In the September 2016 (yes, it’s out in June) issue of Writer’s Digest, there’s an interesting “inkwell” column called “Scout’s Honor: What is a literary scout, anyway?” by Stephanie Stokes Oliver. Got my attention right away.
Evidently these literary scouts act as liaisons between authors and literary agents, editors, and publishers. I know, right away you’re thinking, “oh, no, another middle man.” Since I’ve been querying agents for my novel for several years now, and directly querying independent presses for several months for my essay collection (and now for my novel), I share your pain. What can a scout do for me? Who do they work for?
In addition to scouts who work for literary agencies and Amazon’s Kindle Scout program, there are also scouts who work directly for publishing houses, like Oliver, who wrote this article in WD. She works for Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books. You can read her submission guidelines here.
Oliver’s submission process for nonfiction books (she doesn’t work with fiction) is very similar to many agents’ guidelines—she requests a book proposal and sample pages. It would only take me about ten minutes to whip these off to her via email, and maybe I will. Or maybe I’ll wait until I hear back from a couple of small presses who are currently reading my essay collection. It’s definitely something to consider.
If you’re interested in finding a literary scout, how do you go about it? That seems to be the tricky part. They seem to be “out there” looking for good writing, so watch what you put on your personal blog, and keep submitting essays to journals, which they might be reading in search of a new author. New York-based Maria B. Campbell Associates (MBCA) Inc. has scouts working for publishing houses in 19 countries but their website says they don’t accept unsolicited proposals or manuscripts, so it seems that their scouts have to find us, rather than the other way around. I hadn’t even heard of literary scouts until I read this article, but they’ve been out there for quite a few years, as evidenced by this 2009 article by Emily Williams, who used to be a scout for MBCA.
Just when you thought the publishing business couldn’t get more complicated, you discover a “secret world” of people competing for a piece of the pie. I’m just trying to keep up.
Orthodox Christians—those who make some effort to keep the fasts of the Church throughout the year (including no meat, dairy, fish, or alcohol on Wednesdays and Fridays) look forward to the few “fast free” weeks on our calendar. Like this week—the week after Pentecost. As you know if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, I struggle to embrace the Church’s rules for fasting. But I have recently made a small effort with the Wednesday-Friday fast. Even abstaining from meat OR dairy OR alcohol on those days is a bit of an ascetic struggle for me. It’s not so much that I’m a glutton or a drunk—although I’ve been both of those things at times—as it is that I don’t like to follow rules. I like to be in charge of myself. To have at least the illusion of control of my life. (And I do realize that it’s mostly an illusion.)
So when I realized this week was fast-free, I must admit that I’ve been enjoying it a bit more than usual. Like today, when I have plans to go to my favorite restaurant with a Goddaughter who is visiting from out of town. I’ll have a cocktail and fish, and I might even enjoy them a bit more because of having denied myself those pleasures on several Wednesdays and Fridays recently.
If this still sounds like a bunch of silly rules to those of you who have never followed a religious fast, try thinking of it in terms of fasting and feasting, and the contrast they bring to our lives. What if it was Christmas every week? Do children whose parents buy them toys every day or every week enjoy Christmas or birthdays as much? Do they get used to receiving these treats as ordinary, making them less special on days of celebration?
I was thinking about my own childhood recently, and how it was a treat to eat out at a restaurant. And fast food chains like McDonald’s didn’t have drive-thrus until the 1970s. Today many families with small children use fast food restaurants and drive-thrus on a daily basis. It is no longer a special treat because it has become commonplace.
I can remember the years I did work hard to keep the fast during Great Lent, and I admit that the food and drink on Pascha (Easter) tasted better than usual. Maybe our bodies need these cycles as much as our psyches do.
So, if you’re Orthodox and you keep the fast, I hope you are enjoying this fast-free week. And if you’re not, maybe I shed some light on this ancient practice and how it fits into our spiritual, physical and emotional lives. Have a great weekend!
My mother died one month ago today. No more tangles and plaques. Hospice Ministries of Mississippi called yesterday to ask if I wanted to receive a brochure about grieving, and to say they regret that I’m too far away to participate in their grief counseling sessions. I assured the woman who called that I did most of my grieving a few years ago when my mother no longer recognized me. And a healthy amount of crying in her hospital room. At this point I’m truly at peace that my mother is no longer suffering with Alzheimer’s and that she is in heaven with my father. The grieving process is different for everyone.
And so when a publisher emailed me on Monday requesting my manuscript, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, I told him that I needed to revise the introduction and add a new final chapter, because Mother was no longer battling the tangles and plaques. I had queried this publisher a few months ago, when the final draft of the anthology had been written before Mother’s death. There are now three publishers reading the manuscript. Fingers crossed!
So this is my writing “assignment” for today—to revise the manuscript. It seems appropriate, on this one-month anniversary of her death. Time to write a new ending.
While waiting for the anthology I edited—A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be—to come out from Mercer University Press (next spring), I find myself noticing “second bloomings” everywhere I look. In the email updates I receive from Richard Rohr, whose writings on the second half of life were part of the inspiration for my book. In the real lives of some of the contributors to the anthology as they continue to bloom, like 82-year-old Sally Palmer Thomason, whose book launch I attended last week, and Emma Connolly, whom I visited at her needle and craft shop in New Orleans recently, where she is happier than she’s ever been. These women and many others are thriving in their second or third acts.
And then there are the celebrities. Watching the Tony Awards the other night, I couldn’t help but find joy in the continued success of “women of a certain age.” And then there’s the cover story for the June/July issue of AARP the Magazine, “21st Century Leading Ladies,” featuring Alfre Woodard (63), Jane Fonda (78), and Sharon Stone (58).
Fonda took some time off from acting to do a “life review,” spending five years deciding what to do next, having retired from acting in 1991. Comparing life to the theater, she observed that “the final act is the one that can make sense of the first two.” She returned to acting in 2005 and hasn’t stopped yet.
Woodard talks about her life as an actor in terms of how to use her talent: “What people are calling my gift is my ability to surrender what is there for absolutely everybody. What we call our talent. We surrender to different talents. And that’s the decision.” It’s almost as if she’s calling on all of us not to squander the talents we have that need to be shared, which is what so much of art is about—making the personal universal. I feel this pull in the very small universe of this blog and my own writing projects, but also in the choices I make about how to spend my personal time—reaching out to others, nurturing my marriage, taking care of my health, loving being a grandmother.
Stone, who is perhaps best known for her sexy role in Basic Instinct and her continued svelte body and good looks, survived a near-fatal massive stroke in 2001. She spent two years teaching herself to read again, and learning to walk without a limp and talk with stuttering. At 58, she says, “just being alive is pretty exciting.” But my favorite quote from the article is her description of her professional life since her stroke: “I didn’t have enough stamina to hit a home run. In the game of life, you just have to be able to hit single after single after single.”
I don’t think Stone meant that no one should try to hit one over the fence. In my own work, I’ve been striving for a home run with my novel for over five years, but I’ve recently begun to focus on my complete body of work (over fifteen published essays) instead of hanging all my hopes on having my novel published by one of the big houses. Stone’s positive attitude has helped me look at those essays as my way of hitting singles. Even now, as I strive to find my “next big thing” to write, I wonder if I should quit obsessing over another novel and just write some more essays and see where it leads. I’ll close with these final words of wisdom from Stone:
I’ve stopped questioning everything, and that gives me a lot more room to breathe. I think it’s just getting comfortable in yourself—in everything, but certainly the work.
One of the largest icons at our parish, Saint John Orthodox in Memphis, is of the Feast of Pentecost (at left), which we will celebrate this coming Sunday. Art, poetry, and music are all important aspects of the spiritual world for me, so I’m going to share a bit of art and poetry with you today in anticipation of the feast on Sunday.
Whatever your spiritual tradition, I hope that these images and words will bring peace and joy, which are fruits of the Holy Spirit—the One we celebrate at Pentecost. (To see a slide show of all the icons in the nave at Saint John, click here.)
Note the first poem mentions a “maid,” which refers to the Mother of God. I’ve included an icon of Pentecost in which she is seated with the apostles.
The Icon of Pentecost
At the Church’s birth,
Licked clean by flames of Spirit
Maid and Apostles in horseshoe
Make sweet maternal crib
In whose dark cave
The World, that Old King,
Waits with a swaddling cloth.
Frances Hall Ford
Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.
Yesterday morning before leaving New Orleans, I finished reading Katherine Clark’s novel, The Headmaster’s Darlings, which I enjoyed immensely. I bought the book for two reasons: (1) It was published by the University of South Carolina’s new fiction imprint, Story River Books (whom I dreamed of as a publisher for my novel before they closed their submissions); and (2) Pat Conroy was the editor of this new press, and wrote the Foreword. After Pat’s untimely death in March, I couldn’t help but wonder if his words in this Foreword were the last of his writing to be published. So I feel that I own more than a wonderful new Southern novel, but also a piece of literary history. As Clark says in her Author’s Note and Acknowledgements at the back of the book—which were written before his death:
There are several people responsible for making sure that what I’ve written has a public life. The first is the unbelievable person who got this book into print. His name is Pat Conroy. He read my novel when it was still just a Kinko’s manuscript…. I suspected from having read Pat’s novels many times that he possessed a soul as large and generous as that of my teacher [about whom the novel was written].
I teared up as I read these words on the very last page of the book, in the “About the Author” section:
Clark is currently collaborating with Pat Conroy on his oral biography, also forthcoming from the University of South Carolina Press.
I wonder if they finished the interviews.
Before I share a few thoughts about the book itself, I’ll share some of what might be Pat Conroy’s last published words, from the Foreword:
All cities have their secret venues known only to insiders or the native born.
[Note: This reminds me so much of the opening line in my favorite novel of Pat’s, The Prince of Tides: “Geography is my wound.”]
Every Southern City has its own splendid enclave of privilege where the very rich build their mansions in earthly paradises that block most intrusions from the rowdiness and havoc of the outside world. Katherine Clark grew up in the magical kingdom of Mountain Brook, a forested chapel of ease that looks like God’s own dream of a suburb. It is Alabama’s answer to the Garden District in New Orleans, or Atlanta’s Buckhead or Charleston’s South of Broad.
Having visited all three of those storied neighborhoods recently, I can embrace the sense of place these authors have mastered. Conroy goes on to describe the setting for Clark’s book—a private school, which is blessed with an amazing teacher (and later headmaster) who changes his students’ lives by introducing them to art and culture, makes them look honestly at history, and loves them as they are. His Foreword ends with these words:
Katherine Clark will write her name in the book of great Alabama writers, and she will long be remembered as the creator of Norman Laney, the greatest portrait of an American teacher I have ever read, immortalized, as I believe he richly deserves, by one of his gold girls, one of his darlings. Here’s how good this book is—for the rest of my life I will also be one of Norman Laney’s darlings.
I’m not going to write an actually review of the book. If you’d like to read one, I recommend Don Noble’s review at Alabama Public Radio and author Patti Callahan Henry’s interview with Katherine Clark in Deep South Magazine. All you need to hear from me is that I’m a slow reader but I finished the book in less than week, most of which time I was in New Orleans, where there were plenty of other things to do! (But since Katherine Clark taught college for thirteen years in New Orleans, I did feel a connection with her while I was there.)
Clark’s voice, as well as her finely tuned sense of place, reminded me of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Because The Help was written about my hometown (Jackson, Mississippi) I could identify closely with much of the setting and the story. I’ve only visited the Birmingham area briefly once or twice, so the Mountain Brook society wasn’t familiar to me before reading the book. But by the end of the last chapter, I felt I had lived there. The setting becomes another character, as equally delicious as headmaster Norman Laney and each of his “darlings” and their parents.
I’m hooked now. Looking forward to reading Clark’s next novel in the Mountain Brook Series, All the Govenor’s Men, and its sequel, The Harvard Bride. Kudos to the University of South Carolina Press for these new offerings of Southern literary.
Someone on Facebook wrote a poignant post yesterday about the mass shooting in Orlando. Her point was that when the attack happened in Paris last year, it was all over Facebook, with Americans showing solidarity with Paris through their posts, and yet the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history happens and Facebook seems quiet, merely full of everyone’s happy posts about their vacations and celebrations, which is certainly what I’m guilty of. This person’s words were sobering and caused me to stop and think about how we respond to such a tragedy. Have these events become so common place that we are numb to them?
Those thoughts were on my mind yesterday afternoon when I went to the World War II Museum here in New Orleans. We watched a terrific film before touring the museum, and the sheer numbers of deaths in so many countries was mind boggling. So what’s the relationship between a mass shooting and World War II? What struck me was this: evil.
How did the Orlando shooter, with his known history of mental instability and vocal messages of hate go unchecked? What can be done BEFORE someone like this has reached his boiling point and killed 50 people? What could have been done to check Hitler and prevent him from creating an army to carry out his hateful agenda, which eventually cost the world millions of lives to stop his crusade?
I don’t have any answers, but I pray for our leaders who might be in a position to do something about this culture of hate that has become so pervasive in our country, and all over the world.
And about those vacations and celebrations…. My husband and I didn’t cancel our trip to Paris last month in the wake of the terrorist attacks there, and we are celebrating our 46th wedding anniversary (today) here in New Orleans, where we’ve enjoyed dining at terrific restaurants, museums, shopping, and site-seeing in a city that knows how to celebrate life.
Yesterday at brunch at Commander’s Palace, our son (who lives here) asked the band to play “I’ll Fly Away” when they stopped at our table, and I thought about my mother who “flew away” to Heaven a couple of weeks ago, and about everyone who embraces a spiritual path that includes the hope of a better life after death. I wondered if the victims in the night club in Orlando had time to hope, to embrace the possibility of an eternity beyond the terror and evil of the moment. I imagine that most of them did not have that time, with the killings happening so quickly. One text message to family that was shared on the news indicated that the victim was hiding in the restroom and the killer was in there and he was about to die. I hope that in his final moment he was able to grab hold of hope. I hope that he was able to fly away.
Meanwhile, we continue to celebrate, refusing to let evil and hate rule our lives. Today is our last day in NOLA, and we’re looking forward to our final anniversary dinner tonight before driving home tomorrow. Thank you, New Orleans, for a wonderful time!
I woke up this morning at 5:45 a.m., probably because we left the curtains open with our lovely view of the Mississippi River from our corner room at the Riverside Hilton in New Orleans, and the sky was putting on a light show that culminated with a brilliant sunrise. The beauty of it drew my heart to prayer. To seek God in the morning, which is a common practice in the Orthodox Church, and I’m sure in many other spiritual traditions.
I followed up my morning prayers with a trolley ride down to the French Quarter for beignets at Café Du Monde, and a little bit of browsing a few shops. While waiting for the trolley to return for my trip back to the hotel, the sky put on another light show, which was made even better by the presence of these two ladies in dresses and heels, hats and parasols. It looked like something out of the 1940s… or an Edward Hopper painting. I found myself again drawn to God just because of the sheer beauty of the morning and the scenery.
When I was a teenager, someone gave me this poem, “God in the Morning,” which has stuck with me for several decades. And now it appears again, with the information that it was probably written by a relative of my husband. Here’s how the poem just resurfaced in my life after so many years. It started with a funeral.
Funerals always seem to bring together random—or not so random—gatherings of friends and relatives from several generations. I love the serendipity of some of the connections that are often made at these gatherings. Like this one, which happened on May 24 at my mother’s funeral in Jackson, Mississippi:
My sister-in-law, Cathy Cushman Alexander (from Atlanta), was visiting with Derwood and Regina Boyles (of Jackson), whom she had never met. Derwood and my father were best friends from grade school in Jackson through rooming together at Mississippi State University and all through their adult lives. He and Regina were Mom and Dad’s go-to couple for ball games and other social outings. I love them both dearly. So… at the visitation for Mom’s funeral, they mentioned a poem to Cathy. It’s called “God in the Morning.” The reason they mentioned it was because it was written by Ralph Cushman, and Regina wondered if he was a relative of ours. (We’re still working on the connection, but it’s likely. Here’s some bio info on him.) Cushman was a Bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and wrote many books, including this book of poems, Hilltop Verses and Prayers.
God in the Morning
by Ralph Spaulding Cushman
I met God in the morning
When my day was at its best,
And His presence came like sunrise,
Like a glory in my breast.
All day long the Presence lingered,
All day long He stayed with me,
And we sailed in perfect calmness
O’re a very troubled sea.
Other ships were blown and battered,
Other ships were sore distressed,
But the winds that seemed to drive them
Brought to us a peace and rest.
Then I thought of other mornings,
With a keen remorse of mind,
When I too had loosed the moorings,
With the Presence left behind.
So I think I know the secret,
Learned from many a troubled way:
You must seek Him in the morning
If you want Him through the day!
Monday night at our monthly writers group, I asked the others in the group a question before we began critiquing manuscripts: “What’s next?” I wanted to know what each person was working on “next,” and how they got inspiration for their stories, essays, and books. It was a selfish request—I am struggling with what to start working on next, while still shopping out my novel and essay collection for publication. The question spawned an interesting discussion, and I came home more inspired, but still uncertain of what to write next.
I shared an article from the July/August issue of Writer’s Digest with a writing mentor/friend/neighbor the next day. “Art For Contemporary Writers” by Donna Baier Stein reinforced my desire to write about art. My writing mentor/friend/neighbor asked if I saw any particular painting while in Paris that inspired me to write a book about it. I haven’t really had time to go through my photos and notes and reflect on that, but I plan to. I’m also a bit intrigued by the flooding that happened only two weeks after we were walking along the Seine River and touring the Louvre…. Maybe there’s an art story there. I plan to follow Stein’s advice from the WD article:
Next time you’re ready to begin a new story, try seeking out a piece of art that speaks to you. Imagine the lives of the people portrayed.
Which is exactly what Tracy Chevalier did when she wrote about the 17th-century painting by Vermeer in one of my favorite books about art, The Girl With the Pearl Earring. And what Susan Vreeland did with Girl in Hyacinth Blue. And of course Pulitzer Prize winner Donna Tartt did this with The Goldfinch.
I actually started a novel about Jackson Pollack’s last painting, Red, Black and Silver, a couple of years ago, but something about it isn’t calling to me right now. Hopefully I’ll have some time to think about it in the coming weeks—especially tomorrow through next Tuesday when I’ll be in New Orleans with my husband! He’s speaking at a medical meeting and I plan to soak up the atmosphere, and maybe see some art. Another setting that inspires writing. And we have big culinary plans—as in eating, not cooking!
Meanwhile, since my post last week about agents vs. small/indie presses—which brought some great comments on the blog and especially on Facebook—I thought I’d give y’all an update. While there are still a number of agents out there who haven’t responded to my queries from this spring (well, actually from January-March), I’ve decided to go ahead and cast a wider net. Since last Wednesday I’ve queried seven presses who don’t require agents. One of them—Dzanc Books—is holding a contest, with the winning book receiving a $10,000 advance in addition to publication. Dzanc has a great reputation and attracts some excellent authors, like my friend Lee Martin, whose latest book, Late One Night, was just published by Dzanc. Most of these presses don’t give advances, so I’m giving up on the dream of making money from the book (unless I win Dzanc’s contest), which never was my main goal anyway. Fingers crossed and stay tuned for results… and also for what’s next.
In the early years, you fight because you don’t understand each other. In the later years, you fight because you do.—Joan Didion
That wonderful quote was featured in an article in the June 13 issue of Time Magazine, which came out a week early, of course. But June 13 is our wedding anniversary—we will celebrate our 46th next Monday. I was going to write this post on that date, but we’ll be in New Orleans, so I’ll probably just share a couple of photos next Monday.
The Time Magazine article, “How to Stay Married (and why),” by Belinda Luscombe, editor at large at Time, explores the institution of marriage from several angles. From a mental health point of view, many of us think, as Luscombe shares in her article, that marriage “should—and could—provide the full buffet of satisfaction: intimacy, support, stability, happiness and sexual exhilaration.”
Those benefits might not all be present in many marriages today, but research shows that while the long-married couples agree that marriage is hard, they also agree that it’s the best thing in their lives. Luscombe says:
For those who can stay the course, indicators that a long marriage is worth the slog continue to mount. Studies suggest that married people have better health, wealth and even better sex lives than singles, and will probably die happier. Most scholars agree that the beneficial health effects are robust: happily married people are less likely to have strokes, heart disease or depression, and they respond better to stress and heal more quickly.
Bill and I were young when we got married—I had just turned nineteen and he was twenty-one. And of course we’ve had our good times and our struggles, as anyone has if they stay together through all of life’s challenges. Luscombe offers suggestions for making this staying together business not only viable, but enjoyable. Referring to Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages, she encourages married couples to
figure out what specifically makes your partner feel loved. (According to Chapman, it’s probably one of five things: words, time, kindly acts, sex or gifts.)
I can see how Bill and I have learned this over time—especially the words, which I think we have turned from effort to habit, frequently saying things that build the other person up. And kindness is a huge deal as we grow older. It’s probably one of the words I would use to describe what I love most about my husband. Chapman’s next suggestion:
And the other is to learn to apologize—properly—and to forgive.
My pride keeps me from being the first to apologize sometimes, but I think we’ve both softened a great deal over the years and are much quicker to forgive, which is essential.
Another researcher says:
The most successful couples began to embrace one another’s interests.
There was a time when I resented my husband’s career. A successful physician and clinical trials researcher, he travels a lot and works from home when he’s here, which was hard when the children were still at home. I chose to be a stay-at-home mom for many of those years in order to provide some consistent parenting. Instead of being thankful for his successful career, I avoided talking about it. Many years later—after the children were grown—I began to show more of an interest in his work, and I couldn’t be prouder of him and what he is accomplishing. Whereas I once asked him about his work during dinner, out of politeness, I now ask out of genuine interest. And I believe his interest in my writing has also grown. These are not things that come naturally, as we are polar opposites in our career interests. On the other hand, it helps that we both love sports, music, theater, movies, travel, entertaining, and fine dining—all activities we are thankfully able to enjoy at this stage of our lives.
The last thing that Luscombe mentions in her article that caught my attention was this piece of wisdom, also from Gary Chapman:
Another helpful adjustment is to drop the idea of finding a soul mate. ‘We have this mythological idea that we will find a soul mate and have these euphoric feelings forever,’ says Chapman. In fact, soul mates tend to be crafted, not found…. And how do you make a soul mate? Practice, practice, practice.
The concept of a soul mate is one that I believe more women than men consider. Maybe that’s because of how we’re wired. As Luscombe says:
One of the more controversial ideas therapists are now suggesting is that men need to do more of the ‘emotional labor’ in a relationship—the work that goes into sustaining love, which usually falls to women.
In my parent’s generation, a good husband was someone who provided well for the family and was faithful to his wife. My generation has wanted more—sometimes to the detriment of relationships that might have grown into something sustainable without these expectations. I think there’s lots of wisdom in Luscombe’s article, and today I am so thankful that Bill and I stuck it out during the hard times. I can’t imagine not being married to him, and I miss him when he’s traveling. I was seventeen the first time I fell in love with him. This time it’s even better. I’m looking forward to as many more years as God allows us.