Friday, March 30, 2012

The Prayer

Writing today... no time to blog. Rainy day in Memphis. Here's something to brighten your day. This is wonderful on so many levels. From "Britain's Got Talent," this past Tuesday. Enjoy.

The Prayer

I'm headed to Denver on Sunday... for the month of April! My daughter is having a baby, so I can't wait to be there to share the joy of this event with her. Also visiting my son and his family. I'll have three granddaughters under age 3 soon!

Have a great weekend everyone.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality

It was a surreal moment. On Sunday afternoon, right after a delightful brunch with my writing buddies who were visiting from Jackson (Mississippi) at Sweet Grass, we walked across the street to visit Burke's Books. I was looking to buy The Orphan Master's Son (a gift for my son who is from South Korea) when I saw, right there on the front counter, a brand new stack of anthologies from the University of Alabama Press:

Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality

I picked up a volume and smelled the pages (I'm very sensual) and ran my fingers over the textured book cover, adorned with beautiful art work by Bethanne Hill.

I opened the cover and read again the front inside flap, including the second sentence of the second paragraph:

"In 'Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,' Susan Cushman recounts how a spiritual expatriate from the 'Christ-haunted South' found healing through art and Eastern Orthodoxy."

I hugged the book to my chest and grinned like a kid in a candy store.

And right there, starting on page 39, was my essay, "Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow."

Okay, I already had a few copies of the book that I ordered from the publishing house, but this made it more real--to see the book in an actual physical bookstore. And how wonderful that my first time to experience this was at the fabulous indie store owned by my friends, Corey and Cheryl Mesler.

One of the bookstore employees waved me over to the "New Nonfiction" shelves and pointed out that the book was also prominently displayed on the top shelf, just above a book by John Updike, and not too far from Joan Didion's memoir, Blue Nights.

I was floating on air for the rest of the afternoon, even after my out-of-town guests left for home. Editors Wendy Reed and Jennifer Horne, and our publicist, Rebecca Minder, are setting up some readings/signings for this spring and summer, so stay tuned. Until then, please buy a copy from your local independent bookseller if you can. (If not, of course you can get it online from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.) Here are some of my favorite indies:

Burke's Books (Memphis)

Square Books (Oxford)

Lemuria Books (Jackson, MS)

Turnrow Books (Greenwood, MS)

Page & Palette
(Fairhope, AL)

The Hidden Lantern
(Rosemary Beach, FL)

Sundog Books (Seaside Beach, FL)

What a rush.

And now to finish that novel!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Holy Archangel Gabriel

Today is the Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel in the Orthodox Church calendar. Often there will be a feast day for saints (or angels) who play a prominent part in a certain event in the life of the church on the day after that event’s celebration. For example, on December 26, we celebrate a feast to the Mother of God. In this case, it’s the day after the Feast of the Annunciation in which Gabriel announces to Mary the good news that she will bear Christ.

I taught two workshops using prototypes of the Archangel Gabriel.

There’s something about angels that draws us from our earthly life to the heavens, isn’t there? They behold the face of God and teach us to glorify Him. They announce to us good news, and teach us to sing His praises.

Two Orthodox hymns to the Holy Archangel Gabriel follow:

Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone

O Commanders of the Heavenly Host, we the unworthy beseech you, that through your entreaties you will fortify us, guarding us in the shelter of the wings of your ethereal glory, even as we fervently bow before you crying: "Deliver us from all danger, as Commanders of the Powers on high! "

Kontakion in the Plagal of the Second Tone

As thou beholdest the glory of God in Heaven, and on earth dost bestow grace from on high, O leader of Angels, wise Gabriel, minister of the glory of God, and divine defender of the world, save and keep them that cry to thee: Be thyself our helper, and no one can be against us.

May you be inspired and protected by angels today, and every day.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Weeping Icons

One piece of advice that most emerging writers often hear is “write what you know.” And it makes sense to write about something you’re familiar with. If you grew up on a farm in Texas, setting your story on a cattle ranch makes your work that much easier. You still might have to do some research, if you haven’t been personally involved buying cows at auction or with the branding procedure, but at least the territory will feel familiar.

When I chose a graffiti artist as the protagonist for my novel-in-progress, I had to do lots of research, since I haven’t spent any time in that culture. The research was fun and I hope I’ve achieved a degree of street cred in the writing of those parts of the novel.

But the world of graffiti is only one part of the novel’s setting. I spent eight years studying iconography, training at workshops all over the country, speaking on iconography, publishing essays about iconography, teaching icon workshops, and doing commissioned icons. So writing about iconography comes natural to me, although I “retired” from writing icons over a year ago.

As a convert to the Orthodox faith, I’ve also made many visits to monasteries, in this country and in Greece, so the scenes that I’ve set at an icon workshop at a monastery also feel comfortable to me.

I’ve even seen some weeping icons. The first time was on a visit to a monastery in Michigan. I went with some of the nuns from the monastery on a day trip to a nearby church to venerate some icons that had begun weeping a few weeks earlier, including this one. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

A couple of years later, I went with three Orthodox friends on a weekend trip to Chicago, where we visited three churches that had weeping icons in them, including this one, known as the “Our Lady of Cicero,” which began weeping in 1994.

But I still don’t trust my experience to be enough background for writing the scenes true. So I talked with a couple of people who have more education and experience than I have in this area, and also checked out a few online sources. If you’re interested, I found these helpful:

“The Weeping of the Icons”

“Why Do Icons Weep?”

“Weeping Statues and Icons”

Of course I won’t write about all of this in the book. The research and my experience in this area are both part of the “back story” for the novel. It’s tempting to share everything I’ve learned—about iconography and graffiti—either from experience or research, when writing the book, but restraint is necessary, or it will come across as information dump instead of a great story. But nothing is wasted—when I go back and cut out the extra stuff, I will save it for possible use elsewhere.

Tonight at the Lenten service at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis, we’ll be praying the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God. There will be an icon of the Mother of God in the center of the solea. The priest will stand in front of the icon, circle it with a censor, and lead worshippers in the hymn, many of whom will approach the icon, make a prostration and kiss the icon in veneration of the Mother of God, and in worship of Her Son. We do this every Friday night during Great Lent. I don’t expect the icon to start weeping, but sometimes I find my own eyes filled with tears because of the beauty of the service, and the way the prayers move my heart to love for the Mother of God. When that happens, it’s not research, or even “experience.” It’s God’s grace.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Monday, March 19, 2012

It's a Good Memoir, but Is It Art?

Today I read a terrific article by Richard Gilbert on his blog, "Narrative":

"The Leverage of Persona in Memoir."

He talks about memoirs by Jeanette Walls, Harry Crews and Annie Dillard. I'll confess that I've not read Crews, but I was very interested in his take on Walls and Dillard--especially Walls, whose memoir about her dysfunctional childhood, The Glass Castle, became a best-seller. (I met Walls and did a post about her in January of 2011.)

Gilbert quoted some from a review Francine Prose did of The Glass Castle for the New York Times Book Review in 2005. I appreciated many of Prose's points, but I can't wrap my mind around this comment:

"The Glass Castle falls short of being art, but it’s a very good memoir."

I'm still not sure what she means by "a very good memoir" that isn't art. Read the review and Gilbert's blog post yourself if you're interested, and follow the discussion in the comments. (Forgive my typo in the comment I left... I'm always embarrassed when I do that on a writer's blog!) The main question I am still pondering is this (which I asked in my comment): are memoirs categorized as "commercial" and "literary" the way novels are? And if so, can a "commercial memoir" be a "really good memoir" and yet not be art? Does Prose mean that something must be literary to be art? Or does she mean, as she discusses in her review, that the memoir must do more than tell a good narrative.... that it must relay the soul of the protagonist and how the story/circumstances affected that person's life?

I'm thinking about these issues as I come near the end of the novel I'm writing. I am trying to write literary fiction, and I certainly hope my main characters' voices come through strong. But above all, I hope I am creating art.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Creative Nonfiction at the Crossroads

My friend, Kathy Rhodes, is organizing a creative nonfiction workshop in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Check it out:

"Creative Nonfiction at the Crossroads."

Mark your calendars: September 21-22. And follow Kathy on Facebook or her blog for registration information. Each shack at Shacksdale and at the Shack Up Inn is unique.

Check out the "Ernz Shack," where I'll be staying.

Workshop Leader: Neil White. Neil was one of the speakers at the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop, and organizer (with Kathy and me) for the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference. And... Neil, Kathy and I are already working on plans for the 2013 Oxford CNF Conference, next March.

I'm excited about being included in the weekend. I'll be doing a reading from the brand new anthology, "Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality," just out from the University of Alabama Press. My essay?

"Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow"

This is me on Wednesday, the day the Fed Ex truck pulled up with my first copies of the book, just as my husband and I were headed out for a walk to watch sunset at the river. I hear it was a beautiful sunset, but I couldn't take my eyes off the book, full of 17 essays by some of my literary heroes, like Mary Karr, Beth Ann Fennelly, Alice Walker, Marshall Chapman, Connie May Fowler and others.

Circling Faith will be in bookstores soon, or you can order one from the University of Alabama Press, and of course, from We're hoping to have some fun events at independent bookstores this spring and summer, so stay tuned!

See you at the Crossroads in September!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: Red Doors

On my morning walk (to The Little Cafe Eclectic for a cappuccino) I noticed several RED DOORS in my neighborhood and took a few pics with my cell phone.

The red doors definitely stand out, so I did a quick Google search to see if they hold any special meaning. I found some fun information at It didn't surprise me that in Feng Shui, "a red door symbolizes the mouth of the home. By painting our door red (or any bright colour that stands out) chi (positive energy) is drawn to the house."

But my favorite answer was this one:

"Albert Einstein painted his door red because he couldn't recognize his house without it."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Home Town Boy Makes Good

The Portable Son

by Barrett Hathcock

A Pen and Palette Review

We never knew we could want more than that out of life.—Billy Joel

I love that Barrett Hathcock begins his collection of short stories with this quote. It sets his coming-of-age stories up from the beginning right where they belong—in the hearts and minds of adolescent boys in Mississippi. And not just any teenage boys. Not the boys of Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter Crooked Letter or Mark Childress’ One Mississippi—which are filled with characters from another caste and time—but closer to Hemingway’s Nick Adams in his early stories. Not rural boys or lower-class ruffians, but contemporary (well, 90s-ish, as compared with 50s-ish) upper middle class kids trying to connect the dots between their Mississippi childhoods and their budding careers as they leave home.

It was fun for me to read these stories set in and around the hometown I share with Hathcock (Jackson, Mississippi) and then to meet Barrett at his signing Sunday afternoon. Also fun to meet his wife and kids and learn that we are neighbors here in Harbor Town on the Mississippi River. Barrett is the same age as my oldest son, Jonathan, and I felt a kind of motherly pride in seeing his work and meeting him at the Booksellers of Laurelwood yesterday afternoon.

Fun, also, that the bookstore’s web site said the signing would be at 1:30, one hour before it was actually scheduled. I enjoyed the extra hour having lunch at the Bistro and reading the first three stories in The Portable Son before Hathcock’s signing. I think my favorite is “High Cotton,” but I haven’t even gotten to the title story yet. And I was a bit surprised by “Timber Walking,” which introduced a character one might not expect to find in stories like these, a Siberian log-splitter named Nikolai.

Having just finished Joshilyn Jackson’s fifth novel—A Grown Up Kind of Pretty—it was fun to contrast these Southern writers’ styles and points of view. Jackson writes through the voices of an eclectic group of Southern women (and girls) with a bit of Southern noir not unlike Flannery O’Connor. Hathcock presents the point of view of the men (and boys) in his lighter stories and uses restraint in his colorful but sparse prose. I think a major difference in their writing is that Hathcock is very present in the voice of his narrators, whereas Jackson’s voice as an author remains hidden. I could imagine Hathcock’s short stories as excerpts from a memoir drawn from his own life.

I’m not really a fan of the short story as a genre, but I’m enjoying Hathcock’s stories immensely. I think one reason is that many of them share a protagonist and a common thread, almost like excerpts from a novel, strung together in a delightful collection. So, when one story ends, leaving me wanting more, there actually IS more…. at least for nine stories.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Nothing is Wasted... and Patience!

It's my turn over at the Southern authors' blog, "A Good Blog is Hard to Find." Please hop over and read my post and leave a comment if you'd like:

"Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality."

I'm so excited that this anthology will be in bookstores soon! Or.. you can order it now from the University of Alabama Press.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

(Anything But) Wordless Wednesday

I recently watched a favorite old movie, “Out of Africa,” which was based on a memoir by a Danish baroness, Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen,) who was nominated for the Nobel Prize several times. One biographer says, of Blixen’s writing, “Every sentence is like a prose poem.” I don’t know how many of Blixen’s words made it into the screenplay, but the movie is full of beautiful phrasing (and of course the cinematography is amazing).

One of the best scenes is when while travelling together, Denys (played by Robert Redford) washes (Meryl Streep) Karen's hair, beside a river, while quoting from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” (That would work for me.)

"He prayeth well, who loveth well, both man and bird and beast."

In a later scene Berkeley (a friend) warns Karen to be careful about Denys, saying:

“When old mapmakers got to the end of the world, they used to say, ‘Beyond this place there be dragons.’”

After Denys and Karen’s affair becomes full-blown, he asks if he can live with her. Her reply?

“When the Gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers.”

Beautiful words and images to inspire writers, artists, filmmakers and lovers!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Be Kind....

I woke with a troubled spirit. A couple of difficult conversations over the weekend were still fresh on my mind, and I lay in bed for a half hour, hoping they would either sort themselves out or blend into the background of my morning. No such luck.

Morning prayers didn’t calm the storm that was brewing in my soul.

Two cups of coffee didn’t help, either, and it was way too early for a drink, although I really wanted one. Badly.

As I began to be frustrated that my morning of writing was being eaten up with these thoughts, I remembered that I’ve got a friend.

Okay, I’m blessed to have more than one friend, but not many to whom I entrust my darker side. Showing your messy stuff to others is risky. They might judge you. Actually, they will judge you. Or you might hurt them. Okay, you will hurt them. It’s just part of being human that we don’t treat each other perfectly.

So I picked up the phone and called my friend. One of a few who really have my back. And thirty minutes later my spirit was lighter, my soul was cleaner, and my thoughts were clearer. No judging happened. Just a compassionate exchange of listening and understanding, sprinkled with wisdom.

Some of my Orthodox friends would say, “Oh, of course you're having a hard time... it’s Lent,” meaning that we are often faced with more struggles than usual during this season. If that’s true, I feel like it’s been Lent for several years now. And I just decided last Monday that this was going to be a brighter, happier Lent, remember?

Whether or not you participate in Lent, everyone has to get through another Monday, and then another week, and then another month. Or, sometimes, like Richard Brown says in The Hours:

“I still have to face the hours, don't I? I mean, the hours after the party, and the hours after that...”

I hope you’ve got a friend. If you don’t have a friend, I hope you’ve got a cat. And I hope someone is kind to you today.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Cherry Bomb: The Prologue

Some folks have been asking to read a sample of my novel-in-progress, so today I'm sharing the Prologue. When I entered the Prologue and first two chapters in the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition last year, it made the short list for novel excerpt, which was encouraging. I'm sure it will get tweaked some more before I query agents, but here's a taste.

Cherry Bomb: A Novel

©Susan Cushman


Mare’s backpack makes a clinking sound as she ducks in and out of the pre-dawn shadows of the dusky November morning. A cold front moved across the state last night, dropping the usual balmy temperatures to the lower forties. She stops to rearrange the aerosol cans inside it and wraps them with tee shirts to prevent them from clanging together. Pulling her hoodie over her head, she looks up and down the street to be sure no one is watching. Storefronts are still dark, their owners asleep upstairs or in their homes just outside this Southern city of a quarter million people. Macon, Georgia, feels like a big place compared to the rural environs of Mare’s childhood.

She hears a scuffling sound as she rounds another corner. It’s just a homeless man, huddled behind a dumpster, the contents of his life stuffed into a shopping cart. His cough disturbs a sleeping cat that springs from underneath his frayed blanket, upsetting the empty bottle he clings to with dirt-stained fingers. As the bottle rolls onto the sidewalk, Mare hurries by, noticing a light coming on in a nearby window.

Taking a nervous breath, her lungs fill with the aroma of cinnamon rolls coming from a bakery. When was her last meal? Walking silently for another few blocks, she finds the target she’s been looking for—Family and Children Services. The parking lot is empty. She moves quickly along the sidewalk, choosing a spot near the entrance. She uses an aerosol can to break the lights on either side of the doorway so that she can work under the protection of the quickly fading darkness. She opens the can of black spray paint and begins to shake it as she stares at the brick wall in front of her.

What a rush, hearing the metal ball bouncing around inside the can, mixing the paint. Removing the cap, she approaches the wall, takes aim, and presses the valve, releasing the fine spray mist she’s learned to control with all the skill of a trained artist.

Most of her pieces the last few weeks have been simple designs or just tags. Today’s message will be more complex. She’s spent months working it out in her piecebook, and now she’s ready to share it with the world. Well, at least with Macon. The reporter for the Macon News will take care of the rest. Ever since Mare came to town and started throwing up her graffiti, Margaret Adams has been on her own personal quest—not only to expose Mare’s work, but also to expose Mare. Mare has been able to evade her grasp so far, moving from one part of town to another, sleeping here and there, and always carrying her backpack with her, leaving nothing at the crime scene except for the art itself. Adams has featured several of Mare’s pieces in the News, complete with photographs. Graffiti isn’t common in this part of the country in 1981, and the reporter just can’t leave it alone. Who is this tagger, and where does he live? Of course she assumes it’s a he.

Mare tosses her empty cans into random dumpsters after each hit, careful not to leave a trail. She can’t be arrested, at least not until she gets these next two pieces done. Blue lights and sirens approach just as she’s getting started. Diving behind some shrubs that line the parking lot, she holds her breath as two squad cars fly through the blinking orange lights at a nearby intersection. Wiping the sweat from her brow with her sleeve, she crawls out from behind the shrubs and quickens her pace as the sun begins to light up the wall and wake up the town.

Her signature character—a little girl with big, empty eyes and no mouth—is featured in this piece. After outlining the image with black, Mare paints the hair yellow and overlays yellow with orange for the face. Bloody drops fall from the red heart painted on the character’s chest. The child’s eyes gaze upward to a large shadow-like creature. The image takes shape and it’s a man, hovering over the girl. The details in the image of the girl fade to a blur below her heart, as if the lower part of her body is disappearing. She’s been disappearing for years, hasn’t she?

She hears a car on a nearby street and looks at her watch. It’s almost 7:30. Just enough time for her tag—a red cherry with yellow rays emanating from a black stem and the word, “bomb,” in red bubble letters, outlined with black. She can see the wheels turning in Margaret Adams’ brain as she imagines tomorrow’s headline: “Cherry drops another bomb.”