A Second Blooming Retreat: Introducing our Closing Ceremony Leader

Jeri Mangum

Jeri Mangum

I’ve done several posts recently to introduce the speakers/workshop leaders for the A SECOND BLOOMING RETREAT to be held at The Homestead Education Center in Starkville, Mississippi, March 1-3. More information and registration are here.

Links to the previous posts are here:

Ellen Morris Prewitt, “The Joy of Creating in a Group Setting”

Nina Gaby, “Little Altars Everywhere”

Jennifer Horne, “How Our Stories Shape Us

Kathy Rhodes, “Pushing Up the Sun”

Today I’d like to introduce the woman who will be leading our closing ceremony on Sunday morning.

Jeri Mangum or ‘Just Jeri’ as she calls herself is a survivor!

She was a working wife and mom who retired from Mississippi State University in 2009 when her husband’s health became an issue. Jeri learned a lot of life lessons during the two and a half years that she cared for Bob as his health declined. After his death, Jeri discovered the work friends and couples friends were no longer there. And that is where her story begins . . .

drum-circleDuring her husband’s time in the nursing home, Jeri had observed the residents’ love of outside visitors who came and performed a variety of talents. It was that seed that drove her to fulfill her yearning for playing the drum. Hand drumming is her “happy/healing place”. She has led drum circles in Starkville at the assisted living center, the nursing homes, and for interested women who meet for renewal. Research is proving the therapeutic benefits of drumming and Jeri is living proof!

ASB cover w PQ badgeHer close circle of friends (FROGS/ Friends Readily Offering Genuine Support) know her to be the extrovert of the group who is always planning the next event or outing. Jeri is always willing to try new things and admits she loves making people smile.

So, come and bloom with us: create, write, discuss, walk, do yoga, drum, read, listen, eat, rest, and be inspired. Everyone who comes will receive a copy of A SECOND BLOOMING: BECOMING THE WOMEN WE ARE MEANT TO BE.

Spaces are filling, so register soon!

End of Year Book List for 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Broken Things by Nicole Baart

Hunger by Roxane Gay

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

Spells & Oregano by Patricia V. Davis

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

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

My Exaggerated LifeThe Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

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

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

The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith

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

*Confessions of a Christian Mystic by River Jordan

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

The MasterpieceIn Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Lewy Body Soldier by Norman McNamara

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

Our Prince of ScribesWhere the Creek Runs by Mary Abraham

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

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

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

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

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

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

Becoming a Healing Presence by Albert S. Rossi

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

The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain

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

Madstones by Corey Mesler

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

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

*In Pieces by Sally Field (my review here)

*Educated by Tara Westover

Ya Yas in Bloom by Rebecca Wells

Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonEducated

In Pieces

My First You Tube Video (for #GivingTuesday)

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

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

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

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

(1) reads

(2) writes

(3) likes the South

(4) is curious about the South

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

Happy #GivingTuesday everyone! Thanks for reading!

Why I’m NOT Writing . . . .

I haven’t written a blog post since October 3. This is actually the longest I’ve gone without blogging since my car wreck back in 2013. I’d love to say it’s because I’m engrossed in drafting a best-selling novel or even an essay or short story, but I’m actually not writing. At all. In today’s publishing culture, writers have to multi-task—marketing is a big part of the picture, and I actually enjoy that part. And although I’ve called myself a full-time writer since about 2006 (and since that time I’ve published four books and over a dozen essays in four anthologies and numerous journals and magazines) I’m still a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a Godmother, a neighbor, and a friend. So what have I been doing while I’m not writing? Here’s a glimpse into this writer’s non-writing life.

That's Rebecca Wells, lower left with blonde hair speaking to our panel for Southern Writers on Writing: River Jordan, Lee Smith, me, and Niles Reddick.

Our panel for Southern Writers on Writing: River Jordan, Lee Smith, me, and Niles Reddick.

 

Book Tour and Writing Workshops

Meeting one of my literary (and mental health) heroes: Rebecca Wells!

Meeting one of my literary (and mental health) heroes: Rebecca Wells!

Since May I’ve had 14 appearances at 8 bookstores, 2 book festivals, 2 writers conferences, and 2 special events, all for Southern Writers on Writing, the anthology I edited that was published in May by University Press of Mississippi. I love this part of the job—especially connecting with readers and getting to hang out with other writers. On October 27 I’ll be leading a one-day writing workshop at Novel books here in Memphis. 19 people have registered, and I’m in the process of critiquing the manuscripts they’ve turned in and preparing two craft talks I’ll be giving during the workshop. I’ve posted photos of many of these events here on my blog, and lots of photos on Facebook from this past weekend at the 30th Annual Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. Our panel for Southern Writers on Writing included Lee Smith, Niles Reddick, and River Jordan. The auditorium at the Nashville Public Library was packed out with over 120 in the audience. A big surprise was seeing Rebecca Wells (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) sitting on the front row asking questions of our panel. And even bigger was her invitation to me to have dinner with her the next day. After the final panel of the day—Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy—Rebecca and I walked down the street from the festival to a new bakery and enjoyed fresh salads and a conversation that I will cherish forever. The Ya-Ya Sisterhood had a huge impact on my life, and it was a gift to have this time with Rebecca. What an incredible woman whom I now count as a friend.

My husband Bill, with his sister Cathy and his brother Tod, who are toasting him at his 70th birthday party.

My husband Bill, with his sister Cathy and his brother Tod, who are toasting him at his 70th birthday party.

 

Family & Friends: Visits and Celebrations

In July our daughter Beth visited from Denver with her husband and daughters—our wonderful granddaughters Gabby and Izzy. Then we hosted my best friend from Little Rock—Daphne—and her fiancé Bobby for an engagement party in August. My husband turned 70 on October 6, and his sister, brother-in-law, brother, and sister-in-law came from Atlanta to celebrate with us for a few days. Our oldest son Jonathan is arriving tonight from New Orleans for a couple of days. On Friday our middle son Jason and his wife and daughters—our other wonderful granddaughters Grace and Anna—will be here for a few days. I am so blessed to be able to host and celebrate with friends and family while taking a break from writing!

 

Taking Time for Self Care: Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Health

God_s_Path_to_Sanity_1024x1024At age 67, I’m learning the importance of self care. Just over a year after my last drink (September 7, 2017) I’m still finding my way to healthy eating habits and trying to move forward in healing from a lifetime eating disorder. Part of the healing involves taking time for exercise every day. I work out on the elliptical machine here in my office, usually a couple of times a day for 15-20 minutes at a time. I go to a massage therapist for deep tissue and myofascial release work every other week, and I’m doing a round of physical therapy right now, which includes about 20-30 minutes of exercises at home in addition to the PT sessions, which are a half-hour drive from my house. Doctor appointments at my age take up some time, as well, with an internist, urologist, cardiologist, orthopedic surgeon, gastroenterologist, dentist, and optometrist on my team. Self care for me also involves spiritual work. In addition to participating in services at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis—where I’ve been a member since 1988—I do spiritual reading and am involved in a small discussion group using the book God’s Path to Sanity: Lessons From Ancient Holy Counselors On How to Have a Sound Mind, by Dee Pennock. I’m also reading Becoming a Healing Presence by Albert S. Rossi, in preparation for our annual women’s retreat at St. John on November 2-3.

Reading Becoming Mrs. Lewis in my hotel room in Nashville, with the indoor pool outside my window!

Reading Becoming Mrs. Lewis in my hotel room in Nashville, with the indoor pool outside my window!

 

Reading

All writers are avid readers—not only to improve our craft, but to refill our tanks after emptying them on the page with our work. My recent reads include:

Our Prince of Scribes, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain (I didn’t do a review but I loved this book!)

And my current (secular) read is Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry. I read in many genres—in both fiction and nonfiction—due to my interests as well as to fuel my own writing. And after meeting some new authors at the Southern Festival of Books, I ended up with a few more for my “to read” stack.

Querying Publishers

I’ve got two more books being read by publishers right now, so my fingers are crossed that I’ll get some good news and a publishing contract soon for one or both of these:

Friends of the Library is a collection of linked short stories (being read by one university press and one independent press)

Imagining the cover design for my short story collection.

Imagining the cover design for my short story collection.Friends of the Library—short story collection (being read by one university press and one small indie press)

Pilgrim Interrupted—personal essay collection (being read by one university press)

If none of these presses offer me a contract, I’ll go back to the query process, looking either for an agent or an independent publisher.

Writing Another Book . . . .

Meanwhile, my “next book” is always in the back of my mind—especially while driving down the highway on book tours. I’ve got several ideas for a novel, but I haven’t fallen in love with any of them yet. Writing a novel is like a marriage—it’s a long-term commitment—so it needs to start with a romance, for me to be willing to dive in. Most of my ideas involve either a famous artist, a work of art, or something related to Alzheimer’s. I seem to return to these familiar themes because, like they say, it feels natural to write what you know.
Thanks for reading. I’ll try not to stay away so long next time!

A Facebook Message Chat with Fiona Davis, Author of THE MASTERPIECE

THE+MASTERPIECE+LRG+cover+Fiona+DavisI just finished reading my third book by NYT best-selling author Fiona DavisTHE MASTERPIECE. I loved her first two books, THE ADDRESS and THE DOLLHOUSE. All three are set in New York City, where the author lives, and all three involve historic buildings. They are all examples of really good historic fiction, and involve characters from the past and present whose lives intersect in some way. Or, with THE MASTERPIECE, rather than writing in the present, the more recent parts of the book are in the 1970s, with the historic parts set in the late 1920s and early 1930s. After reading the first hundred pages or so, I put a comment on Instagram with a picture of the book’s cover, noting how perfectly it fits the description inside the book of Clara’s appearance at the ball inside Grand Central Terminal, and even how the Terminal looked at the time.

 735eab2b2e37ec7ae1fb33089002c00c

When I started following Fiona on Instagram, I loved that she would comment on my posts. After reading THE MASTERPIECE, I had a couple of questions for her and messaged her on Facebook. I was thrilled that she took time to respond, and I’m posting our conversation here:

SUSAN:

Hi, Fiona. I just finished THE MASTERPIECE and LOVE LOVE LOVE it! I also loved THE ADDRESS and THE DOLLHOUSE. I have a question. I Googled Clara Darden (did you know there’s a native American basket maker by that name?) but didn’t find an actual artist. Then I read your Author’s Note and Googled Helen Dryden, on whom Clara is obviously based. My question is why did you change her name? If it’s fiction, would it not have been okay to use her name? I’m asking because I fictionalized much of Elaine deKooning’s life in my novel CHERRY BOMB, and I used her real name. And I guess Levon is based on Gorky? Again, your decision not to use their real names?

FIONA:

Hi Susan! Thanks for reaching out and I’m glad you enjoyed it! I changed the names because while both characters were inspired by Gorky’s and Dryden’s, I wanted to go off in a different direction and have things happen to them (major things, like not dying in a mental home – poor Helen) that didn’t happen in real life. I think it’s fine to keep the same name if you’re generally tracking to the biography of the person, but making up conversations, thoughts, etc.

SUSAN:

I’m asking because I may write a “historical fiction” novel based on an artist or piece of art, and I wonder about using real names or not. Some of my favorite books are GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING, STRAPLESS, and A PIECE OF THE WORLD.

FIONA:

I love books like Pearl Earring, etc, where you feel like you’re right there with the artist or other real-life people. This was the first time I used the real-life person as a basis for a character – all my other books have characters who are completely made up. But I wanted to make the plot all my own, while being “inspired” by real people. I hope this makes sense!!

SUSAN:

Yes. I talked with an intellectual rights attorney before publishing CHERRY BOMB, and he advised me that it was okay to completely make up things about deKooning (like her having a daughter, which she didn’t) so long as I said it was a work of fiction, which I went into lots of detail about in my Author’s Note. But I wanted to use her name to attract art enthusiasts to the book. Not sure what I might do next time, but you’ve given me food for thought. I was just looking at your book tour… I live in Memphis…. wish you were coming here! Or to Square Books in Oxford! Or to Lemuria in Jackson, MS (my home town).

FIONA:

You were also smart to visit with a lawyer. Keep me posted on your next book and I’d love to hit Oxford – I’ve heard so many wonderful things about that town! Best, F.

Fiona’s words have definitely given me food for thought as I consider writing a novel based on—or inspired by—an artist or a work of art. I can see how my novel CHERRY BOMB is NOT historical fiction, in that I did not do what Fiona said, “generally tracking to the biography of the person,” but made up major life events that did not actually happen. So, if I want to do that in my next book, I guess it won’t be considered historical fiction either.

Now I’m wondering how much other authors “tracked with the biography” of the historical people they wrote about in books like THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain. I just got her latest book LOVE AND RUIN, which is about Hemingway’s marriage to Martha Gelhorn, and can’t wait to read it. Also books like THE WOMEN by T. C. Boyle, which was about Frank Lloyd Wright’s wives and mistresses. I did a blog post a couple of years ago about this topic, “Circling the Roman a Clef,” if you’re interested in more discussion. Also from 2016, I read and wrote about “The Confessions of X.” I obviously haven’t settled the subject in my mind, which might be one reason I haven’t moved forward with another novel yet! If I ever settle on a protagonist, I’ll let you know.

StoryBoard Memphis!

Mark business card SB MemphisA few months ago I met Mark Fleischer at a reading I was giving for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING at Novel, the wonderful independent bookstore in Laurelwood Shopping Center here in Memphis. As I signed a copy of the book for him, he handed me a business card. His name and contact information were on the front of the card, and a partial map of the city of Memphis was on the back. He mentioned the publication he was starting. It was called StoryBoard Memphis.

 

Mark Fleischer, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Storyboard Memphis. Photo by Eric Janssen. See more of his work on Instagram @webraw.

Mark Fleischer, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Storyboard Memphis. Photo by Eric Janssen. See more of his work on Instagram @webraw.

Three months later I was having lunch with a writer friend, Angie Howard, and she mentioned him to me and asked if I had considered advertising my upcoming writers workshop in StoryBoard. I admitted that I had forgotten all about it! Angie has a wonderful memoir, SIN GIRL, which she is shopping out to agents and publishers right now, and it will be featured in the first issue of STORYBOARD, coming out in September.

So, I gave Mark a call, subscribed to the publication, and bought an ad for the September issue. I’m so excited about this project and I asked Mark if I could interview him for my blog so more people will hear about it. I hope you enjoy our brief conversation.

 

What is StoryBoard? 

 

StoryBoard Memphis started as not much more than a blog that explored moments, people and places in Memphis history that resonate with us today. With contributions from numerous other local blogs and digital publications, it evolved into what it’s about to become:  a Memphis-wide community print journal focused on local stories, histories, fiction, poetry, photography and artwork that explores the city through the eyes of “The Urbanist in All of Us.” That is, a vested interest in our built environment: where we live, where we play, where we work.

 

What was the catalyst for creating this new publication? Was it your idea? What were your influences? Who is your target audience?

 

There were quite a few important catalysts.  One was my desire to read what I was accumulating in my research and writing. Another was my love for print. Another was to reach a Memphis audience hungry for knowledge about their own city.  Still another was the slow demise of our local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, which in the past had a Local section and a Neighborhood section that gave readers little tidbits of what was happening in their neighborhoods. Finally, I wanted to do something that would make Memphis feel a renewed sense of pride in their city. This won’t be hard news and crime statistics. In a monthly, I can explore issues of urbanism around every street corner.  And there’s my target audience:  Any Memphian who desires a deeper understanding of their built surroundings.

 

When will it be published and how often? Will it be in print? Online? Can people subscribe?

 

It will be a monthly. It will be free for pick-up like our local Memphis Flyer, in various strategic locations throughout the city.  And yes, I am accepting subscribers. My audience has told me loud and clear they would like home delivery; so, I am obliging them starting with the first monthly edition this November.  The inaugural issue comes out the first week of September, after Labor Day. There will also be a way to access each edition online.

 

SUBSCRIBE TO STORYBOARD HERE!

 

Tell us about the blog that is associated with StoryBoard. How can people submit stories for the blog? What about submissions for the paper?

 

The title “StoryBoard” came from the idea that I was accumulating material from multiple sources and multiple voices. In visual storytelling we often develop a storyboard—a series of segments like in a cartoon—to help shape our stories. StoryBoard for me became a place for individuals to submit their stories or story ideas, and provide a forum. Their stories might in turn be a part of a feature story about a specific topic, like in our ongoing plans to redevelop parts of downtown, Memphis—part history, part historical fiction, part short story, part imaginative designs—that play a part in the larger narrative. I have accepted about a half-dozen submissions so far, so there will plenty of room for more as the paper expands to the greater Memphis.

 

SUBMIT TO STORYBOARD HERE!

 

Where will it be available for people to pick up a copy?

 

In September I will be finalizing all the various pickup points, which should number around 100.  But immediately I can say that it will be available at area coffee shops from downtown to East Memphis, at Burkes Books in Midtown, and at Novel books in Memphis in East Memphis, to name a few. 

 

Please tell us a little bit more about yourself. What is your “day job”? Will you continue working at that position while publishing Storyboard?

 

Altogether, from little blog to print, I’ve been developing StoryBoard for over two years. During that time my income came from my consulting work in the payroll industry. My career background had been in consulting and communications. In cultivating the network of connections and contacts needed to launch the paper, I absolutely had to put to good use my consulting skills. And my prior work in communications has proven imperative in this effort, in an understanding of what is important to a reader, and what we call WIIFM—What’s In It For Me. 

However, starting this month (August) StoryBoard became my full-time gig. It’s quite a lot of work to wear the hats of salesman, writer, and designer while meeting a deadline. Thankfully I have found some talented folks who have helped me get this thing off the ground; I could not have gotten this far without their gracious help.  

Lastly, I must express how exhilarating it is to be on the threshold of something that I believe will be important for Memphis. I feel lucky to be in this position. I hope readers open it up each month and feel like it’s a gift, a present they didn’t know they wanted, or needed, that was built expressly for them.

Storyboard Memphis banner

 

Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure

Tracking-Happiness-CoverTracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure

By Ellen Morris Prewitt

Book Review by Susan Cushman


Every time I picked up my copy of Tracking Happiness to read over the past week or so, the image on the cover brought a smile to my face. My friend—the gifted writer Ellen Morris Prewitt—is right there in her fleur de lis fishnet stockings, walking down the railroad track with her suitcase in tow, followed by a chicken. She IS Lucinda Watkins, the protagonist whose persona is a diverse and multi-layered as her wardrobe. (And for those who don’t know Ellen, she and her husband actually have a condo in the old train station in Memphis, and another one in New Orleans. She’s no stranger to trips on the City of New Orleans.)

Ellen-Morris-Prewitt-New-Author-PicEllen’s past experience as a runway model also comes through in her detailed but hilarious descriptions of Lucinda Mae’s wardrobe changes throughout the book:

The breeze whipped my dress, an orange pique A-line. I’d added psychedelic daisy bobby socks to my white patent leather Mary Janes. Going all out to impress Big Doodle. I’d finished with a pink straw pocketbook and plastic polka dot earrings.

Here’s another wardrobe change, and a brief description of one of her companions on the train ride:

I’d slipped a red tank top underneath my lavender cardigan. I topped it off with a knitted cap Pooh had made for me. Underneath the snug cap, I’d combed out my hair—time to move on in all things.

‘You don’t look so bad yourself.’ I fingered the suit jacket he’d thrown over the pink golf shirt, charcoal with those chalky white pinstripes that are so thick they don’t even deserve the name.

And one more wardrobe description:

The dress fit like Mylar. A sea foam green with plunging halter neck. The pleats in the halter hid the fact that I had no boobs, the scoop back dipped so low it sat on the shelf of my ass. Four-inch gold high heels and gold icicle earrings completed the effect.

Susan beauty parlot Tracking HappinessThe book actually opens in a beauty parlor—Ruth Ann’s Cut and Curl in downtown Edison, Mississippi, so I decided to finish reading it while getting my color done at my local salon.

But Tracking Happiness is so much more than a fashion commentary. Set mostly on a train trip that starts in Mississippi and goes all the way to San Francisco and back to Minnesota, with various stops along the way, the train itself becomes as colorful as its passengers, and Ellen’s prose captures them all brilliantly. Here’s a description of the club car when Lucinda goes there:

The chalky moonlight cast everything and everyone into the stark relief of some half-forgotten movie. The Bad Guys were played by the train staff. The Loner, played by the new lounge car attendant, sat on the edge of the group, coolly smoking a cigarette. The Victim was played by the mice, scurrying out form beneath the club tables. The Bad Guy’s weapon of choice was something resembling an oversized battery. The missile thunked! Whenever it hit a Victim…. A flabby white boy [Alfredo], who looked like the pasta sauce itself, chunked a battery at the mouse…. ‘You’d better hope there’s nothing to this karma business,’ I warned. ‘Or else you’re all coming back as lab rats.’ Afraid of what I’d find next, I returned to my berth and crawled back in bed.

And those were just minor characters! Ellen draws all her characters with a colorful and imaginative brush, as O’Connor might have done if she had Ellen’s sense of humor. Here’s another glimpse of her genius… this time in the home of her ballet-dancer friend Erik and his family’s oompah band:

Robert Gminski was slapping Clyde on the back and leading him to the bar. Karen, her halter top barely containing the snuggling whales, stroked Mother’s lime green suede jacket—had Mother Brought nothing but lime green on this trip? The twins popped hands over surprised mouth at Ikie tucked into Pooh’s pocketbook. Big Doodle was deeply engaged in a conversation with a man with a burr cut, something about an El Camino with no license plates. In the background, a loud thumping song played: ‘Smoke on the Water,’ oompah style. In the chaos, someone belted out ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald!’

If you’ve enjoyed these character cameos in lieu of a plot summary, I hope you’ll read the book. You can find a plot summary on Ellen’s web site, here. And you can read what Ellen says about her journey to write and publish this book in her recent blog post, “Given Where I Started From.”

The book is available on Amazon. A great end-of-summer read!

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….

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!

Authentic Happiness

NYM_top1I just scored a 3.08 on a scale of 1 to 5 on the Authentic Happiness Inventory designed by folks at the University of Pennsylvania.  The score reflects my overall “happiness” compared with others in my age group, zip code, education level, gender, and occupation group. Although I think it’s interesting that “writer” isn’t even listed as an occupation, so I checked “artist,” the closest option to my occupation. Why did I take this inventory?

This morning, with my morning coffee, I read an article in the recent issue of New York Magazine, “The Cure for New York Face,” about Professor Laurie Santos’s new course at Yale University, PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life. I was struck by the statistics—especially among people who seem to have lots of “reasons” to be happy, from an exterior point of view. Of course there’s lots about two things that seem related to our “happiness”—time and money, and how we value them and spend them.

In Praise coverSome parts of the article reminded me of the wonderful little book I read recently by Alan Lightman, In Praise of Wasting Time. I bought and read this book a few weeks ago, primarily because its author wrote the Foreword to the anthology I edited that was recently published by University Press of Mississippi, Southern Writers on Writing. Alan is from Memphis, but teaches at MIT now. A physicist. And a novelist. Interesting combination, and he brings both of those gifts to bear in his book, and his TED talk.

Last fall I did a post about Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, “Moments of Happiness.”

Last March I did a post reflecting on a Wall Street Journal article, “Two Types of Happiness.”

The same month I read and reviewed Daphne Merken’s book, This Close to Happy.

Five years ago I was blogging about an article in Psychology Today: “Mindfulness Does Not Lead to Happiness.”

And six years ago I wrote this one: “Permission to NOT Be Happy.”

Are you seeing a trend here? And yet, I do feel that I am “happier” now that I was six years ago. And I’m actually a bit surprised that I didn’t score higher on the Authentic Happiness Inventory. But I do tend to be quite honest and in touch with my feelings. From a spiritual point of view, I sometimes wonder how important “happiness” is, as opposed to what seem to be deeper states like “peace” and “contentment.”

thOne thing I found interesting in the New York Magazine article was the author’s comments about money and happiness. His study showed that $75,000/year seems to be the salary “scientifically proven to provide the maximum amount of well-being.” So, he noted that in one study people making $30,000 a year were asked what salary would make them truly happy. The average answer was $50,000. But people making $100,000 a year said, on average, $250,000 would make them happy. Maybe it’s the old adage that the more we have, the more we want. I’m thinking about this now, not in terms of financial success, but with my writing career. Five years ago I was working with a New York literary agent (whom I would later part ways with) on my novel, CHERY BOMB, wondering if it would ever be published. When it came out last year—with a small press in Mississippi and not with one of the “big five”—I was “happy” to be published. It was a lifelong dream finally coming true. Actually, having three books published last year was pretty amazing. And a fourth this month. So, why is it that I still want “more”? Why am I now querying literary agents again (for my linked short story collection) rather than submitting it to an academic press?

the-quest-for-authentic-happiness-460x291I put this question to a very spiritual person whom I trust, and he encouraged me that it was a normal progression in my career to desire this next step up. That I wasn’t being obsessive about “success” in an unhealthy manner.

And yet I find myself praying—yes—for more success. My novel is entered into two prestigious writing contests and I’m waiting to hear the results this summer. Would I find a greater level of “happiness” if it wins one of those awards? Or even makes a short list or becomes a finalist? Of course I believe that would make me happier, but is that a superficial goal?

Again, I’ve been struggling with this for years, as these posts show:

“I Want More” (from 2016)

“We Want More” (from 2013)

It IS interesting to read those posts now, as someone who quit drinking almost nine months ago. I still want MORE (potato chips, chocolate, and—in conflict with those cravings—a skinnier body) almost every day, but I take encouragement from the fact that I was able to tame my out-of-control desire for more vodka, and hope that eventually the strength (and God’s grace) that enabled me to do that will cross over into other areas of my life. Like food. And contentment in my career.

I’d love to hear from my readers about your take on happiness. And if any of you take the Authentic Happiness Inventory, please let me know what you thought about it. Meanwhile, have a great weekend!

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