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!


  1. You nailed it -- again, Susan! Thanks for capturing these stories and, especially, our new friends' photos. Thank you for writing.

  2. Thanks for this great summary of the weekend, Susan. I'll be sure and link to this in a future post on the CNF Workshop blog. See you Wednesday night!

  3. WOW! Great summary of the weekend. I miss everyone!

  4. What a nice remembrance of the conference and all involved, Susan! All best for carrying the inspiration of the weekend into your work for many weeks and months to come (until the next great event!).

  5. Susan - again - you are an inspiration! A wonderful summary of these amazing folks with whom we were fortunate enough to spend some time with. Isn't it bizarre how people are drawn together by accident, and then we discover so many connections?

  6. Sounds so moving and inspiring. To me, there's nothing better than a room full of people connected by their passion in writing and sharing their stories. :)