Monday, August 30, 2010

Choosing, Prepping & Networking: The Why and How of Writing Conferences

“They are too expensive.”
That’s the number one reason I hear as to why folks don’t attend one. Sometimes beginning or emerging writers don’t take themselves seriously enough. If you were in a different line of work that offered professional educational opportunities, you’d probably save and budget for them. Writing is professional work.

“I’m afraid to show anyone my work.”
That’s probably number two. But unless you don’t plan to ever show your work to anyone (just keep a journal) you’re going to have to put yourself “out there” eventually, and the faculty and other attendees at writing conferences really are there to help you, not to put you down.

Writing conferences and workshops can be intimidating, until you get one or two under your belt. But they can also be inspirational, educational, and a treasure house of networking opportunities.

I’ve been promoting the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference since I got together with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes back in April for our initial planning meeting. But I’ve been excited about the prospect of Bringing Lee Gutkind back to the South, as well as a plethora of other terrific authors, editors, agents and publishers, since the first time I attended one of his one-day workshops, back in 2007.

But today I want to share something a little different about these workshops and conferences. I’ve been to about eight or ten of them over the past four years, (and served as presenter and panelist at one) and now that I’m one of the co-organizers for the CNF Conference in Oxford this coming November, I decided it’s time to put on my organizer hat and write about the WHY and HOW of these conferences. Especially since I’ve received a few emails and Facebook messages asking my advice about which conferences and workshops would best fit certain emerging writers’ needs. So, here goes:


A writer’s conference (like the CNF Conference in November) is usually a 3-day affair or longer, and often includes workshops within the conference. A conference will offer panels organized around certain themes, like writing short stories or magazine articles, getting published, working with editors, etc. If it’s a fairly large conference, there could be the opportunity to meet dozens of authors, editors, agents and publishers. Some conferences include a “pitch session” which offers an opportunity to pitch your book to publishing industry representatives. Choose a conference when you want the broad spectrum experience of the writing world.

A writing workshop is usually a one-to-three-day event where works-in-progress are critiqued by faculty and students together in a workshop format. Usually each writer is asked to send in a certain number of pages of her work in progress, and this work is made available to the other writers as well as the faculty leading the workshop. Each piece is “workshopped” at some point during the event—usually with 30 minutes to an hour to focus on each piece. The writer goes home with red-pencil marks from everyone, and her own personal notes taken during the workshop. My experience in these manuscript critique sessions is that I often learn as much from the suggestions made for others’ work as for my own.

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS? A conference that includes one-day manuscript critique workshops, like we’re offering in Oxford in November.


Good writing is good writing, whether it’s fiction, creative nonfiction (which includes memoir, essay, and other forms), magazine feature articles, journalism/reporting, travel writing, or whatever. A writer can improve her skills for any genre at a conference/workshop no matter which genre is being featured. So, even if you’re working on the great American novel or short story, you can come and learn more about your craft from the faculty at a creative nonfiction conference. My work-in-progress is fiction (although I still write essays) but I know I’ll learn a great deal from all the professionals we’re bringing in. Conversely, I have submitted chapters of a memoir (nonfiction) at a fiction writing workshop in the past, and the critique sessions were just as helpful.


If you aren’t familiar with the faculty, Google each one and learn about what kinds of books they write, where they teach, and try to get a handle on their style, to help you decide which workshop to attend. Also check to see if they have a “theme” for their workshop. For example, in the 2010 CNF Conference, the 6 pre-conference workshops include manuscript critique workshops with two very diverse writers, workshops on personal essay, journalistic reporting, making words cinematic, and a workshop with two agents. I was having a hard time choosing, so Neil White (fellow co-organizer) suggested I participate in the agent workshop, since I’ve attended many critique sessions and craft talks. This will be an opportunity for me to learn to pitch my work to the publishing world.


In addition to sending in your excerpt for the manuscript critique session, you can prepare yourself to get the most from the conference in several other ways. Be sure and read and red-pencil the other manuscripts submitted for your session, and be prepared to offer constructive comments during the workshop. If you plan to participate in a pitch session, write and practice your pitch—which should be a three-sentence “ad” for your book. It takes some work to get your book title, hook and basic premise down to three sentences. Reading blurbs by authors on favorite books helps, as do the inside book cover descriptions. Bring business cards to trade with new friends, and also to hand off to publishing industry professionals you will meet.


Attend all the social events at the conference. Join others for “lunch on your own.” Be genuine—don’t network just for the sake of promoting yourself. When you get home, whip off a few emails to some of the people you met (you got their email address from their business card, right?) or friend them on Facebook. Sometimes those acquaintances develop into lasting friendships.

Want to read 10 other conference organizers’ advice on making the most of any writing event? Read “Conference Scene” by Linda Formichelli in the September 2010 issue of Writers Digest Magazine.

Check Writers Digest and Poets & Writers Magazine for ongoing listings of conferences and workshops.

If you decide it’s a good fit for you, we hope to see you at the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford in November! Feel free to contact me with any questions, either by email or Facebook message. I’d love to hear from you and help you decide which workshop is a good fit for you!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Synthesia: The Taste of Slightly Burned Toast

It’s always like Christmas coming early when Poets & Writers Magazine arrives in my mailbox. The September-October issue is no exception.

The first article I read (with relish) was Rachel Kadish’s “Facing the Fear.” Her words confirmed those written by Laurel Ingalls Wilder in an old episode of “Little House on the Prairie” that I was watching while working out on the elliptical the other day. (I read/watch a broad spectrum of work.) In the “Little House” episode, Laura went to the city to meet with editors about her first book-in-progress, and learned some hard lessons about holding onto herself in the face of big financial offers that were attached to corrupt editorial control. One of the editors took her to dinner one night, and as he proceeded to get drunk, Laura reprimanded him for not continuing to work on his own novel… for hiding his fear of failure in alcohol. (If you think “Little House” is tame, you haven’t been paying attention.)

So, I continued my feast with a listing of writing contests, submission deadlines, craft articles, and finally, I dove into the cover story, “The Taste of Memory: A Profile of Monique Truong,” by Renee H. Shea. I was fascinated on several levels.

First of all, the courage it took for Truong to face down her hurtful past and write her second novel, “Bitter in the Mouth,” which comes out August 31.

But what caught and held my attention most was Truong’s use of the condition known as “synthesia,” with which she afflicts (probably not the best word—synthesia can be a blessing) her main character, Linda Hammerick. No idea what this is? I didn’t, either, so of course I Googled it, especially looking for its place in literature:

“Synthesia is a neurological condition in which one or more sensory modalities become linked. However, for over a century, the term synesthesia has also been used to refer to artistic and poetic devices which attempt to express a linkage between the senses. To better understand the influence of synesthesia in popular culture and the way it is viewed by non-synesthetes, it is informative to examine books in which one of the main characters is portrayed as experiencing synesthesia. In addition to these fictional portrayals, the way in which synesthesia is presented in non-fiction books to non-specialist audiences is instructive.”

I’m also fascinated that Vladimir Nabokov used synthesia as a romantic ideal in his book, “The Gift,” and then that Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky used it to combine color, hearing, touch, and smell.

How does Truong use it in “Bitter in the Mouth”? She was excited to learn that people with synthesia often have heightened memory, and she also saw it as a way to write about “the things I love: food, memory, and differences.”

I won’t spoil the rest of the article for you (read it in Poets & Writers!) but I will leave you with a small part of the excerpt included in the P&W piece. I guess we’ll all have to read the book to get the whole story!

Excerpt: Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong

“The truth about my family was that we disappointed one another. When I heard the word, ‘disappoint,’ I tasted toast, slightly burned. But when I saw the word written, I thought of it first and foremost as the combining or the collapsing together of the words disappear and point, as in how something in us ceased to exist the moment someone let us down....

”What was gone was gone. We just could no longer remember how we ended up with so much less of our selves. Why we expected nothing, why we deserved so little, and why we brought strangers into our lives to fill the void."

I can taste that toast, can’t you?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Divine Darkness: At the intersection of Art, Religion and Psychology

It might seem preposterous writing about such a deep topic (divine darkness) only 24 hours after yesterday’s post where I said “I got nothing.” But sometimes I think we have to admit we have nothing—that we are empty—before we can be filled again.

Last night I went to a friend’s house for “wine and whine.” We spent a sumptuous two and a half hours visiting (over a few glasses of wine and some tasty baked dates, stuffed with feta cheese, wrapped in bacon) and I was so happy to discover that our whining was really minimal. Sure, we shared a few of our current struggles, but somehow we seemed to focus on the good things in our lives for most of the evening. (I attribute this nice direction to my friend, an amazing, nurturing woman.) As I drove home, I thought about how sometimes when we acknowledge our “dark sides” we find balance, healing, wholeness. And we can do this without “whining.”

So, this morning, after my morning prayers in front of my icons, and two cups of coffee, I found myself reflecting on a book I just started reading recently—“Shadow Dance: Liberating the Power & Creativity of Your Dark Side”—by David Richo. A few years ago I read Richo’s wonderfully helpful book, “How To Be An Adult: A Handbook on Psychological and Spiritual Integration” and recently I discovered this second book. It’s meant to be a workbook, with suggested written exercises throughout, so it may take me a while to get through it. I mention the book here because it’s all about how to “taste” our shadows (the dark, unowned sides of our egos, in Jungian terms) in “bite-size chunks that surprise us by how nourishing they are.” His book is about befriending our shadows. It’s really a dance, and one that I’m learning slowly.

As an Orthodox Christian, I embrace psychology at the intersection of the mind and the soul—where it “fits” with Orthodox spirituality. A few years ago I discovered a book by Saint Gregory of Nyssa called “The Life of Moses.” In it, St. Gregory talks about what he calls “divine darkness.” For most of my Christian life I had heard that the place for spiritual growth and healing was in the light, not in the darkness, so this was new to me. And it’s much too complex to represent well in a paragraph or two… my intent is to introduce the concept here. Nyssa’s theology isn’t just about finding God in the darkness—it’s a procession. As he says in his work, “From Glory to Glory”:

“Moses’ vision of God began with light; afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the darkness.”

As I was remembering these ideas this morning, I clicked on Facebook to find this wonderful entry by one of my favorite artists, Brian Andreas (Story People). I have two of Andreas’ prints framed and hanging on the wall just above my computer screen. Today he posted a beautiful, short video, which illustrates one of his pieces:

“opening a door to the mysteries, hoping to shed a little dark on all the stuff we think we know.”

Watch the video here.

And as Forrest Gump would say, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I Got Nothing (Is it 5 o'clock yet?)

I got nothing.

How does the saying go, "Pride comes before a fall?" Right after bragging that I had done three blog posts a week for three years, now here I sit staring at this page and I GOT NOTHING.

I could give you my excuses for this blogger's block:

1. Was waiting on the plumber (who finally came) and when maintenance is going on in the house, I'm on edge.

2. Was also waiting on the dryer repair folks to call back and set a time to come fix the dryer.

3. Am still waiting for the business manager at Mom's nursing home to call back to help me figure out why Medicaid hasn't kicked in ... why I still have an invoice from them. (Okay, she just called, and it is way complicated. Something about Part B premiums that we will be reimbursed for but for now we have to pay. sheesh. How do the elderly without higher education figure this out?)

4. Haven't even called Verizon yet to ask what a "premium message" (that costs $9.99) is on my recent invoice.

5. Have other items on the perpetual "to do" list... some are fun (regarding plans for my daughter's wedding) and some are just ongoing life maintenance, you know?

So, I have a question for my readers who are writers or artists: How do you get into a creative mode when all this "life maintenance" stuff isn't in order yet? Are you able to block it out while you write or paint? Or do you have to have it in order first? I'd love some advice here!

To that end, I'm excited that I've just made plans to spend most of the month of November (and the last week of October) at Seagrove Beach, alone, WRITING. Can't wait! This book is pushing on me to birth it, and it's going to take more than a couple of hours here and there.

In the meanwhile, since I have nothing of substance to share with you today, I'll share something really fun. The Jimmy Buffett Concert that was scheduled for Gulf Shores while I was there with my Goddaughter, Katherine Thames, back in June, got re-scheduled for a later date (due to weather) so we weren't able to go. But it was on CMT this weeekend, and you can watch the entire concert online, here! ENJOY! But you might want to wait 'til 5 o'clock. Oh, wait! It's 5 o'clock somewhere!

Meanwhile, I'm going to see if I can overcome the block by working on the novel for a few hours this afternoon:-)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Use Words. Be Interesting.

Those are award-winning author Richard Bausch’s two “rules for writing.” Sounds easy, until you try it at home.

What a treat it was to hear him read from his work and discuss writing at Republic Coffee last Thursday night. Bausch currently serves as The Moss Chair of Excellence in the Writing Program at The University of Memphis. I was introduced to him through a friend and fellow writer and artist, Emma French Connelly. Emma took one of my icon workshops at St. John in March of 2008, and then we “met” again on Facebook recently and have had a soul connection ever since. She took two of Bausch’s fiction writing classes at the University of Memphis, and sent me a link to the Facebook event page for his reading last week.

Bausch started out by reading a short-short story of his called “1951,” which can be found in his book, “The Stories of Richard Bausch.” I was instantly intrigued, since that’s the year I was born! The way this story came about it interesting in itself: the editor at Esquire Magazine called him and asked for a 200-word story. Bausch sent him two, and they turned them both down, saying they were “too dark.” Bausch doesn’t like “flash fiction,” and feel that it takes more words to get the story told. But he loves the short story format, saying it’s like a good novel.

Some of the advice he gave as he talked and fielded questions from the thirty or so folks who showed up at Republic to hear him read included this:

“As a writer, you visit trouble upon your characters. Don’t think ‘conflict.’ Think extreme. Bad. TROUBLE.”

He said that if the writer believes in himself, if his work moves him deeply, it will move others.

He also stressed the importance of being CLEAR when you write, even if it takes 75 times (revisions) to get it right, which is often does.

Trust the form itself.

“If you let go enough to write fiction—for itself—you can surpass your own moral limitations and see beyond what holds you back as a person.”

One listener asked, “How do you hold onto the voice of your characters in this age of sensory overload?”

Bausch answered, “I’m not myself. I only think about the characters and their story when I’m writing.”

His parting words of advice to fledgling writers? Imitate good writing. And read.

Oh, and his 2 “rules of writing”:

Use words.

Be interesting.

‘nuff said.

P.S.: These photographs of graffiti art on trains were on display inside Republic Coffee, by photographer Lauren Beyer … an added treat for me, on my first visit to Republic since they moved to Walnut Grove.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Inform, Form, Transform

It's been a difficult week. More visits from my old friend, Acedia. And just old-fashioned fatigue. Or as my Mom used to say, "the blues."

Haven't been able to put my finger on the main culprit... probably just too much introspection. Waiting on some news all week and finally got the disappointing verdict today. (A writer's residency I applied for.)

At any rate, I've spent some time just slowing down. Napping (yes). Reading. Praying.

And then I found this amazing documentary, "Icon." It lasts an hour, so set aside a little time if you want to watch it. Or just pause it and watch it in segments. Either way, it's amazing on several levels:

If you're an Orthodox Christian, it's one of the most beautiful and informative videos I've ever seen on Orthodoxy and iconography. I love Anthony Vrame, author of The Educating Icon, who talks about iconography throughout the video. At one point he talks about how icons "inform, form, and transform" those who venerate them.

If you're Romanian, you'll be right at home, as much of it is filmed in Romania. The monastery I've visited many times in Michigan, Holy Dormition Monastery, is Romanian, and the iconographer there, Mother Olympia, is from Romania. (That's her, helping me with my icon of St. Mary of Egypt and Saint Basil the Great, a few years ago.)

If you're neither, but have an inkling of interest in iconography and eastern spirituality, you're in for a treat.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A New Take on Eldercare

My daughter and I went to Jackson (Mississippi) to visit my mother again on Friday. It was a tough visit for me, for a couple of reasons. First, because Mom was taking a nap when we arrived, which is unusual for her. An aid helped me get her up and dressed so we could wheel her up to the lobby to visit, since her roommate was also napping. It was sobering and humbling to help the aid change mother’s diaper and to hear Mother apologize for “making a mess.”

“You were napping, Mom,” I patted her hand and kissed her forehead. “It’s fine, you’re all cleaned up now.”

Her frown slowly changed to a sleepy smile.

She was excited about the giant cookies we got for her, and for the next two hours the three of us sat in the lobby eating cookies and visiting. It wasn’t anything new that she couldn’t remember what Beth was doing and asked the same questions over and over. But what was hard was when we got ready to leave. She made the saddest face I’ve ever seen and said, “You didn’t tell me you were leaving so soon!” And nothing we could say would really cheer her up as we hugged and kissed goodbye.

“I’ll be back in about two weeks, Mom,” didn’t dispel her sad expression. She has no concept of time any more. She just didn’t want us to leave.

All weekend I’ve felt guilty that I’m not there for her more, and even that she has to be in a nursing home at all. She’s getting excellent care, and I know it’s the best place for her, but it’s just hard to shake the feelings of sadness that she is living her last days in such a state of mental and physical deterioration, being cared for by people other than her family.

A friend just shared a link on Facebook to Frederica Mathewes-Green’s Ancient Faith Radio podcast from a year ago, “Tender Love and the Dormition.” I listened to the podcast, and then I read the transcript (which you can do at this link) and I was struck by several things.

First, Green also has an 82-year-old mother in a nursing home—in a different city from where she lives—so she understands the stress that I feel about my own mother’s situation. She also reflects a bit in this podcast on how much work is involved in caring for the elderly, and as a result, how elder abuse and neglect have existed throughout history.

Green’s reflections were written last year on this date because of the annual Orthodox celebration of the Dormition of the Mother of God on August 15. I love what she says about the love and care shown for the Mother of God in her old age by the Apostle John, who lived with her and took care of her.

So, my offering on this feast day is Green’s podcast. It only takes about 13 minutes to listen to it, or you can simply read the transcript. Either, way, Blessed Feast Day!

(P.S. Here’s an excellent homily on this feast by a Orthodox priest in the United Kingdom.)

(P.S.S. Because Monday is the date that fans of Elvis Presley commemorate his death, last year at this time I did a blog post called “Schooled on Elvis by an English Nun,” which you can read here if you’re interested.)

This is an icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Is It Really Lost?

I came late—but with abandon—to the wound that Pat Conroy calls “geography.” And while Conroy wrote about his beloved South Carolina low country, I left my heart along the sandy white beaches of Northwest Florida. Or maybe I should say I’m finding it there again, fifty-something years after my first visit to the Gulf Coast in the 1950s. Unlike many of our fellow Mississippians, my family didn’t make beach trips an annual thing, mostly, I think, because of my father’s avocation. We followed him around golf courses all over the South during our summer vacations, watching him play scratch golf and win quite a few trophies. Not a bad life, but it wasn’t the beach. (That's me with my brother, Mike, and our father.)

Not sure why I didn’t get back to the beach much during the first three decades of my married life (70s, 80s, 90s)…. In fact, I’m pretty sure we only took our boys to the Gulf once, in 1984. And later, we took all three kids to the beach en route to Disney World, some time in the summer of 89, I think. Two more beach trips with our youngest two—this time to Hilton Head and Kiawah, over in Pat Conroy’s turf—happened sometime around 1992. But there was no sense of tradition or place in those disjointed vacations… no returning again and again to a beloved location.

Until November (yes, it was chilly) of 2007, when we took our oldest son and a few of his friends to Seagrove Beach, Florida, to celebrate his graduation from flight school at Fort Rucker in Enterprise, Alabama. It was love at first sight for me. And now I’ve returned 9 more times (three times a year) to those magical shores, sometimes with family. Other times with friends. And once or twice alone—to try to center myself, or to write. But it’s always, always, magical.

And now my daughter and I are working on plans for her wedding next spring, on the beach in Seagrove! Maybe we’ve started a tradition and instilled a sense of place in our family after all. And of course we’re hoping that the area will be in full recovery from the devastation wrought on its shores by the BP oil spill. Yep, we’re hoping.

Rick Bragg has an essay in the August/September issue of Garden & Gun Magazine called “The Lost Gulf.” And while it’s not clear yet that the Gulf is actually “lost,” Bragg paints a vivid picture of just how much is at stake as he remembers his old childhood adventures with his family on the beaches of the Gulf Coast:

“My whole life has been bathed in these waters. I lived though a thousand undertows, ten thousand hush puppies, two honey-moons, five hurricanes, a never-ending sunburn, untold jellyfish stings, a dozen excellent drunks, two Coast Guard interventions, a hammerhead as long as a Boston Whaler, and one unfortunate misunderstanding in the Breakers’ Lounge.”

Bragg’s essay in Garden & Gun is both heart-warming and gut-wrenching. Well worth the read. (Not to mention how beautiful the magazine is, issue after issue. This one’s got a great section on “Southern Style,” featuring 21 architects, artists, designers and craftsmen, including the interior designer on the cover, Rachel Halvorson. Rachel landed a dream job last year: designing a custom bar and other interiors for Ronnie Dunn’s guest house on his farm in Tennessee. Nice work if you can get it!)

What are you favorite memories of the beaches on the Gulf Coast? I have so many, but I love this picture of me with my first grandchild, Grace, on her first trip to the beach, at age 10 months. Please share your memories here… or a link to other articles about the coast. I’d love to read them.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cherry Bomb's First Tag

A few weeks ago I did a post ("Tag Fever") about the research I’m doing for the main character in my novel-in-progress, Mare, a young orphan-turned-graffiti artist.

Since then I’ve been practicing tags and designs with giant Sharpie markers and gathering supplies for my first experience throwing up graffiti. Today I finally did a practice run…. on craft paper that I put up on the fence by our driveway.

It’s only a “tag”… not a full-blown design.

But I did get into Mare’s head as I pulled on my hoodie and disposable gloves and felt the excitement of listening to that little ball dancing around inside the aerosol cans as I shook them up and prepared for my assault.

I have to say that it was a rush, watching the paint coming out of those cans and quickly outlining and then filling in the bubble letters and bomb with the red paint.

Learning how to make skinny lines for the black and yellow sparks coming from the cherry bomb was fun. And the entire experience was over in 5 minutes!

Which is the way it’s supposed to work, since most taggers are doing this on public property, keeping one eye peeled for the law as they hide inside their hoodies and quickly toss their paint cans into their backpacks before making their get-away.

With school starting this week and next here in Memphis, I hope all of you moms and dads know where your children are. If you suspect them of illegal random acts of public artwork, here are a few signs to watch out for.

Okay, so I love research. But now I need to get back to the written page… to Mare’s story. I think I understand her a little bit better now, although I haven’t felt the thrill of the risky business of tagging a wall in the city. Yet.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

5 Q & A with Amy Bourret

Mothers & Other Liars by Amy Bourret.
A Pen & Palette Book Review and Author Interview

Literary agent Nathan Bransford has a terrific blog, and on August 3 he did a post called, “Writing vs. Storytelling.” I was thinking about his words as I finished reading my friend, Amy Bourret’s, first novel, “Mothers & Other Liars,” last week. Why? For two reasons:

I found Amy’s STORY to be compelling—I was turning pages and wanting to know what happens next, and that means it’s a good story. But…

I found the prose to be a little less smooth and polished than I hoped for. That said, she has a published book and I don’t, so I’m not casting stones, just observing. And, as Nathan said in his blog post, “… in today's publishing world you need an extremely high degree of craft in order to be published.” So maybe her craft is more polished than I realize. Again, I don’t have a book out there yet!

Or maybe it’s her style or genre that I’m having a hard time pin-pointing. In this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, there’s a nice essay by Pamela Paul called, “The Kids’ Books Are All Right.” It’s about how so many adults are reading and enjoying books that belong in the “Young Adult,” (YA) genre, and WHY. Paul quotes Amanda Foreman (42-year-old mother of five and published author) as saying:

“A lot of adult literature is all art and no heart…. But good Y.A. is like good television. There’s a freshness there; it’s engaging.”

Like good television. That’s what I felt when I was reading “Mothers & Other Liars,”—that it read very much like good screen writing. The short (2-3 page) chapters. The jumping quickly from scene to scene. And although the subject matter is mature, one of the main characters is a nine-year-old girl, so I’m sure the YA audience would find it gripping, as I did.

And now, about the author. Amy and I met this past January at the Pulpwood Queens’ Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas. We were both kind of odd-women-out at the event, since neither of us were published author-presenters, and we weren’t part of any of the Pulpwood Queens book clubs, either. But what I found out after visiting with Amy was that she was an author-in-waiting… waiting for her book to come out in August! So when she got her advance copies, I asked for one so I could review it here on my blog. “Mothers & Other Liars” hit the bookstores on August 3, and has been chosen as a Target Stores Breakout Book! I’m so thrilled for Amy and wish her much success on her book tour and beyond! And now, for a quick interview.

5 Q & A with Amy Bourret

P&P: Hi, Amy. Thanks for taking time from your book launch tour to “chat” with my readers here at Pen and Palette. I know this is a busy and exciting time for you. When we met, at the Pulpwood Queens’ Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas, back in January, you had a book deal and a publishing date, but no book in hand yet. How does it feel to finally be at the point of seeing Mothers & Other Liars in print?

It's been amazing. When I first received the Advance Readers Copy in April, I was giddy, and then to have the real book in hand, well, I thought it couldn't get much better than that. But it did. I have been so touched by the readers who have contacted me to tell me how much they loved the novel and the ways it resonated with them.

P&P: I just read a terrific interview with Jodi Picoult in Writer’s Digest. I noticed that you’ve been compared with Picoult in some of the blurbs for Mothers & Other Liars. In her WD interview, Picoult named Charles Dickens as #8 on her list of top 10 writers she admires. She said: “I like to think he created the genre I write: moral and ethical fiction. You tell a story about compelling characters, and somehow, through the back door, you get your reader thinking about tough issues that most of us would prefer not to discuss.” Do you consider your novel to fit into this fiction sub-genre, what Picoult calls “moral and ethical fiction”?

That's probably a pretty good description. I think of myself as a moral and ethical person, but I didn't particularly set out to write a "moral" story -- I just wrote the story that wanted to be written. I am flattered, though, to be compared to Jodi.

P&P: I’m always interested in what writers did before they published books. As a lawyer, how did your work with child advocacy organizations spark the ideas for your debut novel? Did you actually deal with a child like Lark, or someone in a situation similar to Ruby’s?

It was more just the general experience. A child builds her own life from the foundation of her family environment life. If that environment is abuse or neglect or incest, when she is removed from the situation she faces reshaping her life with a new definition of “normal.” I think my experiences of working with scared and scarred children are wrapped into the reasons my protagonist, Ruby, makes the choices she makes.

As the mother of three (now grown) adopted children, I have a question about something you had Ruby say to Chaz, the father of their unborn child. Not to give away too much about the plot here, I’ll just say that she was talking about what it might be like for their child to grow up in someone else’s care, to be adopted by someone else. Her words were, “A child who would never know the difference, who wouldn’t be scarred for life. A child who would be loved. Just by someone else.” My experience with other adoptive mothers and their adopted children is that the child more often than not does know the difference, and that they often suffer greatly because of the abandonment of their birth parents. I guess this is the type of discussion that you hope will take place in book clubs and reading groups, but as the author of these words, did you do any research into issues like this?”

AB: I do know that adoptive children generally do recognize the difference -- that is why, as I understand it, the trend is moving toward open adoptions. I received wrenching essays from adoptive children and mothers when I was working on an anthology about choices women make when faced with unwanted pregnancies (the book never made it to publication because almost all of the stories we heard were about adoption, and we couldn't make the book balanced in representing the choices of keeping the child or terminating the pregnancy). That being said, Ruby is feeling desperate and is speaking to Chaz from her own perspective—and trying to persuade him to agree with her.

As to your other comment, again, I didn't set out to write a "controversial" novel—that’s just where the story took me—but I am glad that the story is sticking with people and sparking debate. I've heard from a number of book clubs who have selected Mothers and Other Liars, and I'm looking forward to hearing about their lively discussions, which should be especially lively when they include some wine!

P&P: One final question, Amy. What are you working on next? Is there another book in progress, and if so, will it also spring from your experiences in the legal realm?

AB: I am working on my next novel, which St. Martin's will be publishing. I think all novels spring from the writers' experiences, either personally or through observation, and I am sure some of my own experiences, in work and in life, will be threaded through the story. But, no, it is not a "legal" story per se. (How's that for tacking on a legal term to the end of this question!)

P&P: Thanks for taking time to respond to my questions, Amy. And good luck with your book tour (see photo) and your new work-in-progress!

AB: Thank you so much for the privilege of speaking with you and your readers. I hope this post sparks some lively discussion! I'd be happy to respond to any further questions and requests to visit book clubs through my website.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Panning for Gold on a Saturday Morning: "Write is Might: Dance With the One Who Brought You To the Ball"

One of my favorite self-nurturing activities involves jammies, coffee, and the Sunday New York Times. But today is Saturday, and I found an equal treasure this morning: jammies, coffee, and the September issue of Writer’s Digest: “the Big 10 issue.” There are many excellent articles that I won’t highlight in this post (like “10 Ways to Write What You ‘No’” by Bill O’Hanlon, who writes about using frustration, hurt and anger to fuel your writing) out of sheer economy of space. Instead, I’m going to glean my “Top 10” from WD’s “Takes Ten.” Let me explain:

Writer’s Digest interviewed 10 bestselling authors, asking them each a different question: to discuss their “top 10” in a certain category. So, from their 100 answers, I’m offering my “top 10”… one from each author. Here goes.

Erik Larson was asked for his top 10 “Essentials to a Writer’s Life.” My favorite was his Number 9: “A Trusted Reader: Every writer I know has at least one friend or partner who can be trusted to read early drafts of a book and provide an accurate, constructive critique….”

Jodi Picoult was asked to name her top 10 “Writers I Admire, and Why.” My choice? Jodi’s Number 8: “Charles Dickens: I like to think he created the genre I write in: moral and ethical fiction. You tell a story about compelling characters, and somehow, through the back door, you get your reader thinking about tough issues that most of us would prefer not to discuss.”

Ellen Hopkins
was asked for the top 10 “Things I’ve Learned Since Becoming a Bestseller.” I like Ellen’s Number 3: “Write Bravely. Because my readership is labeled ‘young adult,’ the content in my books is often challenged. The subject matter is difficult, but I refuse to sugarcoat issues like addiction, abuse, prostitution, suicide, etc….”

Sherman Alexie was asked for his top 10 “Pieces of Writing Advice I’ve Been Given.” Here’s my favorite, his Number 2: “Subscribe to as many literary journals as you can afford.”

Mary Higgins Clark’s Top 10 “Things Every Writer Should Do” includes her 10th entry: “Don’t hold a grudge! Instead, make the guy who was mean to you a victim in your next book.”

Chuck Palahniuk’s assignment was to list the top 10 “Things That Would Make the Writing World a Better Place.” Lots of humor in all his answers, including Number 3: “Printer ink cartridges should cost less than the original purchase price of the damned printer.”

Wade Rouse’s question was his top 10 “Ways to Stay True to Yourself in Publishing.” Here’s his Number 5: “Write is Always Might. Dance with the one who brought you to the ball: Write. As much as possible.”

Jennifer Chiaverini
’s assignment was to name her top 10 “Hints For a Successful Series.” (You can read her entire interview here.) Her Number 6: “Write about what you want to learn about. Are you fascinated by history, intrigued by current events or excited by new technology? Satisfy your curiosity by taking a class, visiting a historical site, interviewing an expert.”

Kirby Larson’s Top 10 “Things Every Aspiring Writer Should Know” included my personal favorite, her Number 2: “One of the measures of creativity is ‘output.’ Debunk the myth that a writer should write only when she is moved or inspired. A piece of writing is created by sitting down each day and writing. You really can create on demand once you’ve decided not to be taken hostage by that part of your brain that’s demanding you update your Facebook page, fold laundry or answer e-mail as it comes in.”

Karin Slaughter
’s Top 10 “Ways to Stay Sane When Frustrated With Your Writing” kept me in stitches, including her Number 1: “Sometimes, when I’m cutting a deadline too close, I’ll set the Timer on the Stove and tell myself I’ll write for at least an hour. Rarely have I heard the chime and wanted to stop. And I always feel good about actually using the stove for something.”

Don’t these mouth-watering morsels make you want more? Read all 10 interviews and decide which of the 100 suggestions made by these 10 authors are your favorites. And then, if you’re a writer, sit down and write!

[P.S. I’m celebrating 3 years of blogging this week. My first post was back in August of 2007. This is my 461st post today. I've averaged 3 posts/week for three years! Thanks so much for reading! Cheers!]

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Can People Change?

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I’ve been in a kind of funk for a few months… angry, depressed, struggling on various levels. But this week something shifted inside. I think I was finally able to let go of some anger and turn back towards God and His Church with a bit more of a soft heart. Not sure why, but some of it, I think, had to do with the love and support of a dear friend who has been in a similar struggle for even longer. And some of it is also due to my opening the door of my heart—if only a small crack—to the spiritual world and what it has to offer.

Dr. Jamie Moran
, in his essay, “Orthodoxy and Modern Depth Psychology,” in the book, Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World, addresses this issue well:

“People only change if they are truly religious in the way that the child is originally religious: in love with the world, and full of the élan that can only come from reaching out of oneself, in interest and concern. Those people who retain a spark of this religiousness, and who therefore still serve something greater than themselves, will because of that ‘something’ open their selfishness to life and healing. Only such people will repent of selfishness, and let life show them that it is wrong as a basis for existence.”

Opening my selfishness to life and healing
… I’m trying.

Today I heard a friend share something I didn’t know about him before. He said that his step-mother had abused him and that he hated her most of his life. And then one day he got tired of hating her and went to confession and let go of it. He said he “just couldn’t do it [hate her] any more,” it was just too exhausting.

That’s how I feel about the anger I nurse towards people so often. It wears me out. And whether or not they choose to change, I can make that choice for myself. How?

Dr. Moran continues:

“People who leave a space for God—even for the ‘hidden’ God, which is what the Holy Spirit is: God’s humility—can be helped, and can change. They can learn to live with the most extreme damage and suffering and yet still find joy in life…. People who leave a space for God are able to make that change of heart, not for any sentimental reason or out of any moral superiority, and certainly not because of what is conventionally called piety, but because and only because, despite their selfishness, they truly acknowledge and have faith in a force that is greater than themselves. They are willing to open their selfishness up to that greater force, and in opening its closed system, to begin to let life teach it its mistakes and heal its wound, and comfort its genuine suffering.”

But what would this change look like on me? I think sometimes I’m happy here in my comfort zone, and am a bit afraid of what a “new me” might look like. I want to be “real,” to be authentic and genuine in my relationships with others and with God. I don’t want to pretend to be someone I’m not… to play a role that’s expected of me. But I do want to change and to be healed.

These words, in my friend, Neil White’s wonderful book, In The Sanctuary of Outcasts, are helpful. Neil was incarcerated in a federal prison that “doubled” as the last leprosarium in America, for kiting checks, and the experience changed him in ways he never imagined:

“For five months, I had agonized over how I should change. I examined the details of my past, the character flaws that contributed to my personal failure, the allure that applause held for me, my discovery that a pristine image could cover dark secrets, my attempts to balance bad deeds with good, and my optimism unchecked by good financial sense.

“But I knew my essence had not really changed. I would always be the same person. Same skills, same personality, same character traits.

“I didn’t need to be a new person. I needed a new purpose…. Live simply, hide nothing, help others….”

I’ve heard Neil tell his story at numerous bookstore signings, and the thread that always runs through his talks is humility. Not that he ever claims to be humble. He just is. He has changed. In some ways, he has grown up into the man he was meant to be. I didn’t know the “old Neil,” but the one I’ve known for the past three years is all about living simply, hiding nothing, and helping others. He’s generous with his time and embarrassed by his fame.

Yesterday I went to Confession for the first time in about three months. I had to be willing to let go of some anger first. I had to have at least a little bit of desire to change, to be changed, by God. I’m hoping to partake of the Holy Eucharist at the Feast of the Transfiguration at St. John Orthodox Church tomorrow morning. It’s all about change—about being transformed—from darkness to light. It’s about restoring the image that fell. That was broken. I’ll be there, because of friends who have paved the way and shared their stories with me. Because of other very real human beings who have been willing to change.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Broadsided: Putting Literature and Art on the Streets

For my post today, I'm going to share something fun I've just discovered. It's Broadsided, and it's a terrific concept that's catching on all over the world. Writers submit poetry and short prose (up to 300 words) and the selected pieces are then illustrated by a talented team of artists. "Vectors" (like me!) print off the PDF files of the pieces we like and put them up in public places are our cities. A way to share art with the masses, if you will. (And yes, I found it while researching graffiti.)

Here's Broadsided Press's selection for July, 2010, "Replying to SubPrefect Zhang." (Click the image to enlarge.) The poem spoke strongly to my heart, as did the art, by Japanese artist, Yuko Adachi.

The poem is by Poet Wang Wei, the "Poet Buddha" of the Tang Dynasty, when poetry was the center of Chinese cultural life. This piece was translated by Dawn McGuire.

Read more about this and other works of poetry and art at Broadsided Press here.

So, this afternoon I'll head out with several copies of this beautiful work and share it with a few fellow Memphians. Haven't decided on my locations for this first vector experience, but I'm sure I'll post photos on Facebook later. For now, relax and enjoy the beauty and peace of "Replying to SubPrefect Zhang." Just looking at it brings peace, calming my spirit and cooling me in this heat.

Postscript: Broadsided three of my favorite midtown locations this afternoon and evening: Joe's Liquor, Starbucks on Union, and Sekisui Midtown!