Writing on Wednesday: Noir Lite . . . Give a Book for Halloween?

I’ve never been a fan of scary stuff . . . don’t like horror movies and dark tales. I will only read them if they are written by a friend. Like Jere Hoar’s short story collection, Body Parts, or his novel, The Hit

So I looked for some alternative Halloween activities. First I found this great site, “All Hallows Read.” Kind of an expensive idea, to give kids books instead of candy for Halloween, but an interesting one, nonetheless. Check out author Neil Gaiman’s video explaining how the idea came to be. (I love the zombies.) Give someone a scary book and start a new tradition.

Next I scrounged around for some “noir lite” cartoons for writers and readers on Halloween Day. Enjoy!

 

Mental Health Monday: Hurricane Sandy

I know it’s a day late, but I was still in Denver with my kids and grandkids yesterday. Instead of spending the morning writing my usual Mental Health Monday post, I kicked back in my jammies with Pops and our son and his family. Lounging on their couches with our two and three-year-old granddaughters crawling around our laps, sometimes showing us games on their “tablets,” or putting together a puzzle. Someone made a run for McDonalds when we got hungry for breakfast. That kind of magical morning that is rare when you live a thousand miles from your grandchildren.

East Village New York City

And then I guess I could have written my Mental Health Monday post on the flight home from Denver Monday afternoon, but I was too enthralled in a novel I’m reading. When I wasn’t too distracted by thoughts of what was happening with the hurricane.

Arriving home after dark, unpacking, opening the mail. Somehow I still didn’t have the energy to write, so we settled down in front of the television to watch the evening’s episode of “The Voice.” And then we watched some of the images of Hurricane Sandy on the weather channel. I went to sleep with those images in my mind.

On waking this morning, I still considered a post. But then I started looking at the pictures of Sandy again. I emailed a few friends who live in New York City to check on them. Did the grocery shopping and put on a pot of homemade soup for supper. And now, as I settle back at my computer for the afternoon, I find myself closing my eyes and remembering the wonderful time we had with our kids this weekend, and then the terrible suffering our friends are going through with this storm, and I realized I really don’t have anything important to say. Except maybe thank you, God, for my home. For my family. For their homes and their safety. And please have mercy on all who are suffering with this terrible storm.

The storm even puts a different perspective on my eagerness to hear back from the literary agents who are reading my novel manuscript right now. Three of them are in New York City and one is in Washington, D.C. I imagine they are without power. Their offices are closed. They might be trapped in their homes. I hope they have enough food and water and warm blankets.

Maybe next Monday I’ll be more reflective on all those issues which usually occupy my mind. Today, they just don’t seem so important. Not compared with 50 homes burning in Queens due to the storm. And millions of people without power. We really have no idea how many lives have been lost, or what the extent of the damage is. The relative calm at the Denver Airport felt surreal yesterday compared to what we knew must be going on elsewhere. Like at LaGuardia, in New York City (below). The photo is from my friend, Rich Zakka, an airline pilot who recently moved from NYC to Connecticut, where his family is safe, and thankfully they have power and water today.

 

La Guardia Airport, New York City


Taxis stranded in Queens, New York

Streets are flooded under the Manhattan Bridge in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Faith on Friday: The Crack Between the Contradictions

 

Me with (Deacon) Emma Connolly at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis

This past Sunday was my second time to read from my Circling Faith essay in a church. The first time was actually from the pulpit at First Presbyterian Church in Oxford, Mississippi, in September. There were about fifty people in the audience. This time I would be speaking to a smaller group in the “side chapel” at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Memphis. A little less intimidating. And while the venue didn’t offer the architectural and cultural memories of my (Presbyterian) upbringing that the church in Oxford stirred up, it took me by surprise, on several levels.

The first surprise was just before I spoke. Some folks were coming out of the church from the early service. Others were gathering for coffee before Sunday School classes began. I ran into

Rev. John Sewell at icon workshop at St. John Orthodox Church

Rev. John Sewell. A delightful man. I met Rev. John a few years ago when he and two women from his parish—including Deacon Emma Connolly—took my icon workshop at St. John Orthodox Church. I remember the first time I saw his more colorful side. During the workshop, whenever I wasn’t giving formal instructions, I would play Orthodox music quietly in the background and encourage the students to remain quiet and prayerful as they worked. Writing icons is very intense, spiritually, emotionally and artistically. At one point after several hours of this intense quietness, Rev. John’s voice boomed across the room, “Shit!”

He had  messed something up on the icon he was writing, and his frustration leaked out at just the moment we all needed a little comic relief. Laughter filled the room. The rest of the workshop felt a little less stifled. It was as if he had  given us all permission to be human.

So, when I saw him on Sunday, I introduced myself, not knowing if he would remember me or not.

“Of course I remember you.” He smiled as I took his hand. “And I went to seminary with one of your Orthodox priests—back when he was Episcopalian.”

“Oh, really? Who was that?”

“Father Stephen Freeman.”

Emma works on an icon at St. John Orthodox workshop

Small world. Father Stephen is one of my favorite priests. I’m a regular reader of his blog, “Glory to God For All Things.” In fact my post last Friday was about his podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, “The True Self and the Story of Me.” He’s an excellent writer. And I think it’s no coincidence that his daughter attended the Memphis College of Art. Creativity might or might not be genetic, but I think it definitely flourishes where it’s encouraged.

After my reading, I gave a short talk on getting started writing memoirs and essays. Emma Connolly, who invited me to speak, is trying to start up a writing group at St. John, and asked me to share some things that might help kick it off. I enjoyed talking about my story with these wonderful people who came to worship God on a Sunday morning, and pthen aused to listen to my essay—which chronicles a small part of my own spiritual journey—and then engaging in lively conversation about the work and art of writing.

I stayed for the church service afterwards, which brought more surprises. I didn’t realize how similar the liturgies are, for the Episcopalian and Orthodox Churches. The “flow” felt familiar, and I felt quite at home worshiping there. And then the thing I didn’t see coming—the music. The hymns were familiar from my childhood and brought tears to my eyes. During most of my early years as a convert to Orthodoxy, I rejected so many things from the Western culture in which I was born and raised—especially art and music.  As I thought about the other contributors to the anthology in which my essay appears, I realized how much of my life I have been “circling faith”… the faith of my fathers and the new/old faith of the Orthodox Church.

As we sang Washington Gladden’s hymn, “Master Let Me Walk With Thee,” (1879) I wondered how I could reclaim this lost part of my spiritual history while continuing to embrace my Orthodox faith. (Music: Maryton by H. Percy Smith)

O Master, let me walk with Thee

In lowly paths of service free;

Tell me Thy secret; help me bear

The strain of toil, the fret of care.

And then Rev. John gave a homily that reminded me of Father Stephen’s book, Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe. He talked about duality, and how we don’t live in a two-story universe! At one point he said,

“We are to live in the crack between the contradictions.”

And I thought about the things I’ve been learning about living with ambiguityembracing joy and sorrow simultaneously—and learning to be at peace even without having all the answers to my questions.

After reading from my own essay in Circling Faith, I read a bit from Barbara Brown Taylor’s essay, because Barbara is an Episcopal priest. (She’s the author of An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, and other books.) And I think she gets this business of living in a one-story universe:

“Sacraments schooled me in the wedding of spirit and flesh. I learned how to do the official ones in church—not just communion, but also baptism, reconciliation, the laying on of hands—and then, when I had the hang of seeing the holy in the most ordinary tings, I moved on to celebrating the sacraments of picnic lunches, ordinary baths, forgiving embraces, and rubbing sick friends’ feet.”

What a joyful experience I had on Sunday. I’m so grateful to my friend, Emma Connolly, for inviting me. In addition to being on the clergy staff at St. John’s, she heads up WriteMemphis and does tons of wonderful volunteer work. She even brought copies of Circling Faith from Corey Mesler at Burke’s Books (who hosted our first reading for Circling Faith in Memphis back in July) and sold them to the people who came. It was a little surreal signing books inside the beautiful chapel where people were coming to pray, but then I thought: here we are—in our one-story universe. God and man coming together to celebrate faith, writing, art, and music.

P.S. As an aside, our son, Jason, was in the Memphis Boychoir in 1991-92, which is part of the music ministry and community outreach at St. John’s Episcopal. In this video celebrating their 25 years, Jason is on the front row (third from left) in the black and white photo at the start of the video. Our friend Michael Elliott—whose wife, Margaret, is choir director at St. John Orthodox—was also in the choir that year. (He is interviewed in the video.) And now, Michael’s son, James, is part of the choir. I enjoyed going to one of James’ concerts at St. John’s last year. What a great tradition. Another way of circling faith . . . .

Memphis Boychoir, 1991. Our son, Jason, is front row, third from left.

Writing on Wednesdays: Blurring the Lines Between Literary and Commercial, Fiction and Nonfiction, Entertainment and Art

After completing my second (non-fiction) memoir—and turning down a New York agent’s request for the manuscript because I realized I didn’t want to go public with the book—I turned to fiction in 2010 and began to write a novel, Cherry Bomb. Several agents are reading the manuscript now (fingers and toes crossed) and while I’m waiting, I’m reading about trends in the worlds of fiction and nonfiction.

William Deresiewicz, states in his article in The American Scholar, “Fiction’s Revenge,”

“The very idea of fiction is relatively recent. Traditional societies didn’t have it, and when it arose, couldn’t wrap their heads around it. Homer’s audience thought he was writing history. 2,500 years later, Robinson Crusoe was presented as a true story; no one would have cared about it otherwise. Only slowly through the 17th and 18th centuries did the notion emerge that a story could be meaningful without being factual, that between or beside truth and falsehood lies a third category, where something can be realistic without being real, referential without referring to actual events, believable without attempting to evoke belief.”

Meaningful without being factual. Realistic without being real. Believable without attempting to evoke belief. My first response to these words was “of course good fiction does these things.” But his words gave me pause, and I began to consider why—why write (or read) fiction rather than nonfiction? Can’t good creative nonfiction (like a good memoir or essay) achieve these ends?

Rod Dreher, in his article, “Fiction Cannot Die,”  says:

“The main reason I read at all is because I have a deep curiosity about the world, and want to learn more. I concede that fiction at its best is not an escape from the world, but rather an indirect mode of engaging it, and in that sense a different way of learning about it than directly, through non-fiction.”

Where Dreher reads out of a deep curiosity about the world, I think I read (and write) in order to make sense of the world, and myself. Rather than reading to gain more information, I think I read to understand what I already know, but on a different level. Which is why I tend to read more memoirs than any genre. Good memoirs reveal what I’m longing to know—not just the facts about someone’s life, but the emotional impact the events of their life have had on them. Whether they suffered horrific injustices and somehow rose above them (or not) or whether they gained some new insight through their experiences, I’m eager to read about it. I prefer memoir to straight biographies (or autobiographies) for this very reason—I want more than the facts. I want art.

Art? Sure. But not just any kind of art. I am a huge fan of abstract art. While I can appreciate the talent required for an artist to lay down a brilliantly accurate work of realism—and I know there is art involved, not just craft—I am moved in a different way by the artist’s expression in an abstract work. This explains why I’m so drawn to Coptic icons (which feature in my novel) with their simple, almost cartoonish features, more so than traditional Byzantine icons. (It’s not that I don’t love the Byzantine icons, too—and I’ve painted about 50 of them—but the execution of them feels more like craft than art.)

I’m not a snob. I enjoy and appreciate many forms of entertainment that aren’t “high art.” I enjoy soapy television dramas, chick lit (yes, this can come in literary or non-literary form), and the occasional legal thriller. But my enjoyment of those forms has more to do with a casual perusal than an intellectual, or artistic, study.

My favorite novels and memoirs have delivered both—the quick entertainment fix and a deeper, slower, artistic element.  Maybe there’s a new sub-genre on the rise. Or maybe these books (and televisions shows and movies) fit into a genre I recently saw listed on a literary agent’s web site—high-end commercial. And on another site—high concept plot.

Texas poet, short story author and novelist, Annie Neugebaur, thinks so, as she says in her post from this past July, “What is Commercial Fiction?” She discusses some differences in the style and genre of commercial and literary fiction, but ends by saying:

“I think we’ve all witnessed lit-fic and commercial fiction fans throwing tomatoes at each other over the years, but the truth is that no one is ever going to win the big fight. And the reason for that is simple: both types of literature have their own value for different tastes and different readers at different points in their lives. Why does one have to win? Why do they even have to be pitted against each other? At the end of the day, they both belong in the same realm: literature.”

Why do these terms even matter? I’m being asked to categorize my novel when I query literary agents, and usually I say “literary,” but sometimes I say, “high-end commercial,” or “women’s fiction.” I wish there was a category that just says “kick-ass, artistic fiction.” Maybe that’s too self-serving. I’m afraid to say “chick lit” because it’s gotten such a bad rap recently. AgentQuery.com tries to define all these genres for the emerging author. Sometimes they blur the lines, and sometimes they over-simplify:

“Unlike chick lit, women’s fiction often delves into deeper, more serious conflicts and utilizes a more poetic literary writing style.”

Really? So nothing they call “chick lit” can have literary value? I’m not sure I agree. Cassandra King’s 2002 novel, The Sunday Wife (categorized as chick lit) definitely kicks ass with her literary prose, depth of discovery, rich characters, and strong sense of place.

AgentQuery.com says this about commercial fiction:

“Like literary fiction, the writing style in commercial fiction is elevated beyond generic mainstream fiction. But unlike literary fiction, commercial fiction maintains a strong narrative storyline as its central goal, rather than the development of enviable prose or internal character conflicts.”

The lines seem kind of blurred to me. Can’t literary fiction maintain a “strong narrative storyline” while developing “enviable prose” and “internal character conflicts”? I think some of my favorite novels do this, like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, and T. C. Boyles’ The Women.

I want it all. I want my own writing to deliver all of those elements. Am I shooting too high? We’ll see….

 

Mental Health Monday: Living With Holes

Augusten Burroughs pouring over memories from his past

About three years ago I did a post about Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, Dry: “Why Does Sobriety Have to Come With Feelings?” And then about a month ago I introduced Burroughs’ new book, This is How: Help for the Self: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decreptitude & More, in my post, “Permission to NOT Be Happy?”

If you’re new to my blog, here’s the schedule: Mental Health on Mondays, Writing on Wednesdays, and Faith or Family on Fridays. To catch you up on this recent thread, you might want to read:

“Swimming Towards Hope” and “Better Than Bourbon and Key Lime Pie.”

So, last Monday I promised more from Burroughs. I finished reading his book yesterday afternoon. There’s so much good stuff in there, but I’ll try to tease you with a few highlights and then encourage you to get the book and read it yourself.

The gist behind Burroughs’ book is that you don’t have to heal to be whole. He presents this concept over and over throughout the book, blending it into various topics as smoothly as a chef blends ingredients together in a bowl. Of all the painful things that happen to people—many of which Burroughs addresses in his book—the biggest one that I haven’t experienced is the loss of a child. The closest I came to this was in 1998 when my 20-year-old Goddaughter was killed by a drunk driver. She had been living with our family for eight months when she died. Her mother was my best friend at the time. I remember a therapist telling me that her mother would probably never heal from this loss. Not exactly encouraging words, but maybe true. Burroughs says:

“Parents who have lost a child should be told that they will never heal from their loss. They will always have a terrible, wide hole within them. And other holes, smaller ones…. The holes will never leave or be filled with anything at all. But holes are interesting things. As it happens, we human beings are able to live just fine with many holes of many sizes and shapes. And pleasure, love compassion, fulfillment—these things do not leak out of holes of any size.”

Burroughs continues this thread as he explores each “How To” chapter . . . How to Remain Unhealed, How to Get Over Your Addiction to the Past, How to Make Yourself Uncomfortable, and How to Live Unhappily Ever After. If this is sounding droll to you, I’m not doing a good job of communicating how freeing this line of thinking is. It builds on what I was learning and sharing back in July, “Living With Ambiguity.” (If you read that post, be sure and read the comment by another “Susan” at the end.) But it goes beyond ambiguity. It’s about living with loss, pain, and sorrow ALONG SIDE joy and contentment. Burroughs continues:

“Deep sorrow and deep joy can exist within you, side by side. At every moment. And it’s not confusing. And it’s not a conflict…. This is among the oldest, deepest, most primal truths: the facts of life may be, at times, unbearably painful. But the core, the bones of life are generous beyond all reason or belief.”

In his chapter on getting over your addiction to the past, Burroughs hits on something I’ve been struggling with for decades—how to get over painful things that happened in my past. He pretty much says you don’t “get over” those things. He shoots down traditional therapeutic methods and  talks instead about  how we need a “larger life. Something that can compete with your past.” This is resonating with me as I read his words in this chapter:

“Recycling the past into a new business, a not-for-profit to help others, a workshop, a painting, a book, a song—these are ways to explore the past in the context of the present. These are things people who are actively alive do.”

I can relate to Burroughs’ choice of recycling:

“I know now how to get over the past. It has worked for me in a deeper, more enduring way than any therapy I have eve had. Writing six autobiographical books is what freed me from my past.”

I’ve been recycling my past by writing for about six years now. I wrote two memoirs about the painful things in my past. But unlike Burroughs, I didn’t publish them. There were some things I wasn’t ready to go public with. But reading his words helps me embrace the fact that I DID WRITE THOSE MEMOIRS and maybe I can come to see the writing as freeing. Even my novel, which is currently being shopped out to literary agents, has these themes from my past woven through the fictional story. Like Cassandra King (Conroy) said of her novel, The Sunday Wife, maybe “The writing of it was my salvation.”

Faith on Friday: The True Self

I just finished listening to a twelve-minute talk by Father Stephen Freeman on Ancient Faith Radio:

“The True Self and the Story of Me.”

(Fr. Stephen Freeman is the priest at St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I’ve been reading his blog, “Glory to God For All Things,” for some time now.)

He talks about what makes us persons, even when we lose “the narrative construct of the mind” through dementia, Alzheimer’s or other issues. He says it’s the heart that’s the seat of who we really are. I’m going to try to remember this as I drive to Jackson (Mississippi) today to visit my mother at the nursing home. I’m taking her some new clothes (and yes, some more M & M’s), which I hope will make her heart happy, even if she doesn’t remember who I am.

“True Self” by Michael Leunig

Father Stephen also talks about shame—the sense we have of ourselves being damaged or worthless. He differentiates this from guilt—which we feel when we have done something wrong.

And then he talks about how we develop masks to hide behind, which cover the true self. Good stuff.

If you’ve got twelve minutes, just CLICK ON THIS LINK and give him a listen. And then leave a comment and let me know what you think. Have a great weekend, and thanks for reading.

 

Writing on Wednesday: Agent Queries—Progress Report

Two weeks ago I did a post about writing a novel synopsis. Then I sent out fifteen queries to literary agents, most of which also included the synopsis. (Some agents only request a one-page letter initially.) These agents had been “hand-picked” for my short list for one (or more) of three reasons:

 1. I have met them personally at a writing workshop or conference.

2. They represent authors who are friends of mine, who recommended me to them.

3. They represent “comparative titles”—authors whose work might appeal to a similar audience as mine.

 

I was elated when 4 of the first fifteen agents I queried replied by requesting materials—two of them asked for 3 sample chapters and 2 asked for the full manuscript. So I sent off my treasures and headed to Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books, which kept me busy enough not to be thinking about the queries. Well, not every minute of the weekend, at least.

When I got home to Memphis, I found my first agent rejection letter waiting for me in my email box. It was such a lovely letter that I’ve decided to share it here.  And I’ve decided not to be discouraged. (Check back with me later if this continues for a long time!) I’m trying to hold onto the positive things this agent said and remember that it’s “just business.” And a tough business to break into, especially the way things in the publishing world are changing so quickly right now. Here’s the letter:

 Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to consider the first pages of your manuscript, which I read last night. You are clearly a talented writer and I appreciate (author’s name) introducing me to your work.

 Unfortunately, however, I am being extremely careful about taking on new projects, particularly first novels which are very difficult to place in the current marketplace. I fear I didn’t feel as enthusiastically about this book as I hoped to, and so won’t be offering representation.

Clearly this is a business of taste and sensibilities and I trust another agent will feel differently and champion this work on your behalf.

Thanks again for the opportunity to consider your work and I wish you the best of luck with it.  

I also decided that for each rejection I receive, I’m going to immediately send out another query, which will mean I will always have 15 queries “out there” at once. Not sure where I got that number from, but it just feels right to me. I might increase the number if the other 3 agents who are currently reading the material send rejections. So today I queried an agent I read about in a recent issue of Writer’s Digest.  In the article, the agent said:

“My dream project would be the next women’s fiction ‘book-club book’ . . . a book that connects with women, makes them reflect on their lives, makes them want to share it with all their friends, and makes readers fiercely loyal to it because of their emotional connection to it. Some examples for me are Revolutionary Road, The Good Daughter, The Help and Room. So if you are querying with this type of book, please send it to me!”

Since I came of age in Jackson, Mississippi, during the time frame featured in The Help, of course I mentioned that in my query to this agent. And that I also liked Revolutionary Road. And it’s my dream that my novel would be everything that this agent hopes for.

Saying prayers and crossing fingers and toes… stay tuned!

Mental Health Monday: Better than Bourbon and Key Lime Pie

This was in the author welcome packets at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville this past weekend!

Two weeks ago I did a post called “The Hidden Pantomime of Sorrow.” Last Monday I teased you with “Swimming Towards Hope.”  Today I’d like to offer some of that hope to my readers who identify with my struggles with eating disorders, depression, and similar issues. If you’re expecting magic answers or a quick fix, just move along—there’s nothing here for you. But if you’re ready to take a baby step towards finding peace in the midst of these struggles, maybe you can find something helpful in what I’m going to share today. It comes from three diverse sources: Caroline Knapp (Appetites: Why Women Want) and two contributors to Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality—Marshall Chapman and Barbara Brown Taylor. (I was going to include Augusten Burroughs’ wisdom in his new book, This is How, but I’m saving that for another Monday. He needs a day all to himself.)

Marshall Chapman and me at the Bluebird Cafe

This past weekend at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, I was honored to be on a panel with Marshall Chapman, whose essay, “Going to Church,” appears in Circling Faith. But first Marshall took me to church on Saturday night. She appeared in an evening of “Literary in the Round” at the Bluebird Café. Her songs touched me even more deeply than her writing, and I found myself in tears more than once during the evening. And then when she joined our panel at the Festival the next day, the blessings just continued to flow.

Marshall read a section of her essay in which she describes her struggle with what to wear to church on her first day to attend in twenty years. (She had been in rehab for depression, alcohol and drugs.) We all talked about our bodies and clothing during the panel on Sunday, and at one point Marshall mentioned her “chicken neck” with something akin to affection, saying, “It’s a fair trade for all the rough living I’ve done.” She was also quick to encourage me (and others) not to feel regret for anything in our past. After all, it’s the past. It’s gone. Her positive outlook on the present is contagious. Her essay ends with these words:

“It’s like the whole world has become my church. And every breath I take is a prayer.”

Barbara Brown Taylor

Circling Faith co-editor, Wendy Reed, read part of Barbara Brown Taylor’s essay during the panel yesterday. (Taylor is the author of twelve books, including An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith.) Her essay is called “What the Body Knows.” She describes the love-hate relationship so many women have with their bodies:

“My body was never lovely enough—never flexible enough, graceful enough, fast enough, skillful enough—to win my approval.”

It took Taylor years to make peace with her imperfect body. An ordained Episcopal priest, she credits the sacraments with this healing:

“Sacraments schooled me in the wedding of spirit and flesh. I learned how to do the official ones in church—not just communion, but also baptism, reconciliation, the laying on of hands—and then, when I had the hang of seeing the holy in the most ordinary things, I moved onto celebrating the sacraments of picnic lunches ordinary baths, forgiving embraces, and rubbing sick friends’ feet. . . .”

As her body aged, she embraced it in a new way:

“… unlike Nora Ephron, I do not hate my neck. This is my body, complete with pale skin, lumpy thighs, aging flesh. Living in it is the sacrament I know best. Every single day I am presented with the opportunity to wake up, say something kind and thankful over this body, and offer it to the world in a way that promises to be useful…. My body knows this: this is my soul’s home on earth, in which I am pleased to dwell.”

After our readings, we had a wonderful Q & A time with our audience. The conversation—about everything from bodies, eating, drinking and clothing to church, cussing and praying—continued out onto the signing colonnade where these wonderful women stood in line to have us sign their copies of Circling Faith. I was humbled by their stories and their wisdom, and the wonderful exchange between writers and readers. They blessed us by their presence at the event. And I came away with a new appreciation for my body, as flawed as it is.

This might seem like a bumpy segue, but I want to close with some more insights from Caroline Knapp:

“What we want, of course, what lies in the cupboard marked important, is connection, love: If the deepest source of human hunger had a name, that would be it; if the boxes of constraint in which so many women live could be smashed to bits, that would be the tool…. Love—the desire to love and be loved….—is the constant on the continuum of hunger….”

Nothing really new about that, right? We all want love. But how does love help us break the destructive cycles of eating or drinking or depression? Knapp says that therapy helped, but it wasn’t the whole answer. Like me (and millions of others, apparently) her whole world was wrapped up in WANTING: 

“I wanted (at worst) to stay thin and (at best) to stop worrying about staying thin…. I suppose I suffered from the form of delusion that always accompanies obsession, which is to view the object of desire as the solution rather than the problem: If I could get weight and eating under control, the rest would follow, I’d find peace.”

Sound familiar? For decades I’ve told myself those same words. She continues:

“I am somewhat stunned, and a little rueful, at how arduous it all is, how long it can take a woman to achieve a degree of balance around appetites, to learn to feed herself and to understand and honor the body, and to hunger for things that are genuinely sustaining instead of hungering for decoys.”

Bingo. This is the balance, the peace, the acceptance that Marshall was talking about on Sunday. That Barbara Brown Taylor writes about. But once we learn to quit hungering for decoys, how do we redirect that hunger?

“Hunger, no matter how uncomfortable, is like fuel; it’s what keeps you striving, it’s what powers those baby steps, impels you in fits and starts onto new terrain…. There are moments of contentment, moments of sudden alignment between body and mind and spirit, moments of feeling fed that arrive unexpectedly, like gifts from the universe…. These are moments, which in the end may be the best you get in this life: flashes of satisfaction, glimmers and tastes of hope, fleeting moments that you have to relish and eat up like pie.”

Karissa Knox Sorrell, my new Nashville soul sister

I had some of those moments this weekend—when several women from Nashville who came to our reading and bought our book told me how much they could relate to my story and how much it helped them. And listening to the strong feminine wisdom from my fellow contributors to Circling Faith. And especially to the music of one of those strong women of passion. Like this one, “Leaving Loachapoka.” And this one, “I Love Everybody.” My favorites were “Blaze of Glory” and “Not Afraid to Die,” but I can’t find a link to them. Yes, today I’m relishing those moments, those flashes of satisfaction, those glimmers and tastes of hope. And for right now, they taste better than key lime pie. Maybe even better than good Bourbon. At least that’s what my soul is telling my body today. And that’s the best I can do. That and try to love.

Faith on Friday: Circling Faith and Celebrating “Twang” in Nashville. . . Without Julie Cannon (who hopes you’re not turned off when Jesus shows up)

I’m getting excited about my trip to Nashville (today) for the Southern Festival of Books. Our panel for Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, will include co-editors, Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed, and me. We’re up at 12 p.m. on Sunday, October 14, in room 31 of the Legislative Plaza.

 

Julie Cannon

The SFB Schedule is jam packed with authors I want to visit or meet—many of whom are scheduled at the same time, so choices will have to be made. Some of my Friday afternoon choices includes Padgett Powell at noon, Stella Suberman (also a Circling Faith contributor) at 1 p.m., Naomi Judd at 3 p.m., and the panel I’m most excited about today: Julie Cannon, Krista Phillips and my friend Julie Cantrell, at 4 p.m. Their topic? “Heroines in Pursuit: Novels of Discovery and Faith.” But then something unexpected happened to one of these women of faith, Julie Cannon. She died. Suddenly, in her sleep, Tuesday night. Courtney Walsh has a lovely blog post about her, “Live Well: In Honor of Julie Cannon.” And Julie’s last blog post is here, “Jesus is Just Alright With Me,” from September 3. It was release day for her latest novel, Twang, about which she says,

“Today, as my story is released, I wonder, did I get it real enough? Will even non-Christians appreciate Twang? If you like spiritually daring stories and you’re not turned off when Jesus shows up, I hope you’ll consider checking out Twang.”

I was planning on buying a copy of Twang at the festival, and having it signed by Julie Cannon. I will still buy the book, and I’ll grieve the loss of another strong female voice writing about faith, along with the gritty things in our lives. Julie’s sudden death is another opportunity to look at my life as though it could end at any moment. Because it can. And, well, another chance to circle faith.

So, I won’t just be hanging out at the Festival all weekend. Tonight I’ll be visiting my Goddaughter, Stacy, and her family. It’s her husband, Jared’s, birthday. And their son, Jackson, is my Godson. Can’t wait to see all of them!

And on Saturday after a day of choosing which authors to listen to, including Christa Allan (on a panel titled “Jesus Take the Wheel—Novels of Family & Faith”), Memphis’ Kristen Iversen, and my friend from Oxford, Tom Franklin, I hope to go to Kory Wells and her daughter, Kelsey’s, CD Release Party for “A Decent Pan of Cornbread.” And my new friend, Karissa Knox Sorrell will be on the Chapter 16 outdoor stage from 4-6 p.m. Then there’s the authors’ reception at The Arts Company at 6:30.  

At 9:30 Saturday night I’ll be joining Circling Faith co-editors Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed at The Bluebird Café to hear (Circling Faith contributor) Marshall Chapman sing. I’ve always wanted to go there, and I’m thrilled that my first experience will be a musical-literary event: “Literary In the Round.”

On Sunday, our panel for Circling Faith is first on the day’s agenda: 12 p.m. We’ll be signing books on the colonnade after the panel, at 1 p.m., and then I’ll head back to Memphis. I’m usually floating on air after such special events, and I’m sure this weekend will be exciting. But there will also be somberness in that air with the loss of Julie Cannon. I can’t wait to read Twang. May her memory be eternal. Have a great weekend, everyone, and I hope you’ll check back in for Mental Health Monday.

Writing on Wednesday: Alice Walker Writes it Right

Yesterday I read a wonderful interview with Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, Alice Walker (The Color Purple) who is also a contributor to Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. (I still can’t believe my essay is in the same anthology!)

Walker’s interview in Guernica is part of last week’s celebration of “Banned Books Week,” September 30-October 6. Walker responds to questions about why The Color Purple was continually challenged and banned over 25 years after winning the Pulitzer and the National Book Award (1983):

“I realized, given the sexism in our culture, that some of the complainers were probably people who had at some time sexually abused children.  Or, they had been sexually abused themselves and could not bear thinking about it, as adults. . . .  I actually felt a lot of compassion for everyone. . . .  The lesbian nature of Shug and Celie’s relationship was especially hard to bear . . . .  And yet, for me, those considerations were all secondary to the overarching expression in the book of spirituality and the assurance found by many of the characters that the divine is all around us in Nature.”

I’m jumping up and down in my computer chair (metaphorically) as I read these words. My novel, Cherry Bomb—which is now being read and considered by several literary agents—is shot through with themes that will be offensive to some readers. Especially the sexual abuse. And challenges to patriarchal authority, especially in the South. But I’m not trying to please everyone. As Walker continues:

“I have a job. I will write what I think is right for me to write. . . . Great Literature is help for humans.  It is medicine of the highest order.  In a more aware culture, writers would be considered priests. . . .   I know what The Color Purple can mean to people, women and men, who have no voice. Who believe they have few choices in life.  It can open to them, to their view, the full abundance of this amazing journey we are all on.  It can lift them into a new realization of their own power, beauty, love, courage.”

Yes! All three of the protags in my novel are women who had no voice. Who search for their voice, through art. Or spirituality. Or both. And while Walker’s novel is set in the midst of a huge racial struggle, she insists:

“. . . I’m not writing simply about race.  Always I am writing about human beings first, humans who have other attributes that embellish or hinder their soul’s journey.”

Those “attributes that embellish or hinder their soul’s journey” are the stuff that great character-driven novels are all about.  My wish for my novel is that Mare, Elaine and Neema’s soul journeys will capture the hearts of my readers. And if the hard stuff they suffer along the way offends anyone, I can only join Walker in saying:

“I left the struggle up to others.  I had delivered my gift.  It was given in complete love to everyone.”

At this point you might be thinking I’m pretty arrogant to compare my work to Walker’s. But that’s not what this is about. It’s about being thankful for role models like her, who have set the standard for “writing it right.” For truthfulness and courage. For outstanding literary prose. And for doing all of this from a point of interior peace. Near the end of her contribution to Circling Faith, Walker says:

“It’s never too late to start trying to bring peace to yourself and take that into the world, which is what I try in my life to do, because I really do understand that, unless you have it in yourself, there’s no possibility of giving it.”

And so today I wish peace to my readers. To my friends who are writers—who are delivering their gifts to the world out of love. They are all my heroes. I’m looking forward to hanging out with some of those heroes at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville this weekend. I’ll be on a panel with the editors of Circling Faith at 12 p.m. on Sunday, October 14, in the Legislative Plaza, Room 31. And at the author signing colonnade at 1 p.m. But I’ll also be attending as many talks and readings as I can get around to during the weekend.

I’m especially excited about joining friends at Marshall Chapman’s musical show at the Bluebird Café on Saturday night! Marshall is the author of They Came to Nashville and Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller. She also contributed a wonderful essay to Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality

Did you know that in 2011, To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the top 10 “challenged” books? The reasons given were “offensive language” and “racism.” How do you feel about book banning? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment here, or start or join a thread on Facebook. Thanks for reading.

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