>I just learned that Angela Lain died on March 25, about eight months after I first met her, at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. I’ll never forget that meeting. She had driven from Atlanta to hear Mary Karr read from her memoir, Lit, and I had driven down from Memphis for the same reading. I was standing in the front of the room, talking with Mary, when I heard someone say, “That’s Susan Cushman, the woman with the blog!”
I turned around to see a vibrant woman smiling and waving at me from across the room. I walked over and introduced myself and she said “Yes, I know. I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of years.” It was Angela.
We both loved Mary Karr and at that point we were both writing memoir, so we struck up a fast friendship. I told her about the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference I was co-directing that November, and she decided to come to it.
Months later we started emailing, and she sent me the manuscript sample that she was submitting to Kristen Iversen’s workshop during the conference, and I loved her writing. Just a rough draft of a memoir-in-progress, but listen to the first sentence:
“My mother’s glory days were over—except in our house where they were resurrected with each sip of beer as she told the stories that could make me believe for a few sweet moments her glory days had never ended.”
As I read her description of her mother’s childhood home in Savannah, Georgia, I drooled over her darkly beautiful prose:
“I saw other things at Avon Hall that made me believe in magic. In the dark cool of the piano room, a wind-up band of monkeys held court on the marble mantle piece. The music played by these musicians was discordant in a way that seemed to say what the house could not—that a wondrous decay masked a lingering sadness.”
During the conference, I ended up sitting near Angela at Robert Goolrick’s reading at Square Books one evening. It seemed fitting, since that’s where we had first met. What I didn’t see coming was the impact Goolrick’s reading was going to have on me, emotionally. I was a wreck by the time he finished reading the final chapter of his memoir, for the first time, in public. Angela found me and put her arms around me (I was weeping loudly) and hugged me with one of those hugs that goes clear through to your soul.
A few weeks after the conference, Angela and I continued to email. I asked her, specifically, for feedback on the conference in general, and on the manuscript critique workshop that she participated in, led by Kristen Iversen. I’d like to share excerpts of her email reply here:
Overall, the conference brought greater clarity to the whole idea of time and emotional investment. That should be quite obvious, but there’s nothing like 4 days of immersion in creative non-fiction to bring focus. Wallace Stegner said it better in his first sentences in Crossing to Safety:
“Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface. My eyes open. I am awake. … every detail as sharp as if seen for the first time, yet familiar too, known from before the time of blindness, the remembered and the seen coalescing as in stereoscope.”
(Note: Angela and I had never discussed Stegner, but I had just read his book, Crossing to Safely, a few months earlier. Another “coincidence.”)
Kristen’s workshop was very helpful. To a certain extent it mirrored things Neil White said in his craft talk, but if was great to hear it again in the context of the manuscripts. It was very helpful to hear introductions, writing experience and influential authors. Then it was great to hear each piece critiqued by participants focusing on just a few things. For me, it was wonderful to get feedback from a group that did not know my writing at all. . . . Kristen also interspersed personal writing experiences and that was valuable. There was also a breakthrough. When it came time for me to critique the piece on the trans-global love story, I said my impression was that there was a lot more to this story that the writing wasn’t touching. Then the person after me said that the author was holding back. The next day, the author said that he had had a breakthrough and understood what the piece was in length and the impact in his life; he said that our comments had inspired him to talk further with Kristen. So that really says a lot to me about the environment Kristen created. I think that is the most valuable thing a workshop leader can bring to a group.
I went back and re-read Robert Goolrick’s memoir and on the second read, I saw where the final chapter circled back through the book. Also, by accident, I picked up a memoir at Goodwill called Without a Map. The writing is stellar. I’m about halfway through, but she does something I hear said a lot– that her prose suggests poetry– but it is astounding what she pulls off in some of these chapters. This was an unexpected find. I am just thankful that paying attention to good writing is nudging me along bit by bit. If you in all your spare time get your hands on this one, I’d love to hear your review. And from another Conroy fan. I’m going to re-read bits of Prince of Tides. There’s something so interesting about his writing that goes beyond the “florid prose.” I’m on a Francince Prose investigative hunt.
(Note: I had also recently read Meredith Hall’s memoir, Without a Map, but again, Angela and I had not discussed that.)
I heard from the person who had the “breakthrough” during Kristen’s workshop, and he described it just as Angela did. Kristen will be one of our manuscript critique leaders at the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop in September.
And by the way, there’s only one spot left, so if you’re interested, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m typing these final words through tears, wishing I had spent more time with Angela. Wishing she could have finished her book and published it so it could touch many lives. But I’m also thankful for the way she touched my life, and for the short but very special friendship we shared.
>Hi. Sorry not to have posted for awhile… been busy with a baptism in Nashville and then another visit to my mom in Jackson. (Watch for posts on those soon.)
So, for today, please hop over to the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop page for my post:
“Immersing Yourself in your Writing.”
thanks for reading!
By the way, there are only 3 spots left in the workshop, slated for September 23-25. For info on registration, click here.
>About four years ago, when our house was on the market, I published an essay called, “Burying Saint Joseph.” It was all about why I wasn’t willing to take down my icon-painting studio and get rid of all the evidence that real people actually live real (and sometimes creative) lives in this house. My stubbornness (and the recession) probably cost me the loss of a house I really wanted. We had a contingency contract on another house and had to let it go when we couldn’t sell. So we took the house off the market for a few years.
Here I go again, falling in love with a couple of houses I’d love to buy and getting ours ready for the market. It’s been a gradual process, starting with much-needed upgrades to the kitchen and master bathroom, new wall colors throughout the downstairs, uncluttering and hanging some nice pieces of art. Most of that was done in 2009-2010. This summer I’ve been tackling the upstairs. And this time, I took down the icon-painting studio. The “landing” that overlooks the cathedral-ceilinged den below looks huge now, and leaves room for a potential buyer to imagine how they would use the space. The carpet will be replaced week after next. Then touch-up painting and hanging some art work… and purchasing a couple of artsy chairs and lamps and it’s done. (photos to follow in a few weeks)
After the painters touch up the wall, I’ll hang a couple of hand-written icons there, and place a candle on a small table in front of the icons. But the reader’s stand, with holes burnt where we let candles burn out on the top of it and wax dripping all over it, and most of the items on the table next to it—bottles of Holy Water and oil from the lampadas of various saints—will go into storage. At our next house, I hope we’ll find a more private space to set our prayer corner back up. For now, as potential buyers walk into our home, I don’t think it helps that this is the first thing they see. The dining room is small, with a table, china cabinet and sideboard already crowding the space. When the table is extended for eight people, you can barely walk between the table and the icon corner table and reader’s stand.
I’ll still pray for help in selling the house and purchasing another one. And I hope God and His saints will forgive me for doing my part in staging the house for the market this time.
>Last night I had a couple of girlfriends over for “wine and whine”…. but we didn’t whine. At all. We laughed and shared so many wonderful stories from our lives and at the end of the evening my spirits were greatly lifted.
Today’s Wordless Wednesday photo is from 1978. My friends, Deb and Tim Mashburn, surround me and my son, Jonathan (who was about 10 months old and is now almost 34!) in this picture. I love it because it reminds me that friendships CAN last. Deb was one of the friends over at my house last night. Another friend who joined us for wine and whine is about the same age Deb and I were when this picture was taken. She is younger than my daughter. At one point Deb laughed and said, “Ashley, how boring is it for you be hanging out with women your mother’s age?” Ashley said she wasn’t bored at all. Friendship doesn’t know the boundaries of age. What a gift the evening was to me.
>I’ve been taking a few “personal days” to try to stop all the hurried “doing” and learn how to just “be.” As a dear friend has pointed out to me several times over the years, I never allow myself to just “do nothing.” But my struggles with my writing have been screaming out to me lately, that maybe the well is dry. Being quiet means listening to voices, maybe even God’s voice. I’m trying to pray. Trying to forgive. Trying to believe. Reading some beautiful writing. Watching some mediocre television drama. And listening to some music that heals. And wishing I hadn’t given away our piano back in 2001.
So, I thought I’d share some of the music videos I’ve been “indulging” in this week. Click on any of these to watch/listen, and feel free to leave a comment or a suggestion of more music that heals. What do you listen to when you’re having a hard time?
Heal Over by KT Tunstall
Hurricane by Mindy Smith
Press On by Robinella
Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel
Hallelujah (by Leonard Cohen) sung by K.D. Lang
Pretty Amazing Grace by Neil Diamond
Bleed Red by Ronnie Dunn
Into the Light by Alice Peacock
Landslide by Stevie Nicks
Saving Grace Theme (Everlast)
You Take My Breath Away by Eva Cassidy
One Little Song by Gillian Welch
My Life by Iris Dement
No Matter What by Sonya Kitchell
>I’ve been struggling with prayer lately, and I’ve found poetry to be a blessing. A dear friend just emailed me this morning, sharing a few verses from the Psalms that were aiding her battle with depression. And on Wednesday I dropped by Burke’s Books to pick up Corey Mesler’s latest chapbook, The Heart is Open. I’ve read the few short poems in this book several times since Wednesday, each time deciding that a different one is my favorite. Right now it’s “On the Path.” Corey and I play Scrabble on Facebook on a regular basis (he beats me every time) and I find comfort in his friendship.
“In this state–what Dickinson called ‘sumptuous destitution’–prayer was a slow spin on a hot spit, but poetry could still draw me out of myself, easing my loneliness as it had since earliest childhood. Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar…. the first source of awe for me, partly because of how it could ease my sense of isolation: it was a line thrown from a seemingly glorious Others to my drear-minded self.”
I was reading sections of Karr’s essay over the phone to a friend whom I had called to ask her to pray for me today because I was trying not to drink, and I just couldn’t put the essay down. Her words, and my spiritual and emotional response to them, reminded me of how I felt when I heard Robert Goolrick read from his memoir, The End of the World as We Know It, back in November. It was that familiar comfort in finding another human being who understands exactly how you feel and doesn’t judge you or try to fix you. Listen to Karr’s words:
“But if you’re in a frame of mind gloomy enough to refuse prayer, despite its having worked bona fide miracles for you before, nothing satisfies like a dark poem. Maybe wrestling with gnarly language occupies the loud and simian chatter of a dismayed mind, but for me the relief comes to some extent from a hookup to another creature. The compassion innate in having someone–however remote–verbalize your despair or lend a form to it can salve the jibbering psyche.”
Tonight when I turn to God to (hopefully) thank Him for helping me get through the day without a drink, I’ll also be thanking him for Mary Karr and Corey Mesler. And my friend who emailed me the Psalms. And my friend who took my phone call and just loved me and didn’t preach to me.
One of my favorite of Karr’s poems is called “Disgraceland,” which ends with these words:
“You are loved, someone said. Take that and eat it.”
>Today is one of three days in the Orthodox Church when the Archangel Gabriel is celebrated. From Wiki:
“13 July is also known as the “Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel”, and celebrates all the appearances and miracles attributed to Gabriel throughout history. The feast was first established on Mount Athos when, in the ninth century, during the reign of Emperor Basil II and the Empress Constantina Porphyrogenitus, while Nicholas II Chrysoberges|Nicholas Chrysoverges was Patriarch of Constantinople, the Archangel appeared in a cell near Karyes, where he wrote with his finger on a stone tablet the hymn to the Theotokos, “It is truly meet…” (see Axion Estin).”
The icon of “The Angel of the Lord” is traditionally recognized as Gabriel. This is one that was written during the last icon class I taught at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis in March of 2008. For posts about the workshop with stages of the icon in progress, see:
“Gabriel’s Day and Modest Copy Continued”
“Preparing to Receive the Gold: The Beginning of Our Renewal”
“Angel(s) of the Lord, Finished!”
Holy Archangel Gabriel, pray to God for us.
>After Friday’s post about my mom remembering the 23rd Psalm, I was thrilled to discover a creative nonfiction writing contest that will donate part of the entry fees to the Alzheimer’s Association. Check out:
“Remember in November” over at the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop site.
After an inspirational visit with my friend, Jere Hoar, in Oxford, Mississippi, this past weekend, I’m inspired to try to spend less time on the internet and more time on my novel-in-progress. My goal is to finish the novel by the end of November.
As a result, watch for shorter blog posts and fewer Facebook and Twitter posts in the coming months. But please don’t quit following, friending, and tweeting with me!
>Today I made my bi-monthly visit to my mother, a resident at Lakeland Nursing Home in Jackson, Mississippi.
Each visit is a milestone.
The first time I cut her hair.
The first time she didn’t remember her grandchildren.
Her transition from verbally abusive mother to loving, complimentary mother.
I have a memoir which was published in Smith’s Six-Word Memoir:
“The Upside of Alzheimer’s: new mother.”
So, today, I took with me two things to my visit with Mom:
A really delicious chocolate chip cookie from Broadstreet Bakery, and
Specifically, the Bible I received as a gift from my grandmother on Easter, 1959. I was eight years old.
For some reason I thought she might like for me to read to her from the Psalms.
She was especially lucid when we got to the verses that said, “He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”
After one recitation, I handed her the Bible, which she fingered lovingly, and then looked at me and said, “I love you.”
I love you, too, Mom.
>If you get the New York Times Sunday paper, maybe you, like me, are a big fan of the NYT Magazine. I always open it from the back, to read the column on the last page, “Lives.” I just love these snippets from the lives of people all over the world. And more times than not, I end up thinking, I could write something like that. So I send them an essay, and I never hear back. Guess I’ve done this a dozen times or more, but I haven’t yet found the magic formula for the “Lives” column.
This past Sunday’s column really struck a chord with me. It reminded me of some of my blog posts and essays about my mom, from the days of assisted living to the nursing home where she now resides. Maybe I’ll send them something again after reading this one:
“The Memory Problem: Which will last longer, the old man or his old computer?”