Reading the Coffee Grounds

Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other StoriesReddick cover

by Niles Reddick

Book Review by Susan Cushman

As I write this review of Pulitzer nominee Niles Reddick’s latest short story collection, Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories, I am also taking a stab at working in this genre for the first time myself. As a novelist, memoirist, essayist, and anthology editor, writing short stories is a new experience for me. I’m in awe of how these stories seem to pour forth from Reddick’s pen in a way that appears so damn easy. But I’m also surprised as how much fun I’m having writing my own collection.

O. Henry said, “I’ll give you the whole secret to short story writing. Here it is. Rule 1: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule 2.”

I asked Reddick for his response to O. Henry’s “secret,” curious as to what it is that draws him to the genre. Here’s his reply:

“I was influenced by the short story genre as a college student and found my voice among the southern writers. The flash piece or short story is more in keeping with my work and family life from a time perspective, and as a reader, I love to read in this genre. I think short stories are making a comeback because of time.”

In this collection of forty-five (very) short stories, Reddick shows us why he is an award-winning author. His concise attention to detail, his equally gifted approach to the humorous and the grotesque—often combining the two—and his ability to make everyday events appear larger than life are all very much in the tradition of O’Connor and Welty. The stories in this collection could be called flash fiction, which, according to Writer’s Digest, can be defined as “complete stories of fewer than 1,500, 1,000, 500 or even 300 words.” Most of the stories in Coffee Grounds are less than 1,000 words. The writer’s challenge given this short span is to create a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying end, while imbuing the characters with depth. Some of these stories, like “First Pitch,” read more like an anecdote or sweet memory, without the conflict and resolution that’s typical and expected in longer stories and novels. Eudora Welty explains how this works:

“A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion – than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.”

For more to be suggested, every paragraph, every sentence, indeed every word, must be packed with action, emotion, details—everything necessary to draw the reader in and keep her attention, much like writing poetry. As Tobias Wolff says, “Everything has to be pulling weight in a short story for it to be really of the first order.” Ron Rash agrees, saying that “Short fiction is the medium I love the most, because it requires that I bring everything I’ve learned about poetry – the concision, the ability to say something as vividly as possible – but also the ability to create a narrative that, though lacking a novel’s length, satisfies the reader.”

How did Reddick accomplish these goals in this group of stories? His opening story, “The Last Word,” (my personal favorite and a great choice for an opener) follows a multi-layered protagonist and her fascinating journey as an author and caregiver. I wanted her to be real so I could read her stories! In what appears to be less than 600 words, we fall in love with Annis. We care about her deeply and we don’t want the story to be over.

Many of Reddick’s characters are eccentric (there’s that O’Connor trait), like the old man with Alzheimer’s who grabs a woman’s ass in Wal-Mart, the wet nurse who uses afterbirth as a poultice to heal injuries, and the librarian who puts down her cancer-ridden rescue cats by holding them underwater until they drown, and whose three husbands died mysteriously. Most of the stories are light-hearted, but some have serious themes, like “The Jog,” which is about a rape; “Mud Island Monorail,” which involves a near-death experience; “Staying Close,” a cautionary tale about child abduction; and “Sanctuary,” which deals with crack cocaine and suicide.

Raymond Carver says, “It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power.” The story that best shows Reddick’s use of this power might be “The Graduate Cabin.” The longest in the collection—probably over 2,000 words—this one delivers a powerful punch with details about a UFO and Bigfoot sighting, a lesbian Wiccan, a Korean Army vet who explains his farting with his love for kimchi, Joan Baez, The Indigo Girls, and a French psychic. All in one story!

This morning I read a poem by a fifth grader on Roger Housden’s site (published in Poetic Medicine, by John Fox). “Waiting in Line” opens with these words:

“When you listen you reach
into dark corners and
pull out your wonders.”

That’s how I felt reading the stories in Reddick’s book. Like I was “pulling out wonders” as I encountered the colorful characters he created and the sometimes ordinary and sometimes extraordinary things they experience. Maybe this is how one should feel when encountering good short fiction. George Saunders seems to agree:

“When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.”

Rebranding Prayer and Mindfulness Revisited

Last night I woke up at 1:30 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up, did some writing on the computer (not a good idea when Church Health Readerone is having trouble sleeping!) and then read for a while. Finally I went back to bed around 3:30 a.m., but my mind was still buzzing. The last time I looked at the clock it was close to 4 a.m. I remember falling asleep with the Jesus Prayer going through my mind and heart. Why didn’t I try that first, before getting on the computer and reading? Why didn’t I think to approach my insomnia and monkey mind with mindfulness?

Earlier in the evening I had gone to a different sort of book event. Two Memphis authors—Suzanne Smith Henley and Greg Graber—discussed their books at the first ever book reading and signing at Church Health Center at Suzannethe Crosstown Concourse. I went because of my friendship with Suzanne, whom I’ve known since 2011 when she attended a creative nonfiction workshop I led at the Fogelman Center on the campus of the University of Memphis. I was also in a writers group with Suzanne for several years, and I was honored to be an early reader for her book, Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New. I did a review of the book here on my blog back in March, and a review on Amazon, Rehab, Heart Attacks, and the Holy Spirit Riding a Harley.” It was fun hearing Suzanne talk about her book again, with her unique perspective on the use of prayer beads and what she called “rebranding prayer.”

GregGreg Graber is the head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School, and a mindfulness coach for the Memphis Grizzlies and several other sports teams. He spoke about his book, Slow Your Roll: Mindfulness For Fast Times. Greg also leads mindfulness workshops at the Church Health Center on Saturday mornings. His message about slowing down in this age of smart phones, tablets, and social media is timely and important, and can be incorporated into the lives of people of all faiths.

Suzanne and Greg were introduced by Dr. Scott Morris, founder and CEO of Church Health in Memphis, the largest faith-based healthcare ministry of its type. He’s a physician and a United Methodist pastor. I picked up a copy of the Church Health Reader Scott(Summer 2018, Volume 8, Number 3) while I was at the event, and was interested to read Scott’s article, “The Way of the Pilgrim.” Scott writes about his experience in college and beyond practicing transcendental meditation (TM). He says, “Even though I liked how it calmed my mind, I didn’t feel grounded in anything that was about God.”

He goes on to write about how the Jesus Prayer opened him to a Christian form of mindfulness:

When I first tried the Jesus Prayer with Henri Nouwen, it immediately seemed like TM. I just replaced om with the short prayer…. Years later I picked up a little book—it was only about three inches long—titled The Way of the Pilgrim…. I needed to try something, so I said to myself, ‘Start praying.’

‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’

These days we hear less about the Hari Krishnas and TM, but mindfulness and meditation are widespread and have proven health and spiritual benefits. Many people of faith use mindfulness practices for the same reasons I’ve used the Jesus Prayer all these years—to let go of everything that clutters our mind and be fully present in this moment, to be present in prayer, to experience it more clearly, and perhaps to find God waiting there.

There’s also an article in this issue of the Church Health Reader by Tim Stead titled “Mindfulness in the Christian Tradition,” which addresses the differences in the Buddhist approach and the Christian approach.

And another article by advanced practice psychiatric-mental health clinical nurse specialist Jane Slatery, “Will It Really Make Me Feel Better?” It’s about the research on mindfulness and medicine.

Some of these articles are available online (the ones with links) but others are only in the print edition. SUBSCRIBE to the Church Health Reader HERE. I just started my subscription and am looking forward to future issues. Join me?

Purple Angels, Disrupt Dementia, and Lewy Body Soldier

I recently shared a link to a wonderful site I had discovered, AlzAuthors.Org. It features over 150 authors writing about Alzheimer’s. A recent post at the site introduces Karen Severson, M.D. and her book—“Look, I Shrunk Grandma: A Psychiatrist’s Guide to Nursing Homes, Dementia, and End of Life.” Severson had several motivations for writing the book:

Karen Severson banner

 

She wanted to help families of loved ones with dementia understand the disease and the reasons for the treatment approaches in place in the nursing homes where their loved ones were residents. There is often tension between the residents’ families and the nursing home employees, and Severson’s book addresses those issues.

But she had another reason for writing the book:

My other motivation for writing Look, I Shrunk Grandma, a Psychiatrist’s Guide to Nursing Homes, Dementia and End of Life came from seeing persons with dementia suffering. Many families cling to a natural denial that dementia is terminal. As a result, they ask for medical procedures that could prolong life, but may also inadvertently cause more suffering. When stopping numerous interventions were suggested, we have been accused of being heartless or cruel, allowing someone to die. With the experience from my mother’s death, I wanted to do what I could to decrease end-of-life suffering.

Just a few days before this new book was introduced on the AlzAuthors.Org site, I read a special report in the July/August AARP Bulletin: “Our Goal: Disrupt Dementia.” One of several articles within the feature is Thomas K. Grose’s piece The Pursuit of A Cure for Dementia.” Grose explains about the Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF), a London investment fund that was set up in October of 2015 to “provide money to small companies seeking to discover novel therapies to stop or slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia….” There’s lots of good information in this special report—well worth the read.

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Norman McNamara, the "Lewy Body Soldier"

Norman McNamara, the “Lewy Body Soldier”

And speaking of the UK, the third piece of my post today is about a British man who wrote a book after his diagnosis with Lewy Body Disease.  Norman McNamara started the organization known as the Purple Angel Dementia Campaign after he was diagnosed with a form of dementia at age 50. I’m reading his book, The Lewy Body Soldier, which is imagesan amazing achievement given he wrote it while facing the disease. If you’re a regular reader (or writer) of literary fiction or professional narrative nonfiction, don’t expect this book to knock your socks off with perfect prose. In fact, it’s full of “errors,” that are, for me, easy to forgive, because the person who wrote it wasn’t trying to win any literary awards. He wrote it to tell an urgent, universal, and important story. Here’s a video interview with McNamara and his wife and caregiver. (His verbal skills are pretty amazing, considering this was 8 years after his initial diagnosis.)

the-lewy-body-soldier cover

 

Tangles and Plaques coverMy mother died from Alzheimer’s two years ago, and I wrote about her struggles with the disease and my relationship with her during the final decade of her life in my memoir TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S. And her mother died from Alzheimer’s. I was familiar with this type of dementia, but I had never heard of Lewy Body Disease until two friends both were diagnosed with it. One has been in a nursing home for some time now, and the other is at home with 24/7 care from her husband, with part-time help. McNamara talks about some things in his book that I was not aware of before, including the experience of vivid hallucinations and night terrors. The disease, as he points out, isn’t a “one size fits all” type of thing.

Alz & Dem Services logoIf you or anyone you know has a loved one with dementia of any type, please share these links with them. I will be speaking at the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Services of Memphis’s annual conference on November 13, and I will continue to look for ways to learn more about this disease and share my knowledge and experience with others.

 

Save the Date Canva

Writing Workshop at Novel Memphis: October 27

SWW and CB coversIt’s been a minute—five years actually—since I organized a writing workshop. Here’s my history with that:

2010 – Co-director of Creative Nonfiction Conference (with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes) in Oxford, Mississippi

2011 – Director of Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop

2013 – Co-director of Creative Nonfiction Conference (with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes) in Oxford, Mississippi

These were all three-day affairs, with numerous faculty members leading critique sessions and giving craft talks. I’m scaling it down for a one-day workshop at Novel Memphis on October 27. Details and schedule are here, on Novel’s event page.

What’s different about this workshop is that it all happens between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on one day, and I’ll be giving one craft talk and one talk about publishing, and leading the critique sessions. And it’s not expensive: $75 includes a copy of either Southern Writers on Writing or Cherry Bomb. It also includes coffee and pastries in the morning, and wine and snacks for “happy hour” from 4-5 p.m. We’ll eat lunch at Libro, the wonderful restaurant inside Novel. (Not included in fee.)

If you’d like to submit a writing sample to be critiqued, send up to 15 pages, double-spaced, size 12 font, with page numbers, attached as a Word document to sjcushman@gmail.com by October 6. Fiction and nonfiction are both welcome. No poetry, please. I will chose 12 manuscripts to be discussed during the workshop, and I will return written critiques to all participants, not just the 12 that are discussed during the workshop. The workshop will be limited to 25 people.

Writing workshops have been crucial to my development as an author, and I’m looking forward to continuing to “give back” to the writing community in this way. I hope that aspiring writers will take advantage of this opportunity and join us for a fun and productive day!

Call Novel at (901) 922-5526 with any questions. Please mail your registration form and payment by October 13 to:

Novel

Attn: Workshop Registration

387 Perkins Ext.
Memphis, TN 38117

Novel Workshop Flyer Cushman

 

Writing Workshop Registration Form

Icons Will Save the World

My friend Dr. Joanna Seibert invited me to contribute a guest post to her beautiful blog, “Daily Something.” She’s doing a series of reflections on quotes and images, and I was honored that she included an excerpt from an essay I had published eleven years ago in First Things, “Icons Will Save the World.” Here‘s the post, with the excerpt:

“Icons”

Nave of St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which is mentioned in the excerpt

Nave of St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which is mentioned in the excerpt

 

static1.squarespace.comI can’t remember how I first met Joanna, but we’ve been friends for many years, and have visited both in Memphis and in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she lives. She is an emeritus professor of radiology and pediatrics at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences and has been an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas for sixteen years. Joanna is the author of numerous books including, The Call of the Psalms, a Spiritual Companion for Busy People and The Call of the Psalms, a Spiritual Companion for People in Recovery, Healing Presence, Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poems, and Food as Seen by a Mother and Daughter, and a two-volume series of sermons, Interpreting the World to the Church.  She has been a writer for Forward, Day by Day, and has been a frequent contributor to the Living Church, and the Anglican Digest.

Subscribe to Joanna’s “Daily Something” and enjoy her inspirational quotes, art, and meditations.

Read more about St. John Orthodox Church, which is pictured above.

 

REGISTER for the Mississippi Writers Guild Conference July 27-28!

Susan speakingLooking for a conference to learn more about writing, editing, and publishing? Here it is! Meridian is convenient to folks in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, but worth a longer drive if you’re not that close!

I’ll be LEADING TWO WORKSHOPS, MODERATING THE PANEL OF SPEAKERS, and DOING ONE-ON-ONE CRITIQUES. 

Here’s all the info. Click on any blue link to learn more, and I hope to see you there.

Mississippi Writer’s Guild Conference, July 27-28, Meridian, Mississippi, at the MAX: Mississippi Arts & Entertainment Experience

MAEEX_Facade-1170x716-1024x626

 

I’m so excited to be returning to my mother’s hometown—where I lived briefly when I was three years old—for this, the twelfth annual conference of the Mississippi Writer’s Guild. How fitting that I attended their first conference, in August of 2007, where I met several people with whom I am still friends today, including the novelist Joshilyn Jackson (who encouraged me to start this blog), the prolific short story author John Floyd, the very creative writer and artist Keetha DePriest Mosley, the amazing storyteller and actress Rebecca Jernigan, the multi-talented writer, musician, and radio show hostess Richelle Putnam, and the author C. Hope Clark, who will be speaking again at this year’s conference.

The two workshops I will be leading at the conference are:

Using Scenes to Write Memoir (in Books and Essays)

Memoirist, essayist, novelist, and anthology editor Susan Cushman will lead students through exercises to discover the importance of using SCENES to tell their stories—or the stories of others—in both memoir and essays. Using samples from published memoirs and essays, she will show how these scenes move the narrative forward, “showing” rather than “telling” the story. Students will then do a short writing exercise using this technique.

Four Book Deals in One Year: How to Get Published Without an Agent

Novelist, memoirist, and anthology editor Susan Cushman published three books in 2017 and one in 2018. She got all four book deals in one year, without the help of a literary agent. Susan will share her experience working with an agent, and explain why she ended that partnership. Learn how to find small, independent, and university presses to publish your work, and what the experience of working with these presses and their editors is like.

I will also be moderating the Panel of Speakers. We will entertain questions about anything having to do with writing, editing, publishing, and marketing. This year’s panel of speakers and workshop leaders includes:

Sue B. Walker—poet, author, and editor

Chandler Griffin—documentary filmmaker and educator

C. Hope Clark—mystery writer and manager of Funds for Writers

Dr. Alan N. Brown—folklorist and author of over 25 books on the oral ghost narratives of the South

G. Mark LaFrancis—film-maker, film instructor, and producer

Whether you’re a published author wanting to improve your craft and learn more about the industry, or a new writer just getting started, there’s something for everyone at this year’s conference.

Register here.

Five Year Marker and Long-Term Plan: Stay Busy!

temp deskFive years ago yesterday I drove down to Fairhope, Alabama, to get together with a group of folks who were all contributors to a new anthology, THE SHOE BURNIN’: STORIES OF SOUTHERN SOUL. We were gathering at Joe Formichella (editor) and Suzanne Hudson’s house at Waterhole Branch, a rural area outside Fairhope. The next day we were going to be filming a promotional video for the book. I didn’t make it for the video the next day. Around midnight I was driving back to my hotel and had a collision with an ambulance (yes). Totaled my car, and almost totaled me. I ended up with a broken neck, broken leg, and broken ankle. But lots of people who saw pictures of my car (which I can’t find right now) said I’m lucky to be alive and not paralyzed. I agree.

neck xray side July 2013Last year about this time I did a blog post to “commemorate” the four-year “anniversary” of my life-threatening car wreck of July 7, 2013:

Silver Linings Playbook Part II: Hope Revisited

And a few weeks after that wreck in 2013, I did my first blog post about the event:

Silver Linings Playbook Part I: “Hope”

As I think about that event, and the five years since then, I don’t really have anything new to say. Except that I’m sure the ongoing pain contributed to the escalation in my drinking. There are still lots of days—especially late in the afternoon or in the evening—when my neck is hurting and I’m tired and I just want a drink. I know that it would temporarily take the edge off the pain, but it wouldn’t be worth it. (If you haven’t been following my blog, I quit drinking on September 8, 2017. More about that here. And here.)

external fixation July 2013I’ve tried lots of things to help ease the pain—physical therapy, massage, exercises at home, warm heat on my neck, Tylenol—and some of these things do help. But the bottom line is that I will be living with a measure of pain for the rest of my life. The arthritis that I already had was made worse by the trauma, and the hardware in my neck, leg, and ankle is a physical reminder of that trauma. I could have the screws taken out of my ankle. The surgeon said it “might help.” I’m not doing surgery that “might help.” Instead I’m just careful about walking, careful not to fall, and limited in what kinds of shoes I can wear. I can work out on the elliptical machine and in a swimming pool, so that’s helpful. Things could certainly be worse, and I’m trying to be thankful and not complain. Some days I’m better at that than others.

With Suzanne Hudson at the 2013 Louisiana Book Festival, my first road trip after the wreck, four months earlier.

With Suzanne Hudson at the 2013 Louisiana Book Festival, my first road trip after the wreck, four months earlier.

And distractions help. Like working on projects (I’m almost finished writing my fifth book) and traveling. Today I’m headed to Nashville for a panel discussion and book signing for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at Parnassus Books, with contributing authors River Jordan, Wendy Reed, and Niles Reddick. When I’m busy doing something creative, or traveling, I don’t notice the pain so much. My long term plan is to stay busy! Thanks for reading, and you know I always love to hear from you!

With Julie Cantrell at Bookfest 2013 at the Memphis Library in October, three months after the wreck. (in a wheelchair)

With Julie Cantrell at Bookfest 2013 at the Memphis Library in October, three months after the wreck. (in a wheelchair)

Mindfulness and Addiction

NGM2017_09_SEPTEMBERThis coming Sunday, July 8, will be the ten-month anniversary of my last drink. I first wrote about this in my final blog post of 2017, “0 Meetings in 90 Days,” when I wrote about how I quit drinking on September 8, 2017.

I did a follow-up post three months later, on my 67th birthday, “Birthday Musings: People Can Change #sixmonthswithoutadrink”.  And again in January, “120 Days….”

I was talking with a friend about this yesterday and she mentioned an article she found interesting from the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Magazine, “How Science is Unlocking the Secrets of Addiction” by Fran Smith. My friend loaned me her copy of the magazine and I read the article this morning.

While I found much that was helpful and interesting in the article—which wasn’t just about alcohol and other drug addictions, but also touched on addictions to food, shopping, and other behaviors—I took issue with the author’s definition of addiction as a disease. Although she presented a broad brush view of treatments, she seemed to agree with the Alcoholic Anonymous template when it comes to approaching alcoholism as a disease. I didn’t take issue with the plethora of treatments that are being studied to help people who are addicted to addictive substances, only with defining addiction as a disease. (One of the things that resonated with me about Annie Grace’s book, This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness, & Change Your Life, was her focus on alcohol as the extremely addictive drug that it is, rather than a focus on the “alcoholic” as a sick person.”)

Dr. Judson Brewer

Dr. Judson Brewer

Smith did part ways with AA on some important tenets in her National Geographic piece, though, and offered an alternative that touched on some of what works for me:

“Although 12-step programs, cognitive therapy, and other psychotherapeutic approaches are transformative for many people, they don’t work for everyone, and relapse rates are high…. [Judson]Brewer is a student of Buddhist psychology. He’s also a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction. He believes the best hope for treating addiction lies in melding modern science and ancient contemplative practice. He’s an evangelist for mindfulness, which uses meditation and other techniques to bring awareness to what we’re doing and feeling, especially to habits that drive self-defeating behavior….

Researchers at the University of Washington showed that a program based on mindfulness was more effective in preventing drug-addiction relapse than 12-step programs….

Mindfulness trains people to pay attention to cravings without reacting to them. The idea is to ride out the wave of intense desire.

That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the past ten months—riding out the wave of intense desire. Yes, the desire for a vodka martini is sometimes still intense, but the good news is that I don’t have those desires as often as I did when I was drinking. I used to crave vodka pretty much all day, every day. Now I only crave it a few times a week, sometimes less. I actually have whole days without that craving, which is wonderful.
But when it comes, I use a combination of mindfulness and prayer to ride out the craving. Sometimes I even talk to myself aloud, saying things like, “Yes, that martini sounds wonderful, and would certainly take the edge off this emotional or physical pain I’m having right now, but one wouldn’t be enough. I would want two. Or three. And the next time I’m in pain—which is a daily thing for me—I would want alcohol again. So why go there?” Sometimes I do things to counter the intense desire. Things like exercise, or a “treat” like something sweet or taking a break from work to watch TV or read a good book. All of these things help, but the mindfulness and prayer are the main things keeping me from drinking.

As I’ve written about here before, I’m still struggling to learn to apply these same tactics to my struggles with food cravings. The main problem remains: one cannot quit eating; one has to learn to be moderate with food. I’ll close with an encouraging quote from the National Geographic article about a woman who is having some success with mindfulness and eating:

Donnamarie Larievy, a marketing consultant and executive coach, joined the weekly mindfulness group to break her ice cream and chocolate habit. Four months in, she eats healthier food and enjoys an occasional scoop of double fudge but rarely yearns for it. “It has been a life changer,” she says. “Bottom line, my cravings have decreased.”

I always love hearing from my readers on your experience in these areas. Please leave a question or comment here, or in a thread on Facebook. Thanks always for reading!

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