Writing on Wednesday: Hippity Hoppity Blog Hops on the Way

hippity-hoppity-splashLast Wednesday I posted my contribution to the authors’ blog hop that’s been underway for a while, “The Next Big Thing.” I tagged 4 writers who are posting on their sites today. Please check them out:

Katherine Hyde

Katherine Hyde

Katherine Hyde

NancyKay Wessman

NancyKay Wessman

NancyKay Wessman

Ellen Morris Prewitt

Ellen Morris Prewitt

Ellen Morris Prewitt

Jessica Handler (If Jessica’s post isn’t up yet, please check back later. I’ve got to post this and head to the airport to pick up my daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law, who are flying in from Denver!)

Jessica Handler (on a panel at the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference)

Jessica Handler (on a panel at the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference)


Thanks for participating, ladies! I’m looking forward to seeing who you tagged for next Wednesday!


It’s been fun watching posts by authors who were all “tagged” by others. One of my favorites showed up yesterday:



“My Next Big Thing,” from my Oxford friend, Julie Cantrell. Julie writes about the sequel to her best selling novel, Into the Free. The sequel is called When Mountains Move, and it’s set to release this September.


Another friend, (and one of my co-directors for the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference this May) Kathy Rhodes, was tagged in the hop and posted her entry on February 15.


Having been away for almost a month, I spent some time last night opening all the mail that stacked up during February. And making a wonderful “to read” stack with  the writing publications that arrived, including:


Creative Nonfiction Journal’s Winter Issue (47) which has a great interview with Cheryl Strayed and Elissa Bassist, “How to Write Like a Mother#^@%*&,” (You can read it here.) Lee Gutkind talks about women writers in the creative nonfiction field in “What’s the Story?” Also included in this issue is an excerpt from Joe Bonomo’s new book, This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began, the first release by Orphan Press.  Orphan Press is a new small press started by writer Kristen Iversen and artist Greg Larson. Their first book is being released this week, thanks, in part, to the success of the Kickstarter project.  (Can’t wait to get my free Orphan Press t-shirt for contributing.)

Also in my mail stack were the latest issues of Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Missouri Review! I’ll share jewels from those treasures another time. It was so hard to leave my writing retreat at the beach, and arriving home to these treats helped!

If you’ve read other authors who are doing the blog hop, please let me know who they are…. Leave a comment and a link, if you’d like. And as always, THANKS SO MUCH FOR READING. (don’t know why these last 3 paragraphs are in BOLD … and I can’t make that go away – thank you, WordPress.)

Mental Health Monday: Death and Blackberries

surferLast October I woke up on a rainy Monday (like today) with Karen Carpenter’s words, “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down,” on my mind.  Today is my last day at Seagrove Beach. The thunderstorms started yesterday and didn’t let up all night. They’re going to hang around all day. So, when I went for a walk during a break between the cloudbursts yesterday, I said goodbye to the beach in my heart. A couple of surfers were trying to catch a wave, but the ocean wasn’t quite active enough to carry them far.

I had planned to stay until Friday, but my daughter’s father-in-law, Joe Davis, passed away last Monday (in Memphis) and so I’m headed home tomorrow to prepare for a visit from Beth, Kevin and Gabby on Wednesday. The visitation for Joe is Thursday and the funeral is Friday. Sad occasion for a visit from my ten-month-old granddaughter and her folks, but I relish any reason to be with them. Kevin was in Memphis for a few days last week, returned to Denver for work, and will come back on Wednesday. I’m so glad he got to be with his father before he died, and also with his mother, Kay, and his brother, Brian, during and after their father’s death.

Joe was only 68—the same age as my father was when he died, back in 1968. “Papa Joe,” as Gabby will learn to remember him, served as principal at Manassas High School in Memphis before retiring to enjoy cooking, entertaining, fishing and traveling. This picture of Gabby with all four grandparents was taken in Denver on Christmas Day. Memory eternal, Papa Joe.

Joe Kay Pops Susu Gabby



“Memory Eternal” is a phrase we say in the Orthodox Church when someone dies. A song we sing at their funeral, and again when we have memorial prayers for them later. It’s a prayer for that person’s memory to remain eternal—in the mind of God, and in the hearts of everyone who loved him. But I think that it’s also a trigger for other memories. Whenever someone dies, it reminds us of our own mortality. Sometimes our whole lives flash before us when this happens. We “remember our death,” as the church fathers say. We consider our own immortality. Or, in contemporary parlance, it’s an opportunity to “live like we were dying.”

Considering death is something we do with greater frequency as we get older. I think it not only helps turn the eyes of the heart towards eternal things, but it also helps the heart learn to moderate in temporal things. For me, that struggle for moderation is in the areas of food and alcohol. Illness can also help with this. Since my bout with the norovirus back in January, I’ve only slowly begun to crave food and alcohol again. I’m sure the battle isn’t over, but I’m thankful that it seems to be waning.

If you follow my blog, you know I’ve been posting about the help I’m receiving from Anne Lamott’s book, “Help, Thanks, Wow.” This morning I re-read a couple of pages from the “Wow” section, before moving on to the ending (which I’ll reflect on in a future post). Somehow it seemed to fit with the memories that are flooding my mind today. And the craving for funnel cake fries from Pickles in Seaside, “just one more time” before I leave the beach. Lamott says I’m not really hungry for funnel cake fries:

You mindlessly go into a 7-Eleven to buy a large Hershey’s bar with almonds, to shovel in, to go into a trance, to mood-alter, but you remember the first prayer, Help, because you don’t want the shame or the bloat. And out of nowhere in the store, a memory floats into your head of how much, as a child, you loved blackberries, from the brambles at the McKegneys’. So you do the wildest, craziest thing: you change your mind, walk across the street to the health food store, and buy a basket of blackberries, because the answer to your prayer is to remember that you’re not hungry for food. You’re hungry for peace of mind, for a memory…. So you eat one berry slowly, savoring the sweetness and slight resistance, and after sucking the purple juice off your fingers you say: Wow.



When I was a little girl, I used to pick blackberries (and some sort of wild plums?) in the country outside Meridian, Mississippi, with my cousin, David. We didn’t bother to wash them—just popped them in our mouths and kept picking. If I close my eyes right now I can remember how they tasted. How they felt in my mouth. Better than the starchy snacks I craved back home in the city. Better than just about anything. Except maybe for swimming in the pond after our grandmothers finished fishing.

I think I’ll skip the funnel cake fries today and enjoy the last couple of containers of Chobani Greek yogurt I’ve got in the refrigerator—one’s mango and one is blueberry, my two favorite fruits. Maybe I’ll pick up some steamed shrimp from Goatfeathers for my last taste of local seafood. There’s a half bottle of Conundrum open in the fridge… just enough for a glass or two before bed tonight, to ease the sorrow of leaving. Maybe I’ll only want one glass. Wouldn’t that be something?

Faith on Friday: Graffiti Iconography?



I was so excited yesterday when my friend, Sheila Vamplin, sent me a link to this article in First Things about graffiti artists painting icons in the dome of a church in Spain. So intrigued that I clicked through to this expanded article in The World, “Spanish Priest Commissions Graffiti for Church.” And then I found this video, showing the artists at work. (Wish I understood Spanish so I could hear what the priest and the graf writers are saying.)

This makes me happy on so many levels.

As an Orthodox Christian and (retired) iconographer, I was taught to respect the rules that my faith sets down for liturgical art, including icons, music, and architecture. Without those guidelines, these ancient, traditional forms would gradually morph into something entirely different. Eastern (Byzantine) traditions would become “Americanized” over time. There was a time when I thought that was a bad thing. I no longer feel that way. After all, I live in America. I am an American. Its culture is my culture. It’s been very difficult to assimilate the culture of the Middle East into my religious experience as a convert to Orthodoxy.

When I was writing icons, I had a discussion with Mother Gabriella, a Romanian abbess at Holy Dormition (Orthodox) Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan. I was struggling with the strictness of both the styles and techniques taught by the Russian iconographers at the classes hosted by the monastery. I had also studied under Greek, Romanian, Ukrainian and American instructors, and it seemed that each “school” of iconography had its own set of rules. Mother Gabriella encouraged me to just “pray and paint” and let the style develop organically. She didn’t believe there was anything more spiritual about one technique than another. Or that one medium is more spiritual than another. Some iconographers believe egg tempera is the only true spiritual medium for icons, looking down on those who paint with acrylics. I found great relief in the large berth she gave to liturgical art.

Rudi and House working on sketches for the frescos

Rudi and House working on sketches for the frescos




So when a Catholic priest in Spain reached out to two graffiti writers he found online (“Rudi” and “House”) and asked them to paint the iconographic images for the dome of his church last year, he incorporated yet another element of his culture—graf writers are counter-culture. (See “God’s Own Banksy.”) And they would be painting the icons with the only tool of their craft—spray paint. (Interesting note: both graffiti artists and iconographers use the term “write” when talking about painting graffiti or icons.)


Father Ramon

Father Ramon

L’Hospitalet’s Santa Eulalia church is neo-Romanesque in design, with a Catalan twist. Father Ramon Borr has this to say about his choice of “iconographers” for the dome of his church:

“Even though the press is scandalized by graffiti artists, for me graffiti is just another artistic technique.”

House on ladder painting the dome

House on ladder painting the dome

I would love to meet Father Ramon and thank him for this bold move on his part. And to see these icons in person. I’m amazed by the skill the graf writers showed in the precision of the lines they achieved with spray paint. Since I researched graffiti for my novel, Cherry Bomb, I learned just enough to respect how difficult it is to achieve such precision. The article in The World says:

One of the two ‘graffiteros’ was Raul Sanchez, who’s tag, or signature for street art, is House. House said that when Father Borr hired him he was surprised, and nervous, and thrilled.

“Only a graffiti artist can tell we used aerosol cans to do the work,” he said by telephone from Alicante. “We tried to conceal that. In the Roman period spray paint obviously didn’t exist.”

CloseupJust like acrylics didn’t exist during the Byzantine era. The graf writers studied the Romanesque style in Barcelona before they began painting in the church. They respected the liturgical guidelines, but they brought their own creativity to the work.

My favorite “style” of iconography is that used by the Coptics. The simple, primitive figures and the bold colors have a spiritual element that reaches my soul in a different way from the Byzantine icons. A few years ago I took a workshop at an Episcopal Church in Memphis during which we learned to do “reverse painting” on glass. We transferred Coptic images to the glass by tracing the outlines with Sharpie pens and then filled in the colors—from back to front—with acrylic paint. I gave my icon away as a gift, and I’m sorry that I don’t have any pictures of it.

Sophie, age 7, painting Ethiopian folk art

Sophie, age 7, painting Ethiopian folk art

But my Goddaughter, Sophie, and I had fun doing some Ethiopian folk art painting together on her birthday three years ago.  (She’ll be ten on February 25!) We used gouache—opaque water colors—on canvas, with pleasing results. Sophie was only seven at the time. This painting isn’t an icon, but you can see the primitive style of the symbolic images that also appear in Ethiopian icons.

I hope you enjoyed my peek into the diverse cultures of iconography and graffiti. I’ve only got a few days left here at my writing “retreat” on the beach. Can’t wait to see what the women in The Secret Book Club are reading next! Have a great weekend, and please come back on Monday for my mental health post.



Writing on Wednesday: The Next Big Thing (Authors Blog Hop)

My friend, the poet, author and musician, Kory Wells, tagged me in this fun authors blog hop. (Thanks, Kory!) Read Kory’s post from last Wednesday, “Is There Still a Novel in This Poet’s Future?” I also enjoyed my friend, Jolina Petersheim’s post, “The Next Big Thing.”

Here’s how it works: Each author answers the following ten questions about her “next big thing”… whether it’s a work-in-progress, a finished project, or just an idea simmering on the back burner. Although I’m a few chapters into drafting my second novel, The Secret Book Club, I decided to write about my completed book, Cherry Bomb, for the blog hop. Here goes….


What is the working title of your book?

Cherry Bomb. Unless an agent or editor down the road wants to change it. Cherry Bomb is the “tag” used by Mare, the protagonist, for her graffiti pieces.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Cherry Bomb is actually the fourth book-length manuscript I’ve completed. The first was a novel, The Sweet Carolines. The second and third were memoirs: Dressing the Part: What I Wore for Love, and Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns. I think most writers would agree that many of our ideas for fiction come from real life. That’s certainly true in my case. While I have no plans to publish those earlier works, I keep returning to them and pulling out the best parts and ideas. One of the characters in The Sweet Carolines ended up in Cherry Bomb, with lots of changes, but still it started with her. And some of the plot comes from Jesus Freaks.  My essay in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, came from Jesus Freaks. The idea behind a chapter in Dressing the Part is now an essay that will be included in The Shoe Burnin’ Anthology, due out later this year. All that to say, nothing is ever wasted. Save everything!

What genre does your book come under?

I actually did some research to decide how to label Cherry Bomb. And I tweak the label a bit for each agent I query. In the final analysis, I think it’s going to end up categorized as literary fiction. Or women’s fiction. Or maybe high end commercial fiction. It’s a blend of historical, Southern/regional, spiritual, artsy…. It might be problematic that I can’t nail down its niche, but I’m hoping an agent will help me with that.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

The book has 3 main characters and about 7-8 supporting roles. I’ll just consider the leads:

Mare (protag/graffiti artist): Elle and Dakota Fanning. These sisters have shared roles as the younger and older version of the same character several times. Since Mare goes from five to twenty-five in the book, we’d need someone even younger to play her as a child. Any suggestions?

Dakota and Elle Fanning

Dakota and Elle Fanning could share the part of Mare, as a child and then a teenager, if they were still this young. Maybe they could play her as a teenager and young adult….

Elaine (deKooning, New York City abstract expressionist artist): Joan Allen (The Notebook, The Bourne Supremacy) or maybe Christine Baranski (The Good Wife, Mama Mia).

Joan Allen

Joan Allen is my first pick for Elaine deKooning.

Neema/Mary of Egypt: In early scenes, she needs to be a child. Later, a teenage prostitute. Later, an aging desert hermit. Three actresses needed. Egyptian or someone who could pass as Egyptian. If Nelly Karim was younger (she’s almost 30) she would be perfect for the teenage Neema.

Nelly Karim

Nelly Karim would be a perfect “Neema” during her years as a prostitute in Alexandria, Egypt

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Cherry Bomb is a character-driven novel with three female protagonists—a homeless graffiti artist who escapes from a religious cult, a well-known Abstract Expressionist painter, and a fifth century Egyptian prostitute.  (I know, that’s not really a synopsis, but I don’t want to reveal too much here.)

Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?

None of the above, yet. I’m querying agents right now, as my first choice is the traditional publishing route. At some point, if I don’t have an agent, I will probably query small presses. I have no plans to self-publish.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Probably about a year. But I revise as I go. I spent two years writing and revising (with help from critique groups and workshops) and then four months working with a freelance editor to polish it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This is a tough one. There are no books like it, that I’ve found. The closest, in structure and character development, might be Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. The way he connected the lives of three women—one historical and two fictional—over several decades and in different countries, is something I emulated.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Who would probably be my best friend, who has seen me through lots of dark nights of the soul. But also writing mentors and writing group buddies over the past six years have inspired and encouraged me. What would be my burning desire to weave bits of my own story through a work of fiction in a way that gets up and above the confessional memoir and becomes art.

I love getting into character when I write...

I love getting into character when I write…

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The settings: from 4th century Egypt to 1980s Savannah, Georgia. Art, opera, monasteries, nuns, and priests all share the stage with a miracle-working icon in this literary novel that mystically weaves the lives of these disparate women united in their hunger for the love they didn’t get in childhood.


So, that’s all ten questions. And now, I’ll pass the gauntlet to four writing friends I’ve tagged for this blog hop. Watch for their posts NEXT WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 29:

Jessica Handler’s memoir, Invisible Sisters, is a powerful tale of coming of age as the daughter of progressive Jewish parents who moved to Atlanta to participate in the social-justice movement of the 1960s, the healthy sister living in the shadow of her siblings’ illnesses, a daughter in a family torn apart by impossible circumstances, and as a young woman struggling to redefine herself after her sisters’ deaths. Jessica will be leading a writing workshop at the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, May 2-5. What’s Jessica’s next big thing? Read her post next Wednesday to find out!

Katherine Hyde is the author of a children’s book, Lucia, Saint of Light, and several spiritual literary works (some published, others still hopeful). Katherine is acquisitions editor for Conciliar Press, and does freelance editing and book design. Watch for her post next Wednesday on her blog, “God-Haunted Fiction.”

Ellen Morris Prewitt is my neighbor in Harbor Town—a wonderful seaside community on the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis. Her first published short story is about Elvis—“Mother Mary Commutes to Memphis.” Read about Ellen’s first book, “Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God,” at www.makingcrosses.com. One of her essays, “Tetanus, You Understand?” was included in Sue Silverman’s book on writing memoir, Fearless Confessions. Ellen will be participating in the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference.

NancyKay Wessman lives in my hometown, Jackson, Mississippi. Her book, You Can Fix the Fat From Childhood and Other Heart Disease Risks, Too, was co-authored with Gerald S. Berensen, M.D. at AuthorHouse. Check out their Facebook Page. Watch for her “next big thing” post on her blog next Wednesday, “Wessman Words.” NancyKay will also be a participant at the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference.

Mental Health Monday: My Ideal Self-Help Bookshelf

Last week I sent in my “ideal bookshelf” to Corey Mesler, owner of Burke’s Books in Memphis, for inclusion in the “My Ideal Bookshelf: Memphis Edition” site. It’s lots of fun to read everyone’s shelves. Mine is published here. And here’s a picture of it.

My Ideal Bookshelf: Memphis Edition

My Ideal Bookshelf: Memphis Edition

But I had a hard time (as I’m sure most folks did) stopping with just 10 books. My shelf included 5 novels, 2 memoirs, 1 anthology of essays, 1 book of essays and poetry, and 1 self-help book. I would have preferred to submit several shelves:

My Ideal Fiction Bookshelf

My Ideal Memoir/Creative Nonfiction Bookshelf

My Ideal Self-Help Bookshelf

My Ideal Poetry Bookshelf
My Ideal Bookshelf by Writers on Writing

My Ideal Spiritual/Religious Bookshelf

And since this is Mental Health Monday, I decided to share my own Self-Help Bookshelf. (Maybe I’ll do the others in future posts.) I did this list from memory, since I’m not at home looking at my actual bookshelves.

Susan's Self-Help Bookshelf

Susan’s Self-Help Bookshelf

I feel like I’m leaving off a couple of important books, but these are the ones that come to mind today:

Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp

Acedie & Me by Kathleen Norris

How To Be an Adult by David Richo

This is How… by Augusten Burroughs

I Hate You—Don’t Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality by Straus & Kreisman

The Wounded Heart: Hope For Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Dan Allender

Cracked: Putting Broken Lives Together Again by Pinksy & Gold

Eating, Drinking, Over-Thinking: The Toxic Triangle… by Susan Nolan-Hoeksema

The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon

Appetities: Why Women Want by Caroline Knapp

I’m only two chapters into another book that might have made it onto this shelf—Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. The chapter I just finished deals with our culture’s never-ending problem of scarcity—how we worry about never having or being enough:

  • Never good enough

  • Never perfect enough

  • Never thin enough

  • Never powerful enough

  • Never successful enough

  • Never smart enough

  • Never certain enough

  • Never safe enough

  • Never extraordinary enough

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent most of my life thinking/feeling most of those inadequacies about myself. I’m looking forward to continuing the book to learn how to move away from shame and towards what she calls “wholeheartedness: facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough.”

What books would be on you’re “My Ideal Self-Help Bookshelf”?

Faith on Friday: Wow (the third essential prayer)

event-main-797-Lamott-487I woke up this morning in a mild panic. My month at the beach is exactly half over today. How can that be? It seems like I just got here—like I just exhaled. My writing projects are in full swing, and I’d love nothing more than to spend another month here. But I’m trying to learn to be present in the moment. So I said Anne Lamott’s second prayer as my feet hit the floor this morning: “Thanks.” It took me a while to get to that one (having spent a good while on prayer number one—“Help.”)

Going through my morning routine—prayer (sometimes), Metamucil in a tall glass of grape-flavored Propel water (don’t ask), meds, and finally, coffee—I struggled not to let my “list” overwhelm my soul. My husband is flying in for the weekend tonight, so I’m washing the sheets and towels, taking out the trash, picking up some food, wine and Vodka, and washing my hair. And it’s Friday, so there’s a blog post to write. And when I walked away from my computer last night, I was near the end of the next chapter in my novel, so I want to get back to that thread as soon as possible.

view from my 2nd floor condo this morning

My view as I’m writing this morning….

But first I spent a few minutes reading the next part of Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. I finally made it to “Wow.” Perfect timing, since the storm that blew through here the last couple of days is gone and the sun is shining so brightly on the calm, blue-green ocean and the powdered-sugar sand that I need my sunglasses just to look out through the sliding glass doors.  Two kids are building a mammoth sand castle and the sea gulls are circling, hoping for more hand-outs. I can’t wait to get out there with them and walk in the sunshine and breathe in the crisp, clear air. It’s pretty magical here today. Wow.

I think I’ve mostly written about Lamott’s book in my Mental Health Monday posts. And her wisdom definitely fits in that category. But this week I’m including her in Faith on Friday. Because I think God has had a hand in helping me move from help to thanks and finally to wow. Just making it through my weekend at The Shoe Burnin’ without getting drunk, lost or sick was nothing but God’s grace. And although I had a short “fall” towards an eating binge one night this week (and I drank 3 glasses of wine at our condo’s happy hour gathering yesterday afternoon) neither of these events sent me into a funk or a slide towards more destructive behavior. I just said sorry, and moved on.

Lamott says that spring is the main reason for Wow:

Spring is crazy, being all hope and beauty and glory. She is the resurrection. Spring is Gerald Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”… Poetry is the official palace language of Wow…. In spring, we expand and stretch in all directions. It’s green exuberance and giddiness, bright clown colors and Easter colors, too; the rebirth of the tender growing soul.

I know it’s not really spring yet. Pious Christians—both Eastern and Western—are hunkering down for Lent, with Pascha/Easter way off in their distant spiritual horizons. Massive snow storms are smothering folks up in the northeast. A devastating tornado touched down in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, destroying several hundred homes, just this last Sunday as I was driving back to Seagrove from Fairhope. My Jackson friends drove (safely, thank God) through Hattiesburg 7 minutes after the tornado touched down there. So how do we continue to say “thanks” and “wow” in light of these tragedies? Back to Lamott:

Nature explodes in winter and even more people die than in other seasons. The poor freeze and starve. It absolutely blows your mind how cruel nature and poverty can be…. We see the brutality of life and nature, and also of what lives inside us…. We try to do our best, and then a whole snowy hillside buries a thousand people. Life is eruptions, spasms, just as in our families. If you keep your heart open, these traumas beat you down. But against all odds, something emerges from the wreckage in our hearts, so we can bear witness: collect donations for the families, or the town where the fire broke out; to childhoods destroyed by charming tyrants; to miners trapped two thousand feet down.

Childhoods destroyed by charming tyrants. Lamott gets it. She gets that storms don’t just happen in nature. They happen in the human heart. The psyche. The soul. We can’t figure them out. We can’t control them. We can only remember the three essential prayers and look for wonder where we can find it. I agree with Lamott that we can find it in nature, and also (and for me, more so) in art:

What can we say beyond Wow, in the presence of glorious art, in music so magnificent that it can’t have originated solely on this side of things? Wonder takes our breath away, and makes room for new breath. That’s why the call it breathtaking…. In art, we feel the breath of the invisible, of the eternal…. In paintings, music, poetry, architecture, we feel the elusive energy that moves through us and the air and the ground all the time, that usually disperses and turns chaotic in our busy-ness and distractedness and moodiness. Artists channel it, corral it, make it visible to the rest of us. The best works of art are like semaphores of our experience, signaling what we didn’t know was true, but do now…. We see in art a moment in time, an instant, and this is holy.

Lamott’s writing is holy to me. She helps me believe that my writing is also holy. That it can make the eternal visible to others. That it can help someone else make sense of the storms that blow through their lives, often leaving destruction in their wake. My editor, Joe Formichella, wants me to polish my essay for The Shoe Burnin’ Anthology so that it shines brightly enough to cast some healing light into the dark corners of the lives of others who have been sexually abused. I hope I can do that. As I sit down to do more revisions on that piece, I will say “help,” and I will try to create holy art. And I hope—no, I pray—that someone will read it one day and say, Wow.

Writing on Wednesday: It’s a Juggling Act

JugglingBallsMy husband can juggle. Literally—he can keep 3-4 balls in the air for quite a while. One Christmas I gave him a set of juggling balls, but he doesn’t really need them to stay in practice. He does that quite well with his two careers and other interests. He can juggle writing an article for the New England Journal of Medicine while preparing a homile (sermon) for church, watching a football game, reviewing data for his latest clinical trial, and checking his email. Wait, that’s 5 balls. Yep, he’s pretty good at multi-tasking.

On the other hand, I tend to drop some of those balls when I get too many (more than 2) in the air at one time. But as a full-time writer, it’s important to improve your juggling skills. I’ve got 5 balls in the air right now:

Ball #1The Secret Book Club. This is the novel I just started writing on February 1. I’m about to finish the second chapter, but these are definitely rough drafts. And while I’m writing, I’m reading….

Ball #2—Iconic books of the 1970s. The women in The Secret Book Club will be discussing several of these, so I’m reading them so I can write believable book club discussions within the novel. Finished Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade last week, and just started The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French, yesterday. I love research.

Ball #3—“Dressing the Part”. This is the essay I’m contributing to the upcoming Shoe Burnin’ Anthology, to be published later this year. I’m on a third round of revisions with the editor now, so I’m hard at work trying to carry out his really brilliant suggestions, and I’m nervous that I’m not up to the challenge. This essay is going to be in the company of genius (the other contributors) so it’s a bit intimidating. Gotta’ strap my courage on and stay in the arena.

Ball #4—Queries for Cherry Bomb, my first novel. Staying on top of my submissions list takes a bit of work. Still waiting to hear back from 2 agents who have had the manuscript since October. Heard from a third one yesterday. Here’s part of her email:

I’ve read some of the manuscript but not all—I do like your writing but haven’t found myself pulled in as much as I’d like, given my already overfull plate and the general fact that I don’t represent very much fiction at all.  I wonder if you would mind if I try my colleague (name) to see if she were interested in reading it?  She is a savvy young agent who is building her list, and she might respond to the topic and strong voice. 

Of course I said please try your colleague. With a half dozen rejections, several no-replies, and a few still reading, I’m trying to query 1-2 new agents each week as I continue to wait. Time-consuming (but I kind of enjoy this part) but necessary in today’s competitive publishing market.

beach ballBall #5—Submitting essays. I’ve got an essay I’m real proud of, and it’s been rejected by 4-5 journals so far, so I’m continuing to submit it when good contests or interesting publications present themselves. It’s been through one workshop and many more revisions, so I’m not going to polish on it any more right now, but it takes some time to stay on top of the submission process.

So, you see that the writing life isn’t just sitting at the computer and watching the beautiful words flow from your fingertips. Oh, there are moments like that, but not many of them. It’s mostly hard work.

Even at the beach.

Mental Health Monday: Surviving the Arena


Setting for the Shoe Burnin' in Waterhole Branch, Alabama

Setting for the Shoe Burnin’ in Waterhole Branch, Alabama

Last Monday I reflected a bit on Brene Brown’s wonderful book, Daring Greatly. And then I strapped my courage on and did what she recommends—I entered the arena. We all choose whether or not to enter the arena every day. And sometimes many times each day. That arena can be interactions with family members, friends, or co-workers. It can be new, or continued, struggles with addictions, depression, or other mental or emotional challenges. It can be the battle for our souls as we wrestle with God or His angels, or chase down demons. It can even be the arena of our own minds as we battle shame and self-doubt.


Nashville musicians Chuck Jones and Lari White (left) singing at The Shoe Burnin'.

Nashville musicians Chuck Jones and Lari White (left) singing at The Shoe Burnin’.

As I prepared to read part of my essay for The Shoe Burnin’ Anthology at the event on Saturday night, an opportunity presented itself that thrust me into the arena. I was asked to read the essay for an audio recording on Saturday afternoon. The plan is to produce a CD of our stories, songs, and interviews that will be included with the book when it’s published. So I sat down in a quiet little guest house in front of a microphone and began to read. No one else was in the room except for Nashville singer-songwriter, Lari White, who was doing the recording. Lari is a lovely woman. Beautiful, lively, and engaging. She sat on the floor—literally at my feet—and listened intently, only moving slightly to make adjustments on her laptop. I had read the essay aloud at home, but not to another person.

Me reading from "Dressing the Part"

Me reading from “Dressing the Part”

“Dressing the Part” will be the first time my stories of sexual abuse will be published. I wasn’t prepared for how powerful the words sounded coming from my voice. After the recording, Joe Formichella—Fairhope writer who is editing the anthology—joined us for an informal chat about my essay and his thoughts on continued revisions. Lari also recorded our talk, which struck me as strangely intimate. Joe kept calling it “our project” which was comforting, and yet also scary. His name was on the line, as well as mine.

After the recording was done, Joe encouraged me to basically give an impromptu reflection on the essay during the Shoe Burnin’ which would be commencing in a couple of hours. I had brought three pairs of shoes to toss into the fire: a pair of Mary Janes for my 5-year-old self; a pair of hippie sandals for my 20-year-old self; and a pair of black high heels for my mid-20-year-old self. The memories I would be burning went back to the 1950s and then up through the 1970s.

Susan W ShoesI’m not good at impromptu speaking. But somehow I stepped into that arena—where about 30-40 people were gathered in lawn chairs around the huge bonfire—and shared a short summary of my story. Then I read the final page of the essay aloud. Most of the stories and songs people were sharing that night were humorous. Or at least upbeat. I was worried that mine would be a downer, although Joe had assured me it was good. After reading the final paragraph, I picked up the shoes—one pair at a time—and threw them into the fire. And with each toss I metaphorically flipped off the person who had stolen my innocence, beginning with my grandfather when I was four. I had told Joe I didn’t want to be emotional at the burning. That it was about the art. But at that moment, under those beautiful, ancient, moss-laden oak trees and the starry sky above them, I found my voice in a way I had never experienced. “Fuck you!” I yelled, as I tossed each pair of shoes into the fire. The crowd was silent, and then someone on the other side of the fire said, “Yes!” And my self-doubt and shame was greeted with applause. And then several people came over to hug me. One woman just held me in her arms for a long time.

Chuck Jones (standing), Chuck Cannon and Chris Clifton jamming

Chuck Jones (standing), Chuck Cannon and Chris Clifton jamming

I’m not sure that seeing my story in print is going to be any more cathartic than that reading at the Shoe Burnin’ in Waterhole Branch, Alabama. But I hope that it will give courage to others who have similar stories to tell. And similar shame to get over.

This morning, as I continued my reading in Ann Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow, I found this passage, which helped me bring my Shoe Burnin’ experience into the realm of thankfulness:

“… God will restore what the locusts have taken away…. We are hurt beyond any reasonable chance of healing. We are haunted by our failures and mortality. And yet the world keeps on spinning, and in our grief, rage and fear a few people keep on loving us and showing up…. In the face of everything, we slowly come through…. We come to know—or reconnect with—something rich and okay about ourselves. And at some point, we cast our eyes to the beautiful skies, above all the crap we’re wallowing in, and we whisper, ‘Thank you.’”

Occupying the couch with Jennifer Horne (center) and Jennifer Paddock (right)

Occupying the couch with Jennifer Horne (center) and Jennifer Paddock (right)

Thank you, Shari Smith, for inviting me to participate in the Shoe Burnin’.

Thank you, Joe Formichella, for your wise and compassionate editing.

Thank you, Lari White, for your sensitive and tender presence as you recorded my story.

Thank you, Suzanne Hudson (and Joe) for your boundless hospitality, as you opened your home to this group of musicians and writers and our friends who came to share this experience.

Thank you to the other writers and musicians who shared their stories on Saturday night, and to the friends who gathered around the fire with us, including my friend, Circling Faith editor, Jennifer Horne (whose story was my favorite one of the night!) and another friend, Jennifer Paddock, Fairhope author who came out to listen and cheer us on. (I’m sorry I don’t have pictures of the other shoe burners… it was dark and kind of hard to capture the images. I loved Michael Reno Harrell‘s story, and enjoyed his music all weekend, especially “The Too Late Lounge,” from his Cd, “Then There’s Me.”) And I loved the music (and friendships offered) by Chuck Cannon, Chuck Jones, and Chris Clifton.

Ren Hinote and me at brunch at the Grand Hotel

Ren Hinote and me at brunch at the Grand Hotel

Thank you, Ren Hinote, my Fairhope writing buddy who opened her home to me for the weekend, came to The Shoe Burnin’, and treated me to a fabulous brunch at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear on Sunday. I hadn’t been to the Grand since 1975, when my husband and I spent our 5th wedding anniversary there. Lots has changed, but the ambiance and the view are still fabulous.

Thank you, NancyKay Wessman, and Susan Marquez, my dear writing buddies from Jackson who came down to support me. And to my new friend (also from Jackson) Phyllis Geary, who was in Fairhope on business for her art gallery in Jackson. Phyllis offered a compassionate ear during our late night talks and morning coffee times in Ren’s kitchen.

Thank you, God, for safe travels alone on country roads at night, for a weekend free of illness and full of clear-eyed sobriety. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy a little whiskey and wine, but somehow God gave me grace to enter the arena without numbing my fear and insecurity with too much alcohol. I think I’m finally getting the “thanks” part of Lamott’s book. Maybe I’m ready to move on to her final section—“Wow.”

NancyKayWessman, Robert O'Daniel, me at lunch in Fairhope

NancyKayWessman, Robert O’Daniel, me at lunch in Fairhope

Suzanne Hudson burnin' shoes

Suzanne Hudson burnin’ shoes

Joe Formichella telilng his Shoe Burnin' story

Joe Formichella telilng his Shoe Burnin’ story

Ren Hinote, Phyllis Geary, Susan Marquez at lunch in Fairhope

Ren Hinote, Phyllis Geary, Susan Marquez at lunch in Fairhope

Fairhope on a Foggy Friday

Foggy Morning


(Woke to this beautiful morning on the beach.)

I’m taking liberties, just a bit, with my Friday theme of “faith” or “family.” This morning I’m leaving Seagrove Beach for a weekend of stories, music, campfires and fellowship with a group of writers and musicians gathering for the Shoe Burnin’, just outside Fairhope at Waterhole Branch, Alabama. (Check out this video of Grayson Capps, singing the song he wrote about the shoe burnin’, “Waterhole Branch.” He’s performing in Italy.)

First time I visited Fairhope was in 2008. Before heading down for that trip, I did a little reading about the town:

100 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.

hanging mossI took this picture of the hanging moss out at Waterhole Branch on that trip back in 2008.

I’ve been back a few times since then, and each time is magical. Check back next week for a recap and some pictures. Have a great weekend, y’all.

Writing on Wednesday: SuNoWriMo… it’s Not about the Word Count

Nano-01-openparagraphThe folks at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) encourage participants to write 50,000 during the month of November every year. It’s fun watching the writers’ posts about their progress, their struggles, their victories. And some of them actually finish a novel and end up getting it published. So I’m all for anything that encourages that kind of success. But I operate a little differently.

I’m having my own novel writing month—SuNoWriMo—here at Seagrove Beach this February. And after the first day or two, a few friends on Facebook were asking me how many words, etc. And a couple of folks sort of called me out for posting about my non-writing activities, like shopping, eating out, etc. Really?

Here’s the thing. January kicked my ass. First I had that awful norovirus, while I was visiting children and grandchildren in Denver. Vomiting and extreme nausea and dehydration landed me in the ER. As soon as I got home to Memphis, the nursing home in Jackson called to say my 84-year-old mother was in the hospital. Once I felt a strong enough, I drove down and spent 8 days in the hospital with her. A week or so later, I drove 500 miles to begin my SuNoWriMo month here at Seagrove.

What I wasn’t expecting when I got here was this residual exhaustion from January’s onslaught. I’m sleeping 8 hours a night and still falling asleep when I try to read during the day. I’m walking an hour on the beach every day for exercise and eating light, healthy food. I’m researching, reading, and writing on the novel 4-8 hours a day. So, if I take a break to go shopping or eat out, that’s part of my recovery. And it’s healthy.

darkandstormynightSince I started the novel, I’ve already changed the setting (from Mississippi to Alabama) and the main characters’ names a couple of times. I’ve written a rough outline of the plot. I started out writing in present tense and changed to past tense (first person). I’ve drafted the first chapter, but it has way too much narrative and not enough scenes, so I’ll keep re-working it for a couple more days before moving on to the next chapter. I write slowly—revising as I go—so when I finish a “first draft” it really isn’t a first draft. It’s just my way. I’m also reading five books that will play a part in the novel, so that consumes some of my time each day. I won’t complete a novel draft this month. I probably won’t come close to 50,000 words. But I’ll make a good start, and I’ll be ready to keep working when I return home.




All this to say, writing is hard work. And even though I’m at the beach, I’m not on vacation. But I can’t write 24/7. I’m not young, and my brain just can’t work that intensely for more than about 4-6 hours a day. So, I’m going to enjoy the beautiful beach and wonderful surroundings while I’m here. And maybe the muse will find refreshment in the sea gulls and the salty breezes and the magical rhythm of the waves crashing on my feet as I walk. Maybe I will spin a story worthy of a readers’ time. And if I fail, it won’t be because I didn’t dare greatly.

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