Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sons and Angels and Beaches: Remembering Katrina and more...

Today is my oldest son Jonathan's 30th birthday. I wrote a little about dancing with my daughter, Beth, at a wedding last Sunday, but I've tried to leave my kids out of this blog, so as not to embarrass them. But how can I leave them out when they are so much a part of me? So today is going to be about my boys (with a nod to my daughter, who will probably end up front and center in a future post.)

Jon flies helicopters for the Army. He did a year in Iraq (in 2003-4) as a door gunner on a blackhawk, then went to Warrant Officer School and became a pilot last November. Now he flies kiowas. (That's one in the picture behind him.) We can't celebrate his 30th with him because he's finishing up some more training this week and can't get away. Last night I got out old photo albums from 1977 (yes, he was born two weeks after Elvis died, for what that's worth) and was brought to tears by what I saw on the first few pages from August of 1977. Pictures of nine different family members holding Jon as a baby ... nine people who are no longer with us. During my oldest son's 30 years I've lost both grandmothers, my father's brother, my father, my husbands' parents, my last remaining aunt and uncle, and my brother. Seven of those dear people died in the past 9 years, so Jon was able to know them. (I was blessed to be with three of them as they died, thanks to Hospice... but that's a story for another day.) This day is about sons. And angels. And beaches.
Angels? Absolutely. Both of my boys (we'll get to Jason shortly) are on a list of soldiers' names that circulates amongst dozens of Orthodox churches. They are prayed for by name at the end of the Liturgy in many of these churches, in a special prayer written by one of our bishops. This was started in March of 2003, when the Iraq invasion began in earnest, and Jon was driving a humvee into Baghdad from Kuwait. There are stories he can tell, of a bomb crashing through the wall of the building he was sleeping in in Mosul, for example, and countless other times he was protected from harm. By these prayers? Absolutely. And angels? For real. At baptism, each Orthodox Christian is given a guardian angel to be with him throughout life. An abbess once told me that monastics get two angels. I think soldiers might get three, but I can't verify this.

Some of those family deaths I mentioned earlier have been times the Army has let Jon come home... once from Iraq, actually, for his grandmother's funeral. This past February both boys and our daughter were able to be here for my brother's funeral, (photo of all of us with my mom after the burial) as they were again in May for their grandfather's burial at a military cemetery in Chattanooga. One of their cousins was pregnant at this last one and I thought, how appropriate--life goes on.
I love to celebrate things, so this past November we went to Jon's graduation from flight school at Fort Rucker and then took him and four of his friends to the beach at Seagrove for a few days. Amazing place... I've been back twice since then (see photos of sunsets at Seagrove in left column of blog.) A few pix of our celebration are included here.

But that brings to mind another day at the beach ... August 28, 2005-- I had taken my mother and my daughter to Biloxi to visit my other son, Jason, at Keesler Air Force Base. We took him and his best friend, Ben, out to dinner at an amazing restaurant in an antebellum home... that was destroyed two days later. My mother watched us from the balcony of our hotel (also no longer there) and I had my morning coffee and read for a while all of twenty feet from the water's edge. (tiny photo at right) Beth and I rode jet skis (no photos, thank God!) in the ocean that would destroy property and people for miles around us just 48 hours later. Looking at those pictures now is surreal.

Mom, Beth and I drove back to Jackson, Memphis and Knoxville on the 29th, listening to the warnings about Hurricane Katrina on the car radio as we drove. We got out in plenty of time. Jason stayed at Keesler, which took a fairly big hit. In fact, when his group shipped out for their next station in California, he volunteered to stay on and help with the cleanup effort. He physically dragged trees and debris off the airstrips so that planes could bring in supplies for the devastated Gulf coast residents who survived the loss of their homes and more.
Jason is still in the Air Force, but he's also a writer. Check out his blog, Scattered Words and Forgotten Meanings, and read about the fantasy novel he's writing, Sunset of Honor. (He's a big Robert Jordan fan.) A few of his soulful poems are posted, as well.

At one point I thought I might end up with three soldiers, when the Citadel was after my daughter to play soccer for them back in 2001... but she stayed out of uniform and is now in graduate school for architecture. More about her another time. (She's reading this and thinking, "whew! narrow escape!")

Oh, since I'm posting pictures, I guess I'll mention that they're all three adopted: Jason and Beth are from South Korea and Jon is from Mississippi, where we were living when we adopted each of them. We're all about diversity.

If you read this blog very often, you know how much song lyrics speak to my heart. I always think, "she's writing that to me," or "how does she know exactly how I feel or what I'm going through?" (Kind of like the Arlo and Janis comic strips that my husband often brings me with my morning coffee--yes, he really does bring me coffee in bed every morning--and we read them and look at eachother and wonder if our house is under video surveillance or how else would they know so much about us?) Why does this surprise me, that musicians and artists and poets and writers can do this... can give such amazing voice to the stuff of our everday lives? Isn't that our job? Isn't that what we're supposed to do? Are poets the only ones who can name things? Maybe all true artists are poets....
So, I'll close with a love song to my Children and the Angels who watch over them... and Jesus. It's from Mindy Smith's CD, "One Moment More," and it's called "Come to Jesus." You can play a sample here. Or just read the lyrics and let the words remind you that yes, there are angels.... And when you get to the last verse, think about people you love who are waiting for you in Heaven, where "you'll finally understand."

Oh, my baby, when you're older
Maybe then you'll understand
You have angels that stand around your shoulders
'Cause at times in life you need a loving hand

Oh, my baby, when you're prayin'
Leave your burden by my door
You have Jesus standing by your bedside
To keep you calm, keep you safe, Away from harm

Worry not my daughters,
Worry not my sons
Child, when life don't seem worth livin'
Come to Jesus and let Him hold you in His arms

Oh, my baby, when you're cryin'
Never hide your face from me
I've conquered hell and driven out the demons
I have come with a life to set you free

Worry not my daughters,
Worry not my sons
Child, when life don't seem worth livin'
Come to Jesus and let Him hold you in His arms

Oh, oh
Oh, oh
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Oh, my baby, when you're dying
Believe the healing of His hand
Here in Heaven we will wait for your arrival
Here in Heaven you will finally understand

Here in Heaven we will wait for your arrival
Here in Heaven you will finally understand
Worry not my daughters,
Worry not my sons
Child, when life don't seem worth livin'
Come to Jesus and let Him hold you in His arms

Monday, August 27, 2007

Beauty Will Save the World: A Third Kind of Religious Book

My favorite thing about Sundays is the Divine Liturgy served at St. John Orthodox Church, which is about six blocks from my home in midtown Memphis. It’s right up there with births and baptisms and weddings and everything that’s sacred and mystical and worth having in this life. From 10-11:30 am, I am transported into the eighth day, and if I’m prepared, I receive life’s greatest miracle—the Body and Blood of Jesus— “entering all my joints, my reins, my heart, cleansing my soul, hallowing my thoughts… enlightening, as one of my five senses….” as St. Simeon the New Theologian’s Euchaaristic Prayer says. Heavenly thoughts for a blog post, but needful, if one is going to write about Sundays.

But another, much less ethereal thing, that I love about Sundays is the New York Times Book Review, which arrives in my driveway in a blue plastic bag, inside its parent, the Times itself. I mention the blue plastic bag because it’s an important part of the packaging. Our sprinklers are set to come on at 8 am on Sunday mornings, so I’m diligent to retrieve the Times before that happens… but in case I don’t, I’m thankful for the blue plastic bag. (Our local rag comes in an orange plastic bag, and truthfully, I don’t much care if the sprinkler leaks into it or not, unless I’m house-hunting and need the real estate section, like now, actually.)

So, at 7:55 a.m. I rescue the Times and pull out the Book Review and blap! front page and center is "Family Blessings," a review by author Darcey Steinke, of Mary Gordon’s new book, Circling My Mother. I met Darcey at Burke’s Books here in Memphis recently. She was reading and signing her newest book, a memoir, Easter Everywhere, which I loved. What I love about Darcey’s writing is that she brings her whole self to her work—preacher’s daughter, single mom, her struggles with stuttering, the dark sides of herself. She’s an earthy, contemporary novelist (who also wrote Suicide Blonde, Jesus Saves, and Milk, which explores the connection between sexual and spiritual longing) who grasps at a memoir like Gordon’s because she longs for a “third kind of religious book.”

What caught my attention in her review of Gordon’s book, though, was her contrasting of modern-day protestant evangelical “religious” writing with Roman Catholic writers like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day:

“Rather than pontificating on the state of religion, both [Merton and Day] tried to engage in a conversation with the modern world. Midcentury Catholicism captivated some of the most imaginative writers of the era: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy….” Yes!

Author Mary Gordon’s new memoir focuses on her mother’s religious life as a Catholic. Steinke says that Gordon’s mother “attends to the nourishment of her own particular religious vocation, a vocation less glamorous than Merton’s and Day’s but no less divine—a vocation as a single mother, as one afflicted by polio, as a woman in full belief of the love of God.”

It's Steinke's assertion that, “These days we seem to have two kinds of religious books, those like The Purpose Driven Life, the pastor Rick Warren’s self-help book, insipidly set out conservative precepts, encouraging us to join churches, obey their doctrines and center our spiritual lives around them, no matter how limiting those lives might be in that context alone. At the other end of the spectrum are gleeful repudiations of religion like Christopher Hitchens’ atheist manifesto, God is Not Great. But Hitchens’ definition of religion is childlike and reductive; he completely discounts the longing many of us feel for divinity.”

Steinke seems to be offering Gordon’s book as a "third kind of religious book"… an alternative to the extremes offered by Warren and Hitchens. I haven’t read the book yet, but I just printed off the first chapter from the Times' online webiste, and it’s on my list now.

The day before I read Steinke’s review in the Times, I read an article in the Septemer issue of Touchstone Magazine called, “Writers Cramped: Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O’Connor.” The author, Donald Williams, pulls no punches as he begins by saying that his fellow evangelicals “have not tended to write anything recognized as having literary value by the literary world.” Then he says, “The modern Christians who are important writers are all from liturgical churches: Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox.” He praises O’Connor for imbuing her writing with three things she received from her faith: a “true world view,” a “definition of art that affirmed a spiritual purpose,” and a “sense of mystery.”

As an Orthodox I would hasten to add Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov) into the mix here for those looking for a "third kind of religious book." But, like Steinke, I’d welcome some more books in this ilk by contemporary writers. (Two that come to mind on the spot are Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, and Stephanie Kallos’ national bestseller, Broken For You.) For that to happen, I think we need more writers who are seers … those who glimpse beyond the everyday and believe, as Dostoyevsky did, that “beauty will save the world.”

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Fighting Obesity One Word At a Time

Move over, Biggest Losers! I just cut 5,500 words from my novel. That only leaves 50,000 words, meaning I just cut 10 per cent of those precious babies I labored with and gave birth to over the past ten months (long pregnancy, huh?). Ouch! But I'm trying to look at this in a healthy way, like how I would feel if I lost 10 per cent of my body fat, which is essentially what happened to the book. So... if I weighed 150 pounds (this is hypothetical) and lost 10 per cent, I'd only weigh 135 pounds. With obesity running rampant in the South, this would be a good thing, right?

One big difference here is that I loved those 5500 words that I just cut, and I do not love my extra fat cells at all. Some of those words were beautiful, literary, tear-jerking, inspirational, (you get the picture) ... but guess what? They didn't belong to this novel. Some of them may show up in another book one day, but not here. Not this time.

So, how did I get the courage for this fat-removing operation? From my fellow writers, of course. Those who have gone before and have published wonderful, slim, fit, non-obese books, and even lived to tell about it.

Like Anne Lamott, who tells stories of similar surgeries her books have survived in her national bestseller, bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Now, I had read about 10 books by writers on writing (see list at end of this post)but until the Mississippi Writers Guild Conference a few weeks ago, I hadn't heard of this one. Oh, my gosh ... anyone reading this blog should click on and order this book immediately! Even after she was a published author, she once spent three years operating on a book until she got it right. Just yesterday I read her description of taking her book and spreading it out on the floor, sections and chapters and paragraphs lined up everywhere. Then she walked around cutting and pasting (literally) and jotting down notes for re-working sections later until she had gotten rid of the fat and put the rest back in working order. Then she picked up the piles of paper and took them back to her computer for re-entering. When I read this I almost cried. It was so close to what I had just done to The Sweet Carolines over the past few weeks.

And unlike the process of liposuction where one would not want to save the sucked out blobs of fat to use later, I did save many of these words and images and quotes and carefully researched information in a file to pull from should there ever be a home for them in a future book or short story or essay. Well, not all of them. Some of them really were cellulitic. sigh.

So now I'm having a copy of the new, skinnier manuscript printed off for my next "early reader," into whose hands it will arrive this weekend. She'll be happy to have a healthier product, I'm sure. My first "early readers" had to wade through the fat. Sorry 'bout that, folks.

And now I'll close with that list I mentioned earlier, my favorite books on writing by writers. I'm doing this pretty much from memory, so if I forget anyone and think of them later, I'll try to remember to add them in. And if any of you guys reading this have names to add to this list, please leave me a comment! So, here they are, my "how to write" top 10, but not in any order:

bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True by Elizabeth Berg
Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle
The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton
Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster
If You Want to Write by Brenda Euland
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
On Writing by Stephen King
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Letters of Flannery O'Connor: The Habit of Being edited by Sally Fitzgerald

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I Hope You Dance

My feet are killing me, but it was worth it. Worth the Dance, that is. Sunday afternoon I went to the wedding of a dear friend’s youngest daughter. First of all let me say that Orthodox weddings are amazing… full of sacrament and mystery. The bride and groom wear crowns, symbolizing the little kingdom that their home will be, and also the martyrdom of their lives for one another. The priest, bride and groom, and their sponsors actually hold hands and dance around a table in front of the altar at one point, as the choir sings, “Dance, Isaiah, Dance!” It’s all there—joy and communion and sacrament and beauty and hopefulness.

Later at the reception there’s dancing of a different kind. A band plays favorites, old and new, and the pretty young lead singer is soulful and smooth on the ballads and bumps it up a notch on the fast numbers. The dance floor is hopping all evening, with celebrants of all ages enjoying the new couple’s party. Our table is right next to the dance floor, which is a great vantage point for watching … which I plan to do, at least for a while. And then I see her. My dear 85-year-old Greek friend, sitting directly across the table from me, pointing to me and then to herself, and indicating that she wants to dance by shimmying her shoulders to the beat of the music. There’s a twinkle in her eye, even though this really isn’t a good day for her. She has late-stage cancer. I thought she’d had her last dance at her grandson’s wedding. I point to myself and over the loud strains of music I mouth the word, “me?” She nods and I’m up and helping her to the dance floor, fearing that she might even fall down if I don’t hold on tight enough.

But she’ll have none of that … after a few minutes of hand-holding she breaks free and moves to the beat with joy and abandon. A few others join us and we’ve got a line going. Then I’m spinning her and we’re laughing and suddenly I’m remembering years of priceless conversations I’ve had with this amazing woman, my unofficial “Yia Yia.” Times when I was down about something in life that I thought was unfair or just too hard. Her words are flowing into my ears, even above the music. Words about always be thankful and trusting God to take care of you and accepting whatever life gives you with joy.

The dance floor is crowded now, with young friends of the bride and groom and baby boomers who never quit dancing, and an old friend from Mississippi pulls my twenty-four-year-old daughter out on the floor with us and my joy grows. I look at her, my baby who is now a beautiful grown woman, pursuing her dream in grad school for architecture, and I remember the time I gave her a book with a CD inside the cover. The book was an illustrated version of Lee Ann Womack’s song, “I Hope You Dance.” As I look at my daughter, Lee Ann’s words override the band’s music, seeping through the pores of my heart:

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder,
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger,
May you never take one single breath for granted,
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed,
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens,
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.
I hope you dance....i hope you dance.
I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance,
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Livin’ might mean takin’ chances but they’re worth takin’,
Lovin’ might be a mistake but its worth makin’,
Don’t let some hell bent heart leave you bitter,
When you come close to sellin’ out reconsider,
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.
I hope you dance....i hope you dance.
I hope you dance....i hope you dance.

Stay with me as I go back to the Orthodox Church for a minute and remember the services we just had for the Feast of the Mother of God’s Dormition… her death. Just five days before this couple’s wedding, a burial bier with an icon of the Mother of God had stood on the very spot where the bride and groom would be married. It’s the same canopied bier that is used during Holy Week when we sing the lamentations on Holy Friday. “Every generation to the tomb comes bringing dear Christ its dirge of praises….”

Every generation. They’re all here at the wedding feast. Singing “God grant you many years” to the bride and groom and then dancing together with joy. My four-year-old Goddaughter, Sophie, finds me and joins the dance, and I spin her round and round with five-year-old Mary, for whom I am unofficial “Yia Yia,” and the circle is complete. Well, almost. My sons are off serving in the Army and Air Force and can’t be with us this time. But I find my husband, sharing a glass of wine with friends who have come from as far away as California for the wedding, and we share a toast to “every generation” and he takes me home, with my shoes in my hands.

Later we look at pictures from our own wedding, thirty seven years ago, and smile because the father of today’s bride was one of our groomsmen… in 1970. You know, when you "stand up" for someone (serve as a bridesmaid or groomsman) at their wedding, it's supposed to mean something more than getting dressed up and posing for photographs. It's supposed to mean that you pledge to be there for them, to support them in their marriage. We're still together... thanks in a big part to friends who stand by us. So now I'm thinking about other weddings... weddings where I stood up for someone and promised to be there for them. I've kept up with most of them, but to my shame, not all. Maybe I'll look up the ones I've lost touch with. What would I say if I found them?

Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.
I hope you dance....

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Musing on Muses: The Mixed Bag Ladies

Yesterday I started working on a personal essay for a magazine that sets a theme for each issue. The issue I'm submitting to is about "Creativity," and the guidelines mentioned "your Muse" in its list of suggested sub-themes. It set me to thinking about the various areas of my life and who/what inspires me in each of them. hmmmm....

I could write about my spiritual life, but how could I do justice to Saint Mary of Egypt (my patron saint) and my Guardian Angel and the countless others who strengthen me in the battles of life... in under 1200 words?

I could write about "the writing life," and enumerate my muses, living and dead... those who set the bar for painting with words (like Flannery O'Connor, Harper Lee, Pat Conroy) and fellow fledglings like me, who can barely even see the bottom of the bar. Fellow writers I've met at conferences and workshops are certainly among my muses, (a few of us are starting the Yoknapatawpha Writing Guild with monthly meetings in Oxford) as are the early readers for my current project. Of course there are other kinds of muses that inspire me to write every day: friends who are fighting tremendous personal battles; children who throw themselves at life with abandon; sangria sunsets on favorite beaches; blue glaciers (yes, blue) in Alaska; song lyrics born of young hearts on fire and old souls still aflame. All inside a personal essay? hmmm....

I could write about the ancient tradition of Byzantine iconography, and the pious iconographers who have carried the torch from the Holy Apostle Luke, who painted the first icon (of the Mother of God) up through my favorite contemporary iconographer, Photios Kontoglou. But again, under 1200 words?

Or ... I could write about something a little closer to home. A little more earthy. Like the Mixed Bag Ladies. Notice there's no link to the MBL? That's because we don't have a web site or a blog or anything. We're just a group of artists who work in various media and share a love for the beauty of God's creation and the joy of exploring ways to invoke a response to that beauty. Or sometimes it's a response to the shadow side of life... to the brokenness that is often an important part of the art we create. The group was started by my friend, Julie, who teaches art and is working on her MFA at Memphis College of Art. Julie hosted our first gathering in July, and encouraged each of us to bring something to work on. Sue, who was a fine art major in college and has continued to study classical realism, brought an oil painting of a scene by a lake in Arkansas, one she started when we were at a friend's lake house together. Jenna, who also teaches art, brought an acrylic portrait she was working on. And Julie alternated between reading to us from books on art and creativity to working on a pot at her wheel. I took a poem I had recently written, "Wide Margins," and illustrated it with gouache and watercolor markers. Our working name for the group is "Mixed Bag Ladies." So, once a month as we gather, these gals are definitely my muses. We also enjoy wine and music and laughter and encouragement... all good soul food for artists and writers and... well, people.

I still haven't decided what to write about for the magazine, but I'll let you know when and if it's published. In the meanwhile, I hope your own muses bring you joy and inspiration as mine do.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The knot in the rosary at which his life says a prayer...

Orthodox Christians don't use rosaries for our prayers as Catholics do. We use prayer ropes. But I think the idea is similar. As our fingers slip between the knots and move prayerfully from one to the next, our hearts find the rhythm: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.... or simply: Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy. The Jesus Prayer, which has power to bring peace, courage, clarity, calm... all those things we need as we move about in this world so often full of unrest, fear, confusion, and storms.

I have a dear friend, Sue, who is a fine artist and a budding poet (and one of my early readers for my novel and short stories). She and I often explore the connections between our spiritual lives and art. Tuesday we met for coffee and tea and she brought me some quotes from the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). Why Rilke? In addition to his poetry, he wrote letters to his wife, letters to a young poet, letters about the artist Cezanne, and more. He raises the bar for all of us who aspire to embrace life fully, not only its joys, but also its sorrows. My friend knew that I was struggling with embracing sorrows, and the loneliness that often camps out on the hearts of artists and writers. Her gift to me was timely. I've been writing poetry again, which is always a wakeup call to my soul that something's stirring.

As an iconographer, I love that Rilke was touched by icons on his trips to Russia. He called them "milestones of God." There's a description by Clara Rilke that describes his encounter with icons: "A Ukrainian peasant was so touched by the inwardness of Rilke's appearance that he gave him an icon which until then had been the protector of his cottage. Rilke's attraction to these works was not primarily artistic; there was a presence in them of the artists' nearness to God, and it was this that moved him."

So today I'd like to share some of Rilke's wisdom. I hope his words inspire and strengthen you. If they do, please leave a comment and share your thoughts with my readers ... or leave a quote of your own choosing. As Madeleine L'Engle says, "we all feed the lake."

And now, a Rilke sampler:

For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.

What is required of us is that we love the difficult and learn to deal with it. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us. Right in the difficult we must have our joys, our happiness, our dreams: there against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are.

Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of this singularity.... Therein lies the enormous aid the work of art brings to the life of the one who must make it, that it is his epitome, the knot in the rosary at which his life says a prayer, the ever-returning proof to himself of his unity and genuineness, which presents itself only to him while appearing anonymous to the outside....

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

4 Blessings and 3 Questions

Good morning! I've got a treat that will get your mind off the weather for a little while. What a joy to meet best-selling short story author John Floyd at the Mississippi Writers Guild’s first annual conference in Raymond, Mississippi the weekend of August 3-4! John was one of 6 faculty members for the conference, and I was blessed by him in at least four ways on those two days:

1. He was the author assigned to critique one of my short stories, which I’ve already edited, with his help, and sent off in hopes of finding a home in one of several literary publications.
2. Before the workshop, I purchased and downloaded two of his Amazon Shorts, “The Willisburg Stage” and “Appearances” and read them both in order to get a sense of his style. They were both great! I’ve already ordered another, “Midnight,” and of course I purchased his book while we were at Pentimento bookstore in Clinton during the conference.
3. John led one of the workshops I attended at the conference, on “Writing Short Fiction,” and boy, did he pack a lot into one hour!
4. We ended up sitting across the table from each other at the final dinner at Scrooge’s in Jackson on Saturday night, sharing lots of laughs as we wound down from an intense conference.

So … I thought I’d do a brief interview with John for today’s post, but first, a little bio:

John M. Floyd (of Brandon, Mississippi) is the author of more than 500 short stories and fillers in publications like The Strand Magazine, Grit, Woman’s World, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, he has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, and several of his stories are featured on Amazon Shorts. (btw, you can read this same good stuff at

Rainbow’s End and Other Stories was published by Dogwood Press in 2006. It’s filled with thirty stories and has a little something for everyone―adventure, romance, mystery, and comedy. And now, a few questions for John:

SC: I’m wondering when and how and why an engineer got started writing short stories?

JF: That’s a good question. My first answer would be that it actually makes sense, because you have to be a little crazy to do either one. But the truth is, I got started writing fiction when I was traveling a lot with IBM, and spending so much time alone in airports, hotels, etc. I just found that dreaming up stories was a good way to pass the time. (Besides which, I worked with some pretty odd characters now and then, and they usually wound up in my stories.)

SC: You also teach a writing class at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, right? How long have you been teaching and how did you get involved, what’s it like and so forth?

JF: Yep, I’ve been teaching writing courses in the Adult Enrichment Program at Millsaps for six years now. I got started when novelist Jim Fraiser, who used to teach there, talked me into it. It’s actually great fun for me, and I’ve met some interesting folks. My former students include physicians, lawyers, cops, professors, bankers, published authors, accountants, judges, psychologists, journalists, truckers, artists, programmers, ministers, TV anchors, chefs, nuns, and many more. How’s that for a cross-section?

SC: Any advice to aspiring short story authors?
JF: My advice to any aspiring author would be this: Don’t get discouraged. All writers get rejections, and the trick is to not let them get you down. A quote I like is that “a professional writer is just an amateur writer who didn’t give up,” and there’s a lot of truth to that. I once heard it said another way, too: Writers have a high attrition rate—so don’t attrit.

Thanks, John! I'm treating myself to one short story a day from Rainbow's End ... loved "Creativity" yestersday ... today? Hmmmm, I think I'll read "One Less Thing."

Sunday, August 12, 2007

All Out of Faith: Getting Unstuck

It's 103 degrees here in Memphis ... at 5:30 p.m.! To escape the heat, I've decided to write about something wonderful that happened last fall ... when it was cooler here in Memphis! It was October. Close your eyes and imagine the cool breeze on your face. ahhhh. Now open your eyes so you can keep reading:-)

I had a life-changing experience. I went to the Southern Festival of Books in downtown Memphis, where I had the opportunity to meet and talk in person with three women who had a big impact on my growing interest in writing:

Lee Smith did a reading and Q & A about her latest book, On Agate Hill. I've enjoyed Lee's books for years, and it was inspirational, to say the least, to hear her and chat with her.

Beth Ann Fennelly read from her latest book of poetry, Tender Hooks. I met her outside the Cook Convention Center at her autograph table, and ended up buying about 6 copies of her book for myself and a few friends. Little did I know that she would be one of the faculty for the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop at Ole Miss in June (another life-changing event for me.) I've always loved poetry (reading and writing it) but she took my interest to a new level. And her craft talks at the writers workshop in Oxford were amazing. She encouraged me to try to bring the poet's rhythm to the writing of prose. sigh.

Cassandra King Conroy participated in a panel with three other authors and editors from the wonderful book All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, which includes a piece by yet another of my favorite authors, Sue Monk Kidd. Anyway, Sandra wrote about her book, The Sunday Wife, in an essay in All Out of Faith called "The Making of a Preacher's Wife" which touched too many familiar chords to mention. But I mentioned a few when we were chatting later, and when she autographed my book, she wrote, "To Susan, who knows what a Sunday wife is!" As I read her description of the roles she was stuck playing and her journey to break free of those roles, I cried:
"As long as I didn't stop long enough to question my life, as long as I refused to listen to an inner voice that cried who am I and what am I doing here, everything went well, and everyone was happy."
So what did she do? (more from "The Making of a Preacher's Wife):

".... I started a novel about a woman like myself... and I can see now that the writing of it was my salvation."
And what did I do? That very day, I went to High Point Coffee on Union Avenue and began writing my novel. I gave it a name, outlined the eight chapters and the main characters, and jumped right in. In two months, the first draft was done. With the help of some wonderful first readers and a talented freelance editor, I'm hoping to have The Sweet Carolines ready to send out to agents by the end of the year. You know, I might have gotten around to this eventually, but I owe so much to Sandra, Beth Ann and Lee for their inspiration. My debt to you ladies is big. And to Winnie-the-Pooh.
Winnie-the-Pooh? Of course. I picked up a coffee mug at Square Books in Oxford shortly after the book festival, and had to buy it because of the wonderful quote from Pooh:
"Bear began to sigh, and then found he couldn't because he was so tightly stuck; and a tear rolled down his eye, and he said, 'Then you read a Sustaining Book as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness."

Feeling stuck? Read a Sustaining Book and be comforted!

Friday, August 10, 2007

And the Winners Are...

Thanks soooo much to the three wonderful women who sent in guesses for my "first lines" contest, which has been posted for 48 hours now, so I'm ready to announce the winners and move on to something else:

And the winners are:

Keetha Reed guessed #6, which is a good thing since Keetha was also a participant at the recent writers workshop and hopefully had read keynote speaker Joshilyn Jackson's best-selling novel, Between, Georgia.

Sissy Yerger guessed #7, and yes, she had a big advantage, since she's an "early reader" for one of my not-yet-published short stories, "The Ballad of Emily Rose." Sissy lives in Clinton, Mississippi, where she keeps trying to retire from copyediting and other things she's so good at. It's my blessing that she comes to Memphis often to visit her precious grandson, and has taken several of my egg tempera icon classes. (That's Sissy with me in the photo holding her icon of Christ the Lifegiver.)

Charli Phillips guessed #5, which is a good indicator of the kind of quality stuff Charli reads, since these were first lines from C. S. Lewis' book 'Til We Have Faces. (Charli is mother to Patrick, my almost-12-year-old Godson, who was born in Mississippi but now lives near Seattle. Patrick has a dog named KUDZU, which just goes to show you that you can take the boy out of the South, but you can't take the South out of the boy! Hi, Patrick, and Happy Birthday on the 14th!)
Okay - here's the complete list of titles and authors:

#1 - Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
#2 - The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
#3 - The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd
#4 - The Sweet Carolines (a novel in progress) by Susan Cushman
#5 - 'Til We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
#6 - Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson
#7 - "The Ballad of Emily Rose" (an unpublished short story) by Susan Cushman
#8 - Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
So ... if any of the "first lines" hooked you, now you know where to go to read the rest of the story. (Hopefully #4 and #7 will be available some day!)

Since I mentioned icons earlier, this is a good time to explain a little bit for the unitiated. Icons are images of Christ, His Mother, angels, and saints, traditionally seen in Orthodox Churches all over the world. My church here in Memphis, St. John Orthodox Church, is part of the Antiochian Archdiocese. Icons are sometimes called "windows to Heaven," because they are holy images that help us see past the here and now into eternity. The process of painting an icon is sometimes called "writing" an icon, because the artist is writing the life of the saint in pictures (iconography) rather than in words (hagiography.) (Click on any of the underlined words in this paragraph to read more.)

It's a joy to have three of my icon students painting with me in my studio all day today and tomorrow. Laura, Kathy and Charles - I'll put the coffee pot on first thing in the morning! For more information about commissioning an icon or taking a class, just send me an email at

Claire Van Drimmelen from Memphis (top photo) and Anne Marie McCollum from Nashville and Daniel Root from Madison, Mississippi (bottom photo) work on icons at one of my recent workshops at St. John.

Thanks for stopping by - please leave a comment before you go!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

First Impressions

In the three days since I've been home from the writers' conference in Mississippi, no less than three people have told me I'm more than a little wired. Even my cat Oreo has picked up on my buzz, following me from room to room, hopeful that I'll settle down and hang out with her again soon. Finally I moved her special "stool" into the office near my computer so we could at least feel eachother's vibrations. Oreo is either 18 or 19, I forget which. Here she is with Baby Oreo who isn't real, and who now lives with my mother in an assisted living home in Mississippi. Baby Oreo has a battery inside and when you pet her tummy it moves up and down like she's really purring. I know, it's pretty scary, but my mom loves cats and she's allergic to them and her apartment is tiny and this way there's no smelly kitty litter or holes scratched in the furniture or food to buy or anything. No, she doesn't talk, but I guess you get what you pay for.
By now the observant reader is wondering what Oreo has to do with "First Impressions." I can't think of a thing right now, but I'll get back to you on that later if I do.
One of the many helpful things that went on at the writers conference last weekend was a session led by Joshilyn Jackson called "First Impressions." And another session on "First Pages," led by Sean Ennis. That's because these talented writers know how important it is to "hook" the reader, or the agent, or the editor, or the publisher ... asap. Of course I came home and re-worked the first line, first paragraph, and in some instances, first page, of several short stories I've got in the hopper as well as the opening lines of every chapter of my novel. (Did I mention that I'm a little buzzed?)
So ... just for fun I thought we'd try something. I just pulled six books off the shelves in my room and I'm typing up their "first lines" below. If you think you know the book or the author, send your answer in a comment. No Googling the phrases, guys --you're on the honor system here. Whether you're a writer or just an avid reader, you can think about how/if they hook you. And ... I threw a couple of wild cards into the mix (from my own works in progress) just to make it interesting. Can't wait to read your comments--just number your answers like the quotes.
Name the Author and/or Work for these Famous and Not Yet Known First Lines:
1. "When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy."
2. "My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call."
3. "In the middle of my marriage, when I was above all Hugh's wife and Dee's mother, one of those unambiguous women with no desire to disturb the universe, I fell in love with a Benedictine monk."
4. "Southern women wear their grief like their clothes, with a kick-ass style that enhances their mystique while camouflaging their pain. They've been raised to keep up appearances."
5."I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me....Being, for all these reasons, free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write."
6."The war began thirty years, nine months, and seven days ago, when I was deaf and blind, floating silent and serene inside Hazel Crabtree."
7. "Emily’s mission was fueled by a 130-year-old family secret. Her first exposure to this secret came pulsing out of a brand-new black-and-white RCA television set in 1955, when she was only nine years old. Gathered in the living room of their small house in Houston, they could have been any American family tuning in for the first time to the electronic images which began to pour into homes all over the country in the 1950s. But they weren’t just any family."
8. "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."
On your mark. Get set. Go! (I'll check back in later and see how you're doing!)

Monday, August 6, 2007

These Are My People

Driving down to Raymond, Mississippi on Friday for the first annual Mississippi Writers Guild Conference way to go, guys!) I was listening to the Rodney Atkins cd "If You're Going Through Hell" .... and singing along, especially on his single, "About the South" ... just gearing up for a weekend back in my home state and close to my home town, Jackson. I was sooooo excited because Joshilyn Jackson, (with me at right) bestselling author of gods in Alabama and Between, Georgia was going to be the keynote speaker. And because bestselling short story author, John Floyd (left, with MWG member, Lydia Bell), was going to be critiquing one of my stories. And because I was going to meet some new friends and fellow Southern writers. And buy some new books from sponsors, Leumuria Books in Jackson.

What an amazing conference! We started with a wine and cheese "mingle" at Pentimento Books in Olde Towne Square in Clinton, hosted by owner, Toni Walls (see Toni at left with artist, Wyatt Waters, whose studio is across the street.) (And check out author Keetha Reed, bottom, right, with Gwen Brown.) Then we were off in a caravan to Eagle Ridge Conference Center in Raymond for Joshilyn's opening address, which she gave on stage with no notes. The evening wound down out by the lake just after sunset.

On Saturday the Guild had organized six different choices for four different workshops - what a lineup! Jon Rawl, publisher of Y'all Magazine in Oxford gave up his last weekend as a bachelor to share some industry knowledge with us, and Barbara Garshman came down from NYC to talk about writing for television. Ole Miss writing prof Sean Ennis taught us about "first pages" and the how and why of revising. Rebecca Jernigan gave several sessions on Playwriting. C. Hope Clark enlightened us about grants for writing careers and John Floyd shared some craft talks on writing and publishing short stories. Oh, and Charles Tolbert taught us about media rights and author/publisher agreements. Yep. They covered all the bases.

Dinner at Scrooge's (see right) in north Jackson was organized by Mississippi Writers Guild member Lydia Bell, whose son waited on our very lively table which included author Jerusha Bosarge (on my left). Thanks so much to Richelle Putnam and all the MWG folks for organizing such an amazing conference! I came home with new friends and new energy for the work ahead - to continue my "almost" final revision of my first novel and polish up a couple of short stories.

Driving back up I-55 to Memphis, I turned Rodney Atkins back on and found myself singing along with his great song, "These Are My People."

So, Joshilyn and all you other amazing
Southern writers, this one's for you:

These are my people
This is where I come from
Were givin' this life everything we got
and then some
It ain't always pretty but it's real
It's the way we were made
Wouldn't have it any other way
These Are My People

We fall down and
We get up
We walk proud and
We talk tough
We got heart and
We got nerve
Even if we are a bit disturbed . . . These are my people!

The Drop and the Dream

Trying new things at fifty six is a little scary... things involving technology and cyberspace...but here I am. Where are these words going as they fly (yes, I'm fast) off my fingers? Hopefully into the warm, fuzzie hearts of friends, family and fellow writers and artists. Just as I was finishing up my initial template and profile, I was listening to my favorite cd, Kris Delmhorst's "Strange Conversation," and the words of my favorite song, "The Drop and the Dream,"came on, as if to hold my soul gently as I launched into space:

"In twilight and blindness all our work is done, we fumble and flail, we try and we fail, we only are what we almost become. It's both our curse and our grace, here in this place, to reach for heights that we'll never climb, and the distance between the drop and the dream is our one little piece of the divine. It's a weak little flame, it's all we've got to our name, so why be ashamed to let it burn?"

Deep breath. So much to say, but spent the day setting up, so I'm off to the grocery store and other such earthbound duties. Hope to come back up here later tonight and share about my exciting weekend at the Mississippi Writers Guild Conference, so please come back!