Behind the Scenes with Tangles and Plaques and Richelle Putnam

Richelle Putnam

Richelle Putnam

This morning I was interviewed on Behind the Scenes with Richelle Putnam on Meridian, Mississippi’s 103.3 Supertalk Mississippi radio station about my upcoming book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s.  You can listen to the 16-minute interview here.

When you click on the link, fast-forward to 5:15 minutes in to listen to the interview, which ends 21:35 minutes into the one-hour show.

Richelle and I met almost ten years ago at the first Mississippi Writers’ Guild Conference in Clinton, Mississippi, (August 2007) and we’ve been keeping up with each other Facebook. She’s not only a radio show host, she’s also a musician, songwriter, and author. I’m looking forward to being with her again in person some time this spring, when I’ll be in Meridian for another interview as well as a literary/musical event with Richelle.

My particular interest in Meridian stems from the fact that my mother was from Meridian, and I lived there for a couple of years when I was 3-5 years old (1954-56). And some of my favorite childhood memories are of summer vacations spent with my grandmother (my mother’s mother) who sewed all my clothes for the coming school year while I was with her each summer. For many of those summers my parents would come over (from Jackson, Mississippi, where we lived then) for a few days for Dad to play in the Northwood Country Club golf invitational tournament. As I got older my pre-teen and teenage memories include hanging out at the swimming pool with friends I made in Meridian—including Carol Pigford and Missy McWilliams—while Dad played in the tournament. And I loved following him around the course each year that he was in the final round of the championship flight.

I haven’t been back to Meridian since the last trip I made there with my mother about fifteen years ago. We visited the cemetery where my grandparents are buried, and old neighborhoods and homesteads. I look forward to returning in the spring for an event for Tangles and Plaques. Stay tuned for more information. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy the interview.

Tangles and Plaques COVER ART!!!

Tangles and Plaques cover artWhat a journey this is—working with four publishers at various stages for four different books being published in 2017 and 2018. I’m so thankful for these opportunities, and I’m learning a lot about the business as I continue in the editing phase for some and enter the pre-publishing and marketing phase for others.

Today I received cover art from eLectio Publishing for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. I love the way the tangled yarn fades from bright colors to almost black and white below the title line… just as memories fade for those suffering this disease. Good job, eLectio!

I appreciate each person involved in this complex process—editors, publishers, graphic designers, and marketing professionals. Although I chose not to work with literary agents (after an unsatisfactory experience) I’m learning my way without them. What that means is that I’m giving up on book deals from the big houses, like Penguin Random House, Harper and Collins, and Simon and Schuster (and big money) but what I’m gaining is more control, and more personal involvement in the process. So, if an agent sees one of my books and wants to take me on, I’ll listen to her pitch. But for now, I’m a happy camper.

Watch for more news about Tangles and Plaques in February.



Not A Place On Any Map

Photo by Den DeFlorio Photography

Photo by Den DeFlorio Photography

I met Alexis Paige in 2011 at the Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop I organized that year. We had an immediate connection, and she’s a brilliant writer.  We connected again at the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, where I also fell in love with another Vermont writer Nina Gaby.

I’m excited to have them both contribute essays for the anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (Mercer University Press March 2017).

And now I’m reading Alexis’s first book, Not a Place On Any Map, which was the Grand Finalist of the 2016 Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award. One of the lyric essays included in the collection, “Entropy As Islands As Stars,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I’m so proud of Alexis!

51G8g8Tuy8L._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_Her book is full of short vignettes—some might call them lyric prose—which are each examples of brilliant writing. Altogether they reveal her journey from a difficult childhood through rape, incarceration for drunk driving, recovery, sobriety, and more. Not a light read, but one that will surely touch many hearts. I love all of them, but something about her “Composite Sketch” touched me the most. If you know Alexis, you can see her in this sketch. If you don’t know her, you will feel like you do after you read it:

I am a creosotic whiff of Phoenix… I am peelings of rattlesnakes and sunburns…. I am a purple polyester accordion cheerleading skirt for the Catholic Youth Organization…. I am the cream-swipe of tawny lipstick and wood-smoked flannel and Doc Martens.

And then she comes up with what she calls “orphaned chapter titles” for herself, including:

“Revelations of a Wet Brain in Stilettos” and “Does My Hair Smell Like Fried Calamari?”

Treat yourself to this short but powerful book.

You’re welcome.

The Personal Essay at Its Best

Rumpus original art by Liam Golden

Rumpus original art by Liam Golden

In lieu of writing a post today, I’m going to share a personal essay by a friend, the excellent writer and teacher Lee Martin. “This October Sunday,” published in The Rumpus, is the personal essay at its best—filled with intimate truths and universal pathos.

I knew that Lee had a difficult childhood. I had read about it in his wonderful memoir, Such a Life. His personal struggles along with his excellent writing skills led me to ask him to write a blurb for my book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, which is coming out in February. Lee’s words were encouraging and humbling:

Susan Cushman writes with clarity and grace about the gnarled pathways between her and her mother, and about the terrible disease that holds a surprising grace within its irrevocable sadness. Tangles and Plaques has the courage to see it all. This is a memoir about caretaking and taking care. It’s a book that will touch your heart.

—Lee Martin, author of From Our House and Such a Life

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Lee. In your memoir. In your novels. And in such a fine personal essay.



Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.

Blurbs: Promoting Literature for Over 100 Years

blurbDid you know that the practice of using blurbs (quotes by other authors to help promote one’s book) dates to 1907, when one first appeared on a book distributed to attendees of a publishing conference? The convention quickly caught on, and now it is routine to use such quotes on book covers and in advertising materials. According to an article (which actually isn’t very favorable towards the whole blurb thing) in

One British publisher claims to have seen research showing that as many as 62 percent of book buyers choose titles on the basis of blurbs.

So whether or not you like the process, it seems to be here to stay, and so most of us continue to embrace it.

BlurbsI’m thrilled to have six wonderful authors who took the time to read an early manuscript of my book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s (coming in February from eLectio Publishing) and write these wonderful blurbs for me. I share them here to ignite some pre-publication excitement for the book, of course, and to say thank you to each of them for their generosity! I hope that my readers will check each of these wonderful authors out and buy and read their books! THANK YOU, Neil White, Jessica Handler, Lee Martin, Sally Palmer Thomason, Kathy Rhodes, and Niles Reddick!

So, here they are (she said, blushing)…

neil-whiteSusan Cushman is not only an accomplished writer, but she tackles a brutal topic with candor and honesty. Madness awaits us all. I pray I can confront it with equal faith and vulnerability.Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.

jhandler_headshot-221x300Cushman has written a new kind of love story, one that speaks to the very real concerns of a generation. In this true story of a daughter’s love for her aging mother within the daily trials of caregiving, we read ourselves, our families, and the ways that our losses shape who we become and how we choose to remember.—Jessica Handler, author of Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, and Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss.

martin-home-portraitSusan Cushman writes with clarity and grace about the gnarled pathways between her and her mother, and about the terrible disease that holds a surprising grace within its irrevocable sadness. Tangles and Plaques has the courage to see it all. This is a memoir about caretaking and taking care. It’s a book that will touch your heart.—Lee Martin, Pulitzer-Prize nominee and author of From Our House and Such a Life

Sally ThomasonAn honest, open account of the personal challenges, wrenching heart aches, spiritual questions, and practical concerns one faces in caring at a distance for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Cushman provides intimate, detailed descriptions of her constant doubts, emotional upheavals, hard decisions, and frustrating encounters with professional caregivers during the decade of the unrelenting progression of her mother’s mental and physical deterioration. — Sally Palmer Thomason, author of The Living Spirit of the Crone: Turning Aging Inside Out, The Topaz Brooch, and Delta Rainbow-the Irrepressible Betty Bobo Pearson.

kathy-rhodes-author-photo-72dpiSusan Cushman writes a profoundly personal and honest portrait of her eight-year journey with her mother suffering from Alzheimer’s. She brings her talent for story, scene, and character to bear in the unfolding of real-time moments that show disease progression and the ensuing softening in a challenged relationship. Cushman sees and feels things deeply and finds in each encounter a nugget of wisdom that fortifies her with focus, peace, and faith. Her stories give inspiration and insight to others who face this journey. — Kathy Rhodes, author of Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing

Niles ReddickTangles and Plaques is a beautiful and moving memoir and one that chronicles the journey of Alzheimer’s. Through the tangles and plaques associated with the disease, however, Cushman finds a way to heal and set her sight on the good. Readers, too, get a lesson in how to live better.—Niles Reddick, Vice Provost, The University of Memphis-Lambuth, and author of Drifting Too Far from the Shore.


“Second Pages” for A Second Blooming

I just drove home from Atlanta today, excited to be greeted by a package from Mercer University Press—“Second Pages” (also known as galleys) for the anthology I’m editing, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be!

ASB Title Page


It looks like a book!!! (Can you tell I’m excited? I rarely ever use more than one exclamation mark at a time.)



And it has an ISBN Number, so it’s official! (using more reserve with the exclamation marks now)

About a month ago I wrote a post about the terrific job the press’s copy editor did with “First Pages.” Previously I wrote about the publishing process and defined a few terms, so if you missed that post, it’s here. And now, this is my last chance to go over every word with a fine tooth comb. I’ve got two weeks to proof it.

The writing/publishing business is a bit like the military. Many stages of the process feel like “hurry up and wait.” I’ve been through weeks and months at a time with no deadlines on any projects, and now I’ve got three projects working at once and I’m in heaven. On the 400-mile drive home from Atlanta today I brain-stormed on my next project, which I’ve been doing for several weeks now. I might have hit on something exciting—more will be revealed. I guess this is just how my brain works—the busier I am the more energetic and productive I become. Boredom isn’t an option.

Just had to share the news. Stay tuned as the journey continues!


Writing on Wednesday: (The Secret World of) Literary SCOUTS

WD0916_1In the September 2016 (yes, it’s out in June) issue of Writer’s Digest, there’s an interesting “inkwell” column called “Scout’s Honor: What is a literary scout, anyway?” by Stephanie Stokes Oliver. Got my attention right away.

Evidently these literary scouts act as liaisons between authors and literary agents, editors, and publishers. I know, right away you’re thinking, “oh, no, another middle man.” Since I’ve been querying agents for my novel for several years now, and directly querying independent presses for several months for my essay collection (and now for my novel), I share your pain. What can a scout do for me? Who do they work for?

In addition to scouts who work for literary agencies and Amazon’s Kindle Scout program, there are also scouts who work directly for publishing houses, like Oliver, who wrote this article in WD. She works for Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books. You can read her submission guidelines here.

Oliver’s submission process for nonfiction books (she doesn’t work with fiction) is very similar to many agents’ guidelines—she requests a book proposal and sample pages. It would only take me about ten minutes to whip these off to her via email, and maybe I will. Or maybe I’ll wait until I hear back from a couple of small presses who are currently reading my essay collection. It’s definitely something to consider.
Scouting_for_Boys_Part_III_1908If you’re interested in finding a literary scout, how do you go about it? That seems to be the tricky part. They seem to be “out there” looking for good writing, so watch what you put on your personal blog, and keep submitting essays to journals, which they might be reading in search of a new author. New York-based Maria B. Campbell Associates (MBCA) Inc. has scouts working for publishing houses in 19 countries but their website says they don’t accept unsolicited proposals or manuscripts, so it seems that their scouts have to find us, rather than the other way around. I hadn’t even heard of literary scouts until I read this article, but they’ve been out there for quite a few years, as evidenced by this 2009 article by Emily Williams, who used to be a scout for MBCA.

Just when you thought the publishing business couldn’t get more complicated, you discover a “secret world” of people competing for a piece of the pie. I’m just trying to keep up.

Writing on Wednesday: The End.

My mother died one month ago today. No more tangles and plaques. Hospice Ministries of Mississippi called yesterday to ask if I wanted to receive a brochure about grieving, and to say they regret that I’m too far away to participate in their grief counseling sessions. I assured the woman who called that I did most of my grieving a few years ago when my mother no longer recognized me. And a healthy amount of crying in her hospital room. At this point I’m truly at peace that my mother is no longer suffering with Alzheimer’s and that she is in heaven with my father. The grieving process is different for everyone.

ENDING-1_MORGUEFILE_3171299616544And so when a publisher emailed me on Monday requesting my manuscript, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, I told him that I needed to revise the introduction and add a new final chapter, because Mother was no longer battling the tangles and plaques. I had queried this publisher a few months ago, when the final draft of the anthology had been written before Mother’s death. There are now three publishers reading the manuscript. Fingers crossed!

So this is my writing “assignment” for today—to revise the manuscript. It seems appropriate, on this one-month anniversary of her death. Time to write a new ending.

Writing on Wednesday: Delta Rainbow

Delta RainbowI’m still working on my essay for the “Joy” essay contest for the Creative Nonfiction Journal, and I need to spend a couple more hours on it today to finish it and send it in, so this blog post will be short. I’m so grateful to two writing buddies for critiquing my essay and giving me feedback—NancyKay Wessman and Sally Palmer Thomason.

And speaking of creative nonfiction and Sally Thomason, her new book is out:

Delta Rainbow: The Irrepressible Betty Bobo Pearson (University Press of Mississippi)


I’m looking forward to hosting Sally for a literary salon in our home again soon, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing her at bookstores and events in Memphis, Oxford, Greenwood, Jackson, and other places in the coming months. She did an incredible job sharing the stories that have endeared Betty Bobo Pearson to so many people and will surely create new fans as people read this book.

18093746-illustration-of-woman-on-Alexander-III-bridge-in-Paris--Stock-VectorOn a personal note, we’re leaving for Paris this Friday (yes!) so I might not blog as regularly for a couple of weeks. I appreciate my readers so much and have tried to post faithfully three times a week for the past nine years. Please forgive me if I take a break!

Writing on Wednesday: I’m Trying

Dance For Joy by Ira Mirchell-Kirk (

Dance For Joy by Ira Mirchell-Kirk (

It’s been too long since I’ve written an essay. I’ve been busy with other writing projects, and querying agents for my novel. And even thinking of working on a new novel. (Thinking is part of the process.) So yesterday I decided to write an essay, and this morning I started on it. I was prompted by a listing in the May/June 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine for Creative Nonfiction journal’s essay contest:

A prize of $1,000 and publication in Creative Nonfiction is given quarterly for an essay. The theme for the Winter 2017 issue is “Joy.” The editors will judge. Submit an essay of up to 4,000 words with a $20 entry fee ($25 to receive a subscription to Creative Nonfiction) by May 16. There is no entry fee for subscribers. All entries are considered for publication. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

And so I went to the CNF website to learn more:

Too often the moments that move us to write are bleak ones—stories of loss, hardship, or learning through painful interactions. For this issue we’re looking for well-crafted narratives that explore the brighter moments in life, those that teach and enlighten us through their beauty or humor.

Yes. I can do that. So much of my own writing has been motivated by painful memories… it will be a nice change to write about joy. And then I sat down to write, and I found it challenging. It’s easy to be overly cheerful, simplistic, or sentimental when writing about “happy” times. I revisited the CNF guidelines for more direction:

Your tale of joy need not revolve around ecstatic delight or a once-in-a-lifetime moment; we are equally interested in thoughtfully-written pieces about finding pleasure in small things or unexpected places, and in works that highlight moments of joy in the midst of otherwise difficult circumstances.

51PZ5iB9AALAnd finally the journal guidelines encourage the writer to “avoid sentimental, uncomplicated “feel-good” stories.”

This morning I wrote 1200 words—about one third of an essay. I took a lunch break and then read what I had written. It’s tempting to throw it away and/or start over, but I think I’ll finish what I started and then make that decision after more revisions. Whether or not I enter the CNF contest, it feels good to be writing an essay. To be trying. The word essay comes from the French essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt.” Before continuing my attempt I read again parts of Phillip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay. My writing tends to be very personal, and the essay I’m drafting already has that feel to it. And what feel is that? Lopate says:

The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The write seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue—a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.

I think I’ve been striving for that intimacy in my blog posts here for the past nine years. And in my published essays to date. But I want to stretch my effort—my trying—with this piece. I want to take it beyond the personal to the universal, to make my readers care about events that were personal to me. More on this from Lopate:

At the core of the personal essay is the supposition that there is a certain unity to human experience. As Michel de Montaigne, the great innovator and patron saint of personal essayists, put it, ‘Every man has within himself the entire human condition.’ This meant that when he was telling about himself, he was talking, to some degree, about all of us.

Spoiler alert: my essay is about my children, and specifically about my experiences adopting all three of them. So right there, am I limiting my audience? Will people who don’t have adopted children, and people who were not themselves adopted be interested in my thoughts? It’s up to me, the essayists, to be sure they are. How? Again, from Lopate:

The personal essay has an open form and a drive toward candor and self-disclosure. Unlike the formal essay, it depends less on airtight reasoning than on style and personality, what Elizabeth Hardwick called ‘the soloists’ personal signature flowing through the text.’

That’s all I’ve got to do—create an emotional intimacy with my readers as I spill my guts about the joy I experienced as a result of adopting three children, all the while wowing those readers with my style and personality. All I can say is I’m going to keep trying.

P. S. You can get a hardcover copy of The Art of the Personal Essay at Barnes & Noble online right now for $1.99. Incredible bargain.

P.S.S. Another helpful book for those trying to write essays is Dinty Moore’s Crafting the Personal Essay.

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