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Category: Writing

Step Down, Facebook

Facebook, I don’t like your tone. You’ve taken to sending me messages declaring, “The (insert current number here) people who like Ellen Morris Prewitt: My Very Southern Voice haven’t heard from you in a while. Write a post.”

Note the arrogance. Not “Perhaps it’s time to write a post” or “Are you interested in connecting with your followers today?” but an imperative order: “Write a post.”

The very idea.

I don’t need this kind of bullying from an inanimate program.

What, one might ask, is it to Facebook if I post or not? Well, when I do write a post, they bombard me with suggestions that I boost the post. How do you boost a post? Buy a paid ad. $. Yep, that’s the root of this intrusive, commanding nonsense.

If I don’t immediately buy an ad, the FOMO psychological tactic is released. “OTHER people are boosting posts like this,” Facebook whispers. “Why don’t you try it?”

When I ignore the enticement, FB turns its back and saunters away. “Oh, well. Don’t blame me when every other author on FB has millions of sales and your poor literary baby lies neglected, crying and starving for attention.”

FB is tough, tough.

Though at times it can choose flattery. “Nice work!” it chirps, reminding me of my response to the grandson’s pooping. “Your post is performing well.” Then the veil of sincere congratulation is ripped away, and the knife of cold, crass profit is thrust into my soft flesh: “Boost it to reach more people.”

To repeat: Boosts are ads. They cost $. They make FB $. It’s all about the $.

FB bullies me about “Likes” on my page too. “So-and-so reacted to your link but doesn’t like your page yet. Send him an invite.”

Send him your own damn invite.

Plus, I don’t think they know what the hell they’re talking about. I guaran-damn-tee you some of the folks they’re telling me to invite already like my page. But I can’t actually tell you because they provide me aggravated data, not names. (If you know this to be incorrect, please tell me, ’cause then I’ll find out who really likes my page and harass the hell out of those lollygaggers to get with the program. Kidding.)

Oops, erase that last rant. Sooner or later, FB is sure to do exactly what I’ve said: automatically send an invite to anyone who reacts to a post but hasn’t liked the page yet. Unaware it’s an automated program harassing them, the recipient will assume I’m a needy, grasping person, and then I’ll blame FB, and then they’ll think I’m not only needy and grasping, I’m a whiner person who shirks responsibility too.

So, yeah, I’ve spent the last two days drafting a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of Model for Deception: A Vangie Street Mystery, the next novel I’ll be releasing, and it’s an exhausting task that demands you jump from details to big theme analysis, and I’m taking out my frustration on Facebook.

Sniff. Might not do it if they were nicer to me.

Enjoy this great chicken swag a friend sent me in response to TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE

Given Where I Started From

Kind folks keep congratulating me on the release of my novel TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE and inside myself I think, I self-published it—where is the congratulations in that? I did successfully get an agent for the novel (a long time ago), but he wasn’t able to sell that half-baked version. Later I had another agent extremely interested in it (“you have the makings of a literary star”), but I wasn’t able to revise it the way she wanted. Finally, I gave up and revised it myself and published it myself. The novel is the making of lemonade out of multiple failed lemons.

Then I remember.

I remember the first time I was able to add a second sentence after the first, and it made sense.

And I remember the first time I strung two paragraphs together, rather than writing a series of images bumped up against each other that asked the reader to narrate the white space between.

And the first time I wrote a whole page that flowed—a whole page!

And the first time someone (my sister—I’m telling you, I vividly recall these moments) referred to my work as a “story” rather than a “piece,” because I —finally—had learned to write a narrative arc. Which means “this happened, which caused this to happen, then this happened.” A beginning, middle, and end. A plot.

From my earliest scratchings, I had description out the wazoo; my characters were unique; dialogue was a breeze. But plot? Message? The “why are we here?” of it seemed so self-evident to me, I couldn’t understand why the reader didn’t see it too. But I came to accept they didn’t; I had to write it. So I sloooooooowly learned how.

This was the trajectory for me, a college-educated, well-read lawyer who wrote big, fat applications for a living. But my creative writing began with the creation of descriptive images that had to grow tendons of narration before they accomplished more than leaving folks scratching their heads (which I must admit, they sometimes still do: people ask, where do you come up with these things? The only answer I can give you is, that’s my brain.)

And now I’ve published a 300-page novel, which is the word we use for a long story that starts and moves forward and ends (I hope) satisfactorily. So, okay. Given where I started from, I’ve come a long way. Truth is, my having published a cohesive, entertaining novel is sort of a minor miracle.

So thank you for your congratulations. I much appreciate it.

Not content to simply exonerate her dad, Lucinda wants to reinstate his “Be Kind to Chickens” philosophy of chicken management.

 

All the Way From Canada!

Please enjoy this kicking review of Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure found on Susanne Fletcher’s Wuthering Bites blog. I am thrilled Susanne compared the comic dialogue to P.G. Woodhouse, whose Jeeves collection I long ago fell in love with and read in its entirety (how one gets so lucky as to be compared to a beloved writer, I don’t know.) It’s an extra special bonus when a review quotes some of your very own favorite lines from your book (“…a woman who represented everything I was not: sophisticated, voluptuous, and a really good speller.”) A well-written review is surely a gem unto itself.

If you haven’t discovered Susanne’s Wuthering Bites blog, take some time to look around. She is a great creative nonfiction writer, a true wordsmith who combines spectacular turns of phrase with insights that make you nod in recognition. I have followed her for years and thoroughly enjoy her work.

As an extra special super bonus, if you follow the link below, you can enjoy a haunting rendition of Gordon Lightfoot singing “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which, yes, is relevant to the review. Happy reading!

“Tracking Happiness”

Lucinda Mae takes off on a cross-country train trip to, among other things, escape the goings-on back in her hometown of Edison, Mississippi.

Now, Now, Now!

Today, today, today! Time to buy TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE

AUGUST 1st: Time TO BUY TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE has arrived!

E-BOOK

PAPERBACK

BOTH ON AMAZON

For you go-getters who’ve already bought into Lucinda’s antics, TODAY IS THE DAY TO POST A REVIEW!

Join others who’ve found Lucinda’s adventure “uproariously funny” with “gritty Southern determination” and a feel reminiscent of Confederacy of Dunces and Wicked while presenting a story that “truly entertains the reader” and “defines the greatness of the human spirit.” All in all, “perfect summer reading.”

To post a review on Amazon, follow this link and click on Write a Customer Review.

“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.”
Lucinda Mae Watkins

Single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins—of the “Edison, Mississippi, fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace fried chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way. Join Lucinda on the most hilarious—if slightly ribald—adventure of her life.

Lucinda Mae takes off on a cross-country train trip to, among other things, escape from the goings-on back in her hometown of Edison, Mississippi

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Happy Heat

It’s July. In Memphis. Ask most folks and they will tell you that Memphis is in Tennessee. It’s not. In the geography that counts—the geography of the heart, body and soul—Memphis is in the Delta. The rest of Tennessee may dilute the summer with the shade of mountain trees or rocky-faced roadways or blue-hazed vistas. In Memphis, in the Delta, we take the summer full-strength, head-on, no cheating allowed. 

Okay, in a moment of weakness, we did let in air conditioning. But we needed to breathe, and without electrically-generated coolness, the Delta summer can wrap around your lungs and press. Your systems shut down, your mind whirrs to a stop. All you want to do is sit and listen to the bugs hop while you dream of long-necks leaning in ice-filled galvanized tub, waiting for your paw to set them free.

How does one write in such a Delta in such a summer?

As the woman said of the two porcupines trying to mate: Very carefully.

I’m not talking about physical comfort; that’s what we have the air conditioning for. I’m talking about psychological stupor, heat-induced comas, a lethargy so profound that even a fire truck screaming down your street, rounding the corner, and hissing to a stop at your curb will not pull you out of your brown study. 

My answer: you’ve got to write your stupor. It’s a pure waste of time to try to tackle scenes of winter darkness, falling snow, drifting autumn leaves. Give it up, and write deeply into the gargantuan summer heat. 

Whatever your genre, set it in the simmering pot of heat. You horror buffs, let your hero descend the stairs into the musty basement, the air thick-to-choking with summer’s heat, where a jar rests on the shelf, filled with an oozy yellow liquid. Romance writers, loosen your heroine into a summer shower, her filmy dress sticking to her heat-soaked body, steam tickling her ankles as the rain soaks the baking sidewalk. Mystery writers, leave your body in the fields, resting in the only cool spot in the Delta: low-down between the cotton rows, there in the moist wet earth, invaded by the juicy bugs of summer.

Me, I have a Mississippi novel to revise. Civil rights plot, updated. Rain will fall, gutters will gush, the heat will drive city-folks screaming from juke joints, gasping for air, hollering for their mamas.

We Southerners are a tough breed.

We can take the heat.

And no one, except maybe writers of the Southern Hemisphere, can write heat better.

Happy summer. Happy writing. Happy heat.

(This essay was published 12 years ago in a writers’ newsletter. It’s only gotten more true over the years: the American South is hot. 🙂 )

Come on down!

 

What Makes a Good Book?

A good book should remind you of another book you really loved.
Ellen’s incredible imagination, keen wit, perceptive knowing, and spoofy style is reminiscent of John Kennedy Tooles’ “The Confederacy of Dunces,” as she captures the delightful craziness of small-town Mississippi life. Amazon review

It should have values you share.
gritty Southern determination
and a particularly strong confidence in her abilities
scoops of endearing drama that spell out what honor, integrity, loyalty, sex, and determination are made of
Amazon Reviews

The writing should be awesome.
The book is beautifully written, with phraseology reminiscent of Gregory Maguire’s writing In “Wicked”. This is a fun story that you will love. Amazon Review

You always want a page turner, no draggy plots allowed.
“Tracking Happiness” kept me turning the pages to see what could possibly happen next to such goofy but very likable characters. Amazon Review
It only gets better from there. Amazon Review

A healthy dose of humor is a must.
Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure is an uproariously funny and refreshingly different look into life in the modern South and beyond. Amazon Review

It really, really can’t be fake or a stereotype.
Author Ellen Morris Prewitt, a Jackson, Mississippi native, utilizes her unerring eye for the real south to bring to life a story that truly entertains the reader with a quirky hilarity that defies description. Amazon Review

You want a deeper message mixed in with the fun times and entertainment.
Ellen Prewitt shares Lucinda Mae’s cross-country, coming-of-age journey that paints not only a picture of the New South but defines the greatness of the human spirit. Amazon Review

It should all come together and work.
Prewitt has produced perfect summer reading. Amazon Review

When you finish, you want to know your time was well-spent.
It’s worth the ride! Amazon Review

So there it is. The reviews are in: TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE is all a good book should be. Hope you enjoy it soon.

“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.” Lucinda Mae Watkins

Single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins—of the “Edison, Mississippi, fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace fried chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way. Join Lucinda on the most hilarious—if slightly ribald—adventure of her life. 

Lucinda Mae takes off on a cross-country train trip to, among other things, escape from the goings-on back in her hometown of Edison, Mississippi

Enjoy this excerpt from TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE where Lucinda Mae’s amazing train trip is interrupted by a phone call from her mama Rita Rae and her mama’s boyfriend Clyde Higgenbotham. Turns out, back home in Edison, Mississippi, gossip is flying about Lucinda’s poor dead daddy’s role in the local drug scandal, with the flames being fanned by none other than her daddy’s old business partner, Bennie “Big Doodle” Dayton. 

Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure: CHAPTER 3

Clyde was talking in that nasally voice he used when he wanted to sound important, like at the supper table when he was spouting off Learning Channel wisdom. “Law enforcement are crawling all over the Chicken Palace, looking for evidence on the drug ring. And Stirling’s getting remarried.”

“Don’t tell her that.” Rita Rae was back on the line. “She can only take so much. You wouldn’t believe what they’re saying about your daddy now.”

“Who’s saying?” I asked.

“Newspaper. Online.” Clyde again, a real I-told-you-so tone to his voice. Clyde was at his most obnoxious when the topic was small-town politics. Clyde’s dad had been a state legislator. Never mind that after the man had died, they discovered the old coot had another family over in Jackson. Mother claimed that mortification didn’t count because Clyde “wasn’t from that other family.” 

The Clarion Ledger’s been quoting inside sources saying your daddy was the linchpin king behind a goat-doping, chicken-smuggling scandal.” 

“Daddy? A goat-doping scandal?” I flashed on an image of a goat sitting on a stool, arm braced for the illegal shot that would make him a better mountain climber. “What does that even mean?”

“Focus, Lucinda.” It was my mother. “They’re saying Bill ran a drug ring out of the Edison Chicken Palace, and Bennie Dayton isn’t raising a finger to stop this malicious talk.” 

“Ol’ Bennie practically called Edison a rogue operation,” Clyde added. “‘Whatever the local investors were up to shouldn’t reflect on the good name of the Chicken Palace Emporium,’ blah, blah, blah.” 

“They’re calling Daddy a criminal? Are you sure?” Mother and Clyde had a tendency to exaggerate (“They’re closing the I-20 exit to Edison! Traffic’s being re-routed to Bovina!” When the only thing that was happening was a re-paving). It was best to ask twice. 

“You got your work cut out for you, little lady, dealing with that Bennie Dayton. Your mama is counting on you to clear this mess up. Everybody in town is believing your daddy was a criminal. People’ll believe anything they read on the Interweb.” 

He paused. “The scandal could improve attendance at the museum, though.” Clyde was referring to Big Doodle’s Chicken Palace Emporium Museum located off the highway exit. The museum featured memorabilia commemorating the Chicken Palace story, such as the Ride-a-Rooster—a big, bucking chicken whose name took on a whole ’nother meaning when us kids hit middle school. “That crappy museum might finally outdraw the Tomato Museum in Bovina.”

At that, Mother snatched the phone and launched into a garbled explanation of the “biggest drug ring in the Southeast”—something to do with goats imported from Jamaica, smelly chicken parts, and a tractor-trailer distribution system—until I said goodbye, trying to remember as I hung up: did someone say Stirling was getting remarried?

Hope you enjoyed this excerpt. For the rest of the story, get TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE in print or e-book on Amazon—audio book coming soon!

“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.”
Lucinda Mae Watkins

Lucinda Mae takes off on a cross-country train trip to, among other things, escape from the goings-on back in her hometown of Edison, Mississippi

 

 

As they said in the 1950s when twin beds gave way to the double, “It is proving VERY popular.” Y’all are buying and reading and sharing photos of your very own copies of TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. That tickles me to no end. Your smiling faces, your wonderful support—thank you, thank you!

“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.”
     Lucinda Mae Watkins

If you want your book signed by me, the author, hit the Contact form with your address and tell me what inscription you want. I’ll send you a signed bookplate for your copy of TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE

Signing bookplates for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE

Don’t be left out. Get on the bandwagon and join Lucinda on the most hilarious—if slightly ribald—adventure of her life.

Sweet Spot

I’m in a really good place right now, professionally. I have four projects going on.

First, I’m continuing to get the word out on TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. It’s available in print and e-book now, shortly in podcast and audiobook. Soon, I’ll be agonizing and biting my nails over not having enough reviews on Amazon and how on earth am I going to get the word out about this hilarious book with a heart for chickens, but I’m copacetic for now.

Here’s Evangeline looking for readers for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE

Second, I’m working through a (hopefully) final edit on MODEL FOR DECEPTION: A VANGIE STREET MYSTERY. The cover is done for this cozy mystery (with my own peculiar brand of humor), and it is a show-stopper. My goal is to get the book formatted and audio completed while all the team members (cover + formatting; sound engineering; and podcast production) remember how to do what we are doing. 🙂

Third—and most exciting—I’ve begun reading for the new novel, tentatively titled Moses in the Gulf. The story will take place in Mississippi; it will involve a quest to “let my people go;” and it will be funny. In preparation, I’m reading A New History of Mississippi  (lord, I’ve read lots of old histories, and they are SO terrible, I petitioned the Memphis Public Library to remove one or shelve it wherever they offered propaganda, and they removed it). I’m still forming an opinion of this book; it tends toward a traditional telling interspersed with more honesty than was previously found in Mississippi histories. On my bedside table are two biographies of Moses and one each of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass, which I can’t wait to get into. Many of my books (surprisingly enough) are heavily researched. For me, facts are keys that unlock the imagination, and the resulting stories are my attitude about those facts.

Fourth, and final, I’m waiting to hear back from an agent who is reading JAZZY AND THE PIRATES. Have I even told y’all I finished the rewrite of the manuscript, got good reader feedback, and sent out a query letter? The agent was “very intrigued,” and it’s in her hands now. Steps 1-3 are keeping me distracted from the nerve-racking hope that I get an agent for this story who can sell it and release Jazzy’s rambunctious spirit into the world. But anticipation is not a negative for me; it’s part of the fun.

More to come.

DIY Saturday

I needed a place to read my Walter Mosley mystery so I put together the porch cot.

My summer afternoon Coleman reading cot

The last two years, I’ve put together lots of furniture in this house.  Some of it was easier than others, like these pieces:

My claw foot writing table
A canvas sink/champagne holder
A sextant lamp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Others were harder, like these sets of shelves:

A wheeled set of shelves
My makeshift closet area for the bunk beds
These shelves came fully assembled but I did drag them up 3 flights of stairs (yep, those are bitty pirate hooks holding up the netting)

I guess I technically put this side table together, but it was more of a design: add a tray to a discarded garden table:

That lamp is made from a water collection my sister brought to me from her travels around the world—the Nile, the Arctic Ocean, Great Barrier Reef, Indian Ocean, and way more

 

And here is my piece de resistance:

This chair was HARD to put together, but I did it

 

I’m getting out the bookplates on TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. If you want one, use the Contact form, and I’ll mail it to you. As they said in the 1950s when twin beds gave way to the double, “They are VERY popular.” As Lucinda says, “I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you aren’t gonna be nice to them.”

Bookplates for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE

Speaking of beds, I’m now off to the garden to add stepping-stones to the soon-to-be flower/crops bed. Being productive makes me feel so good!

It’s 94 degrees—of course I’m out moving stones

 

Have I told you about the time I was at a book launch for my beloved mentor Rebecca McClanahan where I found myself seated on a sofa and a woman with the most pronounced South Carolina low country drawl I’d ever heard leaned over and said, “My huzzzz-band wrote Riiiiising Tide,” and I realized the man seated next to me was John Barry, the author of the book that was at that moment my most favorite book ever? I was not cool. I erupted into a fit of hero-worship. John graciously offered to sign my book if I mailed it to him, which I did, and he did, and I have loved him even more ever since.

Autographs matter.

Now I’m the one who’s published a book that’s calling for me to sign it for all the lovely people who are buying it. I refuse to be daunted by the geographical distance that separates us. Blame it on my peripatetic life or relationships born on the Internet, but we’re miles apart. You couldn’t sling the book at me if you had the world’s strongest arm. And I WANT to sign it. 

Sooooooo.

If you click here and send me your address using this website’s contact form, I’ll send you a bookplate, a little sticker you can put in the front of your book. I’ll sign it. With my name. And inscribe it to whomever you want (you or a person receiving the book as a gift.) It’s specially designed for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE and features a shot of the book cover. I’ll send it to you FOR FREE (I mean, it’s an envelope and stamp 🙂 ). It’s cute as all get out.

To make this work, put Sign My Book! in the Subject box of the Contact form and in the Message box tell me:
* how many you need—I’ll send you one for each book you’ve bought
* who you want (each) inscribed to or if you simply want me to sign (them)
* the address where you want me to send it

Then hit Submit. In a few days, you’ll have a book signed by me, the author. It’ll be magic.

TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE Bookplate for Your Book

Lord, why do I want you to buy my book? What’s so important within the (amazingly awesome) covers that justifies your spending $13.99 for a print  book or $3.99 for an ebook? I mean, why does this book matter, other than the fact that it’s mine?

Top Ten Reasons to Buy TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE (From Worst to Best)

10. You feel sorry for me and want to make me feel better by liking my book

9.  You need to money launder $13.99, and no one can trace your money to my book

8. You want to see if I can spell “sashayed”

7. You’d given up on my ever publishing a novel, and now you’re old as Methuselah, and you can’t afford to wait for the next novel to come out to see if you like it better

6. You are my mother, my husband, or my dog

5.  I bought your book

4. You want to find out how an entire novel can be set on a train without being boring as dirt

3. You’re headed to the beach and need a really good escapism read

2. You want to read about sex in a treehouse

1. You love chickens and want to see them passionately defended in a novel

1 +  You’ve heard my short stories and know my novel will be funny as hell with a good message

1 ++  You think the cover is really funny and promises a good read

Final 1 (I promise) The jacket blurb caught your attention and wont’ let go: 

Okay, there were 13 reasons. I tend to share Lucinda’s exuberance. And 13 is an unlucky number, so I had to lie.

If (and only if) any of these reasons apply to you, click here to buy TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE in paperback or ebook

The chickens and I thank you for your support. 

 

I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.” Lucinda Mae Watkins

Single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins—of the “Edison, Mississippi fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace fried chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way.

RELEASE DATE: Tuesday June 26, 2018

 

For all of you who’ve been following my tortuous path to publishing a novel, I am pleased to announce that TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE will be released this coming Tuesday, June 26. Full and exciting instructions on how to purchase it will be posted right here on this very blog on Monday. Love to you all, ellen

RELEASE DATE: Tuesday June 26, 2018

Last week, I drove through my old Belhaven neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, taking photos of the houses I’ve lived in. I spent two periods of my life in the neighborhood: from age 3 years to 12; and again through the decades of the 1980s and ’90s.

My life in Belhaven began in a duplex my mother rented when we moved back from Denver, Colorado, after Daddy Joe died. On this street, we ran behind the fog machine that sprayed  for mosquitos and lived to tell the tale. (The house doesn’t tilt; that’s me tilting the phone as I took a photo through the car window.)

When I was in the 5th grade, Mother bought a house (!—a single mom with 3 little girls: the older I get, the more I’m impressed with that feat). We adored the Arlington Street house. It had 7 levels (if you counted landings) and 2 balconies. As you can tell, the balcony over the front porch where we used to sleep under the stars has been removed. Who knows if they still use those French doors to go out on what is now basically a roof. The house is also painted blue where it was white then. And you can’t see the little house in the back which, though it was a real house, we used as a playhouse and where Cheep-Cheep the duck lived for a while. 

We left this house when Mother married, and we moved to North Carolina. I moved back to Jackson in 1982 to practice law and returned to my old neighborhood, kicking it off with another duplex. My unit was the downstairs screen door on the left of this yellow house.

I didn’t last long here before I moved to the Arcadia. I loved this four-plex (that’s my unit with the upstairs porch on the right), but I left it when I married. Doing my drive-by, I noticed it still has window units. 

We (actually me, though I was married) bought this wonderful little house that we extensively renovated. It’s on Pinehurst Street, right down from Eudora Welty’s house. Miss Welty is a famous short story writer. You can hardly see the house up the hill. The sign indicates it’s for sale again. 

For a brief period, I lived in exile from Belhaven. When I got divorced, I returned to the neighborhood and bought my very own house which I loved dearly. The trees around it have gotten so overgrown it, too, is almost hidden. It had a magnolia, fig, redbud, and an oak. When I married again, I commuted a while between Jackson and Memphis. I sold my house (marriage was not good for my house tenures) and rented the Love Shack behind this pink house in Belhaven. That’s an orange trailer of some sort in the driveway. You can’t see the Love Shack, but I didn’t want to leave it out of the chronology. It was tiny. It had 3 patio areas. The heating was terrible in the winter. I adored it. 

When I look at these collection of houses, I see how similar they are. My taste did not change much. As you can tell, the Belhaven neighborhood is lodged in my heart. It formed me. It might be why I’m a writer. I dream of it at night. It’s now a historic district.

Oh, and just for fun, here’s the ditch area where we kids told each other a crazy horse with red eyes reared and stamped in the darkness. We never saw the horse.

I have been grappling with—what the hell, that makes it sound so sophisticated; I’ve been moping around the house wondering—the “Why?” question. Actually, it’s a “What?” question. What am I doing with my life right now that matters?

When I was facilitating the Door of Hope Writing Group, the answer to this question was easy: I’m bringing to a group of folks who might not otherwise have it a tool to understand and speak their truth into the world.

Champion Award

Even earlier, when Paraclete Press published Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God, and I conducted ALL THOSE WORKSHOPS, I could tangibly see what I was doing: giving a tool to folks for them to better understand their relationship with God.

So, okay—maybe the problem is my history of “purpose” sets the bar kind of high.

Be that as it may, even when I was recording my short story collection, I knew exactly why I was doing it: to transition from everyone knowing me as “the cross lady” to seeing me as a fiction writer. And I paired the stories with charitable contributions, so all was good.

Cain't Do Noting with Love - audio book by Ellen Morris Prewitt

And—here’s the important part—that venture was laying the foundation for Something Big. For my novel. Which would be Full of Importance. Even if the Importance was wrapped in words and plot that were funny as hell. It would Matter.

But as my telescope narrows to focus on my own writing career, I’m getting lost. Yeah, TRACKING HAPPINESS has as a major theme being nice to chickens. Raise them humanely. Treat them like living animals sharing the planet with us. But still. It’s mostly funny. And fun. It’s not earth-shattering. Where is the “What?” of it?

Then I read this article entitled Teaching and Purpose by Jon Chopan on the Glimmertrain website sent to me by the Jane Friedman emails (total aside: her emails are great; if you’re a writer and don’t already get them, you should sign up.) Mr. Chopan said a lot of things (though the essay is mercifully short), but he quotes Tim Seibles as saying, “I certainly don’t want my poems to be in cahoots with the nightmare.”

I read this and thought, ahhh, that’s it: my purpose is to not be in cahoots with the nightmare. And it’s enough. (Are poets the smartest ones among us?) I can go with that. To gently ask us to be kind to chickens. To explicate grief rather than shoving it aside. To offer folks an escape, if just for a moment, from the grind of our lives. This I can do. Thank you, Jon Chopan and Tim Seibles. Thank you.

This is Why I Write

So, I’m working on an essay about my escaping to the family farm in response to Mississippi’s racial mores that constricted behavior in the 1960s, and I’m using a bull (yep) as the central metaphor, and I’m afraid folks might not get it because the bull is incredibly destructive and he’s the POSITIVE metaphor, so I’m adding a summary sentence, and I’m looking for a word that means someone who refuses to submit to forcible attempts to control behavior, and I’m thinking iconoclast, but that’s too close to idol (which I’ve already used) and it’s not quite right anyway, so I go to the thesaurus (I’m not ashamed to admit it: I use the thesaurus) and I’m scrolling when I land on a word that I don’t know, and I look it up (in the online dictionary) and it is PERFECT: recusant: “one who refuses to accept or obey established authority.”

It’s not that I’m a word freak, not exactly. It’s that discovering the precise word I need to describe a phenomenon makes me sigh, ahhhhh. What I’m struggling to express is real. Someone else experienced it. They came up with a word for it. I have tapped into a vein of the shared human condition that is Life and, through that, I connect with the Communion of Saints (read that: humans) who have gone before me and will come after me, and we are all brothers and sisters, and that miracle happens thanks to a bull. And a word. My new favorite word: recusant.

 

I did it. I recorded the podcast that will accompany the release of TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. The podcast, which I’ve named ELLEN’S VERY SOUTHERN VOICE: NOVELS TOLD WRITE, offers an extended version of the novel. Each of the 26 chapters has accompanying commentary with Helpful Train Hints and Fun Chicken Facts. The whole thing is, as they say, “in the can.” Soon, you’ll be able to tune in and hear my fabulous fiction in my very own voice. And it scares me to death.

Ellen’s Very Southern Voice business card

I considered this fear as I drove to The OAM Network studio in Crosstown Concourse to record. Something about my fear was familiar, this feeling that I was hacking a path though the jungle with a machete.  Podcasts are a thing; everyone listens to podcasts; podcasts are not unusual. But I know no one personally who has created a podcast to support her novel. So, for me, this was new ground. And I realized that this is the way it’s always been. This is the way I do things.

When I was practicing law in Mississippi in the 1980s and 1990s, male lawyers didn’t often make room for women to succeed along traditional paths. So I made my own way—I succeed by hunting for voids. The State Bar Association didn’t have a Health Law Section, so I created one and became its first Chair. The primary health law publication was dominated by a male lawyer, so I pitched a column to a different paper, and they launched a column with me as the contributor. When I hit a ceiling with my law firm—a firm I had dearly loved—I joined a new firm and established its Jackson office with me as the Managing Partner.

These memories helped me, really. To see a bigger picture and remind myself this is nothing new. I have been here before, and by “here” I mean that point when you’re in the middle of doing something you basically made up in your head and you look up and wonder, what the hell do you think you’re doing?

Entering voids, forging new paths, going your own way. Brave sounding, but also a bit like floating in the darkness of outer space tethered to the mothership by the slimmest of cords. Wish me luck on my re-entry.

Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure

 

 

Here it is. The cover for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. I love this cover. My sister Elli shot the photo—yep, she’s a professional photographer. That’s Goldie the Chicken as the chicken cover model. For the record, I am walking down abandoned railroad tracks. I wasn’t going to get hit by an oncoming train. The tracks run outside the Morris Ice Company in Jackson, Mississippi. As in Ellen MORRIS Prewitt. Anyway, here’s the back cover blurb. Look for a June release date.

“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you aren’t gonna be nice to them.”
Lucinda Mae Watkins

If Fannie Flagg and Jack Kerouac had a daughter, her name would be Lucinda Mae Watkins. Single-again Lucinda—of the “Edison, Mississippi fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace friend chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way.

My definition of the Holy Spirit at work is when you think you’re doing a very important x, but, unbeknownst to you, the true point of your activity is y. You trundle along, doing your x, and all the while, God is doing y. Suddenly, a beautiful thing blooms into being, something you had no idea was in the works, and all you can do is stand in awe, mesmerized by God’s hand in the world.

This is the way I feel reading Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (Paraclete Press, 2018). The book is about the history, use, and joy of praying with (and without) beads, but what’s really happening in the book is an encounter with a life lived hand-in-hand with the Holy Spirit.

Bead by Bead is part of the Active Prayer series that contains my Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God (Paraclete Press, 2009) and written by my friend Suzanne Henley. It opens with the concrete—a history of beads and specific instructions on how to pray a set of beads—and moves to the metaphysical: praying “beads” even when we don’t have a string in our hand, and making our own lives into prayer beads. Suzanne has lived with beads for years, patiently creating her extraordinary creations, which are featured on the cover and throughout the book. I can’t help but think this immersion informs her ability to view the world as a luminous string of prayer.

In all ways, the book expands the concept of prayer beads beyond the traditional view of a rosary. The book contains a wide variety of prayers (or hymns or chants or whatever your little heart desires) to be used as we pray the beads. Those who love history and memoir and diamonds of insight will savor the book. Those who specifically appreciate the opportunity to combine physical activity with prayer will find a home in the book—Bead by Bead concludes with suggestions on how to draw and label our own beads. Along the way, there is no retreat from the messiness of prayer, or our lives, for that matter. Suzanne invites us into her  experience of a “widow maker” heart attack, for example. The primary prayer beads are not called Cruciform beads for nothing.

Please, take the time to be with this book. Settle in. Absorb it as you slowly turn from page to page enjoying the beautiful photos of Suzanne’s prayer beads and the delightful phrases crafted by her pen (okay, probably her computer, but definitely her unique mind.) You are going to want to re-read sentences. You’ll pause and ponder the insights she is making. You’ll guffaw at her humor. You will never look at lemons in the grocery store the same way again. Instead, when you spy the lemons in the bin, you will stop and say a prayer. I can’t think of a more wonderful gift a book can give.

Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley

The Pope’s Cat

When I read a book to my grandsons, I read from the beginning. Specifically, we pause and read the page containing the author’s name and illustrator’s name (I’m sure there’s a fancy word for this page, but I don’t know what it is.) I start here because I want the boys to understand that who wrote the book is important and who illustrated it is important. Without these two folks, the boys would not have the joy of the book.

Even so, I have never approached a book from the slant of the illustrator. I did so for THE POPE’S CAT, Illustrated by my friend Roy DeLeon (and written by my former editor at Paraclete Press, Jon M. Sweeney.) Roy is an Oblate of St. Benedict, spiritual director, author of Praying with the Body (an offering in Paraclete’s Active Prayer Series that includes my Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God), an engaging professional visual artist, and a man as delightful as his illustrations.

The Pope’s Cat

In this chapter book recommended for ages six and up, (though I intend to read it to my 4 and 6-year-old grandsons), we are introduced to a stray cat via a charming glimpse of her crouching outside an Italian gelato stand in Rome. Next, we are given what has to be the most endearing image of the Pope that’s ever been. He’s waving at us. When this delightful Pope strolls past the cat’s gelato stand, the magic begins.

The next time we see the cat, she’s tucked into the cassock of the Pope as he walks into the Vatican apartments, then licking her lips over a plate of sugar cookies—her life is definitely on the uptick. The cat acquires a name (“Margaret”) and, as cats are want to do, goes exploring—the image of her with the Swiss Guard is adorable. We are also given the iconic image of the papal view from the balcony looking out over the crowd in the plaza below . . . except it’s Margaret the cat sitting at a window facing the crowd. I won’t give away plot complications. Suffice it to say it involves a sneeze. The image of a satisfied Margaret giving a broad wink is worth the price of the book.

As you read, be sure to note the whole of the illustrations, not just the foreground but what Roy has chosen for the backgrounds as well. I expect you are going to wind up with a well-thumbed and beloved book.

The Pope’s Cat

 

THE POPE’S CAT (Paraclete Press, 2018, paperback) will release March 13, 2018 and is now available for preorder on Amazon.

Chiseling On Through, Y’all

I have just completed another rewrite of Jazzy and the Pirate. I created a document to hold the cuts I made, in case I wanted to add them back in.

The document is 31,252 words.

That’s 124 pages.

The finished version of this draft is 48 pages shorter than my last draft. (I read once that you don’t have a first draft until someone reads it; I had a paid editor (first draft) then a Beta reader (2nd draft), then another handful of Beta readers, so although I’ve been working on this since God was a toddler, this is my third draft). If you do the math, I wrote 76 new pages and cut 124 pages for a tighter manuscript that’s 50 pages shorter than the most recent draft. I also cut five family members, changed the names of most of the remaining members, demoted a pirate to non-named status, eradicated two plots, and eliminated three entire pages as I slogged through the most tedious chore known to womankind: cutting overused words (“like,” appeared over 240 times, y’all—240 times; I got it down to 58).

That’s why I call it a rewrite: it’s too massive to call a revision.

(It’s also why I go incommunicado for long periods of time—sorry about that.)

The “Hogwarts” library at Rhodes College where I’ve been doing this filthy work

Those are mechanical measures. The question is, do I like the new draft better? Of course I do—I wrote it. I’m being facetious. More often than not, I have to delete chunks of new scenes because they make my skin crawl. This is the strangest process. I write and write, working on a scene to make it perfect, then when I see it in my mind, it makes my skin crawl, and out it goes. Sometimes I can condense what I’ve written into summary, and I’m okay with it. Other times, I highlight the whole thing and zap! I cut it. Same thing with narrative: I write an “amazing” piece of narrative then have to slash it by two-thirds or delete it altogether. In a concession to a slash-happy knife, I do rake through the 124 pages of cuts and reinsert bits and pieces that shine.

In other words, I overwrite my later drafts (whereas I underwrite my first drafts—readers always want more). Then I must sift through the crap to find the diamonds, the same way my mother had to sift through our dog’s crap when he licked her earlobe and swallowed her diamond earring. I also tend to “tell” too much in the rewrites—as in, dammit, you whiney readers don’t get this point, then let me hit you over the head with it. “Chiseling” might be a good word for my later drafts, where I lump on stony sections then have to carve away to leave only elegant lines.

It’s a very herky-jerky, forward and backward, inefficient way of proceeding.

But, obviously, it’s my way.

Now I proceed to “Mr. Computer Reads Aloud.” 🙂

Fun times.

My heavenly nook in the Rhodes College library

I have lived in shock for a year. I could not believe that a man who put himself at the center of the universe and tore down everyone around him in the ugliest manner possible had been elevated to the presidency. The vote of my fellow and sister Americans sanctioning his behavior felt like gaslighting, an attempt to convince me that all I saw in him was not so. I have spent the last twelve months searching for, and latching on to, evidence that I was not, in fact, deluded but was right about him, which evidence has poured forth like the proverbial floodwaters.

I’m done with that. I was right. And I’m moving on.

I have my own little red God wagon to take care of. By which I mean, my most important duty is to try to discern the actions God wants me to take, and take them. Every second I spend confirming and reconfirming and confirming yet again that the president is a bigoted bully is time spent away from my work.

The year wasn’t wasted. It’s made me struggle with my own reactions. To parse my very personal anger at a man I don’t even know. To understand how hate-filled public policy gets adopted. To identify exactly who I want to support in the political process. To put the onus back where it belongs: on me.

This train is moving on

And what is the next step for me? I have a voice, and I intend to use it in the way I have been given. I will publish work about grief and homelessness and racism and God’s love for the world, the categories I use on this blog to describe who I am. I guarantee you, not a one of them will align with the president’s beliefs. That won’t matter. What’s important is that they will align with mine.

At one point in my life when I was struggling with betrayal, I went to my Episcopal priest for advice. He suggested that during this difficult time, I might find it easier to pray to Mother Mary. I followed his suggestion, and thus began a lifelong relationship with the mother of God. CHERRY BOMB takes this concept and expands it to a near-magical degree. Rather than Mother Mary, in CHERRY BOMB, it is St. Mary of Egypt who offers redemption. How satisfying it was to read Susan Cushman’s new novel that advocates for redemption and forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.

Cherry Bomb by Susan Cushman

This literary novel (Dogwood Press, 2017) traces the life of a young woman in Macon, Georgia who uses graffiti to process the hurt that life has brought her. (I’m pretty much illiterate about graffiti, but the apartment where I live in New Orleans has as its patron saint Jean-Michel Basquiat, so I was pleased to see his name mentioned in the novel’s early pages.) The story follows homeless young Mare as she meets famous artist Elaine de Kooning.

Basquiat’s portrait in the lobby of Rice Mill Lofts

Elaine de Kooning, of course, is a historical figure, whose life Cushman has fictionalized, while using many facts from her life. De Kooning recognizes Mare’s talent and mentors Mare as an artist. Mare and Elaine came to art by very different paths—one through MTV videos, the other via the Museum of Modern Art. Their interaction leads Mare to enter the more traditional word of art via art school, and to question what she really wants from her art and life. CHERRY BOMB follows the stories of these two women in alternating viewpoints, which enables us to watch as their life histories gradually intersect. It’s wonderful to watch the author weave them together.

I am not going to give away plot points, but I was fascinated with how Cushman brought together the world of graffiti and the world of icons. Icons are a deeply historical form of worship, which Cushman has worked in herself (she created the icon on the back cover of CHERRY BOMB). I didn’t know both graffiti and iconography use the language of “writing” and “stories,” rather than drawing and pictures.

Of course, I’m also drawn to Mare because of her homelessness during much of the story. Her living on the street is well-told, as is the way she copes in that life. Both Mare and Elaine struggle with deeply difficult backgrounds of sexual abuse and abandonment. Working their way to forgiveness of those who have hurt them is hard. St. Mary of Egypt, the patron saint of the author, figures prominently in this process. To include forgiveness of themselves in that journey is remarkable.

DON’T MISS SUSAN’S BOOK SIGNING THURSDAY DECEMBER 14 AT 6:00 pm AT NOVEL. BOOKSTORE, LAURELWOOD SHOPPING CENTER, 387 PERKINS, RD EXTD, MEMPHIS, TN

I Bet You do it Too

The first Community Writers Retreat I put together for Door of Hope Writing Group, the panel of facilitators was white. Every writer I’d identified to come and teach us about writing in an all-day conference was Caucasian. I wasn’t being racist. I was asking for favors: will you come—unpaid—to the Retreat and teach a workshop on writing? Of course I had hit up my writer friends, people I knew best. And the people I knew best were white.

When I had the lineup completed, I looked at the folks I’d selected and thought, wait a minute. So many of our audience weren’t gonna  be white. They would be African American. How could I offer them an all-white panel?

This, as they say, would not do.

So what did I do?

That year, and in all the years that followed, I went WAY outside my comfort zone to make sure our lineup of facilitators was predominantly Black.

I asked a mutual friend to please introduce me to a glorious African American writer who I’d heard reading her work. I met with her. I asked if she would be a facilitator for us.

I researched Memphis African American writers. I cold-called a published novelist. I asked if he would please come teach a workshop for us.

I contacted a famous local African American journalist and asked her if she would, perhaps, consider coming to speak to us about writing.

I went to Maggie’s Pharm and asked Valerie June—who had not yet blown up the roots music world and clerked at the store—if she would talk about songwriting to our group.

I called a well-known orator and politely asked if he would perform for us during lunch.

I reached back in time and asked a writer from an old writing group to please come educate us about getting published.

I emailed a preacher who I didn’t know from Adam’s house cat and asked him to come talk about spiritual writing.

I asked a young spoken word artist to entertain us during our lunch break.

I kept at my talented writer friend who did not believe herself ready yet to, please, come enlighten us.

In each and every instant, those I asked said yes. Immediately, graciously, enthusiastically. Several became friends. One we believed for a while to be related to my husband, but that’s whole ‘nother story. All were full of information the participants lapped up. I continue to be incredibly proud to know each one of the facilitators.

The point?

It’s not weak to admit your natural approach is to favor your friends. Those who are like you. People you know and are comfortable with. It is, however, wrong to not analytically examine the results for evidence of implicit bias. To ask yourself, is this skewed? Can I benefit from widening the lens? Am I, in fact, abusing my position of power to exclude those who should be included?

That was one of the many, many lessons the Door of Hope Writing Group taught me over the years.

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