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….

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

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

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



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

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

Session 2 (Workshop)

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

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

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


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

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

Register here.



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



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

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

Using Scenes to Write Memoir (in Books and Essays)

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

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

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

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

Sue B. Walker—poet, author, and editor

Chandler Griffin—documentary filmmaker and educator

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

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

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

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

Register here.

Workshop Speaker, Writer’s Digest Guest Blog Post, and PERENNIALS!

I’ve got lots of NEWS today!



First of all, I’ll be speaking at Neil White’s Write & Publish Workshop in Oxford, Missisisppi on September 22-23. It’s a two-day workshop (8:30-4:30 each day) and I’ll be speaking on Day 2, the Publishing part of the workshop. You can REGISTER for one or two days. Neil always gathers terrific industry professionals for these workshops, and I’m honored to take part in this one. Here’s more information:

WRITE & PUBLISH YOUR BOOK: A Two-Day Workshop with Neil White

Next up, my guest blog post was published Monday at the Writers Digest’s editors’ blog, “There Are No Rules.” You can read it here:

“I Landed 4 Book Deals in 1 Year With No Agent: Here’s How I Did It”

PerennialsAnd finally, I just finished reading PERENNIALS, Julie Cantrell’s latest novel (to be released in November—I’ve got an advance reader’s copy) and was so blessed by it, as I always am by Julie’s writing.

Like me, Julie is a Christian who is also a writer, not a “Christian writer.” Her fiction is beautiful literary prose with strong spiritual elements, but not “Christian fiction.” (I wrote a bit about Julie’s last novel, The Feathered Bone, back in January of 2016.)

As the title suggests, Perennials is all about flowers, but also full of wonderful “floral” metaphors. Julie gives her readers much to ponder about our own lives through the stories she tells. She’s not only a wonderful storyteller, but also a wise woman who bravely shares her insights for everyone who is willing to receive them. Not only in the book itself, but at the end, where she has included discussion questions and “Activity Sparks.” My favorite one:

At one point Lovey considers the timeline of her life. Make a timeline of your life. What key moments have you included? Notice the high points and the low points. Do you notice “seasons” in your own life: growth, bloom, loss, ruin, rebirth?

I actually did a similar timeline/list a few months ago, and found it helpful. But I wasn’t looking for those “seasons” and the wonderful comparisons to the timelines of things like flowers in the natural world. Julie truly has a gift, and I hope you will buy PERENNIALS and enjoy her art and her compassionate wisdom.

Writing on Wednesday: Oxford Writes

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAOxford Writes is a new organization in Oxford, Mississippi. Their “mission statement” which appears on their web site says:

We are a mentoring and development venture in Oxford, Mississippi, for aspiring or published writers to interact with others to share their works and ideas.​

To that end, they held their first writers’ event this past Saturday. They offered the one-day workshop without charge to the first 60 people to register. By the time I heard about the event I could only get on the waiting list, but thankfully someone cancelled and I was able to participate.

Eileen Saunders, Daphne Davenport, Julie Cantrell and me at the City Grocery balcony bar after the Oxford Writes workshop

Eileen Saunders, Daphne Davenport, Julie Cantrell and me at the City Grocery balcony bar after the Oxford Writes workshop

I was enthused when I read this article in The Local Voice.  The workshop did not disappoint. It was so well organized—from the beautiful venue to the complimentary food and terrific craft talks and break-out workshops. Kudos to Jeff Roberson, organizer, and everyone else who worked to make this such a success.

How great to meet Adam Ganucheau (journalist, social media and blogging coordinator, among other skills) and Wesley Bell (who writes grants for a non-profit and has a faith-based blog)—two smart young guys who led the Online Writing, Blogging and Social Media workshop.  Although I’ve been blogging for almost nine years, I gained some valuable new insights from Adam and Wesley.

Jim Weatherly speaking at Oxford Writes

Jim Weatherly speaking at Oxford Writes

It was also fun to meet Jim Weatherly (famous for writing Midnight Train to Georgia and many others hits, and he also played football at Ole Miss) who talked about song writing. Although it’s different than writing books, there were several things he said that can apply to all writing. My favorite take-away from Jim:

I write for the listener—to elicit an emotion. Use fewer words, but important, emotional words.

I’ve known Neil White for about eight years and I’ve heard him gift craft talks on creative nonfiction many times, but I always learn something new. I think my main take-away from his talk on Saturday was about the importance of VOICE:

Voice is writing so that people know it’s you—and being authentic.

I can’t hear that often enough.

Julie Cantrell and I met about five years ago and our paths continue to cross. She was kind enough to read and critique my novel, Cherry Bomb, in its early stages, and she gave me valuable feedback. This was the second time I heard Julie give a craft talk, and her teaching ability continues to amaze me. I took five pages of notes, which I’m now going over and trying to apply her advice to my work. So here are a few of my favorite take-homes from Julie’s talk:

Be passionate—view your writing like a secret lover.

What’s your novel’s theme?—How do the characters’ actions change them?

Be a lifelong learner—give your readers something new.

Fine your true voice—your way back to your true self.

Bring your readers through stages of emotional and spiritual growth, just as you bring your characters through those stages.

I could go on and on sharing the details of the workshop, but instead I encourage aspiring and emerging writers to keep up with Oxford Writes and watch for future events and try to attend!

I’ll close with a hands-on writing exercise Julie had us do. We were asked to spend two minutes writing a list of ideas we might like to write a book about. And then she helped us narrow those ideas down. Finally she had us look at that idea or character and ask “the great what if.” Here’s how my idea—to write about a piece of art—began to take shape by asking that question:

WHAT IF… Jackson Pollack and his mistress, Ruth Kligman, have a love child who is put up for adoption and eventually discovers her heritage through finding her father’s final painting, “Red, Black, Silver,” which had been lost.

Quotes-From-Elizabeth-Gilbert-Big-MagicI actually wrote a first draft of the opening chapter of this novel two years ago, had it critiqued at a workshop and later by a writing group, but it hasn’t drawn me in yet. Maybe I’m not passionate enough about it. Julie shared this quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book on writing, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which I’m thinking about as I consider my next project:

Life should be fun. We should be playing.

Writing on Wednesday: Agent Update and Mid-South Book Festival!

editorcatIt’s been two months since I sent my novel revisions back to the literary agent who asked me to work with an editor to make some improvements. I’ve tried to be patient, but yesterday I decided to squeak the wheel a bit. I sent an email asking if they had read the new version yet. Here’s the reply I received from one of the agent’s assistants:

Dear Susan,

We hope you are doing well and we apologize for the delay.

Cherry Bomb is currently going through the process of reading. [The agent] and our readers are evaluating your revised manuscript and we will be in touch shortly. 

Thank you for your patience, Susan, and we hope you have a lovely day.

Best wishes,


Assistant to [Agent]

I breathed a sigh of relief. They’re still reading. Of course I’m anxious for their response, but I’ll try to practice patience. Writing and publishing—it’s a slow business.

If you’re wanting to polish your writing skills, two of my friends (who are also in a Memphis writers group with me) are leading workshops this Saturday at the first ever Mid-South Book Festival at Memphis Botanic Gardens.

Emma French Connolly

Emma French Connolly

Emma Connolly will be leading a Creative Writing Seminar from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturday. Emma will guide writers using writing prompts and fun activities. Emma is a writer, artist and clothing designer for little girls under the label French Boundary. She is also a deacon in the Episcopal Church currently serving at St. John’s in Memphis. Connolly’s award-winning stories include fiction and creative non-fiction, and one of her novel manuscripts was a finalist in Amazon’s Great American Novel contest. As founder of WriteMemphis (now a program of Literacy Mid-South) she loves writing with others, especially teens, and facilitates a spiritual writing group on Saturday mornings. She blogs at Welcome to Emmaville. 

Ellen Morris Prewitt

Ellen Morris Prewitt

Ellen Prewitt is also leading a writing workshop, from 2-4 p.m. on Saturday, called “Better Writing Through Writing Groups.” Learn how to set up both traditional writing groups (write on your own; critique in groups) and alternative writing groups (creating new work in the company of others); how to get the most out of your writing group; also, attendees might meet others who are interested in keeping the Festival enthusiasm going.

Ellen Morris Prewitt’s fiction and essays have appeared in literary journals (Hotel Amerika, Barrelhouse, and Gulf Coast Literary Journal being her favorites); won contests (both the fiction and nonfiction contests of the Tennessee Writers Alliance, as well as the Memphis Magazine Fiction Contest); and received recognition (two short stories were nominated for a Pushcart Prize; one received a Special Mention). Her essay “Tetanus, You Understand?” was included as an example of metaphor in Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir by Sue Silverman, and her nonfiction book was published by a small press (Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God, Paraclete Press). Morris also recorded and released online her short story collection, Cain’t Do Nothing with Love. Ellen founded and created a writing group for the homeless at the Door of Hope and has been facilitating writing groups for several years. Ellen just edited a collection of stories published by the Door of Hope authors, Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (Triton Press, 2014).

Ellen will also be on a panel at 11:30 a.m: Agents for Aspiring Writers

Do aspiring writers need an agent? How does a person get an agent? What should one expect from an agent? Chris Tusa, Writer-In-Residence at Southeastern Louisiana University, and author Ellen Morris Prewitt will provide the answers to aspirating writers in this great panel discussion. Moderated by Darel Snodgrass from WKNO-FM.

lms_msbf14_printads_poster_12x18-page-001_categoryYou can see the full schedule for Saturday’s events here. There are also events on Thursday – Sunday, which you can see on the schedule menu button on the festival web site. It should be a beautiful day to be at the Botanic Gardens and a great time to check out the regional authors who will be speaking, reading and signing books.

My friend, Neil White, author of the best-selling memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, will be speaking at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

Both Burke’s Books and the Booksellers at Laurelwood will be on hand with all the authors’ books. Hope lots of folks can make it out to support Memphis’s first book festival, which benefits Literacy Midsouth.

Writing on Wednesday: Another Non-Traditional Route to Publishing

Santo reading at The Booksellers at Laurelwood August 19.

Santo reading at The Booksellers at Laurelwood August 19.

In 2012 Memphis author, Courtney Miller Santo, wrote her first novel as her master’s thesis for the University of Memphis’s MFA program. Then she entered The Roots of the Olive Tree in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel competition, where literary agent Alexandra Machinist saw it and offered to represent her. Machinist sold the book to HarperCollins. And so we have another example of a non-traditional route to traditional publishing. (Last Wednesday I wrote about a similar publishing experience, as another Memphis writer, Lisa Turner’s first novel’s success as a free eBook on Amazon led to an agent and a two-book deal, also with HarperCollins.)

Enjoying the reading with writing buddy Emma Connolly

Enjoying the reading with writing buddy Emma Connolly

Last night Santo gave a reading of her second novel, Three Story House (William Morrow) at The Booksellers at Laurelwood. Here’s a review in the Commercial Appeal if you’re interested. She read to a packed house with standing room only, and that’s saying something considering there’s seating for about sixty folks. I had a great time with Emma Connolly, who was in Richard Bausch’s fiction workshop with Courtney at the University of Memphis a while back. Emma and I are in a Memphis writers’ group together.

I’m intrigued by the novel, which is about three young women who move into an old house on the Mississippi River bluff in Memphis and renovate it. On the back cover:

This sharply observed account of the restoration of a house built out of spite but filled with memories of love is also a tale of friendship and a lesson in how relying on one another’s insights and strengths provides the women with a way to get what they need instead of what they want.

book in lapCan’t wait to find out about this house built out of spite and the lessons these women learn. I’m putting Three Story House in the queue right behind my current read (Jeanette Walls’s novel, The Silver Star,) and Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen. So many books! What are you reading here at the end of summer? Did you finish your “beach reads” or your “summer reading list”? I’d love to hear about it!

Santo prepping for her reading

Santo prepping for her reading


Santo CA article



Mental Health Monday: It’s All Grace

2012-06-13-61oAPGWXMbL._SL500_AA300_I rarely listen to music when I’m writing. It’s always interesting to me to read other artist’s “playlists” that they work to. But I can’t imagine creating words while listening to the words of others. Until today.

Today I’m trying to write a reflection on what happened to me one year ago. And everything that followed. And so I’m listening to a few special songs, including “Long Time Girl Gone By” sung by Emmylou Harris and written by Rodney Crowell. It’s on the wonderful album, “Kin,” which was a collaboration between Crowell and fellow Texan, the memoirist and poet, Mary Karr. Another favorite on the CD is “God I’m Missing You,” sung by Lucinda Williams.

sb_0409_cover_andCD-1On July 7, 2013, I was down at Waterhole Branch, just outside Fairhope, Alabama, for a video shoot to promote a new anthology, The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul, which was coming out that fall. I was so excited because my essay, “Eat, Drink, Repeat,” was included in that fabulous collection of stories and music by some incredibly talented writers and musicians. (There’s a terrific CD that comes with the book.) The shoot was to begin the next day. We all gathered at Joe Formichella (Shoe Burnin’ editor) and Suzanne Hudson’s home the night before to share a meal and our excitement about the project.



At the end of the evening I left to drive back to my hotel. In the darkness on a country road I crossed into the wrong lane and was hit head-on by an ambulance which was going about 65 miles per hour.

I don’t like to think about the accident. Nausea and flashbacks accompany the memory. A friend has asked me if I’m going to write about it. This is all I’m going to say.

in hospital in FL


I spent three days at Sacred Heart Trauma Center in Pensacola, Florida, where the surgeons repaired my broken neck, right leg and ankle. Everyone at the hospital treated me wonderfully. Back in Memphis, friends had fitted out my downstairs office with a hospital bed and everything I would need to recover there. In the coming months, they fed me, sat with me, drove me where I needed to go, and ran errands for me. My sweet husband was amazing. A second surgery on my leg came a couple of external fixationweeks later. I progressed from bed to wheel chair to walker to crutches. From casts to “black boot” to physical therapy. From hard neck brace to soft neck brace to more physical therapy. In spite of all the terrific support I received, I faced what seemed like endless days of loneliness and depression.

Just as I was beginning to get on my feet, my husband fell on some black ice (in December) and tore his rotater cuff. His surgery was in February, and he is still in physical therapy almost six months later. In the midst of all of this the lease was up on our house and we had to move. We were blessed to find a wonderful house here in Harbor Town with a DOWNSTAIRS master bedroom, and movers who would pack, move and unpack for us.  We love it here.

Pain_LevelsFolks are always asking how I am now. Honestly, most every day I have pain in my ankle, leg, hip or neck. Usually it’s a 3-4. Sometimes it’s a 5-6. I will never regain full range of motion in my neck, which always feels stiff. The hardware in my ankle aggravates my arthritis, so there’s that. I’ve gained back the weight I lost after the wreck so I’m feeling fat and frustrated and tired. And yet.


With Julie Cantrell at Memphis Library's 2013 Bookstock last October (in a wheelchair)

With Julie Cantrell at Memphis Library’s 2013 Bookstock last October (in a wheelchair)

It was also a year of amazing grace. In October I participated in the Memphis Library’s local author event, “Bookstock. A year in which I was able to travel in November to the launch of The Shoe Burnin’ at the Louisiana Book Festival and on to Fairhope to speak at the Penster’s Writing Group. In December I was able to fly to Denver for Christmas with my children and grandchildren. In May I was able to be with all those kids again for a glorious week at Seagrove Beach, Florida, fly to New York City with my husband, and drive to Jackson, Mississippi, for a wedding and then to Oxford, Mississippi, for a writing workshop.

With Suzanne Hudson at the Louisiana Book Festival, November 2013 (graduated to crutches)

With Suzanne Hudson at the Louisiana Book Festival, November 2013 (graduated to crutches)

In June we flew to Charleston for a medical event. And I am able to make trips to Jackson to visit my mother, who continues her journey with Alzheimer’s while living at Lakeland Nursing Home.

Work on revisions to my novel has been slow, due to all of the busy activities, as well as my recovery. The injuries to my body have sucked away my energy level at times, and also slowed my brain processes. But I’m gradually getting back to work.
Every day I thank God that I am not paralyzed, and that I am alive. It’s all grace.

Here are the lyrics from “Long Time Girl Gone By,” and a few more photos from the early days, weeks, and months of this year so full of grace.

green castIf I could live my life again awake
Think of all the chances I could take
I’d love with all abandon just the same
‘Cause that’s the game

If I could cross a bridge from now to then
Open up my chest and let it in
I wouldn’t fight so hard against the pain
I’d let it rain

Long time girl gone by

orange castI couldn’t take my loves the way they came
My eyes projected each one with a stain
And though they gave me more than I could spend
I wouldn’t bend

Hiding in my bridal veil of smoke
I sipped my lies until I thought I’d choke
Once there was nothing left that I could steal
I had to yield

Long time girl gone by

neck zipperThe seconds whisper circles off the clock
The ships go sailing past and never dock
The sea rears up, collapses and withdraws
The constellations wheel and never pause
The wind winds through the small bones in my ear
I start to hear

The trees look just as pretty when they’re bare
Black branches hieroglyphic in the air
The leaves they left are rotted into lace
It’s all grace

Writing on Wednesday: Raw Messiness, Lyric Cadence, and Summer Reading List

carriagePlease forgive me for playing hooky from my blog on Mental Health Monday. We were in Charleston and it was my “free day” to either stay in the hotel room writing a blog post … or [drum roll] go sight-seeing and shopping. Considering my own mental health, I ended up taking a carriage tour of the historic Battery area, which was wonderful, and then did a little shopping up and down King Street. (I managed to escape with only one new dress, which barely fit into the small suitcase I packed for our weekend.) Oh, and I had lunch right on the water—Fleet Landing—and enjoyed the view and the fresh catch flounder. But now I’m home and back at work writing. And reading. Today’s post is a “mini review” of two books.




First up is Sean Ennis’s short story collection, Chase Us, which was launched at the Powerhouse in Oxford, Mississippi, during the recent YOK writing workshop I attended. Sean, who teaches at Ole Miss and also for the Gotham Writers Workshop,  was one of the manuscript critique workshop leaders at YOK, but he lead the other group (I was in Scott Morris’s group) so I didn’t really get to spend much time with him. But I loved his reading of “This is Pennypack,” a crazy story of two teenage boys who found two Indians locked in a cage outside a park in Philadelphia the summer before their ninth grade year.  So many things were wonderfully outrageous about this story, but my favorite part was the names the boys gave to the Indians:

‘What’re your names?’ Clip said finally. I wasn’t going to say anything.

One man said, ‘No keys.’

The other said, ‘Gotta smoke?’

‘Whoa! They’re Indians,’ Clip said. ‘That’s, like, their teepee!’

The wind changed, and we got a whiff of their stink—armpits and waste. No Keys started picking through the empty potato chip bags, looking for crumbs. He ignored us. But Gotta Smoke said his name again, louder this time.’

And the story gets crazier as it continues. All the stories show vivid images of boys swinging on the pendulum between childhood and manhood, holding onto their tenderness where they can. But Ennis tells them with a voice that’s both humorous and edgy.

A Publishers Weekly review back in March says this of Ennis’s writing:

… the author presents the raw messiness of fear and confusion through a lyric cadence.

Well said. And kudos to Sean for this wonderful debut book! To learn more about Sean, read this interview at WIP.

Hemingway_s_Girl_--_jpegI just finished my first “summer read” last week. Erika Robuck’s Hemingway’s Girl appealed to me because (a) I love Hemingway and (b) she shows the reader a historic person and place through a fictional character. This is what I’m trying to achieve with my novel, Cherry Bomb. (I love historical fiction yarns that spin around art and literature. Like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, T. C. Boyle’s The Women, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, The Girl with the Pearl Earring and other books by Tracy Chevalier, Deborah Davis’s Strapless, and most recently, Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, The Goldfinch.)

Erika Robuck (photo by Catsh Photography)

Erika Robuck (photo by Catsh Photography)

As Robuck explains in this video, the story takes place in Depression-era Key West, Florida, in 1935. The protagonist, Mariella, is a young Cuban-American who is hired by the Hemingway family as a domestic. But she catches Hemingway’s heart. Robuck reveals many of Hemingway’s characteristics through scenes with Mariella—including one where he explains why he always quit writing just when the story is getting exciting, so that he will have a good place to begin writing the next day. Robuck hopes that readers of her book will gain a greater appreciation for “the man behind the legend,” and will be inspired to go back and read his work.  She succeeded in her goal for this reader. I’m adding A Moveable Feast to my summer reading list. And maybe I’ll revisit The Old Man and the Sea.


SylviaPlath_400x290What else is on my summer reading list so far? My current reads (yes I often read more than one book at a time) are: Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes (reading on my Kindle) and Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder (paperback, Harper Perennial). Next up? Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty (memoir) by Diane Keaton—I loved her first memoir, Then Again. And then Jeannette Walls’ first novel, The Silver Star (paperback, Scribner). (I loved Walls’ memoirs, The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses, and I’m interested to see how well she does fiction. I loved meeting her back in 2011.) So, it looks like I’ve got three memoirs and two novels on my summer reading list so far. What are YOU reading this summer? I’d love to hear from you!

Writing on Wednesday: Workshop Notes & Goals For Summer

YOK Shop workshop participants at Taylor Grocery: Daphne Davenport, Susan Vallee, Julie Cantrell, and Me

YOK Shop workshop participants at Taylor Grocery: Daphne Davenport, Susan Vallee, Julie Cantrell, and Me


Last Wednesday I gave a preview of the YOK Writing Workshop I would be attending this past weekend in Oxford, Mississippi. I usually write a fairly comprehensive “review” of this workshop every year when I get home. This year I’m only going to hit a few “highlights.” It’s not because the workshop wasn’t wonderful—it was! It’s because the main thing I got from the workshop was “go home and finish revising your novel!” And I’ll never get that done if I spend 2-3 hours on my blog posts three times a week. So, here are a few reflections on a terrific weekend.

The craft talks given by authors Ace Atkins and Julie Cantrell were full to overflowing with wisdom from their years of writing and publishing.

Ace Atkins (photo by Joe Worthem)

Ace Atkins (photo by Joe Worthem)

Notes from Ace: (“The Importance of Truth in Fiction”)

Make books as authentic as possible—the characters will be more believable. But you don’t have to follow the age-old adage, “Write what you know.” Instead, write what you can learn about—what you are interested in. The TRUTH of the people and locations and stories needs to come from real life. Observe people around you in different settings and then write whatever works for you. And don’t just write what might sell. Write the book you want to write.

Notes from Julie: (“Ten Tips to Create Realistic Characters in Fiction”)

Push your characters into choices that will be life-changing for them. Show the reader their hopes and fears. The tension between those hopes and fears will drive the plot and make the characters more complex. Give them chances and let them succeed… or fail. Go for a blend of plot-drive and character-driven writing. By showing the characters’ emotional complexity and spiritual development, we see who they are at their core, and we care about what happens to them. But without a great plot/story with a well-drawn narrative arc (Julie recommends arcs in each chapter) we won’t keep reading the book.

Both Ace and Julie encouraged us to take ourselves (the writers) out of the book in order to let the characters speak. Use your own experiences and/or do tons of research to get the backstory needed to hold up the narrative, but then back away and only show the reader what he needs to see—like zooming in on a photograph in which the background doesn’t help the scene.

10410572_471163812986521_858799016122301217_nJust before the workshop I had read another good article in the July/August issue of Writer’s Digest that spoke to this last point. Tracy Strauss, in “Harnessing Creativity to Empower Your Work,” said:

“We must shift our focus from ourselves to write with an awareness of others; we must make the choice to move (on the page) from having a monologue to engaging in a dialogue with our audience…. By taking our specific circumstances and tapping into universal themes, we create a more relatable story. And in doing so, our story transcends our individual selves and becomes meaningful to others.”

When Scott Morris’s critique group workshopped the first chapter of my new novel, Red, Black, and Silver, this weekend, they gave me some great feedback, encouraging me that this could be a good project. I submitted the synopsis and first chapter—not so much for close editing (which will come much later)—but because I really wanted to know if the idea for the book was viable. Again, Strauss addresses this in her WD article:

“Once we’ve produced a viable draft, exposing it to an audience-people whose opinions are astute and trustworthy, including experts in the publishing industry—is valuable. We might do this by enrolling in formal writing workshops led by successful authors and/or editors, or by participating in more informal writers’ groups—any venue in which we can expose our manuscript to other perspectives.”


YOK Shop Director Neal Walsh with Workshop Leader and Keynote Speaker Scott Morris on the balcony at City Grocery Bar

YOK Shop Director Neal Walsh with Workshop Leader and Keynote Speaker Scott Morris on the balcony at City Grocery Bar

Since I never went for an MFA in writing, I have made use of a dozen or more such workshops over the past seven years to get those all-important perspectives. I’ve also hired freelance editors and engaged beta readers (friends who are good writers who have had some publishing success) to gain the feedback I need to shape my work into something that readers will care about. Each time I return home from one of these workshops, I’m inspired to take their input and get back to work on the project at hand. Scott’s last words of advice to me before leaving the workshop?

Put the new novel aside and finish revisions on Cherry Bomb and send it back to the agent as soon as possible!

Summer school has begun. Thanks for reading!

Writing on Wednesday: Critique Rubrics and The Fox and the Hedgehog

From my workshop watercolor journal at YOK 2008

From my workshop watercolor journal at YOK 2008

This Friday I’m headed to Oxford, Mississippi, for the 2014 YOK Workshop for writers. It will be my 7th year to participate in this (seriously) life-changing event. (Last time was 2012, which you can read about here.) Part of the preparation for YOK Shop involves reading and critiquing my fellow writers’ manuscripts—fourteen in all. We’re divided into two groups for the critique sessions and there are seven in each group, but I’m reading and critiquing all the writing samples. This process—combined with the faculty critiques and craft talks—turns a three-day workshop into a mini MFA.

More of This World CoverYOK Shop organizer, M. O. “Neal” Walsh, sent us a wonderful guide for writing critiques which he got from his colleague, Barb Johnson, at the University of New Orleans. (Check out her debut story collection, More of This World Or Maybe Another.) I’m using Johnson’s format, mixing it up a bit with a wonderful article in the recent issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine by Fred White, author of The Daily Writer and other books, “Testing the Strength of Your Story Ideas.”

Some of Johnson’s suggestions include things I’ve been told in the past, such as discussing what’s working and what needs a little love in each piece. But she also suggests that we discuss 3 elements of the story, which is kind of like a writing prompt for critiquing. In the 10 stories I’ve critiqued so far, I’ve commented on things like characters, plot, point of view, theme, voice, setting, and dialogue.

wd_fredwhite-500In White’s article, he suggests fiction writers use a set of content-generating ideas BEFORE they go to the length to even write a first draft or an outline. I tried to pretend I hadn’t already written a synopsis and first chapter for my novel as I applied his advice, which includes CCSP: conflict, characters, setting and purpose. I’ve definitely got the first three in hand, but it’s that fourth one that’s tripping me up as I begin this new novel—“Is there a recognizable purpose?” Does my idea (and the ideas of my fellow workshoppers this weekend) fulfill a clear purpose, or will our readers be left asking, So what? (Read the entirety of his article for an expansion on his checklist for testing story ideas.)

fanhAnd then there’s this: On Friday night at the YOK Shop, Scott Morris will give his keynote address. This year it’s “Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?” (Previously he has waxed eloquent on topics such as “The Writer’s Cross: Transcending the Existential Shorthand” and “Learning to See and Write Sunsets.”) He encouraged us to read Isaiah Berlin’s essay, the famous classic, The Hedgehog and the Fox, as preparation for the event. I’m almost finished and am asking myself why I hadn’t read this previously. (Probably because I was never in an MFA program?) Scott is going to help us all learn if we’re hedgehogs or foxes or a bit of both, and what this has to do with us as writers. I’m already pretty sure I’m a hedgehog in foxy clothing, but I can’t wait to hear what he has to say!

I think I’ve mentioned some of the other great faculty for the YOK Shop in previous posts, but in case I missed anyone, here they are:

Ace Atkins, Julie Cantrell, Sean Ennis and Matt Brock. I’ve known Ace, Julie and Sean for awhile, and I look forward to meeting Matt this weekend!

Forgive me for playing hooky from my blog this Friday—there will be no Faith on Friday post—as I’ll be on the road to the workshop. As Brian Williams says, I’ll see you right back here on Monday.

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