Writing on Wednesday: Contests & Awards

cover_mj2015The May/June 2015 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine just arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Perfect timing. Why? Because I’m at one of those in-between moments in a writer’s career, and I needed some re-fueling and redirection for the immediate future. Here’s what I’m “between”:

At The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis with Nina Gaby

At The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis with Nina Gaby

Just finished a wonderful Southern book tour for Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, with my friend Nina Gaby, who edited the collection. (Here’s a nice review in the Huffington Post.) We had events at four wonderful independent bookstores in Athens (Georgia), Atlanta (where we were joined by Jessica Handler), Oxford (Mississippi) and Memphis. It was great fun and we are so thankful to everyone who came to the readings and bought the books and participated in the discussions in each location. Thanks also to the wonderful indie booksellers who hosted these terrific events: Avid Books, Charis Books, Square Books, and The Booksellers at Laurelwood! And… since Nina had never been to Memphis, we spent our “break days” between events visiting Beale Street, the Peabody, South Main arts district, and Graceland.

On May 18 I have a meeting in New York City with the literary agent with whom I’ve been working on revisions to my novel, Cherry Bomb. And I’m waiting to hear back from the editor at a university press who has shown interest in publishing an anthology I proposed to him a few weeks ago. So how will I fill the “lull” between these exciting activities?

About a year ago I started a new novel—only wrote the first chapter—so I could pick that back up, but I don’t have the energy for it yet. I think it might be time to write another essay, but I need some guidance: what to write about, where to submit it, etc. That’s where the new Poets & Writers comes in, with their staff-written article, “Anatomy of Awards: A Decade of Writing Contests.” If you’re a writer looking to submit poems, short stories, essays, or full-length manuscripts for publication, this is a gold mine of information. P&W went through their archives during several years since 2004 and charted the number of contests, average entry fees, amounts of prize money, and other valuable information to help the writer assess the value of entering writing contests. After reading the short article and studying the chart briefly, I decided it’s definitely worth the investment to submit an essay to some of these contests. Whether or not I win (or place, as I have in the past), my goal is publication more than the prize money. And motivation to write another essay.



I looked through the current Deadline section and found eight contests that include creative nonfiction essays, with deadlines ranging from May 18 through July 1. I’ve got one unpublished essay that I spent a lot of time revising last year, so I might dust it off to submit to some of the contests. But it’s also time for a new essay, and I have to say, I do love a deadline. Here goes….

Meanwhile enjoy a couple more photos from the “Dumped” book tour.

Nina and Susan at Avid Books in Athens, Georgia

Nina and Susan at Avid Books in Athens, Georgia

Susan, Nina Gaby & Jessica Handler getting ready to read at Charis Books in Atlanta

Susan, Nina Gaby & Jessica Handler getting ready to read at Charis Books in Atlanta

Susan reading at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

Susan reading at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

Nina in the window at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi just before our reading on April 27

Nina in the window at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi just before our reading on April 27

I wish I could remember what was so funny at this point in my reading at Laurelwood!

I wish I could remember what was so funny at this point in my reading at Laurelwood!

Mental Health Monday: Forgiveness—the Therapy of Old Age

forgiveness artToday I’m continuing my reading in Joan Chittister’s book, The Gift of Years. You can read my previous reflections on her book here.

This morning I read her chapter on “Forgiveness.” Wow. Just wow. I’m in the middle of my Southern “book tour” with Nina Gaby, editor of a new anthology in which I have an essay—Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women. My essay is titled, “High School Never Ends.” The timing is perfect for some thoughts on forgiveness, since many of the authors in this collection—myself included—never got “closure” with the friend who dumped us.  And in my case, the dumping happened almost fifty years ago. Chittister’s words speak directly to this issue and to my own personal situation:

We have been wronged. Someone has broken the unwritten rules of life by which we live. Someone has scratched the surface of our own perfection and left us exposed, abandoned, distant, aloof, gone. Sometimes the other person knows what happened, and why. Sometimes he or she doesn’t. We simply disappear to wait for a redress that never comes.

Or in my case, we try for a reconciliation forty-something years later, and it still doesn’t come.  Why was it important for me to connect with that person so many decades later? Chittister continues:

Then, the years pass. The more important the relationship, the more vivid the memory of the wrong. Instead of diminishing, the memory—the pain of it—grows stronger every year. This is a weeping wound, festering with time, a scar on the heart, acid in the belly. And time is passing.

forgivenessAs I wrote in last Monday’s post, I’ve actually experienced this pain twice—once from this high school friend, and much later in life from an adult, although I chose to write the essay about the experience from high school. Chittister’s “solution” really isn’t a mystery, and seems almost obvious, but sometimes. we have to be in a place where we are ready to hear solutions. And that place is often old age:

The question is, why does such an old sore hurt more now that I am old than it did when it happened? Or, conversely, why am I more sensitive to it now than I have been for years?…Bitterness, once it sinks like sand in the soul, skews our balance for years go come…. Only we can free ourselves from the burden of bitterness old anger brings with it.


Only forgiveness can stem such pain in us. An apology alone can’t possibly do it. This kind of pain… can be healed only by the wounded, not the offender, because it is the wounded who is maintaining it.

Only forgiveness is the therapy of old age that wipes the slate clean, that heals as it embraces.

Forgiveness puts life back together again.

Another thing that has helped me forgive the friend(s) who unfriended me is to reflect on the possibility that I might not have known the whole story. Chittister addresses this:

Do we even remember clearly anymore what it was that happened? Are we really sure it was as intentional as we have painted it all these years?

il_570xN.511212513_k8i0And then she quotes the poet Mary Lou Kownacki:

Is there anyone we wouldn’t love if we only knew their story?

It helps me to remember that this person who hurt me has her own struggles, her own story. I wouldn’t say that I’m to the place where I actually love her. But I have forgiven her. And that’s a good start.

I’m off to Oxford, Mississippi, today, with Nina Gaby (editor of Dumped) for our reading at Square Books tonight. Then tomorrow night we’ll be back in Memphis for another reading, this time at the Booksellers at Laurelwood. Hope to have a lively discussion with everyone who comes!

Fine Art on Friday: Soul Food at Buckhead Art Galleries

"Guardian" by Patricia Fabian

“Guardian” by Patricia Fabian

Short post… I’m in Atlanta with Nina Gaby, editor of Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, for reading/signing events at bookstores in Athens and Atlanta. So much fun! (Look for pictures on Facebook, and couple at the end of this post.)

Meanwhile, my childhood friend we’re staying with in Buckhead, Jan Connors, took Nina and me to some wonderful art galleries in Buckhead this morning, especially Reinike Gallery and Bill Lowe Gallery. Terrific soul food. Met an artist who had just brought some new pieces in at Reinike – Patricia Fabian, who talked about her “energy deposits” and Emersen and transcendentalism and I fell in love with this one painting of hers, “Guardian.” The woman, who looks like a sketch of a fashion model, is lighting a vigil candle in a chapel…. it reminded me of two strong parts of myself and my life.

Patricia was born in Jersey City and raised in the inner city. This was the time of Woodstock, the Civil Rights Movement, and JFK.  She grew up wanting to be a writer.  She kept diaries, journals and wrote poetry and short stories. I felt an immediately connection with her.

So that’s all for now. It’s almost midnight in Atlanta and I’m going to bed now! Love to all…. enjoy the pictures!

Me with Nina Gaby (editor) and Jessica Handler (contributor) at our reading at Charis Books in Atlanta Friday night

Me with Nina Gaby (editor) and Jessica Handler (contributor) at our reading at Charis Books in Atlanta Friday night

"7 Sins Greed" by Frank Shroeder at BIll Lowe Gallery

“7 Sins Greed” by Frank Schroeder at Bill Lowe Gallery

Jan some art I thought she needed for her house...

Jan with some pieces I thought she needed for her house…


Nina with Felice Sharp's painting, "Goddess of Nature"

Nina with Felice Sharp’s painting, “Goddess of Nature”



Writing on Wednesday: (Another’s Writer’s) Rewriting Hell

Corabel Shofner

Corabel Shofner

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve seen my rants about how tough revising a novel can be—working with an editor to make the manuscript more commercially viable while trying to hold onto your own vision for your book. My friend from high school (in Jackson, Mississippi) Corabel (Alexander) Shofner has been through this difficult process with editors before and after getting a book deal for her debut novel. So today, in lieu of my own post, I’m going to share Corabel’s blog post from Monday:

“Rewriting Hell”

I’m sure she would love to hear from you, if you have time to leave a comment on her blog or on the Facebook thread.

Bel FB cover


Mental Health Monday: Working Through My Own Ugliness

Susan Dumped Nina

About a month ago I shared a few excerpts from the anthology I was recently published in—Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women.  As I’m preparing to go out on a “Southern book tour” (here’s the schedule) with the editor, Nina Gaby (from Vermont) this week and next, I’m taking a closer look at the etiology of the essays in this collection. But this time I’m not looking at these pieces with my writer/editor hat on. I’m looking at them from the reader’s point of view, especially the woman reader, whom I assume will be our target audience. Since I only know three of the other contributors personally, I can read most of the essays without bias, the way most of our readers will read them. And hopefully I can feel what they are feeling.

Picasso Women Friends by Linda Apple

Picasso Women Friends by Linda Apple

Two of my closest friends have read the book. One told me that at first she wished I had been more explicit in describing the pain I have experienced in the loss of the friend of whom I write. But then, after reading the other essays in the book, she said she was glad mine was a little more upbeat. The other friend felt that many of the essays were “depressing” or overly “bitchy.” I think what both of them were experiencing was the rawness of the pain and hurt experienced by the authors. Being dumped by a close friend really does a number on the psyche.

Nina Gaby is a psychiatric nurse practitioner. She’s spent a lifetime helping others deal with their pain, so she knows of what she speaks when she writes of her own experience as the person being hurt by another, first at age thirteen and later at fifty:

I had to pretend it didn’t matter. I learned to project a safer perspective onto a wall between me and the pain. It made me independent with a never-quite-fulfilled craving for closeness. Maybe that was part of the problem. The resultant sheer avoidance never made it any easier, not at thirteen, not at fifty.

That “never-quite-fulfilled craving for closeness” is something I have felt my whole life. And I do think it is similar—if not exactly the same—as the pain one experiences when childhood abuse happens. As Robert Goolrich writes in his excellent memoir, The End of the World as We Know It,:

If you don’t receive love from the ones who are meant to love you, you will never stop looking for it, like an amputee who never stops missing his leg, like the ex-smoker who wants a cigarette after lunch fifteen years later. It sounds trite. It’s true.

You will look for it in objects that you buy without want. You will look for it in faces you do not desire. You will look for it in expensive hotel rooms, in the careful attentiveness of the men and women who change the sheets every day, who bring you pots of tea and thinly sliced lemon and treat you with false deference….You will look for it in shopgirls and the kind of sad and splendid men who sell you clothing You will look for it. And you will never find it. You will not find a trace….

I tell it for the fathers The priests. The football coaches…. I tell it because there is an ache in my heart for the imagined beauty of a life I haven’t had, from which I have been locked out, and it never goes away.

(You can read my blog post about his reading at Square Books in Oxford back in 2010 if you’re interested.)

That ache in his heart that never goes away. That looking for love in places you’ll never find it. I know that ache, and I believe the women who contributed essays to this anthology know that ache. So, if we never “get over it,” how do we deal with it in a healthy way?

One of the contributors, Mary Ann Noe, closes her essay with these words:

I thought I’d get over it. It still surfaces on some mornings when the air is just so and I sling a sweatshirt around my shoulders…. When someone tries to finish my sentence and doesn’t get it right. Those memories bring up sepia-toned images, nothing more. But when I come across that photo of the two of us, I’m still blindsided. I wonder what I did. Or maybe what I didn’t do? I know one thing: I’ll never figure it out. And I realize I don’t have to.

Mary Ann has learned that she doesn’t have to figure it out. Maybe we don’t need that kind of closure to move on from the hurt of being dumped by someone we love. The person I wrote about in my essay was only fifteen, as was I, when she ended our friendship. And because we live and move in different circles (and cities) I can choose to just not think about her any more. That works most of the time. But there’s another friend—one I didn’t write about in the anthology—who hurt me as an adult. And although she made an effort to reconcile at one point (albeit on her terms) I kept my boundaries up, not being willing to completely entrust my heart to her again. We see each other rarely, every couple of years, at an event where we have shared friends, and I’m okay with things the way they are. She and I have both suffered lots of pain in our lives, and maybe this is just the best we can do. As Alexis Paige, another contributor to Dumped, writes:

With girlfriends, I didn’t know how to work through their or my own ugliness, how to fight for the friendship. I left because it was easier.



Alexis owns her part in the loss, as we probably all should do if we’re honest, because we are all broken human beings, who “become alienated from other women, just as you are alienated from yourself.” (Again Alexis’ words.)

We are alienated from ourselves because we are fallen creatures. God created us to be one with ourselves. That’s good mental health. When we are at war with ourselves, we are mentally ill, which is our state much of the time.

I think my “take home” from the book is to continue to work to heal my own inner brokenness in order to be able to have healthier friendships.  As Alexis says, to work through my own ugliness. Here’s to healthier insides!

LaporteP. S. While searching for images to include with this post, I came across this quote by Danielle Laporte and thought it was applicable to the discussion here. Sometimes it’s hard to be in a friendship and still hold onto yourself.

Faith on Friday: Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid

514iqc7VMnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I just read an excellent book, Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future, by Elizabeth Esther. This isn’t going to be a complete book review, but I’d like to make a few comments about why this is such an important book.


First I’d like to address the word, “cult.” Years ago, when I was part of a start-up religious group which took my husband and me on a seventeen-year journey (1970-1987) from Jesus-freak hippies to the Eastern Orthodox Church, we studied cults.  Mostly Christian cults. The definition we accepted was something like this:

A religious group or organization which calls itself Christian but does not hold to the major tenets of the Christian faith, especially a triune God and salvation by faith.

That’s just from my memory of our exploration back in the 1970s. And by that definition, we assured ourselves we were not a cult. But I would return to that definition many times in the coming decades as I looked back at those formative years and began to believe that we were a cult.

Some dictionary definitions confirm this in my mind:

a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous

When I would say that I had been part of a cult for many years, some people who had been on the same journey with me would disagree, pointing out that we never left the true religious definition of a Christian group. And that is true. It wasn’t our beliefs that caused our sickness. It was our behavior.

Elizabeth Esther says this about the group she was raised in:

What I remember most are the increasingly strict rules and the insular, fundamentalist traditions we developed…. Women were required to dress very modestly and behave within strict gender roles. Everything, from how we ordered our daily schedules to our tone of voice, was monitored….

That is why, when people ask me why I call The Assembly a cult, I say it’s because we operated like one. Cults aren’t so much about beliefs as they are about methods and behavior. According to cult researchers, it is the emotional seizing of people’s trust, thoughts, and choices that identifies a cult.

I cried as I read Elizabeth’s descriptions of the tyranny under which she lived for so many years. The seizing of people’s trust, thoughts, and choices. And although her situation was stricter and more oppressive than mine, there were many similarities, if not the specifics, the general issue of emotional control. And control over every aspect of our lives.

koolaidAt one point all the women in our group were required to have grocery-shopping partners, so that we wouldn’t be tempted by the world when we went out shopping. We would always have someone to check us. I was often “in trouble” with the group for my free spirit and behavior. I was called out for the way I dressed, for acting independently of my husband, and at one point I was criticized for hiring a maid to help me with housekeeping, an action which was termed “snobby” and “elitist.” I was the first parent to send a child to 4-year-old preschool, which was met with harsh criticism.

Although our group did send our children to a public school, evidently it was considered unnecessary and harmful to send them before age 5. A wise kindergarten teacher called me in for a meeting one day about problems one of my children was having, and she encouraged me to let this child make some friends outside of our church group. She said we were so insular that the children being raised in the group treated each other like siblings—and in my child’s case there was bullying because of too much familiarity.

I’m not going to give more specifics from my own experience or from Elizabeth Esther’s book here. But if you have concerns that you are now or have ever been part of a cult, please read her book. And—spoiler alert—I hope you will find encouragement, as I did, that after she left the cult, she didn’t leave God. She and her family became Catholic. She still loves God, even after everything she suffered as a child and young adult in The Assembly.


Orthodox icon of the Resurrection. Source: http://www.easterngiftshop.com/Item/IcFRes5

Orthodox icon of the Resurrection. Source: http://www.easterngiftshop.com/Item/IcFRes5

Me? Today I still believe. I’ve had some dark years, and even recently some dark weeks and days. But I’m thankful for the ways that God seems to continue to seek me out. Like He did last Friday during one of the Holy Friday services at St. John Orthodox Church. When the choir led us in the hauntingly beautiful chant, “The dead shall arise!”something in my soul shifted. I found myself weeping as I sang along during this service of Lamentations for Christ’s crucifixion, death, burial and the beginning of a hope for His resurrection… and mine.  I was standing next to one of my Goddaughters, and I turned to her and said, “I believe this is real.” And she knew what I meant. It wasn’t just an emotional response to the music, but it was an emotional response to the music. One thing I love about the Orthodox faith is the way it embraces all our senses—smell, sight, sound, touch… and yes, even our emotions.

Am I thankful for my journey to Orthodoxy? No. If I had it to do over again, I would RUN away as fast as I could from the cult I gave those seventeen years to. The cult I raised my children in. But it was my journey, and through it—maybe in spite of it—Jesus still chased after me. And that’s just one more thing I love/hate about living in the Christ-haunted South.

Writing on Wednesday: Creative Nonfiction Revisited

TellingStoryLogo2011Last night I met with a group of writers who gather to critique one another’s manuscripts. The genre and subject matter varies from meeting to meeting, and even within a meeting. One manuscript was a short story (fiction) and the other was a chapter from a memoir (nonfiction). What the two manuscripts had in common was the author’s goal: to tell a story, and to tell it well.

Today I’m only going to comment on the nonfiction piece. And not actually on the piece itself, but on the opportunity it presented for a discussion of genre. Nonfiction can fall into one of many sub-genres, including (but not exhaustively) biography, memoir, essay, narrative history, didactic, legal, and others. And even amongst the subgenres, the style and approach of the author can guide the work into the general category known as creative nonfiction. As Lee Gutkind (affectionately called the “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction” says in this article in the Creative Nonfiction Journal, “What is Creative Nonfiction?”:

The words “creative” and “nonfiction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.

hqdefaultAnd as Gutkind says in this video, it’s a “combination of style and substance.” Writing a true story using these techniques is a choice the author makes—or doesn’t make—in crafting his memoir, for example. If the intent is to write a historic narrative, journalistic report, or academic paper, one might not choose this approach. But if the author wants to engage the universal reader he might consider using the compelling, vivid tools of the fiction writer. The example I shared at the writing group last night was the technique used by screen writers of disaster movies: they first introduce us to the characters, showing some drama from their personal lives so that we begin to care about them and have a strong emotional response when the disaster hits.

is_cover_450x675My friend (and fellow contributor to the new anthology, Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women) Jessica Handler did a beautiful job with the craft of creative nonfiction in her memoir of loss and grief, Invisible Sisters (Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group, 2009). She could have written a scientific, medical “report” about the diseases that took her two sisters from her, and it might have been interesting and educational. But we wouldn’t care about her sisters, and about her loss. Instead she shows us the colorful and often harrowing milieu of a family trying to hold together as tragedy pulls it apart. Her father’s work and personal habits. Her parents’ marriage. Her own hopes and fears. It’s all in there, woven together in such a way that the reader couldn’t separate the facts from the feelings even if she wanted to. Here’s a brief image of her father’s growing dysfunction:

He made a magpie’s nest of their bed: an ocean-sized California king mattress for which he had the wooden frame specially made. He claimed a bad back, digestive trouble, or a headache. Often he alternated between depression and manic fire, a misery that I knew even then was poorly treated with amphetamines, barbiturates, marijuana and Scotch.

Those few sentences paint a picture of a sick man’s attempt to deal with an unimaginable loss—the deaths of two of his three daughters. Earlier in the book, the author shows us this man’s coat of many colors, including his work on behalf of the underdog in a labor union and his efforts to include his oldest daughter in the important events of the world around their family’s home in Atlanta, even taking her to the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. Her father had moved his Jewish family to the South to participate in the social justice movement of the 1960s, having no idea that the battles he would be fighting under his own roof would overshadow the larger events of society.

Creative nonfiction makes important and sometimes complicated issues and events accessible to the common reader. Jessica’s sisters had diametrically opposed illnesses—Sarah had neutropenia (abnormally low white blood cells) and Susie had leukemia (abnormally high white blood cells). Jessica could have written a purely scientific piece about their illnesses, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful.
The same is true of the way two other creative nonfiction writers—both living in Memphis and heading up the University of Memphis MFA program—chose to tell their stories. Rebecca Skloot, in The Immortal Life of Henritetta Lacks (2010), and her colleague, Kristen Iversen, who wrote the award-winning memoir, Full Body Burden (2013). I probably would never have read either of these books if they had been written in the style of scientific, political, or medical journalism. I learned about these important issues because the authors chose to use the literary tools of creative nonfiction to engage me in the lives of the real characters in their books. They made me care.

41AKG3F6Y9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Want to learn more about the craft from these authors? Two of them have published books which are used to teach writers how to use these techniques:



Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction by Kristen Iversen (2003)


Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss by Jessica Handler (2013)


And for more reading about the subgenres of creative nonfiction, read this excellent article by Sue William Silverman: “The Meandering River: An Overview of the Subgenres of Creative Nonfiction.”

Write those stories and tell them true… and make us care.

Mental Health Monday: Chronic Pain and Human Sympathy

Problem-of-Pain-2When pain is to be born, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.—C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

My husband and I just finished a marathon. No, we didn’t physically run 26+ miles. We just feel like we did. Holy Week and Pascha weekend in the Orthodox Church feels like a marathon if you attend many of the twelve (yes!) services—several of which are 2-3 hours long. The Paschal service itself starts at 11 p.m. on Saturday night and goes until around 1:30 a.m., after which we share a wonderful time of feasting together for a couple more hours. The next afternoon we come back together for Agape Vespers and a picnic and egg hunt. Sharing notes with other baby boomers at the end of the marathon this year, I found a common (physical) thread: we’re exhausted and we’re in pain. Our backs hurt. Our feet hurt. As with a real marathon, it will take a while to recover.

And then there are those of us who were already in pain before the marathon began. Data from the April 2014 U.S. Census Bureau show that there are 76.4 million baby boomers. Conversations at cocktail parties and other social events for our generation seem to circle around physical ailments more and more. Who just had a knee replacement? Who’s having a total hip? What’s helping with the pain?

I recently read a blog post by Sami Jankins about the movie, “Cake,” starring Jennifer Anniston. Jankins wrote about the movie because like 100 million Americans (yes) she suffers from chronic pain. In her post, “The Reality of Chronic Pain is Different From the Movies,” she says:

We are all one bad fall, one car accident, one bodily breakdown from living within a place that is largely unimaginable to those who aren’t there. In reflecting on this, I realized that perhaps part of the myopic narrative surrounding Cake’s content is that there really are no other recent films that tackle the topic of someone suffering from chronic pain; when things are unfamiliar, it’s easier to lack understanding.

Jennifer Anniston in the movie, "Cake"

Jennifer Anniston in the movie, “Cake”

The rest of her post is really good—she goes on to share stories of several friends who have chronic pain, and to discuss the way the media made the movie out to be all about addiction to drugs, rather than facing the bigger issue of the pain that sometimes pushes people to overuse pain medications.

I already had chronic pain before my car wreck in July of 2013—mostly from arthritis. The trauma aggravated my arthritis, so I’ll just have to live with a higher degree of pain now. And the stiffness in my neck and tenderness and pain in my foot and ankle are daily reminders that yes, I’m lucky to be alive and able to walk. I don’t always respond to the pain with thankfulness. Sometimes I get cranky. I don’t use pain meds, but sometimes I use alcohol or food to numb the pain. Neither works, of course, but pain causes temporary insanity, so I keep trying the things that fail over and over again. Sometimes I remember to pray, and although I haven’t found prayer to relieve the pain, I have found it to have a calming affect and it often enables me to endure pain without abusing food and alcohol as much. Massage therapy also helps.

sympathy_by_CherrieBUNzBut what helps the most—at least in my experience—is what C. S. Lewis says: human sympathy. Yes, he also mentions courage, and he says that love of God is most helpful. But I find both of those things (courage and love of God) most often in the words of a truly sympathetic person. Sometimes that’s my husband. Sometimes it’s a friend—especially someone else who lives with chronic pain. Offering sympathy to someone who is in pain (especially when they’re cranky) is tricky. It’s tempting to offer suggestions instead. To try to “fix” their pain. And sometimes suggestions help. But mostly what we want is just for someone to hear us and validate our pain—either with a hug or a few kind words. Often that’s enough to help us move past the pain and get back to our lives.

That’s all.

Faith on Friday: From Southern Presbyterian to Eastern Orthodox

Today is Holy Friday in the Orthodox Church. But instead of writing about the wonderful services and traditions I’m participating in during Holy Week, I’m going to share a bit of “back story.”

In July of 2012 I was asked to write a guest column for the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s Faith and Values section. The piece came out just before a reading and book signing for a new anthology, Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, which I was participating in at Burke’s Books in midtown Memphis. This short article, printed below, was published in July of 2012. I’m reprinting it here for those who might want to know more about my spiritual journey. Keep in mind I’m covering about 45 years in these few paragraphs.


“Memphis woman writes about unusual journey from Southern Presbyterian to Eastern Orthodox”

[special to The Commercial Appeal, July 7, 2012]

Covenant Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi, where I was a member from 1960-early 1970s

Covenant Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi, where I was a member from 1960-early 1970s

It is no small thing to leave one’s religious upbringing, especially in the South. But my hunger for something different gradually led me away from the Presbyterian faith of my Mississippi childhood.

As a freshman at Ole Miss, I was drawn to Campus Crusade for Christ. When I returned home to Jackson and got married in 1970, I still didn’t know what to do with my new enthusiasm for God. I felt like a spiritual orphan. I didn’t know where I belonged. I wanted a richer experience of worship and sacramental living.

A group of fellow spiritual expats began gathering in the living room of our apartment. I was a sophomore at Belhaven College, and my husband was a freshman in medical school. We began studying church history, especially the decades prior to the Great Schism (1054). We learned about the Ecumenical Councils, the use of icons, the early liturgy of Saint Justin Martyr, and Saint Ignatius, first bishop of Antioch (consecrated in 69 A.D.).

Eventually, our spiritual search led both my husband and me to the Antiochian Orthodox Church, a branch of the ancient Eastern Orthodox Church. I wrote about our journey in an essay entitled “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” which appears in the new book,” Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality,” just out from the University of Alabama Press.

St. John Orthodox Church, Memphis, where I've been a member since 1988

St. John Orthodox Church, Memphis, where I’ve been a member since 1988

My husband, William “Bill” Cushman, was ordained an Orthodox priest in the late 1980s. We moved to Memphis, and since 1988 we’ve been members of St. John Orthodox Church, where Bill — “Father Basil” — serves as associate pastor. (And yes, he’s also a physician).

As often happens when one converts to a new religion, I exhibited radical lifestyle changes for the first 10 or so years of my new walk with Jesus in this ancient Christian faith.

Visiting an Orthodox monastery in the early 1990s.

One of many pilgrimages to Orthodox monasteries in the 1990s.

Reading mostly monastic literature and emulating the strict ascetic practices found therein, I began wearing a head covering to church, making frequent pilgrimages to monasteries and studying (and eventually teaching) the ancient art of Byzantine iconography.

While all of those practices can certainly be legitimate when done as genuine acts of piety, their presence in my life often reflected a lack of balance. I was rejecting much of what “the world” has to offer in the areas of good secular literature and art. I was trying to find my rhythm in the duality of the spiritual and natural worlds in which I lived.

As the contemporary Russian Orthodox Saint John Maximovitch said: “For all the ‘mysticism’ of our Orthodox Church that is found in the lives of the Saints and the writings of the Holy Fathers, the truly Orthodox person always has both feet on the ground, facing whatever situation is right in front of him.”

By the early 2000s, I began to recover my footing. As I wrote in my essay for “Circling Faith”:

“After about five years of what some of my friends called my ‘nun phase,’ I took off my head covering and embraced my Southern roots. Manicures, makeup and jewelry returned to my arsenal, and my long-neglected hair again got layered haircuts and blond highlights…. I was asked to speak at a women’s retreat hosted by an Orthodox parish in Austin, Texas. I chose as my topic, ‘The Middle Way: Finding Balance in Our Lives.’ “

Part of that balance, for me, meant being honest about what I wanted to do with my art. I wanted to write novels and study abstract painting, but I was afraid these things weren’t acceptable pursuits for a Southern church lady.

I met Cassandra King (Conroy) in 2006. Reading her novel “The Sunday Wife” and her essay “The Making of a Preacher’s Wife,” in the first anthology on Southern women and spirituality, “All Out of Faith,” gave me courage to begin to embrace my true self. Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed, the editors of both collections of essays, included these words on the inside flap of the first book’s cover:

“The South is often considered patriarchal, but as these writers show, Southern culture has always reserved a special place for strong women of passion.”

Signing "Circling Faith" with Wendy Reed, Beth Ann Fennelly and Marilou Awiakta at Burke's Books, July 2012

Signing “Circling Faith” with Wendy Reed, Beth Ann Fennelly and Marilou Awiakta at Burke’s Books, July 2012

Strong women of passion. I knew I had found soul mates in these new friends.

The Orthodox Church is a spiritual hospital offering sacramental mysteries for the healing of our wounds, but it isn’t a panacea for all human ills. I’ve had my share of dark nights of the soul, and there have been times when I’ve wanted to leave. But I’m still here, by God’s grace, holding my own spiritual feet to the fire and learning to embrace what is real for me.

My essay “Chiaroscuro” ends with these words:

“Maybe my brokenness, like the egg yolks that I use to make tempera paint for my icons — themselves a form of life interrupted — is part of my offering to God.”

Writing on Wedneday: Novel Revisions (almost) Finished!



I just (almost) finished another round of revisions on my novel. Yes, just this morning. I’m almost ready to send it back to the agent who asked me to work with an editor on revisions, but first I just sent it to the printer so that I can read the hard copy all the way through one more time before sending it back in. I’ll pick it up and read it this afternoon.

If you haven’t been keeping up with my process, this is the second editor I’ve worked with at the agent’s request. The first one helped me in many ways, but I disagreed with some major direction she was giving me, so I asked the agent if there might be another editor I could work with. To my delight, she sent the manuscript to someone else, and this editor’s overview and specific suggestions have been extremely helpful. You can read more specifics about the process in this post from February if you’re interested:

“(Not) Killing My Darling”

Keep in mind that this is the THIRD editor I’ve worked with. The first was a freelance editor I hired on my own before submitting the manuscript to agents. Although the work has been frustrating at times, I feel that the novel has been through an MFA-level workshop process now.

If you’re a writer, you understand the difficulty of revising a book. And the necessity of having an editor (or two or three) and even some “early readers” to help you. An additional blessing for me is that a friend and mentor offered to read a recent version of the manuscript—along with the eleven pages of feedback from the editor—and help me interpret the editor’s advice. She agreed with the editor on some suggestions that I was struggling with, which helped me bite the bullet and move on those suggestions. Like re-structuring the novel in chronological order, using flash-backs more sparingly. (This was a huge project!)

This morning I put the finishing touches on the novel, including the addition of a few scenes, which was really fun. A writer is so often advised to cut huge parts out of a manuscript, so it was a wonderful surprise to be encouraged to add more sub-plots and develop a few of the minor characters more fully.

As I send the revised manuscript back to the agent (today or tomorrow) I’ll also comment on many of the editor’s suggestions, and explain why I did or did not follow some of them. I can only hope and pray that she likes the new version enough to finally take me on as a client and begin to look for a publishing home for Cherry Bomb. This has been a five-year journey so far, and I’m so ready to move forward with this project. Stay tuned….

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