Monday, September 26, 2011

Everyone Has a Story...

Wow. My head is still spinning. What a weekend!

I just returned from the three-day Memphis Creative Non-Fiction Writer's Workshop on the campus of the University of Memphis. Turns out that U of M has one of the top up-and-coming creative writing programs in the country, and one of our workshop's faculty members was Kristen Iversen, director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Memphis and editor in chief of the program's award-winning literary journal, The Pinch.

I could have been easily intimidated by the others in attendance. But as one of the workshoppers, Judy, said after her manuscript was critiqued by the group: "Thank you for giving me a 'safe place' to share my work." The connections in the room were amazing. Twenty people, most strangers, became close friends and found amazing connections with each other throughout the weekend. Nothing was held back, and while the critiques were very honest, there was a sense that the comments were made in order to make each other better writers. There was a lot of nurturing in that room!

And the stories! I was amazed at what so many of my fellow workshoppers had been through in their lives, and they bravely write about it, partly as a way to release themselves from the pain, and partly to share their resilience with others. I survived. You will too. Work through the pain and turmoil and you will be a better, stonger person. I'm living proof. Bob Cowser nailed it when he said "the bad things in life makes for a good story."

There was Carol from Huntsville, who wrote about the pain of placing her adolescent, ADHD son in a military academy to save him from himself. Terrence, from Santa Fe, was unknowingly a good friend of Arthur Leigh Allen, the  Zodiac Killer, even naming his son after him. He had one of my favorite descriptions of the weekend in his manuscript: "Buddah meets Bubba."
There was Greg, a gentle soul who is also a creative writing professor in Arkansas and Porter, an accomplished journalist who has written a novel and is now writing articles as a platform to generate interest. Two really smart and delightful fellows!

There was Robert (left) and Ren (right), both from Fairhope, Alabama. Robert is a retired executive who is also an avid outdoorsman. Ren is the widow of the former president of the largest catfish producer in the world. Her story touched us all. One minute they were living the good life, the next, he was indicted by the Federal Government for price fixing. Two federal trials later, he was acquitted, but it came at a huge expense to their family, both financially and emotionally. I so admired her bravery in telling the story, and the manuscript submission we critiqued was amazing. Judy (in the middle) is from Memphis and her quiet demeanor belies the fire she has burning inside. I was so moved by her.

Bruce Thomas, a former weather man living in Kansas, made a remarkable connection with the workshop coordinator, Susan Cushman of Memphis. Both grew up in Jackson, Mississippi--on the same street! They lived five houses apart! Bruce graduated early from St. Jospeph Catholic School in Jackson, then headed to Mississippi State Universtity. He graduated college and went on to be a meteorologist, working at TV stations around the country. Yet, he didn't learn to read until he was 25 years old! Bruce has become a self-made millionaire with a business plan he put together to sell NOAA weather radios in grocery stores. This workshop was his first attempt at writing, and while it was rough around the edges, his passion showed clearly on the page. Susan and I were first facebook friends, then met in person at Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas last year. She's an amazing woman and writer, and is working on her first novel, "Cherry Bomb."

I was so inspired and encouraged by these two women:

Besides winning, hands down, the best-hair-of-anyone-there award  by Yours Truly, I was moved by both of their stories. In addition to being an amazing fine artist, Suzanne Henley (left) of Memphis is an incredible writer. All I can say is that I have never considered my bathroom to be a cathedral, but I'll look at it in a new light now after reading her manuscript! She is quietly brave. Reverend Connie Tuttle is another quietly brave soul who pastors a church in Atlanta. Her struggles and triumphs are spelled out in her memoir in a most beautiful way. These women have both been on long, difficult spiritual journeys, and their light shines brightly!

And everyone loved Harley, the Vietnam veteran who is desperate to tell his story as quickly as possible, as he is suffering from dementia. We never would have known it--in addition to being a gifted writer, he is delightful, if not somewhat opinionated, but he is as honest and transparent as they come and let us know his situation. One of my favorite parts of the weekend was his bantering back and forth
with Kristen Iverson.

Speaking of Kristen, she was wonderful! She thoughtfully critiqued the manuscripts in my group and led some very helpful discussions. I really love how she led the critique session, which led to me adding many new tools in my writing toolbox. Here she is (middle) on one of our coffee breaks:
Also in the picture is Alexis (left) an oh-so-brave woman who has lived a life of alcoholism that landed her in jail after a drunk-driving episode which resulted in a Texas socialite breaking her leg two days before her wedding. Now an English teacher for a community college in Vermont, Alexis is writing a memoir about her drinking life and how she--and those close to her--survived. Gretchen (right) is a retired college creative writing professor living in Atlanta, so I really took her critiques on my work to heart.

Bob Cowser, who teaches at Lawrence University in upstate New York, is one of the smartest, most well-red men I've ever met. We were introduced to him at the faculty book reading at Burke's Books in the funky Cooper-Young area of Memphis on Friday night. He led the manuscript critique sessions on Saturday, and his knowledge and high energy had me wide-eyed all day.

Neil White also read from his book, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, which is something I can never grow tired of. It's one of the only books I've read all the way through more than once. He did a craft talk for our group on Friday, focusing on how to write a proposal that will sell. Good stuff to know!

The finale at the book reading was Kory Wells, a poet from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and her daughter, Kelsy, who is a multi-instrumentalist roots musician. While Kelsy picked the banjo, strummed a fiddle and tapped (not all at the same time!), Kory read a few of her poems. We were all tapping our feet as we were transported to another place through Kory's poetry.

I had the pleasure of being a houseguest of a friend from my past, Emma French Connelly. I knew her another lifetime ago when she worked at an advertising agency in Jackson. Now she's a priest at St. John's Episcopal Church in Memphis as well as being a wonderful writer. While we talked about writing all weekend, Emma had to carve out time to do some more writing of her own--she had to write the sermon she preached Sunday morning! I was sustained by her delicious homemade granola and the warm hospitality shown to me by Emma and her sweet hubby, Robert.

Others there were my writing partner and partner-in-crime, Nancy Kay Wessman, a personal trainer named Tony, and Dan, both from Memphis. Tony got beat up over his essay: "Ladies, This is Why You are Single," but it was all in good fun. Dan wrote a journalistic memoir based on his father's experiences in WWII. Sheila, another Memphis resident, told me an amazing story about a night in Milan that I won't soon forget!

The icing on the cake was a chance to meet one-on-one with entertainment attorney and book agent John D. Mason. I learned so much in my 20-minute meeting with him on Saturday, and I was encouraged that he wants to see a couple completed chapters of my book.

It was a room filled with big characters. Big personaltities. Big stories. I could have been intimidated, but instead, I left inspired and uplifted. I can do this! I am a writer. And as Bob Cowser pointed out to us all, I am an artist!

Blessings to all who read this!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Are You Out of Your Gourd?!

Are you out of your gourd?

That might be some people's reaction to an invitation to go to the Mississippi Gourd Festival in Raleigh, Mississippi. My reaction, on the other hand, was "Sure! Let's go!"

My dad called last Friday night and asked if I'd like to go to the Gourd Festival on Saturday. Because we had tickets to the USM game, I regretfully had to decline. No problem--the festival was on Sunday, too! Yay!

Luckily, Larry was off work Sunday and we both got to go. After a quick breakfast at the Beagle Bagel, gassing up the car and a couple more errands, we headed to my parents' home to pick them up. Then off we went to Raleigh. First of all, I don't believe I've ever been to Raleigh. With less than 1500 residents, it is still the second-largest town in Smith County, and it's the County Seat. For such a small town, it has quite an impressive courthouse.

After about an hour's drive, we arrived at the Smith County Ag Center, the site of the anticipated Gourd Festival. We arrived about noon, and we were all surprised to see many cars were already there. I knew it was going to be a fun event when I saw Felder Rushing's truck in the parking lot. How did I know it was Felder's truck? Well, who else has a rolling garden in the bed of a bright green pickup truck? As a matter of fact, I uploaded this photo to Facebook right after I snapped it with my phone, and almost immediately, Malcolm White remarked "Felder."

Inside, I was unsure of what I'd see. I'd never been to a gourd festival before. Not surprisingly, I saw gourds everywhere, of every shape and size. For some reason, I kept thinking of the television show "Hoarders," (probably because 'hoard' rhymes with 'gourd.') Nonethess, these people were as crazy about gourding as the people on TV are about hoarding.

The people who grow and decorate gourds, most members of the Mississippi Gourd Society, are a pretty creative lot. They "see" things in a gourd that the average eye may not see. I saw gourds painted to look like Santa Claus, fish, geese, snowmen, and much more. They were made into birdhouses, boxes and bowls. Some of my favorites were intricately carved with beautiful designs.

No part of any gourd goes to waste. There was gourd jewelry made of painted and polished pieces of gourds. And windchimes. And purses. Crosses and flowers and butterflies, oh my!
One of the most amazing items I saw crafted from gourds was a banjo made from gourds. Jason Smith crafts "banzas" and has even recorded a CD of the music strummed on the instruments. I could have listened to him play all day!
So my senses were bombarded with all things gourd-related, and I HAD to buy something to take home! I seemed to gravitate to Helen Looman's booth. Her gourds were very simple, clean and beautifully crafted. I found out later that Helen is a member of the Craftsmen's Guild of Mississippi. The one I loved the most was a simple bowl, stained with leather dye. It had woven pine straw around the top. Helen patiently explain her weaving technique to me, not realizing that I had absolutely no desire whatsoever to do what she does. I simply wanted to buy the bowl and be impressed by her work. Which is what I did. And here it is, in my house:

And because I'm a sucker for handmade Christmas ornaments, I got this little squash-shaped gourd painted up like a little Santa Claus:
It will hang on my Christmas tree next to my dried okra Santa! (I believe I'm going to get a "permanant" Christmas tree crafted by metal artist Stephanie Dwyer to hang all my special handcrafted ornaments!)

So, who knew how much fun a gourd festival would be? I suspected it would be an interesting outing, and I was right! So what adventure is next? Perhaps the on October 22 in Rolling Fork, Mississippi.

But before I can plan which festival I go to next, I have a couple of other big events to attend. The first is the  Memphis Creative Nonfiction Writer's Workshop this weekend. I'm excited because I'll be making a pitch to several agents, and I'll be getting criquiques on a portion of my manuscript. (In case you don't know, I'm writing a book about Nicole's journey...). Also, I'm planning this year's Walk to Defeat ALS. It will be held October 15 at Winner's Circle Park in Flowood. I need all my friends to jump on board!

So, what are YOU doing this weekend? There's always something going on...just cruise the internet to find a festival, event, or activity and get out there and create some fun memories!

Blessings to all who read this!

Friday, September 16, 2011

In the Blink of an Eye

"Start living now. Stop saving the good china for that special occasion. Stop withholding your love until that special person materializes. Every day you are alive is a special occasion. Every minute, every breath, is a gift from God."

       --Mary Manin Morrissey, Speaker and Author

There are things in life that are just downright unfair. Like young folks being in the hospital.

Right now, at this very moment, three exceptional people are in hospitals around the state, and it hurts my heart to see them there.

The first is Nicole's long-time friend Tony Hill, who was hit by a hit-and-run drunk driver in Hattiesburg a couple of weeks ago. He suffered two broken legs and head trauma and is currently recovering at Forrest General Hospital. Right off the bat, several friends gathered to help out...a fundraiser will be held in Hattiesburg on October 2. A facebook group has been set up so that friends can keep up with his progress and to get information on the fundraiser.

The next is Donovan Childress. After a few days of feeling uncomfortable, he sought medical attention, only to find out he has cancer. He began chemotherapy this week at St. Dominic in Jackson. A fundraiser is being planned for Donovan at Hal & Mal's soon.

We first met Donovan when Josh brought him to Select Specialty Hospital after the two attended a music festival in Austin. Nicole had just been transported to Select Specialty Hospital from New York Presbyterian, and they were just the medicine she needed at the time. Donovan was funny and quirky and it felt like we had known him forever.

I learned later that he had been an elementary school teacher in Memphis and was looking to teach again in Mississippi. I can't imagine having a teacher like him!
The third is Katy Blake, an adorable young woman from the Coast who suffered a spinal cord injury in a canoing accident. She's back at Methodist Rehab for a couple of weeks, giving it all she's got to try to regain whatever function she can.

Katy went to high school with Caitlyn McNally, who was one of Nicole's personal care assistants. When Katy had her accident (a couple of years ago?), they went to see her at Methodist Rehab. I've gotten to know her on Facebook--she's precious!

People came out of the woodwork to help when Nicole had her accident. Here in Mississippi, we know how to rally when someone needs our assistance. The fact of the matter is that no one wants to ask, and it's difficult to accept help, but accepting the kindness of others is a blessing for those who do the giving. It's been heart-warming for me to see how so many people are now stepping up to support these three people.

What really strikes me is that in the face of each of their challenges, they all have a positive attitude. All are so grateful for what is being done for them, and each is looking ahead. Nicole has been making the hospital rounds, trying to visit with each of them, and it's hard for her her to see her friends in such compromised positions. There was a time, not too long ago, when she was the one who was compromised, and I remember how much all those visits from so many friends made such a difference. It was like being wrapped in love over and over again.

Life can change in the blink of an eye. We learned it three years ago, and these three folks have driven that point home again for me. My takeaway from this is that you can't waste your time wondering "what if." You can't fret over what the future will bring. Instead, you must live in the NOW...and appreciate every blessing that is presented to you in this very moment. We spend so much time in the past and projecting into the future that we totally miss the joy in the here and now.

The next few weeks will be filled with excitement for our family. Larry and I have primo seats at the USM game tomorrow, thanks to the generosity of friends. The weather should be perfect, so we'll enjoy heading to Hattiesburg. Nicole flies out in the morning to Honolulu, where she'll be a keynote speaker at next week's International Women's Leadership Conference. She'll be in good company--there are some very powerful women on the program. Being no fool, she's traveling with her hairdresser (who is also a very good friend)--a girl's gotta look good! And finally, I'll be heading to Memphis on Thursday to attend the Memphis Creative Non-Fiction Writer's Workshop. I hope that it will be the beginning of the end of the book I'm writing. (I've written most of it, now hoping the skills I learn in the workshop will help me polish it and market it.)

Please keep our sweet friends in your prayers. And today, focus on what's happening in your life right now--and find the joy in it...for you don't know what tomorrow may bring.

Blessings to all who read this!