>"The Geography of Consolation" by Alexis Paige


Alexis Paige, who attended the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop last September and blew us all away with her talent, has published one of the best essays I’ve read in a long time. Get a cup of coffee and hold onto your seats for this one:

“The Geography of Consolation” in the May/June issue of Ragazine.

This is how you do it.

This is how you write creative nonfiction.

So if you want a short course in the genre, or if you want to be inspired, moved, awed, or humbled, read this essay. I had all sorts of responses to it, but I have to admit that my overriding thought on her essay was, “I wish I could write like this.”

>Circling Faith gets 5 Star Review on Amazon!


Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (editors Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed, University of Alabama Press) just got a 5 star review on Amazon:

“A Polite White Background.”

If you read this anthology, which contains my essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” please do a reader review on Amazon, Powells, Goodreads, or elsewhere, to help promote this wonderful anthology. As Colorado poet and writer, Karen Douglass, said in her review:

“Sixteen essays and one interview (with Alice Walker), all fresh and forceful, so well crafted and full that I often forgot I was reading with a dual purpose–to say something useful to potential readers as well as to read for my own pleasure and education. Oh, the education!”

After doing a reading from my essay at the Boulder Writers Workshop in Boulder, Colorado last Saturday, BWW member, Karen Douglass, messaged me to say that the work was “way beyond Southern” and had a universal message.

Circling Faith is available in many independent bookstores now, as well as Amazon and other online stores.

>Q & A with Jennifer Paddock, author of The Weight of Memory


I met Jennifer Paddockduring the Fairhope Writers Colony Retreat in Fairhope, Alabama, last June. She was one of several local authors that Sonny Brewer brought in to talk shop with me and the other “colonists.” But I had already read Jennifer’s first two novels before I ever met her—A Secret Word and Point Clear. I was drawn to her voice, her characters, and the stories she wove through those characters’ lives. I was also drawn to the setting—the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida—where I’ve spent many vacations over the years. (You can read about my time with Jennifer in Fairhope and her first two novels here.)
So I was excited to learn that the characters I came to care about in her first two books would continue their journeys in a third novel—The Weight of Memory.  I just finished reading an advance reader’s copy and Jennifer has agreed to a short Pen & Palette Q & A:
P&P:  Hi, Jennifer. Thanks for agreeing to “chat” with us today. I’m so excited about the release of your third novel. My first question is this—did you know you were going to write three books about Chandler, Sarah and Leigh when you wrote A Secret Word?
Jennifer: I did.  Chandler, Sarah, and Leigh had become very real to me, and I missed them.  I like the idea of checking in on them every five years or so.  I didn’t know that Walker from Point Clearwould be a major character.  That was a nice surprise.
P&P:  Are the characters in your novels based on friends and acquaintances—especially the three girls and Trey and Walker? I couldn’t help wonder if Chandler was based on your own life in some ways, since she was a tennis instructor.
Jennifer: They are, and they aren’t.  I almost always start from something real and then let fiction take over.  I am most like Chandler, but my family life, especially when I was growing up, is like Sarah’s, and my often feeling like an outsider is like Leigh.  
P&P:  Sarah’s father, “C.H.” has such an abusive attitude towards women’s bodies and eating. My mother was like this, so I was especially sensitive when I read that part. Do you think this is a common problem in the South? Did you experience this personally?
Jennifer: I do think it’s a common problem. I teach tennis to a lot of young girls, and they are all overly concerned about their weight. They shouldn’t be. They’re perfect. I did not have this experience in my family, which is good, but I developed some bad habits–my addiction to Coke is one. My father gave it to me in my baby bottle with a little crushed ice–I loved it!
P&P:  Did Leigh’s Cherokee heritage in the book come from something or someone in your own life, or just your imagination?
Jennifer: It came from a friend of mind who was searching for her birth mother and found out she was Cherokee. I went to visit the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, which is close to my hometown of Fort Smith, Arkansas. It was an inspiring, mystical experience.
P&P:  Who are your favorite authors or role models/mentors for your writing, and why?
Jennifer:  My favorite writer is Susan Minot, for the beauty of her language.  It’s spare, poetic, and very visual.  I also love Anthony Doerr, especially Memory Wall, which is definitely my favorite long short story.  It’s hard to beat the honesty of Raymond Carver.  I love Brad Watson, Ann Hood, Michelle Richmond, Michael Knight, William Gay, Jay McInerney, J.D. Salinger, Richard Yates, Grace Paley, Richard Bausch, Tobias Wolff, and so many more.
P&P: What’s next? Will there be another sequel?

Maybe. I don’t want it to be my next book. I’ve been reading the wonderful novel The Art of Fielding, which is about baseball and so much more, and I’d like to write a tennis novel–a shorter Infinite Jest (which I still need to read!).
Thanks so much for taking time to “chat” with us today, Jennifer.  The Weight of Memory is available for purchase now from MacAdam/Cage. You can friend Jennifer on Facebook to learn about readings and events.

>Welcome, Gabrielle Sophia Davis!


My third granddaughter, and first child of my daughter, Beth and her husband, Kevin, was born at 5:15 p.m. on Monday, April 23. 8 lbs, 20.5 inches and beautiful! I was blessed to be involved in the entire process of labor and delivery with Beth and Kevin… an experience I will never forget. I’ve never been prouder of my daughter. Enjoy the pictures! “SuSu” is off to the hospital to visit Gabby and her parents!

>Boulder Writers Workshop Literary Salon


I met Lori DeBoer(right) on Facebook about a year ago. Lori is the founder and director of the Boulder Writers Workshop (BWW), as well as an author, writing coach and editor. Last summer she invited me to lead a writing workshop for the North Denver Metro group of the BWW when I was in Denver visiting kids and grandkids. It was fun meeting such an enthusiastic group of emerging writers.
Saturday I was again her guest, this time at the BWW’s monthly Literary Salon. Lori asked me to share a bit about my writing and publishing journey, and to read from my essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” which is included in the anthology, Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. I was welcomed by a wonderful group of about eighteen men and women writers from the Boulder area.
I haven’t seen Circling Faith in any of the bookstores I’ve visited in Denver or Boulder, but that’s not surprising since it’s about Southern women and spirituality. Growing up in Mississippi and then living for the past 24 years in Tennessee, I’ve always been around religious people. But Colorado is a different environment.
Having just recently read a report in the April issue of 5280—The Denver Magazine—on “What Do We Believe? Religion & Spirituality on the Front Range,”I opened my comments by sharing an excerpt from the article:
Religion is on the wane in Americaat least that’s the most recent wisdom…. Religious affiliation—across nearly all faiths—is down. Americans aren’t going to church or synagogue or prayer services like they once did. And our belief in God is diminishing as baby boomers die and the millennials come of age.
“But these polls may be overlooking a crucial phenomenon: Although participation in organized religion is declining, religiosity and spirituality may not be on the same downward trend. After examining the national research and thinking about life on the Front Range—an area that juxtaposes the Christian stronghold of Colorado Springs with cosmically in-tune Boulder—we began to wonder how the people at our lofty elevations really feel about a higher power.”
So, I was about to give my first public reading of my essay from Circling Faith to a group of people in “cosmically in-tune Boulder.” I wasn’t sure how it would be received, so I used a common denominator to bridge the gap before I began reading. I knew that Lori has lined up my friend, Dinty Moore, to do an “online conversation” with the professional members of the BWW on May 22, so next I read an excerpt from his latest book, The Mindful Writer, as an introduction to my essay:
“There was a book I wrote once—actually I wrote it twice….I put four years of my writing life into that book, churned out about 1,200 pages between the two versions—and the book never saw the light of day, except for a very small portion, an excerpt that I eventually published a an eight-page essay.”
And that’s pretty much what happened with my essay in Circling Faith. I wrote two complete book-length memoirs between 2007 and 2010, and then decided not to publish either of them. And all that has appeared in print from those two books is a ten-page essay in this anthology.
As I read the essay, and then entertained questions for about an hour afterwards, I relaxed into this new role. We discussed everything from how to form a writing critique group to finding a literary agent to the importance of building a platform for nonfiction books. This wonderful group of emerging writers includes poets, fiction writers, memoirists, and one “transformative” writer—Carolyn Rose Hart who has just self-published a book that will be out next month and also contributed a chapter to a new anthology, Pebbles in the Pond: Changing the World One Person at a Time.  Signing a copy of Circling Faith for one of the workshop members—Karen Douglass (above) was a new and humbling experience.
It was fun to meet another Southerner in the group, Ken Matthews, who moved to the Boulder area from Decatur, Georgia just a few months ago. We enjoyed discovering our shared favorite books and authors, including our mutual friend, Joshilyn Jackson.
After the workshop, I enjoyed a two-hour lunch on the patio of Zolo Grill with Carolyn and another workshop member, Melissa Snyder. It was 75 degrees and sunny with a slight breeze—a perfect day. After we said our goodbyes, I explored the Pearl Street pedestrian mall, especially the Boulder Bookstore, where I picked up a copy of the 2012 Guide to Literary Agents. My visit to Boulder ended with a glass of wine at a sidewalk café next to the bookstore while people-watching and researching the GLA and circling the names of agents I plan to query for representation for my novel when I’m finished with revisions. There were thousands of tulips in bloom along the mall, creating a wonderland of color and adding to the beauty of the day.
Thanks again to Lori and all the members of the Boulder Writers Workshop for such a lovely day!

>A VOICE for the Homeless


I’ve been in Denver for almost three weeks now, and one thing I’ve been struck by (compared to Memphis) is the different voice the homeless seem to have here. Living in midtown Memphis for almost 24 years has offered me many opportunities to serve the homeless, including the ones who have knocked on our doors over the years. And when you walk around downtown Memphis, the dozens of homeless people ramble around, waiting in lines for shelters and soup kitchens to open, begging for alms, aimlessly, for the most part.

So, the first day I walked around downtown Denver, I was approached by a fairly nicely dressed man who introduced himself and began to tell me his story. An ex-Marine down on his luck, etc. Another day another nicely dressed man walked along beside me in Larimer Square, surrounded by chic restaurants, bars and shops, and clearly articulated his plight.

I know that these people could be lying and making a lot of money pan-handling, but that’s not my problem—that’s between them and God. I always give a little something to anyone who asks, because no one really knows how hard their life is, and a little grace and compassion can go a long way.

One day last week I was walking on the 16th Street pedestrian mall, when I noticed a man holding some newspapers in his hands—with the front page face out—so everyone could see he was selling them. I approached and asked what the paper was.

“It’s the Voice,” he said, quietly.

I bought one ($2) and took it with me to a nearby Starbucks. When I opened the paper up, I found a profile of Steve Sloboda, one of The Voice’s street vendors, inside. His story of caregiving for his dying mother, working to get his commercial truck driver’s license, and now working four days a week delivering food to local Denver grocery stores while continuing to be a vendor for The Voice is inspiring. (That’s Steve, in the photo above.)

The issue of The Voice I purchased also had a great story about an exhibit at MoMa (Museum of Modern Art) I can’t wait to see when I got to New York in a few weeks

: “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream.” A group of the nation’s best architects, urban planners, ecologists, engineers and landscape designers were asked to come up with ideas for reimagining the way towns might look in the future. When my daughter was in graduate school in architecture at the University of Tennessee, I remember her sharing similar ideas with me… and specifically ideas for eliminating homelessness in the U.S.

As I look out from my 21st-floor condo balcony at this beautiful city with the gorgeous mountains in the background, I’m so thankful for my “home away from home” as well as my lovely home back in Memphis, and I admire folks like Steve Slobota who are working hard to find a home of their own. Kudos to The Voice and others who are helping them.

I’d love to hear about what’s happening in your city to help the homeless, or your visions on a larger scale if you have them. Please leave a comment here or on my link on Facebook.

>Wordless Wednesday: Aesthetic Ghosts


“Every man needs aesthetic ghosts in order to live. I have pursued them, sought them, hunted them down. I have experienced many forms of anxiety, many forms of hell. I have known fear and terrible solitude, the false friendship of tranquilizers and drugs, the prison of depression and mental homes. I emerged from all that one day, dazzled but sober. … I did not choose this fatal lineage, yet it is what allowed me to rise up in the heaven of artistic creation, frequent what Rimbaud called “the makers of fire,” find myself, and understand that the most important encounter in life is the encounter with one’s self.”

Those are the words of Yves Saint Laurent, the iconic fashion designer whose collection I toured yesterday at the Denver Art Museum. The exhibit took my breath away—its beauty is unparalleled in the world of high fashion, although Saint Laurent said “it’s not about fashion, but about style.” I get that. But it saddened me to learn of the darkness that dominated most of his life. The older I get, the more I understand that creating art doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, but for some people it’s just what we have to do.

>Cherry Bomb: The Journey Continues


Two years after I drafted the first chapter of my novel, Cherry Bomb, I’m excited to say that this morning I put my 56,587-word manuscript in the mail to a freelance editor in Oxford, Mississippi to get some expert help polishing the words I’ve labored over so intensely. Here’s a summary of the journey so far:

March of 2010: Made the decision to write a novel, and blogged about in “A Novel Idea” at the Southern Authors’ Blog, A Good Blog is Hard to Find.”

Spring of 2010: Submitted early chapters to my fellow writers in the Yoknapatawpha Writers Group (which began in 2007) and received good feedback.

May of 2010: Asked for input from readers in my post, “A Call for Names,” at the Southern Author’s Blog, A Good Blog is Hard to Find, and named the protagonist “Mare.”

June of 2010: Revised those chapters as I continued to draft more, and submitted early chapters to the Yoknapatawpha (YOK) Summer Writer’s Workshop in Oxford, Mississippi. With input from workshop participants and faculty, I added a prologue and continued writing.

November of 2010: Spent a month working on the novel in Seagrove Beach, Florida, with a detour to Oxford, where I co-hosted the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes.

May of 2011: Entered the prologue and first two chapters in the Novel Excerpt division of the Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition in New Orleans, and made the short list! (One of the faculty members at the YOK Summer Writers Workshop, Neal Walsh, won that competition.)

June of 2011: Submitted another chapter to the YOK Writers Workshop in Oxford. Continued to revise with help from the feedback I received there. Gave a reading (the prologue and part of chapter one) at Page & Palette Books in Fairhope, Alabama, during the first Fairhope Writers’ Colony Retreat, hosted by Sonny Brewer. Got feed back from Fairhope writers—Sonny Brewer, Suzanne Hudson and Joe Formichella.

September of 2011: DETOUR… took some time to host the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Writing Workshop, where I met literary agent and intellectual rights attorney, John D. Mason, who gave me good advice on fictionalizing historical figures.

November of 2011: Another month of writing at Seagrove Beach… where I almost finished the novel.

(DETOUR: Sold our house in December, 2011, and packed and moved in January, 2012.)

April of 2012: FINISHED the first draft and umpteenth revision, added an epilogue, more revisions, and mailed the manuscript to my freelance editor TODAY.

So, you might be asking, “what’s with all the detours to be involved with Creative Nonfiction if you’re writing a novel?

Glad you asked. I’ve been writing seriously since 2006, and my ten published pieces are all essays—Creative Nonfiction. At first I thought I was writing those essays just to build a “platform”—to have something to show to agents when I started looking for representation for a book. But then I fell in love with the genre, so I know more essays are forthcoming.

I also penned two full-length memoirs between 2007 and 2010, before I decided to try to write a novel. I just couldn’t make peace with the idea of going public with some of the stuff in those memoirs, but maybe one day I’ll feel differently.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the recap of Cherry Bomb’s journey so far. Stay tuned…. lots more work to go before she makes it out of the starting gate!

>A Practice of Forgetting


I met Robert Leleux in January of 2010 at the 2010 Pulpwood Queens’ Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas. Along with the Pulpwood Queens’ fearless leader, Kathy Patrick, Robert was MC for the weekend, filled with dozens of amazing authors and several hundred members of Pulpwood Queens book clubs nationwide. I was struck by Robert’s warm and compassion when I met him, as well as his humor and joy. And now I understand more about what’s behind this “Beautiful Boy.”

The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving is Robert’s latest book, and it’s even more powerful than his first. Or maybe it struck me that way because the subject matter hit so close to home—it’s about the broken relationship between his mother and his grandmother, and how Alzheimer’s (his grandmother’s) healed the breach. If you read my blog regularly, you know that this is also true in my relationship with my 84-year-old mother, who also has Alzheimer’s. And yes, I’ve written a dozen or more essays about Mother’s decline (one of them, The Glasses,” is published in Volume 2, Issue 2 of the Southern Women’s Review) but after reading Robert’s exquisite memoir, I realize he has said everything I want to say, and he has said it brilliantly.

It doesn’t hurt that his mother and grandmother are a bit more, well, colorful, than mine. When Robert hadn’t seen his grandmother for ten years due to her abandonment of his mother, he called her (JoAnn) in a time of crisis, and here’s what she said:

“Well, hasn’t your life just gone from quail eggs on toast to shit on a shovel?”

That’s just a sneak preview of how colorful JoAnn is. And Robert’s mother? When he describes the dissolution of his family life, he said:

“This dissolution included Mother taking to drink. (We’re Irish.) And it also included Mother shaving her head, and then Krazy Gluing plastic hair to her bald scalp.”

And she’s not the one with Alzheimer’s!

Later in the book, when Robert convinced his mother to meet with his grandmother for the first time in almost forty years, he describes their initial meeting this way:

“It was as though her light was refracted through Alzheimer’s, blazing through the cracks of her infirmity. That night, JoAnn might have forgotten the information of her life, her biographical data, but she seemed to remember who she was. From her thronelike chair, she aimed all her star quality, all her twinkling, undulating charm, directly at my mother. She beamed and petted and doted upon her daughter, my mother, who seemed flustered and ruffled, thrown off balance by her mother’s courtship.”

I remember clearly the turning point with my own mother in this regard. I was visiting her in the nursing home a couple of years ago and she kept complimenting everything about me—my hair, my clothes, everything I did. She kept telling everyone around us at the nursing home, “This is my daughter. Isn’t she beautiful? She’s the best daughter in the world!” Coming from someone who only told me I was fat or my hair was wrong for most of my life, this was at first a bit off-putting. But once I got used to it, it was redemptive. She even complimented the coloring book pages we did together on one of my visits!

Robert describes this same phenomenon as he talks about his grandmother and mother’s relationship later in the progression of his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s:

“Now that my grandmother had, in a sense, disappeared, she was fully present to my mother for perhaps the first time in their relationship. Now that she was all but unreachable, she was finally available.”

I won’t give away the store by continuing to quote all my favorite parts of the memoir (which is really just about every page) but I will share Robert’s explanation of the title:

“I’ve always been a person to whom ‘forgive and forget’ has seemed absurdly unworkable…. since witnessing my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, I’ve begun to wonder whether a small reversal wouldn’t better suit humanity. Maybe it would be more practical if forgetting preceded forgiving. Maybe happiness would be more easily achieved if we all made a practice of forgetting.”

A practice of forgetting. I’m going to work on that in my own relationships with people when I have a hard time forgiving. And if I follow in my mother grandmother’s footsteps and end up with Alzheimer’s one day, I hope that I will at least by then be able to forget the things I haven’t been able to forgive!

>Wordless Wednesday: The Girl With the Red Heart Balloon

>The famous graffiti artist, Banksy, is known for many things, but my favorite theme of his is his “Girl With the Red Heart Balloon.” There’s a good explanation about the Girl With the Red Heart Balloon here. The way the girl’s feet (and sometimes lower body and legs) disappear at the bottom of the drawing was part of the inspiration for some of Mare’s graffiti hits in my novel-in-progress, Cherry Bomb:

She had practiced her technique on a fence outside an abandoned warehouse, being sure she could get it right–especially the part where the girl’s body gradually disappears just beneath her heart, the way she had been disappearing all of her life. The image of the man towering over the girl was easy. Was it hate or hope that guided her hand as she deftly moved the aerosol can across the wall, telling the story that had kept her trapped inside her own fear all these years?

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