Contentment #OneWord365

OneWord365For the past few years, I’ve been choosing a word every December to focus on for the coming year. I register the word with the folks at One Word 365, which is where I got the idea in the first place. Once you do this, you can find others in your “tribe” who have chosen the same word, and contact them if you are interested.

Find-Contentment-seekingcontentment.com_For 2019, I have chosen the word CONTENTMENT. Before I tell you more about why I chose that word, let me tell you about a message I received today from a woman in another state who chose the same word. She looked me up in our One Word “tribe” and sent me a message. Turns out she is caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. Small world. Or large epidemic (Alzheimer’s), depending upon how you look at it. We’ve enjoyed chatting online about our shared and different experiences, and although my journey/struggles with my mother and her Alzheimer’s ended with her death in May of 2016, this woman is in the throes of it right now. She is blessed to have help from family, including a future daughter-in-law who is a nurse.

So why did I choose “contentment” as my One Word for 2019? Because I struggle so much with various elements of its opposite— jealousy, greed, gluttony, resentment, restlessness. My father confessor has encouraged me to practice thankfulness as an antidote to jealousy, and that helps. Looking at my life from the outside (as all of us view one another’s lives) I’m sure most people think I have a pretty charmed life and should find it easy to be content. And I do! I have financial security, a good marriage of 48+ years, fairly good health (having survived cancer and a life-threatening car wreck), three healthy children who have good jobs, four healthy granddaughters, several very close friends, and the opportunity during this later season of my life (I’ll be 68 in March) to pursue my dreams—writing and publishing books. During a 17-month period in 2017 and 2018, I actually had four books published, which is pretty amazing. I went on close to 60 events in 7 states speaking and signing books during those two years, and really had the time of my life. So why do I struggle with contentment?

 4 books 2

 

Psychologically speaking, I’ve been looking for the love I didn’t get as a child (from my grandfather, who molested me, and my mother, who was verbally abusive to me) my whole life. And no matter what I have, it never feels like enough. In some ways I’ve been like an orphan who isn’t sure where her next meal is coming from, so she hoards bit and pieces of food for the future. Metaphorically. I’ve always wanted more. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a cheerleader more than anything life had to offer. When I didn’t get it, I went after everything else. But all the other honors and activities (Secretary of the Student Body, acting in school plays and being a Theater Guild officer, being business manager of the school newsletter, eventually being a “Favorite,” “Best School Booster,” and a member of the Hall of Fame did not make me content. I wanted to be a cheerleader.

At Ole Miss I pledged what I considered to be the top sorority—turning down bids from other sororities—and was elected president of our pledge class. I was dating, and soon engaged to, the president of the senior class. And yet I never FELT like I was popular, successful, or loved. What was lacking? What was it I wanted and didn’t have? This was almost 50 years ago, and yet I can remember it like it was yesterday: I wanted to be skinny and beautiful. I wanted to look like the beauty queens. I was chubby and had eating disorders and was never content with myself.

Those issues followed me into early adulthood and middle age.

And then there’s my “career.” For the first seven years of my marriage, I worked mainly in administrative positions in various medical offices and businesses. I only finished two years of college, not wanting to borrow money to continue school while my husband was in medical school and residency. Once he started making money, I chose to work part time on and off while raising our three children, but I was mostly a stay-at-home mom. So, when our third child left for college, I decided it was time for my “career.” I got cancer right away, which derailed things for a little while. But then I was able to pursue my dreams. I started with painting—studying iconography and eventually leading workshops and teaching in my home studio. In 2006 I started writing seriously, not knowing it would be 11 years until my first book would be published. During those years, I published over a dozen essays in various journals and magazines, but I wasn’t content. I believed that publishing a book would bring contentment.

Friends and fellow writers tell me I should be proud of what I’ve accomplished in my late life career, and I am. Proud. But not always content, which is another thing altogether. I spent months several times during those years trying to get a literary agent, so that my books would have a chance to be published by one of the large houses and be read by thousands. When those plans never worked out, I ended up publishing with four different independent presses who don’t require agent representation—two academic and two small presses. And while my experiences with some of those presses have been wonderful, I’m still in the “small pond.”

fc7fbc8db64bcda844fb8ee3e61b65e6So I tried again last year to get an agent for my short story collection, and also my personal essay collection, but after several months, I lost patience and sent the manuscripts to more indie presses. Of course I’ll be happy to hear that either or both books get published, but I’ll still be in the small pond. I’m asking God to help me be thankful and CONTENT in that pond. And I’m trying to apply Colossians 3:23 to my work ethic:

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

At 67 I’m seeing a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel is these areas. And I’m hoping that by focusing on CONTENTMENT in 2019, I’ll find that elusive peace I’ve been craving my whole life. As I was writing this post, I found a post on my new One Word 365 friend’s Facebook page that said, “Which Bible verse will guide you in 2019?” I began to look for verses about contentment (here’s a nice list of 20) and found a couple that resonated strongly. I’ll close with my favorite:

“That each of them may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”—Ecclesiastes 3:13

What would be your ONE WORD for 2019? Whether or not you chose one “officially,” I hope I’ve inspired you to at least consider a goal that will bring healing and encouragement to you in the New Year.

End of Year Book List for 2018

imageSo, last year I posted my book list, showing that I had read 44 books in 2017. Not sure what this says about me (I’m a slacker?) but in 2018 I only read 38 books—just over one book every two weeks. In comparing the two years, I can’t figure out how I read 18 fewer books this year than the previous, since in 2017 I published 3 books and traveled to over 40 events in 7 states for those books, whereas in 2018 I published 1 book and only traveled to about 25 events in 5 states. Where did my reading time go in 2018? A close examination of my life indicates that I probably spent those remaining reading hours watching television. Yes. I love to watch television. This might be unusual for a writer, but I grew up watching TV (starting in the mid 1950s when we got our first set) and didn’t become a reader until I was in my 50s! I wanted to be an actor before I wanted to be a writer, which explains a bit about my love for the screen.

In my (self) defense, I will say that in 2018 I WROTE another book—my linked short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY—so there’s that. (Pats self on the back.) And I organized my personal essay collection, PILGRIM INTERRUPTED, into sections and wrote the introduction. And I spent a good deal of time querying literary agents and independent presses for both of these books. (Pats self on the back. Again.)

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to notice the types of books I read each of these years:

2017: 23 fiction (all novels); 20 nonfiction (9 memoirs, 1 collection of micro-memoirs, 2 spiritual/religious, 2 psychology/self-help, 5 inspiration/essays, 1 art/history); and 1 poetry collection. 18 of those 44 books were by authors I know personally.

2018: 19 fiction (16 novels, 2 short story collections, 1 book of 4 novellas); 15 nonfiction (5 memoirs, 4 spiritual/religious/inspirational books, 3 essay collections, 1 oral biography, 2 psychology/self help);4 poetry collections. 24 of the 28 books I read in 2018 were by authors I know personally.

So, here’s my list of books read in 2018, actually in the order in which I read them. I’m taking a risk of hurting my friends’ feelings, since I know 23 of these authors, but I’m going to put an asterisk by my favorites. Please keep in mind how very subjective this is—certain topics and stories resonate with people who have shared experiences and interests—and not always an indication of how excellent the prose is, although in some cases that’s the reason for the asterisk. I will also add that I read the first 100 pages or so of THE FRIEND, winner of the National Book Award, but lost interest. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a dog person? As a writer, I wanted to see what it was about the book that won it such a prestigious award. Just didn’t get it. See how subjective this is? (NOTE: THE FRIEND did make the New York Time’s list of 100 Notable Books of 2018. So did 2 books I read and liked very much, IN PIECES by Sally Field and EDUCATED by Tara Westover.
What’s up next for me in 2019? Michelle Obama’s BECOMING, Patti Reagan Davis’s memoir about her father’s journey with Alzheimer’s, THE LONG GOODBYE, and THE LETTERS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR AND CAROLINE GORDON, edited b y Christine Flanagan, are on top of my stack (which is huge!) . . . but I’ll be going to the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in January again, where I’ll visit with over 50 fellow authors and lots of prolific readers, so no telling how many books I’ll come home with!

Mourning DoveHappy reading in 2019! Please leave a comment here or on Facebook and tell me YOUR favorites books read in 2018! HAPPY NEW YEAR

Little Broken Things by Nicole Baart

Hunger by Roxane Gay

*Gradle Bird by J.C. Sasser (my review is here)

Spells & Oregano by Patricia V. Davis

Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley (my review is here)

*Mourning Dove by Claire Fullerton (my review is here)

My Exaggerated LifeThe Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life by Nicole Roccas (my post about this book is here)

*My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy as told to Katherine Clark (my Q & A with author Katherine Clark is here)

The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith

Mississippi by Ann Fisher-Wirth (poems) and Maude Schuyler Clay (photography)

*Confessions of a Christian Mystic by River Jordan

The Mutual UFO Network by Lee Martin (my review is here)

The MasterpieceIn Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories by Niles Reddick (my review is here)

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Lewy Body Soldier by Norman McNamara

Tracking Happiness by Ellen Morris Prewitt (my review is here)

Our Prince of ScribesWhere the Creek Runs by Mary Abraham

*The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis (read my chat with Fiona Davis here)

Rush by Lisa Patton (read my interview with Lisa here)

*Our Prince of Scribes, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt (my review here)

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

A Southern Season: Four Stories from a Front Porch Swing (incl. Claire Fullerton)

Becoming Mrs. Lewis*Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry

Becoming a Healing Presence by Albert S. Rossi

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott (a few words on this book here)

The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain

Navigating Disaster by Sheryl St. Germain (a few words about St. Germain here)

Madstones by Corey Mesler

*Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key (my review here)Congratulations

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

*In Pieces by Sally Field (my review here)

*Educated by Tara Westover

Ya Yas in Bloom by Rebecca Wells

Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonEducated

In Pieces

The Importance of Family

My reunion with my cousin Lea Brackett Smith in November.

My reunion with my cousin Lea Brackett Smith in November.

The older I get, the more I value family. It seems I’m not alone, since my second cousin Lee Brackett Smith friended me on Facebook recently and we discovered that we both live in Memphis, and we haven’t seen each other since we were kids in the sixties! Her father and my father are first cousins. When she saw that I was speaking at the annual Alzheimer’s Caregivers Conference in Bartlett, where she lives, in November, she wanted to come but had a conflict, so we met for lunch instead. I was going to be talking about my book TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S. Lea’s mother, my cousin Janet Brackett, has a brain tumor and is showing signs of dementia, although it’s hard to say what the brain tumor might be causing.

Brackett Johnson family treeI had so much fun visiting with Lea. We started drawing a family tree and asking each other questions to fill in the blanks. Then I emailed a couple of more cousins in Mississippi to try to complete the tree. One fun fact is that my grandmother and her brother married Lea’s grandfather’s brother and sister, so there are all sorts of double cousins as a result.

Lea’s mother Janet is from England. When I first met her I was about 10 years old and I was enchanted by her. With her straight black bangs and mod clothes and British accent, she reminded me of Audrey Hepburn.

B Jo Janet Charles Ray and BillyShe married my cousin Charles Ray Brackett back in the 1960s, and Lea sent me these photographs from the wedding. I love this one, with my aunt Barbara Jo and my daddy, Billy Johnson, flanking Janet and Charles Ray.

Charles Ray and BillyAnd this one of my father and his first cousin Charlie holding hands before the wedding!
The last time I saw Charles Ray was in May of 2016, when he came to my mother’s funeral.

He died a few months later, so I was so glad he had come to her funeral.

 

Susan and Jan BrackettSo, this week I was driving down to Jackson for a book signing at Lemuria Books on Tuesday, so I told Lea I wanted to visit her mother. She is now in assisted living, and I went to the lovely facility on Wednesday. I wasn’t sure if she would remember me—we haven’t seen each other in decades, and she has a brain tumor—but when I walked into her apartment, she looked up and said, “Susan!” We embraced and had a lovely visit. I took her the photographs from her wedding, and also new photographs of my family. Her long-term memory is pretty good, but she couldn’t remember that she had been in the hospital a few days ago. She has no pain, only some blurry vision, so she’s thankful to be pain-free.

Jan w iconAt some point I noticed an icon of an angel hanging by her door. I turned it over and read “To Nana from Mitch.” I asked her who Mitch was. He’s one of her grandsons. I asked if he was Orthodox or why he might have given her an icon, and she said no, she didn’t know where he got it. It was one of those icons from Greece with the official information on the back. I told Janet that I used to paint icons and I kissed the angel and asked him to watch over Janet.

As I drove away from Janet’s apartment and back to Memphis, I realized that there are more cousins in Jackson I haven’t seen in years . . . . maybe I’ll hunt them down in 2019!

Educated

Tara+Westover19593_V1I swear I was drawing comparisons of Tara Westover’s memoir EDUCATED to Jeanette Walls’  THE GLASS CASTLE before I read the same comparison in a blurb by Susannah Cahalan on the back cover! I don’t think I got more than a few chapters in before I could see the resemblance . . . the hardscrabble lives that both Westover and Walls lived as children growing up in violent dysfunctional families . . . and especially the love they each maintained for their abusive parents. I think that love and forgiveness are what stand out as most powerful to me in this book. I kept thinking “Get out of there, Tara!” over and over as she returned to the home and environment that almost killed her several times. The power her parents held over her is a testament to the strength of certain mental illness cocktails, such as her father’s bipolar/schizophrenic/narcissism.

west_9780399590504_jkt_all_r2.inddSet in the mountains of rural Idaho in a fundamentalist Mormon sect, Tara and her siblings barely survived their father’s delusional and often violent behavior.  The fact that she was able to leave—much less study and receive advanced degrees at Brigham Young University, Harvard, and Cambridge, is nothing short of a miracle. Did I mention that she never went to elementary, middle, or high school? And received no organized schooling at home?

If Westover’s story isn’t enough to fill a great memoir, her writing is the icing on the cake. She has an obvious gift with words, which was only enhanced by the education she received once she was able to escape the bounds of home. And maybe even while living at home, as she read and studied in secret. And by observing her family and the world around her.

I’m a slow reader, but I read this in just a few days. Okay, I’ve been sick and staying home for most of the past two weeks, but usually I resort to television when I don’t feel well. I could not put this book down. It’s up at the top of my favorite books of 2018 now. (I’ll publish my list soon.)

Kudos to Westover for having the courage to not only survive the terrors of her childhood, but to thrive as she moved out to get an education, and then to share her story with the world.

In Pieces

In PiecesIt’s been a few years since I read and reviewed a celebrity memoir . . . . back in 2014 I reviewed Diane Keaton’s book, Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty. She still remains my favorite actress, but I’m also a big fan of Sally Field. So when I saw she had a memoir out—In Pieces—I was immediately interested. And she wrote it herself—taking seven years and lots of literary and emotional energy to achieve what I think is a really good memoir. This article in the New York Times says that Fields “reveals a personal history, darkened by abuse and illuminated by grace, that she has never shared before.”

One thing I loved about the book was how Field writes with such immediacy, often saying that she “only now” realizes such and such about an event from her childhood or early adulthood, as she is writing the memoir. Writing in present tense increased this feeling of immediacy—of discovery—which is so important to memoir. As writers we often write to understand our world and our lives, and this is definitely the case with Field’s memoir.

If you don’t already know, or suspect, she was sexually abused by her stepfather for much of her childhood. But she didn’t know until she was in her sixties and her mother was in her eighties that her mother knew about it—or some of it—and did nothing. I wept as she described her reconciliation with her aging mother, wishing that I had talked with my own mother about my grandfather before she lost her memories to Alzheimer’s. It’s always been my fear that he molested her, as he did me, which would explain a lot about her obsession with food, weight (hers and mine), and later her alcoholism. I hope that my readers—and especially Field’s readers—will seek out the people in their lives with whom they need to have healing conversations while they are still alive.

One thing that struck me strongly in the book was how Field wasn’t able to really enjoy her success as an actress. Even when she won the Academy Award for Sybil, her first serious acting role, her self-image was so damaged that she couldn’t really let herself celebrate. By the time she landed the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, her confidence had grown, but there is always a shadow over her joy. She grows into a wise woman, though, and I’ll close with these words near the end of the memoir:

How you care for your child from the time they are born until they’re eighteen is important, but who you are as a person and parent for as long as you live also counts, and counts one hell of a lot.

Update on FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY

It’s been a few months since I blogged about my short story collection, FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY. Back in September I wrote about my journey up to that point:

“Warming Up To Adele (and Short Story Collections)”

Since that time one of the two university presses that was reading the collection has said no, and the other press is still reading. I also queried a small indie press, so they are also reading it now.

Meanwhile, I was looking at the contests listed in Poets & Writers Magazine and one caught my eye:

MagicTartt Fiction Award

This award is for an author’s first collection of short stories, so my book definitely qualifies. The winner receives $1000, publication by Livingston Press, and 100 copies of the book. I sent in the manuscript a few days ago.

I looked at the list of previous winners, and there I found my friend M. O. “Neal” Walsh, whose first short story collection THE PROSPECT OF MAGIC won the award the fifth year it was offered. I remember when Neal read from this collection at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi when it first came out in 2010. (He was leading the annual Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop, which I attended for about seven years. It’s now known as The Yokshop, and it’s the best writing workshop ever. Ever.  I don’t think the date for next year’s workshop is set yet, but watch the website.) Neal went on to publish a novel MY SUNSHINE AWAY, which was a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Pat Conroy Southern Book Award for General Fiction.

So, my fingers are crossed that FRIENDS has a chance for this award.

And yet . . . if I hear back with an offer from one of the two presses currently reading the collection, I’ll have a (nice) quandary. So far none of the four books I have published have won any awards. It’s not the money I’m after, but the recognition, and the marketing benefit of having an “award-winning” book. I think more people would be inclined to purchase and read the book.

Stay tune . . .  you know I’ll keep you posted! Have a great weekend.

Making Up For Our Years Without Christmas

10885594_685613064885216_9056017391288911443_nFor the first seven or so years of our marriage, my husband and I did not celebrate Christmas. As I write these words, I’m surprised that we rejected such an enduring tradition from our lives for so long. We were part of a cult-like group that didn’t believe in Christmas. We interpreted a scripture verse to mean don’t celebrate any holidays:

“One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord, and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it.”—Romans 14:5-6 (Orthodox Study Bible)

We weren’t the first people to reject the celebration of Christmas—the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been doing it for many years. But most of the folks in our little group were raised in Christian families and churches in the South, and it was difficult for our families when we chose not to participate. I can still remember how much it hurt to tell our parents that we wouldn’t be giving them gifts and that we ask that they not give us gifts. For so many years our home was not aglow with Christmas lights and enriched with the aroma of pine needles from Christmas trees. A few Christmas cards did arrive in our mailbox, but even those teetered off when we didn’t reply.

Christmas 1978. Jonathan was 16 months old. It was our first year to celebrate Christmas in the 8 years we had been married.

Christmas 1978. Jonathan was 16 months old. It was our first year to celebrate Christmas in the 8 years we had been married.

And then somehow—I can’t remember this part of the story—we changed our minds. I do remember when it happened, because our oldest child was just over a year old. Thankfully he didn’t have to endure years without Christmas, since he was only four months old during the first Christmas season of his life, when we still weren’t participating. I can still remember the joy I felt at seeing his joy—first at the Christmas tree in our home, and then at the gifts, and the sounds and smells of Christmas as we walked through stores and drove through neighborhoods to look at the outdoor Christmas lights.

Burke's 2I love going to stores that are decorated for Christmas. Especially the small stores, like Burke’s Books, where the window decorations are always so creative. As I left with my bundle of books to give as Christmas gifts, I paused in front of the store and sang (yes—and I didn’t care if anyone walked by and heard me) a few verses of “Silver Bells”—especially the part that says, “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style . . . . As the shoppers rush home with their treasures.”

Yes, the music! I had missed singing Christmas carols—and actually I still miss this, since traditional American Christmas music isn’t sung in the Orthodox Church. It’s not that we’re against it—it’s just that those carols aren’t liturgical, and so they aren’t part of our worship. Some of our parishioners do go as a group to sing carols at a local nursing home every year, and some traditional Christmas carols are sung in our church’s annual children’s Christmas play. But being part of the Orthodox Church is still a bit “foreign” to one born and raised in Mississippi, and living for the past thirty years in Memphis. Some Orthodox traditions run counter to our culture.

Like the Nativity fast, which lasts from November 15 until Christmas. This period is similar to the forty days of Lent that lead up to Pascha, the Orthodox celebration of Easter, only a little less strict. We fast from meat, dairy, and even fish and wine on many days. What’s hard about this—especially as compared with the season of Great Lent—is that the rest of our culture is celebrating with delicious food and drink during this time. Everyone else is partying before Christmas (my husband and I are invited to three Christmas parties this year, and look forward to all of them), whereas our church encourages us to begin the celebrations on Christmas, with emphasis on the “twelve days of Christmas” that start with Christmas, rather than ending with it.

I find some of our traditions distract from the season. Like when we celebrate the Feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6. We have Vespers, then our teens put on a play about the real Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Parishioners bring toys, which our church gives to a local Christmas “store” for parents who can’t afford to buy gifts for their children. And we share refreshments—candies and cookies that contain no milk, eggs, or cheese. No hot chocolate. No egg nog. These must wait until Christmas Day and after. So it always feels to me a bit like a semi-feast.

Christmas cardsI don’t mean to sound like Scrooge, but I obviously struggle with some of the traditions of my Church. Especially when they seem to tamp down the joy and excitement that I missed during those years when we rejected Christmas altogether. This year I’m trying to be positive and focus on giving to others, prayer, and taking time for silence and inner peace. One way I’m doing that is by incorporating prayer into one of my favorite traditions—writing, addressing, and mailing Christmas cards. As I address each card and write a short note inside, I say a prayer for the person or people who will be receiving the card. Since I send out over 100 cards, this is an opportunity for quite a bit of prayer. And just for fun, last night I counted up the states where our Christmas card recipients live, and found there are 22. It’s fun to think of those friends and family who live everywhere from Florida to the state of Washington, and from southern California to Maine, all receiving our cards, and our prayers.

‘Tis the season, y’all.

My First You Tube Video (for #GivingTuesday)

MS Logo 300The good folks at the University Press of Mississippi, who published SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, the anthology I edited, asked me for a video about the book so they could post it today, on “Giving Tuesday.”

YOU TUBE VIDEO of me talking about SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING.

And here’s the video the press put together which has me and several other UPM authors in it.

PLEASE consider donating to this wonderful literary press, to help them be able to continue publishing so many great books each year. Also consider giving copies of SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING as Christmas gifts this year . . . perfect for anyone who:

(1) reads

(2) writes

(3) likes the South

(4) is curious about the South

There’s also a new review of the book up at the Alabama Writers’ Forum if you’d like to read more about it.

Happy #GivingTuesday everyone! Thanks for reading!

Congratulations, Who Are You Again?

IMG_5884Writing from Seagrove Beach, Florida this Thanksgiving weekend feels like writing from home. I’m staying in the location where I spent several month-long writing retreats several years ago working on my novel CHERRY BOMB. It’s also where my family has shared several wonderful vacations, and where our daughter was married in 2011. Right here on this gorgeous white sandy piece of heaven. And now I feel like Seagrove Beach is once again the venue for something important in my life—possibly an awakening to where I am in the pursuit of my dream of being a “successful” author. And how did I get here? By reading Harrison Scott Key’s wonderful new memoir, CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN?

At Novel Books in Memphis, Tennessee.

At Novel Books in Memphis, Tennessee.

Harrison and I met at the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, where he won an award for an essay he submitted. The essay, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir,” was published in Creative Nonfiction Journal in 2015, and Harrison allowed me to reprint it in the anthology I edited, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, which came out this past May. He was on a panel with me for the anthology at the Pat Conroy Literary Center’s Visiting

Harrison joined me on a panel for Southern Writers on Writing in Blufton, SC in September.

Harrison joined me on a panel for Southern Writers on Writing in Blufton, SC in September. Standing: Jonathan Haupt, Nicole Seitz, Patti Callahan Henry, Harrison Scott Key. Seated: Cassandra King, Susan Cushman

Author event in Blufton, South Carolina, in September. Our other common thread is that we have both lived in Jackson, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. And one more common thread is that he now lives in Savannah, Georgia, where he teaches at SCAD (Southern College of Art and Design), which was the setting for much of my novel CHERRY BOMB, for which he wrote a generous blurb. It was fun catching up with Harrison when he gave a talk about his new book at Novel bookstore in Memphis recently.

I loved Harrison’s first book, THE WORLD’S LARGEST MAN, so I was expecting to love this one, too. But I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it, as a writer and as a wounded human, that I would decide that it’s my FAVORITE READ OF 2018. After several failed attempts at writing a memoir about my own sad childhood, sexual abuse, and ongoing healing, I gave up and let my truth feed my novel CHERRY BOMB (2017). Harrison didn’t chicken out, on either of his books. This is creative nonfiction at its best – telling true stories with all the elements of great fiction. Raw. Honest. His words cause me to reconsider whether my own dream has already come true, or if it is (hopefully) still a work in progress:

“My dream came true, it did: I can access the light inside me, what little there is . . . for a book, like any work of art, helps you find a bit of your own light, and my light is silly, and my light is sad, and on good days, my light is true, and I can shine it now….”

All of us—not only writers and artists and musicians, but also those who teach, heal, build things, design things, and even sell things—need to find the light inside us. And finding that light can help us heal. It can help us fill the holes we all have inside us:

“A story is an old-fashioned treasure hunt, and what makes it so very hard for the writer is that when you start to write, you don’t necessarily know the nature of the treasure or even what the map looks like. All you need is a human with an empty place inside them they’re hoping to fill. That’s what a story is. We turn the page because we all have the hole in us, too, and we’re all trying to fill it, and we’re hoping the story will give us some ideas about how to do that.”

We’re also hoping that a book—or even a good short story or essay and especially maybe a good poem—will help us better understand ourselves and our world. As Harrison says:

“Hadn’t I written my book to lay bare the complexity of a family I’d never fully understood, and who, with every story, every remembered moment, showed itself to be more original and full of love and truth and pain than I’d thought possible? Isn’t that why you tell stories, to understand the thing you are telling?”

Yes, and no. This is something I’m just beginning to learn in my own writing, so I was on the edge of my seat as I read on:

“A book is not a report of something that happened in the past, whether that past is real or imagined: The book is the thing that happened. The writing is the action. The art is the knowing. Which is why you cannot write what you know. You can only really write what you want to know…. You paint a painting to see what the painting will look like. If you knew before you started, why would you need to paint it?”

Reading CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN? at Seagrove Beach on Thanksgiving Day, with my husband, Bill.

Reading CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN? at Seagrove Beach on Thanksgiving Day, with my husband, Bill.

If we heed Harrison’s words here, we (writers) will avoid the common mistake of “telling” our readers what happened or is happening, simply reporting on the events of the story, and we’ll begin to “show” them—and ourselves—what it is we are coming to understand as we write.

As a writer, I could relate to much of Harrison’s writing and publishing and book tour stories, and I think his journey to find his dream can apply to people in all walks of life. The fact that he writes about the difficult things of everyday life with such amazing humor is icing on the cake. This is a MUST READ for anyone with a dream. Or anyone who needs to have a dream. Which is everyone.

The End of the 2018 Book Tour

If you’re in the Jackson, Mississippi area, mark your (busy holiday) calendars for 5 p.m. on December 18 and drop by Lemuria Bookstore for Dogwood Press Day. I’ll be joining five of my fellow Dogwood Press authors—including publisher Joe Lee— to celebrate our books and offer the opportunity for everyone to buy signed copies to give as Christmas gifts, including my novel CHERRY BOMB.

Dogwood Press Day at Lemuria_Page_2

This will be my 29th and final literary event for 2018. I’ve only got three events scheduled for 2019 so far, but I’m hoping to have publishing news for a new book soon. Meanwhile, it’s BIC (Butt In Chair) time again. As the marketing winds down, the writing needs to wind up! I’m doing lots of reading now and listening for the muse to help me hone in on a topic for my next book. Stay tuned! And thanks, always, for reading!

Dogwood Press Day at Lemuria_Page_1

 

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