Tomorrow, we go to the beach. I am, as Alan Greenspan used to say, irrationally exuberant. We’ve been going to this beach since I was in the eleventh grade. That’s a long time. My daddy introduced us to the beach—he vacationed nearby when he was a kid. The beach, for me, was emblematic of a new state of being that began in junior high when Daddy and Mother married. We now lived in Daddy’s beloved state of North Carolina, and I was delighted to be part of the type of family that went on vacations and walked to the store for popsicles and slid on rubber rafts on waves. Last year, a week after the beach trip, Daddy died. This will be our first beach week without him present in this world. I should be sad. But I am, again, exuberant.
As is my want, I’ve tried to figure out why. Why does the beach this year call to me so strongly with its heavy sand and bright beach towels and endless hours of reading? The discovery of the latest games, the lure of the restaurant on the bay, the jaunt to the end of the island to see how far the ocean has encroached since last viewed? Why?
For the last eighteen months I’ve been revising, reworking, re-visioning a novel, trying to respond to the suggestions/directions of an agent and an editor. The process was good for the manuscript. It was tough on me. I don’t work well with piecemeal instruction, yet that was the avenue required. I ranted, I raved. I pulled at my hair. I argued (with myself) and I wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote and wrote. The novel is now in the hands of interested agents, being read.
During the same eighteen-month period, I’ve been shaping six years worth of selected weekly writings from the Door of Hope writing group into a cohesive book. The task was daunting; at one point I thought, I cannot do this—it’s too much material, too disparate, too confusing. I had exactly the environment I desired—all of it in front of me at once—and I felt as if I were drowning. I crawled ashore, and the book Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness will release the middle of next month.
Until I wrote this post, I hadn’t realized I’d been at these tasks exactly simultaneously. Both were voluntary. No one said I had to publish a novel. If I hadn’t taken on editing the writing group’s journey out of homelessness, someone else might have. I chose to do both of these things, and yet they were hard. Now both are almost at a point of stasis.
I can go the beach.
I can relax.
I can read in the shade and walk in the sun and kneel in the sand and thank Daddy for all the happiness he brought into my life.
I am beyond thrilled. I’m exuberant, and with good cause.
I cannot be at the Wednesday morning church service this week where “art” is defined as crosses made from chip bags thrown into the streets of the neighborhood, but I’m there nonetheless.
I stab my thumb with my needle, and I’m remembering the suggestions for images to include on our new banner: an eagle, World Love, a Harley belt buckle.
I snip a patch from my old dress—I loved this dress, I really looked good in it, I grieved when I literally wore holes in it—and I don’t worry about the uneven edges. We who attend the Wednesday morning service know uneven edges. That’s why the background of our banner will be a patchwork. That, and a patchwork is what I can do.
I peruse the large green canvass I’ve selected as the form for the patchwork of our banner, and I realize how much I’ve taken on. That’s the way life works for me. I glance up during our fancy Sunday morning service, and my eyes land on the banner at the front of the church. Hunh, I think. Our Wednesday morning service doesn’t have a banner. Why don’t we have a banner? I know—we can make a banner!
Banners, by definition, are big. Patches, by definition, are small. Banners are mighty and waving and proclamative. Patches are utilitarian, subversive, and deceptive in their strength. Did I mention that most of the congregants at the Wednesday morning service walk in from the street mission down the road?
We are going to take these small patches and sew them together and create a big-ass banner. People will look at it and say, a Harley belt buckle? And we’ll say, if you don’t like it, make your own banner. Well, we probably won’t say that. We’ll say, what would you like to see on the banner? Then we’ll work that in too. Because if there’s one thing we are at Wednesday morning service it’s inclusive. Even when it comes to our very own banner.
Thank you to my friend and neighbor Susan Cushman for tagging me at Pen and Palette to answer some questions about my writing. If you don’t follow Susan’s blog, go take a look. Susan blogs regularly on writing, mental health, and faith; her post on Shrinking the Monsters discusses her own writing process. Susan is a wonderful supporter of the writing community in Memphis, and we are all grateful for the wisdom and energy she offers us.
My goal today, should I choose to accept it, is to describe my writing life; what I’m working on; and why I do this thing called writing. I tend to mull over these questions a lot so I already have a metaphor (!) for my writing life: the spinning plates in the circus.
I wrote six novels seriatim. Having thrown these manuscripts in the air, I’m now revising them all at once. The novel TRAIN TRIP: LUCINDA MAE’S QUEST FOR LOVE, HONOR, AND THE CHICKENS is the first manuscript to survive this process. Two agents are currently reading the full story (YAY!!!!) while I continue to methodically send out queries.
The next manuscript on the conveyor belt is an amateur sleuth mystery (MODEL FOR DECEPTION: when her model partner disappears, a Memphis fashion model uses her “clothes whisperer” skills to investigate the case, only to discover clues to the murder of her long-lost favorite cousin). This story is currently with the paid editor who is helping me with these revision projects. While the editor works (and I send out queries on TRAIN TRIP) I’m thoughtfully revising IN THE NAME OF MISSISSIPPI (a young documentarian returns to the South to film a historic civil rights reparations lawsuit, but when the case begins to fall apart, the mixed-race young man must examine his own place in the world.) “Thoughtfully,” I say, because even though this novel was a semifinalist in the James Jones First Novel Competition, it was also the first novel I wrote, and I’m taking my time picking through what is on the page.
THE BONE TRENCH—which mixes Mother Mary and Jesus with the private prison industry—is far enough along to have been a Short List Finalist, Novel-in-progress, in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition, but it needs more attention . . . as soon as I can give it. I can’t wait to get back to my most-recently-drafted-novel, a Hurricane Katrina story about JAZZY, a young girl who evacuates New Orleans to ride out the storm with her dead dad’s crazy family in Mississippi. If I’m still alive, kicking, and writing, I’ll also revise my tear-jerker 1011 ST. LAWRENCE STREET, which explores the different lives led by two young North Carolina cousins—Casey, the beautiful outcast and Emily, the reluctant family favorite.
As I pursue the novel revisions, I continue to promote my short story collection released in audio which you can listen to at CAIN’T DO NOTHING WITH LOVE. From time to time, I also lead workshops based on my book MAKING CROSSES: A CREATIVE CONNECTION TO GOD (Paraclete Press, 2009). And, of course, I love to slap my thoughts onto this blog.
Spinning plates—I told you.
Why I write—the physical act of writing; the creating; the editing; the sitting down at the computer and banging away—is a question easy for me to answer: I write because it makes time stand still. The passage of time strikes me as the saddest fact of the universe. While writing, I cheat the ever-ticking clock. The harder question for me goes to the issue of the time and energy I’m spending trying to get published, something I pondered about the collective conversation of life.
On a final note, a conversation about my writing life wouldn’t be complete without my mentioning the weekly writing group I co-facilitate, the members of which have all experienced homelessness. I was the editor of the group’s ezine—The Advocate: A Voice of Experience—for three years. I also edited the group’s book WRITING OUR WAY HOME: A GROUP JOURNEY OUT OF HOMELESSNESS, which will be published by Triton Press later this summer. Regardless of whatever else happens with my writing life, if I’m in Memphis, you can find me every Wednesday at 1:00 writing with the group.
For the next entry on this blog tour, I’ve chosen quality over quantity. Next Monday, Marisa Whitsett Baker will be blogging about her own writing journey. Marisa has a beautiful blog at The Unwritten Word. You might catch a funny piece about her unpredictable aching back, an informational piece about gorgeous inks, or a beautiful entry about what she’s learned from her well-examined life. Enjoy.
We sat on the flat rock by the shore of Lake Pontchartrain dropping pebbles into the water-filled crevice of the rock while we watched the red ball of the sun drop swiftly—it’s disappearing as we watch!—into the blue clouds, rounded as mountains.
As Tom and I said our goodbyes, Aubrey said, “I had fun dropping pebbles into the pond with you.”
I didn’t run with a crowd that liked the Ramones. I didn’t run with much of a crowd at all. During that period of my life, I was on my own emotionally, completing my schooling, being very functional in my choices. Not so for my music. Inside those idiosyncratic choices there lived the Ramones.
I heard it and I loved it. “I Want to Be Sedated.” “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” “Blitzkrieg Bop.” I realize punk is supposed to be nihilistic, but I thought it was the most upbeat music ever. One of the songs would come on at a party, and I’d start hopping up and down, singing along. Those with me would say, “You know this song?”
The Ramones were part of a mishmash of groups I liked that included the Boomtown Rats, The Clash, Adam and the Ants, the Police, Squeeze, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello. Some of these bands—and those in them—became quite well-known. They weren’t at the time.
Now the last member of the Ramones has passed. Cancer took most of the group. Every once in a while I hear a song by the other bands—”London Calling” had a great resurgence during the Olympics. But the Ramones never pierce my current life. So while the occasion is sad, I appreciate the opportunity to go on-line (none of my albums from that time survived) and hit play. Elated, I shout: Hey, Ho, Let’s Go!
As I’ve been pondering my writing journey, several people have asked me questions about my desire to get my work published. The thought-provoking questions have included, “You’ve written something you are proud of, is that not enough?” “But you enjoy the act of writing itself, right?” “I thought you gave up false ideas about ‘success’?” “But you aren’t dependent on what other people think, are you?” These questions have really made me ponder the ultimate question: why do I want to get my work out there for others to read?
I read an article recently that talked about the function of novels. Novels, it said, aren’t books; they’re opportunities for conversations. I, a woman who loves community, was quite taken with this idea. As writers, we write for different reasons; for me, it’s because writing makes time stand still. According to this article, we publish to trigger the conversation.
So I was mulling over the questions I’d been asked and the point of this interesting article I’d read, when a writer friend shared the obituary he’d drafted for the death of his father. Ahhhhhh, I thought as I read this amazing obituary, now I know why I want to publish.
None of us understands this life. No one can figure out who we are or why we’re here. God knows why, after all this work, we die. We are all searching, groping, clawing in the dark after something that cannot ultimately be taken in hand. Writing is our attempt to focus a magnifying glass on one of the interminable questions that vex us as we journey along. Writers publish their work because the rest of us want to read whatever scrap of understanding the writer has managed to snatch from the air as it floats by.
Yes, the obit was beautifully written, but that’s not why I cried as I read it. I wept because reading the story of this man’s life, I knew—despite all the horrible things that happen in the world every day—we are a good people. The shared words gave me hope for humanity. That’s why I want to publish my work: for how it alters, even ever so slightly, other people’s view of the world. I want to publish for the collective conversation of life.
It’s hard to live in a place where you know you’re failing.
When I first started writing, all my writing teachers gushed over my work. Rare voice, they said. True gift, they opined. Literary journals I admired–like the Chicago Review—sent me notes saying, we’re not taking this piece but we know we’re going to be reading about you in the future. At writing conferences, the other participants sidled up to me and said, “I liked your story the best.” When I got to the submitting stage, the first story I sent into a contest won an Honorable Mention . . . and $500.
I knew I was winning.
Now I know I’m failing.
I can look at what I’m writing and see the problems. I can hear the voices offering advice, yet I can’t fix what needs fixing. I can easily recognize the good writing of others, but I’m unable to get mine in the same shape.
I’m bogged down, and I know it.
Funny thing, my writing is better than it was when I knew I was winning. It’s better even than it was last week—each awful query letter I write is an improvement over the last terrible query letter I wrote.
I believe I have finally hit the proverbial wall. The “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” wall. The “writers who succeed aren’t the best writers; they’re the ones who keep writing” wall. The place where I need to hear and absorb what one of the Door of Hope writers told me: “We’re all famous; they just don’t know it yet.”
Time-out for “woo-woo” truth:
A couple of weeks ago when I lay in bed with my mind rumbling over the Train Trip manuscript, a voice came into my head as loud and clear as a ringing bell: that manuscript’s already sold—move on.
How is it sold? I don’t have an agent. I don’t have any outstanding submissions to a publisher. So tell me—how is it sold?
I don’t know, but I think it’s sold because I WILL wrestle this query letter to the ground. I WILL send out a fab letter that will garner all kinds of requests for fulls. I WILL get an agent who WILL sell the manuscript to a house I love.
Yes, I’m failing at this particular moment, a moment that is going on WAY too long for my taste, but which is only a moment in a long journey. In the long view—one I’ve held since the day I first put my foot onto this circuitous path—I will get there. I will make it. I am improving. I am winning.
At 8:00, I go to church. The priest sometimes stops the liturgy to urge us to look overhead and watch the light show: dust motes floating in the sunbeams from the stained glass windows. Today, because it’s Fourth of July week, the guitarist during communion plays “This Land is Your Land.” The lyrics include this verse:
In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.
As the congregants move from the chapel to breakfast in the fellowship hall, they pass the table where I sit in the hallway, making art. Except today we are sharpening pencils, because the church has a bucket of colored pencils and not a one of them has a point that will write. I think it’s not much of a morning of art but then after I de-camp to the fellowship hall, a guy I’ve met who moved to Memphis from New Orleans sits with me and makes a cross. As he works, we talk about the shootings on Bourbon Street. He says, “These days, someone my age . . . and race, that’s what there is for you. That’s why I left. I can do other things. I have other talents.” He folds the chip bag in such a way that a rising sun graces the top of the cross.
I don’t understand people who praise me as creative. I don’t understand our hierarchy of judgment. I don’t see how you can come to any conclusion but that those of us who reside inside “privileged society” live in a world that is pure illusion.