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

From my workshop watercolor journal at YOK 2008

From my workshop watercolor journal at YOK 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mental Health Monday: MEMORY ETERNAL (Memorial Day and Orthodox Prayers)

Fr B at Mary graveI’ve written about this a number of times on this blog, but today my husband and I visited the graves of three loved ones. Since he’s an Orthodox priest, he prayed the memorial prayers for the dead, and we sang.

A nice breeze was blowing and the birds were singing with us. Here’s a short video:

(Click the words to see the video, then click them again on next page.)

Fr B prayers at graves
But first we replaced the old flowers with new ones:

Sunflowers for my Goddaughter, Mary Allison, Callaway, because they were her favorites.

Mike grave


Patriotic flowers and a flag for my brother, Mike Johnson, because he was a Marine.

Colorful blooms for my father, Bill Johnson, because my mother would like them. (We visited with her in the nursing home first, and told her of our plans, but she couldn’t understand.) I asked my father to pray for my mother when I was visiting at his grave. Hard to believe he and Mary Allison have both been gone almost 16 years.

We’re back home in Memphis now, tired but at peace after visiting these people we love and miss. May their memories be eternal.

Blessed Memorial Day.

Singing at my father's grave today

Singing at my father’s grave today


Faith on Friday: The High Calling of the Myrrh-bearers

40-Myrrh-bearing women at the tomb

Today the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Myrrh-bearer Mary, the wife of Cleopas and the daughter of Joseph. She was one of several women who went to the tomb with myrrh, hoping to anoint the body of Jesus. Having followed Him through His passion, His death, and the removal of His body from the cross, their hope for the kingdom their leader promised has died. They are completely grief-stricken—and also afraid of what might happen to them—and yet in their love for Christ, they bring myrrh to his tomb. Whether or not they believe that Christ has overcome death, they simply act out of love for Him.

I have a dear friend who does this on a regular basis. Whenever someone dies, she is there. She attends funerals, even of people she wasn’t close to, if she knows any of the deceased person’s loved ones. Although she doesn’t physically bring myrrh to these burials, she brings it symbolically, and she brings her love. Without judgment. It’s not up to us to judge the state of the soul of the person who has died. It is up to us to love them and honor their memory.

This modern day myrrh-bearer is an example to me of the “one thing needful” … love for our fellow man. Some Christians would say that love for God comes first. But I think it’s much harder to love God—to know God and His love—than to know and love another human being.

Saint Theophan the Recluse reminds us not only of the importance of this love, but also of not letting fear keep us from expressing that love:

So struggle, not fearing empty fears, and do not spare yourselves. The myrrh-bearing women were close to the Lord while being jostled by those who crucified Christ. You, too, do not look upon what is not within you. Let the world scream, let foolish superstition rage, let misfortunes arise—you follow your path, not looking back or to the side.

As we approach Memorial Day weekend, many of us will celebrate the beginning of summer with cookouts and other celebrations. But many will also visit cemeteries and show their love and appreciation for those who died, having served our country in one of the armed services. I’ll be in Jackson, Mississippi, for a wedding, and I’m hoping to visit the grave of my brother, Mike on Monday. He was a Marine.


Whatever your plans for the weekend, I hope you’ll pause to remember those who have gone before, and find a way to express your love for them. May their memory be eternal.

Writing on Wednesday: Feeding the Lake (and Final Girl)

20140407-073216Last week a friend put this quote on his Facebook page:

“I became a graffiti writer because I had something to say, something I couldn’t actually say, not with words. There are some stories that must be seen. Some you can only sing. So I took a picture of my body. I projected it onto a screen. I traced the image onto cardboard, and cut the outline with a blade…” ~ Final Girl. street artist

Of course I was interested, since the protagonist in my novel-in-progress, Cherry Bomb, is a graf writer.

I found Final Girl’s web site and became even more intrigued with her story. She says, of her street art:

I have to do it or I’ll die…. Instantly I feel better, as though a weight as been lifted, a wound has been stitched. I can go home now. I can breathe.

20140407-073733That’s how I feel when I write. Especially when my writing tells the story (or contains the back story) of the abuse I suffered. But it’s got to be more than therapy. More than confessional. It’s got to be art.

Final Girl is an artist.

I hope I am becoming one, too. Right now I’ve got three projects going—working with one editor on revisions for one novel, working with another editor on an essay for another anthology, and drafting the beginning of a new novel which will be critiqued at a workshop in a couple of weeks. Like Final Girl, I’ve got something to say, but fiction and nonfiction are my tools.

Jean Rhys said (and the late and great Madeleine L’Engle) said:

All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles…. All that matters is feeding the lake.

Feed the Lake

Mental Health Monday: Forget All Your Sorrows, Forget All Your Cares

shopping 3And go DOWNTOWN! I’ve been humming Petula Clark’s epic song every time I get out and walk around this amazing city.

How can you lose? The nights are much brighter there…

Don’t hang around and let your problems surround you….

Maybe you know some little places to go…

This is about my fifth or sixth visit to New York City. In the past I’ve taken the subway to a different part of town every day, climbed up and down those subway stairs and walked miles in between.

shopping 2Unfortunately, this year I’m in too much pain to do that much walking—especially the steps. So I’ve had to limit my exploration to mainly midtown, downtown, and the Central Park area. But today I’m wanting to get down to the Village, so I might actually take a taxi. On Saturday after walking over a mile, I took one of those bicycle taxis back to the hotel. Loved it. So much more fun than being inside a taxi.

Having lived for 63 years in two cities—Jackson, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee—it feeds my soul to be in such a fabulous metropolis. Like the Petula Clark lyrics say, you can forget all your sorrows and cares for a while. I’ve done that as I went shopping on Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, and Columbus Circle.  And while having lunch at places like Rue 57 with outdoor seating, and Villagio, with windows open to a view of Central Park.

fifthavenue_gallery_image1I forgot all my cares while shopping at the Apple Store right by Central Park (which is open 24/7) and has such a cool entrance. (I forgot my charger and my keyboard, and ended up getting a wireless keyboard, a new mouse, and a new case to go with the charger.) And while enjoying jumbo lump crab meat salad at the outdoor café at Rockefeller Center.

rest by parkMeeting some interesting natives at a cute bar on the upper East Side and enjoying a walk through part of the Park after. And of course my regular visit to the Museum of Modern Art, which is 2 blocks from our hotel. Since my new novel features Jackson Pollock, I especially enjoyed seeing his pieces, and even got a tee shirt with one of his images on it. Art definitely helps me forget all my cares.


Bill and BarryMy husband is speaking at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hypertension, as he does every year. Last night was the faculty dinner, in the penthouse of the Hilton, with great views, delicious food, and lots of fun visiting with folks I only see once a year. I was blown away by the number of people who asked how my recovery was going (from the car wreck) and said they had been praying for me… since last July! On Saturday night we were invited to join some friends we’ve known for almost 40 years as they celebrated Barry’s 76th birthday (yes!) at a terrific French restaurant near our hotel called Petrossian, and I had the best lobster risotto. Bill enjoyed some caviar. (not my thing)

I’m in a New York state of mind. My spirits are definitely lifted, so it’s time to get back out there. High today is 70. Perfect. So thankful. I’ll share a few photos and hope you enjoy them. We fly back to Memphis tomorrow afternoon and it’s back to work finishing up those novel revisions. Hugs.


lobster risotto

Columbus circle


Faith on Friday: I’ve Got a Guy…

Icon of the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda

Icon of the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda

This past Sunday our pastor preached on the Gospel reading about the paralytic who sat by the healing pool at Bethesda hoping that when the angel stirred the water, someone would help lift him down into it so he could be healed. But as he says in the Scripture, “I have no one.”

Father John used this story to remind us how important community is in our healing. He often injects humor into his homilies, and this time he brought up the old saying in gangster movies, “I’ve got a guy….”

Last July when I was in a near fatal car wreck and had to spend several months in a hospital bed at home, I experienced that community in action. Sunday’s sermon reminded me that I do, indeed, have a guy—quite a few, actually—whom I can call on for help. In fact, I didn’t even have to call some of them. They just showed up to help me. And kept showing up for weeks and months with food and their time to sit with me, and run errands for me, and help me with physical therapy and bathing and wound care. Whatever was needed. I’m not sure how I could have gotten through that time without these folks.

Last night I went to a cookout/shower for a couple at our church who is expecting a baby in the next few weeks. As several dozen folks showed up with bags and boxes of gifts for the new baby, and others grilled burgers and brought side dishes and drinks, I thought again about our community and how crucial it is to our lives.

 helping-othersWhether or not you’re religious or a member of a church, you’ve got to agree that community is important to the well-being of families and individuals. Sometimes that community can be found in neighborhoods, or workplaces, or amongst families whose children are school-mates. Maybe it exists within social structures like book clubs and garden clubs, athletic teams, or even larger organizations like country clubs. I don’t know about those. But today I’m thankful for the community at St. John Orthodox Church. We aren’t perfect, but we try to take care of each other. And I saw that care in a whole new light after being on the receiving end of it so much last year. Thank you, my brothers and sisters. I love you.

Writing on Wednesday: SYNOPSIS Revisited…

indexI’m having a difficult day, so this will be short. If you want to read something really good about writing, go to Karissa Sorrell’s blog and read this:

“The Path of a Writer”

Meanwhile, I’m trying to finish up a manuscript to submit to a writing workshop (it’s due Friday) and the workshop director requested a SYNOPSIS to go with the first chapter for those submitting a novel excerpt.

imagesSince this new novel is in the very early stages of conception, the synopsis will most likely change quite a bit by the time the novel is finished. But it’s helpful to get one done at the outset. It’s kind of like an abbreviated outline. A guideline for the plot, which will take many new twists and turns that the author isn’t even aware of yet. And sometimes the synopsis helps show the holes in the plot, where more work is needed later.

Actually, this is shorter than a more fully developed synopsis, but it’s a starting point. Since I don’t know how the novel will end yet, it has to be a little loose.

And now to finish that first chapter!


Red, Black, and Silver


A novel by Susan Cushman




Red, Black and Silver is a work of historical fiction. The setting is Manhattan and the East Hamptons from the mid 1950s to the present. Some of the characters are based on real-life artists from the Abstract Expressionist circle, including JACKSON POLLOCK, his wife, LEE KRASNER, and his lover, RUTH KLIGMAN.

The protagonist, ESTHER, is completely fictional. As the love child of POLLOCK and KLIGMAN—born after POLLOCK’s death in 1956—she holds the key to one of the art world’s modern mysteries: the authenticity, survival, and eventual public appearance of POLLOCK’s final painting, “Red, Black and Silver.”

KLIGMAN had claimed that POLLOCK painted “Red, Black and Silver” as a “love letter” to her. POLLOCK’s jealous wife, LEE KRASNER contested its validity for many years.

Over a half century later, modern forensics would prove it to be the work of POLLACK. Some critics would say it represents an embryo in a womb, and POLLOCK’s desire for a child, which his wife wouldn’t give him. KRASNER died in 1984 and KLIGMAN in 2010.

ESTHER’s role in the story is to bring to light the layers of human desire which were hidden—as was the painting—for all those decades. Adopted as a newborn, ESTHER does not discover her parentage until after the death of her birth mother, KLIGMAN. “Esther” means “hidden” in Hebrew.

Mental Health Monday: Mother’s Day Remix

I always struggle with Mother’s Day reflections. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you already know that I have a complicated relationship with my mother. But  she becomes nicer as her Alzheimer’s progresses.

This year I’ve thought more about my own children, my role as their adoptive mother, and also about their birth mothers.

The day Jason arrived from South Korea at age 2 years and 9 months

The day Jason arrived from South Korea at age 2 years and 9 months (1984)

So, yesterday I read this article in Parade, “What One Adoptive Mom Would Say to her Son’s Birth Mother” by Susanne Paola Antonetta, author of a new memoir, Make Me a Mother.

Antonetta’s feelings towards her adopted son’s birth mother are quite different from mine, which I wrote about in an essay a few years ago, “The Other Woman.” I guess it just goes to show that mothers (and all humans) are complex beings. And we are different.

We don’t all respond the same to situations. And we need to respect each person’s right to own her emotions, opinions, and responses.



Beth's first morning as our daughter. She was 2 years, 11 months old when she arrived from South Korea.

Beth’s first morning as our daughter. She was 2 years, 11 months old when she arrived from South Korea in 1985.

As I watch two of my adopted children raising their own birth children, I find myself filled with joy and thankfulness for both of them.

I know nothing can replace the pain of losing one’s birth parents (and for some, their country of origin, their roots, language, and traditions) but hopefully growing their own precious families is a healing balm.

The day we brought Jonathan home from Mississippi Children's Home Society. He was 17 days old.

The day we brought Jonathan home from Mississippi Children’s Home Society in 1977.  He was 17 days old.



I am so thankful to be your mother, Jonathan, Jason and Beth. I know I’ve failed you in a million ways, but I will always, always love you.

Faith on Friday: Ten Months Later…. Paradise!

I didn’t know how strong I would be when we planned our annual family vacation at the beach this year. How would it be, going up and down those steps from our deck to the beach over and over all day? And playing with my granddaughters, ages 2, 3 ½ and 4 ½? Driving 8-9 hours each way, packing, unloading, repacking, and all that goes with a car trip to the beach.

Wednesday marked 10 months since the car wreck in which I broke my neck, right leg and ankle. And yes, my lingering aches, pains and stiffness left me a little more limited in my activities this week, but I am amazed and thankful for what I have been capable of. I was in tears on the beach this morning as I realized we are leaving tomorrow, but also in thanksgiving for how wonderful the week has been. Safe travels for all 10 of us. Good health. Amazing weather. We leave for Memphis and Denver tomorrow, but the memories we made will last a lifetime. Or at least until next spring when I hope we can all return to this little slice of paradise on 30-A.



Writing on Wednesday: Red, Black and Silver (a new beginning)


Red, Black and Silver by Jackson Pollack

Red, Black and Silver by Jackson Pollock

 Although I haven’t finished revisions to my novel, I’m drafting the first chapter of a new book to turn in to the YOK Workshop in Oxford in a couple of weeks. (REMINDER: REGISTER SOON…. HERE!)

I’ve only drafted about nine pages. I’ll share the first two here…. just as a teaser:


Chapter One

Hattie continued to drip paint onto the large canvas spread on the floor of the art therapy room, although there was barely any white space left. This week she was replacing the neutral colors she had chosen for her first pieces—ochre, brown, beige, and white—with bold hues of blue, red, and yellow. Heavy black lines criss-crossed the swirls and drips of color. Each consecutive painting had become more intense. She used increasingly thicker layers of paint, giving the work an almost three-dimensional appearance. Her first two paintings seemed to lack any clear architecture, but this one was different.

A nurse escorted another patient into the room just as Hattie was finishing her painting. They stood silently, staring at the paint-splattered canvas for a while before the nurse ushered the patient to a table on the other side of the room, where some pastels and paper were waiting. Hattie looked up at the patient in her pale blue hospital gown and the nurse in her white uniform. A perfect sky dotted with cotton ball clouds. She wished for a new canvas to capture the image.

“Hi, Mildred,” Jessica waved to the middle-aged woman. “Have a seat and go ahead and get started with the pastels if you’d like. I’ll be over to talk with you in a few minutes.” Jessica looked more like a free-spirited hippie than a health-care professional. Actually, she was both. She lived in Greenwich Village and frequented the bohemian shops in her neighborhood. Today she was wearing a typical find—a blue and black batik tunic with jeans and sandals. Her straight blond hair was pulled into a ponytail to keep it out of the paint when she was working with her patients.

Mildred nodded as she sat at the table, but her focus returned to the painting on the floor. It was large—about four feet by six feet—and very difficult to ignore. She watched as Jessica continued her conversation with Hattie.

“Tell me about this piece,” Jessica approached Hattie as she was putting the large spatula she had just used back into a bucket of paint on the floor. Hattie’s curly brown hair was tucked behind her ears, revealing holes in her earlobes where the emergency room personnel had removed her large loop earrings the day she arrived at the hospital. Her smooth, olive skin was covered with paint. She fingered her left lobe as she stared at the painting with her light blue eyes, herself a study in contrast.

“What do you want to know?” Hattie’s face was as blank as the concrete block wall behind her, and her words fell flat.

“Well, this one seems to have some brighter flicks of yellow than the other two—it almost seems like some sort of sunlight is flowing through the blacks and browns. Does that mean something?”

Hattie turned from the painting to pick up a pack of cigarettes from a nearby table. Patients weren’t allowed to have matches or lighters, so Jessica lit the cigarette for her and patiently waited for her reply. After a pull or two on her smoke, she spoke without looking at Jessica.

“Did I do something wrong?” Her voice was apologetic, almost child-like.

“Oh, no—not at all. It’s wonderful. All of the paintings you’ve done here are really good. It’s just that they are, well, unusual. Not many people use these techniques in their painting, and I was just wondering where you got the idea. And what you were feeling when you created them. Especially this new one today.”

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