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!

Congratulations, Who Are You Again?

IMG_5884Writing from Seagrove Beach, Florida this Thanksgiving weekend feels like writing from home. I’m staying in the location where I spent several month-long writing retreats several years ago working on my novel CHERRY BOMB. It’s also where my family has shared several wonderful vacations, and where our daughter was married in 2011. Right here on this gorgeous white sandy piece of heaven. And now I feel like Seagrove Beach is once again the venue for something important in my life—possibly an awakening to where I am in the pursuit of my dream of being a “successful” author. And how did I get here? By reading Harrison Scott Key’s wonderful new memoir, CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN?

At Novel Books in Memphis, Tennessee.

At Novel Books in Memphis, Tennessee.

Harrison and I met at the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, where he won an award for an essay he submitted. The essay, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir,” was published in Creative Nonfiction Journal in 2015, and Harrison allowed me to reprint it in the anthology I edited, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, which came out this past May. He was on a panel with me for the anthology at the Pat Conroy Literary Center’s Visiting

Harrison joined me on a panel for Southern Writers on Writing in Blufton, SC in September.

Harrison joined me on a panel for Southern Writers on Writing in Blufton, SC in September. Standing: Jonathan Haupt, Nicole Seitz, Patti Callahan Henry, Harrison Scott Key. Seated: Cassandra King, Susan Cushman

Author event in Blufton, South Carolina, in September. Our other common thread is that we have both lived in Jackson, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. And one more common thread is that he now lives in Savannah, Georgia, where he teaches at SCAD (Southern College of Art and Design), which was the setting for much of my novel CHERRY BOMB, for which he wrote a generous blurb. It was fun catching up with Harrison when he gave a talk about his new book at Novel bookstore in Memphis recently.

I loved Harrison’s first book, THE WORLD’S LARGEST MAN, so I was expecting to love this one, too. But I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it, as a writer and as a wounded human, that I would decide that it’s my FAVORITE READ OF 2018. After several failed attempts at writing a memoir about my own sad childhood, sexual abuse, and ongoing healing, I gave up and let my truth feed my novel CHERRY BOMB (2017). Harrison didn’t chicken out, on either of his books. This is creative nonfiction at its best – telling true stories with all the elements of great fiction. Raw. Honest. His words cause me to reconsider whether my own dream has already come true, or if it is (hopefully) still a work in progress:

“My dream came true, it did: I can access the light inside me, what little there is . . . for a book, like any work of art, helps you find a bit of your own light, and my light is silly, and my light is sad, and on good days, my light is true, and I can shine it now….”

All of us—not only writers and artists and musicians, but also those who teach, heal, build things, design things, and even sell things—need to find the light inside us. And finding that light can help us heal. It can help us fill the holes we all have inside us:

“A story is an old-fashioned treasure hunt, and what makes it so very hard for the writer is that when you start to write, you don’t necessarily know the nature of the treasure or even what the map looks like. All you need is a human with an empty place inside them they’re hoping to fill. That’s what a story is. We turn the page because we all have the hole in us, too, and we’re all trying to fill it, and we’re hoping the story will give us some ideas about how to do that.”

We’re also hoping that a book—or even a good short story or essay and especially maybe a good poem—will help us better understand ourselves and our world. As Harrison says:

“Hadn’t I written my book to lay bare the complexity of a family I’d never fully understood, and who, with every story, every remembered moment, showed itself to be more original and full of love and truth and pain than I’d thought possible? Isn’t that why you tell stories, to understand the thing you are telling?”

Yes, and no. This is something I’m just beginning to learn in my own writing, so I was on the edge of my seat as I read on:

“A book is not a report of something that happened in the past, whether that past is real or imagined: The book is the thing that happened. The writing is the action. The art is the knowing. Which is why you cannot write what you know. You can only really write what you want to know…. You paint a painting to see what the painting will look like. If you knew before you started, why would you need to paint it?”

Reading CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN? at Seagrove Beach on Thanksgiving Day, with my husband, Bill.

Reading CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN? at Seagrove Beach on Thanksgiving Day, with my husband, Bill.

If we heed Harrison’s words here, we (writers) will avoid the common mistake of “telling” our readers what happened or is happening, simply reporting on the events of the story, and we’ll begin to “show” them—and ourselves—what it is we are coming to understand as we write.

As a writer, I could relate to much of Harrison’s writing and publishing and book tour stories, and I think his journey to find his dream can apply to people in all walks of life. The fact that he writes about the difficult things of everyday life with such amazing humor is icing on the cake. This is a MUST READ for anyone with a dream. Or anyone who needs to have a dream. Which is everyone.

The End of the 2018 Book Tour

If you’re in the Jackson, Mississippi area, mark your (busy holiday) calendars for 5 p.m. on December 18 and drop by Lemuria Bookstore for Dogwood Press Day. I’ll be joining five of my fellow Dogwood Press authors—including publisher Joe Lee— to celebrate our books and offer the opportunity for everyone to buy signed copies to give as Christmas gifts, including my novel CHERRY BOMB.

Dogwood Press Day at Lemuria_Page_2

This will be my 29th and final literary event for 2018. I’ve only got three events scheduled for 2019 so far, but I’m hoping to have publishing news for a new book soon. Meanwhile, it’s BIC (Butt In Chair) time again. As the marketing winds down, the writing needs to wind up! I’m doing lots of reading now and listening for the muse to help me hone in on a topic for my next book. Stay tuned! And thanks, always, for reading!

Dogwood Press Day at Lemuria_Page_1

 

The End of the Affair (?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Lamott on Hershey’s Kisses.

An Orthodox saint on the value of fasting.

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

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

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

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

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

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

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

And later she says,

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

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

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!

“Workshopping” a Manuscript

Novel Workshop reminder_edited-1

 

On October 27 I’m leading a one-day writing workshop at Novel bookstore in Memphis. So far fifteen people have registered, and I’ve begun critiquing the manuscripts that have been turned in. Before I began leading conferences and workshops, I  participated in about ten workshops over a decade, as well as being part of two writing groups that use the “workshop” model. I’ve come to really appreciate how much the process can help us become better writers. We can learn from reading and critiquing other people’s works as much as having our own work discussed. So far the writing samples that have been submitted include adult fiction, YA (Young Adult) fiction, memoir, and essays. Before diving into the critique process, I decided to create some guidelines, which I will share with the workshop participants. I have gleaned these from past experience at workshops, and also from other writers and online sources. I hope you will find them helpful as you look at your own work or participate in writers groups or workshops. Here they are:

Things to look for in reading/critiquing manuscripts:

Effectiveness of story/plot. Can you summarize the plot in one to two sentences? What is the central idea?

Prose style and voice.  Does the author have a distinct style and/or a voice that the reader can embrace? What’s the difference between style and voice?

*Voice is your own. It’s a developed way of writing that sets you apart from other writers (hopefully). It’s your personality coming through on the page, by your language use and word choice. When you read a Dave Barry column, you know it’s his. Why? He’s developed a distinct writing voice.

*Style is much broader than voice. Some writers have a writing style that’s very ornate—long, complex and beautiful sentences, packed with metaphors and imagery (think Frank McCourt and John Irving). Others have a more straightforward style—sparse prose, simple sentences, etc.

Characters—can you clearly identify the protagonist and antagonist? (Keeping in mind the antagonist doesn’t have to be a character, but can even be fate, the environment, etc.) Do we CARE about them? (Whether we like/love or dislike/hate them.) Are they believable? Are they interesting? (watch our for stereotypes and clichés) What does your character WANT?

Balance of scenes (including dialogue)—i.e. SHOWING—with narrative—i.e. TELLING.

Is there conflict? (Keep it mind it might not be resolved in an excerpt from a book, but it should be resolved in a complete manuscript like a short story or an essay.)

Pacing—too slow or too fast? How to change it?

Dialogue—is it realistic? If dialect is used, is it done well/sparingly or overdone and possibly even offensive?

IMG_4959*I borrowed these definitions of voice and style from “The Difference Between Voice and Style in Writing” by Brian A. Klems. This was a Writer’s Digest article. I highly recommend that anyone serious about writing subscribe to two magazines: Poets & Writers and Writers Digest.

When contributing during the oral critique session:

Don’t comment about spelling and grammar errors. This is not the time for line editing.

Be positive and encouraging, but not dishonest and gushy.

Don’t give your opinions on the subject matter or the writer’s opinions. This is not a time to discuss/debate issues of politics, religion, race, gender, etc., but to help each other become better WRITERS, no matter the subject or genre.

In addition to leading three hours of manuscript critique sessions during the workshop, I will also be giving two talks:

“Writing Scenes to Move the Narrative Forward” (This will include hands-on participation by students and a short writing exercise.)

“How I Got 4 Book Deals in One Year Without an Agent” (This will be a talk about all things publishing: querying presses, working with editors, etc.)

The workshop is from 9-5 on Saturday, October 27, and includes coffee/pastries, lunch together at Libro (the wonderful cafe inside the bookstore), and happy hour from 4-5 p.m. (Lunch isn’t included in the $75 registration fee.)

The deadline to register for the workshop is October 13, but if you want to submit a manuscript to be critiqued, the deadline to send in your writing sample is October 6 – this Saturday. (Not everyone who is coming to the workshop is submitting a manuscript.) You can REGISTER FOR THE WORKSHOP HERE.

 

MY Prince of Scribes

seitz-and-haupt_our-prince-of-scribesOn Sunday I finished reading a wonderful new book, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy (University of Georgia Press, September 2018).  Edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt, it’s a beautiful collection of reflections on the life and work of my favorite author, who is obviously a favorite with many others. When I heard about the collection, it had already gone to press. And although I didn’t know Pat as well as many of those who contributed essays to this book, I wished I could have joined them. So I will share my own reflections here, at the end of this post. But first I’ll share a few of my favorite quotes from contributing authors. I tagged about 25 “favorites,” but I’ll only share a little over half of them here. I hope these quotes will tease you into buying the book and reading these wonderful essays!

“They connected with Pat through the love of words or food, or through the shared sufferings of childhood or existential questioning”—Nicole Seitz, Editor

“Because of the abuses of his childhood, Pat found it impossible to foster sustained joy in his own success, but he could experience tremendous vicarious bliss in the success of others. Serving as the sage tribal elder in the mentoring of other writers brought Pat a happiness that even international literary fame could not.”—Jonathan Haupt, Editor

“Pat didn’t just survive; he thrived. . . . Boys like us longed for a way to save our fathers from themselves and our families from our fathers. And because that was impossible, boys like us devoted our adult lives to expressing our failures as heroes in the world through aspiring to be heroic in art…. Our wound was not just geography, as Pat once wrote, it was the unique spark of our hearts’ engines, and therefore kept us alive.”—Michael O’Keefe

“The wound we shared was permanent, not something that ever healed completely. We knew we would never be good enough. We didn’t know what bad thing was lurking just ahead of us.”—Cynthia Graubart

“If you are willing to read great books and work your ass off to write down what you are thinking and find your voice, it’s possible to emerge as a writer. To Pat there was no more sacred and worthwhile calling.”—Tim Conroy

“’My father’s violence is the central fact of my art and my life.’ I must have read that sentence aloud a dozen times. . . . And then I knew. I could just as truthfully assert that my mother’s violence is the central fact of my art and my life. . . . Pat could have allowed the cruelty to harden him, make him mean, make him repeat the sins of his father. But Pat made a conscious decision, I believe, to live a life that stood in total opposition to the violence. He found forgiveness through writing and grace in a life well lived . . . .”—Connie May Fowler

“One painful irony was his recognition that his books had liberated throngs of fellow sufferers—the depressed, the abused, the father haters—not to seek therapy or write books but to share their miseries with Conroy at book signings. This was unwelcome duty for a writer who wasn’t inclined to guide others through their elf-realization. Writing is not group therapy. But such was the price Conroy paid for exposing so much of himself and his family, book after book, as he sought to explain his tortured childhood to himself.”—Kathleen Parker

“He portrayed the South in full—all its contrasting mystery and ugliness, beauty and brine, laid bare—and did so in a way that made it feel accessible to outsiders and refreshing to those of us who live here.”—John Connor Cleveland

“I carried on about how the setting and themes of The Prince of Tides spoke directly to me. Pat smiled and listened as if he hadn’t heard the same thing a million times form other readers. And I found myself confessing hidden pieces of my life. The abuse in the novel was something I understood. ‘Most writers had shitty childhoods,’ he said.”—Michael Morris

“So many writers I know today don’t even address the question. They’re not even God-curious. I still think that’s the difference between a great writer and a merely good writer. Great writers—whether they’re believers or not—are God-haunted. Pat Conroy was God-haunted. Maybe you didn’t know.”—Margaret Evans

“The trauma of his childhood and adolescence could easily have sent him into the abyss. I know that writing about issues evoking his past trauma could be cathartic for Pat, but there was also peril in descending into that past. Blending memory and art was a dangerous dance too…. He took what might have destroyed him and made it beautiful and true…. His art will endure.”—Ron Rash

“’My wound is geography.’ The wound he referred to was tied to his difficult youth and his abusive father. But his themes about surviving a dysfunctional childhood gave me the confidence to write bout subjects I had shied away from in my own work, like my mother’s rape and other personal difficulties.”—Marjory Wentworth

“What I learned from his life and friendship was a kind of theology: Stories and Life are both marvelous and dreadful. I can’t, as a reader or a writer or a human being, shy away from the broken world…. It’s all there together—the noble, the cowardly, the awful, the shining. As it must be I both our writing and our lives.”—Patti Callahan Henry

“Reading Pat, and later knowing him, has been a life-class not on y in how to write but how to live…. To love the South while refusing to accept its failing and shortcomings. To pay forward what cannot possibly be paid back. To write about your family, to love your family. To look directly at all the world’s horror, to face it honestly, but never to turn mean. That’s what knowing Pat and reading Pat taught me, and is teaching me still.”—Mark Powell

And now, if I had been invited to contribute to the collection, what would I have written?

 

Permission to Write

By Susan Cushman

That’s what Pat Conroy gave me. And I’d also like to say here—since this essay isn’t published in the book about Pat—that his wife Cassandra King was also a big part of my inspiration to write. When I met Cassandra at the Southern Festival of Books in 2006—the last year it was held in Memphis—she was talking about her book The Sunday Wife. We talked in person after her panel, and she wrote in the front cover of my copy of her book, “To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is.” I could write more about Cassandra and her books and what her friendship means to me, but since this reflection is supposed to be about Pat, I’ll get back to him.

I don’t remember what year it was when I first read The Prince of Tides. It was published in 1986 and the movie came out in 1991. I think I actually saw the movie first, and loved it. But when I read the book, I was blown away by two things: Pat’s incredibly beautiful literary prose, and the power of using real life experiences—in his case the abuse from his father—to fuel a novel. To make art from pain.

I had tried to write about my own personal wounds—sexual abuse first from my grandfather when I was four or five, verbal and emotional abuse from my mother for all of my life, and abuse from two different Christian leaders in the 1970s—and so I wrote a memoir. Two, actually. But I finally realized that I wasn’t willing to go public with some of the names and situations involved, so I followed Pat’s example and wrote a novel. It took several years to finish Cherry Bomb, a couple more years dealing with a New York literary agent (with whom I eventually parted ways), finding a publishing home, more editing and finally publishing the novel in August of 2017. It was so satisfying and healing, and I will always be grateful to Pat for inspiring me to do this.

When Beach Music came out in 1995, I devoured it and realized what everyone else already knew: Pat wasn’t a one-hit wonder. So I went back and read The Water is Wide (1972) The Great Santini (1976), and The Lord of Discipline (1980). For some reason I never read The Boo (1970). But all of these books were also full of art borne from suffering, and they are powerfully beautiful. In 2009, I read Pat’s final novel, South of Broad, and it came alive for me on two visits to Charleston, the “Holy city” featured in the book. I think it may be my second favorite of Pat’s books, next to The Prince of Tides. Of course I also loved My Reading Life (2010) and I wept as I read his memoir The Death of Santini (2013), which revealed even more of his tremendously loving and forgiving heart, as he did everything he could to heal his relationship with his father.

Meeting Pat in January, 2010

Meeting Pat in January, 2010

When I finally got to meet him, in 2010, Pat was speaking at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas. He was so warm and genuine in person, and so humble and generous with his time. He even purchased books from some of the (lesser known) authors who were presenting during the weekend and stood in line to have them inscribe the books for him. He donned an apron and helped serve plates for the author dinner one evening. And when he spoke, his love for not only writing but also writers—at whatever stage we were in with our careers—was evident, and blessed me greatly.

Signing books with Cassandra King at Nevermore Books, Beaufort, SC, May 2017

Signing books with Cassandra King at Nevermore Books, Beaufort, SC, May 2017

In May of 2017 I visited Pat’s home in Beaufort, South Carolina, for the first time, just over a year after his death in March of 2016. I was giving a reading at Nevermore Books in Beaufort for an anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. Cassandra had contributed an essay to the book and joined me at the bookstore along with two other contributors, and then invited all of us to her house for dinner afterwards. I remember feeling a little awkward as she encouraged me to sit down in the chair at Pat’s writing desk, saying, “Maybe you’ll soak up some of his inspiration.” But I did sit there, as I had sat at his other desk earlier that day—the one that’s part of an exhibit at the Pat Conroy Literary Center. I swiveled around to take in the view of Battery Creek, which runs behind their home, and imagined how it might have inspired the beautiful descriptions of his beloved Lowcountry. I had just read A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (2016) and relished his words that were salvaged from various places that had published them previously. I was putting together another anthology when Pat died—Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi, May 2018)—and was sad not to have an essay by him in the collection. Cassandra contributed a wonderful essay—“The Ghost of Josiah King,” and I was thrilled to have essays by more writers with ties to Pat’s beloved Lowcountry, like Nicole Seitz and Patti Callahan Henry. I opened the Introduction with these words from A Lowcountry Heart:

“In his book A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (published posthumously), the author Pat Conroy says: ‘My mother, Southern to the bone, once told me, “All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: ‘On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.’”’”

Only Pat Conroy could write about the culture of suffering in the South with humor and get away with it. (Okay, so Rick Bragg also did this, and more recently, Harrison Scott Key.) I don’t do humor well, although I did use it some in my memoir about my mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. Because you have to have humor to survive the ravages of Alzheimer’s.

I believe that Pat has received all the messages of love penned by the authors who contributed to Our Prince of Scribes, and that he’s reading my words, even now. So I’ll send a shout out to him as I close this tribute: THANK YOU for giving me permission to write. If I could hear his response, I know he would be saying, “Great love.”

The Burden of Memory and History

I’m off on a short road this trip morning to Jackson, Tennessee, to speak on a panel for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING with fellow Tennessee authors Niles Reddick and River Jordan, so I’m short on time to write a blog post. Instead, I’m going to share something from a post I did ten years ago:

“Southern Writers on the River: The Burden of Memory and History”

Herman King, Patti Trippeer and me by the gate to the Ornamental Metal Museum on the Mississippi River in Memphis, September 2008. Photo by Doug McLain

Herman King, Patti Trippeer and me by the gate to the Ornamental Metal Museum on the Mississippi River in Memphis, September 2008. Photo by Doug McLain

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to click on the link and travel with me down memory lane, where I reflect on a magical day spent down by the Mississippi River with members of the Yoknapatawpha Writers Group, which met monthly for several years to critique one another’s works-in-progress and to share our journeys in the written word. Here’s a teaser:

So yesterday when some of the folks in my writers critique group gave me their gentle but wise feedback on the pages I had just penned—the pages about some difficult and dark things that happened during those same years that Morris chronicled in The Last of the Southern Girls—I listened to their suggestions because I respect their journeys and their own personal endeavors to capture their memories, and our collective Southern history, in the short stories and novels they are drafting.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend. Come back next week for some NEW POSTS, including an interview with another Tennessee author . . . .

 

Warming Up to Adele (and short story collections)

a297b454e38ab19556dd1bbfaf6eeeceIf you read my blog regularly, you know that I have published four books, with four different publishers—two university presses and two small indie presses. And I’ve been published in three genres: memoir, novel, and essay anthology (as editor and contributor). You might not know that I haven’t always like short stories. But that has changed recently. Maybe because of my friends who have published some really good collections, like those by John Floyd, Niles Reddick, Lee Martin, Jennifer Horne, and Suzanne Hudson. (I blogged about John, Jennifer and Suzanne’s collections here.) Oh and M. O. “Neal” Walsh’s first book was a linked short story collection, The Prospect of Magic.

You also know that I had a negative experience working with a New York literary agent on my novel CHERRY BOMB, and eventually parted ways with her. And yet I find myself hoping for a different experience “next time,” and so I’ve just spent several months querying agents for my linked short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY. Here’s an update on the journey.

Of the forty agents I’ve queried since May (remember that I queried over 100 for CHERRY BOMB?) here are my responses so far:

17 rejections, but several were personal and very nice. My favorite one said this:

I think you’re a great writer and this is a great concept. I had a hard time warming up to Adele.  I think her voice is getting lost in the stories she’s reflecting on here – I think this collection would be more powerful if we had more of a sense of who your narrator is.

Friends of the Library cover“Adele” is the fictional author (based on me) who visits ten Friends of the Library groups in small towns in Mississippi, speaking about her novel and her memoir. In each town, she gets involved in the very complex lives of some of the people there (all fictional people and situations) who are dealing with things like Alzheimer’s, cancer, domestic abuse, eating disorders, adoption, sexual abuse, kidnapping, and racial issues. She doesn’t have the same level of involvement in all of the stories, and maybe that’s what this agent is referring to. Maybe she needs to be more involved, so that her interactions change her and affect her life more.

What’s interesting about this agent’s comments is that I was just visiting with a couple of author friends this weekend about this collection, and one of them mentioned the idea of making the author/narrator into a protagonist for a novel, by connecting the stories. I’m not sure how to do that, since the characters in each story don’t really have anything to do with the characters in the other stories. I really like the book the way it’s structured, but I do plan to go back through it and see if I can figure out why this agent had a hard time “warming up to Adele.” I want my readers to love her, but especially to love the characters she meets in each of the small towns in Mississippi. And to embrace those towns and their history, their architecture, their music and art and culture.

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short-stories-writers-digestMeanwhile… (you know something’s coming when you see my ellipses, right?) I decided to go ahead and query three university presses for the collection. They each have the full manuscript, but I haven’t heard back from any of them yet. Only two more of the 40 agents I queried asked to read the manuscript, and I haven’t heard back from them yet (it’s been two months) so my gut feeling is that if one of the university presses is interested in the book, I will go with them. I really like working with academic presses, but I was hoping for a larger reach. Maybe that will happen if I ever get that next novel written. I’m actually considering expanding one of these short stories into a novel. I won’t tell you which one yet.

So that’s a sneak peek into this chapter of a writer’s life.

SWW at Pat Conroy event

Jonathan Haupt (back left) Director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center hosted this wonderful event with authors Nicole Seitz, Patti Callahan Henry (back row) and me and Cassandra King Conroy (front row) in Bluffton, South Carolina.

 

As much fun as I’m having touring for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, it’s important to always be looking forward, working on the next project, or there won’t be a next book! This weekend I was in South Carolina for my 10th panel presentation for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, this time with Cassandra King, Patti Callahan Henry, Nicole Seitz, and Harrison Scott Key. The event was in the Visiting Author Series sponsored by the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort. The turnout was great and I really enjoyed being with these amazing writers who generously contributed essays to the book and then traveled to Bluffton for the event. I’ve now moderated panels with 21 of the 26 contributing authors, and have four more events scheduled for this book (through January of 2019). So… come next February, I hope to have another book in the queue. And maybe I’ll have time to finally get that second novel under way.
Thanks always, for reading!

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

 

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