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 Affair (?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Lamott on Hershey’s Kisses.

An Orthodox saint on the value of fasting.

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

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

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

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

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

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

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

And later she says,

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

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

Writing Workshop at Novel Memphis: October 27

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

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

2011 – Director of Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novel

Attn: Workshop Registration

387 Perkins Ext.
Memphis, TN 38117

Novel Workshop Flyer Cushman

 

Writing Workshop Registration Form

2018 Releases from SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING Authors

Eight of the twenty-six authors who contributed essays (and the Foreword) to Southern Writers on Writing have new books out in 2018. I am honored to have all of these amazing writers in this collection, and I especially want to encourage my readers to check out these new releases for 2018. I love the diversity of this group of new releases, which includes two short story collections; five nonfiction books (two inspirational books, one memoir, one anthology, and one oral biography); and two novels. The authors hail from Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. CHECK THEM OUT:

9781101871867indexMemphis native Alan Lightman, who wrote the Foreword to Southern Writers on Writing, has 2 new books already out this year: In Praise of Wasting Time (May 2018) and Searching for Stars on an Island in May (March 2018).

 

 

 

9781611179071Katherine Clark’s oral biography, My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy, came out in March.

 

The BarrensProlific short story author John Floyd has another collection coming out in October: The Barrens. (He has published close to 1000 short stories!)

 

 

 

becoming-mrs-lewis-2b-web-624x943Patti Callahan Henry makes a departure from her coastal-themed novels with Becoming Mrs. Lewis, a novel about Joy Davidman, C. S. Lewis’s wife, coming in October.

 

Congratulations+who+are+you+again+pb+c

Harrison Scott Key brings us more humor with his new book, Congratulations! Who Are You Again?, coming in November.

 

Reddick coverNiles Reddick, another prolific short story author, brings us Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories, which will be out in August.

 smith_thefighter_hc-2

Michael Farris Smith’s novel The Fighter came out in March.

 

OurPrinceofScribes_coverNicole Seitz is editor of Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy, coming in September.

 

So, the contemporary canon of southern literature continues! Happy reading!

The Mutual UFO Network—Short Stories (and advice) from Lee Martin

Mutural UFO CoverPulitzer Prize finalist Lee Martin has a new short story collection coming out on June 12—The Mutual UFO Network. I’ve been a fan of Lee’s work since I first met him, five years ago when he was on the faculty for the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conference, which I helped Neil White organize in Oxford, Mississippi. We invited Lee because of his three memoirs (it was a CNF conference, after all) but it was his fiction that got him to the finals for the Pulitzer. And it’s his short stories that are capturing my attention now, especially since I’m in the process of revising my first collection of shorts, Friends of the Library.

As I was finishing reading my advance readers copy of The Mutual UFO Network this morning, I read Lee’s blog post, “Three Principles for Short Story Writers.” Lots of wisdom in this short piece, like these words:

… a short story writer has to understand that there’s always a second story going on beneath the narrative arc of the surface story. That submerged story, located more within character relationships, is always working its way to the top through the pressures applied to it by the narrative events. To access that submerged story, a writer has to be a careful observer of people.

I’m going to go back and be sure each of my stories has this kind of depth. And I know I’m just learning to be a careful observer of people—like the people I met at those eight libraries in small towns in Mississippi last year.  So, here are Lee’s three principles for short story authors:

  1.  Start with the habitual and let a moment outside the ordinary be the inciting episode for the narrative to follow.

  2.  Create a causal chain of events that connect to the inciting episode and allows for its further exploration.

  3.  Let the pressure of that causal chain lead to a telling moment, when characters reveal something about themselves not ordinarily on display.

LeeMartinBioPage-167x250Lee certainly practices what he preaches, as evidenced by the depth of the characters and the scope of the narrative arcs in his stories in The Mutual UFO Network. Stories like “Across the Street,” and “Love Field,” which feature interactions among neighbors and involve human drama fueled by schizophrenia, a lonely old woman, and a baby’s drowning. When the mother of a son with schizophrenia asks her mentally unstable husband why he taped paper over the bottom half of their upstairs windows, here’s how their conversation went:

 

 

“I don’t want anyone looking in.”

“What are you afraid they’ll see?”

“My heart. The inside of my head. My soul. They can’t have that, Mother. I won’t let them.”

Most of the characters that people these stories are wounded and trying to find their way through what one of them—Benny, a sober drunk who at one time rigged a bar stool to a frame and a lawn mower engine and wrecked it—wished he had said to his one-eyed friend Wink:

I know the extremes we’ll go to so we don’t have to face the truth, particularly when the truth is the ugliness of our own living.

In “The Last Civilized House,” a story of “love in ruins,” Ancil and his wife Lucy live with regret and anger fueled by a decades old affair and an abortion.  Other stories feature a crippled ventriloquist who offers compassion to an abused bully, a Chinese woman whose memories are haunted by what Mao did to her parents and brings that pain into her relationship with her black neighbors (Miss Shabazz Shabazz and her mixed-race daughter) and her ex-husband and his new wife.

9781496202024-Perfect.inddLee’s embrace of the bizarre reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. And his prose is just as vibrant and seamless. One forgets that he’s from Illinois and sets his stories in the Midwest. He can hold his own with a host of southern writers with whom I spend most of my reading hours. The Mutual UFO Network is a must-read for lovers of good literature of any genre. Watch for its release on June 12! (Buy it from your local indie booksellers or pre-order NOW from Amazon!)

And for more wisdom on writing, get Lee’s book Telling Stories: The Craft of Stories and the Writing Life (just released in October 2017).

I’m off on a European riverboat cruise up (down?) the Rhine River tomorrow, so watch for pictures on Instagram and Facebook. Not sure if I’ll be blogging or not, as this is a real vacation for both of us. (My husband isn’t speaking at any medical meetings while we’re there!) Haven’t decided what book(s) to take for the voyage, but maybe they’ll end up in a review here eventually. Bon voyage!

Two Writing Conferences this Summer: I’m Leading Three Workshops and Moderating Two Panels

I’m so excited to be leading three workshops and two panels at two writer’s conferences this summer:

Alabama Writer’s Conclave, June 15-17, Orange Beach, Alabama

2018+awc+conference

 

This will be my first year at this wonderful writer’s conference on the beautiful Alabama Gulf Coast, and I’m thrilled to be leading a workshop and participating on a panel.

On Saturday, June 16, from 8:30 – 9:30 AM:

Session 2 (Workshop)

Susan Cushman: “Working with Editors in Memoirs, Novels, and Anthologies”

As a writer, Susan Cushman has edited two anthologies, contributed essays to four anthologies, and has published a memoir and a novel. In this workshop, she will discuss how to work with editors in all of these genres.

And on Sunday, June 17, from 9:45 – 10:45 AM:

Panel

Southern Writers on Writing: Susan Cushman, Wendy Reed, Katherine Clark, and Jennifer Horne

Thirteen authors will serve as faculty for this event, which will include sessions on poetry, humor, science and nature writing, mysteries, anthologies, getting an agent, getting published without an agent, writing query letters, editing oral biographies, and important elements in the crafts of creative nonfiction and fiction.

Register here.

 

AND IN JULY:

Mississippi Writer’s Guild Conference, July 27-28, Meridian, Mississippi. (At the MAX: Mississippi Arts & Entertainment Experience, OPENING APRIL 28!)

MAEEX_Facade-1170x716

 

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

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

Using Scenes to Write Memoir (in Books and Essays)

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

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

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

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

Sue B. Walker—poet, author, and editor

Chandler Griffin—documentary filmmaker and educator

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

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

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

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

Register here.

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”

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.

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERIn just over two months, Southern Writers on Writing will be released by University Press of Mississippi. This is my fourth book to be published, and my second anthology to edit. You can read more about the book and see a complete list of contributors here. I hope you’ll purchase the book from your local independent bookseller, but if you don’t have one nearby, you can always get it here. (ready for pre-order) In the coming weeks I’ll publish a list of events where you can come for a reading/signing and meet some of the contributors, so please stay tuned!

book-trailersBetween now and then, I thought I’d give my readers some sneak previews, both here and on Facebook. Here in my blog I’m going to share several quotes from the essays contributed by the twenty-six southern authors each week during these ten weeks leading up to its release. Then on Facebook, during the month of April, I’m going to publish one quote each day.

 

I’ll open with a blurb from my friend and fellow author Neil White:

Neil WhiteThis is no stodgy how-to book. Southern Writers on Writing is over-flowing with good, strong voices—funny, caustic, compelling, and—yes—absurd. The writers Susan Cushman has assembled here understand this craft. They have endured the suffering that leads to great prose appearing so damn effortless. This collection is essential reading for emerging writers–as well as any fan of modern southern fiction.—Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

Next I’ll share quotes from the Foreword, the Introduction, and the first two essays. To find out the titles of the books these southern authors have written, just click on their names. Enjoy!

Alan LightmanThe chapters in this book span a huge range of topics in writing, from Clyde Edgerton’s tips for students of fiction writing to Lee Smith’s moving and vivid personal account of her life as a writer. What all of these southern writers share is a deep immersion in the literary imagination, the desire to live many lives. It would be hard to prove that southern writers experience literature any differently than do northern or western writers, and equally hard to prove that there is anything uniquely southern about the craft of southern writers…. That said, anyone who has travelled the country knows that the South has a unique characters and culture. That culture is absorbed in every square inch of skin of the writers who ever lived in the South, shapes their being, and can be seen in the particular stories they write.—Alan Lightman from the Foreword

In Southern Writers on Writing, twenty-six southern authors spill their guts on the art of their craft. Why is it important that they are southern? Do I feel that we have something to prove, or just something to offer? Maybe a little of both…. But this book isn’t just an attempt to show up the ignorance of those who would belittle the South. It’s a joyous celebration of our culture and the writers who bring it to life on the page as they create a contemporary canon of southern literature.—Susan Cushman, from the Introduction

jim_dees__squareOne starts writing for fun and stays for the passion. It is only in a writer’s later years that this vocation takes on a third dimension, as a lifeline to eternity; a way to remain on earth long after one has left it; an intruder back to the dust. Like those hairy gents in their loincloths, scratching away in their caves, writing might be viewed as a final, puny claim on immortality.—Jim Dees, from “Off the Deep End”

Joe Formichella

 

 

I see it in a lot of writers, from the interviews of the famous to the manuscripts of the less so, from Flannery O’Connor trying to convince us that there’s hope at the core of her writing to a first-time novelist who buried the lead that would garner him a six-figure advance on a two-book New York publishing contract eight pages in, that irreconcilable impulse to somehow explain your existence, defend your choices, or excuse your work, offering a reason why you write, with or without a challenge, if only for yourself. –Joe Formichella, from “Consider Kudzu”

Mississippi’s Poet Laureate Waxes Eloquent on Poetry and Prose

In lieu of an original blog post today, I encourage you to read this wonderful post by my friend Beth Ann Fennelly, the Poet Laureate of Mississippi, over at the Brevity blog:

“My Affair With the Sentence.”

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Kudos to Beth Ann for her newly released book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs. I missed her launch at Square Books in Oxford last night, but I’m looking forward to seeing her and hearing her read at Burke’s Books in Memphis on November 7.

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