For a couple of amazing weeks in July, I attended the Sewanee Writers Conference. I took a a few pages of my third novel, very much a work in progress, along with me. Jill McCorkle and Tony Earley were my workshop leaders, and I cannot even begin to thank them both for their insight and advice. The Funeral Dress will no doubt be a better book for having been there.
Days and nights were filled with readings and craft lectures, workshops, and yes, cocktail parties and one very dark mothing expedition where I saw more bats than moths. But the greatest discovery, for me, was poetry.
The gods must have known what they were doing when they assigned my roommate – a poet – a poet who thankfully woke up every morning before 6 am just like I did. First, Lisa opened my eyes (usually after a strong cup of coffee) to the emotional, heartfelt, human poetry of Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Claudia Emerson. Then she patiently taught me a little about meter and narrative form. But more than anything else, she taught me to look at my own work, my own fiction, with the eyes of a poet.
As a journalist, I always thought I used words sparingly, appropriately. I’ve spent hours staring at the computer searching for just the right word – the word that conveys the right emotion, that carries the right rhythm. But now I was suddenly paying attention to the movement and message of each and every word on the page – thinking about the best, most powerful, most economical way to describe a character, a scene, a moment with more determination that I ever had. When you are writing with few words, you must use them as wisely and as powerfully as you can.
I will never be a poet, but I found myself reveling in its beauty. And I found myself appreciating its instructive nature for a fiction writer. I will write poems someday, for no one but myself. But that will be a gift in and of itself.
I arrived in Montgomery shortly before three in the afternoon. The air was already hot even though the South had barely stepped into April. I would be speaking at Huntingdon College later in the evening but had time to do a little exploring. The hotel seemed fairly busy but the streets were oddly quiet. I walked a few blocks to the post office, mailed some letters that I’d been driving around for days and then noticed a short line of people standing outside a small, two-story building. I crossed the street and found myself standing in front of the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University.
Glancing at my watch, I’d have just enough time to check it out before needing to get back to the hotel and prepare for the talk I’d be giving later in the evening. I bought a ticket, rushed inside and welcomed the cool, air-conditioned air against my skin. But I quickly noticed that the lobby was full of people, people whose skin was much darker than mine. I immediately felt embarrassed that I had forgotten until that very moment that Rosa Parks’ refusal to vacate her seat for a white passenger on a city bus on December 1, 1955, had happened right here in Montgomery.
In fact, it was the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by a young Martin Luther King, that guided the Montgomery bus boycott which was one of the first but pivotal steps in the Civil Rights Movement. And I left reminded of the sacrifice, courage and faith of so many men and women who wanted nothing more than to be treated equally.
Fast forward to the next afternoon and about 120 miles up the road, and now I find myself pulling off the interstate and heading to Cullman, Alabama. Oh, I had heard of Cullman. I knew its reputation — white, racist, a place where in the dead of night the Ku Klux Klan had once thrived.
More than a month ago though, I had been reminded of this small Alabama town in the red hills north of Birmingham. I had read an article in the NY Times Magazine about an African-American man named James Fields who was born and raised in Cullman County. His growing up was, as he called it, “rough and tough.” But now he’s a minister and the Democratic state representative from a county of 81,000 people but claims only 401 African-American voters.
The article, by Nicholas Dawidoff, is brilliantly written, and I encourage you to read it. Bottom line, personalism trumps racism. How about that? When people take the time to stopping judging one another based on the color of their skin, they see each other for who they really are. And apparently that’s why James Fields was elected in a county that overwhelmingly voted against Obama. Because they know the kind of man that James Fields is.
But I kept asking myself, why am I headed to Cullman? What did I think I was going to find there?
It was another charming Southern town. Churches, a library, a couple of rather trendy-looking boutiques, an old funeral parlor that now houses an architectural firm, even a coffee house or two. I saw a stylish young woman with long blonde hair. I saw a lot of white men in pick ups, farmers, I imagine. I saw two heavy-set women riding along in a beat-up old chevy. Life had already treated them too hard, even I could see that.
I parked my car and walked around a bit, finally stepping into a fabric store to buy a spool thread so I could hem the pair of pants that I’d been holding together with scotch tape. A friendly couple, need I say “white” couple, welcomed me inside.
After a bit, the man looked at me and said, “Where you from?”
“Nashville,” I answered.
“I knew you was a ferener.”
“How’d you know that?” I smiled.
“Cause I’ve never seen your car here before. I saw you drive down the street earlier.”
Yeah, you’re right, I thought to myself. You haven’t seen me before. But I’ll be back and for some reason that I still don’t fully understand.
OK, what I’m about to share with you sounds very exciting. And it was. But bear in mind, this is not normal living for me.
A couple of weeks ago, my sister and her husband send me a plane ticket and an invitation to come to New York City for two short but wonderful days. We will do, my sister promises, anything I want. So we head into NYC first thing Friday morning. We meet my agent, Barbara Braun, at a hip but cozy little restaurant near Greenwich Village called Danal around 10:30 am. We eat scrambled eggs with spinach and Manchego cheese and chat about everything from the recently received galleys of The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove to the third book, The Funeral Dress, still very much underway. We talk about the new shoes I want to shop for and the moo doo (yes, cow shit) that Barbara and her hubby will be spreading on their garden in the days to come. We share stories about our children and thoughts about the state of the publishing industry.
And when we finally leave the restaurant, it is well after 1:00 pm. We hug goodbye and then my sister and I run in and out of every boutique on Fifth Avenue. And, at last, with a new pair of silver flats on my feet, we jump in a taxi and head up to Random House to say a quick hello. Of course, when I step into the lobby, I feel my knees buckle a bit. It is simple but grand all at the same time. And some of the greatest, most important literary works are shelved in thick glass cases lining the walls to my left and right. As a writer, I admire them, am inspired by them and very much humbled by them.
We leave Random House and head to a swank but casual restaurant in the theater district. We have a martini and talk about the day. My adorable niece joins us, and Kelsey Grammer walks in and sits down at a table nearby. He looks good and tan and I wonder if he’d mind if I said hello. I have another martini instead.
The theater tickets are waiting for us at will call, my sister reminds me. So we pay our tab and head a few blocks east to the The Black Box Theatre at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. We’re there to see Good ‘Ol Girls, the new musical based on the writings of Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle. My sister has bought the best seats in the house, she tells me. And she’s right. The theater is small, intimate, and we are on the front row. I was three feet from the stage and I felt that the actors were in my house performing just for me.
After the performance, we walk to our car, pose for a quick pic in Times Square and then leave New York and the day behind.
Somewhere near the Newark airport, we hit the biggest pothole EVER, blow a tire and damage two others. But even still, it was a PERFECT day!
Thank you Hall and Tom.
NYC bound! And I can’t wait.
Last week, I got a very unexpected offer from my sister and brother-in-law. It included a luxurious coach seat on Continental Airlines to and from New York City, a limo ride in a black Hyundai mini-van, a 5-star meal at either McDonald’s or Sbarro’s (my choosing) and the best seats in the house to see the off-Broadway production of Good ‘Ol Girls. They said it was an offer one could not refuse, and they promised that they really had splurged on the most expensive seats in the theater!
Good ‘Ol Girls is the musical based on the writings of two of the South’s great literary voices, JILL McCORKLE (Going Away Shoes) and, yes, my seventh-grade English teacher, LEE SMITH (The Last Girls). The songs were written by two of Nashville’s biggest hit-makers, Marshall Chapman and Matraca Berg.
Needless to say, I’m going.
Both Lee and Jill write so visually, so beautifully,but to see their words come alive on stage, well, I cannot wait. I really feel like a little girl waiting for Christmas morning. And as soon as the curtain closes, I will be sure to share the experience with you.
I spent this past weekend in Columbia, South Carolina. Temperatures were in the high 50s, sun was shining, and I was holed up in the city’s convention center with more than 4,000 book-loving, book-reading, book-writing people who had chosen to attend the 2010 South Carolina Book Festival.
Yes, it’s fun to rub shoulders with the likes of Ron Rash and Jill McCorkle, Robert Hicks and the darling Lee Brothers. And often that was all it was — literally rubbing my shoulder against theirs as I passed them in a crowded hallway.
I met some wonderful writers like South Carolina novelist and master gardener Mindy Friddle, New York Times best-selling author Karen White, writer and humor columnist Celia Rivenbark who reminded of the expression “just a half bubble off plumb” and Nina Bruhns who writes romance thrillers and definitely has me thinking of today’s romance genre very, very differently.
I sat on an extremely well-attended panel with Celia and Nina, sold out of books, ate too much food, danced a little and came home dog-tired.
But the best part of all was that I spent time with incredibly passionate, voracious readers that inspired me to sit down at my desk this morning and tell another story.
If you’ve followed my blog for long at all, you probably know that I work very closely with a reader. Someone asked me recently if a reader is the same thing as a book doctor. The answer is NO. A book doc is someone who takes your ms and turns it into something better, hopefully something sellable. A reader is more like a trusted advisor. Someone who gives you honest feedback but leaves the writing to you.
I’m fortunate. I have two readers. First, there’s Becky . She’s a young mother in Nashville — born and raised in the South, a voracious and intelligent reader, dedicated English teacher — Becky understands the subtle nuances of Southern writing.
And then there’s Bonnie MacDonald. I trust Bonnie with every word I’ve ever written. And that’s a lot of words because Bonnie and I have worked together for more than 15 years. But Bonnie is more than a reader, a writer, an editor and a good friend. She is a CASA volunteer. That’s right, a COURT APPOINTED SPECIAL ADVOCATE. She has mentored and cared for children in the foster-care system in Orange County, California, for almost two decades. She has truly made a difference in so many young lives and has provided children hope and love in a world that seems to have forgotten them. She’d never tell you this, but she was once named Orange County’s CASA Volunteer of the Year.
Now Bonnie is blogging about CASA and the foster-care system for Dr. Phil. com. And I would really appreciate it if you would check out her blog, leave a comment, and as she suggests, smile at a child today.
Since my recent blog post where I openly confessed my love for The Woman of Independent Means, I’ve learned that I’m not the only one still in love with letters and letter writing and books written in letter form! I’ve even begun to wonder if all of us letter lovers should start some sort of secret club. Maybe we promise to write one letter a month? Maybe to one another? Oh dear, I guess we all know how long that would last.
But at least I can share some of the other titles written in epistolary form that you have shared with me. The Griffin & Sabine Trilogy, Helene Hanff’s, 84 Charing Cross Road, and Alice’s Tulips by Sandra Dallas. (Wasn’t that the name of a song from the 1920s?)
Anyway, the weather is still cold here in Nashville, but I have spent the last few days in the house — painting and cleaning. We are moving to Chattanooga this summer, and we list our house tomorrow. All has gone well except for the unfortunate accident which is the name now given to the spilling of a gallon of taupe paint all over on an old but loved rug. Of course, I was covered in paint too. No doubt my neighbors heard me screaming two doors down!
I do hope your week has been warm and accident free. Please take care and stay in touch.
OK, I’ve made a few exceptions to my blogging everyday rule. They are as follows: no posting on weekends, snow days, and days when life just won’t permit it.
Now back to business. I was in Chattanooga again this past weekend. And again, it snowed! But as I was driving around town the day after, I couldn’t believe all the snowmen and snowwomen that had miraculously appeared in people’s front yards and on random street corners. (Remember the last time I was there I spotted the miniature snow couple on a bistro’s coffee table.)
These were not your average snowpeople. Some had full heads of hair. Some were dressed in one fashion or another. Some were anatomically correct. But all of them were wonderfully artistic. And granted, I realize that this posting is not about writing, but it is about creativity. And that needs to be celebrated everyday — especially days when it snows.
I had never experienced writer’s block until September 2008 — ever never. For two months, I stared at the same 15 pages with absolutely no clue how to move forward. Finally, I got up from my desk one morning and went to the kitchen to make some tea. While I was standing there, I made a big decision. The 15 pages that I had spent two months writing and then two more months staring at were going in the trash. Like Jill McCorkle once said, sometimes you have to get off the horse. You’ve beaten it till it’s dead, and you just have to get off.
So I sat back down at my desk, tea in hand, and for some reason checked Facebook, and there I read a comment by Josephine Humphreys. I don’t even remember the words now. They don’t really matter. But one thought led to another and then to another. And before I knew it, the block had lifted like fog off a mountain.
With that in mind, I want to share with you this beautifully written essay by another Tennessee writer, Susan Cushman. Susan is an iconographer, artist and writer. Her words about the spirituality of the creative process really resonate with me. I don’t know what caused my block to dissipate. But if the words seem to flow from a greater power then it only would make sense that emotions like anger and hurt and resentment and frustration block a writer’s ability to tap into or connect with that source. At least for me, this feels true.