Facebook, I don’t like your tone. You’ve taken to sending me messages declaring, “The (insert current number here) people who like Ellen Morris Prewitt: My Very Southern Voice haven’t heard from you in a while. Write a post.”
Note the arrogance. Not “Perhaps it’s time to write a post” or “Are you interested in connecting with your followers today?” but an imperative order: “Write a post.”
The very idea.
I don’t need this kind of bullying from an inanimate program.
What, one might ask, is it to Facebook if I post or not? Well, when I do write a post, they bombard me with suggestions that I boost the post. How do you boost a post? Buy a paid ad. $. Yep, that’s the root of this intrusive, commanding nonsense.
If I don’t immediately buy an ad, the FOMO psychological tactic is released. “OTHER people are boosting posts like this,” Facebook whispers. “Why don’t you try it?”
When I ignore the enticement, FB turns its back and saunters away. “Oh, well. Don’t blame me when every other author on FB has millions of sales and your poor literary baby lies neglected, crying and starving for attention.”
FB is tough, tough.
Though at times it can choose flattery. “Nice work!” it chirps, reminding me of my response to the grandson’s pooping. “Your post is performing well.” Then the veil of sincere congratulation is ripped away, and the knife of cold, crass profit is thrust into my soft flesh: “Boost it to reach more people.”
To repeat: Boosts are ads. They cost $. They make FB $. It’s all about the $.
FB bullies me about “Likes” on my page too. “So-and-so reacted to your link but doesn’t like your page yet. Send him an invite.”
Send him your own damn invite.
Plus, I don’t think they know what the hell they’re talking about. I guaran-damn-tee you some of the folks they’re telling me to invite already like my page. But I can’t actually tell you because they provide me aggravated data, not names. (If you know this to be incorrect, please tell me, ’cause then I’ll find out who really likes my page and harass the hell out of those lollygaggers to get with the program. Kidding.)
Oops, erase that last rant. Sooner or later, FB is sure to do exactly what I’ve said: automatically send an invite to anyone who reacts to a post but hasn’t liked the page yet. Unaware it’s an automated program harassing them, the recipient will assume I’m a needy, grasping person, and then I’ll blame FB, and then they’ll think I’m not only needy and grasping, I’m a whiner person who shirks responsibility too.
So, yeah, I’ve spent the last two days drafting a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of Model for Deception: A Vangie Street Mystery, the next novel I’ll be releasing, and it’s an exhausting task that demands you jump from details to big theme analysis, and I’m taking out my frustration on Facebook.
For all its fun and foolishness, TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE is a story of a young woman coping with grief. Lucinda Mae’s dad died two years before the novel opens. Losing her dad threw Lucinda’s life off track, as it were, and the cross-country train trip hopefully will set it to rights. As I’ve shared on this blog, grief is a recurring topic of mine. My dad died when I was three; grief comes up a lot in my writing (even my first book, Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God, arose in response to the grief of the tragedy of 9/11). I’ve also mentioned I’ve been reviewing old writings and sharing them here with you. Those two rivers converge with this short essay I wrote during the 19 years I lived in Mississippi: In Mississippi, We Pull Over
In Mississippi, when a funeral passes, we pull over. Even if you’re only going on down the road a piece – I’m turning right there, at the BP station – when you see the daytime headlights and the hearse, you ease to the side of the road and wait.
The reaction is more uniform in rural Mississippi. There, everyone remembers: it’s rude to pass a funeral. To keep going like it makes you no never mind. To act as if death is unimportant, as though the passing of one of us doesn’t matter. That’s just not the way it’s done.
While you’re stopped by the side of the road, you count the cars as they pass. If it’s a long procession, you may, deep inside yourself, marvel at how many folks this fellow got to come out for his going-away party. If the line is only three or four cars, rattletraps full of rust and tired looking folks, still: you pull over.
When I was a teenager, away from Mississippi and living in North Carolina, I rebelled. I wanted – fervently desired – for funerals to be held only at night. I did not want to be sucked into the grief of strangers, did not want it flung in my face: this person is dead. Ambulances, too. I wished they would stop screeching their death-and-destruction news, shattering the sunlight with tragedy, interrupting the lives of those of us who had no choice but to listen. I was, shall we say, sensitive to death.
Now, where I live in Memphis, people sometimes give me angry glances when I slow down and pull to the side of the road. Like I’m a nut case. I do it anyway. And sitting there, as the last ride on earth passes by, I’ve been known to tear up. Because all of us pulled over, we anonymous people in our anonymous cars and anonymous trucks, we are stopping our busy modern-day lives to honor the dead. Not because we knew him nor because we admired her. But because they are gone and will never pass this way again.
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.
Please enjoy this kicking review of Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure found on Susanne Fletcher’s Wuthering Bites blog. I am thrilled Susanne compared the comic dialogue to P.G. Woodhouse, whose Jeeves collection I long ago fell in love with and read in its entirety (how one gets so lucky as to be compared to a beloved writer, I don’t know.) It’s an extra special bonus when a review quotes some of your very own favorite lines from your book (“…a woman who represented everything I was not: sophisticated, voluptuous, and a really good speller.”) A well-written review is surely a gem unto itself.
If you haven’t discovered Susanne’s Wuthering Bites blog, take some time to look around. She is a great creative nonfiction writer, a true wordsmith who combines spectacular turns of phrase with insights that make you nod in recognition. I have followed her for years and thoroughly enjoy her work.
As an extra special super bonus, if you follow the link below, you can enjoy a haunting rendition of Gordon Lightfoot singing “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which, yes, is relevant to the review. Happy reading!
Traveling North Parkway with the windows open, I drive through a scent, and my head jerks in memory: a cracked sidewalk with weeds springing tall; a blossoming hedge that smelled so sweet. That’s all I remember, but it’s enough to keep me searching for the bushes all spring. Along roadways, on vacant lots, in other untended places, the hanging Ligustrum drapes the city like weedy Babylon. With the nonchalance of a woman tossing her hair to course water before wrapping a towel, the May branches weep cream, almost colorless blossoms.
“Noxious” the garden manuals call the smell and advise us to await its departure in June. My nose has never been compliant.
Mississippi summer nights in the 1960s, dusk descending on our block, we run behind the fog machine. The orange truck, spraying for mosquitoes, idles down the street, hitting every yard, and my sisters and I are right up underneath it, breathing in, holding the burning in our lungs, breathing out—the heavenly smell!
The dense smoke plumes white, the motor chugs. The evening descends around us, the thrall of summer stretches just beyond our reach. We weave inside the fairyland down our block, then—Mother said just our block—turn and trudge back home.
Behind us, mosquitoes drop dead in droves.
On Sunday afternoons, on our drive to Mamo’s farm, we cut through the poorer section of town. The linseed plant rises full of steel tubes and open-air wires. We kids tumble to the car window, roll the glass, gasp in the oily smell.
A thing I loved: leaning out of the car as Mother slowed for the linseed plant. But sometimes when we drove and rolled, the linseed plant was shut down, and there was no smell. Disappointed, we wrapped our fists around the crank and slowly closed the dividing window.
TEARS FROM HEAVEN
A rainy day descends on the farm. Restless, we run outside as soon as the rain slacks off and discover the tarp over the tractor. The onslaught has filled the green tarp with water, wetting the mud below. We slosh our hands through the warm water, pat the fat belly of the tarp as if it were a beloved water baby. We squat and shape the slick mud into doll plates and saucers, our noses full of the clean mud smell. The caramel clay curves and molds; the tiny dishes sit sweet. The scent of the canvas tarp is as strong as an animal hide.
When we return the next day, the water has soured. Dirty moss furs the belly of the drained tarp. The dishes are no more. We don’t go near the tractor again.
All grown up, visiting a tony Memphis flower shop, I walk the dampish aisles. Expressing leaves reach from pots and kettles and man-made bird’s nests. As I venture deeper, the musty earth and growing smells close rank as if the floor itself might crumble to dirt. I bend to smell the red roses.
“Now, roses aren’t going to smell,” the clerk says.
Excuse me? Rose hand cream and rose body powder and rose eau-de-toilette, all thick in the outer vestibule of Mamo’s country Methodist church? The old lady smell that wafted the sanctuary, burrowed into the oaken pews, colored the rose light streaming through the cheap stained-glass windows?
Since when are you telling me roses don’t smell?
MADISON STREET AT THE RIGHT TIME OF DAY
Hit Madison Street at the right time of day and you’ll slam into the yeasty hotness of the Wonder Bread factory. The scent billows like a cloud through downtown Memphis, spreading to Monroe, Adams, Jefferson Streets. I inhale and recollect: one time at Mamo’s Sunday dinner I ate seven Brown-N-Serve rolls. In this new, adult city where smells give way to concrete, the white bread factory provides an unencumbered memory.
Or maybe not. Turns out, the wages paid by the bread factory are crumbs. The workers picket. The smell stops. For weeks, the streets run blank while we hunch along, cobbling life together best as we can in an arid world.
FINALLY AT THE RIPE STAGE
“Those puppies stink,” my husband says, so I take the dogs—finally at the ripe stage where I can bury my nose in their fur and sniff deeply—and reluctantly hand them over to the groomer. No, do not perfume them, I recoil. Bows, that’s okay.
Outside my wintertime house, the Mississippi River sinks low, the thick river smell rises high, and I step into the brushy bank to get close. You have to be near and stilled to smell it. I use the dog as my excuse. She sniffs the tips of leaves, and I peer down the slope through the angled tree trunks, searching for the moldering scent of narrow, matted pecan leaves and a play house that never lost its raw lumber smell and knit hats tight on heads. Only once every seven years did it snow and bring out the sleds that crunched on ice that slicked because it melted fast. More normally, it was a cold too wimpy to scare a soul and bare fields of swinging vines with the cool rot of lake mud and the slick part of the branch exposed when bark the color of coffee peeled away, and the bark stuck to your gloves and the vine’s nasty thorns must be slowly carefully plucked from your sweater or the vine would grab again, loathe to let you go.
Like a woman stepping into the hidden current of the river, I move through my days, desperately seeking my known world of uncultured smells. Yet, you cannot hold on to scent. I must wait until the end when I am embedded in the coughing aroma of incense, the bitter scent of a chrysanthemum blanket, the wormy aroma of turned earth. And, finally, when all is over, I’ll sleep in the thin, clean aroma of Ligustrum, weeping over my grave.
(This essay is another of the old essays I wrote a while back and dutifully sent off for publication and received warm gushes of praise in return but no offer of publication. I’ve decided life is too short to keep them sequestered in my computer. If one person enjoys the words or grasps at their own flickering memories, I’ve succeeded in doing a good thing. – ellen)
I showed up without a clue. I’d never been a poll greeter before. (A poll greeter, a person who hands out campaign literature on election days, not a pole dancer, as my husband kept saying). I had a candidate I really supported, but I’d messed up my absentee ballot so I couldn’t vote in the election (we weren’t going to be in Memphis; we requested an absentee ballot; then Tom’s dad died, and we came home; but once you request an absentee ballot, you can’t vote in person). I figured if I could get one extra person to vote for him, it would be an even swap.
I arrived to the polling place without water or a folding chair. The other poll greeters—about 25 of us all together—told me I really needed a chair. Nor was any rep from my candidate around to give me literature to hand out. So I called the campaign; they brought over literature; and I drove back home to get a chair.
It was “only 97” degrees that day, as one of the other poll greeters said. Except for a break to get my boobs squished in a mammogram (great break), I was there from 11:00am to 5:00pm. I am so glad I had a chair. After the mammogram, I brought back a hat and some Gatorade.
Of course, the most personable, aggressive greeter was passing out literature for my candidate’s opponent. I am not aggressive. I had to devise a new strategy. I picked waving. Folks will wave at you for any reason or no good reason at all. I stood in front of my candidate’s oversized sign and waved. Folks waved back. It made me feel accomplished. Then I flagged down a big ol’ bus that screeched to a halt because they wanted my candidate’s literature. I gave it to them. It was a real win. Every so often, I checked my watch to make myself return to the chair, which stayed in the shade.
We had tunes, a boom box supplied (of course) by my candidate’s opponent. It played Denise La Salle. Folks showed off their moves. Snacks and water was offered all around. We sat in a circle in our chairs in the shade and when the shade moved, we moved our chairs. Whenever a likely target came into view (you learned to tell the signs), we popped up and converged. Then we collapsed back into our chairs. We talked about Krispy Kreme’s “buy a dozen/get another dozen for a dollar” sale. And debated exactly where in Memphis they had a Krispy Kreme store. I was the only white person in our group of 25 poll greeters.
Some voters wanted literature. They sought us out. They’d wait in the parking lot for you to hand them a placard and listen to our spiel. Some gave a thumbs up when they saw my sign. Others were polite. My theory had been that if I held up my guy’s sign—he’s African American—the white people who came to vote would see it and think, that white chick’s supporting him; maybe he’d be a good person for me to vote for. Only problem, the white people ignored the poll greeters.
I let this go on for a while, say a couple of hours. Then I told the woman next to me what my theory had been, as well as my conclusion: white folks ignore poll greeters. She said, oh, yeah. They walk by with their chins in the air. Not a one of ’em looks at you.
I found this weird.
But back to the point.
I am certain I got at least one new voter for my candidate (I had a spiel: “He was the best representative I ever had”). And I cemented several folks’ willingness to vote for him. But mostly I learned there’s a community of poll greeters. Women (and some men) who are kind and helpful and welcoming and protective of newbies who don’t know what they’re doing. The poll greeters sit out all day in the heat to educate voters on the elections. They are tough (amazingly, some candidates even showed up to hold up their own signs). The greeters are democracy in action, and the next time I vote, I’ll be sure to greet them too.
For you go-getters who’ve already bought into Lucinda’s antics, TODAY IS THE DAY TO POST A REVIEW!
Join others who’ve found Lucinda’s adventure “uproariously funny” with “gritty Southern determination” and a feel reminiscent of Confederacy of Dunces and Wicked while presenting a story that “truly entertains the reader” and “defines the greatness of the human spirit.” All in all, “perfect summer reading.”
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“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.”
Lucinda Mae Watkins
Single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins—of the “Edison, Mississippi, fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace fried chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way. Join Lucinda on the most hilarious—if slightly ribald—adventure of her life.