Category Archives: writing

A New Year Begins

Like many women of a certain age, I’ve had a few past lives. When we lived in Memphis I organized a non-profit literacy program focusing on creative writing. It was called WriteMemphis. We had 27 volunteers working with inner-city teen girls in several Memphis locations. These young writers created awesome poetry and prose about their lives in Memphis – from the strong women in their lives to gunshots through the front door to becoming teen mothers. When I left Memphis in 2014 I gave the program to Literacy Mid-South, which was a natural fit for the life-changing work they do.

Fast forward to where I am today. New Orleans. New business. New home. New life.

I miss writing. I really do. Even though I love the work I do every day in our shop I miss the creative energy of word to page. I have resolved to make more time for writing in 2017. And in celebration of that promise to myself, I want to share exciting news! One of my essays is included in a new anthology (slated for March publication) edited by my friend Susan Cushman,  A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We are Meant to Be.

A Second Blooming includes work by fabulous writers – Mary Karr, Anne Lamott, Beth Ann Fennelly, and my friends Ellen Prewitt, Susan Marquez and Nancy-Kay Wessman – twenty-one in all! I am in awe of these fabulous women and I am honored to be among them. Readings and signings are scheduled in Memphis TN,  Jackson MS and soon in my home city of New Orleans.  I’m so excited I’ll let the world know when that will be! Here’s the catalog page from Mercer Press:asb-mup-catalog-page

Writers are inspirational … we support & encourage each other!

Thanks to my friend Ellen Prewitt for inviting me to join in Luann Castle’s Writer Site conversation on the creative process. Yes, we’re breaking more rules here .  .  . while I am a writer, I also create many other things as part of what gives my life meaning. These days, what I’m creating is my own shop: Uptown Needle & Craftworks (please “Like” my FB page), so I wanted to share with you a little about the process.

First, I want to share a little (well, a lot, actually) about how I got to this day.

I have not posted on my blog in a while. I stepped off one train and jumped on another in my life vocation. After many years as Episcopal clergy, squeezing in time for writer, sewist and artistic pursuits, I awoke one morning and felt a call to begin a new life dedicated to creativity. I turned 65 one month ago. Having breakfast one morning in a well-known New Orleans bakery while visiting family, I asked my companions to take a walk around the Magazine Street neighborhood. Right next door to the bakery was a yellow house with a very small sign: For lease; commercial. I pulled out my cell phone and snapped a photo of the phone number on the sign. My inner critic immediately chattered away. It’s probably too pricey for you. You have no business doing this at your age.

I argued back. If not now, when? If I wait five years I may not have the same energy and passions I do now. I’m energetic and committed to making a life change. I signed a two year lease and quit my job on the same day. Some say I’ve retired. I say I’ve re-fired.

For every creative I know, that inner critic is always on the job. No matter if we write, paint or sculpt – that tiny tyrant wants to be in charge. As I’ve grown older, that voice has become smaller and smaller. Today it is a mere leaf falling out of place. I completed my first novel when I was 15 years old. I’ve completed 4 more since then. Not one was accepted for publication. Not that I haven’t tried – one was very close to being a finalist in Amazon’s Great American Novel Contest. And it could be published already if I had the time, energy and funds to do about two year’s of edits. All are sitting in boxes until I have the time to edit each one – I will do this, later. And I still write. The stories are there, but my interests reflect my personality type. I’m an INFP on the Myers Briggs personality inventory chart. One description of this personality type reads, “you’re like a new puppy, always into something new.” That’s me. I write, edit, write some more. Sometimes I work on one of my novel manuscripts; sometimes I write a short story. Because there’s always a story. And sometimes I sew, paint or make something new.

I ride the train, “The City of New Orleans”, back and forth from my home to my new business site. In observing the people on the train I can see stories everywhere. But at this time in my life, my career change is my story. It takes courage, confidence and a little bit of moxie to outwit the critic and keep your heart, fingers and brain in sync with your passion – your true self’s deepest desire. When we overcome negative energy, the world wants to hear what we have to say. And real life makes for the greatest stories. Especially when our words come from that deep place called our true self.

When I think of all this as it applies to writing, I first have a picture in my head. Ex.: I found two chairs. Functional, but not perfect. Ordinary. Then I give them a little bit of attention, add some emotion, some color, some gorgeous fabric – voila! Entirely new chairs. Life is like that. Pay attention. Create something new. Gather your courage. You’ll amaze yourself. But back to the initial questions I’m supposed to answer:

  1. What am I working on at the moment? At the moment I’m grieving over having to leave my writing critique group after years of sharing with them in numerous phenomenal successes as well as a few dismal failures – they are all excellent writers and I will miss them. I am leaving Memphis to open my own creative arts studio in New Orleans – which will include creative writing classes. I will continue to work on short stories, as everyone knows New Orleans is full of them, from the woman walking down the street, body painted entirely in silver, to the little boy tapping his heart out for spare change of tourists in the French Quarter. Who are they, and what is inside them that drives them to live their dreams in this city?
  2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?  My work does not fall into a genre, other than the broad category of Southern writing and creativity based on my own life experiences. Working in several forms, whether in clay or textiles, I find that I always include words in my work. Like every writer, I’m in love with words and the myriads of possible usage and meanings.
  3. Why do I create what I do? According to my mother (she died several years ago), my soul has compelled me to create since birth. When a small child I made up stories with my paper dolls (this really tells my age). I created family dramas and named my Betsy McCall paper dolls different names (these paper dolls were printed each month in McCall’s magazine). Southern families are chock full of characters, and Southern writers can easily overlap fictional characters with people they have known, or people in their families – although we certainly do not have the franchise on this process.
  4. How does my writing/creative process work? All depends on what I am creating – sometimes a story or character takes up residence in my head when I’m at a traffic light or in a coffee shop. However, in order to write, to focus on a character and a story, I must have a quiet place and a non-anxious state of being. To fall into that “dream state” as Robert Olen Butler calls it, so that I become my character and exist in the milieu that I write about.

What do you need in order to create?

More Writing Quotes

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.
– Isaac Asimov
Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
– Barbara Kingsolver

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.
– Anne Lamott
The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, brain surgery.
– Robert Cormier

***

Hoping and praying all my writer friends get some writing time in over the next few days!

Telling the Truth

Good writing is about telling the truth. – from Anne Lamott’s classic book on writing, Bird by Bird.

Writing is not about achieving perfection.  Writing is about telling the truth. How do we write the truth about people and events in our lives when to do so may hurt the very people we care about? The truth, for me, is what I personally learned from those people and events.

When I write about certain events or people, I tend to think about the subjects first as fiction, and I begin with the most traumatic thing and quickly make bullet points of what happened to build up to transformation.  This makes for my story outline.  From there I move into setting the scene and building the characters. How would I describe the milieu, the scene? Where is the conflict, and how were the characters changed in some way? To write creative non-fiction, I’ve learned to use the qualities that make good fiction. There’s good advice everywhere, even in some unconventional places. The following is from an introduction to Kurt Vonnegut’s 2000 book of stories, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, where he gives ‘rules’ for writers.  Even though these 8 tips are directed toward fiction writers, they can apply to nonfiction as well. I keep these ‘rules’ (and others) close by so my conscious mind is aware of these types of issues as I write [comments in brackets are mine]:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger [your reader] in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. [Why should I care about this person?]
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things …. reveal character or advance the action [move the story forward].
  5. Start as close to the end as possible. [Time after time I hear editors tell writers, “in the middle is where the action starts …. make that your beginning!”]
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. [To me, this is great advice, because a writer cannot write to please every reader, every taste, every family member.]
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on [what’s at stake], where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. [Richard Bausch says, “Be a docent in your own museum.” Know your characters and your setting inside and out before you begin your story.]
I hear friends say many times that they have a memoir in progress, or a short story based on fact, and they cannot submit for publication until certain people are dead.  The point is, how were YOU transformed in the event? That’s the real story. If you can write about that, then you’ve done your soul work, whether the project is ever published or not. What is your greatest writing advice?

page, after page, after page …..

“Writing as a way of life, writing in a way that will save your life, has a very interesting dynamic to it. To be successful as a writer, you have to cultivate two oppositional sides of your personality: the secret-keeper you, and the public chatty bold you. They’re both in there, and they both deserve the honor of practice.”

Someone sent me this quote. If anyone knows where this came from, please let me know so I can give that person credit. I love it. Writing is indeed about writing about secrets, whether the ones you yourself keep or the ones your characters keep. I want my characters to keep their secrets to the very end, then surprise everyone. But they never do, they tell. They can’t hold anything in.

After writing about building characters the other day someone sent me a five-page character development worksheet template. I was a little overwhelmed. After all, most of the time my characters develop themselves on the pages, then grow and tell me who they are page after page.  How can I tell all their secrets up front? But the sender is right. I need to know everything about my characters before I can send them on their missions, save them from peril, or allow them to fall in love.  I’m going to try using this template, where I must list a character’s fears, longings, psychological problems, prescriptions they’re taking, past surgeries and their abnormal perceptions, among a long list of other attributes.

This character development thing is a discipline. I abhor that word. I run away from discipline. Which brings me back to the above quote. Hollywood has made dozens of movies involving emotional and physical abuse in the name of a husband “disciplining” his wife (most of the time).  “The Burning Bed” was one of them. A terrifying movie. I try not to watch these type movies because these bring back too many memories of my ex-husband, who has no idea he was or is abusive.  In his words, he was trying to “break” me of my nature.  Now my nature is and always has been an introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceiving soul. He wanted me to be more like his mother, who was dedicated to her husband and cooking and keeping the house clean.  To this day, and I think she is in her 80s, I don’t believe she has any interests outside her day to day home existence, and she lives in a one-dimensional world that she seems to have always loved. There’s nothing wrong with that.

We are not at all alike. I love to write and paint and go and do and teach and preach and create and learn and I’m like a new puppy wanting to get my nose in everything. And I like to contemplate. Most times while I’m alone. Sometimes this precludes dusting the mantle, darning socks, or making certain the magazines are fanned out on the coffee table just like the one-dimensional photos in those magazines. 

Last Year’s Words, This Year’s Brain

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language 
And next year’s words await another voice. 
And to make an end is to make a beginning. 
                                – T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding 

I never want to write the truth.  It’s too embarrassing. But this one I gotta tell. All writers know what it’s like to be “in the Zone”. You are writing along, words flowing from your heart like water. You are in that dreamstate that is so important to the creative energy to burst forth.

I love being in the Zone as I do my best writing there, in that special space between the worlds of reality and that other plain —  we know not where or what, but we know when we’re there.

The other day I took some advice passed on by my writing friend Susan Cushman. Susan said she likes to edit her writing as she goes along. Seems another writing friend of Susan’s has the same habit,  as do I. Slimy perfectionists, we are. So Susan says this other friend had taken to the practice of slipping a file folder over the computer screen to help take away the compulsive habit we share, that stops us in our tracks: watching every word that comes flowing from our fingers and backspacing or correcting bad grammar, awkward sentence structure, or misspelled words immediately so we can go on.

This sounded like a good idea to me.  Hide what I’m writing and let the blank screen push me into the Zone.  I had a story idea, inspired by a news story about a strange event. My brain would not let go of the idea until I developed it into a story. I couldn’t sleep or get anything done until I worked on this project.

So I got a file folder, opened MS Word to a blank screen, then slipped the folder over my MacBook screen and began banging the keys. Except I wasn’t getting in the Zone.  I was compelled to watch my hands, not the screen. Close your eyes, my brain says, so I do. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or capitalizing anything, just write!

Within seconds I had the milieu constructed in my head, the description flowing out of my fingers. I squeezed my eyes shut as I saw my characters. My fingers flew, and I knew this story was one of my best, words coming out of me that I had never before used. Words like lugubrious and callipygous and hegemony. The dialogue was brilliant, advancing the story and revealing details about my characters in ways I never thought possible. This is it, I thought to myself, this is the true writing Zone and I’ve found a solution for myself that will work.

After about an hour of hard writing on that melodious and sensual plain of creativity that artists long to visit, I paused. My fingers were tingling. I had an ending to the story in mind, but I knew I needed to give my brain a rest, let the story rest, before revisiting this wonderful and fun project. Publication would be no problem, I was certain.

I slipped the file folder off the screen and clicked on Save before I lost this luminous story, and gave it a name as the dialogue box opened.  Saved. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, breathed deeply, then opened them to give the story a once over.  Expecting that I certainly would need to make corrections, my heart sank at what I saw.

Gibberish.  All gibberish.  In my small window of brilliance, I had had my fingers on the wrong keys the entire time.

Not one word in the story made any sense to me at all.  Now I’ll have to begin all over re-constructing the story.  I know I can do it. Like T.S. Elliott says, To make an end is to make a beginning.

But next time I’m leaving off the damn file folder.

The Paradox of a New Place: Geographic Change Influences Creativity

Jennifer

My daughter Jennifer and her family have recently moved to New Orleans. When my daughters were small we traveled down to New Orleans from Jackson, MS, occasionally. We would stroll around Jackson Square and Jennifer always said she wanted to sell paintings like the other artists who hung their wares on the iron fence across from Cafe du Monde.  Her entire life she’s wanted to be with the tarot card readers, the fortune tellers and the street musicians.

Jennifer and her husband have yearned for years to move to the Crescent City. Now they live in the inner-city in an old second-floor walkup with a claw-foot bathtub and window air conditioning units just a stone’s throw from the Maple Street Bookstore. He’s a chef. She’s always been an artist. But somehow since the move her work has gotten better, and she’s moved toward a more independent lifestyle.  They have four children, so life has always been a little chaotic and I’ve wondered how she manages to find time to paint and write while caring for a pre-schooler and an infant.  I know. You just do it. Now she’s part of a New Orleans Art Collective and is selling her artwork in the French Quarter. And working on illustrations for her first children’s book.
   
When my husband and I moved to Memphis four years ago (and yes, time has moved too fast), I took a self-imposed sabbatical of sorts to get to know my new hometown.  I visited Elmwood, the Memphis Botanic Garden, The Brooks, Civil Rights Museum, Stax, Soulsville, and dozens of other sites, and of course the riverfront.  I’ve watched many sunsets from Mud Island.  And I cannot count our visits to Shelby Farms, probably dozens and dozens. Each one of these visits has inspired me in many ways. I began to paint for the first time in my life. I’ve written more, created more, in this new place.

What struck me most about Memphis is its diversity.  I read letters to the editor in the newspaper from residents who complain about Memphis, then the next day there are letters of praise.  It’s never consistent one way or the other, and there seems to be no consensus. The feeling residents have about their hometown of Memphis is a deeply personal thing.

What I’ve noticed about geographic moves is that generally, if a person is relatively content, then they are content everywhere.  If they are unhappy, they’ll be unhappy where ever they go. If the person is hostile and lives in fear, then they will be hostile and fearful everywhere. We must have passion about what we do in life, and I believe it is within that that we find meaning. If we have no meaning in our lives we will not have much happiness and contentment. There is no person, place, job or thing that will give us permanent joy. Find meaning, and you’ll find your joy.  Life is like that.

Jennifer’s book, Hot Moon, is now published, and available on Amazon.com.