Celebrate National Library Week with these Words of Advance Praise for FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY

 

Today I’m celebrating National Library Week by sharing advance praise from eleven authors for my short story collection, FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY, coming in August from Koehler Books. I finished drafting the collection about this time last year and did a post about it to celebrate this national day to recognize the importance of libraries. I hope these blurbs will wet your appetite for the book, and at the same time remind you to give some love to your local libraries, join a Friends of the Library group, or start one! I am so grateful to these amazing, busy, successful authors who took time out from working on their own books to read and blurb this book! This year’s theme for National Library Week is “Libraries make Strong Communities.” That’s exactly what this book is about. Can’t wait to share it with you!

Friends of the Library is the book I have long hoped that someone would write—a beautifully wrought hymn of praise to readers and book-lovers in the most sacred of places, the libraries where we find both. Rich in character, keen insight and local color, this heartwarming collection celebrates the surprising power of story to bring us together.—Cassandra King, author of the best-selling novels The Sunday Wife and The Same Sweet Girls and the upcoming memoir Tell Me a Stor

Susan Cushman’s new book Friends of the Library ties the geography of community to the geography of the human heart and adds destiny’s arrow, leading to a renewed romance, a published manuscript, hearts and diseases healed, and a home for the homeless. I loved the sense of community reflected in the stories, the deep love for literature, and the compassion of the characters as they championed all that was good in the world down to the tiniest crumb of kindness. When I finished the book I immediately joined Friends of the Library in my own city.—River Jordan, Clearstory Radio host and author of Praying for Strangers and Confessions of a Christian Mystic (coming in April 2019) 

A love letter to big lives found in small southern towns, Friends of the Library reminds us of the affecting, empowering ways libraries serve as safe havens for the stories and storytellers in our communities. Susan Cushman deftly braids together a tapestry of connected lives on the cusp of discovery and change. . . . May all who enter these pages leave as friends.—Jonathan Haupt, executive director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center and coeditor with Nicole Seitz of Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy

Susan Cushman’s latest book is clever and pioneering. She creates a collection of fiction stories that unmask real-world problems through an author’s visit to Friends of the Library meetings, and then becomes a pivotal force in helping the characters resolve crises—cancer, homelessness, domestic violence, and much more. Another work by Susan Cushman I couldn’t put down.—Niles Reddick, Pulitzer Prize, PEN-Faulkner, and Pushcart Prize nominee

Readers already know Susan Cushman as a talented novelist and nonfiction author.  This time she uses short stories to take us on a fictional tour of Mississippi, giving us a delightful peek inside the “Friends” library groups of ten real cities and towns.  Anyone who knows the South and its quirky residents will love this entertaining and insightful collection of stories.—John Floyd, Edgar Award nominee, three-time Derringer Award winner, and 2018 Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award winner, a lifetime achievement award. 

Susan Cushman has crafted a set of delightful short stories that will make everyone want to be an author visiting Friends of the Library groups like her main character Adele Covington, who finds herself involved in difficult problems in the lives of those coming to hear her talks. Adoption, domestic violence, homelessness, and other hard issues are addressed and resolved as Adele comes to care for those she meets along the way. I hope that as Susan continues to publish, she adds to these stories, creating an ongoing series. Ellen Morris Prewitt—editor of Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness.

Susan Cushman takes us on an emotional journey, down Mississippi’s back roads and up its express lanes, to libraries and the readers who love them, who revel in the camaraderie found in books. This book is a love letter to librarians, readers, and the characters who speak to them. Cushman’s fiction is the catalyst that draws from them their individual, unique, and poignant stories.—Suzanne Hudson, author of All the Way to Memphis (short stories)

Friends of the Library depicts a delightful author as she introduces her novel at library events and then adds more to the equation by illustrating how, when it comes to authors and readers, the gift of the relationship is mutually beneficial.—Claire Fullerton, author of Mourning Dove, Dancing to an Irish Reel and A Portal in Time

Friends of the Library is a love letter to southern readers and writers that also manages to tackle serious social issues. In a world of Twitter and twaddle, Susan Cushman gives us a timely reminder of the simple pleasures of your local library. Find this book and check it out!—Jim Dees, author of The Statue and the Fury, and host of the Thacker Mountain Radio Show

Susan Cushman gives readers the grand tour of Mississippi, introducing us to recognizable characters and covering every topic from alcoholism to faith, domestic violence to Southern cooking. This book could only have been written by someone who loves our great state and who longs to celebrate both the writers and readers who call it home.—Julie Cantrell, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Into the Free

Who says happy endings no longer exist? Susan Cushman’s Friends of the Library doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the world and the missteps we often take on our journeys through it, but redemption is always within reach. These stories provide hope in what can often seem like a hopeless world. Adele Covington, who stands at the center of each story, is an angel, and the people in the small towns of Mississippi won’t soon forget her, nor will those who read this book.—Lee Martin, author of The Mutual UFO Network

Southern Literary Festival—April 11-13, 2019

One week from tomorrow—on April 13, 2019—I’ll be teaching a fiction writing workshop from 10:30-11:45 a.m. as part of the 2019 Southern Literary Festival.We’ll be inside the Rosa Deal School of Arts.

Founded in 1937 (yes!) by representatives from ten southern colleges, the festival rotates around the south, and thankfully for Memphis and the surrounding area, it has landed here this year.

Please spread the word and JOIN US for lots of panels Thursday through Saturday, and for Chris Offut’s keynote on Friday night from 7-9 p.m.

My workshop is for fiction writers (or wanna be writers) of all levels, although I will be covering some fairly basic stuff. It will include a sneak peak at one of the stories in my upcoming short story collection, FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY (coming from Koehler Books in August) and an opportunity to do some “flash fiction” writing.

Hope to see lots of folks from the midsouth and beyond at this wonderful festival, hosted by Christian Brothers University. REGISTER HERE.

Religion AND Spirituality

Last year I had the blessing of reading an advance reader’s copy of my friend River Jordan’s new book, Confessions of a Christian Mystic, which will be released on April 2. I knew it was something special, and I can’t wait for it to make its appearance! (Here’s a wonderful review of Confessions of a Christian Mystic by Tina Chambers

Over at Chapter 16: “Until the World is Full”. )

But today I want to talk about something that River said in this wonderful conversation she had with Silas House which was just published by Parnassus Books on their site, Musing:

The Holy Ground of Story: A Conversation Between Silas House and River Jordan

The whole conversation is wonderful—I especially like what she says about art and music not having to be “religious” to be part of what she calls “the holy ground of story”—but what I want to focus on today is this:

House asks,

“In the book you talk about how the word “Christian” is so loaded these days. . . . What do you say to the people who might hesitate reaching for this book because of that word in the title?”

I was on the edge of my seat to read River’s response to this, because I often post things in my blog or on social media that might be considered “loaded” in that they are unapologetically filled with not only spiritual terminology, but also words that are strongly religious, and specifically Christian. And in a more specific “subset,” Orthodox Christian. So here’s what River said in answer to House’s question:

I hope people will at least pick it up to peruse, discover it is a fusion of faith and fiction and essay and fall in love with the strange little genre-buster that it is.”

That’s what I hoped from the beginning for my novel Cherry Bomb. It’s not a genre-buster like Confessions—it’s a straight-up southern literary novel. But it’s infused with a (strange?) mix of sexual abuse, a religious cult, graffiti, Orthodox Christianity, abstract expressionist art, and weeping icons. I hoped (and still hope) for a readership beyond those who typically read Christian fiction, which Cherry Bomb is not. River addresses some of these same issues as she continues to answer House’s question:

“In the bigger picture, it occurs to me that many of us are not talking about our faith very much. We’re talking about great stories and music, fiction and movies, and where the greatest new Thai restaurant is; but apparently the conversation that features the Christian faith as we know it to be true is not part of our cultural mainstream. If it were, we wouldn’t cringe at the word or have need to defend it.”

Our “cultural mainstream” embraces the word “spiritual” with open arms—arms open wide enough to let in a wide diversity of beliefs, Christian or otherwise. But the word “religious” which seems to invoke a smaller and often maligned following, calls up a more legalistic image. What do you think of when you hear the word “religious”? What do you mean when you say or write it?

In this article from the Huffington Post a few years ago, Shahram Shiva—a longtime Rumi expert—defines a “religious” person in a fairly traditional manner, basically as one who follows the traditions of an established religion—Christian or otherwise. But then he limits his definition of a “spiritual” person to exclude people who are religious, offering this simple “test” to determine which camp we fall into:

It’s very easy to discover if you are religious or spiritual.
1. Do you worship any type of a deity or a God or a sect leader? This includes popular yoga gods such as Ganesh or Rama and so called gurus or masters. Then you are religious.

2. Do you believe in the power of your own self and that you are in charge of your destiny? In this case you are spiritual.

Shiva’s definition of a spiritual person excludes Christians, or others who worship any type of deity. And yet for centuries the Orthodox Christian Church—the faith that I follow—has held up their theologians as being “spiritual.”

The Greek Orthodox theologian Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, writes about these terms in “The Difference Between Orthodox Spirituality and Other Traditions”:

“Orthodox spirituality differs distinctly from any other “spirituality” of an eastern or western type. There can be no confusion among the various spiritualities, because Orthodox spirituality is God-centered, whereas all others are man-centered.”

Shiva would agree with Vlachos, since he says that a spiritual person believes in “the power of your own self.”

I wonder what Shiva thinks about the thousands of Orthodox Christians who follow the teachings of their Church on Orthodox spirituality? I love this article, “Orthodox Spirituality,” which appears on the website of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Here’s a short quote:

“Spirituality in the Orthodox Church means the everyday activity of life in communion with God. The term spirituality refers not merely to the activity of man’s spirit alone, his mind, heart and soul, but it refers as well to the whole of man’s life as inspired and guided by the Spirit of God.”

During Great Lent Christians focus on having our lives “inspired and guided by the Spirit of God” in a more dynamic way. It’s not that we only want to live this way for 40 days before Pascha (Easter) every spring. But sometimes during the other 325 days we lose a bit of steam and need our engines fired back up. I want to live a more “spiritual” life every day, but of course I fall short of my goals and repent and receive forgiveness and grace over and over. And all of this takes place within the walls–physical and spiritual—of my Church, and the religion it represents.

You can see River’s calendar of events on her tour for Confessions here, starting with her launch at Parnassus in Nashville on March 29. I’m excited that she will be here in Memphis on April 25, at Novel Books. Can’t wait to visit with her about all things mystical, spiritual, artistic, and yes, religious.

Only In a Mississippi Book Club . . .

with Karen Hatch, who invited me to her book club

So this happened. In August of 2017 I met Karen Hatch at the Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson, Mississippi. It was Karen’s first time at the Festival, and she found my novel CHERRY BOMB and asked me to sign it for her. I was in the authors’ signing tent at the same time that Angie Thomas was signing her book THE HATE YOU GIVE. The line to Angie’s table wrapped around the tent and through the grass. There was no line at my table. I was thrilled to meet Karen and sign my book for her.

Fast-forward to March of 2019. Turns out Karen is the librarian at Southaven High School, and she’s in a book club with a bunch of women who teach school, work in libraries, or serve as principals in the Desoto County Schools of North Mississippi. She recommended CHERRY BOMB to her book club and they invited me to come and speak to them at their March meeting, this past Tuesday night.

 

I was actually a little nervous driving thirty miles down to Hernando, Mississippi on Tuesday night. Not because I was driving alone into a rural area, but because Karen had told me so many of her book club members were in education. I was feeling a little intimidated before I even arrived. When I pulled up to this lovely home on what looked like several acres of land, I took a deep breath and walked towards the front door. Before I could even ring the bell, the hostess, Emily Ballard, opened the door and welcomed me. Karen was right beside her.

As I stepped inside Emily’s home—ten or fifteen minutes earlier than the meeting was to begin—and looked to my left into her living room, there was a circle of over a dozen women, already seated (most with a glass of wine in their hands) waiting for me! “Oh, dear, am I late?” I asked, feeling a bit flustered.

“Oh, no,” Karen answered. “I just asked everyone to come early so we’d be ready for you when you arrived.”

I felt like a rock star, which is how these women treated me during the next couple of hours. They went on and on about how honored they were to have the author in their midst. You’d think that would have reassured me, but I was even more nervous, feeling that they had me on a pedestal I didn’t deserve. I asked if everyone would introduce themselves and tell me what they did, and indeed, almost everyone of them worked at a school in one capacity or another.

After everyone had a plate of (delicious southern) finger food and were once again seated in a circle, the discussion began. I asked what books they had read and loved, and I recommended a few for their upcoming meetings. And then we started talking about CHERRY BOMB. It was humbling to hear how much they liked the book, and I relaxed into their questions about my own life and how my experiences fueled the story line of the novel. Their questions about the structure, characters, and plot were, of course, educated, and I began to relax a bit. That’s when this happened.

With Mary Heather Gibbs

Someone said, “Mary Heather, tell Susan what happened to you when you first started reading Cherry Bomb.” There were giggles all around the room and all eyes were on Mary Heather, a pretty and energetic brunette.

“Are y’all sure it’s okay to tell her?” Mary Heather asked.

“Sure!” a chorus of voices replied. And so she began.

“Well, when Karen sent out a link to the book, I immediately ordered it on Audible so I could listen to it while working out at the gym. Once I got on the treadmill, put my earplugs in and started listening, I was a bit shocked at what I heard. I looked around the gym to see if anyone could hear the words I was hearing through my ear buds.”

the OTHER Cherry Bomb!

Mary Heather paused for a minute, looked around at several women in the room with an expression that begged for support. Then she continued.

“I heard what sounded like a women with a husky voice that said something like—is it okay for me to say this?”

Women around the room nodded and said yes. Mary Heather took a deep breath and said,

“The voice said, ‘Chapter One: Pussy Trouble’.”

The whole room of (conservative southern schoolmarms) about fell out of their chairs laughing, as did I. Karen had accidentally sent a link to the wrong Cherry Bomb out to the book club members. The one that Mary Heather had begun listening to, by author Kathleen Tierney, is book 3 in a series of lesbian vampire erotica. Yep. The first two paragraphs alone feature a cult of Cthulhu-workshipping alligator women in post-Katrina New Orleans, demon whoremongers from an alternate reality, and a magical dildo carved out of a unicorn’s horn. Yes. I was over being nervous at this point in the evening, and I told those lovely bookclub ladies that I was going to write a blog post about this!

After the discussion was over, my rock-star status was confirmed as most of the women asked me to sign their book and pose for pictures with them. The hostess asked her daughter to take a group photo. By the next morning I was Facebook friends with several of these delightful women and we were sharing pictures and comments. I have to say the whole event made me proud to be from Mississippi. And don’t ever believe someone when they say, “What happens in book club stays in book club.” It might end up on someone’s blog . . . .

Q & A With Author PAULA McLAIN (yes!)

Three years ago I was reading Circling the Sun, and did a blog post about the use of facts vs. fiction in historical fiction:

Circling the Roman à Clef

Since then I’ve continued to be a huge fan of Paula McLain, having read three of her novels (and with plans to read Ticket to Ride) most recently Love and Ruin, the story of Martha Gelhorn and her tumultuous relationship with Ernest Hemingway. Since my husband and I will be visiting Key West for the first time in April, I’ve been especially interested in all things Hemingway. I loved Paula’s book, The Paris Wife, and also books by other authors about Hemingway’s relationships, like Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck. But today’s post is all about Paula McLain. The author. The woman.

I met Paula in January at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas. I was moderating a panel and she was a keynote speaker. I was a bit star-struck when we first met, but as the weekend progressed, she disarmed

With Paula at the Pulpwood Queens’ Girlfriend Weekend in January. Theme was “How the West was Won.”

me with her approachability. There was something about her—something magnetic—that I couldn’t put my finger on.

In one conversation I had with Paula and with my dear friend and author Nicole Seitz, we were talking about what’s next in our writing projects. Or maybe I was babbling on about how I couldn’t settle on a subject for my next novel. When I mentioned the months I spent alone writing at the beach a few years ago—my first time to be away from my husband of now almost 50 years—Nicole and Paula looked at each other and then at me and said, “That’s your book!” I came home from the weekend and started the novel. So thank you, Paula and Nicole, for your encouragement.

As I was starting the novel, I kept thinking about Paula, and what it was about her personality that drew me so strongly. I Googled her and found that in addition to her historic fiction novels I love so much, she had also written a memoir, Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses. I bought the book and read it immediately. My love and admiration for Paula grew as her story unfolded on the pages in front of me. Her hard-scrabble childhood reminded me of Mary Karr’s life and writing (especially her early works, like The Liar’s Club and Cherry) with a dose of Haven Kimmel (A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch) and more recently some Tara Westover (Educated).

So I asked Paula if she would do a Q & A with me for my blog, and I was thrilled when she agreed. He we go:

Susan: First of all, Paula, I am blown away by your literary talent. Your elevated prose, your strong sense of place and your multi-layered characters—both in your historical novels and in this memoir—are outstanding. How much of your style and voice as a writer to you contribute to your personal history, which you share in your memoir, and to your education—especially your MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan? I can hear your poet’s voice in your prose.

Paula: That’s so kind of you, Susan. And thank you for invitation to have this conversation. Language has always been important to me. I love the power of a sentence or a passage to touch us, move us, make us think and feel and imagine. My childhood in foster care was incredibly chaotic, and concentrating at school was difficult. But I read my way through a lot of that turmoil and displacement, finding whole worlds at my fingertips. I didn’t know then that I was training to be a writer as well as “escaping” into books, but I’m quite sure of it now.

My creative writing degree is in poetry, yes, and that was my start as a writer. Recently a reader asked me if I still wrote poetry. I smiled and said yes, but that I was currently doing it as a novelist!

Susan: I have three adopted (now grown) children, two of whom were in orphanages until they were almost three years old. So I understand some of the wounds of a childhood apart from one’s birth parents, as my own children experience those wounds. Did writing and publishing Like Family help heal those wounds for you? And if so, how?

Paula: I admire you for having the courage, wherewithal and compassion to adopt children from an institutional setting, knowing they’d have significant baggage. Though I also believe that anyone who’s lived through foster care or adoption has wounds, large or small, fluid or permanent, but there. Writing Like Family was cathartic in a way, though instead of helping me “move past” those years and traumatic experiences, it brought them closer. Integrated them more fully into my story. That was a powerful outcome, and I didn’t expect or predict that. I began to own it. My life.

Susan: I was abused by my grandfather in my early childhood, and others in my young adulthood. But when I wrote a memoir about it, I couldn’t get up and above the trauma and make it art, which is what writing, what a book, should ultimately be. So I let the abuse fuel my novel Cherry Bomb, which was extremely cathartic. Did you ever consider writing your story as fiction, or did you determine to write it as memoir from the beginning? What was that process like?

Paula: I’m very sorry to know about your childhood trauma, Susan. How difficult that must have been for you. It’s funny, but no. I never did think of giving myself some remove and writing it as fiction. Perhaps it’s because memoir was very much in style when I began my book in the late 1990’s. Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr helped elevate the genre, and they inspired me to try to make beautiful sentences and scenes as I told my story. I plunged into the craft of it, and gave the book everything I had. Interestingly, I was so focused on the scenes, pages and images—the art—that it took me aback when I went on book tour and every question was about the abuse I’d suffered, not what it took to write the memoir.

Susan: You published Like Family in 2003, six years before your first novel, A Ticket to Ride, and a decade before your three historic novels came out. What fueled your move from memoir to fiction, and how, if at all, did writing the memoir embolden you to write your novels?

Paula: I’d always secretly wanted to write a novel though I was terrified to begin. The memoir helped me cut my teeth on structure and dialogue, scene work and character development. But it didn’t at all prepare me for plot! That was a rude awakening, but ultimately a very rewarding one.

Susan: Have you read Kim Michelle Richardson’s memoir The Unbreakable Child? She and her sister lived in a Catholic orphanage in Kentucky where they were abused. It was interesting to me how differently Kim and her sister dealt with the trauma. How did your sisters feel about the book?

Paula: I haven’t read The Unbreakable Child, but it sounds fascinating. My sisters were extremely supportive of my writing the book, though they never would have chosen to have their lives revealed in such a way. They’re both private people, and not all that interested in unpacking the past. And yet they understood my need. I’m so grateful to have them in my corner. They mean the world to me.

I’m so grateful to Paul for taking the time to share these thoughts—both personal and professional—and to give us more insight into the life of such a gifted writer and courageous person. Now you’ve all got more books to add to your “to read” list!

Still Blooming . . . .

I’m still processing what happened at last weekend’s “A Second Blooming Retreat,” at the lovely Homestead Education Center in Starkville, Mississippi. After writing about Nina Gaby’s wonderful workshop during the retreat—and my discovery of my spirit animal—in my last post, and also about the drum circle led by Jeri Mangum, I’d like to share a bit about the rest of the retreat.

Ellen, Kathy, Jennifer, Susan and Nina, retreat leaders

About twenty women from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Vermont (yes, Nina flew down to lead a workshop for the retreat) gathered in jeans and yoga pants, most not worrying about makeup and jewelry, for a weekend of inspiration and growth. And delicious food prepared by an excellent cook who used locally sourced organic produce for our meals. We sat around a large, comfortable living area with several couches and chairs, overlooking a lake, some woods, and a few pens full of chickens.

My “keynote” talk on Friday night would serve as an introduction to the weekend and would hopefully set the stage for all the creative magic that would follow. I had never given such an extensive talk about the anthology I edited, the one that that retreat was inspired by—A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. As I developed notes for my talk, I created a little booklet to hand out for the women to use. You can see it here: ASB Retreat Workbook I had an hour and a half to talk, and I certainly didn’t want these women to have to sit and listen to me talk for that long, so I injected some interactive elements into my talk. At one point each woman was asked to write a “word portrait” of themselves—describing their physical, emotional, mental, and intellectual selves. This idea wasn’t original with me. It came from Sally Palmer Thomason’s wonderful book The Living Spirit of the Crone: Turning Aging Inside Out. (Sally also has an essay in A Second Blooming, and was a big part of the inspiration for the book.)

Much of my talk was an expansion of the Introduction I wrote for the anthology, which included lots of quotes from others who inspired—and continue to inspire—me on this journey. People like Richard Rohr, and Anne Lamott. I also read excerpts from essays in the book by a few women who weren’t on the panel of workshop leaders at the retreat, like Emma Connolly, Suzanne Henley, and Cassandra King.

Later in the talk each of us filled two containers with descriptions of things we had put into our “old containers” (ourselves) the first half of our lives—some helpful, others not so helpful—and then the things we want to put into our “new container.” The idea for the containers came from Richard Rohr, especially this quote:

“Life is much more spacious now the boundaries of the container having been enlarged by the constant addition of new experiences and relationships. You are like an expandable suitcase, and you become so almost without your noticing. Now you are just here, and here holds more than enough.”

His “expandable suitcase” analogy reminded me of the scriptural metaphor of the “new wineskins,” and I talked about how we needed to either expand our old wineskins (containers we had built for our lives) or get new ones, as Cassandra King wrote about in her essay for the anthology, “Something Has to Die.”

I even shared my containers so that the women would perhaps feel more emboldened to be candid in their entries. (See image.) After both of these activities there was time for others to share if they wanted to, and I was so moved and encouraged by the candor and courage of these lovely women.

The next morning Ellen Morris Prewitt led a wonderful workshop about “Creating In Groups.” Our hands-on activity was making a small book, which we sewed together and decorated with glitter paint, and in which we wrote our ideas based on Ellen’s talk about the importance of guidance, quiet, and sharing.

 

And then we did an exercise in which we wrote a spontaneous piece about one of three prompts:

My best surprise

Something I’ve grown

My favorite delicate thing.

I chose “Something I’ve Grown,” which inspired the title on the cover of my little hand-made book, “Roots, Leaves & Blooms: How I Grew a Marriage.”

Nina Gaby led the next workshop, “Little Altars Everywhere,” which I wrote about in my last post.

Jennifer Horne (who happends to be the current Poet Laureate of Alabama) led our evening session, “How Our Stories Shape Us.” She led us in several exercises in journaling, which she said is wonderful for those who want “self-directed healing and growth.” Some of the prompts we wrote from were:

“Change came when . . . .”

“I’m feel . . .”

“I’m like a seed because . . .”

After some excellent and candid group discussions about these things in our lives, she had us “flip the story,” (a phrase that Alison Buehler, our retreat hostess, came up with on the spot!) and write:

“I used to . . . but now . . . .”

I’m still thinking of ways to “flip my story,” and I think that will stick with me for a long time.

On Sunday Morning Kathy Rhodes led us through the final workshop of the weekend, “Pushing Up the Sun,” which was the title of her essay in the anthology. Kathy lost her husband suddenly a number of years ago, and writes powerfully about grief and healing. As it turned out (of course) there were several other women at the retreat who also lost their husbands—several of them in the same year, 2012—and they all had powerful things to share as well. I think they would all agree that at first they felt like Kathy, who wrote in her essay:

“I didn’t want to start over. I was not in the building phase of life. In my fifties, I should be basking in the easy warmth of love, on the cusp of twilight years with my mate.”

But she did start over—selling the business she owned with her husband and starting a new one. Building a new home, and eventually getting a new pet. She continues to bloom, and her experience and wisdom brought enlightenment to all of us at the retreat that Sunday morning.

I found myself wishing that Michelle Obama could have been there with us, as I shared this excerpt (and a longer one, actually) from her wonderful memoir, Becoming:

“Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done . . . . It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others.”

That’s exactly what I believe happened at the Second Blooming retreat, and I’m so grateful to Alison for organizing the retreat and hosting us, to the four gifted authors who came and led the workshops, and to the amazing women who came and shared their stories with all of us.

Here are what a few of the retreat-goers and leaders had to say about the weekend:

I was hooked when I arrived at The Homestead Education Center and saw the goats and the lake and the chickens! I was met at the door by Kathie, a most beautiful and sweet and welcoming woman, and then one by one, I met the others…strong women in their roles and struggles and wisdom and power and all looking to become and to bloom. I presented, but I also participated in creative and interactive workshops by Ellen, Nina, and Jennifer. I made a reliquary that held seashells reminiscent of the ebb and flow of life, titled a book about self “Waterfalls of White,” saw how stories shape us, shared my own journaling experience, participated in a drum circle for the first time ever, and was challenged: DO EPIC SHIT! I went to talk, but I went home thinking all the way on the five-hour drive, “I’m not where I’m supposed to be.” I feel lifted up ten feet taller now. It’s almost spring; it’s time to bloom!—Kathy Rhodes, Spring Hill, Tennessee, author of Remember the Dragonflies, and an essay in A Second Blooming: “Pushing Up the Sun.”

Susan Cushman conjured up 22 writers who shared savory stories in the book A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. From that book the workshop birthed by Allison Buehler was hosted at an oasis in the Starkville woods complete with chickens, goats, and a cray cray red cardinal in a holly bush that hurled himself against a picture window wanting to join our group. Susan encouraged us to not put new wine in old skins. Ellen Prewitt told us to put the date on anything so we can remember when present was.   Jennifer Horne showed up how to see, record, and respond to life experiences. Flip that thing like a Patty Duke hairstyle. The elfin Nina Gaby offered us sacred crafts to inspire us when we find ourselves stuck. Kathy Rhodes reminded us that loss can be the seed growing in shit that blooms into something wonderful.   We had chair yoga, healthy meals, and incredible sharing from a collage of wonderful women. And when all the women were drummers, we were there, playing musical chairs with percussion instruments brought by Jeri Mangum. I am at my computer today roaming around past writing efforts. Inspired to keep it going. Thank you, ladies, for the gift of gathering with you!—Susan Hogan Schepens, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

When asked to write an essay for Susan Cushman’s anthology A Second Blooming: Becoming The Women We Are Meant to Be, I had just gone through a second blooming that was, for me, of epic proportions. I felt that I was an expert on the subject. But when I got the finished product and read the other essays, I realized that we all have second bloomings in our lives. Many women go on to bloom over and over again, reinventing themselves and experiencing life to the fullest. Some of the essays resonated with me deep in my soul, and when I saw that Susan was planning a retreat based on Second Bloomings, and the authors that wrote some of the the very essays that were especially powerful to me were going to be presenting, I believe I may have been the first to register for the event. I did it without thought or hesitation. I knew I wanted to be sequestered at the Homestead Education Center for a weekend with those women. I knew I could learn from them and gain insight from them, and I did. I also got more than I bargained for in almost instant friendships. Honestly, I had not factored in the other women who would be attending. They were each powerful in their own way, overcoming hardships and heartbreak, some even in the midst of their struggle. The level of trust and confidence each woman had in the group was so special. I loved the group of women from Starkville and the group from Hattiesburg. Each of those groups have such a strong bond and support and love one another. They opened their arms to all who came on their own, independent of a group. I have been to many retreats over the years, but this one was especially special. There was a sort of magic there that only happens when good things converge. There were plenty of good things over the weekend that soothed my soul, gave me clarity and direction and warmed my heart. I left with great memories and new friends. I’m grateful I had that knee-jerk reaction to register when I first read about the retreat. I’ve learned to trust my gut and do it! Thank you to all who presented such a meaningful and memorable weekend. I love you all. Now go out and bang your own drum!—Susan Marquez, Madison, Mississippi, whose essay, “A Second Chance at Empty-Nesting,” appeared in A Second Blooming

I’ll close with a link to Nina Gaby’s blog post about the retreat, which is wonderful!

“Not Bad For a Yankee.”

And also Ellen Morris Prewitt’s blog post, which is also wonderful!

“I Second a Blooming.”

Several women have asked if there will be another “Blooming” retreat. The fact that they are asking speaks volumes, and all I can see is, “We’ll see!”

My Spirit Animal: The Cat (and Drum Circles)

This past weekend I was a speaker at an amazing women’s retreat in Starkville, Mississippi. The retreat was organized by Alison Buehler, director of The Homestead Education Center. I’ll do a post soon with more about the retreat workshops, led by four contributors to the anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. For today, I want to share something that came to me during the retreat that was a bit inspirational and also a lot of fun.

We were making “nichos”—little jars filled with items that have special meaning to us in some aspect of our personal growth—during the workshop led by Nina Gaby on Saturday. Nina is a psychiatric nurse practitioner, a writer, and an artist. When Nina talked with us about her art, and also about making our nichos, she said:

We are all artists. The creativity within each of us gets us through the dark times.

Me and Oreo, a few days before she died.

I had chosen to take with me a small (3-inches tall) sculpture of a cat by Susan Lordi (Willow Tree) called “Love My Cat.” I had a cat named Oreo who lived 21 years. She brought me much comfort and joy, and now I collect figures of cats from all over the world when I travel.

I also chose to take with me for my nicho tiny prints of the covers of all four of my books, some small sea shells (because the beach is my favorite place on earth and the place where much of my creativity and growth have happened), and even tiny prints of my husband and one of me that represents my spirituality and my shadow, because I’m wearing sunglasses and a black leather jacket, and I’m kissing a large pectoral cross that belongs to my husband, who is an Orthodox priest. And one tiny print of the weeping icon of St. Mary of Egypt (my patron saint) which is on the back cover of my novel, Cherry Bomb. It was so much fun filling the jar with several of these items and gluing the others to the outside, finishing it off with some shiny silver ribbon with stars on it, to remind me always to shine.

For some reason, during the retreat, I came across this web site that’s all about spirit animals, so I looked up the cat, and this is part of what I read:

Those who have the cat as spirit animal may be encouraged to develop balance between independence and time of togetherness. Harmonious relationships between light and dark, action and observation are also attributes of cat spirit.

Cats (and two peacocks) in our foyer

This was so point on, as I struggle sometimes with loneliness, although I treasure the time I am able (and must have) to spend alone as a writer. But I also treasure my friends and times I’m able to spend with them. The words about light and dark, action and observation also spoke strongly to me. As did these words from the same site:

The cat carries many meanings revolving around the balance between seemingly opposites, such as inner and outer, action and rest, light and dark. It’s strongly symbolic of the connection with what usually hides in darkness or the unknown. The cat generally represents:

  • Patience, waiting for the right moment to act

  • Independence, yet enjoying social connections

  • Spirit of adventure, courage

  • Deep, relaxed connection with self

  • Healing from the inside out

  • Curiosity, exploration of the unknown or the unconscious

And these words, which intrigue, invite, and encourage me:

If the cat shows up in your life as a spirit guide or you have this animal as totem, you may be inclined to start exploring areas in your life or aspects or yourself that you do not know well yet.

Jeri leading drum circle (me learning)

Maybe some of that exploration came at the end of the weekend, when I participated in my first ever drum circle, led by Jeri Vanwinkle Mangum, a native of Oklahoma now living in Starkville. Jeri brought many drums with her, from numerous countries and cultures, and we took turns—moving to a different place in the circle after each song—so that we could experience more than one instrument. Since I was new to this, I read a bit about it first, and found this article helpful: “The Unwritten Rules of Drum Circle Etiquette.”

Twenty or so of us women who has spent the weekend sharing many personal things about ourselves and growing together sat in a large circle learning to beat out rhythms on many styles of drums as we chanted together. It was at times joyful and uplifting, and at times very somber. I ooked around the room at the faces of these wonderful women—many of whom had experienced much trauma in their lives—and I let each of their stories fill my heart and find their way to my hands as they played the drums.

(The sign at right was on the wall in the living room at the Homestead Center. I loved it and had to share it!)

Thanks always, for reading, and come back in a few days to read what several women have to say about their experience at the retreat.

 

Tiaras, Leopard-Prints, and Literacy. Yes.

Pulpwood Queens Book Club of Jackson, Mississippi

Remember that time you were reading a book and thought, “Wow, that character is just like my mother!”

Or maybe, “I understand exactly how that character feels.”

And especially, “I feel like the author has been eavesdropping on my life!”

At those times you—the reader—are experiencing something every author hopes for: universal appeal. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the book will appeal to everyone, but that it will have a large reach in the book’s target audience, and that many of its readers will relate on a very deep and personal level to the author’s words. If the book is fiction, and if the author has done her job well, you will care deeply about the characters, whether you love them or loathe them.

This actually happens to me more often when I read nonfiction. So far all six of the books I’ve read in 2019 have been nonfiction. Four are memoirs. I’m not sure where that trend is coming from, since I read 24 novels and only 19 nonfiction books in 2018. There’s a saying among writers: “Write what you know.” I wonder if there’s a parallel saying among readers: “Read what you know.” Take me, as a reader, for example—here’s what I know:

I know I was molested by my grandfather when I was a little girl and by others in my early 20s.

I know I have struggled with eating disorders my entire life.

I know that my mother was verbally and emotionally abusive to me.

I know that my mother and my grandmother died from Alzheimer’s disease.

I know I struggled with alcohol for years and I quit drinking in September of 2017.

And then there are the things I believe:

I believe in a triune God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I believe in salvation by grace.

I believe in the sacraments of the Orthodox Church.

I believe in miracles.

I believe that icons can be sacred art and can also work miracles.

I believe that God forgives all sins, and that if I forgive myself and others, I will live a more peaceful life.

I believe that God loves me (most of the time, although I struggle with this one) and that accepting His love will help me love others.

So, when I choose to read spiritual or religious books—books about the lives of the saints, or theology, or church history, for example—I bring those beliefs to the materials I am reading. My response to those books is very much affected by my beliefs.

When I choose to read self-help, psychology, or memoirs about abuse, addiction, and healing, I bring my self-knowledge and my beliefs with me as I explore those books.

All of these thoughts are in my head as I reflect on the book I just finished reading—my 6th nonfiction book of 2019—Kathy L. Murphy’s book, The Pulpwood Queens’ Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life. This book was first published in 2008, but Kathy re-issued it in 2018, publishing it herself this time. I have to agree with Pat Conroy’s blurb from the first edition:

“Kathy L. Murphy is a natural born storyteller and the best friend a writer and a reader could have.”

For those of my readers who don’t know who Kathy is, she is the founder and director of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs, which boasts over 700 clubs all over the US and in 15 foreign countries. As you can read in this article from Parade Magazine, Kathy is also an artist, and possibly the greatest supporter of the literary arts and literacy around. (Read more about that here in this piece from The Faulkner Society.)

I’ve been to Kathy’s annual book conference in east Texas three times: first in 2010, when I went as a guest of my author friend River Jordan; and then in 2018 and 2019 when I was on panels for several of my books that had been chosen by Kathy as official selections for her Pulpwood Queens book clubs. And now I have the honor of working with Kathy as editor of a new anthology, The Pulpwood Queens Celebrate 20 Years! Coming out later this year from Brother Mockingbird Publishing. As I read the essays that I’m receiving from the authors and book club members and others who are contributing to the book, I am seeing the world of this amazing woman through the eyes of many writers and readers whose lives have been touched by her. And so I finally got around to reading Kathy’s book.

And yes—her mother reminded me so much of mine! And although many things about our childhoods were very different, there were also many commonalities. But it’s Kathy’s energy and perseverance that impress me the most. And her JOY for life and LOVE for people . . . and for books! Read about how she started the first combination beauty parlor/book store—Beauty and the Book—and then how she started the Pulpwood Queens book clubs. Learn about her relationships with so many amazing authors—some more famous than others—and how she brings us all together through stories. Through books.

One thing I loved about the book was how she listed a group of her favorite books at the end of each chapter—books that were related somehow to the theme of the chapter. She even encourages her readers to make lists like this, to explore which books have been instrumental in our lives at various times. (I haven’t done this yet, but I plan to.)

My favorite story in the book is about Kathy’s experience as a publisher’s representative reading early manuscripts by Rebecca Wells. When her books, Little Altars Everywhere and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood—two of my all-time favorite books—went out of print, Kathy pushed for a sales rep to get them back in print, and she did. Later, when the books were made into a movie, the director called Kathy from Los Angeles and invited her to the premiere. Kathy immediately asked, “Can I bring the Pulpwood Queens?” Fifteen members of the Pulpwood Queens of East Texas joined Kathy at that screening of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood in Metairie Louisiana, dressed in “pearls, pumps, and tiaras.”

What more can I say? If you love books, book clubs, and stories about women with a passion for life, you’ll enjoy this. I’ll close with these words from another favorite author and friend, Cassandra King:

“Reading this book is like sitting down with a best girlfriend who loves books but also loves telling a good yarn. This is a book you’ll want to share.”

Part of the Symphony

Joanna Siebert’s wonderful “Daily Somethings” always brighten my day. Today’s post reminded me that as a writer, I’m part of a symphony of writers who are making music on the page to fill the universe with beauty. Sometimes an author gets to have a solo, like the cellist in Joanna’s story, if her book becomes a best-seller or wins an award. But it’s important to remember, whether we are writers, artists, musicians, or whatever our work, we are all part of the symphony. Or, as Madeleine L’Engle said, “We all feed the lake.” Enjoy Joanna’s words, and subscribe to her blog if you want to receive her Daily Somethings.

 

Read the post here:

Part of the Symphony.

 

Joanna Seibert

 

 

Exciting News: My Second Book Deal of 2019!

Well, in my late-life literary career, it seems that good news keeps coming in multiples, or at least in pairs. In 2016 I signed 3 book contracts, and all 3 were published in 2017. In 2018 my fourth book was published. As I faced 2019, I wondered what I was going to do for excitement. Just as I was getting my butt securely glued to my chair and started writing another novel, I was saved. First by a phone call from Kathy Murphy, asking me to edit an anthology to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Pulpwood Queens next year. We signed a contract with Brother Mockingbird Publishers and hope to see the book in print by the end of 2019. Yay! I had a project! I immediately set about with the fun and busy work of editing and organizing another anthology.

So, why was I still restless? I was remembering what happened one year ago, when I returned from the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend with an idea for another book. I sat down and wrote ten short stories—in about three months—and had more fun than I can ever remember having while writing. Friends of the Library was inspired by my visits to speak at libraries in small towns in Mississippi in 2017 and 2018. I filled each story with a genre-bending combination of historical facts about the town itself—and even some of its famous residents—and a cast of completely fictional characters.

I had been waiting to hear back from a publisher who had the manuscript since last August. When I finally contacted him, again, pushing for a definitive answer, he bowed out, saying something about the press “not having an imprint in place for that kind of book.” I’m not sure what that means, but I didn’t waste any time after hearing that news. (And I tried not to waste any energy wondering why he didn’t tell me that six months ago.) I immediately queried another press—one that was recommended to me by two authors I love and respect. I sent the manuscript off, and the next day I heard from them. They LOVED the book! So this past week, I signed my second book contract this year (and this month), this time with Koehler Books in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I’m so excited, especially since the press will turn this book around by August, making it my 5th published book (and moving The Pulpwood Queens anthology into position as book number 6). Six books in three years. To say I’m over the moon with happiness isn’t an overstatement. Maybe I’m making up for lost time, since I didn’t get started with this career until I was in my sixties.

Want to know more about Friends of the Library? Here’s a draft of the text I wrote for the back cover of the book:

Adele Covington becomes an author in her sixties. When her novel and memoir are published, she goes on a book tour to speak to the Friends of the Library groups in ten small towns in her home state of Mississippi. Chasing her personal demons through the Christ-haunted south of her childhood, Adele befriends an eclectic group of wounded people. The cast of characters in Friends of the Library could have stepped off the pages of a book of Welty stories.

As she visits towns like Eudora, Aberdeen, Oxford, Senatobia, and Southaven, she meets a homeless man and a recovered alcoholic; a budding artist with an abusive husband; a part-time librarian who is writing a dystopian fantasy novel that explores his own ache for the birth mother he never knew; a bi-racial couple caring for their spouses who have Alzheimer’s; and a seven-year-old girl with a rare form of cancer.

On her visits to Starkville, West Point, Pontotoc, Vicksburg, and Meridian, Adele encounters a woman suffering from childhood sexual abuse and years of eating disorders; a young girl who was a victim of a kidnapping; a seventy-something widower with memories of his former life as a musician; an aging beauty queen and former Miss Mississippi contestant; and a descendent from a Romani tribe who was abandoned as a child. “Gypsies, Orphans, and Ghosts” takes us to a historic graveyard where the gypsy queen—and Adele’s grandparents— are buried.

If these stories sound too dark, don’t worry, there are elements of hope and healing in each of them, even a miracle-working icon, some Mississippi blues and southern rock and roll, and a bit of late-life romance.

And what about Koehler Books? Check out their fun “Cover Polls,” where readers can choose between the final two cover designs for upcoming books! I’m already working with the press on ideas for the cover for Friends, and will let y’all know when the final two designs are up for voting.

And check out their published books, including my friend Jana Sasser’s wonderful debut southern noir novel, Gradle Bird. I met Jana at the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend (notice a pattern here?) and she has a real gift for literary prose. (That’s us, at right.)

As I was sharing all this news with my two best friends on a text message, one of them replied, “We like it when you are ‘not bored’.” These women know me, and how easily I can slip into a dark place when I don’t have a creative project in hand. Now with two, I’m just hoping I won’t go crazy as edits and deadlines and marketing work for both books come criss-crossing on my computer. If you hear me complain, please remind me that I asked for this. Thank you, God.

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