Rebranding Prayer and Mindfulness Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Tennessee, Miss Mississippi, Swim Suit Competition, and Alzheimer’s

 

Kelle Barfield, owner of Lorelei Books, hosted my reading for Southern Writers on Writing on June 21

Kelle Barfield, owner of Lorelei Books, hosted my reading for Southern Writers on Writing on June 21

After my visit to Vicksburg, Mississippi last week to do a reading and signing for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at Lorelei Books, I became more interested in what was going on behind the scenes at the Miss Mississippi Pageant. The pageant takes place in Vicksburg every June, and the preliminary competitions were held during my visit. The bookstore owner, Kelle Barfield, had just hosted an autograph party for several of the contestants earlier in the week. Sorry I missed that! I had read about the decision of the Miss America Pageant to discontinue the swimsuit portion of the pageant, and how the Miss Mississippi Pageant was still including it, so my writer’s curiosity was up. When I got home, I watched the pageant online on Saturday night.

Asya BranchI was delighted that Asya Branch won and is the new Miss Mississippi for 2018. Asya goes to school at my alma mater, Ole Miss, and her platform is to help children of incarcerated parents. Her own father has been in jail for more than half of her life. I was also interested in the fact that she won the swimsuit competition for the second time (she also won it in 2016), and her short interview question during the final part of the pageant was about her thoughts on this part of the competition being done away with. She said she had mixed feelings (I guess so, since she won it twice!) but understood that the pageant wanted to focus more on empowering women. (That’s a paraphrase… wish I had written down an exact quote.)

Christine Williamson, Miss Tennessee 2018

Christine Williamson, Miss Tennessee 2018

Meanwhile back in Tennessee, Memphis native and Ole Miss graduate, Christine Williamson was crowned Miss Tennessee Saturday night at the pageant in Jackson, Tennessee. And guess what? She was also the winner of the swimsuit competition. Her response to hearing that it was done away with for the Miss America Pageant?

It’s bittersweet. I understand we have to eliminate it to get rid of outside perceptions of women being objectified.

She added that she never felt objectified, but that she learned more about fitness and nutrition by participating. As she said in the Commercial Appeal article:

Pageants teach women the importance of physical fitness, having confidence in public speaking and showcasing their talents. In addition, it’s taught them the importance of failing graciously.

Williamson also represents the state as Tennessee’s appointed congressional advocate and serves as a national Alzheimer’s Association ambassador. Of course I love her involvement with this association, as I lost both my mother and my grandmother to this awful disease.

Speaking of which, I just discovered a wonderful web site with posts by over 150 authors who have published books about Alzheimer’s. Check out AlzAuthors.com. I will have a post up there about my memoir Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s in the coming months (watch for a link here when it comes out) and I’m enjoying reading through the posts and have already ordered a couple of books by AlzAuthors. I was especially thrilled to learn that one of my favorite literary fiction novelists, Lisa Wingate (author of Before We Were Yours) wrote her first novel, Tending Roses, about her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s.

11

 

So in September I’ll be cheering for Miss Mississippi and Miss Tennessee to do well in the Miss America Pageant… even though there won’t be a swimsuit competition to give them a leg up. (pun intended) Hopefully their other attributes—like talent and platform—will get them both through to the finals, and maybe one of them will be our new Miss America.

Return to Utopia (Fairhope, Alabama)

Susan w books 2110 years ago, in 1908, 500 “free thinking people” seeking “their own special utopia” established the town of Fairhope, Alabama on a bluff overlooking the Mobile Bay. I love this part of the history of Fairhope:

Over the years artists, writers, and craftsmen have found Fairhope to be an inspiring haven for their work and have helped to make the community what it is today.

Since my first visit to Fairhope in 2007, I’ve done numerous blog posts about some of the trips I’ve made back there, usually for literary events. What an amazing town! At the end of this post, I’ve put links to some of those earlier posts, with a few comments for anyone who is interested. (All that is what writers call the “back story.”) But now I’d love to share about my 12th (or maybe 13th?) visit to Utopia, just two days ago.

It was a short drive to Fairhope from Orange Beach, Alabama, where I was speaking at the Alabama Writers Conclave Conference on Saturday and Sunday. I was joining two local authors—Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson—for a panel on SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at Page & Palette Books. [Side note: In 2007 when I was starting this blog, I wanted to use the name Pen & Palette, so I Googled the term, and Page & Palette came up. I visited the store for the first time that same year.] So many wonderful things about this event to share!

Katherine, Lacey, Lia and Me. I love my Orthodox sisters!

Katherine, Lacey, Lia and Me. I love my Orthodox sisters!

First of all, three of my favorite Orthodox friends showed up. Lia Roussos Douglas, known on Instagram as the “Sassy Greek Girl,” and Lacey Childress were both members at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis years ago, and now both live in Gulf Shores, Alabama. And Katherine Thames, one of my beloved Goddaughters, came over from her home in Gulfport, Mississippi. It was a fun reunion, and I only wish it could have lasted for days. I feel a girlfriend beach trip in our future!

Susan Suzanne Joe Sonny Bobby

 

Another fun part of the event was that Sonny Brewer, Farhope author of The Poet of Tolstoy Park and other books, insisted on introducing us at the reading. He was accompanied by his dog (yes) Bobby, who will make an appearance soon in an upcoming issue of Garden and Gun Magazine. Sonny wrote a story about Bobby for the magazine. It was fun seeing Sonny again after first meeting him ten years ago, and later having him (and Joe and Suzanne) critique an early chapter of my novel CHERRY BOMB, which was finally published last year.

Tamaras dinner

 

Other Fairhope writers showed up at the reading and later at dinner right down the street at Tarmara’s Downtown. Here’s more of that “story come full circle”—P.t. Paul and Robert O’Daniel are both in a writing group with my friend Ren Hinote (who was sick and couldn’t come on Sunday) that ALSO critiqued part of CHERRY BOMB a number of years ago. So I feel that the literary magic of Fairhope dwells in my first novel and will always inspire me. There was a good crowd – I’m so thankful to all the folks who came out on Father’s Day afternoon – and we had fun talking about southern literature.

poolBill and I ended up staying at the Hampton Inn, just down the street from the bookstore and the restaurant, so we checked into the hotel on Sunday afternoon and didn’t get back in our car until we left for Memphis the next day. It was so fun to just walk down the beautiful street to our events. Also to swim in the hotel pool Sunday night and again on Monday. It reminded me of the joy of swimming in a Holiday Inn pool when I was a kid. (Also—bad review alert—the pool at the Micro-Tel Inn and Suites by Wyndam in Gulf Shores was BROKEN while we were there over the weekend. Yes. In June. So was the smoke alarm in our room. I won’t go on, but I could.)

We returned to Memphis yesterday refreshed and with wonderful memories of our weekend on the Alabama Gulf Coast. And especially our visit to Utopia.

Here’s the “back story” I mentioned at the beginning of the post.

Fairhope (2007) is about my first visit to Fairhope. I was on a personal “retreat” at Gulfshores and decided to drive over and see what all the hoopla was about. I was hooked.

The Other Side of Civility (November 2008) This post is about my second visit to Fairhope, almost ten years ago, for the last “Southern Writers Reading” event, hosted by Sonny Brewer. This was the year I met Sonny, and also Joe Formichella, Suzanne Hudson, Jennifer Horne, and Wendy Reed. Our friendships have grown over the years and we’ve swapped “editor hats”:

Jennifer and Wendy edited CIRCLING FAITH: SOUTHERN WOMEN ON SPIRITUALITY (2012), the first book I was every published in. I contributed an essay.

Joe (and unofficially Suzanne) edited the anthology THE SHOE BURNIN’: STORIES OF SOUTHERN SOUL (2015) in which I had an essay.

I edited A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE (2017) with essays by Jennifer and Wendy included.

And last month my anthology SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING came out, with essays by Joe, Suzanne, Jennifer and Wendy.

Fairhope Writers (March 2011) in which I write about meeting with a group of writers at Ren Hinote’s home. The group included Robert O’Daniel and P.t. Paul, both of whom I have stayed in touch with and enjoyed seeing on Sunday. This group actually critiqued a chapter of my novel CHERRY BOMB, which was published in 2017.

Fairhope Writers Colony Retreat (June 2011) about the “colony” organized by Sonny Brewer, which I participated in.

A Secret Word (June 2011) talks about the writer Jennifer Paddock, who was one of the speakers at the Fairhope Writers’ Colony, in which I was a “colonist” that month.

Surviving the Arena (February 2013) has pictures and narrative about the first “Shoe Burnin’” I attended at Waterhole Branch (near Fairhope) where a group of authors and musicians gathered to tell stories and throw shoes into the bonfire.

I didn’t do a post about my visit in July of 2013, when I drove down to participate in a video to market the upcoming collection THE SHOE BURNIN’: STORIES OF SOUTHERN SOUL, at Joe and Suzanne’s home in Waterhole Branch. The reason I didn’t do a post is because I had a wreck that night and broke my neck and leg and ended up in the hospital. When I got back to Memphis, it was several weeks before I could blog again….

Penster’s Writing Group (November 2013) – another fun visit, this time as the invited speaker for the Penster’s Writing Group.

Waffle House Rules (2016) tells about the literary salon I hosted for Fairhope authors Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson in our home.

Book Tour Continues (2017) mentions my first reading at Page & Palette in Fairhope, for my memoir TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’s. I returned to P&P on November 2, 2017, for a reading and signing for my novel CHERRY BOMB, but I guess I didn’t do a blog post about that one.

I know I visited Fairhope a couple of more times with Daphne Davenport, Susan Marquez and NancyKay Wessman, for wonderful girlfriend weekends at Ren Hinote’s home, but I must not have blogged about all of those visits. Imagine that. Somehow I will just have to remember them….

Alabama Writers Conclave Conference

I’m off this morning to Orange Beach, Alabama, where I’m speaking at the 2018 Conference of the Alabama Writers Conclave (AWC). Check out the list of speakers here. So many good things about this event:

2018+awc+conference

 

I get to hang out with my Alabama writer friends Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed again (loved being with them in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa last week) and I finally get to meet Katherine Clark in person.

My husband is joining me for a long weekend on the coast. The AWC pays travel, two nights in a hotel, and an honorarium, so it’s fun that I’m taking him as the spouse for this trip, after so many trips where he takes me as the spouse for his medical meetings. Tonight we’ll have our final “anniversary week” celebration, with dinner at Fishers at the marina at Orange Beach. And hopefully he’ll have some fun at the beach while I’m working on Saturday!

On Sunday we drive from Orange Beach over to Fairhope, where I’m joining Suzanne Hudson and Joe Formichella for a panel on Southern Writers on Writing at Page & Palette Books. I love this bookstore and this town, where I’ve been many times over the years for literary events and have made some good friends. 10 of us will be having supper at Tamara Downtown after the reading at Page & Palette Sunday afternoon.

Here’s my schedule at the AWC Conference:

Saturday, 8:30 a.m. I’m teaching a workshop: “Working With Editors Memoirs, Novels, and Anthologies.”

Sunday, 9:45 a.m. I’m on a panel with contributors Jennifer Horne, Wendy Reed, and Katherine Clark for Southern Writers on Writing. This will be my sixth event for this book, and I’m loving connecting with all the authors throughout the south on this book tour.

We’re hitting the road in about two hours, so I’d better pack! Watch Facebook for photos. Have a great weekend, everyone!

Alabama Book Tour Begins!

This week I will be joining four of the twenty-six contributors to SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at two events in Alabama: Tuesday, June 5 at 5 p.m. we’ll be at the Little Professor Bookcenter in Homewood, Alabama. 

Lil Professor flier

 

And then Wednesday we’ll be at Ernest & Hadley Booksellers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (I’ll be returning to Alabama June 15-17 for events at Orange Beach and Fairhope, so stay tuned for those next week!) Hope to see lots of folks from Birmingham and Tuscaloosa this week!

Ernest & Hadley flier

 

Memento Mori, Orthodox Theology, Tattoos, and Flannery O’Connor

Jon tattooI had never heard the Latin phrase, “memento mori,”until a couple of weeks ago when we were in New Orleans, having dinner with our son Jonathan one night. He showed us his new tattoo (see photo at right), which has the phrase at the bottom of the picture. I asked him what it meant, and he said it was an Army thing…. Something from Caesar that meant “remember you will die,” or something similar. Jon spent twelve years in the army, flying helicopters for two of his three tours in the middle east, often facing death up close and personal.

Melissa Conroy artI Googled the phrase later and the closest translation I found was similar—“Remember that you have to die.” I read more about its military origins, especially as it related to “Roman triumphs.”

A couple of days later, I discovered some art work Melissa Conroy (Pat Conroy’s daughter) posted on Instagram (see left) and couldn’t believe that it was also about memento mori. So, having never heard the phrase, now I was seeing it twice within a week or so. Was there a message there for me? Oh, but wait….

Confessions RIVERThe next day I started reading (an advance readers copy of) River Jordan’s upcoming book, Confessions of a Christian Mystic, (which is awesome and will be out in 2019) and, if you can believe this, the title of chapter 6 of her book is “Memento Mori”! How synchronistic—or maybe, how mystical!

When Jon first told me about the phrase, I thought about how the Church fathers often referred to something similar, encouraging Christians to keep their death before them at all times, so that they would live more godly lives. I found St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s “On the Remembrance of Death,” and read part of it again. Written primarily for monks, it’s a bit more intense than I can embrace in my current lifestyle, but the concept of living as though one might die soon isn’t a bad thing.

Mom and Dad graveI had the opportunity to have my own death brought closer in my mind this past week, when I visited the graves of my mother, father, brother, and Goddaughter—all within a few feet of each other—at Natchez Trace Memorial Park in Madison, Mississippi. My mother Effie Johnson died two years ago May 22. My brother Mike Johnson died eleven years ago this past January. And this year I will commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of the deaths of my father Bill Johnson (July 9) and my Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway (September 18).

Mary Allison's graveAs I brushed the dirt off the grave markers and placed fresh flowers in the vases, I sang “The Angel Cried,” and shouted, “Christ is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen,” and then spent some time sitting on a bench under a beautiful tree near the graves. I talked to each of these four people I loved so much. And I also thought about my own death. I thanked God that He has allowed me to live my 67 years so far, and hasn’t taken me during times (days, weeks, months, or years) when I was angry, or when I was withholding forgiveness from others. With much joy I realized that I am more at peace now than I’ve ever been in my life, and for that I am so grateful. Maybe I’m beginning to learn to live like I am dying.

Mike's grave

Meanwhile, a few more reflections on tattoos. My husband doesn’t like them. Lots of folks don’t. I didn’t always, as my kids remember. But I do now. Maybe for the same reason that I like graffiti, when it’s done as art and not as a gang message. I can see how folks would like to use their skin as a canvas to share a message. About nine years ago a group of women got together for a Groupwtattoosgoing-away-party for my Goddaughter Julie Stanek (now Julie Stell) who was moving to Pennsylvania. Part of the fun included temporary tattoos—several of us, including Julie, were artists and it seemed a fitting way to remember the day. I did a couple of posts back when some of us were gathering at Julie’s to do art together. We called ourselves the “Mixed Bag Ladies.” Here’s another post about the group.

BreaktheSkin-cvr-768x1167As I was reading another advance readers copy this week—this time it’s Lee Martin’s upcoming short story collection, The Mutual UFO Network,—I remembered one of his earlier books, titled Break the Skin. I Googled the cover because I remembered that it had this haunting image of a woman with a beautiful tattoo. Its design reminds me of some of Mare’s graffiti in my novel Cherry Bomb. Lee is an amazing writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his novel, The Bright Forever. More synchronicity….

parkersback1And finally, having just finished “launch week” for my new anthology, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, I realized that at each of the three events—at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, and Novel Books in Memphis—at least one panelist mentioned Flannery O’Connor. An inspiration to many southern writers and readers, her short story “Parker’s Back” involves a tattoo of a Byzantine icon of Christ on the back of one of the characters. The first time I read the story I loved how O’Connor tied her gritty southern character to Byzantine iconography, and I hoped to emulate her as characters in my novel and also in a short story I recently drafted are changed by icons. I’ll close with an interesting article I found today by an Orthodox priest Father James Coles, “Man is an Icon of God,” in which he talks about “Parker’s Back.” Thanks, always, for reading.

 

Media Blitz and 4 events Coming SOON!

Bookstock_posterIt’s almost May. But before we say goodbye to April, I have one final event at which I’ will be promoting CHERRY BOMB, A SECOND BLOOMING, and TANGLES AND PLAQUES:
This coming Saturday, April 28, I’ll be one of a number of local authors participating in the Memphis Public Library’s annual BOOKSTOCK. From 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. I’ll be at a table in the lobby talking to visitors about literature, reading, writing, literacy, really anything having to do with books. And I’ll have copies of my first three books for sale. The last time I did this was back in 2013, when I had two essays published in anthologies, so it’s exciting to be participating as author of several books this year.

Next week I’ll be celebrating the release of my fourth book—SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING—which launches May 1 from University Press of Mississippi. Here’s the schedule of events:

May 1 (5 p.m.)—Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. I’ll be joined by contributors Jim Dees, Michael Farris Smith, and Ralph Eubanks.

May 2 (5 p.m.)—Lemuria in Jackson, Mississippi, with John Floyd and Jim Dees.

May 5 (1 p.m.)—Novel Books in Memphis, where the panel will include Corey Mesler, Sally Palmer Thomason, Claude Wilkinson, and Niles Reddick.

BookREviewsAnd now for the upcoming media blitz! Please watch for reviews and articles in these four publications:

Chapter 16 and the Memphis Commercial Appeal will have a review, possibly this coming Sunday, April 29!

Oxford Magazine (Oxford, Mississippi) will have an interview with me in the May issue.

The Clarion Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi) will have a review this Sunday, April 29.

Southern Writers Magazine will feature my article, “Southern Writers on Writing: Editing an Anthology” in their May issue.

Fliers for all three events next week are below. Hope to see you at one of them!

Square Books flier

Lemuria flier

Novel flier

Small Mississippi Towns and the Characters That (Might) Live There!

John Floyd's latest short story collection, THE BARRENS, coming in October!

John Floyd’s latest short story collection, THE BARRENS, coming in October!

Eleven years ago this August I went to the first Mississippi Writers Guild Conference in Clinton, Mississippi. It was pivotal for me in several ways—especially meeting Joshilyn Jackson, who inspired me to start a blog (√) and write a novel (√). I also met prolific short story author John Floyd, who critiqued the story I turned in ahead of time, “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” It was pretty awful, but he was kind and gentle with my soul in his critique. What I learned from the experience was that I just wasn’t in love with the genre. I liked the length—the average popular short story is 3500 words—but I preferred nonfiction if I was going to write short form. I went on to publish essays in a dozen or more journals and magazines and four anthologies. And then I edited two anthologies. It was so much fun putting together these collections of 20 and 26 essays by other writers.

atwtm_cover_FINAL-e1420661990558For fiction, I preferred novels. I rarely even read short stories, except for Flannery O’Conner. And then two of my friends published collections of short stories. Suzanne Hudson—who got first place in a Penthouse Magazine short story contest when she was young—came out with All the Way to Memphis in April of 2014, which I loved. These stories are southern to their core, border on gothic, and deal with abusive family members and other issues that dive into the human psyche and land in the heart. When I read them a few years ago, I mused—if only for a moment—on whether or not I could write short stories.

Wildflower.jpgThree months later my friend Jennifer Horne, who happens to be the Poet Laureate of Alabama, published a collection of “linked” short stories, Tell the World You’re a Wildflower. Jennifer already had published several volumes of poetry and had edited three anthologies, so this was a new genre for her, too. Jennifer’s stories encompass plastic surgery and white supremacists, family secrets and family trees, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and a young writer who describes her work in progress as “the bastard love-child of William Faulkner and Alice Walker.” Like Suzanne’s work, these felt like mini-novels, and I loved them.

So here I am, four years later, trying my hand at writing a collection of linked short stories! FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY was inspired by my visits to libraries in eight small towns in Mississippi (seven of those visits in 2017 and one this year) to speak to the Friends of the Library groups. I spoke to seven groups about my novel CHERRY BOMB, and to one group about my memoir TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S. These road trips into rural areas and small towns of my home state made an impression on me in ways I wasn’t expecting. I read the histories of each town, took in the landscape, and loved meeting the people, who ultimately inspired the characters in my short story collection, although my stories and the characters are completely fictional.

Aberdeen, Mississippi

Aberdeen, Mississippi

I’ve finished drafting seven of the stories, and I’m up to 34,267 words. And here’s the fun part. I’ve heard lots of writers say that when they are writing, their characters “take on a life of their own” and that they don’t know what they’re going to do next. They talk as if they’re just writing down what they see happening, rather than controlling the plot. I always rolled my eyes when I heard them say things like that. (Queue Twilight Zone music, right?) But guess what? That’s exactly what’s happening as I draft these stories! I did create a rough one-paragraph description of each of the stories before I started writing, but the characters’ lives are, indeed, taking off in all sorts of directions I wasn’t expecting. I’ve never had so much fun writing!

But just because I’m having fun doesn’t mean the stories are funny. They are heavy-hitting, dealing with Alzheimer’s, alcohol, cancer, domestic abuse, adoption, race, homelessness, childhood sexual abuse, and eating disorders. So far. (My final two stories might deal with suicide and/or schizophrenia, and one might even include a kidnapping.) The towns I visited, where the stories are set, include Eupora, West Point, Aberdeen, Starkville, Southaven, Oxford, Senatobia, and Pontotoc. It’s interesting, when I look at a map, that none of the towns are in the Mississippi Delta or the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where I have given readings at bookstores but haven’t visited libraries. That might be something to explore in the future.

I’m off to Pontotoc—in my mind—to finish the story I set there. I can’t wait to see what Robert Earl does next. I’m just trying to keep up!

Book Clubs, Continued, and Working Title Reveal

Library Sign STOP ABERDEEN

Aberdeen, Mississippi

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

Friends of Library STARKVILLE

Friends of the Library, Starkville, Mississippi

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

August 29, 2017: Senatobia Library/Senatobia, MS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer Beads and Weeping Icons

ASB CoverI’m off to Nacogdoches, Texas, on Thursday for the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend, where as many as several hundred members of Pulpwood Queens book clubs from all over the country gather every year, along with several dozen authors. I’m on two panels:

Thursday, 7 p.m. A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE. This is the anthology I edited, published last March, and it has been chosen as the book club selection for February by the Pulpwood Queens. Several contributors will be joining me on the panel: Julie Cantrell, River Jordan, NancyKay Wessman, and Susan Marquez. Memphis author Suzanne Henley won’t be there, but she will be there in spirit. Suzanne’s essay, “Beyond This Point There Be Dragons,” is included in the collection. And she has a book coming out this March: BEAD BY BEAD: THE ANCIENT WAY OF PRAYING MADE NEW. It’s part memoir, part spiritual journal, part “how to pray with Protestant prayer beads.”

Bead by Bead FULLCover_need Spine

 

Prayer BeadsThere’s an auction during the weekend to raise money for the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, South Carolina. Suzanne has contributed a hand-made set of her prayer beads, which I’ll be taking with me to the auction on Thursday. The beads she uses are from all over the world, some as ancient as 200 B.C. She includes a beautifully written description and inspirational note to go with each set. She has dedicated this set to author Julie Cantrell, who has inspired Suzanne, and who also wrote a wonderful blurb for BEAD BY BEAD. Julie is also on a panel for her novel PERENNIALS during the weekend.

Prayer Beads notes

On Saturday afternoon at 2:12 I’ll be on a panel for my novel CHERRY BOMB, which is one of the Pulpwood Queens book club selections for March. And I’m contributing an item for the auction, as well. It’s an 8 X 8 inch canvas print of the “weeping” icon of Saint Mary of Egypt that I painted… the one that appears on the back cover of the book. CB cover FINALIn CHERRY BOMB, the icon is weeping for women who have been abused (including the three main characters in the book). The icon I painted isn’t actually weeping, but my daughter-in-law See Cushman added the “tears” using Photoshop. I hope that it will be a blessing to whoever buys it during the auction.

 

Mary of Egypt weeping

 

 

I can’t wait to spend the weekend with these amazing women, sharing our love for books! The theme this year is “Bohemian Rhapsody,” so watch for some pictures on Facebook with lots of fun costumes!

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