Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews 2

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERLast week I shared some sneak previews from a new anthology I edited, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, coming from University Press of Mississippi in May. Today I’ll continue with quotes from a few more authors who contributed essays to the collection. Enjoy!

 

Harrison Scott KeyI mean, who did I think I was? Who would want to read about me? The only real answer I could come up with: my mother. The other answer: this is a dumb question. Because everybody’s boring, and everybody’s interesting…. The better question: how do I map the expressionist strangeness of my inner life in a way that invites others to sit in the cockpit of my soul and soar through the atmosphere of me, which is the only me I’ve ever been and the only unique thing I possess anyway?—Harrison Scott Key, from “The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir: Then and Now”

Cassandra KingSo I write for all the usual reasons—can’t do anything but; have an over-active imagination; was raised in the South around great storytellers; have always loved books and reading; and am happier when writing than anything else in the world. But there’s another reason that’s become pretty obvious to me. Writing is in my blood. Somehow, of all the descendants of Josiah King, I was the one to inherit the genetic disposition, a great-granddaughter that he barely knew. I’m certainly a dreamer, and admit to being a bit of a fool. No other occupation but writing holds any interest for me. Grandpa King, it seems that a part of you is still alive in me.—Cassandra King, from “The Ghost of Josiah King”

Corey Mesler

 

Writing is a very real lifeline for me. I am standing on the island and I am saved by a line I throw out to myself. It might be grandiose to say that writing saved my life—certainly it did not in the dramatic fashion of poor Janet Frame, who was about to be lobotomized before her work was discovered—but without my little literary envois my life would be a diminished thing.—Corey Mesler, from “The Agoraphobic Writer”

Patti Callahan Henry

I create a world and then toss into that world a conundrum. Then I watch as I try to write my way out of it. I can ask: If I set this character up for a fall, what will they do? What will occur to save or harm them? I ask a question and then take it to the far extreme, watch it unfold into the future. Embedded within the inquiry, ‘What happens next?’ I believe there exists a hidden seed of hope, because no matter where we are (or where our character is), or how bad it is, something always happens next. This isn’t merely a question to spur the writing forward, but to enliven our days, to allow hope to infuse some of the darker times.—Patti Callahan Henry, from “What Happens Next”

Click on each author’s name to go to his or her web site and learn more about their books, which I hope you will buy and read! They are all amazing writers. And come back next week for more sneak previews!

#Lent2018: Patience and Perseverance

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300Following up on last Monday’s post, “#Lent2018: To Re-spond or De-spond?”… this week I’m continuing my reading in Nicole Roccas’ book Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, and also working with the Lenten reading guide she developed to go with the book.

In Week 1, Roccas encouraged us to find ways to exercise humility. In her “stepping stones for the journey” at the end of the selection, she asked the reader, “What is one way you’d like to try exercising humility this week, based on the readings?” My answer was, “by being honest with myself and others when I fail, especially in the areas of fasting and disordered eating.” I had the opportunity to confess a big fall this weekend, when my husband returned home from a trip around midnight Saturday night and I had experienced an eating binge and purge. But instead of hiding it and letting the failure and secret cause me to despond, I responded to God’s love and forgiveness by confessing it and forgiving myself. As a result, I was able to move on without despairing.

In Week 2, Roccas asks us to read sections of Chapter 2 and 3, as well as a section of Chapter 7, “Patience and Perseverance.” Here are two nuggets from that section that spoke to me:

Patience is a direct counterattack against the restlessness of despondency, which hastens us to the next task before we’ve completed what we started…. We have to be patient with despondency itself. Our first instinct, when the heavy stone of apathy settles in our stomach, is to drop what we’re doing and “fix” whatever has broken with us—we’ll stop folding the laundry or working and seek out the newest blog post, prayer, or experience that will put an end to the feelings we are having.

 

my "work cell"

my “work cell”

I’ve experienced that so many times, especially recently while working on the first draft of a new book, a task that is extremely difficult and sometimes tedious for me. Saturday afternoon I had spent just over an hour on this draft when the restlessness hit me. It was just such hard work, and there were much more fun things available—especially binge-watching Netflix and binge-eating, two activities which seem to feed off each other at times.
Because the second week of Lent includes the commemoration of Saint Gregory of Palamas, Roccas included a quote from his Treatise on the Spiritual Life in this section of the study guide. Here’s part of that quote:

A human being who does not endure courageously the unpleasant burdens of temptations will never produce fruit worthy of the divine winepress and eternal harvest….

Keeping my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard to continue drafting the new book was, at that juncture, my best defense against the “unpleasant burdens of temptations” (Netflix and food binges), but I caved. How could I have won that battle, and what can I do differently next time, because there will definitely be many next times?

Roccas addresses this in her section on “Stepping Stones of Patience”:

My "reading/editing/TV-watching chair"

My “reading/editing/TV-watching chair”

Get to know your cell(s). She is referring to the small space occupied by monks and nuns who live in monasteries, for the lay person, a cell can be a place where we work, live, serve others, etc. As Roccas says:

What is your cell, the space in your life you are responsible to occupy? You probably have many of them, according to different commitments or times of day: the work cell, the cleaning cell, the writing cell, the evening commute cell.

For me, the work cell is the same as the writing cell. And it’s where I should have stayed when I ditched it for the TV and food binge Saturday afternoon and evening. How could I have found the strength to stay put?

Stay put . . . for two minutes. When you feel like fleeing your respective cell, agree to stay put for a short period of time—two, five, or ten minutes to start with…. Say to yourself, “I will keep working on the current task for ten minutes and then check my email,”…. What we’re trying to combat is the impulsivity and mindlessness that bully us into despondent idleness.

 

my "exercise cell"

my “exercise cell”

I experience this same impulsivity when I’m on the elliptical, which faces a big screen TV in my office. My goal is to work out for 20-30 minutes. I turn on a one-hour TV show that I’ve recorded, so that works out to be 40 minutes of viewing without the commercials. I get on the machine and start exercising and watching. But often I don’t even make it to 20 minutes until I’m bored and stop exercising, walk the few feet over to my comfy yellow chair, sit down and continue watching the show without exercising! I feel like Roccas has given me a weapon against this idleness that I can use both while writing and exercising. If I can talk myself into working for two more minutes, or five, or ten, maybe that will breed encouragement and I’ll work even longer. I tried this on Sunday afternoon and it really helped. (P.S. Last week I started working out with a personal trainer at a gym near our house two days a week on the weight machines. At least this part of my exercise routine isn’t self-directed!)

The third thing Roccas says in this section is:

Do more things that require patience…. Read a section of a book, poem, or psalm aloud, slowly, not letting yourself skip over any of the words. Alternately take a walk but move at a snail’s pace or just stand still and look around.

 My version of this activity today was to sit in my other comfy chair (in the living room) and slowly read aloud a passage from Hebrews that Roccas quotes at the top of this page of her study guide. And then I just sat there quietly for about five to ten minutes, which is a lot longer than it sounds when you’re not doing anything—not reading, not sleeping, not watching TV. Try it and you’ll see.

So, for her “Stepping Stones for the Journey” question at the end of this week’s study guide, Roccas asks the reader:

What is one way you’d like to try exercising patience this week, based on the readings?

My answer:

I will try to keep working on my new book for a few minutes longer before stopping to get online or doing something else that’s easier and more fun. And I will try to keep working out on the elliptical for a few minutes longer before getting off to sit in my chair and watch TV. By God’s grace.

Thanks, always, for reading. Stay tuned as the Lenten journey continues, and please leave a comment here or on my Facebook thread.

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERIn just over two months, Southern Writers on Writing will be released by University Press of Mississippi. This is my fourth book to be published, and my second anthology to edit. You can read more about the book and see a complete list of contributors here. I hope you’ll purchase the book from your local independent bookseller, but if you don’t have one nearby, you can always get it here. (ready for pre-order) In the coming weeks I’ll publish a list of events where you can come for a reading/signing and meet some of the contributors, so please stay tuned!

book-trailersBetween now and then, I thought I’d give my readers some sneak previews, both here and on Facebook. Here in my blog I’m going to share several quotes from the essays contributed by the twenty-six southern authors each week during these ten weeks leading up to its release. Then on Facebook, during the month of April, I’m going to publish one quote each day.

 

I’ll open with a blurb from my friend and fellow author Neil White:

Neil WhiteThis is no stodgy how-to book. Southern Writers on Writing is over-flowing with good, strong voices—funny, caustic, compelling, and—yes—absurd. The writers Susan Cushman has assembled here understand this craft. They have endured the suffering that leads to great prose appearing so damn effortless. This collection is essential reading for emerging writers–as well as any fan of modern southern fiction.—Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

Next I’ll share quotes from the Foreword, the Introduction, and the first two essays. To find out the titles of the books these southern authors have written, just click on their names. Enjoy!

Alan LightmanThe chapters in this book span a huge range of topics in writing, from Clyde Edgerton’s tips for students of fiction writing to Lee Smith’s moving and vivid personal account of her life as a writer. What all of these southern writers share is a deep immersion in the literary imagination, the desire to live many lives. It would be hard to prove that southern writers experience literature any differently than do northern or western writers, and equally hard to prove that there is anything uniquely southern about the craft of southern writers…. That said, anyone who has travelled the country knows that the South has a unique characters and culture. That culture is absorbed in every square inch of skin of the writers who ever lived in the South, shapes their being, and can be seen in the particular stories they write.—Alan Lightman from the Foreword

In Southern Writers on Writing, twenty-six southern authors spill their guts on the art of their craft. Why is it important that they are southern? Do I feel that we have something to prove, or just something to offer? Maybe a little of both…. But this book isn’t just an attempt to show up the ignorance of those who would belittle the South. It’s a joyous celebration of our culture and the writers who bring it to life on the page as they create a contemporary canon of southern literature.—Susan Cushman, from the Introduction

jim_dees__squareOne starts writing for fun and stays for the passion. It is only in a writer’s later years that this vocation takes on a third dimension, as a lifeline to eternity; a way to remain on earth long after one has left it; an intruder back to the dust. Like those hairy gents in their loincloths, scratching away in their caves, writing might be viewed as a final, puny claim on immortality.—Jim Dees, from “Off the Deep End”

Joe Formichella

 

 

I see it in a lot of writers, from the interviews of the famous to the manuscripts of the less so, from Flannery O’Connor trying to convince us that there’s hope at the core of her writing to a first-time novelist who buried the lead that would garner him a six-figure advance on a two-book New York publishing contract eight pages in, that irreconcilable impulse to somehow explain your existence, defend your choices, or excuse your work, offering a reason why you write, with or without a challenge, if only for yourself. –Joe Formichella, from “Consider Kudzu”

#Lent2018: To Re-spond or De-spond?

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300Two weeks ago I mentioned a book I’m reading, Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, by Nicole M. Roccas. As I continue reading, I’m impressed with the timeliness of reading this book during Great Lent, which begins today for Orthodox Christians. Yes, today is “Clean Monday,” and the journey to Pascha (Orthodox Easter) actually began last night with Forgiveness Vespers in Orthodox churches all over the world. (For reminders about Clean Monday, check out my post from 2016, “Gifts From the Sea on Clean Monday,” and from my old blog, ten years ago: “Forgiveness Sunday and Kites on Clean Monday.”)

This morning as I continue reading Nicole’s book, Time and Despondency, I’m especially struck by the crucial place despondency plays in our Lenten journey. From her chapter, “Time and Despondency”:

TO RESPOND OR DESPOND?

As pointed out earlier, acedia—the Greek term for despondency favored by the theologians of late antiquity—connotes the absence of care. In regard to time, however, despondency also manifests itself as a lack of responsiveness. Actualized time consists of re-sponding, unfulfilled time of de-sponding. Both words—respond and despond—contain the Latin verb spondere: ‘to pledge, promise, or guarantee.’ To re-spond literally means to make a fresh promise. When we respond to God’s love, we are essentially re-promising, re-giving ourselves—offering back to God what was given to us….

On the other hand, to de-spond means to lower or cancel a promise. It implies an absence of, or movement downward from, promise. And when we move away from response, when we descend from the opportunity to offer ourselves back to God—who is substance and fullness—our only option is emptiness. Death.

I read these words several times this morning, asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten the eyes of my heart so that I could see what God was trying to say to me on this, the first day of Great Lent. I often dread Lent, rather than looking forward to this season with its greater number of (longer) church services and its stricter fasting program. But this year I feel a shimmer of hope—and the possibility of responding to the gifts God has for me during this season, rather than desponding, as I often do.

respond-to-gods-light

 

Having recently met with my father confessor for help with this next leg of my spiritual journey, I was given advice for embracing the fast in ways that encourage me to respond, rather than to despond. And as my husband—an Orthodox priest—blessed our home yesterday afternoon with prayers and the sprinkling of holy water on the walls in every room of our house while my Goddaughter Katherine, visiting from Gulfport, and I walked with him throughout the house chanting the verses for the house blessing, I felt my soul responding to this annual tradition with hope. Yes, I have hope that this next year, and especially this Lenten season, will be filled with blessings as I learn to respond to God’s love in ways that will affect my relationship with others and my struggles with my personal demons.

And so I say bring on the fast and the longer, more frequent church services with the darker vestments and minor key music. This year I hope to respond to all of this with love, and not with despair. May God bless.

P.S. After posting a link to this on Facebook yesterday, my friend Erin commented about Nicole’s Lenten Reading Guide she just published to go with the book! Here’s a link to it.

 

Book Clubs, Continued, and Working Title Reveal

Library Sign STOP ABERDEEN

Aberdeen, Mississippi

Ironincally, today I find myself visiting book clubs and even doing video chats via Skype and Face Time with clubs in other cities and states to discuss books that I have written. Most of the clubs I have spoken with are reading a lot of contemporary books, which I enjoy more than the classics. A couple of weeks ago I met with a group in my own neighborhood, here in Harbor Town on the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis. There were about eighteen women there, ranging in age from their thirties to their seventies (my guess) from all walks of life. Some were retired or stay-at-home moms. Others were still involved in busy careers at colleges and hospitals and other pursuits. They all read voraciously, and sixteen of the eighteen who were present at the meeting had read my novel Cherry Bomb. (The other two bought a copy of it from me after the meeting!) The discussion was intelligent—one woman even asked a question about a choice I made to introduce two characters by name early in the book and then never return to them later—a mistake I wish I could correct. They were enthusiastic about the book, which was rewarding for me as an author.

Friends of Library STARKVILLE

Friends of the Library, Starkville, Mississippi

 

ASB and CB w crownOf course the most exciting experience I’ve had with book clubs was speaking on two panels at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Nacogdoches, Texas last month. There are over 700 chapters of PQ book clubs all over the world, and their found, Kathy Murphy, reads a couple of hundred books a year to choose their monthly selections for the coming year. The anthology I edited, A Second Blooming, was chosen as their selection for February this year, and Cherry Bomb was chosen to be a “bonus book” for March. So hopefully there are lots of women reading these two books right now! I’ve already had two phone-chat meetings via Face Time with two of those book clubs (both in Texas) already, and I’ve got another one scheduled for next week with a group in Nevada! Gotta’ love technology.

At the library in Oxford, Mississippi: Ed Croom, Neil White, Gayle Henry, and Mary Ann Bowen

At the library in Oxford, Mississippi: Ed Croom, Neil White, Gayle Henry, and Mary Ann Bowen

I know I’ve blogged about my trips to the six Friends of the Library groups in small towns all over Mississippi last year (and I’ve got another one coming up on March 8 in Pontotoc and then one more on March 20 at the main library here in Memphis). They operate pretty much like most traditional book clubs, although they try to bring in speakers as often as possible, and they don’t always read the same book each month.
As much as I enjoy giving reads at bookstores and being on panels at literary festivals and conferences (and I LOVE doing both!), there’s something very intimate about being welcomed by a group of people who meet monthly to discuss books.

 

All this to say that although I haven’t been in a book club in many years, I am so thrilled to see this format for social and literary fellowship is thriving. Here’s what my schedule of meeting with book clubs in 2017 and 2018 looks like, so far. And I’m hoping to get invitations from more clubs as the year progresses! Contact me at sjcushman@gmail.com about visiting your book club in person or by Face Time!

August 29, 2017: Senatobia Library/Senatobia, MS

October 9, 2017: Friends of the Library/Eupora, MS

November 6, 1027: Women of St. John Orthodox Church/Memphis, TN

November 9, 2017: Friends of the Library/Starkville, MS

November 13, 2017: Book Club in Sugarland, TX (Face Time)

November 14, 2017: Friends of the Library/Oxford, MS

November 15, 2017: Friends of the Library/Aberdeen, MS

December 7, 2017: Friends of the Library/West Point, MS

January 4, 2018: Friends of the Library/Southaven, MS

February 6, 2018: Harbor Town Book Club/Memphis, TN

February 14, 2018: Rosemary Book Club/Ripley, TN

March 8, 2018: Friends of the Library/Pontotoc, MS

March 20, 2018: Books and Beyond, main library/Memphis, TN

October 1, 2018: Women of St. John Orthodox Church/Memphis, TN

And now for the “working title big reveal” …. My new work-in-progress is a collection of four to six (more or less) novellas or long short stories inspired by my visits to those small towns in Mississippi. Working title? FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY! Stay tuned….

Blessed Are… the Sermon on the Mount and the St. Herman House of Hospitality

maxresdefaultThis past weekend I was blessed to participate in a pre-Lenten retreat at St. John Orthodox Church, my parish here in Memphis. The topic was “The Sermon on the Mount: The Journey to the Kingdom of Heaven is a Staircase.” The speaker was H. Paul Finley, Director of the Saint Herman House of Hospitality in Cleveland, Ohio.

Howard with Deborah

Howard with Deborah

I’ve known Howard for many years. In fact, fourteen years ago he married my best friend from St. Peter Orthodox Church in Jackson, Mississippi, Deborah Callaway. It was a joy to have both of them with us this weekend.

Howard gave three talks during the weekend, but it was the first one, on Friday night, that really got my attention. Of course I’ve been familiar with the Beatitudes all my life. We actually sing/chant them during the Divine Liturgy every Sunday at St. John. I’ve always thought of them as something ethereal, poetic, and beautiful, but I’ve never seen such a practical application to my daily life until Howard’s talk.

He explained the beatitudes as “Eight Steps to the Kingdom of Heaven,” with applications/actions to our spiritual and active lives (which really shouldn’t be considered as separate lives.) The first four steps focus on work on our souls, for example:

Step 1: Blessed are the poor in spirit,

            For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

            (Recognize your spiritual poverty, your need for God.)

The last four steps focus on serving and impacting others, for example:

Step 5: Blessed are the merciful,

            For they shall obtain mercy.

            (As you have been shown mercy, show mercy, especially forgive.)

On Saturday Howard expanded these steps, giving us tools to embark on the journey with the right attitude, three spiritual exercises to stay in shape, emphasis on the importance of trusting God, and warnings, which he calls seven spiritual traps.

The three spiritual exercises weren’t new to me—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—as they have been taught in our church for many years. But the way he showed us to use them in our struggles against our vices was really wonderful. If you’ve been reading my blog very long, you know that I have struggled with disordered eating for most of my life, and also that I have problems embracing fasting as it is prescribed by our church. Howard’s words (he’s quite a preacher, by the way, so these notes do not adequately capture his inspired talks, which, coupled with his humility, were so truly life-changing) gave me hope that fasting could help me with gluttony. I’m including pictures of two of his slides here, so you can see how he organized these thoughts.

3 spiritual exercisesPrayer Fasting Alms chart

 

One week from today, Orthodox Christians begin Great Lent with Clean Monday. Western Christians (Catholics and protestants who observe Lent) start their Lenten journeys on February 14, Ash Wednesday. Orthodox Easter, which we call Pascha, will be celebrated on April 8 this year, whereas Western Easter is April 1, one week earlier.

St Herman HouseI look forward to joining all my friends in every religious tradition on our Lenten journeys this year. One thing I know we all have in common is the desire to serve, to help others. One way we do this is by giving alms. If you’re looking for a place to support that helps others in a wonderful way, please give to the Saint Herman’s House in Cleveland. They house around 40 men who would otherwise be homeless, and they also help with meals, clothing, and occupational counseling.

Here’s a video that shows more about this wonderful ministry.

 CLICK HERE to learn how to make a financial donation.

Thanks for reading! I look forward to hearing about YOUR Lenten journeys… please leave a comment here or on Facebook.

Don’t Quit Your Daydream

quote and peacockI’m still enjoying the quotes and stand my daughter-in-law See Cushman gave me for Christmas. Recently I selected this quote for the stand (which is right next to a peacock I painted at a shop in Denver a couple of years ago with my daughter, daughter-in-law, and three oldest granddaughters) and I walk past it whenever I leave through our back door: 

Don’t Quit Your Daydream

I Googled the phrase this morning, and discovered:

A Facebook page with inspirational podcasts,

A Nashville Film Festival winner,

And various other sites that use the phrase.

And today’s quote from A Woman’s Book of Inspiration, which was a Christmas gift from my daughter Beth Cushman Davis:

The secret of joy in work is contained in one word—excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.—Pearl S. Buck

As I continue with the first draft of a new book, I’ll be keeping both of these inspirational quotes in mind. They also remind me of the two amazing young women who shared them with me. Beth and See are both inspirations to me, not only because they are the mothers of my four fabulous granddaughters, or because they are beautiful and have successful careers, but because they understand the importance of drawing inspiration from other women as we move forward with our lives. I love you both!

Previous posts on these quotes:

 
Don’t Look Back

Bright Ideas and Inspirational Quotes

Courage and Hunger

Pre-Lenten Encouragement

TriodionIt’s been a couple of weeks since I blogged about my current (and life-long) struggle with disordered eating. (If you missed it, it’s here: “Courage and Hunger.”)

Since that post, I’ve made a spiritual shift that I’d like to share today. In the Orthodox Church, we are in a pre-Lenten period of the three weeks leading up to Lent known as the Triodion. The three Sundays in this time period, and the fourth Sunday, the day before Lent begins, are outlined here:

Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

Sunday of the Prodigal Son

Sunday of the Last Judgment

Sunday of Forgiveness

Many people take advantage of the Church’s intensified calendar (more services, longer services, stricter fasting guidelines, encouragement to give alms, special retreats and speakers, etc.) as a time to jump-start their spiritual lives. Taking a spiritual inventory, going to Confession, and working on “pet passions” that plague you are common activities during this time. I got a head-start this year, with a productive meeting with my pastor last week, and the healing sacrament of confession.

chocolateOne of the main things I went to my father confessor for help with is my ongoing struggle with the disordered eating I mentioned above, which has intensified since I quit drinking back in September. I’ve actually gained back seven of the fifteen pounds I worked so hard to lose last year. (I wrote about this struggle about a month ago, here: “120 Days.”) I shared with him my frustration that I couldn’t apply the same effort (and God’s grace!) that I use every day to not drink alcohol to disciplining myself regarding the junk foods that seem to have me in their grip. He offered me some encouragement—both spiritual and practical advice—and I’ve been praying about it a bit more. Somehow, today, I decided to throw away the rest of the fondue chocolates in the bag in my pantry and not buy any more. And at the grocery store the other day, I made the same decision regarding the kettle-cooked potato chips. I know the struggle isn’t over, but somehow making these decisions feels like a hopeful beginning.

In the area of spiritual food, Father encouraged me to “tithe my reading” this year, especially during Lent. I told him that I read almost 50 books in 2017, but only two were spiritual. Mostly I read memoir, literary fiction, and psychology/mental health books. So, 10% of 50 = 5, so I plan to read at least five spiritual books this year. I mentioned that I love Anthony Bloom’s books on prayer, and he agreed that they are a great place to start. I went to my “spiritual” book shelves and quickly found Living Prayer and Meditations on a Theme, both of which I read over twenty years ago.

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280And then I remembered that I had just gotten a new book, Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, by Nicole M. Roccas, which was just released last month. Nicole actually spoke at our women’s retreat at St. John Orthodox Church her in Memphis last year, but I was out of town and missed her talks. (She also has some wonderful podcasts, available here, on Ancient Faith Radio.) We’ve become friends on Facebook, and when I discovered her book I ordered it immediately. I started reading it today, and when I opened it, I found a quote on the page before her Acknowledgments by Anthony Bloom… and later quotes by Kathleen Norris. I knew right away we would be kindred spirits.

In the introduction, Nicole says:

I saw my despondency for what it truly was: a condition that robbed my entire self—body, soul, and spirit—of the freedom to dwell with Christ in love.

I immediately thought about Annie Grace’s book, This Naked Mind, which helped me quit drinking, because Grace talks about finding FREEDOM, although her approach isn’t spiritual. But truth is truth, and I believe God led me to read This Naked Mind as much as He has led me to Nicole’s book.

You might be wondering what despondency/depression has to do with disordered eating (or maybe you’re not wondering… maybe you already get it)… but for me, much of my junk-food addiction and binging have to do with depression. Nicole addresses this several places in the first chapter of her book:

Despondency has an infinite array of disguises and symptoms. Among the most universal signs is inner restlessness…. For still others, despondency begins as an inclination toward sleep, eating, distraction, or worry.

I probably have some degree of (undiagnosed) ADD… I’m always looking for some excitement in my life, and I get bored easily, which is a quick slide into depression. As Nicole says:

… we manipulate even necessary activities like sleeping and eating—normally peaceful and life-giving—to serve our apathy. They become desperate efforts to soak up the boredom leaking out of every orifice of life.

I’ve only just begun reading this book, but I look forward to continuing, and then to re-reading Bloom’s books on prayer. Oh, and to actually praying more. Even before we enter Great Lent. Stay tuned… I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this journey.

GRADLE BIRD: A Southern Gothic Jewel

J. C. and Susan at the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in January 2018

J. C. and Susan at the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in January 2018

I met J. C. Sasser at the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend last month in Nacadoches, Texas. She was on a panel with one of my favorite authors and friend, Nicole Seitz, and a new author-friend Brenda McLain. Their work was described as “southern gothic,” a genre that J.C. said she wasn’t familiar with until her work was described using the term. She was talking about her debut novel Gradle Bird.

After I got home from the weekend I looked up “southern gothic” to learn more about this genre. Here are a couple of definitions:

The stories often focus on grotesque themes. While it may include supernatural elements, it mainly focuses on damaged, even delusional, characters.

Benjamin Fisher’s definition of the literary Gothic as something that evokes “anxieties, fears, terrors, often in tandem with violence, brutality, rampant sexual impulses, and death,” and it becomes clear how the tradition of the Southern Gothic plays into already established ideas about the South as an “ill” region.

Gradle Bird coverWhen I was visiting with J.C. after the panel, I told her that I thought the protagonist of my novel Cherry Bomb, “Mare,” and her protagonist “Gradle” would be good friends if they knew each other. After finishing reading Gradle Bird this morning, I still believe they are kindred spirits, but they move in very different spiritual realms. Where Cherry Bomb’s pages are filled with weeping icons and art and graffiti and nuns, Gradle Bird’s are lush with ghosts and mental illness and the rural South’s unique brand of Christianity. Both books have plenty of darkness—abandonment, trauma, and what the author Anne Lamott would call “love in the intergenerational ruins.” And both have varying degrees of redemption for some of the characters.

As I read I couldn’t help but think of another author whose work captivated me a few years back—Haven Kimmel. Especially her books, Something Rising, and The Used World, and Iodine. Sasser, like Kimmel, captures southern noir with great depth and artistic skill. And of course there are obvious comparisons to be drawn to O’Connor, Lee, McCullers, and Faulkner.

Sasser worked as a dishwasher, waitress, and cook at truck stop off Georgia’s I-16 when she was twelve, so she comes by Gradle’s character and the book’s setting honestly. But I’d love to know how her amazing imagination came up with the Japanese fighting fish, the brilliant schizophrenic, and the ghost living in the attic. I won’t share more of the plot (no spoilers here) so you’ll have to read the book to experience Gradle’s wild and heart-rending adventures. It’s definitely worth the read! Congratulations, J.C., on a terrific debut novel!

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