Sometimes when I’m blue
and nothing seems to do
where I go
I scrounge my Pogo books from Burke’s Bookstore. They’re cheap, used as they are. I lie in bed and read about Churchy LaFemme and Howland Owl conniving to drag Pogo into their latest scheme. I laugh. I turn the page.
These are not comics popular during my childhood, oh no. Walt Kelly wrote in the 1940s or something (I’d know if I weren’t so lazy and willing to do a little research, but it’s one of those days.) The books belonged to my mother when she was a young woman—not a girl; these are adult comics. I first found them in the attic of our house on Belhaven Street when I was in elementary school. I poured over them, losing entire afternoons as I lounged on the attic steps, dust motes drifting in the rays of sunlight cutting through the louvers at the end of the roof. I lingered, studying the pictures. I read and re-read and re-read again—my supply was limited.
The books are funny, full of puns and misunderstandings. (I’m beginning to think this may have been the source of my affinity for puns.)
The illustrations of Pogo (a possum), Albert (the alligator), Churchy LaFemme (a turtle) (you know Howland is an Owl, right?) and all the baby critters (affectionately known as tads) match the comic tone perfectly. Once, after we moved from Belhaven Street to Arlington Street, I became so enamored with one of the bug children, I sat in my bedroom that opened onto the Romeo and Juliet balcony and cut and stitched my very own bug from scrap fabric, making my love real. I recreated the bug’s needle nose, his pinstripe wings—where did I find pinstriped fabric? When he was finished, I taught the bug his lessons using a small wood-framed chalkboard. I don’t remember the subject matter, but I do recall how attentive he was to what I had to say.
There are no morals in Pogo. Okay, maybe “don’t eat the sandwiches before you really need them.” What there is is swamp boats poled through shallow waters and friends distraught because their latest shenanigans have led to the demise of their other friends (never true). Sometimes in the books written in the ‘70s there’s a lament for the swamp and the environmental damage being done in the name of progress. These books aren’t as good. Best are the ones featuring the bats cheating their brother bats in strip poker; or Pogo dressing up with a mop on his head; or the tads agitating to find the true Easter Bunny.
The timelessness of the humor reminds me of Don Quixote, written in the 1600s or something (again, I ain’t doing the research) but still funny today (yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re saying to yourself, she had to mention Don Quixote to offset a post about comics; if you consider this a highbrow reference, you haven’t read Don Quixote.)
in a swamp
what you are and
what you aren’t
This morning at the church service attended mainly by those living on the streets, one of the guys told me about two recent incidents when he’d been told he was an inspiration. He began the story by saying, “I’m not telling you this to to be bragging.”
I’ve known him for about a year and a half. He wasn’t telling me to be bragging. He was sharing this development because such amazing moments require acknowledgement and respect.
To be minding your own business, going about doing what you feel you’re supposed to be doing, and to have someone tell you your action—or the very example of your life—helped them make a life-changing decision: how wonderful is that? Not only did you have an impact, but the person cared enough to take the time to tell you. In the sharing of such moments I can’t help but detect a certain amount of awe: can you believe I was lucky enough to impact another person in a good way?
Yes, if you’re a first grade teacher or a parent. For the rest of us, it’s a little surprising.
I know the feeling because in the last week, when three members of writing group had the chance to name someone whom they admire or who had a positive impact on their lives, they named me.
I am not someone who hears compliments well. I shrug them off, if they even penetrate my brain. Sometimes I think: well, they probably felt sorry for me and thought I needed a pick-me-up (don’t analyze my psychological (ill) health—it’s shooting fish in a barrel.)
The point is: the third time someone from writing group took the time to claim my influence on them, I heard it. I heard them say I was loyal and nonjudgmental and quietly assertive (how Southern is that?) and a follower of God and (hallelujah!) funny.
I share this with you with the same awe I saw in my friend’s eyes this morning. Damn, he seemed to be saying, isn’t this the coolest thing?
Thank you so much to Luanne Castle at Writer Site for asking me to participate in this conversation on writing process.
Luanne lives in Arizona and California; our paths would never have crossed without her wonderful blog. Yet, I’ve since learned we have mutual writing friends and, out of her long list of publications, we share a literary journal in common. I love this connectivity, which is what Luanne does so well on her blog. She connects with her readers, both through the incredibly substantive information she offers on the art of writing memoir and the warmth she shares with each person who chooses to comment on her posts. Her first collection of poetry Doll God is about to be released by Aldrich Press imprint of Kelsay Books. You can read an example of her intriguing memoir writing here in River Teeth. You can learn more about her writing process here. If you choose to follow her blog, you won’t be disappointed.
To the questions, which made me think, which made me learn, for which I am grateful!
What am I working on at the moment?
As two big projects rotate out of my constantly juggled life (the Door of Hope Writing Group’s book Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness, was released by Triton Press in August, and I’ve successfully consolidated my fractured online presence into this singular website (yippee!)), I look up to see blue sky. Open space. Room and time to breath.
In that sighing place of happiness, I’m revising my novels. I’ve described what’s happening here and, unbelievably, I’ve stayed the course. The first two novels are still making the rounds; I’ve received feedback from the editor on the Mississippi novel; I’ve finished tweaking the Hurricane Katrina novel, Jazzy. Now, I’m letting Jazzy sit for a bit while I further tweak Train Trip before sending out more queries : is anything ever actually finished?
In between novel revising, I’ve picked up some old short stories and, with the help of my wonderful writing group, I’m revising and submitting them. I’m also half-way into the creation of a “how to” manual for writing in community. Encouraged by Literacy Mid-South, I’m putting together a simple primer based on the Door of Hope Writing Group method. We’ll probably call it “Community Writing for Mannequins” so as not to infringe any copyrights (that’s a joke, y’all.)
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
My body of work is hard to classify into a genre. Train Trip is commercial women’s fiction. Model for Deception is an amateur sleuth mystery. In the Name of Mississippi is literary with a legal thriller element. Jazzy is . . . who knows? A novel with an eleven-year-old protagonist that wasn’t written for middle schoolers. The Bone Trench is urban fantasy. The House on Saint Lawrence Street is an old-fashioned tear-jerker. What ties them all together? They are doused in the atmosphere of the Southern USA.
Why do I write what I do?
Of all things, I had to answer this question when I was redoing my website. What, I asked myself, do you want people to know about your work? I looked at all my major works and analyzed the subject matter and themes. I discovered that my life created my work, and included this explanation on the website:
My life has been shaped by two very early events: I was born into the racism of the civil rights South, and I carry the grief of my daddy being killed by a train. Much of my writing carefully picks at the nuances of racism, and many of my stories involve the child trying to understand the space left by a missing parent. The two jobs for which I’ve been well-paid are lawyering in Jackson, Mississippi and walking the runway in Memphis. I follow my own peculiar definition of God, which led me to start a writing group of men and women who have experienced homelessness. I love all the people in my life but mostly my husband, my dog (yes, she’s a person), and my two grandbabies. I’ve been known to appear in public in costume.
How does my writing process work?
I work by instinct. I write and when I finish writing, I trust what I’ve written. I look back at it to see what exactly I wanted to say. I revise into that. For short stories, this process (now, after much, much practice and a long period of “what the hell is she trying to say?” out of which I never would have emerged without my patient Rump writing group), is fairly easy. Write. Revise. Get feedback. Revise. Voila!
For novels, I’m still flailing around a bit. Obviously, I get the story down on paper (I use the term “paper” figuratively—all of my writing is done on my MacBook Air). I revise. Get feedback—some of these novels have been read by over ten readers. But I recently realized I need to have a strong sense of what I’m trying to do with the novel in order to effectively use reader feedback. I need to know exactly why I’m doing what I’m doing (remember: I do, in fact, trust there was a reason for what I did). Then compare that with what readers/editors/agents want me to do. And figure out how the two overlap. This I am still learning.
Onto the fun stuff.
Here are my nominees who will post their responses to these four questions on their blogs.
First, Emma Connolly
Now, right off the bat, I’m breaking the rules. Although Emma is a gifted writer, I’ve invited her to join in this blog so you can learn about her new endeavor, Uptown Needle & Craftworks. Emma has leapt off the diving board of her old life and into her dream. She’s recently opened a creativity mecca in the city I consider the epicenter of creativity, New Orleans. She is blogging about this new adventure at Uptown Needle & Craftworks.
Next, Elizabeth Queen
I’ve known Elizabeth since the day she was born. She is my goddaughter. She’s also a brilliant writer. From Jackson, Mississippi and currently living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Elizabeth recently graduated with a Masters in Divinity from Duke Divinity and a Masters in Social Work from the University of North Carolina. She blogs at suchpoeticjustice. If you want to see well-known subjects in a totally new way, follow her blog.
Last but not least, Corabel Shofner
Bel is my hero. She has slogged through the writing/revision/querying/rejection process and emerged victorious: she has an agent who is currently shopping her novel to publishing houses! I love her bio on her wonderful website. Here’s a taste:
Born in the early ‘50s as the youngest child of whimsical parents, Corabel Alexander Shofner was raised in a family of judges, farmers, and colorful women. Brought up amidst formal tea parties and debutante balls of Jackson as well as the conflicting world of her wild Delta grandmother—who flew in the face of all convention—Corabel never learned to navigate the world of alcoholism, delusions of grandeur, and blatant paradoxes of her childhood.
I’m looking forward to what each one of these women has to share about their creative process. What are we inspired to create? How—concretely, physically—do we successfully translate that wisp of desire into something another, distinctly different person connects with? How is what I do similar to what you do? How is it different? The answers—from ourselves, from others—might surprise you.
Someone left a dead mole at our front door.
I’m pretty sure it was the neighborhood cat. That sounds like a cat, right? Leaving little presents? I’d prefer to think that it was a generous if misguided cat rather than someone making small-time, horse-head-except-it’s-a-mole-body threats.
I can fill up my Kia Soul for $25.
At times, my old car took $75 to fill up. It had a bigger gas tank, and it required premium gas. Plus, the price of gas was higher. Still, the price marker stopping on $25 was startling.
You can major in Comics at the Memphis College of Arts.
Comics and Illustrations, too, I think. And Animation. I love this. If I were young again, I might go to the College of Art and major in Comics. If I could draw.
The European Space Agency landed on a comet 300 million miles away.
300. Million. Miles. Away. Pointed a damn spacecraft into the blackness, shot it off, and hit the target. The spacecraft and its lander left Earth in 2004. 10 years ago. And it landed. 300. Million. Miles. Away. Think about that the next time you toss a wad of paper towards the wastebasket.
Here’s the little explorer’s picture:
I’m being tested for glaucoma.
I have an oddly shaped eyeball that has been known to confuse eye doctors. I’m hoping that’s the case again, but I keep remembering that phrase from childhood: “the silent killer.” Surely you can’t die from glaucoma?
The 6th Circuit upheld a same-sex marriage ban.
After every court in the country that has examined the issue of marriage equality has ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, the 6th Circuit decides to go the other way. Just when you thought justice was rolling . . .
We painted our front door purple.
I asked my husband, do you have an opinion on the color for the door? He said, purple. We got PURPLE. Here’s a photo:
The only Memphis veterinarian I’ve ever used is retiring.
The vet has seen us through 17 years, three Yorkies, and the care and love of our Evangeline. November 30th will be her last day. She’s given us some recommendations for other vets, but it’s hard to replace the woman who helped you through the deaths of three precious little dogs and welcomed your new one into the family. RIP, my vet relationship.
Duke can play football.
Duke stuck with David Cutcliffe as its coach, and it’s paying off. You may not remember, but back in the day Steve Spurrier gave Duke an ACC Championship. Still, it’s startling to see Duke winning football games.
The Morris Ice Company had a banner year.
The Morris Ice Company no longer manufactures ice. It’s hard to make a lot of money if you’re an ice factory that’s not manufacturing ice. Yet, the plant had its best year in a long time. Congratulations, Uncle Hebe!
I can ride a bike.
A real bike. Outside. On a beautiful fall day. The progression of my hip arthritis is such that I can’t ride the bikes at the gym; they cause too much pain. But today I looked at my red bike and said to myself, now that would make me happy. I pumped up the tires and gingerly hiked my leg over the bar. I sat. I pressed my foot on the pedal, and I was riding!
I’m so excited! The new website is up and running, and I’m celebrating my firsts.
The first blog post on my new website.
The first chance I’ve gotten to publicly thank my website designer, Michelle Touchette, the most talented, patient designer in the world.
The first time I’ve been a literal “talking head”—for my audio vine moment, you click on my head and I talk.
The first place I’ve completely claimed—really claimed—my Southernness.
The first sharing of an excerpt from Model for Detective, a Vangie Street mystery—click on the FASHION photo and give it a read.
The first congregation of my diverse writing successes in one place—it’s under ACHIEVEMENTS if you want to see what it looks like.
The first actual analysis I’ve done of my writing over the last ten years and why I might be writing that stuff. The short version is in my bio pics; the long version is at ME:
“My life has been shaped by two very early events: I was born into the racism of the civil rights South, and I carry the grief of my daddy being killed by a train. Much of my writing carefully picks at the nuances of racism, and many of my stories involve the child trying to understand the space left by a missing parent. The two jobs for which I’ve been well-paid are lawyering in Jackson, Mississippi and walking the runway in Memphis. I follow my own peculiar definition of God, which led me to start a writing group of men and women who have experienced homelessness.I’ve been published—you can see the LONG list (blushing) by clicking on Achievements above. I love all the people in my life but mostly my husband, my dog (yes, she’s a person), and my two grand babies. I’ve been known to appear in public in costume.”
Today as I was leaving the 8:00 church service, which is mostly attended by folks living on the streets, a man stopped me. I was in my car; he was on foot. He stood in the exit to the parking lot, flagging me down. He’d already stood before me in the hall where breakfast is served, asking me to go find the pastor. He didn’t remember that.
When I rolled the window, he tugged his shirt tail from his britches.
“I’ve been sliced down the middle,” he said. On his bare abdomen, a wound ran from belly button to sternum.
I gave him two dollars. He wanted one, until I said two. Then he wanted four. I stuck with two. He began to sob. I told him two is what I wanted to do. He released my hand; the crying stopped. He went on his way.
The wound was yellow, not yet healed. I’d never seen anything like it.
At noon today, I sat with a friend who once lived on the streets. She had quesadillas; I had soup. We talked about her dad coming to live with her. She’d just finished an hour-long presentation to a group of college art students, sharing with them about her life. She told them twenty women were in her group on the street; only three still lived.
In the course of her talk, she pushed up the sleeve of her blouse. “I have scars all over my body,” she said, brushing the skin on her arm.
“God,” she said, when one of the students came up afterwards to interview her and asked how she got off drugs. “You can’t get out of something like that by yourself.”
At 5:00 today, I pulled into my garage and paused, returning a phone call.
The phone had rung earlier in the afternoon when I was involved in a talk with Rhodes College students. We were talking about a new art project for the 8:00 church service that had begun my day. Of course, I silenced the phone. It wasn’t until the drive home that I learned a friend was in the hospital. He’d been stabbed. The knife pierced his lung. He then had a heart attack.
I told the caller, to whom I was so thankful for letting me know of these upsetting developments, that I’d certainly go see him tomorrow.
“Is there anything I can take him?” I asked.
“Flowers,” she said.
Then we talked about how I’d lost weight. “You’ve always been small,” she said. “But I thought you seemed smaller.”
I told her it was the near-constant pain in my hips; I can’t get interested in eating. I asked how she was.
“I can’t complain,” she said.
She’s dying of lung cancer.
I’m trying to be rational here without losing my temper, but this idea of “forming relationships with those pushed to the margins” sounds lovely in theory, but all it means in reality is that your heart will be broken, over and over again. Did I understand this when I began this journey? I did not. Would I go back and change my choices? I would not. If I did, I would lose my friends.
But make no mistake about it: it’s not in your best interest. You’d be much better off never knowing, living in your protected cocoon, la-de-da’ing it through life, enjoying the barrier that money and privilege and ADVANTAGES give you.
I’ve hit the gold standard. I’m not “doing charity,” merely handing out sandwiches. I’m not “merely” writing checks (don’t get me started on this particular condescension: how is anyone supposed to do good without someone writing checks?). I’ve formed relationships. I have come to care deeply about people to whom life has been a true bitch. And my reward? Scars permanently etched on my heart.