Writing on Wednesday: Retuning the Meaning of Southern (Crass and Colorful, Hip and Quirky)

Kirkus Review TSBNEWS FLASH: The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul, received a terrific review at Kirkus on Monday! You can read it here. Everyone involved with the anthology—the editor and contributors and publishers—are thrilled. Why? If you’re not aware of what Kirkus is, here’s a little history. What did they say about TSB?

Each story is a balance of crass and colorful, hip and quirky, some featuring straightforward narratives while others amble, attempting to capture something more ethereal.

A charming assortment that, for some readers, could retune the meaning of Southern.

manuscriptI’m floating on Cloud 9 from reading this! And… MORE NEWS:

Last Thursday I hit another milestone: I finished revisions of my novel, Cherry Bomb! It’s been over a year since I quit working on them (following my wreck) and when I’ve tried to get back to work over the past few months, the prospect has overwhelmed me. But for some reason, last Thursday I got the manuscript and the editor’s overview back out and dug my heels in. Within a few hours (yes) I was finished and had emailed it to the agent who has shown interest.

While I’m sure I’ll have to do more revisions—either working with the agent or eventually a publisher’s editor—I’m so happy to at least be finished with this round. The agent requested a hard copy, a new bio and synopsis, which I did on Monday and sent it overnight to her in NYC. On Tuesday one of her assistants emailed me:

Dear Susan,

(Agent’s name) has asked me to send you her best regards and to thank you for sending your revised novel, which we have just received and we are very much looking forward to reading!

We wish you a lovely day.


My hope is she will like the revisions enough to represent me and maybe there will be a book deal in my future.


I’ve been celebrating this milestone a little bit every day, while turning my new energies to planning a few special events and picking back up another novel I started in May, which the faculty at the YOK Shop in Oxford said had promise. I have no idea how long I’ll have to wait to hear back from her, but I’m not gonna’ sit around worrying about it. Much.

Mental Health Monday: Hair, Hats, and Droopy Eyelids

back cover "Let's Just Say It Wasn't Pretty" by Diane Keaton

back cover “Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty” by Diane Keaton

One doesn’t usually consider movie stars to be mental health professionals. But when one’s screen idol writes two wonderfully candid books about so many universal issues (especially for women) I pay attention. Two years ago I did a short post here about Diane Keaton’s first memoir, Then Again. Keaton is still my favorite screen actress, and her writing reveals so much more than her acting. In Then Again, she wrote about serious issues (that we share) such as adoption, Alzheimer’s, eating disorders, depression, body image distortion and mother-daughter relationships. I couldn’t believe how much we had in common.


9780812994261_custom-a5630e805c2ddba27c837c28ab02f59179f3b727-s6-c30In her second memoir, Let’ Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty, she keeps a lighter tone, addressing her insecurities about some surprising things—some of the things I love most about her—like her hair! She hates her hair. I tried to copy her hairstyle on and off for years. And I love hats, so I assumed she loved them, too, and she does. But she mainly wears them to hide her hair! Who knew?

A couple of years ago I started noticing my right eyelid was drooping. It has continued to fall, giving me a somewhat sad appearance. Of course I Googled it and talked with my eye doctor about it. It’s not bothering my eyesight, so I won’t have surgery on it, but I hate the way it looks. Well guess, what? Both of Keaton’s eyelids droop, which is another reason she wears glasses and hats! But at age 68, she hasn’t had any plastic surgery.

Keaton polka dots

I love her hair!


Diane Keaton wannabe

Diane Keaton wannabe










The book is wonderful. Here’s an excerpt from her chapter, “What Is Beauty?”

photo-7We all long to feel confident, look great, and do well. We all want to be remembered. Sometimes we’re lost. Sometimes we’re found. But one thing’s for sure: no matter how much control we have over our appearance, we’re all awkward, laughable, ugly, and beautiful at the same time.

I’m looking forward to seeing her new movie with Michael Douglas, “And So It Goes.” You know I’ll be looking at her hair, her hats, and her eyes the whole time. But I’ll mostly be thinking, “What a beautiful woman, actress and writer!”

Faith on Friday: Life Just Is

oh crapToday’s post really isn’t so much about faith as it is about friendship and serendipity. A close friend and I have been discussing aging recently (we’re both 63) and how to shift gears into this stage of our lives as gracefully as possible. Physical ailments—especially chronic pain and fatigue—are kicking our butts more often than we are “managing” them.

I continue to discover some amazing new friends in our neighborhood, like Maggie, whom I wrote about last Friday and again this week on Monday. So today I’m going to mention two more friends who each live a stone’s throw from our house.

CronePriscilla (whom I met through church before we became neighbors) is packing to move and said she had a book to give me. So this morning as I walked across the street to take her some boxes, she gave me her copy of The Living Spirit of the Crone: Turning Aging Inside Out. Priscilla is a little older than me, and we are both cancer survivors and we share the same concerns that so many women our age have.  But here’s where serendipity comes in. The book was written by another neighbor and new friend, Sally Thomason, who lives directly across the street from me.

I fell in love with Sally the first time I met her. She reminds Bill and I of his favorite Aunt Betsy, who lived most of her life in Boston. Sally is former Dean of the Meeman Center for Special Studies at Rhodes College, and is also the author of a short novel, The Topaz Brooch.

Sally Thomason

Sally Thomason

But it’s her book on aging that has me turning the pages today. And being thankful for this chain of friendship that seems to be circling my life. I may write more about the wisdom between the pages of this book later, but for today, I’m going to share an excerpt from the third chapter, “Beyond Patriarchy.”

I was probably in my late sixties when I came to the stark realization that I would never, could never, figure out my life. Life just is. And life is to be lived not figured out. It is not ours to control but a gift we receive in all its wonders and complexity. I know we are connected deeply and irrevocably to all that is, yet we are also exquisitely a separate entity that experiences the gift of life in a unique and singular way. But even stranger and more perplexing is that we ourselves are continually changing, growing, diminishing—a living, self-conscious process that ultimately defies reductive definition. However, because we are acutely aware of how the human species in spite of individual differences, conforms to patterns of structure and behavior, our very nature demands that we build theories and myths to explain and control our existence. This is part of our humanness.

Ten years ago when I started a serious study of aging, I focused on the way our society fears old age and defines it almost exclusively by biomedical, physical criteria. I learned a great deal about our culture’s history and beliefs, which are shaped by a tradition of patriarchy and allopathic medicine, as I describe in the next chapter. I also learned, by talking with older people, a great deal about the human spirit and the impulse of some aging individuals to defy cultural expectations and live a full and abundant, though vastly different, life from what they previously lived.

That’s the life I want to discover—or to chart for myself—as I continue into my sixties and, God willing, beyond. Today I’m thankful for friends and neighbors who are on this journey with me. Especially for Priscilla and Sally.

Writing on Wednesday: The holycow feeling of just being human. Or today we burn clouds.

SkyI had a hard time choosing a title for this post because the subject matter is dripping with delicious verbal concoctions.

Corey Mesler’s new book of poetry, The Sky Needs More Work, will be released as an ebook at the end of the month from Upper Rubber Boot Books. I was Corey’s fan for a long time before I became his friend. His poetry (and his prose) sometimes informs, often entertains, and always inspires. (And that was my attempt at writing a lyrical sentence.) Here’s a sneak preview—but be sure and buy the book when it comes out!

“Dear Editor” captures how all writers must feel at times—but maybe poets more so than others. Why? Because for a poet every word is a sentence. Every line is a paragraph. Every stanza is a chapter. The stakes are higher. And the muse can so easily play havoc with those words. “Storytelling,” “Writing So Clear” and “Witchery” give us a peek into the writer’s labors and angst.

“The Sky Needs More Work” is a tribute to the poet’s overwhelming calling and eternal palette. Corey shows how we “limn the infinite with crude tools” and “work for the furtherance of body and soul”….

This is how we show

our appreciation: a little color

here, a trope about harmony.

And, even if the sky needs

more work, today we are up

for it. Today we burn clouds.

Expecting some erotic verses, I was not disappointed, as Corey heated up the page with “Cicisbeo,” “Chronogram,” “Strictly Blowjob,” and “Cock-a-Hoop.” I can’t quote much from these verses without experiencing severe blog-blush (are blogs rated?) but these closing lines from “Cock-a-Hoop” must be shared: (Buy the book to read the first four lines of this wonderful poem!)

And afterwards the holycow feeling

of just being human and

satisfied like a goddamn poem.

And of course his irreverent humor shows up in poems like “At the Mapco,” which reminded me of some of the voices I loved in Corey’s novel, Diddy Wah Diddy: A Beale Street Suite.

Corey signing at the bookstore he owns with his wife, Cheryl, Burke's Books in Memphis

Corey signing at the bookstore he owns with his wife, Cheryl, Burke’s Books in Memphis

Corey’s darkness and candor are ever present, especially in poems like “Pesthouse,” “Bardo,” “Agoraphobe’s Litany,” “The End of the Year of Darkness,” and “Bunuel’s Car.”

The spiritual is present in many of Corey’s poems. In this collection I was especially drawn to “Afternoon Religion” and “The Cancer of Believing You’re in Control.” And refreshed by “I Never Think God is Not Dreaming.”

And of course Corey gives a nod to icons of our culture with his verses about the Beatles, including “The Day John Lennon Died” and “The Beatles in Five Parts.”

This book is not to be missed. Here’s where you can find it:

  • ISBN 978-1-937794-42-2 (epub) is forthcoming for iPad, Nook, etc.
  • ISBN 978-1-937794-40-8 (mobi) is forthcoming for Kindle on Amazon.
  • ISBN 978-1-937794-41-5 (pdf) is forthcoming at Smashwords.

Mental Health Monday: Maggie and the Bean Stalk… Friends Forever!

This message appeared on Day 7

This message appeared on Day 7

Remember the joyful friend I wrote about in my blog past last Friday? Her name is Maggie. When she and her husband came to a party at our house on July 11, she brought me an unusual hostess gift. It’s a Nature’s Greeting bean plant.


I followed the simple instructions—opening the little can, watering the plant, and placing it in the sun light (in my kitchen window). Within a few days the bean sprouted, shed its shell, and revealed a secret message on one side, “Friends Forever,” and a happy face on the other side.


You can watch this video to see what happens beneath the surface (if you can handle the hyper narrator and music).

And here are my photos of the bean plant in progress. It makes me smile every time I look at it. I think I’m going to send some to my granddaughters and spread the joy around. Have a joyful Monday!

Day 5

Day 5

The bean shell with happy face imprint

The bean shell with happy face imprint

Happy Face Day 7

Happy Face Day 7

Day 8

Day 8

Day 9

Day 9


Faith on Friday: JOY, Radiant Joy!

Do you know someone who radiates joy? Someone who is always kind? When I think about these traits, I realize that the people I know who are like this are people I want to be around.



One such person lives in my neighborhood. I met her a couple of years ago at a “ladies’ coffee” at her home, and she always has a big smile and a joyful spirit. Whenever I run into her (we go to the same hairdresser, as it turns out) it’s the same sweet spirit that draws me. After my car wreck she sent cards and called several times to see if I needed anything.

cover-spiral-2014-1aThis morning I read the following quote with my morning prayers. It’s from the 2014 Daily Lives, Miracles, and Wisdom of the Saints, from the Orthodox Calendar Company. Each day it lists the saints commemorated that day and tells a little bit about one of the saints, or if it’s a feast day, it might describe the feast. I’m not going to comment on the quote, except to say that it’s from one of my favorite spiritual fathers, Saint Theophan the Recluse. Theophan was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988. I mentioned one of his books in my post on Wednesday—The Spiritual Life and How To Be Attuned To It—which was life-changing to me when I first read it. May God help me to kindle joy in my own heart and in the hearts of others.

You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of one who gives and kindles joy in the heart of one who receives. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other, not even those whom you catch committing an evil deed. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a morass of filth that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Keep away from the spilling of speech. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgement. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult, outrage, and will shield your glowing hearts against the evil that creeps around.

Writing on Wednesday: Dear Mamaw

Letter O'ConnorI love to write letters. And to read them. It seems to be a dying art. One of my favorite books—one I keep around and read a little bit at a time—is The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor.

Another favorite is Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

And in the realm of Orthodox spirituality, there’s Saint Theophan’s letters to a young Russian singer, The Spiritual Life and How To Be Attuned To It. And Mother Theresa’s letters (which she never intended for publication) Come Be My Light.

I wrote letters to Mamaw, my maternal grandmother, from the time I was about five or six until her Alzheimer’s got so advanced she couldn’t read them anymore—sometime in the 1980s. I’ve got a shoebox (I need to find that box!) of those letters that my mother found when she cleaned out Mamaw’s house in the 1980s. That box contains my life written in letters from the 1950s through the 1970s. Because she didn’t judge me but loved me unconditionally, she was a safe place for me to share all my thoughts and feelings—my first kiss and how I felt about my body, the fighting going on in our home, my on-again off-again love affair with Jesus, really everything.

letter to Mamaw1969


A few years ago I found one of those letters, one that I wrote in 1969, when it only cost 6 cents to mail a letter. I had just turned 18 and was planning to visit my boyfriend (now husband) at Ole Miss for spring break. I was already figuring out how to balance writing with my social life. Here’s a snippet:

Wednesday night is our Twirp dance, but I’m staying home to type my English term paper so I can go up to Oxford to see Bill the next day.

I woke up this morning thinking about Mamaw, because she was born on July 16, 1899, so she would be 115 years old today. Her name is Emma Sue Covington Watkins. What would I write to her today?

Dear Mamaw,

It’s been almost thirty years since you left us for your new life in Heaven. I hope it’s wonderful there. Here’s what you’ve missed down here on Earth:

Just a year after you died, we adopted a little girl, Elizabeth Ann. And Mike had a second daughter a few years later—Chelsea. So you’ve got five great-grandchildren. And five great-great grandchildren. One of your great granddaughters is named Anna Susan—after me, and therefore after you! They are all wonderful and bring me great joy.

On a sad note, we lost Daddy to cancer back in 1998, when he was only 68. And then Dan and then Barbara Jo and then Mike—all to lung cancer and all when they were in their 50s and 60s. All because of smoking. It makes me sad that my children smoke, but I understand the addiction thing. It’s just that nicotine isn’t my drug of choice.

After the thing that happened with Granddaddy when I was five, I had some more problems with sexual abuse stuff in my twenties. All of this—plus Mom’s drinking and emotional abuse—stirred up some eating disorders that I’ve had all these years. And I often turn to alcohol to try to numb the pain.  Sometimes I wonder if I would be in better shape if I still had you to talk with.

My happiest childhood memories revolve around summer vacations spent at your little house in Meridian, Mississippi. I was also so excited to go with you to Kress Department Store downtown to pick out patterns and materials for my new back-to-school dresses. And the peaceful hours I would spend making doll clothes and playing around your house while you lovingly sewed my dresses. The last dress you made was for my rehearsal dinner back in 1970. And the quilt you made using scraps from all those dresses was my favorite wedding gift.

On weekends you would take me out to the country to play with my cousin, David, while you and Aunt Lorena went fishing in the little pond behind her house. David and I would pick blackberries and swim in the pond and wander freely around the family property, visiting in and out of my cousins and aunts and uncles’ houses. I love the city, but those memories of that time with my country cousins is priceless.

I loved going to Vacation Bible School at the Presbyterian Church in Meridian during those summers. And swimming at Northwood Country Club and watching Daddy play in the invitational golf tournament every summer back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I also loved making homemade rolls, homemade ice cream, and especially skillet-fried corn with you. Remember how we used to walk just a few blocks from your house to Culpepper’s Grocery to pick up what we needed for supper? Boy, have times changed.

I think you can probably see everything that’s been happening down here since you’ve been gone, and maybe it’s a good thing you aren’t here for all the craziness—although you did live through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Korean War and Vietnam. Your oldest grandson, Jonathan, fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, but thankfully he’s out of the Army now and flies med evac helicopters.

As you probably know, Mom is still at Lakeland Nursing Home, where you lived out your final years. She also has Alzheimer’s and isn’t really sure who I am anymore. The good news is that she’s forgotten how to criticize me and no longer comments on how fat I am or how she doesn’t like my hair or clothes. She’s usually smiling when I visit her, and I often have flashbacks of going with her to visit you before we moved to Memphis in 1988. I’m sorry I didn’t visit more often. I could offer excuses, but I think you probably already know what all was going on back then. She’s 86 now, so she’s outlived you by one year so far. I really think she would be happier in Heaven with Daddy and you and Jesus—her three favorite people—but I guess that’s up to God to decide.

I could go on and on but I just wanted to say Happy Birthday and that I love you. You have always been my favorite person, and I’m so happy to be named after you. Thanks for loving me.


With Mamaw in June, 1970. She made my lavender dress and vest, the dress she's wearing, and the quilt.

With Mamaw in June, 1970, just a few days before my wedding. She made my lavender dress and vest I’m wearing, the dress she’s wearing, and the quilt.

Mental Health Monday: Shrinking the Monsters

Shari SmithMy friend, the multi-talented writer, publicist, mover and shaker, Shari Smith, “tagged” me on her blog post last Monday, “Blogs, Belts and Bravery.” If you’ve never read Shari’s blog, “Gunpowder, Cowboy Boots, and Mascara,” you’re in for a treat. Shari was the creative genius behind The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul project. We met in November of 2008 at a magical literary event in Fairhope, Alabama, known as Southern Writers Reading. And then we found each other again on Facebook a couple of years later and the friendship grew. I was honored when she wrote that I was brave:

She is not afraid of the monsters in her closet. She writes a light to shine on them and though I can’t say if she does that to make them less scary to her, what happens is that they become a little less of a threat to those of us still afraid to open that door. I admire her courage and her pursuit and I have learned from her in ways it took me a while to figure out.

to monster in closet Shari is exactly right that I shine my light on those monsters in order to make them less scary. Although I might not have put it into those words until she pointed it out, this is a huge reason that I write—to shrink the monsters in my closet.

So, that’s a bit about why I write. The request for this blog-tagging thing was to “blog about why you write, your process, what you are working on and tag/link three artists you recommend.”

My process. Hmmm. As organized as I am in other areas of my life, my writing process can run the gamut from super-organized (writing a synopsis and outline BEFORE beginning to work on a book) to gathering ideas, characters and plotlines while walking on the beach, driving, or even while reading another author’s work. Not to steal their editing_wordle-600x370ideas, but to learn and gain inspiration from their literary prose, which is mostly what I read. I have an artist friend who gets this—the value of spending time on a project before the paint ever hits the canvas. And I love research, which can be a good thing or a procrastinator’s poison. But once I get started on a new project I can usually keep moving fairly well—especially on a shorter piece like an essay. With a longer project like a book, I often get stumped half-way through, leaving the plot sagging and the characters bored. This is where the hard work often begins for me. And I don’t write “shitty first drafts” like most people recommend. I revise as I go. So once a “first draft” is finished, it’s really more like a 3rd or 4th draft. But then the actual revisions begin and continue for several run-throughs.

fertile idleness


Another thing about my process is that I welcome feedback at certain stages of a project. I get this by submitting manuscripts to writing workshops, to writing “buddies,” and to a writing group here in Memphis. I also work with freelance editors before querying agents.

What I’m working on now (in addition to essays which I sprinkle throughout my longer projects to feed my ADD) is revisions to my novel, Cherry Bomb. I’ve been working with an editor (recommended by an agent) for over a year now, but the work was interrupted for several months due to my car wrecks, surgeries, recovery, house move, travels, etc. I’m trying to complete those revisions now, but they are kicking my butt. Hopefully I’ll pick up steam on this work now that we’re finally settled into our new home and traveling less.

blog-tourFinally, I’m supposed to tag three authors to follow this same formula on their blogs next Monday. I’m tagging three who are friends and also Tennesseans:

Ellen Morris Prewitt who lives around the corner from me in Memphis and blogs at Creative Synthesis

Karissa Knox Sorrell (who lives in Nashville)

Jolina Petersheim (who also lives near Nashville) and blogs here

You will enjoy following their blogs, and if you check in on them NEXT MONDAY, July 21, you might find them blogging about why they write, what they’re working on now, and what their writing process is about. Maybe.

FUN on Friday: It’s Party Time!

Lip Syncing Kim Carnes' "Barking at Airplanes" circa 1985

Lip Syncing Kim Carnes’ “Barking at Airplanes” circa 1985

I love parties. I especially love to plan and host parties. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s we were into costume parties with lots of fun musical activities. Remember “Putting On the Hits”? (It pre-dated karaoke.)

The REAL Kim Carnes

The REAL Kim Carnes

Tonight we’re having about two dozen of our wonderful neighbors over—no costumes or entertainment, just food, drink and visiting. Anyway this post will be short—I’ve got some food prep to do!


Here’s the menu: (If you want recipes, try Goggling these. I’m adjusting some recipes I found online.)


Shrimp/Mango/Avocado Mini Salads

I’ll serve these in small plastic cups with tiny forks in each one, ready to pick up

and eat.

Veggie Dip CupsVeggie and Dip Cups

Cucumbers, green beans, carrots, yellow and orange bell peppers, celery and grape tomatoes, also served in small plastic cups. First you put some Ranch dressing in the bottom of each cup.


Mashed Potato Bar

Homemade mashed potatoes will be served in a chafing dish  with grated cheese, bacon pieces and sour cream to serve on the side. More individual cups and spoons will go with these.
Capt Rodney Cheese BakeCaptain Rodney’s Cheese Bake


If you’ve never had this you’ve got to try it. You can Google the recipe. It’s amazing.



Meatball Sliders

I was going to make these myself, but then I found them at Curbside Casseroles, so I ordered some and picked them up yesterday. Will save me lots of time.


Summer AleSummer Ale

Saw this recipe online and had to try it. It’s a mixture of beer, vodka and limeade. I’ll serve it in clear beverage servers with spouts. (There will also be wine and soft drinks.) Have a great weekend, everyone!


Writing on Wednesday: A Reward for Working Through the Grim Stuff

Shoes CoverTomorrow night I’m going to a book reading/signing at Burke’s Books here in Memphis. The author is Lisa Howorth and the book is called Flying Shoes. Lisa is co-owner with her husband, Richard, of Square Books (and Off Square Books and Square Books, Jr.) in Oxford, Mississippi. Flying Shoes made its debut in Oxford on June 17. The novel is based on the molestation and murder of her nine-year-old stepbrother in 1966. In an article in Publisher’s Weekly, Bill Cusumano, book buyer at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., said,

“What Lisa has accomplished is just astounding. This is a novel of insight, intelligence, wit, humor, pathos and, knowing the background, one that is tremendously brave.”

In the same article, Howorth reflected on how she felt after the novel was published:

“I didn’t feel the elation I thought I’d feel. I was left feeling a little sad, flat, and guilty. Here I was exposing my family, and I was making money off it. The guy’s still out there, and my brother’s still dead. And no matter what you write, I think it’s impossible to really evoke the horror of that.”

Last night some really smart writing friends critiqued an essay I extracted from a book-length memoir I wrote a few years ago. The memoir (and the essay) deal with sexual abuse and incest. Their feedback was helpful, but I’m still not sure whether or not I want to publish these stories. Howorth’s comments give me pause. She spent twenty years writing the book, which started out as memoir and ended up as fiction. Why?

“I couldn’t stay in the tragedy. I had to put it in a bigger world with lots of side stories…. Making up stories is how I rewarded myself, when I worked through some of the grim stuff, by getting to make up extra characters with their own stories. I wove them together.”

Lisa Howorth

Lisa Howorth

This is exactly why I set aside the two memoirs I penned a number of years ago and turned to fiction to spin my stories. The issues and the truth of what I’ve lived through are still in there, but the characters are free to pursue paths I didn’t choose—some of which I would have enjoyed very much. Like being a graffiti writer. Or an abstract expressionist.

As Howorth says, what a lovely reward for working through the grim stuff.

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