Writing on Wednesdays: Down in the Delta


Although I grew up in Mississippi (37 years in Jackson) and have lived in Memphis for 25 years, I had never been to Clarksdale, Mississippi—home of the Blues—ever, until this past weekend. It took an invitation to read from Circling Faith and share a few words about publishing essays at a writing workshop to get me down there. And boy am I glad I went!


Susan in front of the ERNZ shack, her home for the weekend

My friend from Little Rock, Daphne Davenport, was one of 16 workshop participants. She rode down with me from Memphis, which was an adventure in itself. (Who puts a four-way-stop in the middle of a *@#ing highway?) And our accommodations were interesting—we stayed in “ERNZ,”one of the shacks across the tracks from the Shackup Inn (where the workshop was held)… in Shacksdale, just off Highway 49/61. Sitting on our back porch, we watched the sun come up over the cotton fields and set behind the Hobson Plantation Restaurant and Bar at night.


Sandi Butler Hughes, owner of a couple of the shacks in Shacksdale, had approached me about organizing a writing workshop in Clarksdale. I told her I was too busy trying to finish my book, but I knew someone who would do a great job. Kathy Rhodes, from Franklin, Tennessee, took the project on and created a terrific writing event.


In addition to the manuscript critique sessions, led by Kathy, Neil White drove over from Oxford to give his (now famous) three-hour craft workshop: “The Art vs. The Craft of Creative Nonfiction–& Creating Vivid Scenes.” Neil is owner of Nautilus Publishing in Oxford, and also the author of the memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.


Neil shows the writer how to lay down the first drafts (the “art”) without the editor’s voice, without the censor. Use your imagination. Be creative. Play. Be in the “zone.” Then you come back and apply the “craft”—with critique, analysis, and revision. Even those of us who had heard Neil’s talk before gleaned something new from it. I’m sure everyone has their own “take-away” notes, so I’ll only share a couple of new highlights:


“Creative nonfiction has an apparent subject—and a deeper subject. Unlike a news story, it’s not tied to timeliness . . . . The deeper subject remains vital.”—Philip Gerard


“Use a series of hurdles and problems which the protag must overcome. Plot is more than a series of events . . . . There must be a sense of urgency.”


On the work ethic and mindset of the writer:


 “Your book must be the most important thing in your life while you’re writing it. Except maybe your family.”


Neil White speaking on “The Art vs. Craft of Creative Nonfiction”

Maybe that last one is obvious, but sometimes writers (like me) have to remind ourselves that writing is our WORK. And we have to remind our friends and family. It’s not just a hobby, just something “extra” we are doing on the side.


Kathy gave a reading from her powerful essay, which was published in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume 3. And then she gave a wonderful talk on “What an Editor or Agent Looks For.” A few highlights, beginning with 3 important elements that an editor or agent will look for in your creative nonfiction essay or book:


1. STORY: Do you have one? Is it original? Does it jump off the page?

2. CRAFT: The actual writing of the story—how well it is done.

3. VOICE: The most important factor—the expression of YOU on the page, your passions, fears, beliefs, and attitudes.


She gave us 5 ways to accomplish those three important elements:


1. Pull up your soul. Write from your gut.

2. Blood, sweat and tears—be vulnerable on the page.

3. It’s not all about you

4. Put energy in it. Doe it move the reader?

5. Apply the techniques—scenes, exposition, concrete details, transitions


My contribution to the workshop was a brief reading from my essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” which appears in the anthology, Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, (available in hardback and on Kindle) followed by a brief talk on “How to Get Your Creative Nonfiction Essays Published.” (I’ve had 10 CNF essays published, which you can see here: Publications.) Here’s the list I spoke from:


1. Find MARKETS that match your writing.

2. Think LOCAL.

3. Look for publications that do THEMED issues.


5. KEEP TRACK of your submissions.


7. Strive for VARIETY.


9. Handling REJECTIONS.

10. Be a professional—set aside time for MARKETING.


One year ago today, I did a post about the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop, which I organized and directed last September. It’s not really a recap of the event, but the post itself is a short example of a creative nonfiction essay: “Where’s the Fire?” Several workshoppers from CNF at the Crossroads were there (as well as Neil White, speaker) so I hope you will enjoy the memory, Ren Hinote, Susan Marquez, Dan Stringfellow and NancyKay Wessman.

You might be wondering, where are the stories about dancing at Ground Zero, howling at the moon behind the ERNZ Shack at midnight, drinking Bourbon and 7 all weekend, visiting Lambfish Art Company on Sunday morning? Wait for it… what happens at the Crossroads….


Thanks so much to all the workshoppers who shared their manuscripts to be critiqued. Especially the “first timers.” It’s a scary thing to expose your “babies” to scrutiny, and I hope that each of you gained insights from the critique process. Some of the writing was exceptional. All of it was powerful—stories of loss, of memories, of place. Some of you made us laugh. Others made us cry. That’s what stories are supposed to do.


And thanks to Kathy for organizing, to Sandi for inviting us, and to Neil for enlightening us!


You can read Kathy’s post about the workshop here on her blog, “A Magical Time.”


Susan Cushman, Neil White, Kathy Rhodes, co-directors, 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference

And *drum roll* MARK YOUR CALENDARS for the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference: May 2-5, 2013. Neil, Kathy and I will be directing the conference again this year (read about the 2010 Conference here) and we’re excited about the faculty (stay tuned) and schedule. If you think you might come, please make your reservation at the Inn at Ole Miss (on campus) NOW. Call 888-486-7666. If you miss getting a room there, you will have to stay off campus, and parking on campus during the conference isn’t easy.They have a block of rooms under “Creative Nonfiction Conference,” and will provide more rooms as these fill. If you’re sharing a room, the suites in the new part of the hotel have 2 queen beds, a living room/kitchen area, and 1 1/2 baths. Stay tuned for more information once we get the web site up. In the meanwhile, keep on writing!

5 thoughts on “Writing on Wednesdays: Down in the Delta”

  1. “Neil shows the writer how to lay down the first drafts (the “art”) without the editor’s voice, without the censor.”

    Wish I could have been there to listen to Neil on this subject. I have a hard time with the editor/critic’s voice. Sheesh! It’s bad.

    Also, I like that the speaker said that writing your book has to be the most important thing in your life (aside from your family). I have always thought of it as a hobby and I need to STOP THAT!!

  2. I second that, Carol. Wish I could have been there with my Southern family of writers! Sounds like there was much grist for the mill! Thanks for capturing some of the highlights, Susan.

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