Faith on Friday: Miraculous Icons and Riderless Donkeys

ag-Ioannis-Dam-Peristeri-2010

 

In the Orthodox Church, Jesus and the saints aren’t the only ones who have special “feast days” in which they are commemorated. We even have feast days for icons. Today is one of the more interesting of those days.

During the reign of Leo III in the ninth century, Saint John of Damascus was accused of treason because of his defense of the veneration of holy icons. His hand was cut off and taken to the marketplace. John asked the caliph for his hand, and when he received it, he placed it before the icon of the Mother of God and begged her to heal it. He fell asleep, and when he awoke, his hand was healed, leaving only a red line above his wrist where it had been severed.

12. ΠΑΝΑΓΙΑ ΤΡΙΧΕΡΟΥΣΑTo show his gratitude, he placed a silver hand on the icon of the Mother of God, which from then on was known as the Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos “Of the Three Hands.”

The icon was placed in the monastery of St. Sabbas the Sanctified, where John lived as a monk. And later—in the thirteenth century—it was presented to St. Sava, Archbishop of Serbia. During an invasion of Serbia by the Turks, the Christians wanted to protect the icon, so they placed it on a donkey—without a rider—and the donkey took the icon to the Hilander Monastery on Mt.  Athos. The monks placed it in the cathedral church.

Severed hands being healed by prayer? Riderless donkeys taking miracle-working icons to Mount Athos? “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed….”

Writing on Wednesday: These Are My People

My father, Bill Johnson, Mississippi State Baseball (pitcher) c. 1948

My father, Bill Johnson, Mississippi State Baseball (pitcher) c. 1948

I’m writing this post from Broadstreet Bakery, (their cheese grits rock) just downstairs from Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. I love to write here. To absorb some of the culture I’m reclaiming from my hometown, which I left in 1988. The voices swirling around me sound like my people. And every now and then I see a familiar face—like this morning, when Jerry Horner, whom I’ve known since I babysat for his kids back in the 1960s, walked in. He and my father were business partners for many years, and I had a big school-girl crush on him.

Yesterday I met my brand new great-nephew, Oscar Elliott (Eli) Goodwin, who was born a few weeks ago. He gets his middle name from his grandfather, my brother, Michael Elliott Johnson. Eli is one of my people.

And then I went to Lakeland Nursing Home for my regular visit with my mother. I cut about six inches off her hair. After I combed it and pulled it back up into a (much shorter) ponytail, she said, “Thank you. Did you get it all?” And I answered, “Yes, ma’am.” I tried to tell her about how the Mississippi State baseball team was playing in the College World Series finals. I reminded her that my daddy was their starting pitcher back in the late 1940s (he also lettered in golf) but she doesn’t remember who he is. Or what baseball is. But she’s still my people.

Steve Yates

Steve Yates

After that I went to my friend, NancyKay Wessman’s house, where Susan Marquez (NancyKay and Susan are both terrific writers, by the way) joined us for drinks and supper before we all headed to The Fairview Inn for a salon-style reading in the library lounge. Steve Yates, assistant director/marketing director at the University Press of Mississippi, gave a fabulous reading from his short story collection, Some Kinds of Love: Stories which won the Juniper Prize for Fiction. He read from his story, “The Green Tomato Marquesa’s Night of a Thousand and One Triumphs.” My emotional response as he read ran the gamut from laughter to serious reflection and most of all, awe at his writing.

somekindsYates weaves a hilarious story of a terrorist plot to destroy Jackson with chemical warfare, set against the cultural backdrop of the Sweet Potato Queens.  As he describes the relationship between Jamil, a Pakistani terrorist, and Maudelynne Arnot Dabb, a librarian at the Eudora Welty Library in Jackson, Mississippi, I was mesmerized. In the beginning of his relationship with the librarian, Jamil consults his terrorist manual for help in how to deal with her:

“Fraternization with Crusader woman may have its values but should be undertaken with the caution of Allah against all Warners and Sinners. American Crusader  woman desires more than any female sect on the globe to talk, and this dagger cuts both ways. Be alert for special knowledge to be gained and for assimilation and access among still more powerful infidels.”

It only gets better as they meet outside the library for the first time:

She bit her lip, a fetching expression. “May I make a confession to you?”

Like no other tribe, educated Southern Americans always asked permission before burdening one with personal information. And this endeared them to Jamil in ways he knew were not productive.

He nodded.

“I am a Fruity Countessa. A Green Tomato Marquesa Soon-To-Be. And our Most Recycled Virgin and Apostolic Green Tomato Marquesa says, ‘The man of your choice should never be able to predict when vegetable fortune will shower upon him.’”

Jamil felt the shadow of deepening mystery pass before his sun. In Jackson’s newspaper he had read an interminable string of articles discussing this faith sect, the Green Tomato (always pronounced Tah May Tah) Marquesas, female disciples of a former newspaper columnist who now gave empowerment advice to women whose lives lacked fulfillment, gratification, and control, whose days needed sassiness to over come the drudgery of men.

Steve Yates, Joe Hickman (Lemuria) hostess at Fairview, and John Evans, owner of Lemuria Books in the Library Lounge at Fairview Inn

Steve Yates, Joe Hickman (Lemuria Books), hostess at Fairview, and John Evans, owner of Lemuria Books in the Library Lounge at Fairview Inn

No spoiler alert here—you’ll have to read the story to follow their relationship and see whether or not Jamil succeeds in his mission. But Steve Yates certainly succeeded in his, with this wonderful collection of stories, most of which previously appeared in such prestigious publications at The Missouri Review and Southwest Review. One was chosen as one of the Other Distinguished Stories by the editors of Best American Short Stories 2010. Another, “Coin of the Realm,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Kudos, Steve! I’m proud to name you among my (Mississippi) people.

PearlsBeforeSwine

 

But the day didn’t end at Steve’s reading. NancyKay, Susan and I left the Fairview Inn and headed up I-55 North to the lounge at the Hilton Hotel, where we met up with a high school classmate of mine (Murrah High School class of 1969), Harrell Broome, and his wife, Jackie. We spent the next couple of delightful hours enjoying nightcaps and the music of Johnny Crocker. Harrell is a drummer, and he and Jackie introduced me to Johnny and now I’m hooked. We sang along, danced, and even lured a beautiful young woman who was sitting alone to move over to our table. She was in town from New Orleans, on business. You see, it’s true what they say about Southern hospitality. As the evening drew to a close and we exchanged hugs and intentions to do this again soon, I felt something stirring that started about six years ago. A return to my roots. Yes, these are my people.

Jackie Lentz Broome, me, Harrell Broome

Jackie Lentz Broome, me, Harrell Broome

 

Mental Health Monday: Thanks, Sugar!

Tiny_Beautiful-330Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed—best-selling author of a memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, and a novel, Torch—is a collection of the best columns from “Dear Sugar,” where Strayed has served as the anonymous columnist at The Rumpus since 2010. (She revealed her identity in 2012.)

I bought the book because a wonderful woman I met at the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, Nina Gaby,  told me that Strayed’s experience of sexual abuse was similar to  mine—also with her grandfather when she was a little girl. She shares this experience in response to a letter she received at the beginning of her time as the advice columnist, “Sugar.” The letter said:

A gift from my best friend. I keep it on my reading chair.

A gift from my best friend. I keep it on my reading chair.

Dear Sugar,

WTF, WTF, WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day.

Best,

WTF

Strayed began her reply in an unusual way for an advice columnist—by sharing something very personal from her own life:

Dear WTF,

My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t any good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew that it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel that same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.

I felt that same particular sickness as I read her words, describing the same act my grandfather required of me when I was four or five. But I also felt a huge sense of solidarity, and I wanted to read more.

I hated having to rub my grandfather’s cock, but there was nothing I could do. I had to do it…. When I learned he died, I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t happy either. He was no one to me and yet he was always there, the force of him and what he’d made me do moving through me like a dark river…. The ghost of that old man’s cock would always be in my hands….

So I railed against it, in search of the answer to what the fuck was up with my grandfather doing that to me. What the fuck? What the fuck? What the fuck?

But I could never shake it. That particular fuck would not be shook. Asking what the fuck only brought it around…. It came to me during sex. It came to me in flashes and it came to me in dreams.

That’s what the fuck it was. The fuck was mine.

So there it is. She’s owning this horrific thing that happened to her when she was a helpless child. And she’s telling the letter writer that he needs to own all the shit in his own life, too:

And the fuck is yours too, WTF. That question does not apply “to everything every day.” It if does, you’re wasting your life….

Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it

Yours,

Sugar

201D-247-25ASo many things about Strayed’s words are helping me today. Most of all, to have someone describe the damage caused by this type of abuse validates my own suffering. There have actually been people (men) who have said to me, after hearing my story, things like, “Well, at least he didn’t rape you.” As though there are degrees of sexual abuse and incest. And yes, there are worst terrors than being forced to give your grandfather hand jobs—physically, at least. But the emotional and psychological damage stays with you for a lifetime. Strayed gets that. But she doesn’t sugar-coat her advice.

What Strayed does with the letters she receives is unique, as Steve Almond says in the introduction to Tiny Beautiful Things (TBT):

She absorbs our stories. She lets them inhabit her, and thinks about the stories they evoke from her own life…. Tiny Beautiful Things will endure as a piece of literary art, as will Cheryl’s other books, because they do the essential work of literary art: they make us more human than we were before.

416251905_200A collection of entries from an advice column can be literary art? In Strayed’s case, I think so. One of the letters in TBT is from Elissa Bassist, who ends up co-authoring an essay that was recently published in the Winter 2013 issue of Creative Nonfiction, “How to Write Like a Mother#^@%*&.” (Bassist was working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at the time.) At one point Strayed says (in her reply to Bassist): 

I make my own stories public for the sake of art. A painful experience is not art, but art can be made from painful experiences. Writers are truthtellers. That’s our job. Often that means we need to write about the darkness within.

I want one of these!

I want one of these!

Writing about the darkness within is what I’ve been doing for about seven years now. Ten published essays. Two unpublished memoirs. And now this novel that I’ve been in labor with for three years and working with an editor on revising. Even at this stage of the game I have doubts: Am I good enough to make the changes she suggests, which will give the book a chance to be extraordinary? Several days last week, my old friend depression tried to crawl back in bed with me. I have to keep kicking him out.

And today, as I face the task of continuing to make that novel the best it can be, I have to believe that I can do it. That I can write like a motherfucker. And I have to bring my whole life to the work. I have to own it.

Thanks, Sugar.

Family on Friday: Badass Women… Leaning Into the Damage

15783116-injured-child-posing-as-victim-of-domestic-violenceOn page 4A of  today’s Memphis Commercial Appeal, there’s a shocking article about domestic violence written by Maria Chang, AP Medical Writer. In “WHO Study: Third of women suffer domestic violence,” Chang reveals this chilling statistic from the World Health Organization:

40 percent of women killed worldwide were slain by an intimate partner, and being assaulted by a partner was the most common kind of violence experienced by women.

While the article doesn’t define “partner” as always meaning a legal spouse, the use of the term “intimate” at least indicates a close if not familial relationship—one that should be safe. These statistics are from studies that took place between 1983 and 2010.

Two pages later in the same section of today’s CA (Section A, page 7) is a guest column by Karen Camper, a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Women Legislator’s Lobby, titled, “Oppression of women fuels world’s unrest.” Rep. Camper’s focus is on the affect that issues surrounding women’s rights—especially in the Middle East—have on world peace, rather than the results of domestic violence on the individual. The article is worth a read. She sums up her thoughts with these words:

Respecting women and involving women in all aspects of society offer the only hope for achieving the transformational change that is so necessary for peace.

Whether or not that ever happens in our fractured world, Camper’s observations are astute, and I hope that enough people are listening to help make a difference.

rooney-mara-girl-with-dragon-tattoo-lisbethAnd this might seem an unusual segue, but Stieg Larsson uses facts about man-on-woman violence as section quotes in his novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, including this one:

Forty-six percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man.

Since the protag and two other supporting characters in my novel, Cherry Bomb, were all sexually abused, this is a topic that catches my eye wherever I see it. And the trained eye of the editor I’m working with right now on revisions for the novel. She’s the one who recommended I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, remember? For “an absolute master class in writing damaged women.” I’m finding my reading of Larsson’s work to be just that, especially where his protag, Lisbeth Salander is involved. As my editor says:

Lisbeth Salander never stops being a badass just because she gets wealthy enough to walk away from the hacker life—and that commitment to self preservation should also be strong in Mare (Cherry Bomb’s protag). No one gets away from a childhood like hers without some damage, and not all damage gets healed. Don’t be afraid of that—lean into it.

And so I proceed to live my own life—leaning into the damage I have personally suffered—while striving to bring that spirit of self preservation to the women I create on the written page. I have grown to love Mare over the past three years as I’ve written and revised her story. By the end of the novel, she’s no longer the frightened little girl who escapes from a cult and is then abused by her foster father. She’s no longer the angry teenager who sneaks around at night bombing buildings with graffiti. She has grown into a strong, compassionate, badass woman.

 

Writing on Wednesday: Mixed Media—The Bundle was a Her

Accidental Memoir CoverUnusual. Odd. Offbeat. Those are words that Don Noble used in his review of Wendy Reed’s new book, An Accidental Memoir: How I Killed Someone and Other Stories (New South Books). He goes on to explain that the book earns those descriptions because it’s a mix of three genres in one volume—short stories, essays, and memoir. Unusual? Sure. Odd? Not for Southern prose. Offbeat? Again, Reed is from Alabama, and her work has garnished comparisons to Flannery O’Connor: flawed people, dark humor, disastrous events and moments of spiritual grace.

"Without Permission" by Deborah Scott. Oil and mixed media.

“Without Permission” by Deborah Scott. Oil and mixed media.

Maybe it’s because I’m an artist that Reed’s use of “mixed media” in this volume of prose doesn’t strike me as “odd.” Visual artists do this all the time. They mix paint with paper and found objects and create all sorts of three-dimensional pieces. I have some mixed media pieces hanging in my office right now, and I love the vibrancy of their layers. Reed’s book is also vibrant. As she says in her introduction to her “Essays and Stories,” which are part of the section of the book she calls “Aftermath”:

The mind’s way weaves meaning, marrying mystery with mistress. Why am I putting in essays and stories? The truth is I don’t know why. When I wrote this I was looking for meaning. I guess this is how I hunt. This is what came after. I wish that when you read them I could know what you think. I’d like to know what you make of the aftermath.

If you haven’t read the book yet, you’re probably asking, aftermath of what? “How I Killed Someone,” the 73-page memoir which closes the book, tells the story of a fateful accident that happened back in 1996 on a rainy day on Interstate I-65 in Alabama. Reed’s car hydroplaned, crossed the median, and struck an oncoming car, killing its driver, a thirty-four-year-old African American woman. The long drawn-out legal case and charges of racial inequality in the insurance settlement fed Reed’s struggle to clarify her own culpability (or lack thereof) and the memories and guilt she would carry for the rest of her life. Twice in the book—first in the prologue (below) and again in the meat of the memoir—Reed paints an image she, and the reader, can never erase.

The air hung thick with humidity. But I could see through it. Lights. Red. Flashing. The lights of emergency vehicles, fire trucks, an ambulance. I could see them loading a bundle of white sheets onto a stretcher. A her, they had said. The bundle was a her.

WendyReed3I love that the same woman who writes so honestly about her moral struggles with self-blame over a blameless tragedy brings that same candor to her essays about what she calls “bad girl syndrome.” Infidelity. Boob jobs. Women popping live goldfish in and out of their vaginas.

(Yes, these stories are in the ESSAY section of the book, which I found to be much more powerful than her SHORT STORIES.)

Reed doesn’t leave us in the lurch as to why she’s wired the way she is. In her essay, “Gnawing Through the Mask,” she says:

My own mother attempted suicide in her thirties. A few years later, I watched her, the most vanilla person I knew, a woman who didn’t yell and barely walked faster than a crawl, jump off our porch onto my aunt and promptly try to beat the hell out of her with an Avon bag. This was before Prozac and molecular biology. This was explained as dark rivers that sprang from even darker urges in the maternal line. The women, thirty, forty years ago, did what they could. They repressed. They denied. They fried a lot of chicken. In short, they coped. These were my ancestors.

In addition to Southern women, Reed claimed Eve as her ancestor. Or at least she identified with her temptation and transgression:

I wonder what temptation felt like to her. The first racing of the female heart. The first pumping of the first fluids. The first orders from the brain. The first seduction: pupil dilation, amplified hearing, the possibility of something better. I wasn’t there, but I know why Eve took the first bite. What I wonder is: did she take a second one?

Wendy and me at reading/signing for Circling Faith at Burke's Books, July 2012. Wendy was co-editor with Jennifer Horne.

Wendy and me at reading/signing for Circling Faith at Burke’s Books, July 2012. Wendy was co-editor with Jennifer Horne.

Maybe you’ll disagree with me once you read this incredible book. Maybe you’ll like the short stories best. But one thing I promise you—you will embrace this woman and all the parts of yourself that you see in her stories.

Wendy Reed is my friend, and I loved her before I read these stories. Now I only love her more.

Mental Health Monday: The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto

Me, Dad, and my brother Mike (late 1950s)

Me, Dad, and my brother Mike, 1956

Every May and June, millions of people are faced with yet another intrusion into our personal lives by the marketing gurus at Hallmark and beyond—those twin pinnacles of human commemoration—Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. How did it all begin?

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson approved a resolution making the second Sunday in May officially “Mother’s Day.”  Dads didn’t get their day until 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed a proclamation making “Father’s Day” a federal holiday. It’s estimated that Americans spend over $1 million a year on Father’s Day gifts.

One has only to cruise down the Facebook feed on these holidays each year for an outpouring of emotions—both positive and negative—about mothers and fathers. What if you were abused by one or both parents? What if they just weren’t there for you—physically or emotionally? How do you commemorate their “special day” each year? And what if you have regrets (and who doesn’t?) about the ways you have failed your own children? Does the national holiday in honor of you as a parent make you feel better or worse?

Three generations at Seagrove Beach, May 2013

Three generations at Seagrove Beach, Florida, May 2013 (left to right, front row: Grace and Anna. back row: Jason, See, Kevin, Gabby, Beth, Susan, Bill, and Jonathan)

I thought about all of these things a good bit this past weekend, and I picked back up Brene Brown‘s book, Daring Greatly, and read her chapter on “Wholehearted Parenting.” (You can read my previous posts about Brown here: “Minding the Gap”, “Living Inside Our Stories,” “Daring Greatly,” “Surviving the Arena,” “Shame on You,” and “Picture Memories and Foreboding Joy.”)

If you don’t have the book yet, I’ll recommend it again. And again I will thank my Goddaughter, Katherine Thames, and her husband, Hardy, for recommending it to me. Hardy teaches history and economics at Gulfport (Mississippi) High School, where he challenges his students in a way that certainly inspires them to dare greatly. Katherine is a nurse. They have three wonderful children, ages 9, 11 and 14. I’ve never seen two parents more engaged with their children, and it shows in the joy that radiates from their family.

At the end of Brown’s chapter on parenting, she shares what she calls, “The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto.” Click on link to read the manifesto. It’s short and so worth the read.  I’ll share a few sentences here:

Above all else, I want you to know that you are loved and lovable. You will learn this from my words and actions–the lessons on love are in how I treat you and how I treat myself.
I want you to engage with the world from a place of worthiness.
We will practice courage in our family by showing up, letting ourselves be seen, and honoring vulnerability.
I want you to know joy, so together we will practice gratitude.  We will laugh and sing and dance and create. We will always have permission to be ourselves with each other. No matter what, you will always belong here.

BethPopsdanceMaybe it’s never too late to become a wholehearted parent, whether or not we received this gift from our own mothers and fathers. Maybe we can still give these gifts to our children and grandchildren–the gifts of compassion, joy, worthiness, gratitude, and most importantly, belonging. At our daughter’s wedding reception on May 7, 2011, I asked a dear friend, Ashley Newton, to sing a song to Beth from me. The song was, “I Hope You Dance.” This picture of Beth dancing with her father is my favorite memory of that special event in our family’s life.

Family on Friday: Anniversaries, Music, Sunsets, Champagne and Brandy Alexanders

June131970Cropped

 

43 years ago (yesterday) I married Bill Cushman at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi.

WeddingParty

 

We had 17 attendants, 2 pastors, and 2 soloists.

Tea Girls

 

We also had 11 “tea girls” who served at our reception (5 sorority sisters from Ole Miss and 6 high school friends). We invited 400 people to the wedding. I addressed the invitations during final exams, in May of my freshman—and only—year at Ole Miss. Which seemed fitting, since the only degree I would earn from the University of Mississippi would be my Mrs. Degree. And here’s a story worth repeating: My mother handed me the Jackson phone book, with all the people she wanted me to invite underlined and marked with an * in the margin. Yes. 

Paul and LindaSo, Bill (aka Father Basil or Dr. Cushman) and I started celebrating our 43rd wedding anniversary on May 26, when we went to hear Sir Paul (McCartney) sing for three hours at the Fed Ex Forum. It was amazing. Bill has always been a huge McCartney fan, and hearing him in person was a life-long wish. Back in the ’80s, we hosted lots of costume parties in Jackson (Mississippi) including one where Bill dressed as Paul and I was Linda, and we did a duet, “Baby, You Can Drive My Car.”

 

We followed the McCartney concert with a small, intimate front porch concert on June 1 in midtown, where we enjoyed “words and music” from my friend from Nashville, the musician and writer, Marshall Chapman. Marshall read from her book, They Came to Nashville, and sang a number of songs from her new CD, “Blaze of Glory.” We sat in lawn chairs outside on a beautiful starry night with our friends, David Twombly, Cindy Fong, and Mitch and Sandy Childress, and were sad when the music was over.

CocktailsRooftop2

 

A few days later we enjoyed sunset drinks and small plates on the rooftop bar at the Madison (downtown) where we discovered the best sunset view in Memphis, hands down. (Thanks for the tip, Mary Elizabeth Phillips!)

champagne_glassesThe next week, we headed to Paulette’s for a lovely dinner in the bar, near the piano where requests are taken. At one point, I asked Bill to request “This Guy’s In Love” by Herb Alpert, because he sang that to me on our first date back in 1968… on a sailboat on the Ross Barnett Reservoir. (Incredibly romantic first date, right? We sailed all afternoon and into the starlit evening. We were 17 and 19.) After that we requested “The Nearness of You,” an old classic that Marshall covered on her new CD. So, while we were listening to the piano and enjoying our meal, the bartender brought us two more glasses of champagne, and indicated they were gifts from someone in the bar. We looked at the couple sitting at the next table, who immediately raised their glasses and said, “Salute!” Michele D’Oto and Laura Derrick are Italian. They own Pasta Italia, out in Cordova, and were dining at Paulette’s on the one night their restaurant is closed (Mondays). As we chatted with our new friends, we discovered that their son just graduated from medical school here and had studied with Bill. Such a small world. We’ll definitely be driving out to Cordova the next time we’re hungry for Italian food. (What they didn’t tell us is that their original restaurant was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, in Biloxi. I just read about it on their web site.)

Finally, we indulged in homemade frozen Brandy

3107_021108_brandyalexander_l Alexanders—a guilty pleasure that we blame on our friends, Tim and Deb Mashburn, who introduced us to this best of all possible concoctions a few years ago.

rosesSo, I’m missing my sweetheart today, but with all the celebrating we’ve been doing, I’ve been needing some alone time to work on the novel. Gonna be buried in it for a while. Champagne and Brandy Alexanders are optional.

Writing on Wednesday: Potential to be Extraordinary!

If you’ve been following my blog you already know that an agent in New York sent my novel to an editor for an overview about a month ago. You can read about that here: “Edgy Fiction: Fresh But Unsettling.”

So, the night before I flew home from Seattle, I received an email from the agent with the overview attached! At the risk of bragging, I’ll share the cover letter from the editor here. I hope that my fellow emerging writers will find it encouraging:

Susan,

Congratulations on this draft of CHERRY BOMB; it’s been a privilege to read your book and develop this overview to guide you into your next round of revisions.

I’ve examined your work and found it thoughtful, well-researched and engaging. While it’s clear that the development of this intricate three-pronged plot is quite thorough, this overview will focus on how you might rise up to the promise of that plot with improved character development and certain structural adjustments.

While reading your book, I was reminded of my reader experience with BONE RIVER, a novel by Megan Chance. Chance does a lovely job of drawing out the mystery underpinning what reads as a very literary novel; if you have time to read it before your next round of revisions, I highly recommend it.

Again, congratulations on your extraordinary accomplishment thus far. CHERRY BOMB has a superb premise and, in my very humble opinion, the potential to be extraordinary.

Albert_Anker_(1831-1910),_Schreibunterricht,_1865._Oil_on_canvas

 

Did anyone else notice that she used the word extraordinary TWICE in that last paragraph? So, I’ve done a bit of celebrating for a couple of days, but now it’s time to buckle down and get back to work. I think I’ll put a giant sticky note on my computer that says, “the potential to be EXTRAORDINARY.”

What follows her cover letter is twelve pages of wonderfully specific advice on how to help the book “rise up to the promise of that plot with improved character development and certain structural adjustments.” The overview begins with a one paragraph SUMMARY that’s a more well-written premise than I’ve been able to come up with in three years. I can see these words on the book jacket’s front inside flap:

CHERRY BOMB chronicles the lives and suffering of three women whose fates are unexpectedly intertwined: Mare, a teen graf artist emerging from a lifetime of abuse at the hands of her cult-leading father and foster parents; Elaine de Kooning, an Abstract Expressionist artist whose interactions with Mare dredge up painful memories of a shameful past; and Sister Susannah, an artist and nun whose reclusive tendencies belie her deep connection to the world around her. All three women converge around Neema, a 5th-century prostitute whose awakening to grace leads her to ultimate salvation.

DragonTattooThe next six pages of the overview contain concrete details about each character and suggestions for strengthening their stories and making their voices more distinct. These are followed by two pages about dialogue, two pages about continuity, two pages about “revelations,” (when to reveal what) and “final impressions,” which includes a suggested writing exercise and another recommended reading—The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (I ran to Burke’s Books to pick up a copy yesterday afternoon and am pouring over it already, eager to learn from Stieg Larsson’s portrayal of Lisbeth Salander, which this editor calls “an absolute Master Class in writing damaged women.” They didn’t have the other recommended book, Megan Chance’s Bone River, so I downloaded it to my Kindle, hoping to learn from what the editor says is a “very literary novel” with a “mystery underpinning.”)

Novel-RevisionI feel like I just signed up for an MFA workshop! I’ve got my “syllabus” and reading materials and I’m ready to get started this afternoon. (I already had a birthday lunch scheduled with friends today—for one of their birthdays, not mine—but I’m going to slow down on my social life for a while after today.)

Check back in on future Wednesdays for possible progress reports. I’m prepared to hunker down for a number of weeks or even months (however long it takes to get to extraordinary) and will probably have a Skype conference or two with the editor along the way. As always, thanks for reading and being so supportive!

Mental Health Monday: Wrong Shui

Scrabble and Scotch

 

I’m at the airport in Seattle after a lovely weekend visiting my Godson, Patrick, and his family. Last last night (early this morning) I discovered this hilarious little book in their living room (after a three-hour Scrabble game and some excellent Scotch), so I thought I’d share a few gems today from The Little Book of Wrong Shui by Rohan Candappa. (Subtitle: How to Drastically Improve Your Life by Basically Moving Stuff Around. Honest.)

Wrong ShuiA few pages:

Interior Design:

Always try to keep your lungs positioned above your kidneys.

 

Chipped Plates:

A chipped plate is very bad Wrong Shui.

But a plate of chips is very good.

 

What’s up Doc?

Never eat a meal in a room in which a rabbit has recently died.

 

You know, these were much funnier at 1 a.m. this morning after drinking Scotch. But if you laugh at them while sober on a Monday morning, all the better. Cheers!

Family on Friday: Celebrating a Special Godson

Patrick's_baptismEighteen years ago this coming August 14, I helped deliver my Godson, Patrick. And while it was thrilling to be in labor and delivery with him (I even got to cut the cord) that experience was only a precursor to the years ahead of us. Today I’m flying out to Seattle to visit Patrick and celebrate his high school graduation and his eighteenth birthday—both momentous events of the summer.

 

Serving as his Godmother (with my husband as Godfather) continues to be a joy and blessing. From his baptism (see left) and baby and toddlers years—which we were able to share while he still lived in Memphis—to the long-distance relationship we would develop when he moved with his mother and siblings to Seattle, Washington, when he was only two. He would return to Memphis almost annually (one set of grandparents were here for quite a few years) and we would look forward to those visits with joy.

 

Game OverThe summer of 2008, when Patrick became a teenager, he flew to Memphis for a visit, bringing along his wonderful service dog, “Kudzu,” who helped Patrick with various neurological disorders. You can read my post about that visit, and enjoy some terrific photos, here: “A Dog and His Boy.” Kudzu “retired” shortly after that visit, enjoying his retirement years as a loving pet. I love the pictures of Patrick and his Godfather playing Wii Football at Game Stop after church that Sunday, while Kudzu stands faithfully at attention.

 

Last summer Patrick spent a few weeks in Memphis working as an intern with a group that helps homeless people. He spent a couple of nights with us and we talked about his hopes and dreams for the future. Patrick struggles with health issues that often derail his plans, but I know he will find his way and will do something important as he moves into adulthood. I thought then how grown-up Patrick had become, and how proud of him I am.

 

That's Patrick, back row, center, visiting in March

That’s Patrick, back row, center, visiting in March. His mother, Charli, bottom row right,and his sister, Mary Elizabeth, bottom row left. Mary’s boyfriend, Wes Riddle and my husband (Patrick’s Godfather) on either side of Patrick. We’re enjoying sunset on the Mississippi River.

 

 

 

This past March, Patrick and his mother, my dear friend, Charli, came to Memphis for Patrick to visit an eye specialist, and we had a great time “down on the river” with them both, along with his sister, Mary Elizabeth Phillips, and her boyfriend, Wes Riddle. Walking by the river just before sunset, dinner at Tug’s, and watching the Memphis Grizzlies back at our house later… we soaked up the moments we had with Patrick, not knowing how soon we might see him again.

 

And then the invitation came. June 8. A celebration for Patrick. The Godfather can’t go, but I got my plane ticket right away and today I’m off for a long weekend at Patrick’s home in Seattle, which I’ve never seen. I’m sure I’ll take lots of pictures, but I might not be on the grid much… we’ll see. Have a great weekend, everyone!

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