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Category: Writing

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.

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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.

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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.

Over on Facebook on my author page—Ellen Morris Prewitt: My Very Southern Voice— since the beginning of Advent, I’ve been putting into practice the concept I mused upon in this blog post about A Different Kind of Christmas.

Feel free to mosey on over to the page and enjoy the posts.

Here’s a free sample. Well, they’re all free. 🙂

MY ADVENT PRACTICE

This will be my Advent practice: naming that which has been in the world since time began.
I’ll start with water.
I’m thinking rain water and Memphis’s aquifer water but mainly the water of tears.
This afternoon, each time we told our friend in the nursing home how much he was loved and how many people were asking about him and how concerned everyone was about him, tears welled in his eyes. The trach kept him from speaking, but his connection with us was in his tears.
We might be from dust and to dust we might return but in the interim we have water.

The Intracoastal Waterway at Ocean Isle Beach where we've vacationed since I was in the 11th grade
The Intracoastal Waterway at Ocean Isle Beach where we’ve vacationed since I was in the 11th grade

*

This will be my Advent practice: naming that which has been in the world since time began.
I’ll continue today with laughter.
The belly-shaking
yelping
guffawing
uncontrollable
sauce of the universe.
Laughter:
don’t leave home without it.

The face other people make when I laugh
The face other people make when I laugh

*

This will be my Advent practice: naming that which has been in the world since time began.
I’ll continue today with cold.
You can be cold in the winter
or cold when you stay in the swimming pool too long.
You toes can be cold when you stamp the ground.
Your hand can be cold when getting ice cream from the fridge.
Cold ices the nostrils, burns the lungs, and
exhilarates a body that’s had too much close warm air.
C.O.L.D.
The way winter’s
supposed to be.

Me and my little dog Providence in the Memphis snow several years ago before she left this world
Me and my little dog Providence in the Memphis snow several years ago before she left this world

 

*

This will be my Advent practice: naming that which has been in the world since time began.
I’ll continue today with illusion.
We believe in what we cannot see–
the wind, love, the Internet–
because we see its effect.
Perhaps these invisibles are illusions
and the only thing that matters
are the effects.

Dangling paper snowflake from the Door of Hope Writing Group Christmas party
Dangling paper snowflake from the Door of Hope Writing Group Christmas party

 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you!

Vonnegut Birthed THE BONE TRENCH

When I was in high school, I favored the library located in the small strip center that also held the hardware store where I bought tomato plants, thinking them to be flowers . . . but that’s another story. The library was cozy, the line of shelves beginning as soon as you walked in the door. From my weird spatial perspective, the books were arranged backwards—the cataloguing began at the front desk and the fiction authors whose names began with letters from the end of the alphabet were closest to the door. I remember this because I’ll never forget squatting on the floor and finding on the bottom shelf Kurt Vonnegut.

By that time, I was in the twelfth grade, participating in the Advance Placement English class. Part of the deal with that class was earning extra credit for reading books not on the required reading list. Can you believe that? They gave you extra credit for reading. Much of my life, reading had been something I was doing when I should’ve been “outside getting fresh air.” Or making my bed. Or eating. I was a pig in slop in that library, doing my favorite thing, fully sanctioned.

This world or another?
This world or another?

So, anyway, I found Vonnegut. His were small books, at least relative to Moby Dick, which we read in English class, so I checked out a couple of them. Slaughterhouse Five, of course, and either Cat’s Cradle or Breakfast of Champions, I don’t remember. The class had an approved “Outside Reading” list; anything off that list had to be approved by the teacher as meeting certain unnamed standards. I took my finds to school for perusal and acceptance. This had not theretofore been an issue. It was this time.

The teacher took my request under advisement. She was older, in real life, I mean—looking back from an adult perspective, you realize everyone seemed older when you were young. But this teacher’s hair was gray, her face heavily wrinkled, her hands trembling. She accepted the books from my hand, and, corralling stray wisps of hair back into the bun that swept dramatically from her forehead, she said she’d let me know.

Alien life?
Alien life?

Several days later I received her verdict. My choice was not conventional, she said (imagine that!), but she believed it could be approved. The language, the scenes—the book contained objectionable material; I, however, was probably mature enough to handle it. The book simply was not her cup of tea, she sniffed, but she didn’t want to discourage me from reading works that tried new approaches, even those that hovered on the edge of literature.

The year was 1975. Slaughterhouse Five came out in 1970. It was not yet a classic, to say the least; no one had yet put it on multiple “Best Of” lists. I was left with the distinct impression the teacher hadn’t even read it; hence, the delay of several days. But thanks to this open-minded teacher, I was an early reader and fan.

I do have one complaint: I blame Vonnegut for creating my lifetime inability to distinguish fantasy from plain ol’ literature.  Maybe this defect was birthed years earlier when my mother read us the Narnia Chronicles as bedtime stories, us girls snuggled in the covers, me hating to see the white space that signaled the chapter’s end. Later in my senior year, I had my Asimov phase, and one summer I devoured Lewis’s Space Trilogy; my mother talked so much about Perelandra, I had to read it myself. In college it was Lord of the Rings; later, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and every Arthurian legend book written. I came late to American Gods and the Outlander series, but arrive I did.

Space plants, perhaps?
Space plants, perhaps?

None of these classic fantasies did I consider “fantasy.” They were just great books, no different from Moby Dick or William Faulkner, for that matter. So I guess it’s not surprising I never considered I was writing a fantasy when I wrote my own novel The Bone Trench. Yeah, the central characters are Mother Mary and her guardian angel Little c, both of whom have superpowers. Also Mary’s son Jesus, who grumbles about having stripped himself of his superpowers prior to his return to earth. And while the book is Urban Fantasy set in real-life Memphis, The Bone Trench’s Memphis has the phantasmagoric qualities of Tim Burton’s Gotham City.

As you can tell, these early reads also made the combination of fantasy and spirituality I created in The Bone Trench feel natural. Hell, C.S. Lewis was primarily a religion writer. Furthermore, to get a bit metaphysical, who’s to say the world doesn’t exist as the fantasy books portray it? Don’t lock me up, but where actually does the line between fantasy and reality run? I’ve told several people The Bone Trench is fantasy, only to get the response, “Well, I guess.”

Alien spirits
Merry Christmas!

So, of all the legacies Kurt Vonnegut left the world, in a way The Bone Trench is another one. In any event, I thank you, Mr. Vonnegut, for leaving me free to write whatever in this—or any—world I feel like writing.

 

Barataria Hauntings

Barataria
Barataria

Imagine yourself on a flat-bottomed boat gliding through the Louisiana swamps of Barataria when you bump a log. Feathering the paddle against the sides of the pirogue, you slow and steer yourself towards the gap in the moss-draped oaks. A rasping causes you to pause. Wrong move. A claw shoots from the murky water, grasping the gunnel. Before you can react, the claw yanks the pirogue, which rocks, swamps, and you’re thrown floundering into the hyacinth-tangled water. The vines circle your neck, you’re going down . . .

Gator claw
Gator claw

On the lone high spot created from piled oyster shells, you gather sticks for firewood. When you finish, smoke will rise like ghosts into the trees. You’re thinking about the swamp rabbit you tricked with the rope snare. Stringy but better than nothing, which is what you’ve had to eat for a while now. You reach for a thick mottled stick, and it moves, curling towards your reaching hand, fangs bared.

Canebreak rattlesnake
Canebreak rattlesnake
Swamp rabbit
Swamp rabbit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You were in a hurry, you couldn’t wait. You took off into the swamps by yourself. Didn’t help that you were being chased. In a panic you fled for the cover of the densely grouped trees. Quickly, you become lost, turned around. You know these bayous, but they’ve changed since you roamed their edges. Your days were before the oil companies cut access canals and the water level rose. You splash forward. So much water.

mapmap3Image 4map2

The artifacts you’ve found! The mast of a ship, probably a pirate vessel. And a rounded cannonball, plus a fully formed pirogue preserved in the mud. You’ve been feverishly digging, not sleeping, hardly stopping to eat. It’s as if time were tapping you on the shoulder, thrusting its watch in your face. So much to be discovered and hauled from the muck, tagged, shipped out. Your foot on the shovel, you pause. What was that? A bird? Birds don’t whistle, not that high-pitched piping sound. Time clears its throat, and you thrust the shovel into the soggy ground, shaking away your worries. All around you the ghosts gather, shuffling nearer, the leader clenching a silver fife between his teeth. Someone’s about to dance a jig, and it’s not him.

Recovered mast from pirate vessel
Recovered mast from pirate vessel
Cannonball
Cannonball
Pirogue, pronounced pee-row
Pirogue, pronounced pee-row

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You slap at your hair. Damn spider webs everywhere. The leaves crackle. No big deal, just the swamp sighing. A varmint scurries past, clinching something in its teeth. Muskrats they call them, but they’re nothing but water rats. Piling on top of each other, slinking through the swamp. Better than the nutria, bellies swollen from gorging on bullfrogs. They’ll get theirs sooner or later—see the vulture watching them? Or . . . is it watching you?fish

Mink
Mink
rat
Muskrat

vulture

We hope you’ve enjoyed your swamp tour today. Please exit left as you leave the boat. And watch your step. You never know what might be lurking in the shadows.

hyacinth

swamp2

moss2bark

Images from Jean Lafitte Museum and walking trail in Jean Lafitte, Louisiana

 

 

 

THAT’s Creativity?

Creativity is the glue that holds my life together. This week in my creative life, I:

  • re-explored Facebook’s Notes feature
  • published a long, involved blog post
  • put together a new outfit that I liked so much I wore it two days in a row
  • did final edits on an essay before sliding it into the metaphorical drawer for its “out of sight/out of mind” resting period
  • began reading the Count of Monte Cristo as research for the new pirate novel
  • made up a story for Searcy while he sucked on his nighttime bottle
  • drafted the next blog post (not this one!)
  • decide to offer, and began formulating, a creativity workshop for next year
  • designed pirate costumes for Tom and me
  • conversed about a new blog for the Door of Hope writing group
  • crafted many sentences for FB status updates
  • boiled sea oats to (possibly) make a cross
  • filed essays and short stories with umpteen literary journals (really not part of my creative life, but necessary business support of that life)
  • back-and-forthed on a custom Thumb Prayer request
  • drafted my vocational credo
  • plotted the redesign of my front yard
  • critiqued a friend’s essay
  • tinkered with my Pinterest boards on the new beach house
  • revised a short story for submission to Conjunction’s “Friendship” issue
  • updated an essay that won a contest but was never published
  • snapped a few pictures

 

How about you? How much of your daily life actually involves creativity? No, I didn’t create a musical or theatrical masterpiece. I do my work in clothes, the blank page, home and yard, detritus as art material. The commonness of the medium does not make it any less creative.

Where does your creativity spill out? Do you give yourself credit for the impulse? For the talent? Do you see the love in doing what you do?

© 2017 - Ellen Morris Prewitt | EllenMorrisPrewitt.com