Heidelberg, Mark Twain, and Worms

1982 at the Heidelberg Castle

1982 at the Heidelberg Castle

The first time I went to Europe, about 36 years ago, my husband and I stayed in a small village on the Neckar River, about 50 miles from Heidelberg. This was in around 1982. We were there for a symposium my husband was part of, and they had us tucked away in a remote little village. I remember playing tennis with a French girl on courts that overlooked the Neckar River. And opening our windows every morning to story-book scenes of milk being delivered outside our castle-like hotel. Our only site-seeing excursion during the symposium was to Heidelberg.

 Bill Susan castleThirty six years later we returned, on Day 5 of our Viking Rhine River Cruise. Heidelberg is Germany’s oldest university town, known as the cradle of the German Romantic movement. It’s most famous example of baroque architecture, the Heidelberg Castle is a magnificent red standstone ruin perched 330 feet above the river. It was partially destroyed by fire in the 17th century.


Hotel where Mark Twain stayed

Hotel where Mark Twain stayed





As our tour bus ascended to the castle, I snapped a picture of one of the hotels where Mark Twain stayed in the summer of 1878, Hotel Schrieder, now a Crowne Plaza. Of Heidelberg Twain said the city was “the last possibility of the beautiful.” In 1880 he published “A Tramp Abroad,” which includes the story of a raft journey down the river. graf w Red Ox InnThis was published several years before “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Many people in Heidelberg believe, therefore, that the Neckar was as influential as the Mississippi to Twain’s writing.

 Later we walked past this graffiti piece, which featured the Red Ox Inn, where Twain spent much of his leisure time. The guide didn’t point the graffiti out, but I’m always on the watch for street art and was thrilled to see the Red Ox Inn included.


The castle moat and grounds were fascinating, but the views of the Old City and river and buildings across the river from the castle were my favorite part of the tour.




Our boat actually docked at Speyer for our Heidelberg tour, on the west bank of the Rhine. There was a beautiful park there, and lots of local art.


Protestant Church at Speyer

Protestant Church at Speyer


We took an informal walk into town without the group and into the “Memorial Church of the Protestation” a historic Luthern and Reformed church built between 1893 and 1904, to commemorate the Diet of Speyer.

 church inerior


The term “protestant” originated in Speyer in 1529 at the Diet of Speyer, when 14 free cities of Germany and six Lutheran princes protested the Edict of Worms that had banned the writings of Martin Luther and labeled him a heretic and enemy of the state. I grew up Presbyterian and was a huge fan of Martin Luther, but I never thought about why it was called the Edict of Worms until we cruised alongside Worms headed into Speyer. So much history all around us on this amazing trip.


Stay tuned for my next post where we head across the Rhine and dip our toes into France for one day….


SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERI am beyond thrilled with the first two reviews for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING!

Ed Tarkington’s review at Chapter 16, “Against Professional Southerners” also appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal on Sunday, April 29. Opening with quotes by Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, and later with nods to other legends like Faulkner and Welty, Tarkington praises various authors who contributed to the collection for their contemporary take on the age old question, “Why has the South produced so many good writers.” Tarkington also praises the anthology for its’ “accounting of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in shaping the Southern canon and deferring the dreams of African-American writers….” Four of those African-American writers have essays in the collection. And of course he acknowledges the importance of humor and front-porch storytelling to southern literature, and there’s plenty of that in the collection.

Also out Sunday, in the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion Ledger, is Jim Ewing’s review, “Southern writers share their secrets in ‘Writing’.” There’s no online link to the article, but Jim gave me permission to reprint it in its entirety, so here it is. Thanks so much, Jim!




Southern Writers on Writing

Susan Cushman, editor

University Press of Mississippi

194 pages


Southern writers share their secrets in ‘Writing’

By Jim Ewing

Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger



What makes a writer a writer? Or a Southern writer, especially?

Is it that one writes and, hence, is a writer? Or lives in the South or writes about the South?

In “Southern Writers on Writing,” edited by Susan Cushman, the answers to these questions might not be as easy as they seem.

Thirteen women and thirteen men struggle to answer the question of their calling, and their responses show a nuanced look at why, and how, these authors came to be called Southern writers.

They include such well-known authors as Michael Ferris Smith, Jim Dees, W. Ralph Eubanks, Harrison Scott Key, Cassandra King, and Julie Cantrell. They quote as mentors such luminaries as Rick Bragg, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Shelby Foote, Ellen Douglas, and Walker Percy.

But, still, the answers prove elusive. Dees says it requires “insane courage” to “take the plunge” and commit one’s innermost thoughts to an uncaring, or uncertain, universe.

Joe Formichella says: “The truth is that you write because you can’t not write.”

Patti Callahan Henry, among other reasons, says: “I write because the stories inside have to go somewhere, so why not on paper?”

Some of these writers are from the South, others just came to be here. Like Sonja Livingston, who found Southern writers “crept up” on her, seeming familiar, drawing her to the region and lifestyle. Most of all, the way Southern writers write is alluring, unleashing inner secrets, she explains, “set out like colorful laundry flapping on a line, (that) I’d learned to keep folded and tucked away.”

Cantrell, who hails from Louisiana, confides that Southern writing taps all the senses. “When we set a story here, we not only deliver a cast of colorful characters, we share their sinful secrets while serving a mouth-watering meal…. The South offers a fantasy, a place where time slows and anxieties melt away like the ice in a glass of sugar cane rum.”

“The South is nothing less than a sanctuary for a story,” she adds. “It is the porch swing, the rocking chair, the barstool, the back pew.”

Being a Southern writer, writes Katherine Clark, is an opportunity and a burden, especially when you consider that you’re entering literary territory with nationally and internationally known explorers, such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, James Agee, Harper Lee, and so many others.

But, as John M. Floyd points out, “Within several miles of my hometown lived men and women who were known only as Jabbo, Biddie, Pep, WeeWee, Buster, Puddin’, Doo-spat, Ham, Big ’un, Nannie, Bobo, Snooky, and Button. How could folks with those kind of names be anything but interesting?”

“Writing” is fascinating reading, and, of course, enthrallingly written as can be expected by writers writing about writing. But it’s also an encouragement for those who have thought about writing, but haven’t done it, thinking there’s some kind of secret to it.

If there is an “inside secret” to Southerners wanting to write, maybe that’s plain, as well.

The South, writes Jennifer Horne, writes itself every day, offering up “a hunter’s stew of history and hope and horror.”

It’s all around us.

As Floyd points out: “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.”

* * *

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at the Clarion Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.


I’ll close with a link to my interview in the May/June issue of Oxford Magazine, which just hit the shelves in and around Oxford, Mississippi. Thanks so much to Alec Harvey for the interview.

And I’m off and running for “launch week,” as Southern Writers on Writers releases on Tuesday, May 1. I’m so honored to have events in (1) my university town, (2) my home town, and (3) my second home town (since 1988):

May 1 – 5 p.m. – Square Books/Oxford, MS – with Jim Dees, Michael Farris Smith, and Ralph Eubanks

May 2 – 5 p.m. – Lemuria/Jackson, MS – with John Floyd and Jim Dees

May 5 – 1 p.m. – Novel books/Memphis, TN – with Corey Mesler, Niles Reddick, Sally Palmer Thomason, and Claude Wilkinson

Check out my EVENTS PAGE for more events in coming months! Thanks for reading, y’all!

Birthday Musings: People Can Change #sixmonthswithoutadrink

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

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

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

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

and again here:

“120 Days” (January 8, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Muralist: Disclaimer and Author’s Note

MuralistMy book pick from Octavia Books while visiting New Orleans last week was B. A. Shapiro’s novel, The Muralist. CLICK HERE to watch the video trailer, which does a great job describing the book. It’s been out for over a year, but somehow I missed it until now. It’s wonderful. It’s the kind of book I’d like to write, and there are similar elements in my novel, Cherry Bomb:

Both books combine fictional and historic characters, scenarios, and dialogue.

Both books focus on the abstract expressionist art movement.

Both books have an element of mystery to them.

This Publisher’s Weekly review has mostly good things to say about The Muralist, but one of its criticisms is something I think lots of authors (myself included) struggle with:

Though compelling, Shapiro’s latest is bogged down in relaying well-researched material about the pre-WWII politics and developments in the art world, ultimately undermining the power of the fictional story.


B. A. Shapiro (photo by Lynn Wayne)

B. A. Shapiro (photo by Lynn Wayne)

Shapiro obviously did her homework, and like me, maybe she loves research so much that it’s tempting to leave too much information in the book—information that the author needs to inform the writing, but more than the reader wants to see. In working with an editor in an early revision of my novel, I ended up cutting out one of the three main characters and making her part of the backstory instead. The books works much better this way.

I’ve spent some time researching issues of fictionalizing real people in my book—emailing with two different intellectual rights attorneys for advice. The result of these discussions is that I am not going to change the name of the real person (Elaine de Kooning) in my novel, but I will write a disclaimer in the front of the book, similar to this one, in the front of The Muralist:

The Muralist is a novel in which fictional characters mingle with historical figures. All incidents and dialogue are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Minor alterations in the timing and placement of persons and events were made as the story dictated, the details of which can be found in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. In all other respects, any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.

In her Author’s Note, Shapiro goes into more specifics about the way she fictionalized the historical characters. And then she includes more disclaimer-type statements:

A historical novel is a work of long fiction set in a previous time period. To me, the most important word in this definition is fiction…. This mix of history and invention continues throughout the novel.

This is helpful to me as I consider how to write my disclaimer and Author’s Note for Cherry Bomb. I think I’ll get to work on that soon. But for now, I can’t wait to keep reading The Muralist!

Faith on Friday: Watching, Again

My mother, Effie Johnson, has been in the hospital for just over a week now, and today she’s being transferred to Hospice care, either here in the hospital or in a facility not far from here. She’s making her final ascent to heaven, and I’m here, watching, like I’ve done with several family members and a special friend over the years.

I remember my mother and I holding my father’s hands as he passed over into eternity. I felt like I was touching both heaven and earth at the same time. And now, almost eighteen years later, I’m holding my mother’s hand, singing to her and praying with her and trying to comfort her. Today her eyes are glazed over and seem to be fixed on the ceiling—she no longer makes eye contact with me when I talk to her. Her breathing is a bit labored, but she’s on meds for comfort. I’m so thankful to be here with her, watching. I feel that she is saying to me, as Jesus said to his disciples, “stay here and keep watch with me.”

Bill and Effie Johnson, circle 1995

Bill and Effie Johnson, circle 1995

I also strongly feel my father’s presence in the room, and I believe he’s praying for her as well. They were married 49 years before cancer took him at the young age of 68. They were devoted to each other, and taught my husband and I a tradition which we’ve been keeping for almost two decades now: First thing every morning, one of us will say to the other, “This is the day the Lord has made!” and the other will reply, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” When we’re apart, like now, we text our secret greeting and reponse: TITDTLHM! LURABGII! (which sounds like this if you say it aloud: “tit diddle hum!” “lurabgi!”) After my father died, mother would say the greeting and response to his photograph in her bedroom every morning. I’ve been showing her this photograph and saying those words to her. I hope it won’t be long now. I hope she is already seeing him in Heaven.

Mental Health Monday: Life in the Shadows

41oQ25EdH5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As I continue editing my 50+ blog posts about caregiving for my mother, who has Alzheimer’s—hoping to turn them into a collection of essays for publication—I’m also reading an inspirational book. The New York Times bestseller, Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante, is a fictional account of an orthopedic surgeon’s decline with Alzheimer’s. It’s also a murder mystery. Brilliant book.

Since I’ve titled my essay collection Tangles and Plaques (read this post to see why) I was excited to see LaPlante’s use of those terms in her book:

This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my mind rots out, I remain aware. An un anesthetized patient.

Every death of every cell pricks me where I am most tender.

Ouch. LaPlante’s book is difficult to read, but I can’t put it down. Especially since she’s combined the psychological aspects with a murder mystery. Who killed Jennifer’s best friend Amanda?

It’s also interesting to me that LaPlante’s protagonist, Dr. Jennifer White, was raised as a Catholic, and her most prized possession is an icon of Saint Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of lost causes.

Alzheimer’s. Murder mystery. Icons. I’m only halfway through the book, but every page contains treasures.

Faith on Friday: Izzy, Elvis and the Mother of God

Icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God

Icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God

August 15 is the date that millions of people commemorate the death of two very different heroes—Elvis Presley and the Mother of God.

Tomorrow is the date of the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God in the Orthodox Church.

On this same date thousands of people from all over the world come to Memphis—to Elvis’s home at Graceland—for a candlelight vigil for Elvis.

Candlelight vigil for Elvis at Graceland in Memphis

Candlelight vigil for Elvis at Graceland in Memphis

I’ve never been a big Elvis fan. We’ve lived in Memphis for 27 years and I’ve only been to Graceland twice—both times at the request of guests from out of town. And then six years ago I was schooled on Elvis by an English nun. I’ve grown to appreciate him as a musical and cultural icon, but I don’t venerate him. I don’t plan to attend any candlelight vigils for him.

Lots of people who aren’t Catholic or Orthodox have a problem with our veneration of the Mother of God. And yet I wonder how many of those same people don’t have a problem with the veneration of Elvis?
That’s all.

Oh, and for those of you who aren’t on Facebook: I now have 4 granddaughters! Isabelle Katherine Davis was born Wednesday afternoon, August 12! She’s beautiful and healthy, and I’m so thankful for her safe arrival. Mother and baby are both doing great! I’ll be in Denver until August 25 helping Beth, Kevin, Gabby and Izzy adjust to being a family of four. Also having a great time hanging out with my son, Jason, and his wife, See and daughters Grace and Anna. Heading to Anna’s 5th birthday party tomorrow. After all the extreme heat and humidity in Memphis, it’s such a treat to be enjoying this try, breezy, beautiful weather and the mountain sunsets. Enjoy a few photos!

Gabby (3), Grace (6), Susu, Izzy (2 hours), and Anna (5)

Gabby (3), Grace (6), Susu, Izzy (2 hours), and Anna (5)


Isabelle Katherine Davis

Isabelle Katherine Davis


Davis family of 4: Beth, Kevin, Izzy and Gabby!

Davis family of 4: Beth, Kevin, Izzy and Gabby!

Mental Health Monday: Adding Insult to Injury

IRS Audit 3I don’t have time to write a thoughtful post today because I’ve already spent 8-9 hours digging through medical files and invoices, making phone calls to hospitals and doctor offices to get copies of missing invoices, making lots of photocopies, sending and receiving emails and faxes…. WHY? We’re being audited by the IRS. Yes, they want all our medical expenses for 2013. The year of my devastating car wreck.

Ugh. So I’m trying to find some humor and I’ll share a few cartoons.

Oh, and I am thankful for one thing: everyone I called at all the medical offices were super nice and took time to help me. They all expressed compassion as they helped me gather information.

As our accountant says, the audit just adds insult to injury. But we’re getting it done.

IRS Audit 4






IRS audit2


IRS audit

Writing on Wednesday: The Long and Winding Road

long_and_winding_road_ahead_sign_by_pudgemountain-d5uqpuxMost authors already know this. Many readers might be interested to know that getting a book published is often a difficult, long, drawn-out process. A few examples from my own (recent) experience and several of my writing buddies’ stories:

In February I pitched an anthology proposal to the editor of a university press. He showed interest immediately, and I followed up with a formal proposal. We exchanged a couple of emails, one phone call, and then the waiting began. We spoke again yesterday and finally—four months after my initial contact with him—he’s ready to do an advance contract and send my proposal out for peer review. Next step will be the editorial board. Finally the real work of gathering, editing and organizing the essays will happen. And then the draft of the book will go through the same process—peer review and editorial board approval. After that the final editing, cover design, marketing plan, etc. will come into play. My guess is the book will come out in 2017. This process is without an agent or involvement with the large publishing houses.

The novel, on the other hand, is still undergoing my third major revision. I hope to send it back to the agent by the end of July. She and her staff will read the new revision and either (1) ask for more revisions, (2) possibly involve another editor, or (3) sign a contract with me and start working to sell the book to a publisher. Then the editing process will begin all over again, this time with the publisher’s editorial staff. I’m sure cover design and marketing will come into play at a much later date. I think I will be lucky to have this book out in 2017 and I began writing it in 2010.

MC_WritingProcess_PUBLISHING77I have three writer friends who are in various stages with their work right now. One is working with another university press and has finished all the editing and is moving towards having advance reader copies in her hands. (She already has two published books.) A second friend (who has one published book) is working with a hybrid press and is about to have the cover design and advance reader copies of her second book, with a launch date in late July. The third friend (who already has published a book, an anthology, and numerous published short stories and essays) is in the query process for her novel. Several agents are reading it and another just asked for an “exclusive,” which she wasn’t able to give since other agents were already reading it, but the agent still agreed to read it. My friend is learning how to negotiate this process.

All this to say that writing isn’t only about writing. Unless you are only writing a private journal. The publication process is indeed a long and winding road.

Writing on Wednesday: (Another’s Writer’s) Rewriting Hell

Corabel Shofner

Corabel Shofner

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve seen my rants about how tough revising a novel can be—working with an editor to make the manuscript more commercially viable while trying to hold onto your own vision for your book. My friend from high school (in Jackson, Mississippi) Corabel (Alexander) Shofner has been through this difficult process with editors before and after getting a book deal for her debut novel. So today, in lieu of my own post, I’m going to share Corabel’s blog post from Monday:

“Rewriting Hell”

I’m sure she would love to hear from you, if you have time to leave a comment on her blog or on the Facebook thread.

Bel FB cover


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