>Literary Agent, Bartender or Actress? Hmmmm

>The optional theme for this round of posts over at the Southern Authors’ Blog, “A Good Blog is Hard to Find,” is “What would you do if you couldn’t be a writer?”

The first things that came to mind (seriously) were:

literary agent



But then I thought back to my childhood, and my desire to be an ACTRESS started early… a least in third grade.

And in 10th grade, when I got to play Rebecca Gibbs to my older brother’s lead role of George Gibbs in “Our Town.”

Read all about it on my post at A Good Blog: “Never Quit Your Day Job.”

Hubby and I are off to Denver (and from there, Breckenridge) EARLY Friday morning for a great New Year’s weekend of skiing and playing with the grandbabies and kids. (He’s skiing, I’m playing with the babies:-)

Happy New Year, everyone! I’ll (hopefully) be back on Tuesday, January 4.

>Snopes on the 12 Days of Christmas

On the fifth day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
Five golden rings!

I was thinking of doing a post on the meaning behind the 12 Days of Christmas one day this week, and while researching it a bit I ran across this article on Snopes that pretty much shoots down the traditional beliefs about the song.

The article begins with the CLAIM:

The song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” was created as a coded reference to important articles of the Christian faith.

That’s been the party line for the meaning behind the song, as it had been explained to me a while back. As one of my sources says:

From 1558 until 1829 CE, Roman Catholics in England were not allowed to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning; the surface meaning, plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church.

But after reading Snopes’ arguments, I’m less inclined to believe this.

Terry Mattingly’s post at “Reconnecting to the Truth” back in 1999, “A Christmas Mystery: Twelve Days’ Worth,” is another good source on the subject, and Mattingly is actually referenced in the Snopes piece.

Your thoughts?

Wherever you stand on this, I hope you’re enjoying the twelve days of Christmas, the days between the Nativity and the Feast of Theophany on January 6! Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

>My Leaflessness

>Christ is Born! And on this, the third day of Christmas, I’ll share today’s reflection on Alfred Austin’s poem, “My Winter Rose,” from my work-in-progress, Sleeping With Poets.

My Leaflessness
Day 24—Sleeping With Poets

On the third day of Christmas, YourDailyPoem.com delivered this lovely piece by Alfred Austin (1835-1913) to my email inbox: “My Winter Rose.” I read it twice before deciding to try to memorize (part of) its seven stanzas. And so I guess I cheated a bit by using this poem as the subject of today’s reflection since I truly do not have time, and maybe not enough brain cells, to memorize the entire poem. But it’s just too wonderful not to be included here.

Austin’s peers and critics didn’t deem him worthy of the honor England bestowed on him by naming him Poet Laureate following Tennyson’s reign. He was considered mediocre at best. Just one more reason not to listen to the critics, but to find joy in the art we love, regardless of popular opinion or lack of critical acclaim. (I also love that he quit his job as a lawyer the day his father died, and pursued his art from that day forward.)

“My Winter Rose” came into my life on the coldest day of 2010 (so far) here in Memphis. And so as I recited the first stanza over and over while warming my hands on the portable heater near my computer desk, it seemed appropriate:

Why did you come when the trees were bare?
Why did you come with the wintry air?
When the fain note dies in the robin’s throat,
And the gables drip and the white flakes float?

Right away I thought of the Christ-child, who came in the middle of winter. Maybe this was Austin’s intent, or maybe not. I couldn’t find any written critique of this poem, so I had only my own interpretation to reflect upon. Jesus has been called the “Rose of Sharon.” Sharon was a wild plain in Palestine, where beautiful flowers grew. And the rose is considered the most perfect of all flowers. (I love this icon painting,”Walking to the Rose of Sharon,” by Jean Flower) in which she combines labrynth-walking with traditional Byzantine iconography. Nice.) And so, I continued to memorize these beautiful verses:

What a strange, strange season to choose to come,
When the heavens are blind and the earth is dumb:
When nought is left living to dirge the dead
And even the snowdrop keeps its bed!

Austin has yet to say who or what he is referring to. In fact, he saves that information until the very last verse, when he reveals its identity:

So, timely you came, and well you chose,
You came when most needed, my winter rose.

You came when most needed.
How true that has been in my own life. When I am most content with circumstances, I tend to turn less to God. And maybe God knew that the birth of His Son would have a lesser impact in the middle of spring, when our human passions are engrossed in the beauty of created things:

Could you not come when woods are green?
Could you not come when lambs are seen?….

And the year, growing confident day by day,
Weans lusty June from the breast of May?

At that point it struck me that my own creativity tends to flourish in the winter rather than in the spring, when the earth offers distractions to all my senses. In the cold of the winter, when my heart is starved for sunshine and beaches and colorful blossoms, then I can best create those things for which I hunger. And since God created us, he knows our nature, and how much more receptive we would be to the Incarnation of Christ in the wintertime. Had Christ been born in the spring or summer, Austin’s concerns were that:

Your voice would have silenced merle and thrush
And the rose outbloomed would have blushed to blush,
And Summer, seeing you paused and known
That the glow of your beauty outshone its own.

Ah, there’s the rub. The beauty of Summer would have paled in the presence of God Incarnate. And perhaps mankind would have been less receptive to something that outshone his earthy delights.

And so:

So, timely you came, and well you chose,
You came when most needed, my winter rose.
From the snow I pluck you, and fondly press
Your leaves ‘twixt the leaves of my leaflessness.

My leaflessness.
Those are my two favorite words in this beautiful poem. Because it is only when I withdraw my attention from the world’s distractions that I can see my own leaflessness—my need for God.

I was not tempted to stroll down the street and gaze upon my neighbors’ barren lawns and empty flowerbeds on this day of sub-freezing temperatures and bleak cloudiness. Instead, I was content to huddle inside my writer’s closet (we literally turned a closet into a writing space for me in the house we purchased a decade ago) and pen these words today. And now to move on to the creative work of the novel and its characters, who are waiting, this strange, strange season, for me to direct their lives and to color their world.

>On the Eve of the Nativity

>It’s Christmas Eve morning and the sky is gray. We’re hoping for a white Christmas while also praying for safe travels for our loved ones en route to share the holiday with friends and family. In the midst of cleaning and cooking and all the preparations for tonight (Nativity Feast at St. John Orthodox Church here in midtown Memphis) and tomorrow (our Christmas dinner at home, with Jonathan and a few friends from St. John) I’m pausing to share a few favorite Christmas videos. Enjoy!

MY FAVORITE CHRISTMAS VIDEO EVER: Serbian Christmas carol video.

Actually, that was the “rehearsal” for this video.

Romanian Nativity Hymn with talanton—the wooden boards that are “played” before the bells are rung at the beginning of worship services.

Arabic Byzantine Hymn (chanted) of the Nativity.

Russian Orthodox Christmas celebration in Moscow (January 7)

I love the ICONS in this Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas Story.
Be sure and keep watching… about 4 minutes in, the story is told with the folk icons.

This is the style I was copying when I did the painting with my Goddaughter, Sophie, of Ethiopian folk art.

And finally, an entry from one of my favorite secular artists—Sting: “If On a Winter’s Night.”

As I suspected, more beautiful Christmas cards have arrived since my last post, and I’d like to share two very creative ones with you to end this post. (And yes, two more that aren’t hand-crafted but are beautiful, so I put them in with this post, here…

… and here.

First, from Sarah and Joel Finley in Nashville, this hand-crafted card (that unfolds to reveals a Christmas letter on the back) was lovely. The Finleys have a CD out and you can buy it on their Facebook Page, or their web site: Lulu Mae Music.

And the final card I’ll feature this year is from our friends Michael and Margaret Elliott (Margaret is our fabulous choir director at St. John). The card features their sons, Paul and James, and it’s in the shape of a Christmas ornament, complete with string for hanging. If you listened to some of the Orthodox Christmas music in these videos, you can appreciate Margaret’s talent and hard work that she contributes to our worship at St. John. Thanks for helping us make a “joyful noise unto the Lord,” Margaret!

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays!

And to my Orthodox friends: Christ is Born!

>Greetings: A Few of my Favorite Christmas Cards

I love old-fashioned Christmas cards. There’s something warm and fuzzy about the illustrations on those cards with the Victorian and Americana images. But I’ve never bought any of those or sent them out. Not sure why…. but I tend to either make my own cards or use family photos.

The photos cards are definitely on the rise… over half the cards we’ve received so far this year are photo cards. Here’s ours, which I created online with Vista Prints. Since we weren’t with our Denver family at Thanksgiving, we had Kevin (our future son-in-law) set up his tripod and take a picture of Jason, See, Grace, Anna, Beth, and Kevin on Thanksgiving day in Denver and send it to me by email. Then we had someone take a picture of me, Jonathan and Bill at Thanksgiving in Birmingham, where we were visiting Damon and Weezie Boiles.

(Jon had just returned from Afghanastan, so we were toasting his return.) And then I had some personalized stamps made online, using this picture of Beth, Jason and Jon, riding on a car they made from the OMAGLES they got for Christmas in 1985.

Our friend, Ethan VanDrimmelen, is a photographer. This is the card he and Claire sent us, with the photo he took of his daughter, Zoe. Ethan has been doing photos for family Christmas cards as a side business this Christmas, and we’ve received several that feature his work. (Of course he had quite a photogenic subject to work with in Zoe!)

But some of my favorite cards that we’ve received (and sent) have contained original art, or have been hand-crafted.

Like this one that our friend, Ashley Newton, made from craft paper and string. I just love it!

And on the inside she used an old-fashioned stamp to create her personal message to us.

I think my favorite two cards this year were created by two very talented mothers who made use of their children’s art and literary skills. First, from Erin and Christian Moulton, this wonderful card featuring the artwork of their oldest son, Alexis (9) and poetry by their middle son, Simeon (5).

She included a wonderful photo on the inside.

Anne Marie and Josh McCollum sent an original art card, with this fabulous drawing by their 11-year-old son, Justin. (Anne Marie took an icon class with me once, and her talents are obviously being passed on to Justin!)

Pictures of all their kids and a nice little newsletter are on the inside. What a great card!

Since I haven’t been writing (painting) icons for the past year or so, I didn’t have any original art work for this year’s card. I guess I could have painted something else, like I did a few years ago. I did a painting for my daughter’s apartment, called “Eastern Joys,” and I used a detail from the painting for our Christmas card that year.

In 2007 I used pictures of icons in progress by several of my students. I think this is one of my favorite cards from the past. I’ve also really enjoyed receiving cards from my students who have used photographs of the icons they wrote in my class for their cards.

And one year I created this card from an icon I wrote (again, that’s the correct term for painting an icon, because you are “writing” the life of the saint with color) as a gift for my dear friend, Urania Alissandratos. I had some professional help with this one, from Anne Dugan, who helped with the layout and preparation for printing.

I’m sure we’ll receive more “favorites” just as soon as I publish this post, so watch for an addendum, maybe after Christmas.

Oh, and a word about Christmas newsletters: I love to receive them. I sit by the fire at night reading them and catching up on the lives of friends who live far away. Sometimes I close my eyes and try to picture them (and I really love it when the newsletters include pictures) as I remember the times we’ve spent together in the past. This year I didn’t write a full newsletter–just put a few lines on the back of our photo card. (So, if you got our card and didn’t look on the back, this would be a good time to turn it over!)

And so I hope that you enjoy sending and receiving Christmas greetings this year as much as I do. Next year maybe I’ll get back in touch with my inner artist!

>New Year’s Resolutions

>I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but here’s one that my friend, River Jordan, made a few years ago, and then she ended up turning it into a book:

She resolved to pray for a stranger every day for a year. Yes, she would just go up to someone she met during the day, and ask if they would mind if she prayed for them that day.

Listen to River tell about how she got started on the project here.

Praying For Strangers
will be out in April of 2011.

Vicki Britton offers up some good advice in her article at Suite101.com: “Twenty New Year’s Resolutions for New and Published Writers.”

Joyce Good Henderson challenges writers to create a mission statement by answering a few questions about their New Year’s Resolutions at Writethat.com.

Do you make New Year’s Resolutions? If so, has this practice proved helpful to you in the past? (whether or not you’re a writer)

>There Are No Rules

>Hey, everyone. I’d like to introduce you to a couple of folks today. The first is Jane Friedman, (right) former publisher and editorial director for Writer’s Digest, who has a terrific blog on the Writer’s Digest site: “There Are No Rules,” which gets over 50,000 visitors monthly. I’m excited to announce that I’m going to be a guest blogger starting January 7, hopefully posting about once a month for Jane.

And I’d also like to introduce you to another emerging writer/friend, Darrelyn Saloom from Lafayette, Louisiana. I met Darrelyn at the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford in November. She’s been guest blogging for Jane Friedman for a while, and her post today is part of a series she’s writing on the conference. Check out today’s post, “A Feast of Days, Part 2,” about her experience preparing to meet literary agents for the first time. You can link back to Darrelyn’s previous posts under “Categories” and then “Darrelyn Saloom” on the left side of the blog.

That’s all for today. I’ve been busy working on the novel and a nonfiction book proposal for the book about memorizing poetry this week… and finishing my Christmas shopping! Hope everyone has a great weekend… I’ll hopefully be back on Monday!

Ho ho ho…

>The Wreath is on the Door

>[Yesterday I wrote the following reflection on Day 21 of my poetry-memorization project.]

“Choices at Christmas Time”

Twelve days before Christmas and there were no stockings hung by the chimney with care. There was no hope that St. Nicholas soon would be there. There wasn’t even a Christmas tree in the house or a wreath on the front door. (There were, however, one hundred and twenty-five Christmas cards in the mail, and gifts purchased and wrapped, sitting on the floor around the non-existent tree. So, the “required” actions had been taken, right?) Had there been a death in the family? Was I depressed? Everyone who knows me knows that in years past I’ve always been ahead of the game with the decorations, creating a holiday atmosphere for family and friends to enjoy. So why was I such a Christmas slacker this year?

Did I mention I’m writing a book? Two, actually? And posting on my blog three times a week and guest-blogging on two other blogs regularly? And organizing writing conferences and workshops? For the first time in my adult life, I decided to take myself seriously as a writer this year. It is my full time job, and it leaves very little time for all the extras that seemed requisite when I was a “stay at home mom.”

But today I decided to do one thing—to hang a wreath on the front door. (Well, front window on our porch, actually.) A simple thing, really, but one that says, to passers-by and to myself, Christmas is happening here. Really, it is. What prompted this simple display? An anonymous poem: “The Wreath is on the Door.”

The wreath is on the door
And the snow is on the tree
God has laid His holy hands
On all that we can see

I memorized the first verse while getting the wreath down from the attic and hanging it on the window. Tromping up and down the stairs to the simple beat and rhyme was actually fun. And watching snow flurries as I took the wreath outside lifted my spirits, although the snow didn’t stick and wasn’t really “on the tree.” Wait—maybe the poet mean the snow was on the Christmas tree, like fake snow?

Last night I went to church for the first time in a few weeks. I had been out of town, and then sick. We have special prayers to the Mother of God on Monday evenings during the Nativity Fast—the weeks leading up to Christmas. The church was dark, lit only by candles, and by the voices of those chanting and singing together. We were still in a time of preparation for Christmas, not the brighter days of celebration that would come after. I thought of that this morning as I continued to memorize this short poem. I recited the second (and final) verse standing in the dining room where I could see the wreath through the window:

Be quick to raise your voice
And praise what He has brought.
Keep now His love in every choice
And Christmas in every thought.

And so I raised my voice with this simple poem and praised God for His gifts, for what “He has brought.” And I listened to the poet’s admonition to keep God’s love in every choice and I decided that I could be a writer and still love God. That I could keep Christmas in every thought by giving myself to my work in such a way that I might produce something that would be worthy of my readers. I could leave it to others to decorate their houses and trim their trees this year. I would find ways to keep God’s love in my choices—spending a Saturday morning filling Christmas bags for the homeless and perhaps an *evening caroling at a nursing home—but I would not choose to pressure myself to “do it all” this year.

Oh, sure, I’ll cook Christmas dinner for our son (home from Afghanstan!) and a few friends. (We’re going to Denver to spend New Year’s with our other children and grandchildren this year—another reason for the absent stockings and tree back here in Memphis.) And it will be joyous. But for the next twelve days, I’ve got a novel to finish. My characters are waiting for me to light up their world with love and hatred, with joy and grief, with success and failure. They’re waiting to share with me—and eventually, with you—the consequences of their choices. Yes, Mare, I hear you calling and I’ll be there in just a few minutes. And so I leave behind thoughts of shopping and trimming and cooking for now and return to my work.

After all, the wreath is on the door.

[*Note: I didn’t make it to our church’s annual Christmas carolling at a local nursing home. I was still coughing and sneezing and not quite up to making a joyful noise. But I have wonderful memories from previous years, which you can read about here.]


Following my friend, Corey Mesler’s lead, (Friend Corey on Facebook to read his list) I’m doing my first ever YEAR END LIST, or Susan’s Favorite Things of 2010. (Guess this puts me in with the cool kids over at Slate and the Times, huh? Well, maybe not, once they read my choices….)

Best new TV show I discovered: Chase
Best current TV show: Parenthood
Runner-Up: Mad Men
Favorite TV show ever (and now is over): Saving Grace
Favorite new TV show that didn’t make it: Outlaw

Best cd I bought: The Wrockers’ Stranger than Fiction
Best new cd: Sugarland’s The Incredible Machine
Honorable mention: The Court Yard Hounds
Best newcomers cd: Everything in the Whole Wide World by Lulu Mae (Nashville)

Best movie I saw all year: The Hours, Divine Secrets of the Yia Yia Sisterhood, The Prince of Tides (I watch these over and over and over….
Best new movie I saw: The Kids are All Right
Runners Up: Eat, Pray, Love and Secretariat (didn’t see many movies this year)
Best documentary: Restrepo
Honorable mention: One Came Home, Willie Bearden and David Tankersley’s beautiful, moving first film (and my friend, John Sneed, has a part in it)

Best Broadway show I saw: Jersey Boys (at the Orpheum, Memphis)

Best new book I read: MEMOIR: The End of the World as We Know It by Robert Goolrick. FICTION: Crooked Letter Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin.
Best book I read: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham
Honorable mention: Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson
Best books I read on my Kindle: The Miracle of Mercy Land by River Jordan and Crossing to Safety by Walter Stegner

Poets I’ve read a lot of this year: Beth Ann Fennelly, Scott Cairns, Mary Oliver, Mary Fisher-Wirth, Corey Mesler

Make your own list, or leave a comment here to share a few of your favorites from 2010!

>Sick Leave

Remember when people who stayed home from work because they were sick actually rested, in order to get well, to feel better, so they could return to work? The term “sick leave” implies that one “leave” the work behind due to illness. And yet today it seems that most people, when they are on sick leave, are just at home working away on their laptops, even while curled up on the couch under a blanket with a box of Kleenex and a bottle of cough syrup on the end table.

I’ve watched my husband, a physician who does clinical trials on hypertension, take a very rare day of sick leave just to continue the same pace he keeps when he’s well—writing or editing articles for medical journals, even taking conference calls from home, putting the speaker phone on silent just long enough to blow his nose from time to time.

Where am I going with this? If you keep up with me on Facebook, you know that I’ve had flu-like symptoms for the past couple of days. And since I work from home, there’s no leaving the office behind while I’m recuperating. The only thing that has stopped me in my tracks has been the feeling that my head is going to explode any minute, coupled with a painful, hacking cough. Oh, and did I mention my sinuses feel like someone is sticking nails in them? Somehow all these symptoms are distracting me from the heady work of novel-writing. I just can’t do it. And so I turn to “lesser” pursuits like blogging and addressing Christmas cards (125 in the mail today). Why can’t I just REST?

Yesterday was the closest I’ve come in a long time to doing nothing. I slept 10 hours Wednesday night and then took a two hour nap on Thursday. I tried to read two books (I’m always reading more than one at a time) but kept falling asleep sitting up. You think maybe my body was trying to tell me something? Is the world going to miss a spin if I take a day or two off from the novel? What’s driving me so?

This morning I was reading a wonderful book, The Forest for the Trees, by literary agent, Betsy Lerner. (Watch for a full review soon.) With two cups of coffee in me, I was able to stay awake, turning the pages hungrily and saying “yes!” over and over as I read. Lerner was affirming my urgent need to write, and for others to read what I write, in her own words and by sharing the words of those who are further down the road than I am. Like William Gass, in a Paris Review interview:

“Writing is a way of making the writer acceptable to the world—every cheap, dumb, nasty thought, every despicable desire, every noble sentiment, every expensive taste.”

And Lerner adds:

“If you are writing to prove yourself to the world, to quiet the naysayers at last, to make your cold and distant father take notice, I say go for it. If you are writing because no one has faith in you, because no one sees you for who you are, or because you feel like an imposter, better yet…. Chances are you want to write because you are a haunted individual, or a bothered individual, because the world does not sit right with you.”

Crying is not a good idea when your sinuses are about to burst, but I can’t help it… my keyboard is getting slippery now so I’ll close soon and blow my nose and get back to the business of sick leave—of leaving my work behind and getting well. Just as soon as I take a minute more to say how thankful I am to have discovered Betsy Lerner. To have a successful agent, author and editor give me permission to write for what some might say are less than honorable motives. You can bet that Ms. Lerner is now near the top of my list of agents to query when this book is finished.

Aaaachooooo! Ouch. That one hurt all over.

Is it okay to drink hot toddies in the morning? Oh, wait! Of course it is. I’m on sick leave today.

P. S. In her blog post yesterday, Lerner said that “writers place fourth on the most likely to get depressed list.” Just a bit of cheerful trivia I thought I’d share.

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