Sunday, January 28, 2018

Where Am I?

One of my favorite aspects of working on a new manuscript is immersing myself in the place of the story.  I've written in previous posts about my love of the American South.  But within the South are so many regions, so many unique places that vary dramatically.

Sweet Divinity was set in a place I know well.  The rural foothills of northwest Georgia is beautiful country with rolling hills, trees so dense you can lose yourself in them, and fresh, clean air that fills the lungs and the soul.

Miranda is set in early 20th century Charleston, SC, a place I lived during graduate school, a place that certainly has a character all its own.  One of my favorite stories of my time in Charleston involves a co-worker of mine from Drayton Hall Plantation.  For the record, Drayton Hall is the only original plantation house you can tour in Charleston.  It's the real deal, and all of the museum educators (we were more than "tour guides") have relevant college degrees.  When you travel to Charleston, choose Drayton Hall.

When I worked at Drayton Hall there was a man named Bob who had been a museum educator there for so long that he actually knew the final Drayton to live in the house.  He himself lived in a carriage house downtown in a compound with another man who collected antiques and Bentleys.  Every year they opened their homes for the Charleston Tour of Homes, and so the year I worked at Drayton Hall, I of course went to see Bob's house.

I went to see the antiques next door, the most memorable being a pair of giant iguana feet turned into mugs.  I also went to see the Bentleys which were kept in part in a double-decker garage.  But what I really wanted to see was the portrait above Bob's mantle.  It was a thing of legend with the other educators, and I was itching to get a peek.  So I dragged my husband downtown and we waited patiently to enter Bob's home.

I wasn't disappointed.  Bob had a dog named Beauregard; in fact he had had several dogs over the years, and all were named Beauregard.  And above his mantle hung a portrait of Beauregard.  Bob had taken a portrait of a Confederate general to an artist who took the human out and put the dog in.  Before me was a painting of a golden retriever in a Confederate general's uniform, holding a pen, signing a document, looking incredibly regal.

Charleston is full of such stories.

My new manuscript, Reliance, takes place in a small, southern mountain town in the early 20th century.  I'm planning a road trip to Reliance, Tennessee, in a few weeks to fully immerse myself in the place and in the culture.  But for now I've tried to capture Reliance in my imagination, and here's what I've come up with:

The road into Reliance is like a snake wrapped around the heart of the mountain.  The trees are dense, primeval, untouched by the hand of man.  The people of Reliance are just as untouchable, and just as swift to strike.

I can't wait to go to Reliance and listen to what the mountains are ready to share with me.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

We Needs Your Stories Now

Today, across the nation, Women's Marches were held, uniting men and women in working for social justice.  As I stood at our local park, looking at the variety of signs and listening to the speakers share their unique stories and call for constructive action, I began to think how today, perhaps more than ever, words matter.

Words matter because they are the means by which we communicate our needs to one another.
Words matter because they are the means by which we lift each other up and thrust each other down.
Words matter because sometimes we communicate without the fortune of seeing the facial expressions or without hearing the vocal inflection of those speaking to us.
Words matter because our choices matters.
Words have denotations, connotations, cultural significance, historical significance.
Words have power.

We have seen how words have been used to manipulate, violate, assault, denigrate, and oppress.
We have also seen how words have been used to elevate, console, form, connect, and save.

Words have tremendous power.

As a wise one once said, power comes with responsibility, and we have all seen the pain and hurt that comes with using words irresponsibly.  We can all think of times when we have used words irresponsibly and times when we've seen those in power misuse words and be faced with significant consequences.

In a world where we are often limited to 280 characters, it is more important than ever to acknowledge the power of words and to choose them well.

So today, as I stood in the sun and looked and listened, I saw and heard some words that held great power, power that I believe is working towards positive change. 

"Every vote counts, because every person counts."

"As if the words make the science any less true."

"I am the wilderness."

"Only knowledge erases fear."

"Don't let anyone else steal your narrative."

We all have stories, and as I've written on this blog, we need stories now.  So today I'm ruminating on my narrative.  I'm trying to choose the precise words, to give power to the words, and to let the words speak the truth and work towards goodness.  I hope you'll do the same. 

Tell your story.  Take control of your narrative.  Choose your words.  Choose words that are the most precise words.  Choose words that are true.  Choose words that use your story to create and to grow rather than to shame or to regret.  Choose your words.  Take control of your narrative.  Tell your story.

Words matter.
We need your stories now.

**And thank you to Sydney for recognizing in the moment that the words heard today needed to be recorded.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Do Something Beautiful for the World

Today we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Many of us are off from work or school, and so we have a day to ourselves, to pursue whatever calls to us, or whatever tasks we didn't quite get completed this weekend.  I plan to work on Reliance; in fact, I'm practically bursting with story!

And yet, perhaps today we could also spend some time doing something positive for the world.  I realize that by the time you read this post, it may be late in the day and so too late to plan a large-scale project, but I don't think it takes large-scale projects to make the world a better place.

Sure, the world is in need of major positive impacts.  Next weekend I will be volunteering with a group of friends to work on a Habitat for Humanity house.  I'm so excited for this day, not only because I love getting my hands dirty for the improvement of others, but also because I took a Stagecraft class back in college when I was majoring in English but also working in the theatre, and I haven't used those skills in a while!

But there are so many smaller ways we can make positive change, and I encourage you to take part in one of them today.  Perhaps you could write a note to a friend, a family member, or even a mere acquaintance who may be in need of encouragement.  Take a container of hot cocoa and marshmallows to the family next door.  Pay for the meal of the person behind you if you go out to eat.  Go through your trash and pull out the recyclables, then put them in that blue container you use to collect leaves in the fall (the one with the recycling symbol on it).  Go for a walk and meditate on this beautiful creation all around you, and consider what part you play.  Make cards and drop them off at a hospice house nearby.  Sit on the couch with your child or a friend, and watch that movie you've been meaning to get to.  Spend time together.

A couple of years ago on parent-teacher conference day, I had back to back parent conferences where the parents told me that their children had a passion for the arts or humanities, but that they had told the children that the only career path they would support was in engineering.  Really, this happened, back to back.  I was so frustrated and also insulted as clearly they had no qualms in implying that my career, or one like it, was not acceptable for their children.  When the third conference began, I was demoralized, to say the least.  And yet, the first question out of these parents' mouths was, "Our daughter loves creative writing.  What can we do to encourage her and help her get better at it?"  This family went on to tell me that part of their children's allowance each week depended on the children "making something beautiful for the world".  One was a creative writer, one wrote original songs on the see where we're going with this.  They gathered as a family on Sunday evenings to share their contributions to the world.  When I heard this story, I was overcome.  And I will never, ever forget that conference or that student.  She was one of the happiest students I've ever known.

Today, make something beautiful for the world.  Make the world a little better because you're here.  Leave a positive impact on this day.  You can do it, even in small ways.  And perhaps this practice will teach us all to use our gifts to make the world even more inspirational.

Sunday, January 7, 2018


When I sit down to write, the atmosphere around me and within me is essential.  I like to write in one of four places: my back deck at night or in the early morning with the twinkle lights glowing, Exchange Company, a fantastic coffeeshop that works with local charities and has a killer groove, the armchair in my home's library, backed up against the bookshelves, surrounded by books I love, or my completely cleaned off kitchen table (and I have two children, so this one is a rarity!).

But just as important as the place is the sound.  I'm extremely auditory.  My children and students are forever amazed that I actually heard what they just mumbled (and half of it I choose to ignore!).  When I hear a song on the radio, it doesn't just "take me back" in a nostalgic way; no, it transports me.  I can see, smell, and feel in my chest exactly what I felt in that moment.  One of my favorite poets, Walt Whitman, wrote, "I hear not the volumes of sound merely, I am moved by the exquisite meanings".  That's it exactly.

And so with every novel I write, there is a specific playlist that acts as companion.  The songs put me in the right mindset, but even more so, put me in the right place.  When I wrote Slings and Arrows, a modernization of Hamlet, I was an angsty teenager again, back in the halls of high school.  When I wrote Sweet Divinity, I was transported back to the country, to the farm where I was raised.  When I wrote Miranda, I needed to feel the emotions of my narrator, a combination of desperate need and painful longing.

Music takes me there.

And so below I share my playlists.  Perhaps they'll transport you as well.

Slings and Arrows
"Hero/Heroine", Boys Like Girls
"Glycerine", Bush
"Sweetness", Jimmy Eat World
"Thirty-Three", Smashing Pumpkins
"Galapagos", Smashing Pumpkins
Hot Fuss, The Killers

Sweet Divinity
"Good Directions", Billy Currington
"Let Me Down Easy", Billy Currington
"What Was I Thinkin'", Dierks Bentley
"Barefoot Blue Jean Night", Jake Owen
"Do You Believe Me Now", Jimmy Wayne
"Drunk on You", Luke Bryan
"Mountain Music", Alabama
"Mama's Broken Heart", Miranda Lambert

"Lust for Life", Lana Del Rey
"Love", Lana Del Rey
"Video Games, Lana Del Rey (Pretty sure this is the anthem of the novel)
"Ultraviolence", Lana Del Rey
"Born to Die", Lana Del Rey
"Young and Beautiful", Lana Del Rey
"Old Money", Lana Del Rey (yes, I listened to only Lana Del Rey on repeat during the entire editing process...she's magical)
"Intro", XX
"Moonlight Sonata", Beethoven
"Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92, Beethoven
"Adagio for Strings", Samuel Barber
twenty one pilots (everything)
"Madness", Muse
"Believe", Mumford and Sons
"Inside Out", Britney Spears
"Elastic Heart", Sia

Reliance (still building this one)
"I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow", Roscoe Holcomb
"Little Birdy", Roscoe Holcomb
"Graveyard Blues", Roscoe Holcomb
"Little Sadie", Clarence Ashley
"Dark Holler", Clarence Ashley
"Sweet William and Lady Margaret", Jean Ritchie
Crockett Family Mountaineers
Basically anything that falls under "Appalachian Folk Music"

Monday, January 1, 2018

Sending My Baby into the World

My goal was to have Miranda in clean manuscript form by the end of the year, and last night at 10:30 I did just that.  I finished the final read-through, made some tweaks to the dates within the piece to firm up the timeline, and polished the consistency of phrasing throughout.  Needless to say, I was pretty darn excited, and so celebrated the new year with a rousing family game of Bananagrams, a toast with sparkling grape juice, and a good night's rest.

Today I will begin the query process for Miranda.  If you've been reading my blog, you know that I'm no stranger to this part of the publishing journey.  I've had some major highs such as engaging in a rewrite process with a literary agent, a process that improved my manuscript and boosted my confidence.  I've also had some pretty major lows; it's never easy to face rejection, especially when it's a rejection of something you feel is a part of you.

But today I will begin again.  And I can't think of a more poetic day to start anew than New Year's Day.

Sending off a query, a partial, or a full manuscript is a bit like sending your child to school on her first day.  Miranda was first conceived over ten years ago (probably more like fifteen) when I picked up a vintage photograph at a craft festival.  It's been the work that has lived within me the longest, and we've fought each other along with way.  Searching for a narrative voice, having a main character veer from the path I'd laid out for her, taking me down twists and turns I wasn't prepared for, the revelation that there would be a whole other novel within this one.  It's been a long, winding road, but I wouldn't trade a moment of it.

I love this novel.  I started work on it when I was in my twenties and the whole world was open to me.  Before I was a mother, before I was a teacher, before I was a mother of two, before I began work on Slings and Arrows, Sweet Divinity, My Literary Boyfriends, before any of it and through all of it, there has been Miranda.  I've changed so much since this work began.  I've grown, matured, gained experience (and hopefully wisdom), and the novel changed with me.

And so today it feels like I'm dropping Miranda off for the first day of school.  I've prepared her for this day.  I've washed her hair and combed it down, I've explained to her how to put her best foot forward and to be patient and respectful to those around her, and I've told her that she is strong, and beautiful, and good.

I know that there will be struggles along the way.  I know that my heart will be hurt.  I also know that there will be moments of affirmation and immeasurable joy.

I am ready.  And Miranda is ready.  It's time.