Faith on Friday: Literary Excellence in Christian Fiction

When Mountains Move I usually do book reviews in my “Writing on Wednesday” posts. But the book I want to talk about today, When Mountain Move, is the sequel to a Christy award-winning first novel, Into the Free, by my friend, Julie Cantrell. Still aren’t following me? Christy Awards are given for “literary excellence in Christian fiction.” Julie’s books are run-through with faith, but she also has a good handle on the art of storytelling. Her prose is beautiful, and the story keeps the reader turning those pages. It’s Julie’s skill with words that earned her first novel a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and numerous awards that are unrelated to the book’s faith-based elements.

Fans of Into the Free have been eagerly awaiting its sequel, wanting to find out what happens to Millie and Bump as they leave Mississippi to start their married life in Colorado. Will Millie be haunted by the dark events of her past? Will she ever see River again? Will she and Bump be successful in their new ventures?

No spoiler alert needed here… I wouldn’t want to give anything away before the book hits the shelves on September 1. (I’ve been reading an advanced reader’s copy.) But I will say that something about her books reminds me of Elizabeth Gouge’s voice in Green Dolphin Street.  I think it’s the moral choices the characters make, and her clear distinction between good and evil, which is often blurred in contemporary fiction. Are her characters believable? In the time and place they live, I think they are. Although I probably would have pumped up the dark sides of a couple of the characters a bit more. There were times when Millie was a little too “good” to believe. But then again, look at Marguerite in Dolphin Street. Cantrell’s Kat and Gouge’s Marianne were also fairly tame villainesses.  Maybe Cantrell is trying to recover the lost art of moderation as she weaves her tales.

Julie Cantrell

Julie Cantrell, author of When Mountains Move

This is a great book for a book club to discuss. Julie even includes some thoughtful discussion questions to get the conversation started. She also includes some writing prompts based on the story, which could be helpful for a writing group or individuals who are trying to get started writing. My personal favorite:

When writing this book, I actually wrote six or seven different endings before settling on this one. Pretend you are the author. Write a different ending to this story.

Endings are tough to write. I struggled for months before I found an ending for my novel, Cherry Bomb. And I was thrilled that the editor I’m working with didn’t suggest any changes for the ending.  (It’s the middle where I’m having to do so much revising.) I’m not sure if I would have written a different ending for When Mountain Move or not. It feels like the story was building to this point all along, so maybe that’s a good indication that the author got it right.

If you’d like a personalized, signed copy of either of Cantrell’s books, you can order them from Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. Julie will be reading and signing at Square Books on September 9.

This is the first of three books coming from authors in Oxford, Mississippi, between September 1 and October 1—the “literary hat trick” I mentioned a few weeks ago. Watch for my reviews of The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly on September 4, and Robert Khayak’s The Education of a Lifetime on September 11. Reading all three of these books during my recovery has really made the time go by faster!

Writing on Wednesday: 1579 Words that Changed the World #DreamDay

Mahalia Jackson, Mayor Richard Daley, and Martin Luther King, Jr. at benefit concert in Chicago, May, 1963

Mahalia Jackson, Mayor Richard Daley, and Martin Luther King, Jr. at benefit concert in Chicago, May, 1963

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King delivered one of the most powerful and memorable speeches in history. (For an inspirational reminder, watch it here.) But what most of us don’t know (well, I didn’t know this until today) is that the most famous words in that speech were added spontaneously by King.

According to King’s speechwriter and lawyer, Clarence B. Jones, King set the script aside when Gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson yelled out, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” He set the written text aside and replied:

 

I have a dream today…

And the rest is history.

Want to read some inspirational tweets? Add your own at #DreamDay.

Mental Health Monday: A Healthy Egoism

I'm_OK-_You're_OKRemember the book, I’m OK—You’re OK? Hard to believe it was published in 1967—when I was a sophomore in high school. I wasn’t reading self-help books when I was 16. Or even as a 21-year-old in 1972, when it was number one on the New York Times best-sellers list for nonfiction and I had already been married for two years. I’m not a proponent—or even a student—of transactional analysis, but I probably could have used a dose of Dr. Harris’ wisdom about then. I was caught in a cycle of self-loathing, body image distortion, and eating disorders. But I was also involved in a religious movement that scorned psychology. I was supposed to just trust Jesus and everything would be okay. Or not.

This religious group wasn’t into self love. And yes, I know this topic can be argued from many angles and viewed through many lenses. But I can’t help but wonder—45 years later—whether I could have been spared a lifetime of unhappiness if I had embraced a bit of positive mental energy earlier on. But then again, maybe this wisdom only comes with age. I recently discovered this wonderful quote from Charlie Chaplin, on his 70th birthday:

CharlieChaplinSelfLove

 

Did it take Chaplin 70 years to learn this? Does it have to take that long? My children are all in their 30s. They have good jobs. Two of them are married with children. One of them owns a lovely home. They are all working hard, trying to make a good life for themselves and their families. My wish for them today is that they recognize what wonderful people they are and follow Charlie Chaplin’s advice for embracing a healthy egoism. Maybe by the time they are my age they will have enjoyed a happier life for many years.

Me? I’m moving forward with Chaplin’s advice—learning to love myself, and to free myself from things that “draw me down and away from myself.” Chaplin called this “a healthy egoism.” Sounds good to me. Have a great Monday, everyone!

Faith on Friday: I’ll Die Upon My Faith (A Coptic Orphan’s Poem)

Coptic-Orphans-300x225I just read this poem by a Coptic (Orthodox Christian) orphan in Egypt. Please take a few minutes to watch this video of her poem:

“I’ll Die Upon My Faith.

Today, the faith I need to continue my recovery pales in comparison to what my fellow Christians in Egypt are suffering.

Today, I stand in awe of their faith. Especially the children who have the courage and conviction to write:

My pen aches with the injustice…

Every feast brings me to tears…

Whether they call me “murdered” or “martyred”

What’s important is to die upon my faith.

Egyptian Child's Drawing

Egyptian Child’s Drawing

 

 

(I Wish I Was) Writing on Wednesday

SuSuLaptopDeskIt’s been almost two months since I worked on revisions for Cherry Bomb, the novel an agent has shown interest in. When I emailed the agent and told her of my situation, she wrote back immediately, expressing concern for my well-being, encouraging me to take care of myself, and that she would be excited to read my revisions whenever I could get back to the novel. So, I’m not feeling pressure from her, but it’s so difficult not to be writing.

What’s stopping me? Physical and mental energy. I can sit up and work at my laptop for an hour or so at a time now, but then my leg and/or neck hurt, or my lower back. Or my mental energy runs out. This is such a new experience for me—I’ve always had an abundance of physical and mental energy.

In the meanwhile I’m trying to strengthen my writing muscles with blog posts and reading. I was inspired by Richard Gilbert’s post, “In Praise of Reading,” on Monday. Although I wasn’t able to read for the first two weeks after my accident, I’m thankful that over the past month I’ve been able to read two wonderful novels and part of a memoir, all three of which I’m reviewing on my blog in September. It definitely feeds my craft to read finely written prose.

WD OctoberI’m also feeding my craft through some wonderful articles in the October issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine. Whether you are new to the craft or already published, there’s lots of great stuff in this issue. I have writing buddies who have asked me questions recently that are answered extensively in this issue, so I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

The WD interview with David Sedaris alone is worth the price of the magazine. Sedaris’ inspiration, practice of turning journal entries into essays, and reading his work aloud are only a few tidbits from this literary meal. Here are a few more:

On writing rituals: And so I sit down every morning, and I make sense of the world—and I don’t let things get in the way.

On finding your voice: Well, I think I was like everybody in that I found my voice by imitating other people. You just try on other personas. I wrote like Joan Didion for a while, and I wrote like Raymond Carver for a while—strong stylists…. We stir it up, and it’s the combinations, I think, of this and that, that make us who we are.

This was very interesting to me, as I feel that I have imitated—or tried to imitate—some favorite authors at times. Like Michael Cunningham. And Virginia Woolf. Artists do this in their training. They start by copying the masters. But eventually they find their own style. And, as Sedaris says:

Write relentlessly, until you find your voice. Then, use it.

So, that’s the inspiration part of this post. And now, for a few specifics I gleaned from the article by Marie Lamba, “It Has Merit But…” (10 Reasons Agents Pass After Requesting Your Full Manuscript). If you’ve been following my blog, you might remember that I queried 75 agents before I found one who loved my novel. There were a dozen or more who asked for the full manuscript but rejected it for various reasons. The most common (and vague) of all those reasons I was told appears at the end of this list. Keep reading. It’s Number 10. But you might recognize other weaknesses in your own manuscript which need attention before sending it back out. Here they are:

Reason#1: It’s not what was promised.

Reason #2: It’s wrong for the genre/audience.

Reason #3: The story lacks authenticity.

Reason #4: The manuscript falls to pieces.

Reason #5: It takes you too long to get on with it.

Reason #6: The writing lacks confidence.

Reason #7: Too familiar.

Reason #8: You haven’t made me care.

Reason #9: Disappointing payoff.

Reason #10: It’s just not strong enough.

cartoon-publishing

You’ll have to read the article to learn how to fix these problems! And the author (a literary agent) has some good advice for making those fixes.

Wherever you are in the writing/publishing process, I wish you all the best!

Mental Health Monday: The Art of the Catalog (Formality, Sex and Adornment)

my new yoga capris!

my new yoga capris from lululemon!

Six weeks after my accident, I’m beginning to get out a bit, which is a wonderful mental health blessing. So far most of my “outings” have been to the hospital or various doctor’s offices, but my sweet hubby usually “rewards” me after those visits by taking me somewhere for lunch or dinner. But last Thursday, as we were waiting for our friends to arrive at Ruth’s Chris for an early dinner, I noticed LuLuLemon, the yoga clothing store next door. Ooooooh! Wheel me in there? I asked my husband.

I was like a kid in a candy store! So many yummuy fabrics and colors and designs. And yes, I made a purchase—some super comfy Capri-length yoga pants that fit nicely over my cast. I have worn them every day since I got them!

Several pair of fairly new skinny jeans and tunic tops were destroyed in the car wreck on July 7. I decided not to replace the skinny jeans, hoping that by the time I’m out of a cast I might actually be needing a smaller size. But I went ahead and replaced 3 of the tunic tops—all from JJill. Sadly, two other tops were designer numbers I had picked up at Seaside, Florida, last spring. I’m also grieving the loss of my favorite cowboy boots, and will have to see how well my foot heals before I’ll know whether or not I can wear cowboy boots in the future.

 

So, what does all this have to do with Mental Health Monday? EVERYTHING… for someone who loves to shop but is confined to a wheelchair (and can’t drive) for three months! So, what’s a girl do? Well, even before the accident, I was a huge fan of catalogs. I probably get 6-8 of them in the mail every week. I don’t mind if they sell my name to other venders, because that’s how I discover new sources. Like The J. Peterman Company, who has probably the coolest, most artistic catalog I’ve ever seen. Check out these items in particular, and pay attention to the literary descriptions, which alone are enough to sell me on the items:

WSK3989-BLACKMadeline’s Skirt (No. 3989)—Tea Room in Sint-Amandstraat

 ‘Prose should feel effortless,’ she says with a smile.

I think I get it.

Watching her. Her long hair, the lavender bow, hint of a smile on her red lips. Admiring her skirt, the elegant yet three button front, shapely yet streamlined—it’s just the right combination of formality, sex and adornment.

I think I feel it.

She knows I’m watching her move across the polished hardwood floors, thumbing the pages. (Rumor has it she cut 20,000 words from last year’s Man Booker winner.)

WDR3998_TEALMy Moment Dress (No. 3998)—Your Moment

This is what you should wear to usher it in.

Myrna Loy did.

1924.

Crowded Hollywood pool party at mogul’s house off Sunset.

WAC43281917 Bohemian Earrings (No. 4238)—Ethereal

Emotionally vintage.

Authentic vintage materials from around the world. Hand-painted filigree with rhinestones.

WBL3659-REDWHTCelestial Blouse and Skirt—Your Night in Fiji

Dancing with him on the beach.

Away from the man-made lights. Away from the Shangri-La. Away from the rugby team’s Cibi war dance….

Ocean waves fill your ears. He has you close.

The night sky is alive with celestial lights….

He will say, ‘I never knew you could dance… like that.’

If I was looking for freelance work, I’d love to write for the J. Peterman Company.

Emotionally vintage.

Just the right combination of formality, sex and adornment.

Six more weeks until I can drive myself to a bricks and mortar store, walk inside and try on new clothes. But until then, I’m happy here with my catalogs. Or at least the artsy ones. Which are your favorites?

Faith on Friday: Wow

xxx-fw-wow2-4_3Back in February I did a blog post called “WOW: The Third Essential Prayer.” I had forgotten about that post when I named this one and decided I wanted to write about Anne Lamott’s third prayer from her book, Help, Thanks, Wow. And today I think I’m going to do another post on the same subject, but with a different focus.

If you’ve been following my posts about my car wreck on July 7 and the weeks of recovery since then, you know that I’m having a bit of a spiritual renewal since the accident. Instead of being mad at God, I’m finding myself believing in His love more and more each day.

Lamott says:

The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp…. We click into being fully present when we’re stunned into that gasp….

Being fully present. That’s something I’ve been working towards for many years. But it seems to have taken a life-threatening accident to wake me up enough to go there.  Dealing with the pain and discomfort and frustration resulting from the accident has left me way out of my comfort zone. And this may be a blessing. As Lamott continues:

It is so much more comfortable to think we know what it all means, what to expect and how it all hangs together. When we are stunned to a place beyond words, when an aspect of life takes us away from being able to chip away at something until its down to a manageable size and then to file it nicely away, when all we can say in response is, “Wow,” that’s a prayer.

Dormition IconYesterday was the Feast of the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Mother of God for Orthodox Christians. I have felt the love and protection of the Mother of God very strongly during these past few weeks, and I really wanted to go to church for her feast. But I didn’t think I was ready for the lengthy Divine Liturgy service, so I opted for Great Vespers of the Feast on Wednesday night. As my husband wheeled me out of the church elevator towards the door to nave, I said, “It smells like church.” It was the incense that first welcomed me back to the house of God after a six-week absence.

As we entered the nave, the icons glimmered from the candles and oil lamps, and also from the setting sun’s rays as they cut through the amber-tinted windows. We wheeled past the icon of the Mother of God, pausing for me to kiss my fingertips and touch them on the icon. I asked my husband to push me to the back where I could look forward during the service without having to turn my neck from side to side. The view from the back was beautiful—I could not only see most of the icons but also many of my fellow parishioners who were there to honor the Mother of God. The “bier” was set up in the center of the solea, with an icon of the Dormition in the center. It’s the same bier we use during Holy Week to commemorate Christ’s death.

The hymns and scripture readings washed over my soul like the spiritual medicine they are. And then it was time. Time for the priest to sing the first verse of the Lamentations:

Every generation

to thy tomb comes bringing

its dirge of praises

O Virgin….

And the congregation joined in the verses. Near the end we echo the cries of the Mother of God:

What will I bring Thee

O my Son the God-Man

The maiden cried to the Master.

 

What will I bring Thee

O my God in heaven

Except my soul and body?

So many thoughts rushed to my head. Maybe my small physical suffering is something I can bring to the Master. My own body, reminding me of its brokenness by the presence of pain and discomfort. But also my soul, which I often don’t want to bring to God, holding onto it in my selfish ignorance. And what else would I do with it, if not offer it to God?

As the service ended and my husband wheeled me towards the front to venerate the icon of the feast, I watched as our priests and deacons made prostrations before the icon in the bier, and then as one of them lifted the icon and brought it to me in my wheelchair—since I wasn’t able to climb the stairs to the solea—and I kissed it through my tears. And no, I didn’t shut own my brain which still reminds me of the “issues” I have with my church, but at least for the moment, I was able to lay them at the feet of the Mother of God and celebrate the feast with a joyful and peaceful heart.

Wow.

Nuns at Holy Dormition Monastery in Michigan celebrate their Feast Day

Nuns at Holy Dormition Monastery in Michigan celebrate their Feast Day

(For a beautiful visual, watch this short video of the Dormition Burial Service at a Russian Orthodox church in New Jersey. Although it’s in Slavonic rather than English, the solemnity and beauty of the service is universal.)

Writing on Wednesday: The Ecopoetry Anthology—A Labor of Love Against Despair

ecopoetry-anthology-coverThat’s what co-editor, Ann Fisher-Wirth, said in her introduction to this massive collection of “ecopoetry” by over 200 poets, both historial and contemporary. Wirth, who grew up in California but now lives in Oxford, Mississippi, says that poetry has “the power to move the world—to break through our dulled disregard, our carelessness, our despair, reawakening our sense of the vitality and beauty of nature.” She took on The Ecopoetry Anthology—a five-year project that would become a 576-page anthology–while teaching poetry and directing the environmental studies minor at the University of Mississippi.

Ann FIsher-Wirth

Ann FIsher-Wirth

Wirth calls Mississippi “a place of both great beauty and severe environmental damage.” I met Ann a few years ago when she gave a craft talk during the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop. And then in November of 2009 I enjoyed her reading from Five Terraces one night, and we’ve been friends ever since.

A few of my favorite poets are included in the anthology. Like Emily Dickinson, who writes in #537:

The bell within the steeple wild

The flying tidings told—

How much can come

And much can go,

And yet abide the world!

Robert Frost writes about the importance of being versed in country things, and e.e. cummings writes about finding a poisoned mouse.

And then there are the contemporary poets, like Stephen Cushman (I haven’t discovered whether or not he’s related to my husband) who writes about the rain in Maine, and Lola Haskins, whose “Prayer for the Everglades” ends with this question:

Oh what if? Look up, friend, and take my

hand. What if the wood storks were gone?

Treasures abound in this rich anthology published by Trinity University Press. Wirth’s co-editor is Laura-Gray Street and Robert Hass contributes an inspired introduction. But don’t take my word for it. Buy the book and enjoy the poetry yourself. But don’t expect it to be a quiet, relaxing read. Prepare to be challenged and to see the world in a different light.

Mental Health Monday: You Can’t Stop This Dancer

Nicole Marquez

Nicole Marquez

Five weeks ago today I was at Sacred Heart Trauma Center in Pensacola, Florida, having the first two surgeries following my car accident the night before.  I’ve had one more surgery back home in Memphis, and I’m about half way through my journey towards being able to walk again. Well, not quite half, but I’m on the way.

I’ve had my ups and downs. After a wonderful weekend visit from my best friend from Little Rock, Daphne Davenport, my spirits were greatly lifted. She brought fresh summer veggies and cooked for us all weekend. She gave me back and hand and foot massages. She brought great comfort and joy to me and also to my husband.

And then late last night I had another mini meltdown… tears and frustration after an hour of not being able to get comfortable enough to go to sleep. Finally, shored up with several more pillows, hugs and hand-holding by my sweet husband, I fell asleep.

This morning we went for an appointment at the general medicine “Coumadin Clinic” at The Med, because of the anti-coagulation shots I’ve been taking. Sitting in the waiting room with people in various states of physical impairment, I again had the opportunity to be thankful that my situation isn’t worse. And then a well-dressed, clean-shaven African American man walked in and began to “preach.” He wasn’t offensive or loud. He simply quoted Scripture and shared admonishments with everyone in the waiting room. He’s probably schizophrenic, but he was at least enough in his right mind to be at an appointment at The Med. I couldn’t concentrate to read the book I was trying to read on my new Kindle Paperwhite, so I just listened to the preacher and watched the other people in the waiting room until it was my turn to see the doctor. And then I found myself praying for each of them to find healing—for their bodies and souls and minds. Especially for the preacher.

Nicole shortly after her fall.

Nicole shortly after her fall.

Physically I’m having a bit more pain in my neck and shoulders today, so I’m not going to spend much time here at the computer. But I wanted to share something—or rather someone—with my blog readers, if you don’t already know her. Her name is Nicole Marquez. Her mother, Susan, and I became friends a few years ago through the writing world, and I finally met Nicole in person earlier this year on one of my visits to Jackson, Mississippi. If you don’t know Nicole’s story, read about her here, and be sure and click on the video on the home page, and more videos here. Five years ago, Nicole fell six stories from her apartment roof in New York City, and not only lived, but lived to dance again. What she has been through in the way of pain and struggle on the road to recovery makes my own sufferings seem small.

Nicole has become my inspiration, and I wanted to share her story with my readers. She’s in the business of hope. I’m tapping into her limelight today, and I hope you will, too.

Faith on Friday: Attaching our Freedom to God

All of us who are human beings are in the image of God. But to be in his likeness belongs only to those who by great love have attached their freedom to God.—St. Diadochus of Photike

FreedomI’m sure I have taken my freedom for granted for most of my life. Freedom that comes with being an American citizen. Freedom that comes with financial security. Freedom that comes with good health. These freedoms are also freedoms FROM things like tyranny, poverty, and debilitating illness.

Over the past five weeks since my accident, I’ve re-evaluated what freedom means to me. Being completely dependent upon others for my care while unable to walk or leave the house alone has caused me to reflect on the blessing that these abilities are in everyday life. Breaking into a sweat and getting out of breath while making my way from one room to another on my walker, hopping on one foot, has reminded me what a gift it is to be able to walk on two feet. I can’t wait to be FREE to do that again one day.

A dear friend from high school emailed me and shared about his struggles with having a hip replacement done 3 times due to infections and other problems, and the eleven months he spent on a walker and crutches. He shared with me how much it helped him to reflect on others around him whose circumstances were worse than his, and I can see how that helps. Even reading about his struggle made me appreciate that mine aren’t as severe. But they are my struggles. So what does all this have to do with freedom?

The quote from St. Diodochus (which was in our bulletin at St. John Orthodox Church this past Sunday) talks about attaching our freedom to God. That’s a phrase I hadn’t heard before. But today I’m considering how different my life would be if I learned to attach my freedom to God, rather than attaching it to circumstances—like being able to walk or not feel pain. Or turn my head from side to side.

Our “handyman” was here to repair our oven door this week, and I learned that his son had died recently. He was in his 30s, and had been paralyzed in an accident a number of years ago. Herb had been caring for his son all those years. When I told him how sorry I was to hear of his son’s death, he smiled and said, “Thank you. But he’s FREE now.” I get that. He is free from being trapped in a paralyzed body for all those years. I can’t imagine what that prison was like.

castI’m going to try to remember him as I continue in my recovery and then learn to live with whatever limitations I have long term. But I’m also going to try to learn to attach my freedom to God, rather than to my physical circumstances. I have no idea how I’m going to do that, but I think it will at least involve prayer. Like this phrase from my regular Morning Prayers:

Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring.

The day brought a visit to the doctor, where I had stitches removed and a hard cast applied. Of course it’s heavier than the previous splint and soft bandage, so I have the opportunity to learn more about this freedom thing. In four weeks I should graduate to a removable boot. And I look forward to the freedom that will bring—freedom to take a bath or scratch my leg. But I hope that by then I will have made a tiny bit of progress in this effort to learn to attach my freedom to God.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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