Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Good BlogGER is Hard to Find!

Forgive me, readers... I'm slipping again. For the past 3 years I've posted three times a week, until recently. But my slippage is for a good reason. More than one good reason actually:

1. I'm working really hard on a new novel and also continuing to submit essays for publication.

2. I'm helping my daughter plan her wedding, which is possibly the most important and joyful thing I've ever done.

3. I'm traveling a lot, which I love.

4. I'm participating in (and helping organize) writing workshops and conferences.

All that said, as I plan to leave for a week on the Gulf Coast tomorrow (watch for fun posts from Gulf Shores) I don't want to leave you guys without a fun blog post, so I'm going to point you in the direction of A Good Blog is Hard to Find, and its most recent post, "Hooked on the Oxycondoms," by Lauretta Hannon. I enjoyed meeting Lauretta at the Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas, in January. She'll also be a speaker at the Mississippi Writer's Guild's 4th annual conference in Vicksburg, Mississippi, August 6-7.

So enjoy Lauretta's delightful prose today, and hopefully I'll have something new up by Wednesday!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Empathetic Imagination: Exploring the Interior World through Writing

Studying my notes from this weekend’s Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop in Oxford, Mississippi, is like taking a course in the art and craft of writing. In addition to the manuscript critique sessions, led again this year by Scott Morris, there were three “craft talks” and an informational session with publicist (and former literary agent), Stella Connell. And while I’m anxious to get to work making revisions to my novel-in-progress, “Cherry Bomb: A Tryptich,” I’m just as eager to share a few treasures from this weekend, so here goes.

Scott Morris has been living in LA for the past year or so, so he is, I think, qualified to speak to the immediacy that film and painting have, that isn’t perhaps as available to the writer. But he also spoke about the interior world that is best explored by the writer. Actually, he said that writing is “the only art that can convey consciousness.” [As an iconographer, I’m not sure I completely agree, since icons draw the heart and soul into a spiritual realm in a way that secular art does not. Henri Nouwen wrote that icons “are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible.” But I’m pretty sure Scott wasn’t thinking of icons when he spoke of art.]

A scientist will explain color as refraction of light, but a child will ask, “but where is the color red?” “Human beings see color. They participate in the mental life,” Scott said. “When they fall in love, the scientists say it’s a reductionist survival thing… but there is the thought—the idea of love.” He spoke of Faulkner’s advice that “the best writing is about the human heart in conflict with itself.”

He encouraged us to expand our palettes as writers, to “give a damn about people in the most incredibly sensitive sort of way” in order to show what the world looks like to that person, to that character. He called this “empathetic imagination.” His words here built on a foundation he laid with his talk back in 2008, “Learning to See and Write Sunsets.”

Every year at this workshop, we gather a few more tools for our writers toolboxes (more about that later in this post) and we study the “how-tos” of our craft. But every year, Scott seems to make us dig deeper, into the world we know and the world we are trying to paint with our words. Last year he spoke about
“The Writer’s Cross: Transcending the Existential Shorthand.”

Every year we’re on the edge of our seats, trying to expand our understanding of the task at hand. He quotes Tolstoy, who says we must have a fresh view of the universe. And Mississippi writer, Lewis Nordon, who says you have to locate the moral heart of your book and nail it. It’s about intimacy—about revealing the deepest sense of who someone is—and the good news is that the writer can often do this when no one else can, through skillful dialogue, story structure, and building momentum. The writer can “go where angels fear to tread.”

Sean Innis built on Scott’s words with his craft talk on Saturday, “Actually Writing: Inspiration, Creation, Revision.” This was my second time to sit at Sean’s feet—the first time was back in August of 2007, at the first Mississippi Writer’s Guild Conference. He’s a great teacher, and I hope I came away with a few more tools in my box. I think my best new tool is Sean’s wisdom about one of the most difficult parts of a book to write—the ending. Drawing from Aristotle’ “Poetics,” (Sean was a philosophy major) he said that every good drama must be both surprising and inevitable. You want to surprise the reader (I didn’t see that coming!) but not jar him out of the flow of the story. And when you’re not sure when to end the story, “give your characters one more day.” This keeps the plot moving. And when you finally say enough, don’t wrap everything up too neatly. “Good conflict resonates.” Even in the revision process, “good editing opens up rather than closes down the story.”

And then on Sunday morning Neil White’s talk on “The Art vs. the Craft of Creative Writing” gave us even more tools, tips and inspiration. (Neil has a terrific memoir out in both hardback and paperback now, "In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.")There was no need for Neil to apologize to Doug and me (which he did) because we had both heard him give this talk at the Seaside Writers Workshop last fall, because I could hear this over and over and always find something fresh to work with. I think Neil’s “cinematic scene machine” diagram is what’s staying with me the most vividly. He showed us how to create scenes using our brain, five senses, dialogue, description and action, but also how to separate out the “art” side of writing from the “craft” side. All that and more in 45 minutes! At one point during his talk, a workshop participant raised his hand and said, “Now this is what I came to this workshop for!” We all laughed. There had already been two full days of craft talks, critique sessions, and open mics, but the “how tos” that Neil presented were the tools this man had been waiting for all weekend. I think many of us felt this way during each event!

When I think back about the weekend, I realize that one thing that makes the Yoknapatawpha Writers Workshop special is the balance the faculty always brings—feeding both sides of our brains, arousing our psyches, filling our toolboxes, and inspiring us to do the hard work of sitting down and putting words on the page every day. I can never hear too much about voice—the personality that emerges through the telling of the story—and about the importance of every sentence, every word, which communicate the story. And for me, personally, having switched genres from memoir to novel since last year’s workshop, it was encouraging to hear Scott say that I’ve “gotten above the volatile material.” I’m not sure I could have ever done that with memoir (or certainly not as well as Mary Karr, Augusten Burroughs, Anne Lamott, Haven Kimmel and others have done it) so I’m excited to be moving forward with a piece of fiction.

Another highlight of the weekend was Neal Walsh’s reading (and signing) of his new book, The Prospect of Magic, at Off Square Books on Saturday night. After four years of learning from Neal at these workshops, it was such a joy to see his magic in print and to share in the celebration of his book.

Oxford author, Tom Franklin, introduced Neal, and the crowd hung on his every word during the reading. Kudos, Neal!

My fellow workshop participants are always a huge part of the weekend for me, and friendships are always formed (and sometimes writing critique groups) that last for years. I was especially happy to spend time with two other “emerging writers” I’ve met in the past few years, Keetha Mosely, from Winona, Mississippi, and Ellen Ann Fentress, from Jackson, Mississippi. Keetha and I met at the first Mississippi Writers Guild Conference in 2008, and Ellen Ann and I were both presenters at the Southern Women Writers Conference at Berry College last fall. Renewing these friendships in invaluable to me.

Coincidences often happen, but I didn’t see this one coming: Rick Ward and I ended up sitting next to each other during the workshop, and I discovered that he replaced my father on the Mississippi Charitable Gaming Commission when my dad died back in 1998. Rick’s book, The Lawmaker, is a fictionalized story of the corruption and coverup that took place (and still does) in the Mississippi casinos. I’ll save the juicy details for a later post when I review the book.

So now it’s back to work on the novel. Can’t wait to dive in and apply what I learned about the art and craft of writing this weekend, not only from Scott, Neil and Sean, but from my fellow participants. (a record 20 folks this year!) Their feedback is in valuable to me, as others striving with me to explore the interior world through writing, to learn to see colors and to show them to our readers. Here’s to you: John, Ellen Ann, Karen, Steve, Thomas, Gretchen, Oxana, Eli, Keetha, Donna, Meg, Rick, Doug, Ben, Clyde, Lesleigh, Patti, Corrine and Bobbie!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Middle Soul Food

I’ve been thinking about icons a lot lately, for a number of reasons:

One is that icons and iconography play a big part in my novel-in-progress, so the writing has stirred back up my love and respect for this spiritual art form. I haven’t written (iconographer’s term for painting an icon) an icon in over a year, having made a decision to “retire” from doing commissioned work and teaching workshops in order to have more time for writing essays, and hopefully books.

But then when I put together my application for the 2011 Seaside Escape to Create Residency, I included icon lectures, demonstrations, and even abbreviated workshops as part of my community service proposal. (Each artist, writer and musician who receives the one-month residency does a community service related to her work while she’s there.) The reason I did this, I think, is because of the role that iconography plays in the novel that I would be writing while I’m at Seaside for that month, "Cherry Bomb: A Triptych." It seemed a natural tie-in, and I hope I will be given the opportunity to carry through with my proposal.

And then today a friend came over and we were visiting and at one point she asked me how long it took us to collect all the icons that we have in our home. (She’s getting a new apartment and was thinking about where she might place them.) I told her that we’d been adding to our collection for over twenty years—some were gifts, some we got while on pilgrimages, and a few were hand-written icons that I had done. But the main thing, I told her, was to have a specific place in your home for the icons where you would pray before them. It’s okay to have icons on other walls in the house, but they aren’t just “decoration.” They’re spiritual art, with a spiritual purpose. Their beauty is not of this world.

After she left, I started thinking about this more. I got back out an article I wrote a few years ago and re-read it: “Icons Will Save the World.” What struck me as I read the words I had written when I was still actively writing icons was how far I have moved away from focusing on an important aspect of the icon—its spiritual beauty. This section of the essay pulled me back in:


In his book Icons: Theology in Color , Eugene Trubetskoi said that the beauty of the icon is spiritual. “Our icon painters,” Trubetskoi said, “had seen the beauty that would save the world and immortalized it in colors.”

We are innately creative, because we are made in the image of a creative God. As the twentieth century-abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky said, we all strive to make “beauty and order from the chaos of the fallen world.” Our Creator has given us the freedom to do this, but sadly many artists and writers abuse this freedom. The results of that abuse are often pornographic, or at best self-serving exposes masquerading as art or literature.

Good secular art, music, literature, and architecture serve to refine and form our souls and make them better disposed to spiritual or liturgical art, music, literature, and architecture. In an essay called “Forming Young Souls, ” Fr. Seraphim Rose encouraged parents to expose their children to what he calls the “Dushevni Diet”—that which feeds the middle part of the soul. “The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music.” His premise is that people raised on such a “diet” would be better prepared to receive the higher, or spiritual foods. Perhaps they would have developed an appetite for the patient work of prayer, worship, and yes, venerating icons.

As I continue my work, whether writing essays, memoirs or novels, I hope that whatever I produce will fall into the category of “middle soul food.” I hope it will help my readers to develop an appetite for spiritual art. And I pray that my brush with iconography will help me to create beauty and order out of the chaos.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pub Crawl

It's too hot to do much of anything today, so I thought I'd try to cool off with a favorite activity: a "pub crawl." Now I'm sure you midtown Memphis folks are thinking I'm walking up and down Madison Avenue bar-hopping like folks do on Saint Patrick's Day, but the kind of "pub" I'm talking about is publications... magazines and newspapers. So grab a cold one and click on any of the links below that interest you and join me in some LIGHT reading! (Or better still, subscribe to these excellent publications!)

The Oxford American Magazine's "Best of the South"
issue is out, and full of work by excellent writers, several of whom I'm fortunate enough to call friends. Check out these pieces:

My friend and fellow Jackson, Mississippi, native, Ellen Ann Fentress, has a great historical essay, "Intimate Strangers," about Jackson authors Richard Wright and Eudora Welty, who were neighbors but never met. Why?

Ellen Ann and I met when we were both presenters at the Southern Women Writers Conference at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, last September. And we both had pieces published in the January issue of the Southern Women's Review.

Ole Miss poet, writer and creative writing instructor, Beth Ann Fennelly, has a great piece, "Ode to Ten Sexy Books," which you can actually read here.

Another Oxford writer, Jack Pendarvis, has a hilarious tribute to "almost odes" in "I Don't Hate It!" (I was fortunately to have Jack contribute to the critique process for two of my short stories in the workshops Barry Hannah led in Oxford last summer. Good writer and all-around great guy!)

My newest friend in the bunch, Ad Hudler (whom I met at the Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas, this pat January) has an ecological/psychological essay called, "Are You a Tree Bitch" that's well worth the read.

An all-around great issue and must-read for the dog days of summer!

Moving on to another favorite pub (yes, I'll have another glass of Monkey Bay, please) I always enjoy Garden & Gun, with its beautiful photography and graphic design. And there are always great little literary treats tucked inside. In the June/July issue, I especially enjoyed "A Letter From Harper Lee," by Alice Randall. You can read the article here, but you'll be missing the feel of the paper this magazine is printed on, the smell of the ink, the gorgeous photography. I highly recommend a hard copy:-)

A much less literary but equally refreshing pub that I enjoy is Real Simple Magazine. I've been a subscriber since the first issue. Here's a cool treat in the July issue: (which doesn't have links up on its web site yet... they still have the June issue up--imagine that!)

On page 209, under "Cool Summer Sips," I found this recipe for Frozen Blueberry Lemonade that I'm dying to try:

In a blender, combine 3 cups ice, 1 1/2 cups blueberries, 1 cup lemonade, 1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, and 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar and purree until smooth. To make it a cocktail, add 1/2 cup vodka to the blender before pureeing. Whrrrrrr~ wish I had some blueberries and lemonade. And a blender:-)

Have a cool evening, everybody!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Cherry Bomb? Saving Mare/Mary? Tagged? CALL FOR TITLES!

A couple of weeks ago, in my post on "A Good Blog is Hard to Find," I sent out a CALL FOR NAMES for one of the characters in my novel-in-progress. It was both fun and helpful receiving all the comments on the blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, and even a phone call I received from one enthusiastic supporter! As a result, I settled on "Mare" for the lead character (full name is Mary Katherine Henry at this point, but that's subject to change.) I had settled on "Emily" as the name for the abstract expressionist painter/professor, but I'm going to work "Mary" into her name somehow. (I actually have a plan for that, but it's part of the plot.) And the third character is historical: the fifth century prostitute-turned-desert hermit, St. Mary of Egypt.

And so here I am wrapping up chapter one and a page or two into chapter two, and I'm still feeling a little sluggish in my writing. I think it's because I don't have a TITLE for the book yet. I know the title could change during the course of writing the book, or in working with an agent or publisher, but somehow naming it will help the creative process, I think.

To that end, I just spent the morning looking over what I've written so far, and researching a few books and articles (including two of my own published essays) that deal with some of the subject matter explored in the novel, like:



childhood sexual abuse

abstract expressionism

graffiti art

psychological, emotional, and spiritual healing

And so I've come up with a few ideas and would love your feedback, on these ideas and any new ones you might come up with! Of course I Googled all of these to be sure there aren't already published books with the same names, and I did find three that had already been taken:-(

The Girl With No Shadow by Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat)

Colors of the Soul
by June McLeod (on color therapy and healing)

And the title I most wanted to use is "Cherry Bomb," which is a Jack Daniels thriller, so I wonder if I could use it anyway? Especially if I named it, "Cherry Bomb: A Novel," and it's in a different genre? (The reason I want to use it is because the graffiti artist in the book, one of the three main characters, uses "Cherry Bomb" to sign her graffiti tags, because the term "bomb" is often used to describe a graffiti piece, as in "the wall was bombed" with graffiti....)

So, here are the other names I came up with this morning. I know you don't know the whole plot (and I won't tell you) but I'd still love your input. DO keep in mind the three main characters all have "Mary" in their names. So, if you walked into a book store and saw a book with one of these titles, which one would you pick up, and why? Here goes: (in no particular order)

Broken Palettes
Splattered Images
The Hidden Palette
Tagged: A Novel
(when walls and trains, etc., are painted with graffiti, they are "tagged")
Painted Stories
Painted Windows
(icons are often called "Windows to Heaven")
Mary's Shadow (icons don't have shadows; and think shadows in a Jungian sense)
Saving Mare/Mary ("Saving Grace" is my favorite TV show)
Finding Mare/Mary (as in finding her authentic self)
Painting Mary (as in painting St. Mary of Egypt's image, her icon)

Please leave a comment! Thanks! Now, I've got the afternoon to clean up my writing sample for the 2010 Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop (June 18-20) where the first 12 pages of the book will be critiqued by faculty and participants, so bye for now. I'll check back later to see what you brilliant readers have come up with!

P.S. The bottom three images in this post are by contemporary graffiti artist, Shepard Fairey.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


This past Sunday there was an article in the New York Times’ “Family Matters” column by Bruice Feiler titled, “The Godparent Trap.” Mr. Feiler gave a bit of history about the tradition of Godparenting in “the early centuries of the church,” but then focused the rest of his article on what happened not only after the Great Schism (1054) but mainly what happened after the Protestant Reformation (1500s):

“As Christianity splintered through the Reformation, each denomination handled the custom slightly differently—arguing over the number, the official duties, even the sexual rules governing godparents. … Over time, the role became less about church doctrine and more about friendship…. Godparenting, it seems, has always been more talk than action.”

The quantum leaps Mr. Feiler makes in three short paragraphs exclude completely what continued (and continues to this day) to be the sacred role of Godparents in the Orthodox (Christian) Church. And while his intentions are good—at one point he calls for “a new generation of godparents”—he goes on to make up three new “ground rules” for godparents: (1) Have many godparents for each child, to build a community. The old “it takes a village” concept; (2) Assign each godparent a specific task; and (3) Continue to add more godparents throughout the child’s life “as needed.” While these ideas might have some merit, from a sociological point of view, they are one man’s suggestions and not the tradition of the historic church. I think each of his rules are possibly answers to the various ways that society as a whole, and individual churches in particular, have failed to maintain healthy communities for their families. So, what is the Orthodox Christian’s answer to these problems?

To begin with, the Orthodox Christian Church has standing “rules” or guidelines that go back centuries. (Some of those guidelines are discussed in this web article, “Godparenting 101.” And while they vary a bit from one ethnic group to another (the Greeks might do some things different from the Arabs or the Russians, and the convert parishes may end up adopted a variety of expressions of these traditions) the intent, I believe, is common to all Orthodox jurisdictions: the Godparent takes spiritual responsibility for the child, promising to raise him in the faith, and to interact with him throughout his life in a way similar to a family member. It’s a high calling, and one not to be entered into lightly.

That said, it’s a bit scary for me to admit that I have 13 Godchildren. Two are no longer living, and those living range in age from 7 to 62. (When adults convert to the Orthodox Church, they have adult “sponsors,” who serve a similar role as a Godparent.) I’m sure I’ve failed many of them terribly over the years… sometimes forgetting a special day (Name days, birthdays, anniversaries, baptismal dates, etc.) and often just letting too much time go by without calling them to go grab a cup of coffee (the adults) or come over for dinner, or to accompany a child to a soccer game or ballet performance. But I do try to pray for each of them every day. (And yes, I fail at that, too, but when I do say my morning or evening prayers, I include them.)

But as we all get older and some of us make different choices about our church homes—some marrying into other faith traditions, others moving away or choosing not to participate to the same degree they once did in church events—I realize how important the family aspect of the relationship is. Just as I love all three of my own children no matter what church they choose, whom they choose to marry, where they choose to live, I also love my Godchildren in this same way. Do I wish they would all remain active in the Orthodox Church? There was a time when I would have said yes, unreservedly. But recently I’ve come to realize that what I want most for them—and what I ask God for in my prayers for them—is that they know that they are loved, by me, by their spouses, their friends, their pastors, their other Godparents, everyone who is significant in their lives. And that they know they are loved by God. Unconditionally.

I agree with Mr. Feiler when he says: “Before your godchild has to friend you on Facebook, be a friend-model of an old fashioned sort. Make a call. Make a date. Make a memory.”

And so I say to Mickey, Sarah, Damon, Madeleine, Damon, Hannah, Patrick, Katherine, Julie, Stacy, Sophie and Sue: please forgive me, and I’ll try to do better! And to Rose and Mary Allison (who are in Heaven): please pray for me. I love you all.