Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews 4

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERI hope you’ve been following my series of excerpts from SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (coming from University Press of Mississippi in May), but if you’ve missed them and would like to catch up, here they are:

Sneak Previews 1 (featuring Neil White, Alan Lightman, Jim Dees, and Joe Formichella)

Sneak Previews 2 (featuring Harrison Scott Key, Cassandra King, Corey Mesler, and Patti Callahan Henry)

Sneak Previews 3 (featuring Sonja Livingston, Sally Palmer Thomason, Julie Cantrell, and Katherine Clark)

This week I’ll bring you a few delicious bites from several more authors whose essays are featured in Section III of the anthology, “Place, Politics, People.” If you like these excerpts, click on the authors’ names to read more about them and their books.

John FloydPerhaps the biggest reason for the abundance of authors from the South, however, is this: Southern kids grew up listening to a lot of different people tell stories…. I can recall sitting at their feet beside the bench in front of my grandfather’s gas station in Sallis, Mississippi, wide-eyed and gullible and marveling at their tales while they munched Nabs and Tom’s Toasted Peanuts and sipped RC Colas bought for them by my granddad from the Coke machine inside the hot but shaded office…. Did those stories influence me to later tell my own tall tales? Of course they did—especially my short small-town mysteries and their laid-back style. Did they make me a good  storyteller? Maybe not. But they made me want to be a good storyteller. And the odds are with me. My native Mississippi is the birthplace of more published authors per capita than any other state, and the Delta town of Greenville has produced more published authors than any other city in the nation…. I also know this: In my travels I’ve been inside bookstores all across the nation, and I have yet to see a section labeled ‘Northern Fiction.’ Maybe that in itself, is revealing.—John Floyd, from “In the Land of Cotton”

Jennifer HorneMy study is geographically located in Alabama but psychologically apart from its churches on every corner, its conservative politics, its fascination with football, its pressure to conform as it pretends to treasure its eccentrics. As a writer I am in and of the South but also apart from it, more or less passing as I go about my daily life….  I have such ambivalence about this region that I write from. How do I critique with a loyal heart? How do I claim this ambivalence? Or as people sometimes ask me when I complain, which I do, why stay?…. Oh, I could move to a liberal enclave in the no-nonsense North, but I like a bit of nonsense, the playful linguistic meander down a silly conversational byway that can happen with stranger or friend alike, the shared acknowledgment of the perplexing absurdity of life that seems a lot more likely to happy here than elsewhere.—Jennifer Horne, Poet Laureate of Alabama, from “Where I Write”

Suzanne HudsonThe best advice I could give an aspiring writer at this particular and disorienting moment in publishing history is: just do it yourself, by gum—with a couple of very reliable readers who won’t lie to you (your mother is out, for example), a damn good editor, and a goddamn good line editor. Pay your editor well and your line editor even better, don’t quibble over every little change to make, and do everything else on social media…. Which brings me back around to Cris Mazza’s delightfully middle-fingered question: “What does one ‘win’ in art?” A better contract? A big advance? A growing fan base? Am I impractical and naïve to scorn the greed that is baked in to most business ventures? When I take pride in the fact that I suck at capitalism do I worry about alienating potential investors? What if I never get picked up by a big publishing house?… I have ceased to give a good goddamn.—Suzanne Hudson, from “The Sordid Business of Writing”

River JordanWhen I read a southern writer I can feel their heart beating. That’s how I know it’s southern. By the heartbeat…. Southerners draw from a well that is a mystical blend of raw earth and our peopled history. From the storytellers that bore us because all those that came before us were storytellers. And yes, the dirt. It always comes back to the dirt…. We came from the earth. Dirt beneath our druthers. Spit and venom, a whip of intention unleashed on page and pronoun. Turn the page of any story where southern meets you and there you feel it, the unmistakable heartbeat that will not be denied. What spins beneath us remains no mystery but courses through our veins. The earth beats and we feel it. The earth bleeds and we mourn it. Seed falls on good ground and we reap a harvest of words…. Cut us and we bleed story.—River Jordan, from “Dirt, Death, and the Divine: The Roots of Southern Writing”

Lee SmithWriting is also my addiction, for the moment when I am writing fiction is that moment when I am most intensely alive…. For me, writing is a physical joy. It is almost sexual—not the moment of fulfillment, but the moment when you open the door to the room where your lover is waiting, and everything else falls away…. The most thrilling, of course, is when it is a first-person voice telling a story of real urgency. At these times, all I have to do is keep up; I become a stenographer, a court secretary, a tape recorder. My biggest job is making sure I have several uninterrupted hours whenever I sit down to write, so this can happen…. Of course writing is an escape, but it is a source of nourishment and strength, too…. Whether we are writing fiction or nonfiction, journaling or writing for publication, writing itself is an inherently therapeutic activity. Simply to line up words one after another upon a page is to create some order where it did not exist, to give a recognizable shape to the chaos of our lives.—Lee Smith, from “A Life in Books”

M. O. WalshFlannery O’Connor, Barry Hannah—if you dig enough, you could probably find that every southern writer, present or past, has said something about the importance of place in her or his work. I have to admit, growing up in Louisiana and being inundated in that tradition, I got a little tired of it. I believed, instead, the great promise of fiction is that it is boundless, limited only by the writer’s imagination. I set my earliest stories in Ohio, Montana, Detroit—all places I’d never been. I felt pretty good crossing the Mason-Dixon in my head. That was two decades ago. Those early stories remain with me still, keeping each other good company in a folder on my computer called REJECTED…. Our best writers have a way of articulating the South so that it feels, at the same time, always alive and already past…. I wonder if we live, at all times, in the half-gone.—M. O. Walsh, from “On the Baton Rouge Floods of 2016 and My Nostalgia for the Half-gone”

Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (a book review)

Bead by Bead coverBead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New

By Suzanne Smith Henley


Suzanne Henley is an artist. And a renovator of old houses. And an author. Her book, Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New, is being released by Paraclete Press on March 13. TODAY! I wrote a bit about it back in January, here:

“Prayer Beads and Weeping Icons”

I’ve been looking forward to this for many reasons, but mainly these four:


Prayer bead necklace made for me by Suzanne in 2013

Prayer bead necklace made for me by Suzanne in 2013

(1) In 2013 I was in a life-threatening car wreck. I broke my neck, right leg, and ankle, and was stuck in my house for the first few months of my recovery. One day Suzanne came to see me and brought me a beautiful necklace she had made from these exotic beads from all over the world. They were prayer beads. And a she had written a description and meditation to go with it. I held them as I lay in my hospital bed (at home) and prayed. And later I hung them on the wall near my computer as a reminder of her kindness and God’s grace and healing.

(2) I share a love of art and spirituality with Suzanne, although my art takes the form of writing (painting) icons in the ancient Byzantine style using egg tempera. And I have been taught to make and use Orthodox prayer ropes—tied with knots rather than strung with beads—as part of a practice of meditation and prayer.

(3) For several years I was in a writing group that Suzanne hosted in her home here in Memphis. I knew right away that she was a gifted writer, and when she submitted sections of her work-in-progress for us to critique, I knew it was something special. Part memoir, part spiritual meditation, her personal essays—which is what they seemed at the time—eventually joined with chapters about prayer beads, and Bead by Bead came together.

(4) A fourth reason for my excitement about this book is that Suzanne contributed a wonderful essay to a collection I edited, and which was published last year by Mercer University Press: A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. Her essay, “Beyond This Point There Be Dragons,” is a gripping story of personal trauma and her eventual blooming into a stronger, more amazing woman. And so for these four and even more reasons, I celebrate Suzanne’s book.

Suzanne doesn’t claim to be an expert on prayer beads, or even on prayer itself. But I love what she says about prayer in that very disclaimer in the beginning of her book, in the section called “Rebranding Prayer”:

I have no idea whether prayer produces any external results. I have to come to believe, though, if nothing else, it is where I most squarely meet myself. I think it is the psychic glue between my conscious and shadow self where we all wrestle with Jacob’s angel and count our scars later.


Suzanne Henley

Suzanne Henley

She introduces the book by explaining that the stories she has included represent “a prayer bead in my life’s rosary…. The book is also an adult version of Show and Tell of some of the hundreds and hundreds of sets of prayer beads I’ve made—each unique, many commissioned to be carried to diverse people around the world. Many of the stories I tell are accounts of these real people for whom praying bead by bead has become an essential spiritual practice.”

In the Prologue, Suzanne tells the story of her employee, O.G. Pierre (“Original Gangster Pierre”) who asked her to make prayer bead necklaces for all the members of his gang, using a Star of David for each one, since it was the symbol of the Gangster Disciples. She had to decline that request.

In “Talking to God in Braile,” she traces the history of prayer beads in various pre-Christian religions, and then continues with the history of prayer beads being used by Christian faiths, including Orthodox prayer ropes and Catholic rosaries.

In “Clearing Your Cache and Beginning to Pray,” Suzanne explains how to use the beads—physically and spiritually—in your daily encounters with God.

In “Prayers, Poems, Lectio, Music, Silence,” she encourages the reader to write her own prayers, but she also offers some traditional prayers for use with prayer beads, and talks about the use of hymns, chanting, and even classical music and opera to assist in prayer.

In “Praying the Beads Without the Beads,” she offers opportunities for prayer while grocery shopping, waiting in traffic or a doctor’s office, doing laundry, and other everyday situations. In this and other chapters, she infuses her writing with humorous true stories from her life, like “Jesus and Tomatoes Coming Soon.”

Her chapter, “Homework: Life as a Set of Prayer Beads,” contains the story of her experience having a panic attack and checking into a psychiatric facility, which she wrote about in her essay for A Second Blooming. She also writes about the business she started, renovating homes in a historic district here in Memphis, offering a strong parallel between her rehab in the psychiatric facility and rehabbing these houses:

And, as trite as it is to say, we are all, of course, rehabs. Every moment. Every day. Even when we seem to be stuck out in some endless, parched desert, our hearts and souls cracking and dying of thirst, we’re handed the gift of starting over. Failure simply means an opportunity to begin again. We get to wrench out those old, rusted nails we worked so hard to hammer in crookedly, pull out the warped boards, and try once more to hammer a straighter nail. Every day.

BEAD BY BEAD would make a wonderful gift for Easter or Mother’s Day or… just because!

#Lent2018: Confession and Community

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300This is the fourth in my weekly series of reflections on Nicole Roccas’s book TIME AND DESPONDENCY: REGAINING THE PRESENT IN FAITH AND LIFE, which I’m reading during this season of Great Lent. If you missed my first three posts and would like to catch up, here they are:

Gratitude & Thankswriting

To Re-spond or De-spond?

Patience and Perserverance

In Chapter 4, Nicole writes about our tendency to escape the present—to avoid our current circumstances, whether it be work, dealing with a difficult situation, relationships with other people, or anything that brings discomfort or requires effort. When we are despondent, we want to escape place and people, which is why confession and community are both important to consider at this juncture. We become restless, and we try to escape in three realms: physically, mentally, and spiritually:

The uncertainty of the present moment confronts us with an ever-unfolding reminder that we are not God, that we are not the masters of our own universe, that there are things we cannot choose or control. Whatever the present looks like at any given moment, there are only two possible ways of responding to it: to enter or exit it, to respond or despond.




Of course one of the primary means of exit—of desponding—that I fall into often involves the physical act of gluttony, or “emotional eating,” as well as over-indulging in television and laziness in general. And one that she mentions that surprised me but makes perfect sense, is “unnecessary busyness.” I love being busy, and I’m sure I use busyness as an escape at times. This might sound confusing as I know I’ve heard that being active is good medicine for depression, but I think that healthy activity and excessive busyness are two different things.

Nicole Roccas, authorNicole goes into depth to expand our understanding of ways to mentally escape the present, including the understanding of two primary roots of despondency in the mind—desire and anger. As a creative (writer) I’ve always struggled with any idea of having my desires and passions stifled by the church. But understood correctly, I don’t think that’s what she is saying here, as she quotes the Dutch Catholic theologian (and one of my favorite writers) Henri Nouwen:

Spiritual disciplines are not ways to eradicate all our desires but ways to order them so that they can serve one another and serve God.

And what does she say about anger?

The anger of despondency is the anger of thwarted wishes, of reality not aligning with our silent demands—the anger that covers the pain of a lifetime spent trying (and failing) to be one’s own god.

So what does all this discussion about living in the present and not escaping it have to do with confession and community? I really like how she tied the importance of community in with our battle against despondency:

The relational context of confession reminds us how vital it is to cultivate fruitful community in the midst of despondency, which continually pulls us toward isolationism.

journal 1Her discussion and reflection questions helped me to reaffirm my commitment to do more spiritual (and not exclusively secular) reading during Lent, to participate as often as possible in the weekly services at church, and to continue to struggle against my tendency to escape with food/gluttony when I’m uncomfortable living in the present.

As she did with the previous chapter, Nicole gives us “Stepping Stones,” in this case, for confession and community: participate in community; initiate community; and learn to see confession as medicine. She asks the reader to consider one way to exercise the stepping stones this week. I hope to reach out to friends and neighbors who have special needs, initiating community and keeping despondency at bay.

P. S. I am really finding blessings in keeping my “thankswriting journal,” which I wrote about in last week’s post and began last Monday night.

Birthday Musings: People Can Change #sixmonthswithoutadrink

67th birthdayI am 67 years old today. Damn, that sounds old! But it also sounds wonderful because, as E.E. Cummings said,

“It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.”

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I had my last drink SIX MONTHS AGO TODAY, on September 8, 2017. I wrote about it here:

“0 Meetings in 90 Days” (December, 2017)

and again here:

“120 Days” (January 8, 2017)

6_month_chip_magnet-re89176215e1a488c9cd00a469e07f899_x7js9_8byvr_630My closest friends are as baffled as I am about how I’ve been able to do this. Without rehab. Without AA. (Read my first post above for more info on that.) And today, six months in, I’m more convinced than ever that it has to do with:

Timing. I read Annie Grace’s book, This Naked Mind, at a time when I was ready to hear her words, and ready to act on them.

God’s grace. Every morning I ask God to help me make it through the day without a drink. And every evening I say thanks. Kind of like Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow. That’s exactly how I feel today!

It also has to do with believing that people can change. In my blog post from August 8, 2010, “Can People Change?” I quoted an Orthodox psychotherapist, Dr. Jamie Moran, from his essay, “Orthodoxy and Modern Depth Psychology,” in the book Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World:

People who leave a space for God—even for the ‘hidden’ God, which is what the Holy Spirit is: God’s humility—can be helped, and can change. They can learn to live with the most extreme damage and suffering and yet still find joy in life…. People who leave a space for God are able to make that change of heart, not for any sentimental reason or out of any moral superiority, and certainly not because of what is conventionally called piety, but because and only because, despite their selfishness, they truly acknowledge and have faith in a force that is greater than themselves. They are willing to open their selfishness up to that greater force, and in opening its closed system, to begin to let life teach it its mistakes and heal its wound, and comfort its genuine suffering.

37566-People-Can-ChangeI was trying to change back then, and for many years before that. But I couldn’t seem to let go of one of the main things that gave me comfort from my suffering—both emotional and physical—alcohol. (Another thing that I’m still struggling to let go of is trying to find that comfort from food, and I’m hoping that I will learn to do that as I have learned to let go of alcohol.) Sexual abuse—both as a child and as a young adult—left me in a messy battle with God, self, and my abusers, leading first to a lifetime of disordered eating and several decades of disordered drinking.

I’ve also struggled most of my adult life with anger and depression, which are in many ways two sides of the same coin. But in these areas I also believe that people can change, and I’m thankful to see progress with both of those demons in my own life, starting ten years ago when I had a breakthrough with anger, and wrote about it in an essay that was a finalist in the Santa Fe Writers Project: “Blocked.” And I’m continuing to learn ways to deal with depression—and its close cousin despondency—this Lent, as I read and write about Nicole Roccas’s new book, Time and Despondency.

So, as I move forward today into my sixty-eighth year of this amazing life that God has given me, I will try to continue to leave a space for God. Because I believe that people can change.

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews 3

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERLast week I shared excerpts from essays by four of the twenty-six contributors to SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (coming from University Press of Mississippi in May): Harrison Scott Key, Cassandra King, Corey Mesler, and Patti Callahan Henry. And if you missed it, the week before I featured Neil White’s enticing blurb, excerpts from Alan Lightman’s Foreword, and essays by Jim Dees and Joe Formichella.

This week I have four more sneak previews to share. Grab some popcorn and Coke (or whatever) and enjoy:


Sonja LivingstonWe have to remind ourselves of our riches. Of the importance of what we have within us—all that we’ve seen and heard and stored away. We have an obligation to our words, to the people who said them, and to what we know to be real in the world. Your particular stories and the beautiful sounds that only you can make is what will save us during troubled times. When we let ourselves sing—really sing—what comes from within us belongs not just to you or me, but to all of us. This never stops amazing me. One true voice. Nothing less than stardust.—Sonja Livingston, from “Stardust: An Essay on Voice in Four Parts”


Sally ThomasonStories about and by southerners have shown me that good people, in spite of seemingly insurmountable problems and personal pain, spiritually, or perhaps organically, survive and grow through heart-to-heart connections—care and love for one’s family; care and love for one’s community, care and love for one’s land, care and love for one’s self, and care and love for the other, regardless of race or life station…. The more I read and deeply listened to the writings of southerners about the South, who so often express my thoughts better than I could express them myself, I realized, I am indeed a southerner—the South is where I belong.—Sally Palmer Thomason, from “How I Became a Southerner”


Julie CantrellMany in life say the earth is our mother. If that’s the case, then the South is the lap into which we all crawl to hear her story. It is the place where we learn a language of folklore and fairytales, happy-ever-afters and made-up myths. Here, swaddled in kudzu beneath the bower of magnolias, we nurse from the bosom of the universe’s bard. We nestle snug in her arms, sipping on fables. We cut our teeth on plotlines, believing that we are the hero of her tales. The South is nothing less than a sanctuary for story. It is the porch swing, the rocking chair, the barstool, the back pew. It is everything that made me and shaped me and saved me. As a southern writer, I aim only to invite my readers to enter this sacred space. So to all I say, Welcome, welcome home. Life is hard and your soul is weary. Come in, kick off your shoes. You are safe here. Let me tell you a story.—Julie Cantrell, from “Southern Fiction”


Katherine ClarkWhereas 100 years ago, writers had to learn to embrace the differences of the South, nowadays the tendency can be to positively wallow in the eccentricities and grotesqueries of the southern experience, usually of an earlier era. This is what the southern novel needs to save itself from…. This epiphany also involved an awareness that self-conscious southernism is a recipe for cliché and bad writing. I put myself on the path to writing a decent southern novel only when I stopped trying to write a “southern novel” and was simply trying to write an original novel set in the South. This is the main lesson I learned from years of struggling to be a southern writer, and the main pearl of wisdom I have for anyone engaged in the same struggle.—Katherine Clark, from “The Burden of Southern Literature”


Stay tuned for more previews next week. And thanks always for reading! I’ll be posting a schedule of events in a few weeks, sharing dates and places to catch groups of these amazing writers in person for readings.

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