When Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality came out last April, I was thrilled to find my essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” between the covers of the same anthology as such authors as Beth Ann Fennelly, Mary Karr, Connie May Fowler and Alice Walker. And then I went on a wonderful book tour that included churches and bookstores in four states, where I met a few more contributors, like Marilou Awiakta, Barbara Brown Taylor and Marshall Chapman. I became Facebook friends with Debra Moffitt, and one day I’d really love to meet the rest of these amazing Southern writers, who bring their diverse journeys and voices to the book.
But I must say that the most delightful surprise of this serendipitous gathering of spiritual essays was meeting Marshall Chapman at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville last October. (Read my post from October 15, “Better Than Bourbon and Key Lime Pie,” for more details about the weekend.) I had already fallen in love with Marshall when I read her essay, “Going to Church: A Sartorial Odyssey,” in Circling Faith. A sartorial odyssey! (That means it’s about clothing—like my unpublished memoir, Dressing the Part: What I Wore For Love.) She wrote about what she wore to church on her return to the house of God after twenty years of absence. Where had she been?
Earlier that week, I’d been discharged from a treatment center in Arizona where I was bombarded with all sorts of new information on how to live my life, you know, one day at a time. Forty days before, I’d checked myself in for depression. Twenty years of living the high-octane lifestyle of rock and roll was beginning to take its toll. After three days of DOE (detox, observation, and evaluation), the report on my “Suggestions for Treatment” form read: “facilitate grief of father’s death,” “break down denial of multi-substance abuse,” and . . . something else about sex that I can’t seem to remember right now.
(I think that last line is my favorite in the whole book.)
Imagine my joy when I discovered that Marshall will be in midtown Memphis tomorrow night at a house concert! She’ll be singing songs from her new CD, Blaze of Glory. I’ve got most of the songs memorized already, but I can’t wait to hear her sing them in person. Here’s a nice review from American Songwriter. (For more information, check out the Facebook Event Page. Or just show up at 1858 Harbert Avenue at 6:30 Saturday night.) I love “Blaze of Glory.” And “Waiting for the Music,” about which she says:
Some songs I call my “lifesavers.” It’s like, if I hadn’t written them at the time I wrote them, I would have died some sort of spiritual death. “Waiting for the Music” saved my life. And my marriage.
That’s how I feel about much of my writing. Books and essays, not music. (Although I wish I had written music when I was young, but I wasn’t brave enough. I lived in my older brother’s shadow, creatively. He played lead guitar in a band in the ‘60s. And we played duets in piano recitals, but his talent overpowered me.)
Listen to a great interview with Marshall on NPR here.
But back to the book… when Marshall decided, on her second visit back to church, to wear comfortable clothes instead of a dress and heels:
When finally I sat down, I closed my eyes to get my mind focused on God. This was my first time wearing sweatpants to church and I was a little self-conscious, taking care to keep my coat closed over my knees. “Just give me some kind of sign.” … The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was an embroidered message on the front of a backwards-worn baseball cap on the head of an African American teen-aged boy sitting directly in front of me. The words—less than a foot and a half from my face—said “Fuck Off Or Die!”… Then I closed my eyes. “God,” I said to myself. “I love you. you are a trip! Thanks!”
In his wonderful blog post on Monday, my friend Lee Martin, wrote about “The Necessity of the Beautiful Sentence.” He used several passages from The Great Gatsby as teaching points, citing Fitzgerald’s use of concrete action verbs, metaphors, stylized language, parallel structures and more to make the writing sing. And why does it need to sing? According to Lee:
So much of the world around us is chaotic and without reason. A well-crafted sentence is an antidote against this discord. A precise and beautifully constructed sentence holds the chaos of our lives at bay.
I couldn’t agree more. We all need the music of literary writing. And for writers, it truly is, as Lee says, “our attempt at salvation.” But must a sentence be “literary” in order to be “precise and beautifully constructed”? Is there any such thing as a beautifully constructed “commercial” fiction sentence, paragraph, or book? It’s that old argument cropping back up again—about these two types of writing. While some critics say that only literary fiction is beautifully crafted, I contend that both literary and commercial fiction can be beautifully written. The genres differ in focus: the literary focusing on characters and setting while the commercial focus is on the plot—keep the reading turning those pages, baby.
Reading Lee’s post reminded me of a recent article by my friend, Porter Anderson, over at Jane Friedman’s web site. Porter does a weekly column there, “Writing on the Ether.” In last week’s post, “Writers in the Inferno,” Porter takes best-selling author, Dan Brown, to task just as his latest book, Inferno, was coming out:
Dan Brown’s popularity does little to help promote or even encourage genuinely good writing…. Each time a Brown book is shot out of the big publishing cannon, we see this collision: the disciples of quality against the armies of entertainment.
So, if a book is entertaining, does that exclude it from being well written? Are these mutually exclusive attributes? What about John Grisham’s long list of popular legal thrillers? I interviewed Grisham at Burke’s Books in Memphis the day of his book signing for The Firm, back in 1991. He told me then that the book wasn’t as good as his first book, A Time to Kill, which only became popular later, after the success of The Firm. He said he was about to write a whole slew of legal thrillers to entertain his readers. Was he “selling out” by not pursuing a more literary style, as he had done with A Time to Kill? Would millions of readers have bought and read his popular fiction—or Dan Brown’s—if the writing sucked?
I’m less than one fourth through Brown’s Inferno, but I can’t turn the pages quickly enough—even on my Kindle. But I have slowed down in order to highlight numerous well-constructed, beautifully crafted passages. A few samples:
The decisions of our past are the architects of our present.
Vayentha claimed her error was the result of simple bad luck—the untimely coo of a dove.
The air inside smelled of MS cigarettes—a bittersweet fragrance as ubiquitous in Italy as the aroma of fresh espresso.
As Langdon stared into his own weary eyes, he half wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home, clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls, only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.
The March air was crisp and cold, amplifying the full spectrum of sunlight that now peeked up over the hillsides. Painter’s light, they called it.
When he spoke, his voice was muffled … and he spoke with an eerie eloquence … a measured cadence … as if he were the narrator in some kind of classical chorus.
But this is paradise … the perfect womb for my fragile child. Inferno.
In his review in Monday’s Boston Globe, Chuck Leddy gives Inferno a better review than most, saying, “It seems that Brown has been learning some things about writing prose.” What are some of those things Brown does with Inferno, which shows his improvement since writing The Lost Symbol?
Where he’d use three weak adjectives to describe something in “The Lost Symbol,” in “Inferno” he’ll use one, and it’s the right one. Where Brown gave us endless character monologues of a dozen or so pages each, basically dumping all his research onto the page and letting the poor reader sift through the good, the bad, and the ugly, in “Inferno” Brown offers us strong dialogue, details, and back story in digestible chunks that don’t take readers out of the story.
Maybe my standards are too low, but I think there’s room in the world of literature for stories to be told in many ways. And it’s the telling of those stories that holds the chaos of our lives at bay. As Leddy says:
It’s clear that Dan Brown’s “Inferno” will sell tens of millions of copies worldwide, but what’s more obvious (and pleasingly so) is that he’s getting much better at writing prose and structuring stories.
Write on, Mr. Brown.
P.S. Mr. Brown gave a wonderful interview with Charlie Rose, where he talked about storytelling and art:
Location is a character in these books. I love art. I love architecture. My hero loves art and architecture. And part of this chase, really in all of my books, is a chase through a landscape. Langdon is one of these characters who, while he’s on the run, if he passes a Caravaggio, he’s probably going to have a thought about it.
Forgive my absence… I took a week off from the blog while on vacation with my family… first time in two years with all the children and grandchildren! (May do a post on that on Friday, we’ll see.)
So, a couple of months ago I did a post about my experience at my church on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. And I can’t find it right now, but I think I did another post about my strong reaction to what felt like negativism and fundamentalism on a previous Sunday. I haven’t participated in the Sacrament of the Eucharist in several months. Until yesterday morning.
Maybe it was Memphis. Maybe it was moonlit summer nights (at the beach)….. but it sure felt right. You see, the priest who gave the homily (sermon) yesterday talked about Memphis. He talked about the signs you see all over town that say, “Believe Memphis.” He talked about how every city—like Memphis—has its problems. We’ve got poverty and crime and other negative things. But campaigns like “Believe Memphis” help our city in so many ways. It inspires hope. (The thing with feathers that perches on the soul.)
And it’s not just about the Grizzlies, although that’s specifically what the slogan refers to. Whether or not the Grizzlies beat the Spurs tonight and continue in the NBA playoffs, the atmosphere in the city is already improved just by having so many folks rally around a common, upbeat cause. Win or lose, we are all better for having hope, and for finding things to be positive about in our city.
The homily struck a loud note for me yesterday morning. I’ve been wanting to leave Memphis for several years. But we’ll probably be staying around for a while, so I need to find positive things to focus on rather than negative. The example from the Church fathers that Father Nikolai gave in his homily is the bee vs. the fly.
You know how flies always look for stinky things? They seek out the garbage, even when there’s beauty all around. Well, the bee does just the opposite. Even if there’s garbage all around, the bee will seek out the honey—the sweet nectar of beautiful flowers. My friend, David Twombly, was also impressed with these words Sunday morning, and he posted a link to this short article on Facebook after church on Sunday:
I know this isn’t very earth-shaking, but somehow Father Nikolai’s words broke through some yucky layers in my soul and softened the plaques that were forming there. I found myself experiencing joy and hope, rather than depression and despair. I realized that I was letting go of some negative things that I tend to focus on too much. And when it was time to go forward to receive communion—the Body and Blood of Jesus—I found myself drawn to the cup for the first time in a couple of months. There was light shining into some of the dark crevices and it felt like grace. And the Holy Mysteries tasted like honey.
After Sunday morning’s feast of grace, last night’s epic Paul McCartney concert took me right back to church. And one of the things Sir Paul reminded us of was the specialness of Memphis—in this case he was referring to the music:
“The memories from when we kids, hearing the music coming out of here… it was so influential,” he said. “Don’t think we would’ve done it without Memphis — that’s the truth.”
So for three hours, we stood (again, like being in church) and danced and sang and clapped and cheered and our hearts soared. And I found myself going from song to song—like the honeybee—finding healing nectar in the lyrics:
Life is very short, and there’s no time
For fussing and fighting, my friend… we can work it out….
All the lonely people… where do they all come from?
Baby, I’m amazed at the way you love me all the time….
Hey, Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better….
When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be.
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be.
As we exited the Fed Ex Forum with the sold-out crowd of over 18,000 people last night, I pictured the event that would take place in that same arena less than 24 hours later—tonight’s play-off game between the Grizzlies and the Spurs. The same seats that occupied fans of Sir Paul last night will be packed with fans cheering on our home team tonight, waving their growl towels proudly in the air. Another opportunity to believe, Memphis.
I’m at the beach with my family this week, so no time for writing… and yet I didn’t want to leave my blog empty all week. So… I’ll “cheat” a bit by linking to things you might want to read.
Beginning with this article from Psychology Today which has been all over Facebook recently, even though it’s over a year old:
I think a lot of good points are made. But even within one country (America, in our case) methods of child-rearing vary considerably from family to family, and from generation to generation. We’re watching our grown kids raising their kids, and not only doing things differently than we did with them but even differently from each other. There’s so much at play–not only philosophical concerns about discipline, sleep habits, feeding habits, and all that… but even the personal and professional circumstances of the parents. In many young families today both parents work, and sometimes different shifts, leaving one parent alone with the kids while the other parent works. They are virtually single parents on most days. Exhausting. Or just with burgeoning careers and sharing the duties of driving kids to and from daycare, shopping, cooking and cleaning.
When I first saw this article, I couldn’t help but wonder if there’s any relation between French parenting and French eating habits… because of the popular book from 2004, French Women Don’t Get Fat. (The author has an interesting and informative web site here.)
Is there a connection between these two books and concepts? I think so. But I’m too tired tonight to pontificate on that connection. The sunshine, the ocean breeze, walking, swimming, shopping, cooking…. I’m ready for bed.
But I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I’m reading a wonderful book, Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer, which is inspired by the friendship between Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. This is not a book review, but if you’re looking for an excellent article on the book, read “The Irreconcilable Conflicts Within” by D. G. Myers. Or “To Talk To You In Letters” by Christopher Benfey.
What I’m after today has to do with O’Connor’s faith—and the way it informs her fiction—something I’ve been intrigued by for many years. So why don’t I stick with primary sources, like The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor, and Mystery and Manners, both edited by Sally Fitzgerald? I keep both of these books near my reading chair in my office (I dislike the word, “office,” but it’s not really a studio. I usually just refer to it as “my room,” not to be confused with my bedroom, which I share with my husband.)
Wednesday evening I enjoyed a lively gathering of Memphis writers in the artfully appointed home of Suzanne Henley and Jim Cole—both gifted writers and artists. (Cole wrote The Death of Elvis.) At one point, as thirteen of us sat around the huge, square table Suzanne crafted herself, the discussion turned to genre and finding the right marketing for your writing. It was a diverse group, but as you might imagine with mostly Southerners, a number of people were writing—or have written and published—books with spiritual themes. Some are outright “Christian literature” and others are more generally “spiritual” than “religious.”
As I listened to everyone tell their stories, I thought of the things I’m gleaning from Frances and Bernard. At times I forget that the book is fictional, and I picture O’Connor herself writing these letters (which is a high compliment to Bauer.) Early in her friendship with Bernard, Frances says:
I am wary of projects that are described as spiritual. I fear—this is related to my aversion to artistic empty threats—that the more consciously spiritual a person appears to be, the less truly spiritual that person is…. I don’t ever want to feel touched or gifted spiritually Or sense God moving about on the face of my waters. What a burden! Everything would then have to live up to being knocked off a horse by lightning, wouldn’t it? I think I prefer to live at the level of what the British call muddle. Muddle with occasional squinting at something that might be called clarity in the distance, so as not to despair.
As I continue in my messy battle with God and forgiveness and Church, I find these words—and O’Connor’s actual words—comforting. From Mystery and Manners:
The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.
O’Connor defends that Mystery in a letter recorded in The Habit of Being, in which she responds to a comment made by Mary McCarthy (A Charmed Life) at a dinner party, about the Eucharist being merely symbol. O’Connor’s reply:
“Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.
So this is her center, from which she wrote her stories. Stories that were never religious or preachy. Stories that revealed humanity in some of the most concrete prose ever penned. Every day I want to write like O’Connor. But recently it’s not just her prose that I envy. It’s her faith. Her clarity. Her ability to grasp the one thing needful even when it is cloaked in a setting (parish, priest, people) that’s other than how she would envision it. Her childlike approach to the Mysteries, which I imagine her describing to Lowell, just as Frances wrote to Bernard:
I’m going to church at Our Lady of Peace, which is on Sixty-Second Street. There’s very little to recommend it other than it’s convenient. The organist pounds away like she’s at a Yankee game, which amuses me. The last time I went I saw the priest, making his way back down the aisle at the end of the Mass, give a little start and then purse his lips when the force of the first bars of the benediction clapped him from behind. I enjoyed that little hiccup of fallibility. But I don’t think I need anything from the other people around me. I’m there for the liturgy and the host.
Because it was the center of existence for her, she was happy living in the muddle (with occasional squinting at clarity in the distance, so as not to despair) and enjoying little hiccups of fallibility. She wasn’t compelled to try to change the Church, a parish, the priest, or the people. She wasn’t compelled to write Christian books to try to convert her readers. Nor am I. Again, through the fictional voice of Frances, she explains why she writes fiction:
I wonder if a better weapon against nihilism might be one man’s life. One man in a struggle, and in that one particular struggle we more clearly apprehend the real. I suppose that is why I write fiction: character as argument. I suppose that is why I love Augustine. And Kierkegaard: one man in a war against despair directing us in our own hobbling away from it.
A couple of weeks ago my husband and I got a new king-sized mattress and box springs. FREE. The one we purchased from Macy’s three years ago was sagging, so they made good on their ten-year warranty and replaced it. So far we like the new one, and our backs feel better already.
I wish it were that simple with sagging novel plots. Or maybe it is. The agent who is interested in my novel just hooked me up with an editor to help me with the novel’s problems—especially the sagging middle. I’m anxious to get started, and I’m grateful for the help. It’s not that I didn’t do my best when I wrote the book. I started with a chapter outline. I used a story board to help with structure. I revised many times. Several chapters were critiqued at workshops (which doesn’t help the overall structure) and I even hired a freelance editor last spring, who tried to help me repair the sagging middle (and other parts) but evidently it needs more support.
While I’m waiting to hear from this new editor, I’m doing a bit of reading on the subject. If you have similar problems with your writing, you might check out these articles:
“The Middle of the Book” by Pam Cable, author of Televenge and Southern Fried Women. I met Pam at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville last October, friended her on Facebook and now I check out her blog from time to time. This piece from yesterday was just what I needed to hear:
The middle should set up the ending without giving it away. But it’s often the most overlooked. It is also where readers find giant pauses. A place they can stuff in their bookmark and put down the book. The question is, are they anxious to get back to it or do they hesitate to pick it back up again?
I can see those giant pauses, and I hope I can fix them! Another source I found helpful this week was this piece by Glen Strathy at “How to Write a Book Now.”
Sagging middles especially result when there is no increase in tension as the plot progresses. In the move towards the climax, your characters should face increasingly bigger obstacles and challenges. Things should get more complicated – never less. Characters should have more at stake as events unfold. The emotions should run higher and deeper.
Why is it so easy to detect a sagging middle in someone else’s novel (or in a defective mattress) and so damn hard to see it—and fix it—in your own work? Strathy says part of the problem is that many writers don’t start with a plan:
At the bare minimum, you should decide on the inciting incident, the complication, the climax, and the resolution, before you start writing.
Too late for that now (although I am paying attention as I work on my next novel, which only has two chapters so far). But reading about structure is helping me prepare for the work that lies ahead once I hear back from the editor. It’s also helpful to know that I’m not alone in my struggle with structure. Check out these hand-written outlines by successful authors:
I was especially blown away by the complexity of J. K. Rowling’s spread sheet for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (See illustration.)
So, I’m definitely sleeping better on the new mattress (some things can’t be fixed and require replacement) and I hope that readers of my novel will experience anything but a good night’s sleep while turning the pages… especially in the middle!
Earnest Hemingway was ill and unable to attend the banquet where he would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. He penned a few words which were read at the banquet in his absence. Today I am struck by these:
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
A dear friend and mentor, Jere Hoar, has been after me for several years to embrace the loneliness that good writing requires and quit spending so much time on social media and writing events. He continues to fail in his efforts, as I run with abandon to these escapes from the despair that the lonely work of writing can bring down on my soul. Having just finished helping direct a writing conference, I’ve already organized a Memphis writers gathering (to be hosted by Memphis artist and writer, Suzanne Henley) this Wednesday night. I only hope that while such events surely “palliate the writer’s loneliness” they don’t also cause his work to deteriorate, as Hemingway suggests.
But recently—really just over the past few days—I’ve been reconsidering Jere’s words, especially in light of Hemingway’s. Because I find that when I immerse myself in my work and shun the pain of loneliness, sometimes I can make art. And when I do, the satisfaction is immense. And just a small taste of that satisfaction can strengthen my resolve to keep moving towards the art at whatever personal cost. As Rumi says:
In my post on Monday about the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, I mentioned Lee Gutkind’s remarks about the sacrifices a writer often makes for his work. He spoke candidly about “the things you miss.” And how great the cost might be—in his case, the loss of a marriage. For the author, Jessica Handler, it meant the loss of friends who don’t give you a wide enough berth for your labors.
Lee and Jessica’s words resonated strongly with me, especially because they were spoken on Sunday morning. It was May 5. To most of the hundred or so people at the conference, May 5 was just an ordinary Sunday. But for the millions of Orthodox Christians worldwide, it was the highest Holy day of the year. It was Pascha. It was our Easter. (See some beautiful photographs of Orthodox Christians celebrating Pascha in many countries here.)
When Neil, Kathy and I began planning the conference, the date was set for March. But there were no rooms at the Inn. The Inn at Ole Miss is the only on-campus housing, and many of our conference-goers would be flying in from around the country and wouldn’t have a car to get from a hotel room to the campus each day. So we began moving the conference a week or so later. And later. Until we found a weekend that worked for the faculty we had invited and also a weekend when there would be plenty of rooms at the Inn. The only date available was May 5.
My heart sank when I realized it was Pascha. I had missed Pascha last year, because I was in Denver where my daughter was having a baby and I didn’t want to drive alone in the middle of the night to and from the service. It was inconceivable that I would miss Pascha two years in a row, but I did.
MISSING PASCHA is a big deal. Having been through 40 days of Great Lent, and having begun the journey towards Pascha with the services of Holy Week the previous Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings (Bridegroom Matins), I made the decision to skip Holy Unction on Wednesday night. I would be leaving for Oxford on Thursday morning, and it didn’t feel right to participate in the sacrament designed to prepare one for communion at the most holy of all feasts if one wasn’t going to even be present at the table.
As I picked up Julie Schoerke from the Memphis airport and drove her down to Oxford (she was on our faculty) we chatted about our families and our careers, but not about religion. Not about church.
As the conference began and as I got caught up in the events of the weekend, I didn’t think about what I was missing. Well, except every night when I crawled into bed and allowed my thoughts to wander away from the microcosm of the literary world of Oxford and the wonderful writers and agents and editors and publishers who were gathered there. In bed at night, I would imagine what my brothers and sisters at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis had done that day.
I pictured them on Holy Thursday, (and I missed making Greek Easter Soup and dying eggs red!) as they partook of the Body and Blood of Christ in remembrance of the Last Supper. I watched them in my mind’s eye as they processed around the church with the priest holding the cross with the image of Christ crucified, and as they read the Passion Gospels. I found myself singing the Lamentations with them as they decorated the bier with flowers and walked through Christ’s death and burial together on Holy Friday:
Every generation to Thy tomb comes bearing their praise…
And then when a friend from church posted this picture of my husband, Father Basil Cushman,(AKA Dr. William Cushman for those who don’t know his other identity) joyously tossing bay leaves and rose petals into the air during the Holy Saturday service, my heart began to break. And all the people sang out:
“The dead shall arise!”
At the sight of that photograph the cost—the sacrifice of missing Pascha for this writing conference—began to feel like a huge loss.
In the Orthodox Church we have our Paschal service late on Saturday night. It usually begins around 11:30 p.m. so that it will be after midnight when the priest knocks on the front doors of the church (with the entire congregation behind him, having followed him in a procession outside) and cries out with a loud voice:
“Open your gates you princes, and be lifted up, you everlasting doors, that the King of Glory may come in!”
And the people listen quietly for the voice that replies from inside the church:
“Who is the King of Glory?”
Everyone tries to guess the identity of “the voice” each year—usually one of our deacons. And then the priest replies:
“The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war!”
Once inside the church, more triumphant hymns are sung—including many versions of “Christ is Risen From the Dead”—and the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. The solea is filled with large baskets of food, decorated with fresh flowers. These will be blessed by the priest at the end of the service and then taken downstairs to be shared by all into the wee hours of the morning as the celebration continues. What was I doing while this was going on?
I was at one of the “after parties” held in the room adjoining mine at The Inn at Ole Miss. Sharing stories and laughter with fellow writers from other places. But the reality of what I was missing had grabbed my heart and would not let go.
On Sunday morning I drove Dinty Moore and Deborah Grosvenor from Oxford to the airport in Memphis to catch their flights home. The conversation was about publishing and writing, and yes, bits about our personal lives. And what a treat it was to have that time with these professionals in the industry.
But as soon as I dropped them off I raced to the home of my ten-year-old Goddaughter, Sophie, for the annual Pascha brunch her parents host. I embraced my husband and friends and enjoyed mimosas and good food and conversation. The Memphis Grizzlies’ playoff game was on the television and some folks were watching and cheering them on. Others were out on the patio by the swimming pool, soaking up the sunshine after many days of rain. I kept my sunglasses on, even inside the house. Everyone seemed to be bathed in a light that I had missed. I wasn’t glowing.
At 3 p.m. I drove to the church for Agape Vespers—the final service of Pascha. The Gospel is read in as many languages as we have parishioners who can speak them—this year it was eleven, I think. The floor is still covered in bay leaves and rose petals and the doors to the altar are flung open, and will remain so during all of Bright Week. At the end of the service, as people were filing out to head downstairs for the Easter egg hunt and the barbeque (catered by Corky’s) the choir sang several joyous Paschal hymns. I stood by the front pew, singing along with them and weeping with joy, but also with sadness for what I had missed.
As they were finishing up, I stepped up to Margaret Elliott, our wonderful choir director, and I said, “Are you taking requests?” The choir members who heard me smiled and exchanged looks with me and each other. Before she could answer I continued, “I missed Pascha and I really want to hear “The Angel Cried.” And so they sang it once again and I sang along and wept harder. (Listen to this amazing hymn here.)
Every time I hear “The Angel Cried,” I think of Mary Allison Callaway, my precious Goddaughter who was killed by a drunk driver when she was only twenty, back in 1998. The words of this hymn are on her grave just outside of Jackson, Mississippi. Every time I visit (which is fairly often, as she is buried only a few feet away from my father and my brother) I stand by her grave and sing this song at the top of my lungs. I’m headed down to Jackson tomorrow to visit my mother and to attend a baby shower for my niece. But first thing, as I drive into town, I will stop at the cemetery and celebrate Christ’s resurrection at the tombs of these three people I love and miss. Although I’ve been in a bit of a spiritual crisis for the past three years or so (and continue in the struggle), I think the angels will join me as I sing at the cemetery tomorrow. It will be my own little Pascha.
Last Wednesday I wrote about rejection. Today I’m going to share some potentially good news, and it’s happy hour, so pour yourself a tall one and get ready for some (guarded) happiness. Oh WTF. Why be guarded? Let’s just be happy. At least for today.
The agent who said my writing was exceptional (after reading 50 pages) and then asked for the full manuscript about a month ago got in touch with me this past Friday. She’s still enthused about the book, but would like for me to work with an editor (whom she is hooking me up with) to polish it up a bit more before she will officially take me on as a client. Evidently the plot kind of slows down in the middle. She says:
This editor works with edgy fiction and therefore would be perfect for you and your writing style.
“Edgy fiction,” huh? Nice! I Googled the term and checked out the titles on Goodread’s Edgy Fiction shelf… including Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, and Huxley’s Brave New World. Oh my. One site I found in my search said edgy fiction is fresh, but unsettling. Like Natalie Maines. (I just got her new CD, “Mother,” today!) I kind of like it.
So, I guess Cherry Bomb is an “edgy” book. This past weekend during the Publishers Bootcamp portion of the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, Leigh Feldman of Writer’s House—one of the literary agents on the panel—had everyone in the room say what “comps” they would use when pitching their book. A “comp” is a comparable title. You are supposed to list them in your (nonfiction) book proposal and in your (fiction or nonfiction) query, so that the agent will have an idea where you think your book fits in the marketplace.
This has been problematic for me all along. Cherry Bomb’s inspiration comes from Michael Cunningham’s book, The Hours, but it’s infused with spirituality (think Sue Monk Kidd) and art (Susan Vreeland’s books come to mind, and maybe Dan Brown). And I just NOW thought of another possible comp: Broken For You by Stephanie Kallos. It just doesn’t fit neatly into a niche, which can be a problem when it comes to selling and promoting the book.
Now I’m waiting to hear from the editor after she reads it and we begin the revision process. And yes, I’ve already been through this with another freelance editor, but as this agent said in her last email:
I am sure you know that all books go through this process a number of times, even best selling authors!
Her emails the past few days have been filled with encouraging words, and I can’t wait to get started on another round of revisions.
So, don’t be discouraged if you are in the middle of the querying process and it seems to be a long and winding road. This woman was the 75th agent I queried over an eight-month period. And most of the positive rejections did mention that the book didn’t seem to “fit their list.” I hope I’ve finally found someone who knows what to do with it… AND HOW TO SELL IT!
P.S. Just as I was about to post this, I read Cheryl Strayed’s recent post on Facebook, which I’ll share here. Strayed is author if the New York Times best-seller, Wild. Rejection is just part of the process, folks!
Going through a drawer I found the submissions/applications log I’ve kept off and on over the years. Just in case you think it’s all been roses I’d like to report that Yaddo rejected me (as recently as 2011). McDowell rejected me. Hedgebrook rejected me twice. The Georgia Review rejected me and Ploughshares rejected me and Tin House rejected me, as did about twenty other journals and magazines. Both The Sun and The Missouri Review rejected me before I appeared in their pages. Literary Arts declined to give me a fellowship three times before I won one. I’ve applied for an NEA five times and it’s always been a no. Harper’s magazine never even bothered to reply. I say it all the time but I’ll say it again: keep on writing. Never give up. Rejection is part of a writer’s life. Then, now, always.
I’m still processing the four days I just spent helping direct the 2013 Oxford (Mississippi) Creative Nonfiction Conference, with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes. I’m not going to do a recap here. The sessions and workshops were full to overflowing with wisdom on the craft of writing as well as the business side of publishing and marketing your work. And the evenings were just as full with social events and after parties that went late into the night as about a hundred writers and publishing professionals gathered in the town where William Faulkner lived.
But I want to share a few reflections and nuggets from the final morning of the conference. The panel included Virginia Morrell, Dinty Moore, River Jordan, Lee Martin, Jessica Handler, and Lee Gutkind. The topic was “The Writer’s Life: Balancing Work, Life and Writing.”
The topic was especially interesting to me because of my lifelong struggle to balance anything. And my recent leaning into the dark thinking that writers (and other artists) just might not get to live balanced lives. That maybe it’s more important to live colorful lives.
Anyway, we asked our panel of busy, successful authors—several of whom also teach writing fulltime, host radio shows, edit and publish journals—to share a bit of their personal stories as writers trying to balance their work with the rest of their lives. I could have listened to them all day.
Lee Gutkind’s remarks were sobering. He talked about sacrifices—WHAT YOU MISS if you live your life in your head—as many writers do—and spend all your time writing or traveling and not paying attention to your family. Lee confessed that his obsession cost him one of his marriages. He was telling it true, and we were listening.
Dinty Moore is another author with a full time day job, so he was actually glad when his wife was working weekends, so he could write on weekends without ignoring her. Dinty also said you have to STAY IN THE ROOM—if you set aside two hours at a time to write, sit there whether or not anything happens. By the third day of staying in the room, the words might finally come.
Virginia Morrell added to Dinty’s comment by saying you need a really big tube of BUTT GLUE, which called forth much laughter and a thread of related comments throughout the auditorium that I won’t share here.
Jessica Handler said that most of her friends are artists or writers, and she has a bit of a remove from people who don’t get what she’s doing. I think I’ve been experiencing this in the past few years—bonding more with other writers and having some disconnect with people who don’t understand the space that’s needed to produce this art.
Lee Martin says he carves out protected times during the day to write, “giving myself the gift of solitude and spending time with the page.” He said he is “most whole when I am with the page.” See? That’s not going to win him any friends in the “real world,” but his writing is kick-ass wonderful. (P.S. I’ll be your friend, Lee.)
River Jordan says you have to be so determined if you’re going to write that you might have to leave home to do it. Take your laptop somewhere else. She told us that when Andre Dubus III was writing House of Sand and Fog, he took his laptop to a graveyard and sat and wrote there. Guess no one bothered him.
A few more tips:
Jessica told us about “Freedom,” a program that locks you out of the internet while you are writing. You can set it up for as little as 45 minutes, or for several hours at a time.
Dinty suggested that those folks who don’t have deadlines (who don’t have a book deal and are not working with an editor, for example) create your own deadlines. You might get a serious writing buddy and hold each other’s feet to the fire by deciding to send a certain number of pages or chapters by a certain date.
River motivated us with her story of planning her death during the weeks between her annual mammogram and the day she receives the results in the mail each year. “You are all going to die, so write.” (Or as Annie Dillard said, “Write As If You Were Dying.”)
There’s so much MORE I could share, but another lesson I learned about writing this weekend is to always leave the reader wanting more. Stay thirsty, my friends.