Kind folks keep congratulating me on the release of my novel TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE and inside myself I think, I self-published it—where is the congratulations in that? I did successfully get an agent for the novel (a long time ago), but he wasn’t able to sell that half-baked version. Later I had another agent extremely interested in it (“you have the makings of a literary star”), but I wasn’t able to revise it the way she wanted. Finally, I gave up and revised it myself and published it myself. The novel is the making of lemonade out of multiple failed lemons.
Then I remember.
I remember the first time I was able to add a second sentence after the first, and it made sense.
And I remember the first time I strung two paragraphs together, rather than writing a series of images bumped up against each other that asked the reader to narrate the white space between.
And the first time I wrote a whole page that flowed—a whole page!
And the first time someone (my sister—I’m telling you, I vividly recall these moments) referred to my work as a “story” rather than a “piece,” because I —finally—had learned to write a narrative arc. Which means “this happened, which caused this to happen, then this happened.” A beginning, middle, and end. A plot.
From my earliest scratchings, I had description out the wazoo; my characters were unique; dialogue was a breeze. But plot? Message? The “why are we here?” of it seemed so self-evident to me, I couldn’t understand why the reader didn’t see it too. But I came to accept they didn’t; I had to write it. So I sloooooooowly learned how.
This was the trajectory for me, a college-educated, well-read lawyer who wrote big, fat applications for a living. But my creative writing began with the creation of descriptive images that had to grow tendons of narration before they accomplished more than leaving folks scratching their heads (which I must admit, they sometimes still do: people ask, where do you come up with these things? The only answer I can give you is, that’s my brain.)
And now I’ve published a 300-page novel, which is the word we use for a long story that starts and moves forward and ends (I hope) satisfactorily. So, okay. Given where I started from, I’ve come a long way. Truth is, my having published a cohesive, entertaining novel is sort of a minor miracle.
So thank you for your congratulations. I much appreciate it.
So, I’m working on an essay about my escaping to the family farm in response to Mississippi’s racial mores that constricted behavior in the 1960s, and I’m using a bull (yep) as the central metaphor, and I’m afraid folks might not get it because the bull is incredibly destructive and he’s the POSITIVE metaphor, so I’m adding a summary sentence, and I’m looking for a word that means someone who refuses to submit to forcible attempts to control behavior, and I’m thinking iconoclast, but that’s too close to idol (which I’ve already used) and it’s not quite right anyway, so I go to the thesaurus (I’m not ashamed to admit it: I use the thesaurus) and I’m scrolling when I land on a word that I don’t know, and I look it up (in the online dictionary) and it is PERFECT: recusant: “one who refuses to accept or obey established authority.”
It’s not that I’m a word freak, not exactly. It’s that discovering the precise word I need to describe a phenomenon makes me sigh, ahhhhh. What I’m struggling to express is real. Someone else experienced it. They came up with a word for it. I have tapped into a vein of the shared human condition that is Life and, through that, I connect with the Communion of Saints (read that: humans) who have gone before me and will come after me, and we are all brothers and sisters, and that miracle happens thanks to a bull. And a word. My new favorite word: recusant.
No one owes you anything in this world. Everything anyone does for you is a gift. Some gifts—the gift of love or forgiveness or a trust fund enabling you to graduate law school and make your way in this world for a while—are pretty damn big gifts. Others may seem small, but those gifts are the ones that often bring tears to my eyes.
Chapter 16.org is a service of Humanities Tennessee that creates and strengthens community by talking about books, authors, and ideas. Stepping into an ever-widening gap, Chapter 16 publishes a newsletter offering in-depth (!) book reviews. The organization then provides the reviews to local newspapers. Today, a review of WRITING OUR WAY HOME: A GROUP JOURNEY OUT OF HOMELESSNESS was featured in the Sunday Commercial Appeal, thanks to Chapter 16.
The reviews given by Chapter 16 are precious, in the old-fashioned sense of referring to a limited quantity. Small staff, small budget. Lots of books requesting—and deserving—review. Yet they gave a review to a book written by fifteen formerly-homeless authors who have little to offer in return—no celebrity, no political pull, no fund-raising assistance, no cache—other than the power of their words.
And it wasn’t just “a review.” The book was assigned to a reviewer who himself has written about homelessness. Thus, when the reviewer analyzes, for example, the suitability of the book’s structure for telling the authors’ stories, he knows what he’s talking about. The book received a top-drawer, professional, thorough review. Not the “nickel-tour,” as one of the authors calls the free, truncated tours given by local nonprofits on charity days.
Many of the authors in the book have been writing for years. Before they were authors, they were writers. Every week, they walked from wherever they were staying to the Door of Hope support center to join writing group, writing and sharing their words. Most of the time, folks want to focus on the homeless part of “formerly-homeless writers.” Chapter 16 focused on the writer part. For that gift, I am eternally grateful.
This morning at the church service attended mainly by those living on the streets, one of the guys told me about two recent incidents when he’d been told he was an inspiration. He began the story by saying, “I’m not telling you this to to be bragging.”
I’ve known him for about a year and a half. He wasn’t telling me to be bragging. He was sharing this development because such amazing moments require acknowledgement and respect.
To be minding your own business, going about doing what you feel you’re supposed to be doing, and to have someone tell you your action—or the very example of your life—helped them make a life-changing decision: how wonderful is that? Not only did you have an impact, but the person cared enough to take the time to tell you. In the sharing of such moments I can’t help but detect a certain amount of awe: can you believe I was lucky enough to impact another person in a good way?
Yes, if you’re a first grade teacher or a parent. For the rest of us, it’s a little surprising.
I know the feeling because in the last week, when three members of writing group had the chance to name someone whom they admire or who had a positive impact on their lives, they named me.
I am not someone who hears compliments well. I shrug them off, if they even penetrate my brain. Sometimes I think: well, they probably felt sorry for me and thought I needed a pick-me-up (don’t analyze my psychological (ill) health—it’s shooting fish in a barrel.)
The point is: the third time someone from writing group took the time to claim my influence on them, I heard it. I heard them say I was loyal and nonjudgmental and quietly assertive (how Southern is that?) and a follower of God and (hallelujah!) funny.
I share this with you with the same awe I saw in my friend’s eyes this morning. Damn, he seemed to be saying, isn’t this the coolest thing?
All wonderful stuff but, for me, stressors. Even now, I am continuing to prepare for the Launch Party tomorrow.
But, thank God, you gotta take a break from whatever is going on in your life and WALK THE DOG!
So, back home, how happy I was to put the dog on the leash and walk the edges of the island where cicadas sing and turtles slip into the murky harbor water; where the mud rises damp and the dog tugs on the leash to get at all the fresh smells; where ‘dappled’ doesn’t begin to describe the shade and the delighted cries of birds fill the air.
One of the Door of Hope writers wrote about how God was so smart to make us critters with long-lasting bones so that millions of years later we can re-construct an image of what once walked the earth. I think God was so smart to make dogs with eliminatory systems that force me into the natural world every day, to enjoy, to relax, to love. To remember that, while I am living on this earth, I need to enjoy it.
After a long hiatus, I submitted a couple of short stories to literary magazines today.
I’ve been working on the new website, mulling over what stories I wanted to include. The website will have a “Photo Bio” featuring a sentence about my life that reflects a dominant themes in my work and a representative photo. Click on the photo and you can read (or listen) to work that engages the theme.
For example, under the “I grew up to be a lawyer and show clothes on the runway,” you will be able to click on a glamor shot and read The Dress, which appeared in Skirt! Magazine, or listen to “Show the Clothes.” where two models get into fisticuffs.
Given my recent proclivities, much of the fiction will be in audio form, but I also want to include PDFs folks can read. I knew I’d use “Held at Gunpoint,” the story that received a Special Mention from Pushcart Prize, Best of the Small Presses. But what else?
In search of an answer, I wandered through old stories lurking inside folders entitled “Odd Devices” (where the structure doesn’t follow a standard “and then this happened” telling); “Distance Stories” (where the narrator is not as close a point of view as I normally use), and one folder I can’t tell you the name of without blushing.
Inside the “Women” folder, I found two old stories I liked so well I don’t want to “self-publish” them by placing them on the website. Instead, I slipped them into envelopes (yes, no email submissions) and sent other copies to Submittable and other online submission processes.
One story is a post-Katrina story set in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m hoping the topical nature of it, given the upcoming 10th anniversary of the storm, might help with its acceptance. The other is a story about a young woman who had to leave her children and live on the street. Because I wrote this BEFORE I began facilitating a writing group of men and women who live on the street, I shamelessly began my submission letter: “For seven years, I’ve facilitated a writing group of men and women who know homelessness.” I measured the story against that experience to see if it rang true (it obviously did), but I had no fear of exploiting the experience since I wrote it prior thereto.
We shall see if anyone wants them, but here’s the primary thing: they are good stories. Right now, when I’m going through so much rejection trying to get an agent for the novel, it was really nice to run across these stories and realize with the cold eye of not having seen the work in a long, long time—you CAN write.
As I always say, you never know why you’re going from A to B but, most of the time, it’s not the reason you think. I thought I was getting my new website ready for launch, but what I really was doing was laying a balm on my soul.
Way back at the beginning, I was puzzled about how 15 writers and a nonprofit could publish a book. What would be the arrangement between the authors and the nonprofit? What about the understanding among the writers, some of whom had many entries, some of whom had few? How would we make this fair? The questions overwhelmed answers.
My former-lawyer self said, we need to work this out before we move forward. We need to know what the deal is. We need to be able to describe it and have everyone buy into it. We need to know on the front end what we are getting into.
I tried that for a while. Then, in November of 2012, I realized that the process of figuring it all out would, ultimately, smother the book. If we defined our relationships first, we would never get past the deal-making to the creating of a book. We needed a book first, then we would figure it out.
This concept was a**-backwards, to a lawyer.
I asked the group, are we ready to get started? They said yes. Are we willing, I asked, to move forward trusting that we can work out the details later? They agreed. So we set the Book Retreat and began putting our book together.
This is the moment I quit being a lawyer.
I’d already given up my power suits. I’d told nonprofit boards that I would no longer offer legal advice. I’d even relinquished my law license. But that month, when we put art first, I became a former-lawyer. I became a writer.
The entries are from 2008. I had been involved with writing group for a year. Each week, after we met, I came home and wrote into the journal every significant thing I could remember having happened. The journal helped me process the chaotic hour that was a weekly writing group of men and women who had experienced homelessness. I am reviewing the journal to draft a template for “What Worked For Us When We Did Writing Group.”
The pages are hard to read. I can only read a few at a time. Memories come flooding back. At least three of those who were writing with us during that period are dead. I recorded their dialogue. They, and the times, come alive as I read what I wrote. I loved the group and the process of becoming accepted by them. They each gave me particular delight.
On these pages, I recorded when W. asked me my name. This is astonishing: at one time W. didn’t know my name. We have now been through the terrible period of W.’s arrest; his interminable trial appearances; his incarceration in both jail and the mental facility for evaluation; his release when the DA realized the woman’s physical description of the man who stole her pocketbook had nothing—nothing!—in common with W. But in June of 2008 he didn’t know my name.
Humbling that, six years ago, the Executive Director of the Door of Hope was asking me if we had enough writings for a book. Tomorrow, we hold the final meeting necessary to send our manuscript to the publisher. Six years after I recorded the words. “Do we have a book?” the answer is, “Almost. Almost.”
My eyes were supposed to correct in five days. Because I have astigmatism, the process might take up to three weeks, the eye doctor said. Only yesterday, in the middle of my third month, did my eyes settle into the new routine. I could see.
I’ve changed my life for this process. Every night, I set my alarm for six hours ahead. Every morning, I rise whenever the alarm sounds, usually between 5:30 and 6:00. I enter the dim bathroom, open my eyes wide, and remove my contacts. Filling the plastic wells with solution, I tighten the lids and store the case until the next night, when I insert the hard little contacts in my eyes and repeat the process all over again.
Why am I doing this? Because after I wake, I can see. Without glasses and without contacts, which I was no longer wearing because they hurt.
For most of this process, the ability to see has been erratic, and clarity evaporated early in the day. The eye doctor adjusted and tested and replaced, but we had given up on our current approach. When I returned to Memphis, we were to take a different tack. The doctor was going to retrain my eyes, making me use my non-dominant eye as my dominant.
I was really looking forward to this experiment. “I welcome the opportunity to make my brain learn new things,” I said when the doctor asked if I was willing to give the reverse-training a go (this is not stilted dialogue; I actually told him this; he laughed out loud at my nerdiness.)
Then, yesterday, I realized my eyes were falling in line. Ten o’clock last night, I could still see without my glasses. The brain experiment might not occur. A loss, to be certain, but I may have had success in refractive therapy for my eyes.
My point is: I am slower than most people. It takes me longer. If I give up in the middle, I’m screwed because I’ve put in ALL THAT TIME then conclude it’s never gonna happen, and I fail. I must remember: others’ timelines are not mine.
Yes, I’ve been going at this writing business obscenely long to have earned so little. Yes, it is taking me FOREVER to produce a ready-to-publish novel. Yes, the reformation of my soul into someone who gets mad at those who want to help only those they deem worthy of helping has been laborious.
To quote a wise friend of mine, I’m a marathoner. There’s no sprinting inside me. For a world that advertises, “Faster is Better,” my very timeline can make me feel like a failure. It is only a failure if I fail to remember: I am a marathoner. Hang in there. You are well underway. You simply haven’t arrived yet.
I want to work on my novel. They want me to buy Christmas presents. And wrap Christmas presents. And think about food for Christmas. And pack to leave town for Christmas.
But Vangie Street is stuck on the runway. She keeps taking a knee—is she Teebowing? Will anyone even remember that phrase in five years?—and popping up like toast. She grins, she prays, she pivots, she bunny-hops. I cannot get it right.
The novel is written. I’m revising. This is the opening scene. Did I mention I can’t get it right?
This year, Christmas is just gonna have to wait until I can get Vangie off the runway.
“Like an adopted family,” A. said.
We were bumping along in the church van. Ten of us crowded the back seats, plus the two church members driving the van. We’d eaten lunch, opened gifts, and enjoyed Christmas caroling. Now we were finishing up our shopping spree at Wal-Mart, returning home. As we traveled through the beautiful tree-lined streets of Germantown, W. asked, “You don’t go to church there?” She had assumed I was a member of the church hosting the writing group on this wonderful outing.
“No,” I explained. “They joined us for writing group one time and sent a note afterwards, saying how much they enjoyed it. So I asked them if they wanted to get more involved.”
“And it was happily ever after,” D. added.
“Yes,” I said.
That’s when A., gazing straight ahead, said, “Like an adopted family.”
I don’t know A.’s story except that, like all the members of writing group, he has a personal experience of homelessness. At one point, after writing with us for several months, he decided he wanted to be a writer. This happens often. Someone who has no history of writing attends writing group for a while, and the writing catches fire.
Of all who have experienced this thrill of discovery, A. is the one who came most intimidated by writing. A quiet man, he sits, then offers observations that make me say, “Yes! Exactly that!” Once, when we were discussing writing group, he said, “It’s like we’re writing our dreams.”
I hope our adopted family holds together. I hope A. continues as a member. In any event, I’ll remember everyone on the van smiling at his purchase of a space heater, impressed with what he’d snagged at Wal-Mart. Enjoying the connection that’s a mix of fondness and joshing, being impressed and enjoying. The peculiar love that signals: we are family.
I have such trouble switching gears. When I’m creating new work, I want to keep creating new work. When I’m revising, re-visioning, and re-writing, all I want to do is edit.
This makes transition days less than productive. When I come off ten days of re-write and arrive at the edge of my first draft, needing to plunge into continuing the story, I plink and plunk with new words, adding one here, filling in one there. Then I switch to the crossword puzzle or checking Facebook or trying to interest my dog Evangeline in a conversation.
Once I get in a groove, I’ll glide like skates on ice, smooth as chocolate melting in the sun, quick as mercury sliding in the glass-bound thermometer.
Until then, I’m like a child with a low-grade fever: I fidget and flop. Nothing quite satisfies. The day ebbs.
I hate to admit failure. So what I do is re-define reality.
No, I didn’t fail to place as highly in the contest as I’d hoped. What I did was to learn a major truth about my revision process.
I am trying to shift my novel-writing from voice-driven, told story to scene-based, plotted story. I say “shift” but it’s more like those old draw-bridges that don’t open upwards but swing to the side— a screeching, rusty, grating to the ear process.
The revision I’m searching for entails, first of all, cutting. If I stop there, however, I’m left with a story leached of everything that was interesting. I must return to the manuscript and strategically add that which is me. The fun, the pun, the spot-on description, the endearing parts. The Bone Trench failed to do well in the contest because—so proud of my new-found shears—I stopped at the cutting stage. What I submitted was, in fact, the bones. That’s okay. Now I get to have fun. I get to add the soul back into the book.
“Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” Susan Sontag, courtesy of A-Word-A-Day
“Revision must honor the creative impulse that led to the words that strived—neck stretched—to achieve something the intellect—sitting in the bleachers, watching the race—can only glimpse.” Ellen Morris Prewitt
At Beth’s Bookstore, I slipped a paperback from the shelf. I read the first line. That’s how I chose a book: the first line, then the first paragraph. Sometimes if I’m unsure, I continue further down the page. Then I either buy the book or I put it back.
I’ve been burned using this method—occasionally, a book doesn’t live up to the opening—but not often. This time, “The Revolution of Little Girls,” proved to be one of the funniest books I’ve run across in a while.
After I finished I went on-line to learn more about the author and the book. Because the book was published in 1991—before-on-line dominance—the Amazon reviews were sparse. Of the 9, 3 were negative. On Goodreads, the majority were 3 or below. The novel received enthusiastic reviews when it was released; it won awards. Many on-line commentors, however, did not like its “Southernism;” its structure (“jumps around too much”); or its resolution. To me, the major flaw of the novel was that, about 2/3s of the way through, it actually became too linear after the author had taught us to expect discreet, non-linear chapters.
I am so glad I had this experience. As a woman trying to get my Southern novel into the marketplace, I needed to see the negative reviews of a novel I thought was hilarious. This switches the question from, “Will they like it?” to “Do I like it?” Have I written exactly the novel I wanted to write? Do I love it more than Christmas? If so, then when others say, “Anh, not so much,” I understand they just have different taste. And that’s okay.
“Begin with yourself,” said several of the panelists at today’s Memphis United People’s Conference on Race and Equality. They were talking about racism. “Begin with yourself and ripple out from there: to your household, your family, your neighborhood, your community.” This ls a paraphrase, but the concept was repeated many times.
This is where I begin today:
We went to the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum for a Door of Hope Writing Group outing. Every other month we go for lunch and a field trip. The site usually is picked by the group but, at the last minute, our site for this month’s trip proved unavailable. With a hasty substitute, we set off.
I was walking through the museum, noticing that all the initial voices on the tape leading us through the museum were white. I also noticed an exhibit describing crooked landowners cheating sharecroppers—I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an admission before. I listened as Rufus Thomas described sneaking into the WDIA control room to learn how to twist the knobs. He wanted to learn but WDIA—which I thought was a Black-owned radio station because its audience was African-American and the writers who wrote about playing for the baseball team were African American—was owned by white folks, hence the sneaking. All through the museum, I noticed Whites Only signs and other reminders of the times. I noticed these things because how we choose to tell the story—or not—is important to me.
The next day we wrote about our trip. I reminded the group they could write about any aspect of the trip, and sometimes what we experience in a place is not what the organizers intended. I said this because on the way home from the museum, one of the African-American writers told me how hurtful the initial exhibits on sharecropping were to her. Because she’d been in the fields with her grandmother. She remembered as a little girl what the words were describing. Others chose to write about this aspect of the museum as well. The pain caused by the Whites Only signs. How much these reminders hurt.
Earlier that week, I had mentioned to a friend that my husband and I visited Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. I’d gone to the museum because I’m from Mississippi; I live in Memphis; race is an important issue to me that I’ve responded to by reading books, attending lectures, listening and learning, trying to educate myself. My friend told me the way she and I experienced Slave Haven would be different. “Because I am Black and you are white,” she said. “It’s different.”
I heard her then, but I did not understand until I went to the a museum that had nothing to do with race; experienced the museum, including its racial aspects; then heard African-Americans write about their experience of the same museum. Then I understood.
Oh my goodness—I just typed “THE END” on the Door of Hope writing group’s book!
It’s not the end. But the hard part is over. The assembling of five years of handwritten pieces; the typing of those pieces by volunteer typists. The merging of all that work into a single document that can be called a manuscript. And last, but not least, the mass shifting of content—like when South America picked itself up and said, “I’m gonna be my own continent”–a task that makes my head hurt. Such is in the rearview mirror.
Now I will rake through the document, combing it into untangled order. This is something I enjoy, the gentle lifting and separating, like a mother playing with her child’s lovely locks. Also, I must write the introduction, the only place in the book (other than my dedication and my remembrance of Robb Pate) where my voice will be heard.
This last part is my greatest accomplishment. Early on, when I would describe my desire not to follow the standard narrative for this book—well-off white person gets involved with actual livers of a life and writes a book about her experience—time and again I was told it wouldn’t work. I was advised to include my voice, that my voice was needed to hold the book together—to, in effect, make the book mine.
I doggedly refused. And if, by organizing and editing, I have created a narrative that readers want to read, I will have done my job.
At one point, I was on fire to be a published author. I transitioned out of practicing law and began learning how to write. I went to writers conferences (Sewanne for fiction, Kenyon Review for nonfiction). I read goo-gobs of books. I submitted my work to literary journals, keeping a methodical record of what I sent where, who requested more work, what they had liked. I entered contests. All of this led to much publication – essays, short stories, memoirs, magazine articles, radio commentaries – and awards and contests won. But then I stalled.
I couldn’t get anyone interested in publishing my full-length literary works. Not the memoir – yes, we want chapters; no, we don’t want the full memoir. Same thing for the short stories and essays: pieces published all over the place; not the collections. And—no matter how high they’d placed in contests—certainly no one wanted any of my five novels.
Over the last two years, I’ve quit. I quit submitting, saying it was because I was spending so much time on my novel-writing/revision. I quit attending conferences, telling myself it was because I’d done that; the next thing needed to be something more.
The truth is, I did what my favorite quote says not to do: Never, never, never give up (Winston Churchill). I didn’t give up on writing; I gave up on the writing community. I gave up on them wanting my work and, in a “I can take a hint” reaction, I walked away.
Time for a change. I’ve signed up to go to the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference , put on by my writing friend, Susan Cushman. Even more telling, I’m writing a check to renew my Poets and Writers magazine subscription. The magazine was the first thing published authors told me I needed to do: join the community by taking this magazine. Who knows – so much time has passed, maybe this advice is no longer viable. It doesn’t matter. The check is mostly symbolic. It’s my way of saying, yes, I do want to be part of your community. I intend to get back in the game.
In filing new query letters for my short story collection, I came across an old document. The year was 2007. The list identified agents who asked for stories or the entire manuscript. There were many. I chose one.
The agent I picked was not good for me.
I piddled around with him for four years, only to ultimately part ways, my fiction unsold.
I’m not saying I made a mistake—in the interim, the cross book was published and the Door of Hope Writing Group came into being. Knowing me, neither of those things would’ve happened if I’d had a Literary Book—capital L, capital B—on the table.
Changes have occurred during these years that cause a problem, and I’m not talking about changes in the publishing world. I’m talking about changes in me.
I’ve never been a naturally competitive person. “I don’t care anything about beating those girls,” I’d say to my mother in tennis tournaments. What I liked, what got me to the finals, was the beauty of the swing, the well-placed shot . . . the silver trophy.
Nor have I easily followed someone else’s path. I am arrogant enough to think I can do it a better way. And—here’s the real kicker—I don’t like repeating myself.
So when it comes to getting the short stories into the world, I’ve already done the “send out query letters, get an agent, jump up and down when the agent calls,” thing. That makes it boring, boring, boring.
So . . . .
How to achieve my goal—getting the stories into the world, encouraging people to experience them, maybe even inducing an aha! moment: short stories can be FUN!—while at the same time enjoying myself?
Only problem: when I practice reading the stories, timing myself, I start laughing, thinking, this is the funniest story.