The End of the Affair (?)

Hershey's bars 6 packI thought that when I quit drinking in September of 2017, that it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Turns out it was just the tip of the iceberg. Turns out Kettle One martinis have nothing on Hershey’s milk chocolate.

Of course it’s natural to crave sugar and carbs when suddenly abstaining from alcohol, which is full of both. And on top of that, I’ve struggled with disordered eating all of my life—not just my adult life. Being molested by my grandfather when I was five, and then being emotionally and verbally abused by my mother most of my life—especially when she was drinking—left me with a messy battle with food, alcohol, and my body. I was hoping that breaking up with alcohol would fix everything. Turns out it was only the end of one affair.

In recent months, Hersheys Kisses moved into my life with all the force of a lover in heat. It started with only a few Kisses a day, not even every day. But then it escalated to whole bags of kisses, which I would devour without stopping, usually while watching something dark on Netflix, like Homecoming. When I mentioned my kisses binges to a couple of people, they laughed, not realizing the seriousness of my situation. One of my favorite essayists, Anne Lamott, a recovering alcoholic herself, seems to condone my habit, as she writes in her latest book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope:

Chocolate with 81% cacao is not actually a food . . . . It was never meant to be considered an edible. [Note: AMEN!] . . . .

Don’t let others make you feel unsophisticated if you reach middle age preferring Hershey’s Kisses. So many of your better people do. Also, always carry a handful of Kisses in your backpack or purse to give away. People will like you more.

IMG_5704As I read those words, from someone who like me had ended her affair with alcohol, I wondered if I could enjoy just a handful of kisses without eating the entire bag. I thought back to when and where the attraction to the Kisses began. It was five months ago today—June 15—when I was speaking at the Alabama Writers Conclave Conference in Orange Beach, Alabama. I’m always nervous when I’m going to be speaking, and I was also teaching a workshop at this event. When I was drinking, I would shore up my courage with alcohol prior to any such event, but with that source gone from my life, I innocently picked up a handful of Hersheys Kisses from the snack table in the foyer of the building where the workshops and talks were being held. For two days, I returned to that table again and again, pocketing more and more handfuls of Kisses. (I wrote about this new lover in a post in September, “Disordered Eating Revisited.”)

Recently I wondered if I could slow my roll by switching from Hershey’s Kisses to Hershey’s chocolate bars. One bar had fewer ounces than the smallest bag of Kisses, so maybe I could wean myself off. The taste was just the same—the amazing texture and the instant comfort as the milk chocolate melted in my mouth and pumped its sweetness into my blood stream. I even found myself comparing the rush to that of a vodka martini at the end of a long day, when I’m in physical or emotional pain, nervous, or stressed. But just like the vodka, after a while one was not enough. I would purchase a 6-pack of chocolate bars—intending to eat only one a day—but I found myself eating all 6 in one sitting, more than one time. I knew I was in trouble.

Enter the Nativity Fast. What? Now you’re wondering if this is the same blog post I started out writing. In the Orthodox Church we observe the Nativity Fast from November 15 until Christmas. It’s similar to our experience of Great Lent—the forty days leading up to the celebration of Pascha (Easter). There are some rules/guidelines for fasting during this season, and the Church emphasizes that the point is spiritual growth, drawing closer to God, not just following rules. I’ve always struggled with this, but something I read a couple of days ago gave me pause:

Did not the Lord Jesus Himself begin His divine ministry of the salvation of mankind with a long, forty day fast? And did not He, in this way, clearly show that we must make a serious beginning to our life as Christians with fasting? . . . With this weapon, He vanquished Satan in the wilderness, and with it was victorious over the three chief satanic passions with which Satan tempted Him: love of ease, love of praise, and love of money.—St. Nikolai Velimirovich [quoted in Daily Lives, Miracles, and Wisdom of the Saints and Fasting Calendar 2018—the Orthodox Calendar Company]

Love of ease. Love of praise. Love of money. I struggle with all three of these. In my brain I can’t understand how fasting can help me let go of these, but I do know that I’m hungry and thirsty for something.

Anne Lamott on Hershey’s Kisses.

An Orthodox saint on the value of fasting.

What’s she going to write about next? (You know I read widely and search diligently for wisdom from many sources.)

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

Last weekend when I was speaking at the Louisiana Book Festival, I met an amazing woman. I was drinking coffee in the author’s lounge on Saturday morning, waiting for my 9 a.m. panel to start, when an attractive, colorfully-dressed, bright-eyed woman came in and sat down next to me. We introduced ourselves, and it turned out she was Sheryl St. Germain, winner of the 2018 Louisiana Writer Award. She would be presented with the award and would give a talk—you guessed it—at 9 a.m. in another room in the Louisiana State Capitol. The other members of my panel joined us on couches and chairs in a circle and laughed about how maybe some of the people who couldn’t get into her talk would find their way to our panel.

Sheryl and I had a short but intimate conversation. I fell in love with her immediately and felt a kindred spirit with her as a writer and as a human. She is 9 years sober, and has suffered great loss in her life, including the death of her son to an overdose. She wrote beautifully about this in her poetry collection, The Small Door of Your Death, which addresses issues of addiction and recovery. Sheryl directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University, but she’s a native of New Orleans. She is also the co-founder and director of the Words Without Walls Program, which offers creative writing courses to those incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail, and also to inhabitants of Sojourner House, a rehab facility for women with children.

I’m reading her book Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair right now. In this book she chronicles the time she spent in Alaska, drawing surprising similarities to her home state of Louisiana, but also sharing insights from living so close to nature. I’m remembering my own visit to Alaska about thirteen years ago as I read these words this morning:

Juneau lies on a thin strip of land at the mouth of Gold Creek amidst a backdrop of mountains and glaciers that push down from the Juneau Ice Fields, which native people called “Home of the Spirits.” The irony of this name is not lost on me; I’ve seen a lot of public drunkenness since arriving in Alaska two months ago. . . . I’m reminded that the old label for what we now call alcoholism is dipsomania, which means, ‘crazy with thirst.’ As I hammer—with difficulty—the final tent stake into this rocky soil, I wonder if the thirst I have for wilderness and for union with the land is not more deeply connected to my own thirst for alcohol than I have wanted to admit. [Note: this was before she quit drinking.] Carl Jung would write that the alcoholic’s craving for alcohol is the equivalent, on a low level, of a spiritual thirst for wholeness, a desire for union with whatever one understands as God.

There it is—a spiritual thirst for wholeness and a desire for union with God. Yes.

And later she says,

It’s no mystery that Christ’s blood is offered to us in the literal and metaphoric form of wine, and it’s no mystery that alcoholics are such spiritually thirsty people.

I was hoping to give up Hershey’s milk chocolate altogether during the Nativity Fast, and possibly forever. If I can quit alcohol, surely I can quit milk chocolate, right? But I’m wavering today . . . still clinging to the hope that I can just be moderate with it. Hoping that I can stop with one handful of Kisses or one Hershey’s milk chocolate bar. Yesterday was the first day of the fast and I did, indeed, eat only one chocolate bar. I knew better than to buy a six-pack. One day at a time. Stay tuned.

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Southern Writers on Writing panel at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

Southern Writers on Writing panel at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

As my 2018 book tour begins to wind down, I’m happily looking forward to events with all four of my books in the coming months. Marketing books is a marathon, not a sprint, although those first weeks and months coming out of the gate are important. This year’s release, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (University Press of Mississippi, May 2018), has been so much fun to promote. I’ve been able to meet up with 22 of the 26 contributing authors at fourteen events in five states since May, including this past weekend’s panel at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, where I was joined by M. O. “Neal” Walsh, Nicole Seitz, Joe Formichella, and Suzanne Hudson.

 

Panel for CHERRY BOMB, with three other women authors at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

Panel for CHERRY BOMB, with three other women authors at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival

I was also on a panel for my novel CHERRY BOMB, (on sale on Kindle for $4.99 right now!) with three other authors, talking about “Women’s Journeys of Self Discovery in Fiction.”

Yes, the three books I published in 2017 have still got legs, and I’m looking forward to promoting them into 2019. Here’s what’s coming up:

 

Save the Date CanvaNovember 13 (TOMORROW!) at 9 a.m. I’ll be speaking at the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Services of Memphis Caregiver Conference in Bartlett, Tennessee:

“A Caregiver’s Journey: The Garden in Our Backyard”

My topic is “Dealing With Disease and Relationships,” and I’ll be reading from the first book I published, TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S (January 2017) and offering copies at a discount to caregivers. This book was published almost two years ago, and it’s a mixed blessing that it continues to be relevant, as Alzheimer’s disease is the only cause of death among the top ten in America that cannot be prevented, cured, or slowed. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and more than fifteen million people provide care to people with dementia. I’m hoping to bring some encouragement—and yes, even some humor—to some of those caregivers here in the Memphis area tomorrow.

 

December 18, at 5 p.m.—I’ll be back at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, where my novel CHERRY BOMB (Dogwood Press, August 2017) launched sixteen months ago. This time I’ll be joining a few other Dogwood Press authors for an event celebrating the press. Watch for more details soon!

 

January 17, 2019—I’m headed to Jefferson, Texas, for another Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend. This time I’m moderating my fifteenth panel for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, and I’ll be joined by 8-10 contributors!

 

March 1-3, 2019—I’ve been invited to speak at a women’s retreat at The Homestead Education Center in Starkville, Mississippi. Alison Buehler, an author and speaker who lives at the Homestead and directs retreats and other events there, came up with the idea to have a retreat around the themes in the first anthology I edited, A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE (Mercer University Press, March 2017). Several contributors to the book will be joining me to also speak at the weekend retreat: Nina Gaby, Kathy Rhodes, Ellen Morris Prewitt, and Jennifer Horne. Promotional materials and more details will be out after Christmas, but mark your calendars if you’re interested in this retreat!

4 books 2

Through An Autumn Window

51nwjOSBCwL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_My friend and native Memphian Claire Fullerton—author of the wonderful novel Mourning Dove, which I reviewed here—has just had a novella/long short story published in a new collection:

A Southern Season: Four Stories From a Front Porch Swing.

I haven’t read the other three stories, but I started with Claire’s and read it yesterday. “Through An Autumn Window” is set in Memphis in the fall, so it was perfect reading for me since I live in Memphis and it’s fall here!

“Through An Autumn Window” is told through the voice of forty-year-old Cate Goodwyn, a Memphis native who is returning home from California for her mother’s funeral. Cate loves fall, and Claire’s words capture that love and the magic of the season beautifully:

Everything about the fall offers something to intrigue me: wind and mist and all things unseen. I’ve always liked the idea of that which lies beneath the surface. Even my way of God-fearing has a sense of mystical magic. There’s something about fall’s hesitant introspection that speaks to the core of my being, when everythig on earth takes a big exhale before winter comes barreling through to freeze it.

After giving us a lyrical glimpse into fall in the South, Claire gets more specific as she writes through Cate’s voice about her home town, Memphis:

The Memphis I know is coiffed but understated to an elegant degree. It is tasteful without being flashy. Homespun without being down-home…. Because the thing of it is, the Memphis I know is tightly woven. It’s a web of connections to an old family milieu, and it’s the rare one, such as me, that ever strays outside it.

And later she expands this description:

When you grow up with a mother like mine, a product of the old South, in a Southern city that feels more like a small town, as Memphis does, there’s a pitch and roll to the milieu, to your makeup that no move to California or anywhere else on the planet will ever effect.

As a native of Jackson, Mississippi, I could imagine myself writing in a soulful way about my home town, but I’ve lived in Memphis for thirty years, and I still don’t feel the “web of connections” here, and I’ll never have the “old family milieu” that Claire writes about, and that makes me a bit sad. As I read this story, I found myself wishing that I had grown up in Cate’s world.  Even though I’ve lived for the past six years in my favorite neighborhood ever—Harbor Town—Cate’s family was the first to live here back in 1987, when the neighborhood was first developed. She grew up here in this magical place where I often still feel like a visitor. But enough about me.

Cate’s mother Daphne Goodwyn is the quintessential Southern belle, even as she struggles with cancer as she nears seventy, “Because she wouldn’t allow herself unseemly behavior, she acted as if her cancer was little more than the flu.” 

I love this glimpse into her mothering style, and her skill at passing down her personal take on life to her daughter, as she entered kindergarten:

‘The trick to making new friends is to make eye contact,’ my mother continued. ‘Keep a smile on your face, and let your new friend do the talking. This way you can appear interested. People always like those that do.’ In no uncertain terms, in that indelible instant, I learned the game rules of Southern society to see me through the rest of my life.

Cate later describes the relationship between her mother and her mother’s best friend, Melia:

They were the way-showers who taught by the power of feminine example. They were role models who kept Southern culture beautiful by keeping everything light and pleasant.

Even when someone was dying. Or when there’s a funeral to attend, and a bossy older brother, sleazy step-father, and obnoxious step niece (?) to deal with. As Cate says, “the one thing I knew from my history with Southern funerals is that all you have to do is wait for it because something always goes wrong.

Claire and me at her reading for MOURNING DOVE at Novel Memphis earlier this fall.

Claire and me at her reading for MOURNING DOVE at Novel Memphis earlier this fall.

I won’t tell you what goes wrong in the story—no spoilers here—but I found myself remembering my own mother’s funeral from just over two years ago in Jackson, Mississippi, and being thankful that there weren’t any contentious people to deal with. And unlike Cate—who lost her mother at age seventy—I lost mine at age eighty-eight after a long journey with Alzheimer’s. I had actually “lost” her years earlier, so my grief was different than Cate’s. But I could understand her thoughts as she expressed them internally:

I now belonged to this gracious, well-mannered domain in a different context, and it came to me with confliction that no woman truly discovers who she is until the day she buries her mother, when she is left to walk this earth alone.

If the other stories—from winter, spring, and summer—are anything like Claire’s autumn tale, I’m really going to enjoy the rest of this book. I don’t know the other three authors, but I’m looking forward to getting a glimpse into their psyches and writing style as I pour myself into their stories. Kudos to Claire for her beautiful, lyrical writing, and powerful images in this story of autumn in Memphis!

A (Ghost) Story Published in Deep South Magazine today!

Happy Halloween!

Threefoot Building, Meridian, Mississippi, 1920s

Threefoot Building, Meridian, Mississippi, 1920s

I’m excited to announce that one of the stories in my linked short story collection, FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY, was published TODAY in Deep South Magazine:

 

Meridian: Gypsies, Orphans, and Ghosts

This story was inspired by my visit to my mother’s hometown, Meridian, Mississippi, this past July, to speak at the Mississippi Writer’s Guild’s annual conference. I didn’t actually speak to a Friends of the Library group while in Meridian, but I did go on the downtown ghost tour, and I did visit my grandparents’ graves. But hey, this is fiction, so it’s fine to make stuff up, right?

I hope you enjoy the story. Fingers crossed that one of the two presses currently reading the collection will publish it!

Thanks, also, to Deep South for mentioning my panels at the upcoming Louisiana Book Festival recently! I’ll be on a panel for my novel CHERRY BOMB at 9 a.m., and for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at 2:15 p.m.

 

Why I’m NOT Writing . . . .

I haven’t written a blog post since October 3. This is actually the longest I’ve gone without blogging since my car wreck back in 2013. I’d love to say it’s because I’m engrossed in drafting a best-selling novel or even an essay or short story, but I’m actually not writing. At all. In today’s publishing culture, writers have to multi-task—marketing is a big part of the picture, and I actually enjoy that part. And although I’ve called myself a full-time writer since about 2006 (and since that time I’ve published four books and over a dozen essays in four anthologies and numerous journals and magazines) I’m still a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a Godmother, a neighbor, and a friend. So what have I been doing while I’m not writing? Here’s a glimpse into this writer’s non-writing life.

That's Rebecca Wells, lower left with blonde hair speaking to our panel for Southern Writers on Writing: River Jordan, Lee Smith, me, and Niles Reddick.

Our panel for Southern Writers on Writing: River Jordan, Lee Smith, me, and Niles Reddick.

 

Book Tour and Writing Workshops

Meeting one of my literary (and mental health) heroes: Rebecca Wells!

Meeting one of my literary (and mental health) heroes: Rebecca Wells!

Since May I’ve had 14 appearances at 8 bookstores, 2 book festivals, 2 writers conferences, and 2 special events, all for Southern Writers on Writing, the anthology I edited that was published in May by University Press of Mississippi. I love this part of the job—especially connecting with readers and getting to hang out with other writers. On October 27 I’ll be leading a one-day writing workshop at Novel books here in Memphis. 19 people have registered, and I’m in the process of critiquing the manuscripts they’ve turned in and preparing two craft talks I’ll be giving during the workshop. I’ve posted photos of many of these events here on my blog, and lots of photos on Facebook from this past weekend at the 30th Annual Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. Our panel for Southern Writers on Writing included Lee Smith, Niles Reddick, and River Jordan. The auditorium at the Nashville Public Library was packed out with over 120 in the audience. A big surprise was seeing Rebecca Wells (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) sitting on the front row asking questions of our panel. And even bigger was her invitation to me to have dinner with her the next day. After the final panel of the day—Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy—Rebecca and I walked down the street from the festival to a new bakery and enjoyed fresh salads and a conversation that I will cherish forever. The Ya-Ya Sisterhood had a huge impact on my life, and it was a gift to have this time with Rebecca. What an incredible woman whom I now count as a friend.

My husband Bill, with his sister Cathy and his brother Tod, who are toasting him at his 70th birthday party.

My husband Bill, with his sister Cathy and his brother Tod, who are toasting him at his 70th birthday party.

 

Family & Friends: Visits and Celebrations

In July our daughter Beth visited from Denver with her husband and daughters—our wonderful granddaughters Gabby and Izzy. Then we hosted my best friend from Little Rock—Daphne—and her fiancé Bobby for an engagement party in August. My husband turned 70 on October 6, and his sister, brother-in-law, brother, and sister-in-law came from Atlanta to celebrate with us for a few days. Our oldest son Jonathan is arriving tonight from New Orleans for a couple of days. On Friday our middle son Jason and his wife and daughters—our other wonderful granddaughters Grace and Anna—will be here for a few days. I am so blessed to be able to host and celebrate with friends and family while taking a break from writing!

 

Taking Time for Self Care: Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Health

God_s_Path_to_Sanity_1024x1024At age 67, I’m learning the importance of self care. Just over a year after my last drink (September 7, 2017) I’m still finding my way to healthy eating habits and trying to move forward in healing from a lifetime eating disorder. Part of the healing involves taking time for exercise every day. I work out on the elliptical machine here in my office, usually a couple of times a day for 15-20 minutes at a time. I go to a massage therapist for deep tissue and myofascial release work every other week, and I’m doing a round of physical therapy right now, which includes about 20-30 minutes of exercises at home in addition to the PT sessions, which are a half-hour drive from my house. Doctor appointments at my age take up some time, as well, with an internist, urologist, cardiologist, orthopedic surgeon, gastroenterologist, dentist, and optometrist on my team. Self care for me also involves spiritual work. In addition to participating in services at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis—where I’ve been a member since 1988—I do spiritual reading and am involved in a small discussion group using the book God’s Path to Sanity: Lessons From Ancient Holy Counselors On How to Have a Sound Mind, by Dee Pennock. I’m also reading Becoming a Healing Presence by Albert S. Rossi, in preparation for our annual women’s retreat at St. John on November 2-3.

Reading Becoming Mrs. Lewis in my hotel room in Nashville, with the indoor pool outside my window!

Reading Becoming Mrs. Lewis in my hotel room in Nashville, with the indoor pool outside my window!

 

Reading

All writers are avid readers—not only to improve our craft, but to refill our tanks after emptying them on the page with our work. My recent reads include:

Our Prince of Scribes, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain (I didn’t do a review but I loved this book!)

And my current (secular) read is Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry. I read in many genres—in both fiction and nonfiction—due to my interests as well as to fuel my own writing. And after meeting some new authors at the Southern Festival of Books, I ended up with a few more for my “to read” stack.

Querying Publishers

I’ve got two more books being read by publishers right now, so my fingers are crossed that I’ll get some good news and a publishing contract soon for one or both of these:

Friends of the Library is a collection of linked short stories (being read by one university press and one independent press)

Imagining the cover design for my short story collection.

Imagining the cover design for my short story collection.Friends of the Library—short story collection (being read by one university press and one small indie press)

Pilgrim Interrupted—personal essay collection (being read by one university press)

If none of these presses offer me a contract, I’ll go back to the query process, looking either for an agent or an independent publisher.

Writing Another Book . . . .

Meanwhile, my “next book” is always in the back of my mind—especially while driving down the highway on book tours. I’ve got several ideas for a novel, but I haven’t fallen in love with any of them yet. Writing a novel is like a marriage—it’s a long-term commitment—so it needs to start with a romance, for me to be willing to dive in. Most of my ideas involve either a famous artist, a work of art, or something related to Alzheimer’s. I seem to return to these familiar themes because, like they say, it feels natural to write what you know.
Thanks for reading. I’ll try not to stay away so long next time!

“Workshopping” a Manuscript

Novel Workshop reminder_edited-1

 

On October 27 I’m leading a one-day writing workshop at Novel bookstore in Memphis. So far fifteen people have registered, and I’ve begun critiquing the manuscripts that have been turned in. Before I began leading conferences and workshops, I  participated in about ten workshops over a decade, as well as being part of two writing groups that use the “workshop” model. I’ve come to really appreciate how much the process can help us become better writers. We can learn from reading and critiquing other people’s works as much as having our own work discussed. So far the writing samples that have been submitted include adult fiction, YA (Young Adult) fiction, memoir, and essays. Before diving into the critique process, I decided to create some guidelines, which I will share with the workshop participants. I have gleaned these from past experience at workshops, and also from other writers and online sources. I hope you will find them helpful as you look at your own work or participate in writers groups or workshops. Here they are:

Things to look for in reading/critiquing manuscripts:

Effectiveness of story/plot. Can you summarize the plot in one to two sentences? What is the central idea?

Prose style and voice.  Does the author have a distinct style and/or a voice that the reader can embrace? What’s the difference between style and voice?

*Voice is your own. It’s a developed way of writing that sets you apart from other writers (hopefully). It’s your personality coming through on the page, by your language use and word choice. When you read a Dave Barry column, you know it’s his. Why? He’s developed a distinct writing voice.

*Style is much broader than voice. Some writers have a writing style that’s very ornate—long, complex and beautiful sentences, packed with metaphors and imagery (think Frank McCourt and John Irving). Others have a more straightforward style—sparse prose, simple sentences, etc.

Characters—can you clearly identify the protagonist and antagonist? (Keeping in mind the antagonist doesn’t have to be a character, but can even be fate, the environment, etc.) Do we CARE about them? (Whether we like/love or dislike/hate them.) Are they believable? Are they interesting? (watch our for stereotypes and clichés) What does your character WANT?

Balance of scenes (including dialogue)—i.e. SHOWING—with narrative—i.e. TELLING.

Is there conflict? (Keep it mind it might not be resolved in an excerpt from a book, but it should be resolved in a complete manuscript like a short story or an essay.)

Pacing—too slow or too fast? How to change it?

Dialogue—is it realistic? If dialect is used, is it done well/sparingly or overdone and possibly even offensive?

IMG_4959*I borrowed these definitions of voice and style from “The Difference Between Voice and Style in Writing” by Brian A. Klems. This was a Writer’s Digest article. I highly recommend that anyone serious about writing subscribe to two magazines: Poets & Writers and Writers Digest.

When contributing during the oral critique session:

Don’t comment about spelling and grammar errors. This is not the time for line editing.

Be positive and encouraging, but not dishonest and gushy.

Don’t give your opinions on the subject matter or the writer’s opinions. This is not a time to discuss/debate issues of politics, religion, race, gender, etc., but to help each other become better WRITERS, no matter the subject or genre.

In addition to leading three hours of manuscript critique sessions during the workshop, I will also be giving two talks:

“Writing Scenes to Move the Narrative Forward” (This will include hands-on participation by students and a short writing exercise.)

“How I Got 4 Book Deals in One Year Without an Agent” (This will be a talk about all things publishing: querying presses, working with editors, etc.)

The workshop is from 9-5 on Saturday, October 27, and includes coffee/pastries, lunch together at Libro (the wonderful cafe inside the bookstore), and happy hour from 4-5 p.m. (Lunch isn’t included in the $75 registration fee.)

The deadline to register for the workshop is October 13, but if you want to submit a manuscript to be critiqued, the deadline to send in your writing sample is October 6 – this Saturday. (Not everyone who is coming to the workshop is submitting a manuscript.) You can REGISTER FOR THE WORKSHOP HERE.

 

Feeding the Lake

Father Anthony Messeh

Father Anthony Messeh

A few days ago a dear friend (one of my Goddaughters, actually) shared a link to a podcast that really blessed me, so I’d like to talk about it here. The topic of the talk was OCD—but not the definition most of us probably associate with those letters (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

The speaker, Father Anthony Messeh is a Coptic Orthodox priest and pastor of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Church in Arlington, Virginia. (Sidebar: Read more about the Coptic Orthodox Church here. I’ve always personally loved their icons. You can read more about them, and their music, here.) The new spin he puts on OCD is this:

Obsessive COMPARISON Disorder.

You can listen to the podcast here:

Living with OCD Part 1

My friend shared it with me because I had just been talking with her and a couple of other close friends about my struggles in this area of my life. For my whole life, actually. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t always comparing myself to someone else, someone who seemed prettier, thinner, more popular, more successful, or someone who had a happier family, a nicer house, cooler car, more money, etc. When I was a freshman at Ole Miss, I was president of the pledge class of a top sorority, and dating (and soon engaged to) the president of the senior class of the university, who would be going to medical school the next year on a full scholarship. From the outside looking in, I had it all. But I wasn’t content. I kept comparing myself to the other girls in my sorority, even the other girls my boyfriend had dated (some of them were, literally, beauty queens) and I felt less than. From a psychological point of view, I understand that some of that was fueled by the dysfunction in my family, including my mother’s verbal and emotional abuse of me my whole life, and my grandfather’s sexual abuse of me when I was a little girl.

As I’ve grown emotionally and spiritually (and chronologically, at age 67) I’ve made baby steps in healing the disorder, but I still struggle with it. The way it rears its ugly head for me at this stage of my life has to do with my writing career. Just a few years ago all I thought I needed to be “happy” was to get a book published. Now I’ve got four published (and two more shopped out to publishers now) but I don’t have a literary agent, so I didn’t get a book deal with a large publisher for any of them. I’m stuck in a small literary pond, watching lots of my writer friends who are more “successful” than me—some are New York Times best-selling authors, and many (who have agents and publicists) have won awards and reached a much larger audience. I recently spent about six months querying agents (again) for my next two books—a collection of linked short stories and a collection of personal essays. After many rejections, I’ve “given up” and have submitted both books to small presses (which don’t require an agent). I’ve decided to be content—and thankful—if either or both books get published by these presses, which are very reputable and will be good to work with. I’m making up my mind to enjoy this little pond I get to swim in, remembering that Madeleine L’Engle said, “We all feed the lake.” (more on that at the end of this post)

thankful2

 

Close friends tell me how much I have to be proud of, and I get that. I’m working hard and loving what I’m doing, but I’m also realizing how much more I want to experience contentment. A recent experience I had at confession helped. For my non Orthodox friends, the sacrament of confession in the Orthodox Church is (or can be) a very therapeutic thing. It’s not juridical. It’s doesn’t make us “right with God.” It helps makes us right with ourselves. If your priest is a good confessor, as mine is, he will help you see the ways you are hurting yourself or others, and how to move towards healing. The best advice I received recently had to do with being thankful. And I’m finding that the more I practice thanksgiving, the more content I am. I have an incredible number of things to be thankful for in my life, and as I focus on them instead of focusing on what others have that I want, I attain peace. It isn’t a once-and-for-all thing. It’s something I have to return to every day. Sometimes many times a day.

Contement is not chosen

 

One thing Father Anthony talks about in his podcasts is the way that social media amplifies this problem. The things that people post on Facebook or Instagram (my two go-to social media sites) are usually their best selves. Their accomplishments. Their beautiful families, vacations, homes, meals, children, etc. Bombarded with this, it’s hard not to compare myself with them. Father Anthony recommends taking a time out from social media, or even considering quitting it altogether, but I’m unwilling to do that at this point. I have too many good connections there with friends who live all over the country, and I don’t want to give those up. But I do want to respond differently to the multitude of posts that tend to make me feel less than. Instead of feeling jealous, I am working to be genuinely happy for other people’s successes. And I truly am happy for so many people I’ve come to care about and respect and even love.

 Father Anthony takes this issue a step further in his second podcast, Fighting FOMO Part 2. “FOMO” is “Fear Of Missing Out.” I don’t experience this as much as younger folks might, but sometimes I do, when I read about people I know who are doing fun things that I wish I was also doing. I have an 83-year-old friend who has shared with me much about the good changes we can expect with aging, including contentment with a quieter, much less “exciting” lifestyle.

 So, I’m going to continue to fight OCD with thankfulness, and jealousy with genuine joy for others’ good fortune. I’ll close with these words from one of my favorite authors:

 “If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake’.”
― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

MY Prince of Scribes

seitz-and-haupt_our-prince-of-scribesOn Sunday I finished reading a wonderful new book, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy (University of Georgia Press, September 2018).  Edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt, it’s a beautiful collection of reflections on the life and work of my favorite author, who is obviously a favorite with many others. When I heard about the collection, it had already gone to press. And although I didn’t know Pat as well as many of those who contributed essays to this book, I wished I could have joined them. So I will share my own reflections here, at the end of this post. But first I’ll share a few of my favorite quotes from contributing authors. I tagged about 25 “favorites,” but I’ll only share a little over half of them here. I hope these quotes will tease you into buying the book and reading these wonderful essays!

“They connected with Pat through the love of words or food, or through the shared sufferings of childhood or existential questioning”—Nicole Seitz, Editor

“Because of the abuses of his childhood, Pat found it impossible to foster sustained joy in his own success, but he could experience tremendous vicarious bliss in the success of others. Serving as the sage tribal elder in the mentoring of other writers brought Pat a happiness that even international literary fame could not.”—Jonathan Haupt, Editor

“Pat didn’t just survive; he thrived. . . . Boys like us longed for a way to save our fathers from themselves and our families from our fathers. And because that was impossible, boys like us devoted our adult lives to expressing our failures as heroes in the world through aspiring to be heroic in art…. Our wound was not just geography, as Pat once wrote, it was the unique spark of our hearts’ engines, and therefore kept us alive.”—Michael O’Keefe

“The wound we shared was permanent, not something that ever healed completely. We knew we would never be good enough. We didn’t know what bad thing was lurking just ahead of us.”—Cynthia Graubart

“If you are willing to read great books and work your ass off to write down what you are thinking and find your voice, it’s possible to emerge as a writer. To Pat there was no more sacred and worthwhile calling.”—Tim Conroy

“’My father’s violence is the central fact of my art and my life.’ I must have read that sentence aloud a dozen times. . . . And then I knew. I could just as truthfully assert that my mother’s violence is the central fact of my art and my life. . . . Pat could have allowed the cruelty to harden him, make him mean, make him repeat the sins of his father. But Pat made a conscious decision, I believe, to live a life that stood in total opposition to the violence. He found forgiveness through writing and grace in a life well lived . . . .”—Connie May Fowler

“One painful irony was his recognition that his books had liberated throngs of fellow sufferers—the depressed, the abused, the father haters—not to seek therapy or write books but to share their miseries with Conroy at book signings. This was unwelcome duty for a writer who wasn’t inclined to guide others through their elf-realization. Writing is not group therapy. But such was the price Conroy paid for exposing so much of himself and his family, book after book, as he sought to explain his tortured childhood to himself.”—Kathleen Parker

“He portrayed the South in full—all its contrasting mystery and ugliness, beauty and brine, laid bare—and did so in a way that made it feel accessible to outsiders and refreshing to those of us who live here.”—John Connor Cleveland

“I carried on about how the setting and themes of The Prince of Tides spoke directly to me. Pat smiled and listened as if he hadn’t heard the same thing a million times form other readers. And I found myself confessing hidden pieces of my life. The abuse in the novel was something I understood. ‘Most writers had shitty childhoods,’ he said.”—Michael Morris

“So many writers I know today don’t even address the question. They’re not even God-curious. I still think that’s the difference between a great writer and a merely good writer. Great writers—whether they’re believers or not—are God-haunted. Pat Conroy was God-haunted. Maybe you didn’t know.”—Margaret Evans

“The trauma of his childhood and adolescence could easily have sent him into the abyss. I know that writing about issues evoking his past trauma could be cathartic for Pat, but there was also peril in descending into that past. Blending memory and art was a dangerous dance too…. He took what might have destroyed him and made it beautiful and true…. His art will endure.”—Ron Rash

“’My wound is geography.’ The wound he referred to was tied to his difficult youth and his abusive father. But his themes about surviving a dysfunctional childhood gave me the confidence to write bout subjects I had shied away from in my own work, like my mother’s rape and other personal difficulties.”—Marjory Wentworth

“What I learned from his life and friendship was a kind of theology: Stories and Life are both marvelous and dreadful. I can’t, as a reader or a writer or a human being, shy away from the broken world…. It’s all there together—the noble, the cowardly, the awful, the shining. As it must be I both our writing and our lives.”—Patti Callahan Henry

“Reading Pat, and later knowing him, has been a life-class not on y in how to write but how to live…. To love the South while refusing to accept its failing and shortcomings. To pay forward what cannot possibly be paid back. To write about your family, to love your family. To look directly at all the world’s horror, to face it honestly, but never to turn mean. That’s what knowing Pat and reading Pat taught me, and is teaching me still.”—Mark Powell

And now, if I had been invited to contribute to the collection, what would I have written?

 

Permission to Write

By Susan Cushman

That’s what Pat Conroy gave me. And I’d also like to say here—since this essay isn’t published in the book about Pat—that his wife Cassandra King was also a big part of my inspiration to write. When I met Cassandra at the Southern Festival of Books in 2006—the last year it was held in Memphis—she was talking about her book The Sunday Wife. We talked in person after her panel, and she wrote in the front cover of my copy of her book, “To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is.” I could write more about Cassandra and her books and what her friendship means to me, but since this reflection is supposed to be about Pat, I’ll get back to him.

I don’t remember what year it was when I first read The Prince of Tides. It was published in 1986 and the movie came out in 1991. I think I actually saw the movie first, and loved it. But when I read the book, I was blown away by two things: Pat’s incredibly beautiful literary prose, and the power of using real life experiences—in his case the abuse from his father—to fuel a novel. To make art from pain.

I had tried to write about my own personal wounds—sexual abuse first from my grandfather when I was four or five, verbal and emotional abuse from my mother for all of my life, and abuse from two different Christian leaders in the 1970s—and so I wrote a memoir. Two, actually. But I finally realized that I wasn’t willing to go public with some of the names and situations involved, so I followed Pat’s example and wrote a novel. It took several years to finish Cherry Bomb, a couple more years dealing with a New York literary agent (with whom I eventually parted ways), finding a publishing home, more editing and finally publishing the novel in August of 2017. It was so satisfying and healing, and I will always be grateful to Pat for inspiring me to do this.

When Beach Music came out in 1995, I devoured it and realized what everyone else already knew: Pat wasn’t a one-hit wonder. So I went back and read The Water is Wide (1972) The Great Santini (1976), and The Lord of Discipline (1980). For some reason I never read The Boo (1970). But all of these books were also full of art borne from suffering, and they are powerfully beautiful. In 2009, I read Pat’s final novel, South of Broad, and it came alive for me on two visits to Charleston, the “Holy city” featured in the book. I think it may be my second favorite of Pat’s books, next to The Prince of Tides. Of course I also loved My Reading Life (2010) and I wept as I read his memoir The Death of Santini (2013), which revealed even more of his tremendously loving and forgiving heart, as he did everything he could to heal his relationship with his father.

Meeting Pat in January, 2010

Meeting Pat in January, 2010

When I finally got to meet him, in 2010, Pat was speaking at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas. He was so warm and genuine in person, and so humble and generous with his time. He even purchased books from some of the (lesser known) authors who were presenting during the weekend and stood in line to have them inscribe the books for him. He donned an apron and helped serve plates for the author dinner one evening. And when he spoke, his love for not only writing but also writers—at whatever stage we were in with our careers—was evident, and blessed me greatly.

Signing books with Cassandra King at Nevermore Books, Beaufort, SC, May 2017

Signing books with Cassandra King at Nevermore Books, Beaufort, SC, May 2017

In May of 2017 I visited Pat’s home in Beaufort, South Carolina, for the first time, just over a year after his death in March of 2016. I was giving a reading at Nevermore Books in Beaufort for an anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. Cassandra had contributed an essay to the book and joined me at the bookstore along with two other contributors, and then invited all of us to her house for dinner afterwards. I remember feeling a little awkward as she encouraged me to sit down in the chair at Pat’s writing desk, saying, “Maybe you’ll soak up some of his inspiration.” But I did sit there, as I had sat at his other desk earlier that day—the one that’s part of an exhibit at the Pat Conroy Literary Center. I swiveled around to take in the view of Battery Creek, which runs behind their home, and imagined how it might have inspired the beautiful descriptions of his beloved Lowcountry. I had just read A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (2016) and relished his words that were salvaged from various places that had published them previously. I was putting together another anthology when Pat died—Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi, May 2018)—and was sad not to have an essay by him in the collection. Cassandra contributed a wonderful essay—“The Ghost of Josiah King,” and I was thrilled to have essays by more writers with ties to Pat’s beloved Lowcountry, like Nicole Seitz and Patti Callahan Henry. I opened the Introduction with these words from A Lowcountry Heart:

“In his book A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (published posthumously), the author Pat Conroy says: ‘My mother, Southern to the bone, once told me, “All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: ‘On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.’”’”

Only Pat Conroy could write about the culture of suffering in the South with humor and get away with it. (Okay, so Rick Bragg also did this, and more recently, Harrison Scott Key.) I don’t do humor well, although I did use it some in my memoir about my mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. Because you have to have humor to survive the ravages of Alzheimer’s.

I believe that Pat has received all the messages of love penned by the authors who contributed to Our Prince of Scribes, and that he’s reading my words, even now. So I’ll send a shout out to him as I close this tribute: THANK YOU for giving me permission to write. If I could hear his response, I know he would be saying, “Great love.”

RUSH

Lisa Patton w me at NovelI recently had the pleasure of meeting author Lisa Patton in person, when she spoke at Novel books in Memphis, where she was launching her new novel RUSH. Lisa is a Memphis native, living in Nashville now. And although she went to school at the University of Alabama, she chose to set her story of sorority rush at the University of Mississippi. Next Sunday, September 30, is BID DAY at Ole Miss, so this is a good week to be thinking about what those girls are going through in the final days of rush.
RUSH is set in 2016, so a lot has changed since I pledged Tri Delt at Ole Miss back in 1969. Reading about all the drama made me wonder how much was exaggerated, and I couldn’t wait to talk with Lisa Patton about this. I’m excited that she agreed to answer a few questions.

Susan:  Hi, Lisa. I loved meeting you at Novel in Memphis at the launch for your new book RUSH. It’s always wonderful to celebrate with fellow Memphis authors! I know you said at the event that you went to Alabama, and yet you chose to set RUSH at Ole Miss. I pledged Tri Delt at Ole Miss (back in 1969!) and I’m sure much has changed in these almost 50 years, but I’m wondering how much you exaggerated the drama surrounding rush, and even the social milieu. Are there really dorm decorators? And do the moms/alums really get so involved? The way you portrayed Lilith Whitmore, the House Corp President of Alpha Delta Beta (a fictional sorority) reminded me a bit of how Kathryn Stockett portrayed the junior league ladies like Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt in her novel THE HELP.  (I’m from Jackson, Mississippi, so I lived through much of what Stockett wrote about.)

Pledge class of Delta Delta Delta at Ole Miss in 1969. I'm the second from the right on the second row from the bottom...with the bright yellow hair!

Pledge class of Delta Delta Delta at Ole Miss in 1969. I’m the second from the right on the second row from the bottom…with the bright yellow hair!

Lisa: I loved meeting you, too, Susan! I’ve heard so many lovely things about you over the years and all I can say is: “It’s about time!” I didn’t exaggerate the rush drama at all. I had a bank of young collegians from not only Ole Miss but other SEC schools that kept me informed on all the current goings on. The mamas turn into Nervous Nellies and yes, the alums are very involved. Getting the story right was paramount; after all rush is one of the most sacred rituals in the South. And yes, there are dorm decorators! I interviewed the most prominent one in Mississippi for over two hours one night. She was incredibly generous with her information.

thI decided to set the novel at Ole Miss over Alabama for three reasons: First, Alabama wins too much ;-0! Some people love to hate The Tide and I couldn’t take a chance on a person not reading my story because of it. Second, as a Memphian I like to set my stories in my beloved hometown, and thirdly, Eli Manning had just been nominated for the Walter Payton Humanitarian of the Year Award and that fit perfectly within the context of my story. Lilith Whitmore, my antagonist, is satirical on purpose to make the point that although we try to cover it up, racism still runs deep. I wanted to use humor, exaggeration, and even ridicule to show that the southern racial divide still influences our decisions, whether we think so or not. Since THE HELP was set in the 60s, Kathryn Stockett didn’t need to use satire to portray Hilly Hollbrook or Elizabeth Leefolt. RUSH is set in modern day. Folks today are not as overt when it comes to racism. We’ve come a long way since the 60s but there’s still a long road to hoe.

Susan: I keep thinking of comparisons to THE HELP, especially with your chapters from the point of view of Miss Pearl—the beloved African American housekeeper at the Alpha Delta Beta house. Did you live in a sorority house at Alabama, and were you aware of similar struggles that the staff there had, regarding the lack of medical insurance and other benefits, for example? What is the situation like for the staff in these sorority houses today? Have the women living in those sorority houses ever actually done something to try to change that, the way Cali Watkins and the other Alpha Delts do in the book?

Lisa: I lived in my sorority house my senior year – third floor, right next to the TV room. We had daybeds in our rooms and slept on one big “sleeping porch.” I’ve often thought about those days and the deep great sleep I once enjoyed. The room was ice cold and we hunkered down under warm comforters. The noise from girls slipping in and out was blocked with the white noise from large fans. What I wouldn’t give to be able to sleep that hard today!

I was not aware of the struggles facing the staff at sorority houses. As much as I hate to admit it, I was a self-absorbed college student. I never once thought about it back then. And the ladies cooked and cleaned for us every day. When I learned about it as an alum (I’m betting most alums have not thought of it either) I was sorry I’d never considered their needs and hoped I could bring awareness by including it in my story. Most sorority and fraternity houses don’t offer staff benefits although some of the houses now outsource their staff for that reason.

Recently, I learned about a young woman at the Tri Delt house at Ole Miss who started a Go Fund Me page for their cook, Mr. Kenny. He had double hip replacement surgery and had to be off work for three months. Last I checked the page has raised $20K toward the $75K goal. That’s a perfect example of RUSH in action. I’m so proud of the young Tri Delt girls for helping Mr. Kenny.

Susan:  I’m also proud of my Tri Delt sisters at Ole Miss for helping Mr. Kenny! Like you, I wasn’t aware of our house staff’s needs at all when I was in school, so it’s encouraging to see this generation stepping up.

In an early scene in RUSH, you show the daughter of Lilith Whitmore getting drunk during the tailgating parties in the grove before the first football game of the season. How much do you think drinking is a problem on campuses like Ole Miss and Alabama today, and what do you think is being done, or needs to be done, to change the social milieu in order to make college a safer place for teenagers and young twenty-somethings?

Lisa: I think drinking is a problem on most college campuses. The drinking age was 18 when we were young so I think some parents are fine with their children drinking after they reach a certain age and tend to look the other way. I’ve heard of several providing a “safe place” like home for their kids and their kid’s friends to drink.  Honestly I don’t know what the answer is. Until fake IDs are controlled and parents stop looking the other way I doubt things will change. I’m not sure that there is an answer.

Susan:  Your earlier books—Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, Yankee Doodle Dixie, and Southern as a Second Language—are all humorous. And your stylish humor is evident in RUSH, but you deal with serious topics. Did you set out to write a more serious book this time?

Lisa: Yes, I knew when I tackled the issues of race, equality, and inclusion the book would have to be more serious, but I love humor and I wanted to make sure my book had plenty of it. That’s why I used satire and poked fun at dorm room décor and mother daughter relationships. The most fun I had was writing about Wilda’s 81-year-old mother. I would sit in my room and laugh till tears rolled down my cheeks at the absurdity of her vanity and snobbery. As you well know, writing can be quite lonely. Without adding humor into my stories I would lose my ever-loving mind!

Thanks for taking time during your busy book tour to chat with us, Lisa. I really enjoyed RUSH and am only sorry that I didn’t think of writing it first! (Okay, that’s how I felt about THE HELP, too. And Lisa Wingate’s BEFORE WE WERE YOURS. That’s my excuse for not writing a New York Times best-seller.)

Check out Lisa’s EVENT PAGE to see where you can catch up with her for a reading/signing. I’m looking forward to seeing her again at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, where she’s speaking at 12 p.m. on Saturday, October 13.  (And IF YOU GO… be sure and come to my panel at 3 p.m. on Friday, October 12, for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, with Lee Smith, River Jordan, and Niles Reddick!)

The Burden of Memory and History

I’m off on a short road this trip morning to Jackson, Tennessee, to speak on a panel for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING with fellow Tennessee authors Niles Reddick and River Jordan, so I’m short on time to write a blog post. Instead, I’m going to share something from a post I did ten years ago:

“Southern Writers on the River: The Burden of Memory and History”

Herman King, Patti Trippeer and me by the gate to the Ornamental Metal Museum on the Mississippi River in Memphis, September 2008. Photo by Doug McLain

Herman King, Patti Trippeer and me by the gate to the Ornamental Metal Museum on the Mississippi River in Memphis, September 2008. Photo by Doug McLain

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to click on the link and travel with me down memory lane, where I reflect on a magical day spent down by the Mississippi River with members of the Yoknapatawpha Writers Group, which met monthly for several years to critique one another’s works-in-progress and to share our journeys in the written word. Here’s a teaser:

So yesterday when some of the folks in my writers critique group gave me their gentle but wise feedback on the pages I had just penned—the pages about some difficult and dark things that happened during those same years that Morris chronicled in The Last of the Southern Girls—I listened to their suggestions because I respect their journeys and their own personal endeavors to capture their memories, and our collective Southern history, in the short stories and novels they are drafting.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend. Come back next week for some NEW POSTS, including an interview with another Tennessee author . . . .

 

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