Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Revisiting Acedia & Me and The Thing With Feathers

It’s been seven months since I blogged about my old friend, acedia.

Not because we haven’t been hanging out at all during those months… he’s never too far away. But I try to keep busy, which helps, some. But obviously not enough, since he launched another full attack at me during this past weekend, when I was BUSY: hosting a party on Friday night, watching the air show over the Mississippi River and then enjoying a rehearsal dinner at Spaghetti Warehouse on Saturday night, attending a wedding (which my husband officiated) and dancing at the reception on Sunday night, and then having good friends over for a cookout on Monday night. So how was it that throughout all those festive events I felt the presence of this demon?

Picking back up Kathleen Norris’s book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks & A Writer’s Life, I read Chapter XII: "Day By Day." While Norris’ circumstances at this point in the book were more acute than mine (her husband was dying and she was diagnosed with perpetual posttraumatic stress syndrome), I can identify with her feelings of emptiness, numbness, and nothingness. It’s just that I can’t “excuse” them with such circumstantial reasons for having those feelings. But they are real. And they are mine.

These words of Norris’s help:

“Acedia contains within itself so many concepts: weariness, despair, ennui, boredom, restlessness, impasse, futility.”

So, boredom and restlessness share the same sentence as despair and futility? I read on:

“Spiritual dryness is the state explored by the sixteenth-century Carmelite John of the Cross, a patron saint of poets, in his long poem Dark Night of the Soul. His characterization of the signs of this condition is easily recognized by anyone who has ever felt stymied, whether in writing, art, prayer, marriage, or parenting.”

Stymied… in writing. Yes, I think that’s what’s going on with me. I’ve been so BUSY that I haven’t carved out the necessary time to finish revising my novel, and that makes me feel bored and restless… irritable, even. (You can ask my husband.)

But I wouldn’t have related that boredom and restlessness to spiritual dryness, as Norris does. Here she quotes the Carmelite Constance Fitzgerald:

“The most confusing and damnable part of the dark night is the suspicion and fear that much of the darkness is of one’s own making.”

I almost quit reading at that point… the last thing I need right now is another shitload of guilt and self-loathing. But I did read on, and discovered that Norris (through Fitzgerald) was about to point me in the direction of “psychologists and theologians, poets and mystics, who over many epochs and in diverse cultures have insisted that ‘impasse can be the condition for creative growth and transformation if the experience of impasse is fully appropriated.’ In other words, the dark night must be entered and endured. There are no shortcuts, only the passage through.”

Shit. I was definitely hoping for a shortcut. But the events of the weekend have reminded me that drinking (and over-eating) isn’t the answer (did too much of both) and that surrounding myself with people also isn’t the answer. Not that I didn’t enjoy the party, the wedding and the cookout. But I won’t be content until I work through this impasse—in general, and until I finish revising this book.

To that end, I’m going to pull in from a busting social life for the next week or so (except for one previous commitment) and work on revisions. That also means not checking in on Facebook and emails all throughout the day, which is really hard for me. Someone suggested taking my laptop somewhere to write where there’s not wi-fi, but I love my “room of my own” too much to leave it right now. As I swivel in my chair and look at my book shelves, my eyes rest on a small pottery plate I purchased from a new friend a few months ago, which says:

Hope is the thing with feathers.

It’s from Emily Dickinson’s poem, which continues:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches on the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all….

Friday, May 25, 2012

Vivid Images from Trigiani and Keaton

Two treasures arrived in the mail while I was in New York. Both are magazines with articles about the next two books in my "to read" stack. First up was the July/August issue of Writer's Digest, with a terrific interview with Adriana Trigiani, author of The Shoemaker's Wife (and a dozen other books.) I haven't started the book yet, but Jessica Strawser's interview with Trigiani makes me want to move it to the top of my list. One reason is that her words mirror some of the advice I received from my freelance editor after our first meeting about my novel, Cherry Bomb. Mary Ann (my editor) says I need to make my images more vivid, so the reader can see the ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt (one of the settings in the novel) and also smell, hear and taste its aromas, sounds and flavors. I'm shooting for literary fiction with my work, so I know she's right. Read what Trigiani says about this element of her writing, begining with one of Strawer's questions in the interview:

S: Your books are very atmospheric. How do you go about bringing a place to life, and why do you feel that descriptive quality is so important to a story?

T: .... when I was a young writer I always worked hard on imagery, and I knew that the root of imagery were the senses--and that if my readers could feel, taste and see what I was talking about, I would be able to tell them a story. Sometimes I get criticized, because there are readers that don't want all that [description], but I think it's important. It's the hallmark of my work, and I would never change that. It sets the stage for those real characters to come through and tell their story.

What a treat to read this interview just as I'm working to improve the imagery in my novel.

The second publication that arrived in the mail was the spring issue of Memory: The Magazine of Health and Hope, which is published by the Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation. It always contains the latest news on Alzheimer's research and treatment, but also personal stories.

In this issue there's an article about Diane Keaton's memoir, Then Again, which shares that top spot on my "next book to read" stack. Keaton has always been my favorite actress, but when I discovered how much we have in common, I loved her even more:

We both have mothers with Alzheimer's.

We both have adopted children.

We have both struggled with eating disorders.

We both lost our fathers to cancer.

We both love hats.

(Okay, I guess that last one isn't so significant, but I was thrilled to be told I look like Diane Keaton once.)

One thing I love in the article is what Keaton said when asked what advice she would give to caregivers (of people with Alzheimer's):

"I don't feel like advice is what people need. They need to be heard. And they need affection."

Keaton went on to describe what she learned about caring for her mother during her decline, and also her father, when he was sick with cancer:

"Because you're supposed to do the right thing, you are making that time you have together conflicted, unpleasant. It's unpleasant anyway. I think that's all you can do, to make them comfortable. Bring the dogs and cats in. Whatever they want. Who cares."

Keaton and Trigiani. Can't wait to dive into both books! Have a great weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: 5 Days in the Big Apple

We've had five wonderful days in New York City (leaving this afternoon) and of course photos can't really capture the experience, but I'll share a few.

SHOPPING is always a treat here... on Fifth Avenue, in the Chelsea Market (new to me this year), and in the cool boutiques on the Upper East Side and down in the Village.

The Metropolitan Museum of ART is always a must see when I'm here, and this year the rooftop exhibit was a special treat, as well as "The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde."

Our choice of a BROADWAYP PLAY was "Once," which received the most Tony nominations of any show on Broadway this year. The writing, set design, acting, singing, and choreography were all fabulous. Before the show and during intermission, they opened up a bar ON STAGE where audience members could buy a drink while being serenaded by cast members! (see photo)

After discovering a FAVORITE NEW DRINK, the "Moscow Mule," in Denver in April, it was fun to find another new favorite here in New York, the "French 75." It's got champagne, gin and lime. Nothing fancy, but the mix was wonderful, and we enjoyed them on the patio of a cafe just a block from our hotel... several times:-) Evidently it's named after a WWI artillery gun, because it's got quite a kick.

I guess a trip to the Big Apple wouldn't be complete without a visit to the APPLE STORE across from Central Park. My hubby has been wanting to get a Mac, (he got a MacBook Air) so we spent our first afternoon here at this store, which had a cool see-through elevator that went through the core of winding steps down from the sidewalk level. My favorite part of the store was the "kids' table" where there were always a group of techy tots having a great time, like these two little girls, who reminded me a lot of my granddaughters.

We're headed back to Memphis this afternoon. Next year's ASH (American Society of Hypertension) meeting is in San Francisco (my husband was speaking, which was the reason for the trip) so I'm saying goodbye to NYC for a couple of years. I'm actually ready to get back to Memphis and finish revisions on my novel. Have a great hump-day, everyone!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Speaking the Truth in Love?

When I was in Denver in April, I read Dinty Moore’s wonderful new book, The Mindful Writer. No. 49 and Dinty’s comments on the quote made a big impression on me when I first read the book, and now as I pick it back up to re-read some my favorite pages:

“Writing is a struggle against silence.”—Carlos Fuentes

An excerpt from Dinty’s comments:

“It is wise to remind ourselves on occasion why we write and why it matters so much. There is too much left unsaid in the world, either because what needs to be said is deemed to be impolite, because it is deemed dangerous, or because it contradicts the accepted version put forth by family, government, religious leaders, or the society we live in….

… the very act of giving yourself permission to write, to speak, to share the truth no matter whether the truth you understand is the truth others want to acknowledge, is brave, powerful, and important.”

Why are these words so meaningful for me right now? In addition to being in the middle of final revisions on my novel (before querying agents) right now, I’m also starting a book tour for Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. My next reading/signing will be at Burke’s Books in Memphis on July 12. David Waters, Religion Editor for The Commercial Appeal (Memphis newspaper) has asked me to contribute a guest editorial for his regular column, “Faith Matters.” The column will appear sometime in late June, and he has offered to promote the Circling Faith event alongside my editorial. Generous offers, so I went to work right away.

I sent a copy of my first draft of the editorial to my two best friends last week. You know—the draft you write without any “watchers” censoring you? There were things that needed to be said, but not necessarily in a large city newspaper. As I take out my editor pen and begin to cut and shape the piece, I’m thinking about Dinty’s words with each slice and tweak:

Will my words be deemed to be impolite or dangerous?

Will they contradict the accepted version put forth by family members or religious leaders?

If I give myself permission to share truth that others may not acknowledge as truth, am I being brave?

The answer to all three of those questions would be “yes” if I were to submit the unabridged version of my editorial. But there’s another force at work here, and it’s coming at me through the wisdom of close friends as well as my own conscience when I step away from the writing long enough to tune in to that inner voice. (Which is different from the voice of “watchers,” by the way.) That inner voice tells me to ask some different questions as I edit the column:

Will my words convey anger or frustration, rather than compassion and peace?

Can they be written with respect to family member and religious leaders?

Can I still share “my truth” with honesty and integrity, knowing that some others may not acknowledge it as “their truth”?

One of the best pieces of wisdom a friend shared with me about my approach to this piece is to remember that I’m not writing a memoir that people can choose to buy or not to buy. This is not my book. I’m an invited guest of a newspaper (and specifically a religion editor) that is read by thousands of people in the greater Memphis area and beyond.

I’m thinking about mystery and manners now and wondering what would Flannery O’Connor do? Or Madeleine L’Engle? Or two of my favorite contemporary memoirists, Mary Karr and Anne Lamott? I know all of them would “tell it true,” (and with a masterful command of prose) but I also know that their words would be seasoned with grace.

And so I return to the work with all of these thoughts in mind, as well as Saint Paul’s words to the Ephesians about “speaking the truth in love….” (Ephesians 4:15.)

Watch for the results of all this posturing in about a month… I’ll link to the column here when it comes out. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Circling Faith Reading/Signing Set for July 16 at Lemuria Books in Jackson

I’m excited to share that in addition to the reading/signing scheduled for July 12 at Burke’s Books in Memphis, an event is also scheduled for July 16 at Lemuria Books in my home town, Jackson, Mississippi. I’ve known Lemuria owner, John Evans, for many years, and I couldn’t be prouder to be reading at his wonderful bookstore. (John is included in this interview I did for Jane Friedman’s Writer’s Digest blog last year.) I’m also happy that Circling Faith editor, Wendy Reed, will be joining me. Here’s the event info:

5:00 p.m. July 16 at Lemuria Books
202 Banner Hall   4465 I-55 North    601.366.7619

Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (2012, University of Alabama Press, editors Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed) is a collection of essays by 20 Southern authors including Mary Karr, Alice Walker, Beth Ann Fennelly, Marilou Awiakta, and Jackson native, Susan Cushman. The anthology encompasses spirituality and the experience of winding through the religiously charged environment of the American South.

Wendy Reed writes, produces, teaches and directs at the University of Alabama Center for Public Television and Radio. She is also co-editor with Jennifer Horne of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (University of Alabama Press, 2006).

Susan Cushman’s essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” is about how a spiritual expat from the “Christ-haunted South” found healing through art and Eastern Orthodoxy. As the introduction to her essay says:

“Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1950s and ‘60s, I was always attracted to powerful religious experiences. From my childhood years in the Presbyterian Church, through my involvement with religious movements on college campuses and finally the Jesus freak hippies that formed a church in my first apartment, I finally landed within the walls of the ancient Orthodox Christian Church in the 1980s. It is no small thing to leave one’s religious upbringing, especially in the South, for something as foreign as Eastern Orthodoxy. With this conversion came lots of change, and the process continues today.”

So, mark your calendars and please spread the word about these events in Jackson and Memphis. We’re still working on a fall event for Square Books in Oxford.

Here are three recent reviews for Circling Faith:

“APolite White Background”—5 STAR review on Amazon!

“Spiritual Living” in Library Journal 

If you read Circling Faith, please write a reader’s review somewhere and let me know where—Goodreads, Powells, Amazon, your own personal blog, or elsewhere. Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Good Blog Goes Home to Jesus

I’ve been one of a group of bloggers for the Southern Authors Blog, “A Good Blog is Hard to Find,” since March of 2010. Founded by Karin Gillespie, and later administered by Kathy Patrick  and then Man Martin,  A Good Blog has been serving up front-porch-style conversations about good Southern literature for several years now. Recently a number of the contributors have had to bow out due to their busy (and successful!) schedules. I think it took the rest of us a little longer to realize that it's quitting time. Sadly, A Good Blog is singing its swan song with a final post by Man Martin:

My 13 posts for A Good Blog are here, in case you missed any and want to check them out, as well as some of the comment threads. Enjoy!

“A Novel Idea” (my premiere post, in March of 2010, when I started the novel I'm just now finishing, "Cherry Bomb.") 

"Call For Names" (which received 22 comments, in May of 2010, after which I named my novel's protagonist "Mare") 

“Living With a Writer’s Brokenness” (with a nod to The Paris Wife

“Speed” (Literary Blunders)  

“I Will Not Climb on the Roof” (Other jobs you’ve had….) 

“Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality” (This was my own personal swan song for A Good Blog, which I wrote on my 61st birthday. Theme was “the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received.”) 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Happy Mother's Day

I’m about to hit the road to visit my mother in Jackson (Mississippi). I’m taking a Mother’s Day card and some peanut M & M’s. That’s it. I took her some new clothes recently, and she no longer reads, so it’s hard to find gifts that she will enjoy, especially as her Alzheimer’s progresses. She mainly enjoy sitting on the patio at Lakeland Nursing Home and watching the birds and talking about the flowers, so that’s what we’ll do today. And maybe I’ll take her a handful of wild flowers. She was an artist at arranging flowers for most of her life. (That's me with Mom, circa 1954.)

I just found this post from two years ago, “Guilt-Free Mother’s Day,” which you might enjoy if you didn’t see it. 

How fun it is to imagine my daughter celebrating her first Mother’s Day on Sunday, when Gabrielle Sophia will be almost 3 weeks old. I thought of her yesterday when I read this quote:

“Making the decision to have a child—it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” – Elizabeth Stone

This is true whether your child is "home hatched," as my friend, Nancy Mardis says, or adopted, like my three children. Holding Gabby every day during the first two weeks of her life felt a lot like holding Beth when she first arrived from South Korea... except that she was almost three. But like Stone says, there goes your heart....

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, and have a great weekend.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Circling Faith Event July 12 at Burke's Books!

CIRCLING FAITH: Southern Women on Spirituality (2012, University of Alabama Press, editors Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed) is a collection of essays by 20 Southern authors (including Mary Karr and Alice Walker) that encompasses spirituality and the experience of winding through the religiously charged environment of the American South. Three of those women—two Memphians and one from Oxford—will be reading from their essays at Burke's Books in Cooper Young at 5 p.m. on July 12. Come and enjoy a glass of wine and enjoy readings by all three authors, who will be available to inscribe a copy of this anthology for you or as a gift for someone else.

MARILOU AWIAKTA is a poet, storyteller, and essayist who weaves her Cherokee and Appalachian heritages with science in her books, Abiding Appalachia: Where Mountain and Atom Meet (poetry) and Rising Fawn and the Fire Mystery (novella). Her nonfiction book, Selu: Seeking the Corn Mother's Wisdom, has been widely studied in colleges  and universities. Her life and work are profiled in the Oxford American Companion to Women's Writing in the U.S. Marilou lives in midtown Memphis.

SUSAN CUSHMAN's essays have been published in First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life, the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal, the Saint Katherine Review, and other publications. She was co-director of the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, Director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop, and a panelist at the 2009 Southern Women Writers Conference (Berry College, Rome, GA). Susan lives in Harbor Town, where she is currently finishing her first novel.


BETH ANN FENNELLY directs the MFA program at Ole Miss and lives in Oxford with her husband, Tom Franklin (author of New York Times best-selling novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter), and their three children. She has published three full-length poetry books and a book of nonfiction, Great with Child. Her work has three times been included in the Best American Poetry series. As a contributing editor to The Oxford American, she frequently writes essays on Southern food, music and books.

If you can’t make it to the event, just call Burke’s at 901-278-7484 and order an autographed copy to pick up after July 12.

(P.S. I'm having problems with the new Blogger... can't move pictures around and control the layout... will be changing to Wordpress eventually... sorry if it looks messy.)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Southern Sin

The Creative Nonfiction Journal is holding a contest for their spring 2013 issue, “Southern Sin.” I’ve been thinking about it for months now, but haven’t been able to put pen to paper. Not sure why… growing up in Mississippi in the ‘50s and ‘60s where almost everyone’s family seemed to be “dysfunctional,” and then being part of a cult-like religious group in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I certainly know enough about sin—my own and others’—to write this essay. (And I’ve got two book-length memoirs on a shelf that I haven’t been ready to publish.) The first short story I wrote as an adult, shortly after moving to Memphis in the late 1980s, was called, “Southern Sinners and Shakespeare.”

When I was nine years old, I answered all 107 questions in the Westminster Shorter Catechism by heart when asked by the Session (elders) at Covenant Presbyterian Church in order to become a communing member. Number 14 is forever etched onto my soul:

Q. What is sin?

A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.

As Flannery O’Connor says:

“The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point, usually the flaw in an otherwise admirable character. Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin.” (Mystery and Manners)

The deadline has been moved from May 31 to July 31, so maybe I’ll make a stab at it. If you’re interested in submitting an essay, rules and details are here.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Bucket List and Then Some (Leaving Denver)

One month ago today I posted my "Denver Bucket List" where I described 9 things I wanted to do while visiting Denver. As I pack to leave tomorrow, it's fun to look back and see that I not only did all 9 things on the list (and several of them many times) but I added a few more during my 5-week stay, including speaking/reading at the Boulder Writers Workshop's monthly Literary Salon on April 21.

But mostly I loved hanging out with my kids and grandkids. It was such a joy to be here long enough for Grace and Anna to scream excitedly, "SuSu's here!" each time I visited them, and to allow me to stay with them several afternoons while their folks were at work. And to be with my daughter during the birth of her first daughter, Gabby, on April 23. And then to have 10 days to bond with her before flying home to Memphis tomorrow. I'm sure there will be tears shed tomorrow morning when I leave.

So, tomorrow I return to my busy life in Memphis, where I look forward to working with a web designer on my first web site, meeting with a freelance editor and doing final revisions on my novel before querying agents, driving to Jackson to visit Mom, and, two weeks from today, flying to New York City with my husband for the annual American Society of Hypertension Meeting. Thanks for reading and helping me feel in touch even while away from home for so long. Have a great weekend, everyone.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Authors' Notes and Historical Accuracy in Fiction

My recently completed novel manuscript, Cherry Bomb, was inspired somewhat by Michael Cunningham’s 1998 Pulitzer-Prize-Winning book, The Hours. I’m fascinated by the way he weaves the lives of three women—one historical and two fictional—from three time periods and geographic locations into a brilliant story line.

In 2005 Cunningham published Specimen Days, in which the main characters find themselves in three different sub-plots in the past, present and future. Here’s an interesting interview where Cunningham discusses his reasons for using this unique structure.

I picked up a copy of Specimen Days at The Tattered Cover book store in downtown Denver a few weeks ago, and I was interested to see an Author’s Note in the front of the novel. Cunningham uses the note to explain a bit about the book’s structure and historical foundation to the reader, including these words:

“Biographers and historians may be required to account for all those missed trains, canceled engagements, and long periods of lassitude; the fiction writer is not necessarily so constrained. Novelists must usually decide what degree of slavish accuracy would make their stories more alive, and what degree would make them less.”

This is so helpful to me as I’m about to begin my final round of revisions of my novel. I’ve struggled with questions of historical accuracy as I’ve fictionalized the lives of several historic people and intertwined them with totally fictitious characters. I’ve done a good bit of research to make each scene believable—whether it’s about a 1980s MTV video of Blondie and Fab 5 Freddy, graffiti writers, or the life of a fourth century prostitute in Alexandria, Egypt.

As Cunningham continues in his Author's Note for Specimen Days, “It’s semi-accurate. To the best of my ability, I’ve been true to historic particulars in the scenes I’ve set in the past. But it would be a mistake on the reader’s part to accept any of it as literal fact. I’ve taken especial liberty with chronology and have juxtaposed events, people, buildings, and monuments that may in fact have been separated by twenty years or more.”

I’m wondering why Cunningham found it necessary to write this Author’s Note for Specimen Days. He wrote no such note for The Hours. Shouldn’t our writing be clear enough without us having to explain it on the front end? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing him (he won the Pulitzer, remember?) but rather wondering whether my novel should also have an Author’s Note at the beginning….