiety over cutting my mother’s hair.

She hasn’t let anyone cut it for a couple of years now. And this was a Southern lady who got a beauty parlor “do” every week during most of her life, along with a manicure. So when she announced a couple of weeks ago that she wanted me to cut her hair, the aids and nurses cheered me on.(It’s hard to wash it and comb out the tangles twice a week.)

Yesterday I arrived with new salon scissors, comb, cape, and brush. Oh, and two new outfits from Sears to cheer her up, just in case she was no longer happy for me to cut her hair. One was a peach and white checked blouse with a white camisole and yellow knit capris. The other was a matching set only in light blue. “Oh, where did these come from?”

“I got them for you at Sears, Mom. Do you like them?”

“Oh, I love them–especially this one.” She fingered the blue blouse.

I hung them on the knob to her closet so she could still look at them while we visited in her room and got ready to cut her hair.

I put the cape on her and reminded her that she asked me to cut her hair, and she smiled and said, “Oh, yes! It really needs it.”

Since it was so long, I started by simply cutting the ponytail off a few inches below the band.

If you straighten out the ponytail, it measures 13 inches, although it only looks like eleven inches in the picture.

And then I took the ponytail holder out and combed out her hair, which landed in crazy uneven layers along her shoulders. She sat patiently while I trimmed up the layers, taking off more inches and evening up the blunt cut. The view out the windows in her room shows onto a wooded area with tall pine trees, which she loves. “Just look at those trees!” she would exclaim while I was cutting her hair. She never asked how the haircut was going, nor did she ask to see herself in a mirror.

After I was finished, I pulled her hair back up into a ponytail–a short bouncy one now–and smiled at the results.

“How does that feel?”

“I love it!” She still didn’t ask for a mirror.

I wheeled her out into the hallway and up by the nurses’ station, where we were greeted with more cheers. “Oh, Miss Effie, you look so pretty!” Several of the aids gave me a thumbs up.

I showed the aids her new clothes, noting which blouses and camisoles went with which knit capris, and she said, “where did those come from?”

“I brought them to you today, Mom, remember?”

We spent the next hour or so visiting on the patio and in the lobby, sharing a giant chocolate chunk cookie from Starbucks (her favorites are from McAllister’s Deli but I didn’t make it by there today) and just before I left I said, “Well, I hope you enjoy your summer hair cut.”

“Oh, did I get my hair cut?”

“Yep. I cut it for you this afternoon. It looks so pretty, and I hope it will be cooler during this hot weather.”

“Is it hot today? I’m cold.” It was 97 degrees outside, where we had just sat by the fountain on the patio for about fifteen minutes, which was all I could stand of the heat.

“Just be thankful the air-conditioning works here!”

“Can you find my sweater for me?”

“Sure, Mom, it’s in your closet with your new clothes.”

“New clothes? I don’t remember going shopping….”

And that’s the way we roll in the world of Alzheimer’s, new clothes and hair cuts….

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