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Category: Writing

Recording TRACKING HAPPINESS

I’m deep in the middle of recording my novel TRACKING HAPPINESS. My followers fondly refer to this novel as “the chicken novel.” Earlier, I traveled to Jackson, Mississippi where my very talented sister shot a photo for the book cover. Next, my graphic artist transformed the photo into a true book cover (featuring a chicken, of course). And now I’m recording the content . .  . for the third time.

I didn’t know the first two recordings were practice runs, but that’s what they turned out to be. I’m now at Chapter 13 in the re-re-re-recording. I record here:

Looks like a bathroom, doesn’t it? It is a bathroom. The key to transforming this space into a recording studio is the black box in the lower left corner of the photo. Here’s a closeup:

The recording box with the cute little hand-held, bug-eyed recorder on its tripod.

My former sound guy found the recording box on Amazon, a gem of a tool for home recording. It’s portable—it breaks down into a flat rectangle that you can take anywhere—and muffles noises swimmingly. I keep all my ancillary recording equipment in this basket:

The basket with all the goodies including USB cord to download recordings.

After I’ve recorded, I download the readings onto my computer and upload them onto SoundCloud:

The SoundCloud website where TRACKING HAPPINESS recordings are stored.

SoundCloud allows you to share large MP3 files over the internet. I’m sharing the files with my new sound guy, who will be editing out ALL my mistakes and fixing the sound quality and generally getting it ready for you to listen to. In the meantime, the recordings on SoundCloud are private, so the cat doesn’t get out of the bag.

Anyway, I’m about halfway through recording the novel. It’s a total of 303 pages. My greatest take-away from this experience is this: though the total number of pages is about the same as the 14 short stories I recorded in CAIN’T DO NOTHING WITH LOVE, recording a novel is a TON harder. I’m hoping it is equally as successful.

Take a Look at Scribl

Y’all know me. I’m always experimenting. I don’t know if I’m easily bored or what. But one of the many plates I’ve currently got spinning in the air involves crowd pricing my short stories.

I’m talking about CAIN’T DO NOTHING WITH LOVE, the short story collection that was on Podiobooks, which was itself an experiment, a very successful one. Listeners downloaded the stories across the globe, over and over again, which tickled me to no end. I mean, imagine all those folks in France straining to understand my very Southern voice. Then—nothing ever stays the same, does it?—Podiobooks merged with Scribl.com. Because I was an existing author, Scribl gave me the option of staying on Podiobooks as a Legacy (you know, like when you rush the same sorority your mom was in). In addition, I could choose to join Scribl, which offers both ebooks and audiobooks.

Scribl’s thing is crowd pricing. The way crowd pricing works, the stories start out free. When the downloads reach a certain threshold, a price begins to attach. Scribl prices the ebook and audiobook differently, based on how often readers or listeners download each. The more the stories are downloaded, the higher the price creeps. In effect, the price point acts as a “review.” As the site says, the books with higher prices “have proven popular.” Does that make sense?

I suspect it takes a while for all of this to happen—downloads to break the threshold, price to rise, then perhaps for prices to plateau/fall as the price exceeds what people are willing to pay. However, the first part has gone quickly—the stories are no longer free! The stories went from free, to costing .39 to listen and .29 to read, to $2.79 to listen and $1.99 to read. Woo hoo!

I know, I know—it’s not a very high price. But it’s exciting. Plus, listeners downloaded the stories on Podiobooks over 55,000 times. I do NOT anticipate this happening with Scribl, but even a little blip would be fun. Check it out here.

What’s funny, when I quit lawyering and began writing, my uncle started signing his letters to me, “Keep on scribbling.”

Little did he know how true that would turn out to be. 🙂

My award-winning short stories are off on a new experiment

 

Writing as Hope

Romans 8:24-25
24 But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

I am working on a trilogy. The first novel is in the hands of my agent. He’s had it for two years. He hasn’t sold it . . . yet. This novel is THE BONE TRENCH. Here’s the “elevator sentence”: Mother Mary and Jesus are called back to Memphis by a devilish  private prison project. THE BONE TRENCH is funny. And profane. And very, very serious. Along with MM and Jesus, it stars Little c, Mary’s acerbic guardian angel. And Cat Thomas, the son of a sharecropping rape victim on whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. The theme is white folk’s continuing inability to love our Black neighbors as ourselves, which has manifested itself in slavery, convict leasing, sharecropping, and, now, mass incarceration.

That’s novel 1.

Novel 2 in the series is JAZZY AND THE PIRATE. The manuscript is with Beta readers. “Beta readers” are kind souls who agree to read your work when it’s still mostly crap, or at least quite rough. As these readers give you feedback, the manuscript becomes smoother, more polished. JAZZY AND THE PIRATE’s sentence is: Eleven-year-old Jazzy Chandler calls Jean Laffite the pirate king back to New Orleans to save the city from the floodwaters of Katrina . . . and discovers pirates aren’t what she thinks they are. It’s funny and irreverent—how dare anything about Hurricane Katrina  be funny? In addition to Jazzy and Jean Laffite, it stars a house that morphs into a pirate ship. And Jean’s mealy-mouthed brother Pierre. And the swamp. The theme is white folks continuing willingness to economically exploit the world, which has manifested itself in slavery and pirating and, now, the near-destruction of New Orleans.

That’s novel 2.

I’m working on novel 3 in the series. The title is MOSES IN THE GULF. I’m not going to tell you much about it because my brilliant mentor Rebecca McClanahan always said, “Don’t talk about works in process or you’ll talk out the energy and won’t write it.” I can tell you that it has the same elements as the first two novels in the series: fantasy; historical figures called back to address a current day crisis; irreverent humor; alternating points of view along with a third, omniscient POV; the theme of economic exploitation.

Did I mention that I haven’t sold the first novel in the series? Yet.

Romans 8:24-25
24 But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

And while we wait, we write.

Hope: A double rainbow reaching from horizon to horizon

 

The Brain and Writing Contests

As part of my quest to become an amateur neuropsychologist, I have recently read two books on the brain. Even though they were national bestsellers, I am taking the position they gave me insights into the workings of the brain that few others possess. The latest book focuses A LOT on statistics and probability.

Now, I tutored football players in statistics when I was an undergrad at the University of Virginia. It was a GREAT gig because the tutoring was through the athletic department (rich as Croesus in the academic world) and, back in the dark ages, it paid $5.00/hour. Anyway, my statistics professor recommended me for the job based on my stellar performance in his classes (true story). What I had discovered in studying statistics—a subject everyone HATES—was that men from Ohio say “May-sure” rather than “measure.” More substantively, I also learned that statistics were counterintuitive. If I thought the answer was clearly one thing, I was probably wrong. In reading this book, I’ve learned that statistics are, literally, counterintuitive. Your intuitive mind always goes to the wrong answer. If you want to get the right answer, you have to slow down and use your System 2 analytic brain.The authors of these books call the intuitive brain with its preference for shortcuts and rules of thumb “lazy,” but that seems a little judgmental to me. Expert neuropsychologists can be hard-core like that.

Of course, to become an expert in anything, you must practice. So I’ve been putting myself to sleep at night by figuring the probabilities of winning or placing in a writing contest I entered. (I’m not going to name the contest in case the judge is reading this blog post and is subconsciously swayed by my keen neuropsychology skills.)

To do my analysis, I used a total figure of contest submissions of 600. I used this figure for the sole reason that in the first contest I ever entered, I placed in the top 25 of 600 entries. The experts would call this an unreliable base line, but amateur neuropsychologists frequently are called upon to work in less-than perfect conditions. I proceeded to calculate my chances of winning (too minuscule to report) or placing in the top 25, 15, 5, 3. Figuring these probabilities requires converting fractions to percentages in your head, but neuropsychologists must be able to do this to make everyone else think they are super smart.

Did I mention this is the way I put myself to sleep at night?

Anyway, I did arrive at percentages for each tier. Plus, I evaluated my chances of winning once I landed in each tier. I did NOT assume success in a lower tier has any relation to advancement in the next tier. Of all things, it is statistically incorrect to use your experience of advancement to one point to project how you will advance from that point on. This dynamited my hopeful feeling that if I made it to the top 15, my chances of advancement were greater. Not true. By that point, all applicants have proven themselves superior, which means they have met the basics of grammar, typos, good structure, finely drawn characters, engaging story. Those advancing must prove something else. (This fallacy is akin to a graduate student projecting her stellar undergraduate career will continue in grad school, when every person in grad school has the same stellar undergrad record—to project success, she must identify how she well she will perform on grad school criteria.)

Which brings us to the factor these books say no one wants to talk about. (I know, you’re thinking, no one wants to talk about ANY of this. I’m being more specific here.)

Novels in contests are judged by people. All people have subconscious biases. In fact, our brains share many, many biases of function. We make decisions using common shortcuts and illogical logic and all sorts of other things. The books I’m reading would say at all levels, but particularly in the higher tiers of a writing contest, luck takes over.

By “luck,” they mean a confluence of circumstances outside the control of the individual that work out as “bad” luck or “good” luck. For example, the best novel in the entire bunch might not make not even make the first cut. Say a reader loves a big, sweeping, story with beloved—predictable—plot lines. She gets a submission that meets these criteria. It also is full of typos and grammatical errors (which the rule contest call a real no-no). Another novel is throughly edited but experimental in nature (a harder to follow plot). Based on her belief in the promise of the first novel, she could advance it, as her brain begins to formulate analytical justifications for doing so. Or maybe she uses the shortcut, “My gut just tells me this one is better.” The better written novel winds up in the dustbin.

Luck can also work out well for me, the applicant. For example, maybe my reader reviews my novel right after she’s had a snack. The rest of the submissions she reads at the end of the day when her tired brain defaults to the easier choice: eliminate, eliminate. (Experiments have repeatedly shown this to universally happen even in situations of the greatest importance). Outcome: I advance to the next tier, and a (perhaps) better novel does not.

This realization—lying there in the dark, still not asleep—led me to switch in the dead of the night from statistics to ethics. I began to wonder if praying for my readers’ brain malfunctions to work in my favor was ethical? For example, can I pray that the reader/judge on my novel spent her summers in Memphis with her grandparents and thus adores Memphis where my novel is set? What if her grandfather recently died, and she connected with the grandfatherly protagonist in my novel? If so, she will be emotionally drawn to my novel without realizing the strength of the pull (I chose to believe ethical readers/judges do their damnedest to keep free of known biases). Her brain will then backfill her choice with rational reasons for her selection (the description was stunning, the character unique, the plot gripping.)

I ran this ethical dilemma past my sister, and she said it would be unethical if my biases prayers involved death. Fair enough.

In any event, even if I get into the top 3 finalists, it hit home that—after all that success—my chances of winning would still be only 33%. Terrible.

Ultimately, as I drifted off to sleep, I concluded that predicting success in a writing contest is pretty near impossible. Unless, say, Neil Gaiman entered. Then I’m pretty sure he would win. Even an amateur neuropsychologist can tell you that.

My Brain on Statistics

Almost Paradise by Corabel Shofner

A friend recently said she has read Young Adult novels all her life. When another friend asked why, she said, “I find them more honest.” When I return to Memphis, I am carrying with me in the trunk of my car as a gift to my friend the novel, Almost Paradise, by Corabel Shofner. It makes me smile to think I will have introduced my friend to Ruby Clyde Henderson, and now I’m doing the same for you.

I must confess: I read a snippet of Almost Paradise when the novel was in the works. Corabel is my cousin’s cousin, no blood kin of mine, but she labels us “leap cousins,” which I love. At some point on the long road we call “getting published,” she shared parts of her writing with me. Ruby Clyde’s voice—Lord help me, it jumped off the page and grabbed ahold.

Now, such a wonderful voice could be hard to sustain. Or not supported by the plot. Or turn sappy at the end when it comes time to wrap things up. Without the other structural elements in place, voice is nice but not enough. The book will collapse of its own weight. Almost Paradise has all these necessary things, plus wonderful secondary characters, humor that never gets stale, and unexpected plot twists. It is simply delightful.

Okay, to be more specific: Ruby Clyde is twelve years old. She was born when her father was shot during a robbery, and her mother, witnessing the shooting, gave birth prematurely. This history affects her in ways gradually revealed as she tries to extricate herself from a situation that is humorous only because of Corabel’s deft telling. I believe the story is Middle Grade (which might be a subset of Young Adult?), but there is nothing babyish about it. We should all be so lucky as to have the wisdom of Ruby Clyde.

The story takes Ruby Clyde from a campsite in Arkansas to the rolling hills of Texas. It involves a bad boyfriend, a nun, and cowboy boots. It’s Southern. I don’t want to give any more away, except there’s a pig named Bunny. The folks at Farrar Straus Giroux (one of the Big Five in New York City!) knew a winner when they saw it, and I’m so glad they did. Thank you, Bel, for bringing Ruby Clyde into the world.

I know, I know—I’ve been missing as of late. For two months, I’ve been holed up inside my novel doing everything I can to meet a self-imposed deadline for revision. The first of March, I received a reader’s report from my paid editor on JAZZY AND THE PIRATE. As you, my readers, know, I’ve been working on this novel since God was a toddler. I had finally reached the point where I thought someone could read it. Ordinarily, I would ask several Beta readers to take a look at it before I sent it to the editor. But I was in a hurry. Like I said, I’ve been working on it a loooooong time.

Continue reading

What do London and San Francisco have in common?
They are the top two cities downloading my short stores.

Where in Canada—the third highest download site—are listeners downloading the stories?
Everywhere but Nova Scotia—Nova Scotia don’t like Cain’t Do Nothing with Love.

After France, what’s the next most popular country downloading the stories?
Iran

Where do Moscow and St. Petersburg fit in?
Right after Queensland and Victoria in Australia.

Who’s next?
Beijing and Frankfurt.

Continue reading

Yikes!

What was I thinking? Sending out such a request? Yes, my agent is shopping my novel to big name publishing houses. Yes, editors at those houses—complete strangers—are judging my work. Plus, I’ve been in writing groups for years where judging nascent work is the name of the game. But this is different.

I put out a request on Facebook for Beta readers on my Memphis mystery, Harboring Evil. The story is set in Memphis and features a formerly homeless man who gets involved in a murder (the technical genre is “amateur sleuth mystery”). Here is its “elevator” sentence:

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Our New Surroundings

We’ve finished the beach house. I told y’all about the narrative I’d created to guide the process along. I’m only gonna share one photo, or else I’ll go crazy showing you my whole house. This is a guest bedroom, which actually gives you a good idea about what the house looks like:

The Memphis bedroom
The Memphis bedroom

I need to pick up a round table from our house in Memphis to use beside the right of the bed, but otherwise this room is finished. The maps over the bed, a gift from our daughter-in-law, show the meanderings of the Mississippi River from the 1820s to the 1940s. I love them. We wanted a peaceful, “non-beachy” beach house. Or, as my husband says, “a 1940s Caribbean beach house.” I’m pleased with how it turned out.

So. Having gotten the house in manageable order, I’ve returned to revising JAZZY AND THE PIRATE. Here’s the foot on the new table I’m using on the beach house porch as my writing desk:

The Claw table
The Claw table

I figure if that doesn’t inspire pirate writing, I don’t know what will!

Oh—and stay tuned: a new Thumb Prayer page for this website is in the works!!!

Onward and upward!

In the pouring rain, across a highway divider in an unknown town, I sit at a red light, listening to the rain thump the car. Gone are the jokes about the cheap hotel room that cut the tension while we toured the tiny downtown where trees squared the block and the rotunda stood tall. I fell in love with the sidewalks so straight, but then we left the white concrete and landed on the streaming highway with the rain sloshing the four corners of our truncated world.

Something rustles inside my husband’s head and, turning toward me he suggests we eat at the 5/4 Steakhouse across the median. A big red sign flashes in the standing water: “Welcome to the Quarter.”

Once upon a time when we traveled for fun, we’d ride to the real French Quarter in New Orleans where we ventured into the coolness of the antique stores and wandered until the wooden floors gave way to dirt three rooms back. One such trip, I bought the Jesus icon with the silver cover that slipped on and off. I carried it under my arm, out of the overpowering smell of the merchandise rotting on the shelves and across the parking lot to gaze at the boats docked on the river, so mechanical, black and greasy and full of metal. Churning and smoking and heaving through the water. Then we drove home, and I hung Jesus on the bathroom wall.

We exit the car, struggling through the rain, and land dripping in the entranceway. A stop clock graces the maitre d’s table with a sign below it: “Served in a Quarter of an hour or your meal free!” The place is big on signs.

We order steak and potatoes, and while we wait for the arrival of the food, Paul throws his hands in the air. “I can’t believe I haven’t told you. I have to tell you this.”

It’s a long story about two drunken women at a roulette table in Vegas, a mother and daughter, I think. Paul travels to Vegas on business. He’s in the entertainment business. He says he needs to travel on the weekends, that’s when business is done. Today is Thursday and only Alabama, so he’s brought me with him.

I read the little stick that came protruding from my potato. “I’ve been rubbed and scrubbed and you can eat my skin.” Shaped like a small smiling spud, the potato stick winks at me. I slip it in my pocket.

“I told him to hell with that.” Paul is cutting into a steak so rare it could get up and walk away from the table. “‘My damn plane is leaving,’ I said, and I hung up on the son of a bitch.”

Somewhere I think the story has changed, like channels surfed in the night when you’re not paying good enough attention. The waiter comes up for more service, but Paul waves him away, dismissive the way he is.

“Well?”

He’s talking to me.

“Well, what?”

“Well, what do you think?”

I finger my plastic potato prize. “Sorry. I kind of lost the plot.”

“That’s not very nice.” He wags his head, jaw to the side. “I tell you what, I bring you on a trip and a spool of barbed wire, and I’m fixed.”

No, I tell you what. When I get home, I’m going to take the Jesus with its silver cover from the wall and I’m gonna take the gold-embroidered bath towels and the silver candlesticks from the dining room table and the writing paper from inside the writing desk—and maybe the writing desk, too—and I’m going to stuff it in a suitcase with my new potato prize and then when it’s time to go, I’ll be ready.

And you can take that truth and hang it on the wall.

(an old short story I came across when cleaning out papers; as it was thoroughly written, I thought I’d share)

 

 

 

I have a lousy sense of direction.

No, that’s not it.

I have difficulty translating directional information into an understanding in my head. This failure is pervasive in my life. Driving—hell, walking. I am totally missing a directional chip in my head.

Yet, here I am, writing a novel that demands I understand the incursion of water into New Orleans as a result of the surge from Hurricane Katrina into Lake Borgne and up Mr. Go. into the Intracoastal Waterway and the Industrial Canal that flooded the Lower Ninth Ward.

All the waterways look alike to me. They crisscross the edges of New Orleans like veins and arteries. Multitudinous. Pervasive unto the point of swiss cheese. Rendering the land into a lacy valentine. But not as benign.

The waterways are impossible to understand at ground level. Difficult to translate from bird’s-eye view into the drawn lines of maps. All of it, hard to interpret when I don’t know east from west, lakeside from riverside, up river from down river.

We went on an excursion today, and I learned much. About the damming of Mr. Go and the erecting of the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, both post-Katrina actions taken to, in the future, protect New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish from the surge into the funnel that assaulted the city when Hurricane Katrina dealt its death-filled blow against New Orleans.

I brought that learning home and researched. I will take the research and go out again, replacing web images with live images. Sooner or later, I will understand it enough to include it in the plot of my novel.

No one ever said writing was easy. Or that pursuing this profession would spare us from tasks that do not come easily.

So I will ask my brain to move in directions that cause it to creak. I will keep at it until it penetrates my genetic blockage and spreads, taking hold in maybe a Gestalt way. And I get it.

Really get it.

Until then, I will research on.

Fort Macomb
Fort Macomb

Today, I finished polishing the first ⅔ of Jazzy and the Pirate.

That means I have ⅓ to go.

I’m not giving away too much to tell you the rag-tag group of characters has arrived in New Orleans, ready to save the city from the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina.

Many questions have been answered. About the Pirate’s agenda. About Jazzy’s plan to save the city. About the origin of the curse that enchants them. And its cure.

And tougher questions have been raised. About her dad’s death. About the stability of the house-ship on which they sail. About her family’s future. The city’s fate. Her own fate.

I have an outline of the remaining portion of the book. But even in what I just called the “polishing,” I revised plot lines. So then I had to make a new document entitled “Plot Lines.” And re-plot the lines. The Plot Lines document is very helpful, for it easily identifies what the heroine wants, who/what stands in her way. How each obstacle grows more dire as the story unfolds.

I am telling you all this because it has been a long, slow slog. And it’s easier to keep at a long, slow slog when you know someone else is with you. 🙂

Reading the Count of Monte Cristo has helped too. It’s a long book. I’m sure it was a long, slow slog to write. But, boy, was it worth it.

I hope mine is too.

The Count of Monte Cristo, which I just finished
The Count of Monte Cristo, which I just finished

 

 

Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (Triton Press, 2014)- 7 years of writing. 2 years in the making. A lifetime in the living. Edited by Ellen Morris Prewitt, available on Amazon.com

Many years ago, when I was letting the Spirit lead me around by the nose, I went to Door of Hope and asked if I could start a writing group for men and women living on the street. Dr. June Mann Averyt, the founder and then Executive Director of Door of Hope, watched me toddle through the door in my high heels and said, “What the hell—go for it.”

Well, not exactly. But kind of exactly. Because June is not a sentimental person.

For years, every Wednesday, unless I was out of town or something else created an actual physical impossibility, I was at Door of Hope facilitating writing group. Every time I slunk into June’s office with another bright idea—why don’t we have a public reading? why don’t we make notecards? why not ask for a grant so we can hold Community Writers Retreats where the housed and unhoused write together? can we do an e-zine?—she said, “What the hell—go for it.”

Maybe not in so many words. But in that tone. Because June is not a sentimental person.

None of these endeavors was easy. They required hours at her dining room table wrestling with grant applications. Or appearing before grant boards. Or all of us—me, June, a VISTA volunteer—learning what it really meant to put out an e-zine. June never complained about this side activity—writing? for the homeless? are you sure? the grant board asked—when her basic mission already required so much of her. She supported me in what my mother would call a flat-mouth way. Direct. Unvarnished. June’s way.

When life changed for June, she left Door of Hope and started Outreach, Housing and Community, where she continued her work to help people get and stay housed. She never gave up on Writing Group—her program offerings at OHC were not scheduled at 1:00 on Wednesdays because she wouldn’t interfere with writing group time—and when Writing Our Way Home came out, her name was all the way through it. In tributes, in stories, in thanks, in dedications. She even added a Special Note for us to include in the book. A simple, to-the-point note because June is not a sentimental person.

When life changed for me, I began co-facilitating writing group, sharing duties with the amazing Germantown United Methodist Church, and, when the wheel turned again, I continued as simply a member of writing group, where now every Wednesday when I’m in town, I go to Door of Hope and do writing group.

That’s a total of nine years.

Then, last spring, I was playing with paper clay and something told me to roll it out, make it thin, almost like porcelain. As I was gently rolling, it came to me: you are making a gift for June. I thought, well that makes sense. I had never fully thanked June for saying yes to writing group, thereby setting my life on a certain trajectory. June wouldn’t mind if my desire exceeded my talents. She would accept my gift as offered.

So I fashioned a house from the rolled paper clay. Using found objects, I created a door. Above the house I positioned an angel. I mounted the house and angel on paper I’d made by whirling scraps in a blender. I took the creation to a framer, and we picked out a really nice frame, me hoping the frame would turn my work into something more than my abilities could create.

While I was waiting on the framer to finish my surprise gift, I got word: June had been diagnosed with cancer. An aggressive lung cancer. Of course, I heard the news from one of the folks June had helped get off the streets. She said the diagnosis was serious.

I called June. I said, “I have something for you. It has nothing to do with your diagnosis,” I hastened to add. Because June is not a sentimental person.

I left the gift on her front porch.

She called. She said she’d hung the piece in her bedroom. She’d positioned it next to a painting by an actual Memphis artist. That painting had an angel too. June said she saw the angels every day. Each time we spoke, she reminded me of her angels watching over her.

When I created the gift, in my mind, June was the angel. She was the one who watched over those on the street and helped them into houses. Of course, June would never think of herself as an angel. Because June is not a sentimental person.

But in the short time it took to get from the conception of the gift to its receipt, life had changed. June became the one who needed the watching care of an angel.

I have a peculiar definition of grace. It is when God gives you the chance to do what is right before you know you have a dog in the fight. Before you know you have a personal connection to whatever it is that you are being called to do. Before your motives can become potentially muddled.

So, for example, I was given the opportunity to chair the annual fundraiser for the Arthritis Foundation . . . years before I gave up both my God-given hips to arthritis.

In the same way, the Spirit whispered in my ear to make a gift for a friend in thanksgiving for the impact she’d on my life . . . before I knew she was dying of cancer.

That was a gift to me, the Spirit nudging me to make that gift. It was also a gift to June.

You see, she wouldn’t have liked it if I’d given her something in reaction to her dying.

Because June was not a sentimental person.

June requested that donations in her honor be made to Outreach, Housing and Community, 135 N Cleveland St, Memphis, TN 38104. To read more about June’s life and the impact she had on the city of Memphis, click here

 

Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (Triton Press, 2014)- 7 years of writing. 2 years in the making. A lifetime in the living. Edited by Ellen Morris Prewitt, available on Amazon.com

 

I call it “spiritual dyslexia.”

When I was teaching myself to write, if an offering really, really did not appeal to me, I reluctantly signed up. That’s how I discovered literary journalism—literary journalism? I gasped when I read the syllabus Randall Kenan was teaching that year. It sounded terrible, but Randall was teaching it and I wanted to learn from him. Mostly, I knew my reaction meant I needed to take the course—an aversion to something was the exact indicator it was the right thing for me to do. So I signed up and, predictably, I fell in love with the concept, and I fell in love with Randall, and I wrote literary journalism essays for years.

Later, when I was teaching myself to follow the Holy Spirit, if I really, really didn’t want to do something, I trudged forward doing it. I had learned by then that my spiritual dyslexia was as unfailingly correct as my geographic dyslexia—when we’re traveling, if I say turn right, my husband turns left and we arrive swiftly at our destination. Recently, I’ve blogged a bit about doing what totally embarrasses me ’cause the dadgum Spirit tells me to, but for the most part, I’ve dropped this as an intentional practice.

Glennon Doyle Melton says I need to pick it back up.

Last night, my amazing godchild took me to an amazing talk. It was slap-your-neighbor funny and wait-a-minute-what-did-she say? profound, my two favorite things. Ms. Melton, a blogger and author and speaker, covered many topics, but one of them was following not your “happiness” (for her, eating sugar and watching Bravo), but your discomfort.

As she says in this blog post:

IF IT’S EASY AND SHINY- BEWARE. IF IT STINGS A LITTLE – SIT TIGHT, GET CURIOUS, AND THEN LEAN IN.

To be clear: I am NOT, NOT, NOT a fan of “God sends us troubles so we can learn.” I also am NOT a fan of “pain makes us stronger” or “suffering is the quickest route to God.” I am a fan of “This is your life—if you are lucky enough to find it, live it,” which is the central message of the quoted blog post.

I am also a fan of the brain and its ability to know. By “the brain,” I mean the part of the brain I think of as Central Command. This brain is mostly hidden from us. Maybe it’s the subconscious, but that’s not quite right, either. It’s the part of the brain that finds patterns, discerns meanings, makes connections when we are unaware it is doing so. (I tend to think of Central Command as the Leviathan vessel Moya in the Syfy TV show Farscape, but that’s just me.) Central Command is the part of your brain that has your absolutely best interest in mind (ha, ha-in mind, that’s a pun). Central Command is not swayed by our petty, surface, insecure, what-will-they-think? interest but pursues our deep-down, this-really-matters best interest.

Central Command is what tells me, hmmmmm—you’re having an adverse reaction because the thing will be hard or requires action that makes you uncomfortable or risks tarnishing the way you want to be viewed. It will involve your ego in a not very pleasant way. It will tell you to run away, hands in the air, screaming.

Do not listen to this reaction, Central Command instructs. Recognize it as the spinning weather vane that will send you in the flat wrong direction if you let it, or as Ms. Melton says, understand it is our forever grappling after that which we know for certain will not bring happiness.

When my spiritual dyslexia discerns an uncomfortableness, my Central Command tells me, in Ms. Melton words, “Sit tight, get curious, and then lean in.”

I’ll try to start paying better attention.

Why do the grapes need protecting?

I’m talking about it on the website. Yes, I mean literally talking.

Go to the Home Page and listen to the front porch moment. Then listen to “Drunk at the Foodland Again” at STORIES.

You’ll learn the answer as told to you in my voice. My Very Southern Voice. ?

Trust the River

I arrived at a certain point in the writing of Jazzy and the Pirate that felt like a period. An ending about to soar to a new beginning. Exciting, but also a bit daunting. I needed a break. How does a writer take a break? Revise a different novel, of course.

Don’t worry. I’m not abandoning Jazzy. I’m simply letting my mind focus on something different for a couple of weeks. Going with the flow, trusting that my hidden brain will keep working on Jazzy while I consciously and intently work on another project.

I chose to revise a mystery novel set in Memphis, because I was physically in Memphis, and the novel kept calling to me. I wrote this novel last year in between hip surgeries. First time I thought that sentence, I wondered, can that really be true? It’s true. After the first surgery when I could do little else, I devoured mysteries. Then I wrote my own mystery before the second hip surgery. The working title of the mystery is Cracks in the River. My working “elevator sentence” is:

A homeless man gets caught in a deadly real estate scheme when he finds a car in the Wolf River Harbor, a missing developer barb-wired to the wheel.

Yes, the novel includes stuff I know about. Homelessness, from being in the Door of Hope Writing Group for almost nine years. The Wolf River Harbor, on which I live. And, as a former lawyer, the intricacies of real estate deals. I hope I’ve put it all together in an interesting, intriguing way. 

Here’s the opening paragraph of Cracks in the River, a Coot Long Mystery:

CHAPTER 1

“Don’t you ever stick so much as a big toe in that swirling river,” Mother would say whenever we drove the old bridge to Memphis, leaving the Arkansas cotton fields behind for the wet cobblestones and low rumbling barges of the Mississippi River. I was not a compliant boy. Or maybe Mother had made the river too tempting. Whichever, I gave in at age six and dashed into the water. I probably would’ve ridden the current to New Orleans if Father hadn’t spied me tumbling head-over-heels fifteen feet south of where I’d gone in. He waded out, snatched me up by my belt, and all was fine. But I’m convinced that ten years later when I was newly sixteen and my mind broke in two, half of it went searching for that river, the golden flow of silt and light rounding into a bubble of sheer terror. Whether the river remembered me or not, it’s hard to say. But that’s one explanation for why, after so many fruitless years of searching for my baby sister’s killer, the river opened its mouth and spit a murdered man at my feet. At the time I thought to myself, isn’t that just like the river, keeping its trap shut all those years then handing me the body of a man I had no quarrel with? Should’ve trusted the river.

The Dog’s Happiness

I think I’ve found the key to happiness. All I have to do is ask, did the dog have a good day? If the answer is yes, life is moving in the right direction.

Think about it. What Evangeline loves more than anything is going for a walk. The walk takes me outside in the fresh air (does that sound like your mom–“go get some fresh air!”?) and I’m exercising, good for the heart and soul.

No, I misstated that. What she actually loves best is when my husband and I take her for a walk together. We each take her out separately at different times in the day. But together? That sends her into paroxysm of joy. I’m not kidding. I keep thinking I’ll take a video of it, how she runs in circles then jumps on me then on Tom then runs in circles some more. She is absolutely delighted. And her delight means I’m walking and talking and catching up with my husband’s life while seeing the neighborhood and getting some exercise.

Second on her list of “And it was good” activities is sleeping upstairs on the bed while I write. Long time ago I saw one of those “writers at work” picture books that showed famous writers writing. One of the writers was lounging on the bed. I thought, well, I never. Now, I am that writer. It started during my hip convalescence, and it has extended into modern times. Why? Because it gives the dog great joy (cough, cough). Seriously, she races me upstairs to see who can get to the bed the fastest. Then she lays out her full length and glances over her shoulder at me, like, shall we begin? If I ever actually sell the novel I’m working on, I may have to dedicate it to the dog.

So. Writing. Exercising. Spending time outside. Catching up with my husband.

I’m telling you, it’s the perfect yardstick. 🙂

New Baby on Website

We have a new baby on the website. You can read it here. The story is from The Bone Trench, the novel my agent with the Virginia Kidd Agency is currently presenting to publishing houses. The excerpt appeared in EAP:The Magazine, the full name of which is Exterminating Angel Press (isn’t that fabulous?).

Hope you enjoy!!!

Building a Narrative

I’m building a house on narrative. No, seriously. We are building a beach house in Waveland, Mississippi, and when the time comes for a decision, I ask myself, what’s the story of these people who built this house?

It’s not my story. It’s the story of the people who lived in Mississippi in the 1940s and built a house for their family on the coast. They are practical people who have deep wells of affection for one another. The patriarch gifts them with the practicality, without which his wife would sail off into the clouds. He likes life plain and simple, but carries a soft spot in his heart for fine woods. The matriarch of the clan wearies easily and constantly searches for serenity, forever gravitating to less—bare floors, enamelware dishes, white sheers that flutter in the breeze and never need cleaning. But every once in a while, she can’t help but splurge on something her heart desires.

These people, and their children, take for granted black and white tile on the bathroom floors, crystal door knobs, white iron beds. They congregate on the deep porch and wake to morning coffee perked on the work table in the kitchen. They know the man who made the table and cherish his work. Sometimes, their unquestioned aesthetic casts towards a  drugstore vibe—something about the marble counters and goose neck faucet and medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink; was the patriarch’s father a druggist, perhaps? But then the father’s leather chairs kick in and the mother’s bamboo shades soften the stone and—oh, my goodness, a fireplace!

How often will they use the fireplace on the Mississippi coast? It doesn’t matter. This is their version of a home in the Caribbean. Or a house on Grand Isle. Or a cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. Or wherever else human imagination creates a grace-filled lull. A pause, a moment in time that no matter how long they live, how far from this place they wander, this moment will forever stand still.

For our family in their house in Waveland, the moment plays out in Saturday mornings spent swinging in the hammock below the house, hearing the palms whisper. Upstairs the sheers flutter, bacon sizzles in the iron skillet. Later when the afternoon ripens, they will walk to the beach and dig their toes in the sand. Maybe ride bikes into Bay St. Louis, maybe paint a landscape of the spreading Bay. That’s what people did in the 1940s, right? They took up watercoloring.

So when I’m standing in the half-finished kitchen, struggling to tell the architect why I do NOT want the work table to match the cabinets and the island is NOT to look like an island, I cannot articulate my reasoning. It’s not “British Colonial” or “Caribbean” or “Tropical” or “Industrial” or “Rustic.” It’s this family, their dream. I’m just trying to get it right for them.

Rivergator Paddler's Guide to the Lower Mississippi River, found here, which will hang in our great room
Rivergator Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi River, found here, which will hang in our great room

Living with the Iffing

For one reason then another, I’ve been off the blog for a while, not adding posts, not reading posts from my fellow and sister bloggers. I’ve missed being here, and I’ve missed reading your thoughts. I hope as the year unfolds, I will do better. I have, however, been writing, and I share with you this wisdom the Universe sent to me at the beginning of the new year.

Living with the Iffing

He’s seated in the chair next to me at the bank—at this New Orleans bank, they’ve done away with teller windows. The tellers hold court behind a long desk, customers sit in chairs on the other side. The man and I sit side by side. He’s in the midst of a complicated financial transaction. While the teller works, he talks.

“All that fighting going on in my neighborhood.”
“You peeking from behind the curtains?” the teller asks.
“I was sitting on the porch with a baseball bat.”
The teller comments that maybe this isn’t so smart. “Bullets don’t carry a name.”
He agrees, but remains undeterred.
“That family. You know, you lose somebody, you bring in chicken. You bring in food. That family, they buy liquor.”
The teller lends one ear to his story as she steadily works. I get the feeling they know each other pretty well.
“They buy liquor then they start to fighting. I look out there, the boyfriend has a board. The girlfriend, she’s got a stick.”
He demonstrates the stance of the two neighbors, weapons raised above their shoulders.
“He’s holding the board, and she’s got the stick. I said, ‘Somebody hit someone!’”
“You what?” The teller begins paying attention.
“I can’t stand that iffing—are they gonna hit someone or not? I said, ‘Somebody hit someone!’ I can’t take that iffing.”

The old year rolls out. The New Year rolls in. We are asked, as always, to live with the iffing.

Ellen’s Amazing Adventure

Our five days of babysitting duties completed, we restarted our day with “second breakfast.” It being Carnival season and all, we chose this as our sumptuous second breakfast treat.

IMG_2760
King Cake from Cake Cafe–ours was apple and goat cheese, the cafe’s specialty

Then we hit the road to Bay St. Louis, a small town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast forty-five minutes from New Orleans where we are building a beach house (have I told you that?). We pinned down the paint palette for the outside of the house (for joy, for joy!)

Olympic Sapphire paint for the beach house
Olympic Sapphire paint for the beach house, which is a deeper indigo than this photo conveys

and we toted home wood samples for the kitchen island and kitchen table—don’t you love physical objects? There’ll be no cabinets in the house, except lower cabinets around the stove. We’ll be using a simply designed island and a table by the refrigerator, both wood.

American Cedar (bottom) and Peruvian Walnut (top) for kitchen table and kitchen island
American Cedar (left) and Peruvian Walnut (right) for kitchen table and kitchen island, respectively—unstained, clear finished. I love beautiful wood.

On our way to and from Bay St. Louis, we took Chef Menteur Highway/90 East. This route is slightly longer than the I-10 route we usually follow, but it passes Lake St. Catherine (the shallow lake between Lake Ponchartrain to the north and Lake Borgne to the south)  and the Rigolets (the strait connecting Lake St. Catherine to Lake Borgne), all of which eventually open to the Gulf. These water routes into New Orleans have shaped the city’s history, including its age of pirates and the devastating surge from Hurricane Katrina. As a result, they figure prominently in the novel I’m working on, Jazzy and the Pirate, so I was all-out, nerd-alert, goober-head excited about what I was seeing. Here’s just a taste:

The return trip home immediately past Fort Pike, the Rigolets, and Lake St. Catherine
The return trip home immediately past Fort Pike, the Rigolets, and Lake St. Catherine

As if this weren’t cool enough, I’m reading aloud about Fort Pike, the turn off for which we had just passed, and I’m making up stories that would convince the powers-that-be to let me into the by-appontment-only attraction (“I’m a famous writer working on a novel about Fort Pike” (the honey) or “I’m a blogger and I’ll talk bad about you if you don’t let me in” (the vinegar)) when I mentioned to my husband that Fort Pike might be the actual local of Carcosa from the final scene of the first season of True Detective.

If you didn’t watch True Detective, it’s gonna be hard for me to describe the eerily disturbing, grass-covered, tunnel-riddled, brick ruin used in the finale. The show’s first season was set in New Orleans, and I knew they’d used an old fort for the deranged killer’s hangout, and I was thinking it might be Fort Pike.

So I’m thumbing the phone, researching, and I correct myself, “No, that was Fort Macomb, and it’s closed to tourists because it was badly damaged by Katrina.” I relay this information at the same time my husband points left.

Yep. Fort Macomb.

Fort Macomb
Fort Macomb

My brilliant husband took a radical turn, and I ran from the car, passing along the way the dramatic evidence of why the fort was closed to the viewing public

The damaged walkway
The damaged walkway

I would’ve given anything to get to the other side where the arches and tunnels are revealed, but not being Matthew McConaughey (un, huh, I’m including a link to Matthew McConaughey for the two of you who don’t know who he is), I had to be grateful for what I could getIMG_2939

and I wasIMG_2942

We left this riveting landscape

The Irish Bayou outside New Orleans proper
The Irish Bayou outside New Orleans proper

and continued on home. Oh, and on this amazing adventure? I was wearing the jeans I mended using the Japanese Boro mending technique I’m only learning to do but am wildly excited about.

My boro repaired jeans
My boro repaired jeans

All in all, a fantastic day.

 

I’m pleased to report that the essay Grief: The Best I Can Do will be published in Exterminating Angel Press: The Magazine. EAP is an amazing magazine whose ethic is spreading ideas, not exclusivity. So the “already published” nature of the essay is not an issue.  In fact, the magazine encourages writers to get their work out anywhere they can, thus seeding the germinating idea in every garden possible.

Isn’t that refreshing?

In the current issue of the magazine, I particularly enjoyed the poem Turkish Coffee by Marissa Bell Toffoli. I also went back and read the essay Three Dogs and a Branch by Tim J. Myers from September. The magazine published an excerpt from THE BONE TRENCH entitled One Wrong Step and You’ve Brought on the Last DaysThus, the magazine is near and dear to my heart.

In an aside, THE BONE TRENCH is currently being considered by an editor at a wonderful publishing house. You can read about the long journey of this novel here. My wonderful agent at the Virginia Kidd Agency is doing a fabulous job of getting it into the right hands. So send good thoughts to the editor, surrounding her with vibes that hum, “I love this manuscript! I love this manuscript! I must buy this manuscript!”

Finally, I’m a little—what? bemused? mystified?—to share that the Grief essay was picked up by a service called The Obitstream.com Daily. I learned about this via a Twitter notification. Perusing my notifications, I discovered a tweet by ObitStream.com including my Twitter name. Following this link, I found this new service that contains curated articles about grief. Who knew? It’s an ever-changing brave new world out there.

I’m hoping—fingers crossed—the popping of this publication news portends a fruitful 2016!

When I became self-hosted my reblogging abilities diminished, but I want to share a link to a new blog begun by a writer I recently met. She combines images and words. Her poetry fits my definition of a good poem, which is when I don’t know what the next word will be. Scroll through her entries and enjoy.

https://mockmortality.wordpress.com/2015/12/15/arithmetica-infinitorum/

Grief: The Best I Can Do

My Daddy Joe was killed by a train when I was three years old. My older sister was four, and my mother was newly pregnant with my little sister. After the baby was born, my mother had what we would now call postpartum depression, complicated, of course, by the death. She thought to herself, Well, I’ve had this baby. The two older girls can take care of themselves. I’m not needed here anymore.

That’s traumatic grief manifesting into physical thought.

It’s impossible to put my finger on who among us Daddy Joe’s death affected the most. Me, who was at the age when a daughter carries the strongest attachment to her father. My older sister, who had fourteen months greater understanding of the event than I. My younger sister, who lived for almost ten years without even the briefest experience of a father, until my amazing stepdad arrived. Or maybe it was my grandmother, who buried her child then sealed off her grief so completely she mentioned her son no more than a handful of times until the day she died. Or my mom, who sometimes emails me on December 19 in remembrance of an event that happened over fifty years ago. Each of us, in our own way, felt the pressing hand of loss shaping, molding, forming us.

My life experiences—watching my stepdad pass over to the other side; communing with those who have left this world before me; reading about others’ death experiences—have convinced me the dead are fine. We can pray for the dead, but we needn’t worry about them. They are fine. We are the ones riveted by loss.

Left behind, we grapple with a pain that physically wounds us. Holes riddle our hearts, digging deep wells in our souls that neither time can heal nor grieving remove. No matter the good things that rush in—my stepdad whom I loved so much—those places of emptiness stay with us. I question why life is set up this way. What is the point of bonds that tie so closely but can be severed so quickly? Why is life devised to cause us so much pain from loss? So many, many of us walk around with wisps of loss at the edge of our consciousness constantly asking, where is daddy? What happened to mommy? Why did God take my child from me? The loss ripples out until it seems the whole world shudders.

Nor must the loss be traumatic. We grieve, inconsolable, for our aged parents who have lived long, good, full lives. We miss them terribly. We pause and hang our heads when a memory strikes us full force, not wanting the world to see how grief can still slay us. We love and we love and we love and we lose.

Who thought this was a good idea?

And yet it is.

So, what to do with it? My cousin, what he did was to lead the funeral congregation in a prayer of forgiveness for the actions that took his teenage son from him. Let me repeat that—a grieving parent led the funeral congregation in a prayer of forgiveness for the loss of his son.

My mother, she decided “things” were unimportant, only people mattered. She has spent the rest of her life throwing away, de-cluttering, and smiling at everyone she meets.

Me, I write. In many of my novels and short stories, the dad is dead. The daughter or son who is left behind wrestles with the loss, trying to find a place to step that doesn’t turn into quicksand. As I write, I try to see through the loss, to claim back from death everything it would try to take from us.

I did this with the tiny pearl necklace I wore this Christmas Eve. After Daddy Joe died, a man came to Mother and said her husband had ordered the delicate necklace for his daughter. That made no sense to Mother—why would Joe buy one necklace when he had two daughters? But she paid the man for the necklace and tucked it away with the handful of things she kept from that time. Last year, going through her stuff, she came across the necklace and offered it to us girls, scam though it probably was. I took the necklace and this year, because my dress needed a second necklace, I wore it to Christmas Eve dinner.

Even as I closed the cheap gold clasp around my neck, I wondered anew, why? Why had I accepted something that surely had no connection to Daddy Joe? Did I pitifully act on the slim chance he had, in fact, bought it for me? Or was it something else?

I held the tiny pearl in my fingertips and felt the answer: the “probably a scam” necklace graced my neck because nothing is sacred. Not the wallet that was Daddy Joe’s, not the Ole Miss memorabilia strewn across my house—none of it. The joke is on the man who sold the necklace to Mother. He thought a memento grasped in a sweaty palm could contain and assuage grief. But the only thing that can do that is love, a force so strong it can redeem even the sacrilege of death. Love makes anything, and everything, sacred, even a scam necklace.

When the grief of death strikes anew—as it did this Christmas Eve when I was wearing the tiny pearl necklace and my nephew suddenly, traumatically died—I can only look for the moments when that love manifests itself.

The memory of my Daddy Joe’s arms enveloping and comforting me.

The image of my nephew’s smiling face lighting up whenever he greeted me.

These rays of love that were once in this world left their imprint, and they stay in this world for all time, waiting only for us to reach out and touch the memory of them.

So, basically, I come around to saying those who die are still here. That’s not letting go. It’s not accepting death as a part of life. It’s not reconciling myself to this configuration that includes repeated, painful loss. I hate death. I always will. But I love love.

And that’s the best I can do.

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