I’ve been in a bit of a funk for about a week May and June were filled with stimulating activities—traveling, family beach vacation, house guests, parties, weddings. Once those activities slowed down, I ramped up the work on novel revisions, and then I got “stuck.” Two good friends have agreed to read the latest version of the novel and help me see what’s missing. And while I’m waiting to hear back from them, I’m also waiting for the go-ahead on inviting authors to submit essays for the anthology I hope to publish with a university press. Waiting.
I’m sure the heat wave (and high humidity) are also playing with my mental and physical health as well—I’ve had headaches and joint aches and a feeling of exhaustion for the past week or so. Sleeping a lot.
I’ve read a bit about writers (and other creatives) and depression, but this article was especially helpful: “Why Writers are Prone to Depression.” The American author, William Styron, was prone to depression, but only when he was NOT writing, according to his daughter, Alexandra Styron, in her memoir Reading My Father. That makes sense to me. When I’m working on a project—writing or otherwise—I get an endorphin kick similar to what some people experience with exercise. It’s the in-between-times that I struggle with. Michael Cunningham said it brilliantly in The Hours:
We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out windows, or drown themselves, or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us are slowly devoured by some disease, or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult.
I’m off to Jackson (Mississippi) to visit my mother in the nursing home today. Visiting someone you love with advanced Alzheimer’s might not seem like a good idea for someone who is depressed, but it always helps me to get outside of myself when I’m in a funk. Maybe I can bring a little sunshine into her life. Sometimes when I’m in this dark place it helps to listen to Iris Dement singing “My Life.”
My life, it don’t count for nothing.
When I look at this world, I feel so small.
My life, it’s only a season:
A passing September that no one will recall.
But I gave joy to my mother.
And I made my lover smile.
And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting.
And I can make it seem better for a while.
My life, it’s half the way travelled,
And still I have not found my way out of this night.
An’ my life, it’s tangled in wishes,
And so many things that just never turned out right.
But I gave joy to my mother.
And I made my lover smile.
And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting.
And I can make it seem better,
I can make it seem better,
I can make it seem better for a while.
Come back on Wednesday for news about a new chapbook (not mine) and a chance to win a booklover’s gift package. See, things are already looking up….
June is National Poetry Month. I’ve been enjoying my friend Karissa Knox Sorrell’s “poem a day” posts, and decided to post my one and only published poem today. The icon of Christ known as “Extreme Humility” was published with the poem and was also an original of mine. (The poem was published online at USADEEPSOUTH.COM.) #npm15
The Imperfect Peace
by Susan Cushman
O’Connor said it was Christ-haunted,
My home, the South.
Maybe that’s why
I can’t escape His hold on me,
Like Jacob, who wrestled with the angel.
Sometimes I want to run away,
From my roots,
From my God,
But neither will let me go,
And for that I am, at long last, grateful.
The angry child tries to escape
His father’s embrace,
And fights against
His mother’s love
Until, exhausted, he collapses in her bosom.
That’s where I find myself today,
At rest in the arms
Of Christ and the South,
Having at long last
Buried the sword and accepted the imperfect peace.
You can probably find links to more poetry posts on Twitter @POETSorg. The National Poetry Month poster is by Roz Chast.
Most of you probably saw Anita Singh’s article in yesterday’s The Telegraph (UK) or other articles on the subject, or at least some posts about it on Facebook:
There are so many things wrong with this that I hardly know where to begin. First—in case you don’t click on the link and read the article—the gist of it is that authors who self-publish with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Select will be paid based on the number of pages read rather than the number of books downloaded.
If warning lights aren’t going off in your head right now you must be taking a noonday nap to escape the heat. My first reaction was, “How do they know how many pages I’ve read?” The whole Big Brother thing just keeps getting creepier. And how does that affect those of us who like to read more than one book at a time? When you stop reading one and don’t pick it up back for several days, does the Kindle-counter think you gave up on the book?
But beyond that, the obvious arguments are being batted about all over social media today, this one being a favorite:
So, at a restaurant I should only pay for the food I eat, not the food I order?
There are endless applications to this argument:
Should the price of clothes be dependent on the number of times we wear them?
Should the price of a CD be determined by how often we listen to it?
Should the mortgage (or rent) on our living spaces be defined by how many hours a day we spend there?
The new system begins on July 1. I wonder how it will affect Kindle users. I don’t have any self-published books on my Kindle, so it won’t affect my reading. (I actually haven’t read a book on my Kindle in many months.)
“Advances” in the world of technology always bring new challenges. This one will be interesting to watch.
Did you know that June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month? If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you know that my mother has Alzheimer’s. And her mother had Alzheimer’s. So I’m third generation in line for this awful disease. If I follow their paths, I’ve got about ten years until the twists and tangles make a significant impact on my brain. And in twenty years I might not recognize myself or others. This scares the shit out of me. And it doesn’t help that I’m not alone. An estimated 5.3 million Americans already have the disease. So, until we learn how to prevent, cure or slow it down, America needs to at least learn how to make our country easier to navigate for folks with dementia.
Knoxville, Tennessee is a leader in this movement. In yesterday’s Parade Magazine, Paula Spencer Scott has a feature called, “People Power: How grassroots campaigns are easing the burden of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s—and improving patient quality of life.” Kathy Broggy, activity director for an eldercare company in Knoxville, is leading the charge. She got the idea from communities in Europe where where shopkeepers and other city workers are being trained to interact with people with dementia to provide help to them.
This is something I hadn’t thought about before. I’m so focused on care for Alzheimer’s patients once they are in a facility—like my mother—that I haven’t given much thought to the fact that millions of people with early Alzheimer’s and dementia are trying to navigate the world outside their homes with so much difficulty. They could use some help. I can see how small towns and communities could make this work, but I’m really impressed with the city of Knoxville for initiating efforts in this area.
The article also talks about other initiatives, like the simple idea of placing special stickers—purple angels—on Alzheimer’s patient’s wristband next to their name when they are admitted to the hospital to alert healthcare workers to their special needs.
Read the article for more inspiration. The Baby Boomers are in our 60s and 70s now, so we will be transitioning from roles of caregivers to patients in the coming years. Our children will inherit a national epidemic of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Here’s hoping more cities like Knoxville will be ready to help.
This will be my final post of reflections from Jonathan Jackson’s book, The Mystery of Art. Links to previous posts can be found within my last post from his book, if you’re interested. It’s here:
Yesterday I read the final chapter of his book, “Rejoice, O Artists.” I was curious as to where he would go with this, as he had earlier embraced the reality of the artist as self-destructive and deeply tormented:
Artists do not feel balanced or normal. Nobody becomes an actor, painter, writer, musician, or dancer to play it safe (or make a steady income).
He went on to talk about tortured souls, but also how artists have the choice of transforming their suffering and giving it meaning. One result of transforming that suffering is what Jonathan speaks to in this final chapter.
Every artist becomes infused with joy about his or her artistic pursuit—whether it is music, poetry, acting, directing, painting, sculpting, writing, dancing, or any other expression. The artist is overwhelmed by the joy of this mystery. But with this exuberance comes the inevitable suffering at the very hands of one’s passion.
I found this to be true when I was painting icons, and I experience it in a very different way with my writing. Painting icons is liturgical work. It is (or should be) selfless work, done for the sake of the Church and fellow believers who embrace icons as a spiritual tool to enhance prayer and worship.
Writing can also be selfless work, if one is writing for others. I’m trying to think of examples of this and mostly I come up with those who write spiritual books and perhaps self-help and psychology books. But then I think of the volumes of medical journals without which no one could learn to be a physician, and the idea of selfless writing is suddenly expanded in my thinking.
I don’t consider my own writing as selfless. Of course I hope that it blesses others, but I admit that’s not my primary goal. Perhaps it should be. My goal is to produce art of such a quality that it brings a strong reaction—emotional, psychological, intellectual—to the reader. The reaction I hope for isn’t always positive, as some parts of my writing are dark and call for a strong negative reaction. But in the end I hope to include an element of redemption in my work.
Back to the theme of JOY in the artist’s work:
There are two kinds of spiritual and creative fire. One fire brings temporary joy (or happiness) but eventually leads to sorrow and death. The other kind of fire is divine communion, which is everlasting and unquenchable joy. This fire burns and wounds initially, but eventually leads to ecstasy and everlasting life.
I can relate to the temporary joy that comes with creative fire. The excitement that causes me to jump up out of my chair and throw a fist pump into the air and shout, “Yes!” when the words are flowing beautifully onto the page. The thrill of seeing those words published. The delight of reading those words at a book-signing and inscribing the books for those who purchase them. It’s the second kind of fire that I often lose sight of when I’m caught up in this temporal realm. Jonathan gives a warning to artists who focus completely on themselves and their work and leave God out of it:
God has given incredible gifts to His children, but what happens to the artist when he falls in love with the gifts of creation instead of the Giver of Life? The gifts, which are beautiful in and of themselves, betray his heart and leave him unfulfilled and lost.
His words bring to mind Romans 1:25: “…for they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator….” I’m sure my own pride gets in the way as much as it propels me forward with my writing. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and one I don’t even always aspire to. Again, Jonathan’s words help me:
The artist is not merely speaking words—after all, words are only shadows and indications of what one experiences with God. She is contemplating something otherworldly. Every transcendent delight of this age—romance, having children, witnessing a beautiful sunset, and so on—is only a shadow of an eternal joy.
Rejoice, O Artists!
Most authors already know this. Many readers might be interested to know that getting a book published is often a difficult, long, drawn-out process. A few examples from my own (recent) experience and several of my writing buddies’ stories:
In February I pitched an anthology proposal to the editor of a university press. He showed interest immediately, and I followed up with a formal proposal. We exchanged a couple of emails, one phone call, and then the waiting began. We spoke again yesterday and finally—four months after my initial contact with him—he’s ready to do an advance contract and send my proposal out for peer review. Next step will be the editorial board. Finally the real work of gathering, editing and organizing the essays will happen. And then the draft of the book will go through the same process—peer review and editorial board approval. After that the final editing, cover design, marketing plan, etc. will come into play. My guess is the book will come out in 2017. This process is without an agent or involvement with the large publishing houses.
The novel, on the other hand, is still undergoing my third major revision. I hope to send it back to the agent by the end of July. She and her staff will read the new revision and either (1) ask for more revisions, (2) possibly involve another editor, or (3) sign a contract with me and start working to sell the book to a publisher. Then the editing process will begin all over again, this time with the publisher’s editorial staff. I’m sure cover design and marketing will come into play at a much later date. I think I will be lucky to have this book out in 2017 and I began writing it in 2010.
I have three writer friends who are in various stages with their work right now. One is working with another university press and has finished all the editing and is moving towards having advance reader copies in her hands. (She already has two published books.) A second friend (who has one published book) is working with a hybrid press and is about to have the cover design and advance reader copies of her second book, with a launch date in late July. The third friend (who already has published a book, an anthology, and numerous published short stories and essays) is in the query process for her novel. Several agents are reading it and another just asked for an “exclusive,” which she wasn’t able to give since other agents were already reading it, but the agent still agreed to read it. My friend is learning how to negotiate this process.
All this to say that writing isn’t only about writing. Unless you are only writing a private journal. The publication process is indeed a long and winding road.
Memories aren’t always happy. Or mentally healthy. But the ones I’ve been having all weekend as my husband and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary have brought joy and laughter, which is a good thing. When we got married—on June 13, 1970—we were barely 19 and 21 years old. Our families didn’t have money. We were married in a Presbyterian Church and had the reception in the fellowship hall, serving only cake, punch, and mints. Our budget was $500, the amount my father (humorously) offered us to elope and save my mother the stress of putting on a wedding. It’s amazing I passed all my classes that spring, since our wedding invitations were late coming from the printers and I ended up addressing them while studying for final exams. And in typical Effie (my mother) style, Mom had sent me the Jackson phone book, in which she had highlighted all the people she wanted me to invite. 400 invitations. 3.25 GPA. Not bad, huh?
Bill’s grandfather gave us money—I think it was either $100 or $150—for our honeymoon. (He had given us his wife’s engagement ring already—they were married for over 50 years when she died.) Anyway, $150 went a lot farther back in 1970 than it does today! We booked two nights at the Broadwater Beach Hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi, but we wanted to stay in Jackson the first night, so Bill got us a room at a Holiday Inn in South Jackson, which would be on the way to the coast the next day.
As fate would have it, a bunch of kids from the University of Arkansas were staying at the same hotel for some event. Our room was right by the swimming pool, where those same kids were partying late into the night. So, on what should have been the most romantic night for newlyweds, we kept hearing a bunch of drunk Razorback fans calling the hogs:
Woooooooooo, Pig ! Sooie!
Woooooooooo, Pig ! Sooie!
Woooooooooo, Pig ! Sooie!
This is what it sounded like. It would have been bad enough for any newlyweds, but especially for us. Bill had just graduated (as Senior Class President) from Ole Miss two weeks earlier, where I finished my freshman year. I guess the only thing that could have been worse would be listening to “Roll, Tide!” all night!
The next day we headed down to the Broadwater Beach Hotel, which had received significant damage just ten months earlier at the hands of Hurricane Camille. But it had recovered enough to offer an old-beach charm. I always loved their lighted 3-par golf course, which was so much fun to play at night.
Dinner at nearby Mary Mahoney’s Restaurant was a highlight of our two-day honeymoon, offering the romance that was so badly lacking back at the Holiday Inn in South Jackson where the Razorbacks were partying.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast will always hold a special place in our memories, even with the multiple face-lifts it has received over the years, the most devastating, of course, being at the hands of Katrina, ten years ago this August. I’m sure we’ll revisit this place of our early memories again one day soon.
Tomorrow, on June 13, I will have been married to William Cushman for forty-five years. We were married by Rev. Jack Oates and Rev. James Turner at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Jack had been our minister while we were at Ole Miss, where he taught sociology and preached on Sundays at College Hill Presbyterian Church in Oxford, Mississippi. Jimmy was the youth pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, where I spent many nights at Bible studies and attended many teen retreats on weekends during high school.
My brother, Mike Johnson, was head groomsman (just home from a deployment to the Philippines, wearing his Marine Corps dress blues) and we had eight bridesmaids and eight groomsmen. Well, counting a Matron of Honor (Kathy Moore Kerr), a Maid of Honor (Jan Connors) and a Best Man (Tod Cushman). The bridesmaids ranged in age from 15 to 19. I had just turned 19 three months before the wedding. Most of the groomsmen were respectably in their twenties. (Bill and I were 17 and 19 when we started dating.)
We’re still in touch with many of our wedding attendants, although we only live in the same town with one of them—Troy Mashburn, who is pastor of the church where my husband serves as associate pastor. (Who knew, when these men were pursuing their degrees in business and medicine, and later their secular careers, that they would end up serving together as priests in the Orthodox Church?)
My cup runneth over as I think of the blessings—and the struggles—of these 45 years. We lived the first 18 of them in Jackson and the next 27 in Memphis. We adopted three children, and had at least one of them living at home from 1977-2001 (with a couple of extended boomerang visits since then).
We’ve travelled together to many states including Alaska and Hawaii, and also to Australia, Canada, England, Italy, Germany, Monaco, Greece, the Czech Republic, Austria, Mexico, Bermuda and the Bahamas. What’s left on our “bucket list” for travel? Paris! It didn’t work out to go this year, but we’re hopeful for 2016.
What have we learned during these forty-five years of married life? (This is my blog, so I guess I can only speak for myself. I’m sure Bill would have a lot more to say!) A few reflections:
Love is something you decide to do. It’s not an emotion, although it’s wonderful when the feelings are also there.
Love can’t last without forgiveness. We are fallen human beings and we are going to hurt each other. But forgiveness can enable us to heal and move forward.
Trials can either make or break a marriage. When I survived a life-threatening wreck two years ago next month, my husband became the most amazing caregiver anyone could want. I feel back in love with him all over again. During the months that I was essentially house-bound, I waited eagerly for his return from work each day. The best part of my day was when he would bring our supper into my office (where I was sleeping on a hospital bed) and sit in the chair beside me and eat with me and tell me about his day. I felt like we were newlyweds in many ways.
Your spouse can’t always be your best friend. I think women especially need best friends. My best friends aren’t in any way a threat to our marriage. They strengthen it.
A marriage isn’t made up of two halves. It’s two wholes. Each person in a marriage needs room to become the complete person we’re meant to be. Only then can we bring our whole selves to the relationship. I think this is especially important for wives who traditionally have seen their role as somehow “completing” their husband and being completed by him.
When I started writing this post I thought it would just be a paragraph or two and then I’d include a lot of photos from our wedding. Guess I’m just in a reflective mood. And happy and thankful to have shared 70% of my life with this wonderful man.
When I started writing my novel, Cherry Bomb, about five years ago, I decided to write it in present tense. Not sure why—maybe I had heard that it would give the story more immediacy, or maybe it was just a fad. Both of those and other reasons writers are choosing present tense these days are discussed in this article from Writer’s Digest, which is excerpted from On Writing Fiction by David Jauss.
Present tense seemed to be working fine for me until today. Today I finished re-structuring the novel (with suggestions from editors) so that most of the flashbacks have been removed and most of the book is now in chronological order. So, the childhood events of the two main characters are now in the early chapters of the novel, and they just sound wrong in present tense because, well, those characters are no longer children. I began to edit those early chapters—changing over to past tense—and suddenly it read better.
I got up and pulled several novels I like off one of my bookshelves to check the tense. All were written in past tense. And so I continued the tedious process of changing the tense in my novel, line after line. I only made it through a few chapters today, so it’s still a work in progress. And of course I’m doing more revising as I go. This part of writing isn’t fun, but it’s necessary to make the book better.
Another article I read (this one by a freelance novel editor) encourages the writer to take the reader into consideration when choosing the tense for a novel. She says that many MG (Middle Grade) and YA (Young Adult) readers like present tense because they’re used to it and it’s trendy for writers in those genres, but that most adult readers seem to prefer past tense. She also says that as an editor she sees far more mistakes in the writing in present tense novels than in those written in past tense. Present tense is just tricky.
Now that I’m learning how much trouble it is to go back and change the tense of the entire novel once it’s written, my advice is to be absolutely sure you know which tense you want before you start! But of course writing—like most art—is a fluid activity, and sometimes you just have to learn by doing. So here I go… back to work.