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Month: September 2014

The Butterfly Emerges

My web presence is about to transform from a fuzzy caterpillar to a beautiful butterfly. I love caterpillars, their chunky little bodies moving with unexpected grace. But a butterfly!

Soon, you’ll be able to actually read this blog—no more black background making you squint and ultimately blame me when you discover you’ve developed eye wrinkles. Instead, you’ll glide over my words with the ease of a yoghurt mask slathering onto tired faces.

Soon, no more a little of me over here and a little over there, my various blogs and websites like the poor Scarecrow after the Wicked Witch’s monkeys got ahold of him. Instead, for better or worse, you will find all my eccentricities in one place.

Soon, I’ll be able to update my offerings whenever the notion enters my flighty brain. No more essays from 2009 or announcements about my book about to come out (which it did in 2009) or references to an agent I no longer have. Instead, I will be as fresh as a flower newly blooming in spring.

When you visit my new website, you won’t wonder where I come from. You’ll know I’m Southern, but a Southerner who doesn’t run away from the racism of the world she was born into. You’ll know I love God, but as a Christian whose fiction might make you blush. You’ll know no matter how biting my humor, I carry in my heart unending grief. You’ll know I’ve spent seven years with men and women who struggle against homelessness, and yet I’ve been hired to show the most expensive, beautiful clothes in Memphis. You’ll know I write.

When you visit my new website, you’ll have a new experience. Again, for better or worse, you’ll know who I am. And while that’s a bit scary, it’s also exhilarating.

I’m sure the butterfly felt the same way the morning she awoke with wings.

here’s to creative synthesis . . . .

Competency

I cannot lie: I LOVE feeling competent. For me, “competent” means I’m able to satisfy expectations. Mine, others, or both. Today at the Literacy Mid-South inaugural Book Festival, I was competent.

I know this because after the talks people keep coming up to me and telling me how helpful they found the information I imparted during my presentations (in the morning, I was the solo member of a panel discussion on agents for aspiring writers (my fellow panelist had to bow out) and in the afternoon I led a “Better Writing Through Writing Groups” workshop.)

Sometimes, you can feel you were competent, and you are wrong. When people tell you they gained from your talk what they hoped to gain, you’ve got confirmation.

I feel incompetent so often. I’m not fishing here—I often miss my own mark or the expectations of others or what I know God is waiting for me to do.

Given that, I really appreciate the smiles, the thanks, the handshakes, the comments, the gratitude. I thank Literacy Mid-South for letting me participate. Life goes by very quickly. Enjoy it while it lasts.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

So Easy

So my friend had three polyps; two benign, one malignant. So he had to have another colonoscopy this year to recheck things. So he’s on Medicaid. So Medicaid doesn’t pay for the prep material that you must drink and cannot have a colonoscopy without. So he had to postpone the colonoscopy until a day came when he didn’t have to choose between a colonoscopy and sitting in the dark because he couldn’t pay the light bill.

*

So my friend needed a procedure done. So he has no car, and he lives downtown. So he’s on Medicaid. The Medicaid provider is in Collierville. So my friend, with no transportation, must bypass the Med and Methodist and go to what might as well be the moon. So he’s trying to figure out how to get there.

*

So my friend is trying to listen to what I’m saying, but her mind is too full. “I’m worried about my health insurance,” she says. So she’s covered by Medicaid. So they keep switching around doctors on her. So she’s not sure what’s going on with her care. She’s dying, by the way slowly but surely.

*

So people want to protest “Obama Care.” So they complain, for ideological reasons. So they rail about the poor not doing enough to take care of themselves. So they rant about inappropriate use of the ER, and why can’t these irresponsible people try a little preventive medicine? So they sit on their high horses and JUDGE. So easy.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

This website re-design is so hard! I am a trial and error person, which, by definition, means I make errors. Another way to look at it is I need to play with things. Try a little of this, mix in a dollop of that. Maybe take a big eraser and start all over—why do you think my husband marvels at the process I go through to get dressed in the morning?

I’ve relayed my predicament to my web designer, and she might very well have a solution for this. To date, my ideas have been evenly split between hits (my new tag line, “My Very Southern Voice,” and the Photo Bio—it looks cool, like or a series of cars clacking down the train tracks) and misses (the three books above the fold are boxy, boring, and say nothing about who I am.)

Until them I will live with frustration. My need to get it fixed, and get it fixed now, is being tested. Which is kinda appropriate. After all, that’s what this whole website redesign is about: figuring out who I want to be from here forward.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Thank God Dogs Gotta Pee

Thank God dogs have to pee.

My time at my dad’s family reunion this past week was invaded by the Door of Hope book, Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. Calls from TV news anchors; an interview with Leonard Gill of the Memphis Flyer, which resulted in this great article:

MEMPHIS FLYER

All wonderful stuff but, for me, stressors. Even now, I am continuing to prepare for the Launch Party tomorrow.

But, thank God, you gotta take a break from whatever is going on in your life and WALK THE DOG!

So, back home, how happy I was to put the dog on the leash and walk the edges of the island where cicadas sing and turtles slip into the murky harbor water; where the mud rises damp and the dog tugs on the leash to get at all the fresh smells; where ‘dappled’ doesn’t begin to describe the shade and the delighted cries of birds fill the air.

One of the Door of Hope writers wrote about how God was so smart to make us critters with long-lasting bones so that millions of years later we can re-construct an image of what once walked the earth. I think God was so smart to make dogs with eliminatory systems that force me into the natural world every day, to enjoy, to relax, to love. To remember that, while I am living on this earth, I need to enjoy it.

here’s to creative synthesis . . . .

“If you hadn’t come in, you would’ve been dead before the end of the year.”

Ever since a doctor spoke these words to my husband, I’ve looked men in the face and said, “At least once a year, go in and let a doctor listen to your heart.” I try to make them understand. My husband was doing great too. He had no symptoms. He was feeling fine. Yet, unbeknownst to him, a tendon in his heart had popped. As a result, his mitral valve wasn’t processing blood the way it should have. If I (ahem!) hadn’t put us on a regimen of a regular annual physical, nothing would have sent him to the doctor to discover that he had less than twelve months to live.

Who knows if any of the men I’ve said this to have listened to me. Who can blame them? Sometimes we’re at cocktail parties. Sometimes family gatherings. I’m a little off-topic, as you might say. Yet, I keep crying in the wilderness of male health.

A stethoscope, that’s all it took to hear that tale-tell abnormality of my husband’s doom. Sometimes it takes more, honestly. But, really. If a doctor leaning into your chest, the cold metal of his antiquated stethoscope pressed against your skin can foil the grim reaper, isn’t it worth it?

Recognizing that men and women view wellness differently, I’m sending a shout out to those of you who live with and love men. At least once a year, send them to the doctor. Let the doc listen to their heart. A little preventive care for them might keep your own heart intact.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

My Drugstore

In 2001, I moved to Memphis and became a writer, which is a person who sits at her computer and meets no one. I left behind a busy law practice in Jackson, Mississippi, so the change was a shock. Quiet days at home, on my own in a new city, no outlet to meet people. Then I found Wiles-Smith Drugstore.

I never became a fixture at the old-fashioned drugstore with the soda fountain counter and formica-topped tables. I went just often enough to keep my heart full. Now it’s closing, and my heart is sad.

You see, Wiles-Smith was mine. Driving down Union Avenue, I spied it and pulled in. No one said, “Oh, you have to try out Wiles-Smith.” No article bragged about its malted milks and tuna salad sandwiches on toasted wheat bread. My husband never said, “You know what’s a great place to eat in Memphis? Wiles-Smith.”

Instead, I saw the lettering on the sign, the open shelving, the cheerful tables, and I recognized it. When I was growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, it was called Parkin’s Pharmacy, where we went to get free Cokes while our prescription was filled. At the drugstore next to Jitney 14, we charged Mother’s presents on her account, blissfully unaware this meant she was paying for her own Mother’s Day bubble bath. I first met Archie and Betty at Parkin’s in Belhaven, and Supergirl, too, when she had the secret eye in the back of her head. Not until I was researching for this post did I learn what had given my childhood hero the creepy third eye.

When I returned to Jackson as an adult, the drugstore was called Brent’s Drugs. The store was located in Fondren next to where Mother’s hairdresser had been in the 1960s, but, back then, we had Parkin’s so I didn’t discover Brent’s until I was a grownup. Brent’s had the best egg and olive sandwiches a girl could ask for, probably still does. Brent’s Drug is now a diner, unlike Parkin’s, which closed long ago.

Soon, Wiles-Smith may, too, reside only on memory lane.

A small hope glimmers. The retiring owner of Wiles-Smith will sell the business if a buyer steps forward. It appears the continuing business would have to do without the prescription side of revenue, not a good sign when Fred’s recently announced the closing of over fifty stores because, without a pharmacy, they were not performing economically.

Someone could buy it, I suppose, and make it a hip retro diner like Brent’s. That would be nice, but Wiles-Smith would still be gone. No more bags of chips you snagged off the rack yourself. No more sitting at the counter unnoticed, your pocketbook resting on the floor beside your stool. No more watching time slip by in the mirror over the milkshake machine. Life, it passes. And takes lots of good things with it.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Old Stories Found

After a long hiatus, I submitted a couple of short stories to literary magazines today.

I’ve been working on the new website, mulling over what stories I wanted to include. The website will have a “Photo Bio” featuring a sentence about my life that reflects a dominant themes in my work and a representative photo. Click on the photo and you can read (or listen) to work that engages the theme.

For example, under the “I grew up to be a lawyer and show clothes on the runway,” you will be able to click on a glamor shot and read The Dress, which appeared in Skirt! Magazine, or listen to “Show the Clothes.” where two models get into fisticuffs.

Given my recent proclivities, much of the fiction will be in audio form, but I also want to include PDFs folks can read. I knew I’d use “Held at Gunpoint,” the story that received a Special Mention from Pushcart Prize, Best of the Small Presses. But what else?

In search of an answer, I wandered through old stories lurking inside folders entitled “Odd Devices” (where the structure doesn’t follow a standard “and then this happened” telling); “Distance Stories” (where the narrator is not as close a point of view as I normally use), and one folder I can’t tell you the name of without blushing.

Inside the “Women” folder, I found two old stories I liked so well I don’t want to “self-publish” them by placing them on the website. Instead, I slipped them into envelopes (yes, no email submissions) and sent other copies to Submittable and other online submission processes.

One story is a post-Katrina story set in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m hoping the topical nature of it, given the upcoming 10th anniversary of the storm, might help with its acceptance. The other is a story about a young woman who had to leave her children and live on the street. Because I wrote this BEFORE I began facilitating a writing group of men and women who live on the street, I shamelessly began my submission letter: “For seven years, I’ve facilitated a writing group of men and women who know homelessness.” I measured the story against that experience to see if it rang true (it obviously did), but I had no fear of exploiting the experience since I wrote it prior thereto.

We shall see if anyone wants them, but here’s the primary thing: they are good stories. Right now, when I’m going through so much rejection trying to get an agent for the novel, it was really nice to run across these stories and realize with the cold eye of not having seen the work in a long, long time—you CAN write.

As I always say, you never know why you’re going from A to B but, most of the time, it’s not the reason you think. I thought I was getting my new website ready for launch, but what I really was doing was laying a balm on my soul.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

The Good News

When I was young, my mother told me I’d gotten a phone call. I was whining about what terrible news it was certain to be, and she said, “How can it be good news if you don’t leave room for it to be good?”

I think of this every time I’m about to open a SASE. You know, the letter that, incredibly, some very high-end literary agents still use—no internet for them. My natural pessimism kicks in until I remember my mom, and I think, Ellen, you need to leave room for it to be good.

Today as I slit open the letter, I took it one step further. I said, whatever is in this envelope is good news. There’s lots of ways to spin this into truth, the primary one being he or she wouldn’t have been the right agent for me anyway. More importantly, it makes me read the letter looking for the good in it, which might otherwise slip by unnoticed.

I’m not going to identify the agent—she probably didn’t expect to be quoted, and I also don’t want anyone to be negative about her. To be clear, she did NOT offer representation. What she offered was hope.

She praised my characters, my writing, my keen observations, and my publishing credentials. I don’t mean to be blasé, but she is not the first agent to do so. What she did that hasn’t been done until this draft of the manuscript was to praise the storyline.

I have worked so hard on the story. I poured my heart into fixing the plot, making it work, pulling it into something desirable in a process that reminds me of my grandmother hand-pulling old-fashioned taffy, the taffy searing to the touch, Mamo working it into ropes before it cooled too much to be formed. To have someone say the narrative promises to be unique and entertaining is balm to my soul.

That’s good news.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

A Modern-Day Literary Salon

Susan Cushman, who has an amazing blog at Pen & Palette, hosted a wonderful literary salon at her house on Saturday. Neil White of Triton Press spoke to about thirty-five writers about the hybrid publishing option. I learned many things. I wanted to share a few with you.

* When revising, look for scenes hiding in your sentences.

Neil encouraged us to get our manuscripts in the best possible shape before trying to publish them in any way. As an illustration, he read a sentence followed by the full-blown scene that resulted when the sentence was “revised.” This so dramatically revealed the difference between copy-editing revision and developmental editing, it was startling. Look at sentences in your manuscript. Think about what’s behind them. See if one is standing in for what could be a stunning scene.

* Being accepted by a publisher means the publisher thinks it can sell your book.

This sounds horribly simplistic, but for most of my writing career I’ve viewed getting a novel published as something that would give me the stamp of literary validation. Someone in the business would have determined I’d written something good enough to publish.
That’s not true.
Yes, some books might be bought because they are so well-written the book can’t help but sell (think Life of Pi, which, I need to point out, was rejected repeatedly by agents). But the books aren’t bought because they’re so well-written; they’re bought because the publisher thinks the books will sell. What you get from a publisher is a stamp of salability.
The question is: what are YOU getting out of your three publishing options? Will one make you more money than the other? Is that important to you? Will one get you more readers? Is that important to you? Does one, day-to-day, ask you to do activities you enjoy more than the others do?
Of course, I’m saying you, but I mean me. What basis, other than validation, am I going to use to decide my publishing route?

* To find an agent, go to a writers’ conference and meet one.

If you want to be traditionally published, you need an agent. In discussing how very hard it is to get an agent, Neil recommended we find a writers’ conference (or two) where you are given the opportunity to make a pitch to an agent. If the agent likes your story—and understands why you are the very person to write it—she or he might request a manuscript. I’ve been to a few such conferences, but not since I was trying to sell a novel. It seems like a lot of money to spend just to get a shot at an agent, but, hey, if the conference is in a fun place, you go with fun friends . . .

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

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