At six thirty this morning I sat outside on the front porch, slap down on concrete like a block of ice, the cold worming through fleece and into my skin. It was a crisp forty, and the chill settled on my nose and the backs of my hands, my palms warmed by coffee in a cup that said FIRST YOU–the other words in the phrase long since faded by repeat visits to the dishwater: “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Change the Rules.” Steam rose from the coffee in a spiral, and a hint of warmth brushed against my cheek. I was wrapped in the hum of traffic moving up and down Hillsboro Road, four blocks east. The incessant whir of cars was a kind of silence, its constant drone solace that there was a world of people out there, moving and going and crossing paths, while I was alone, left to my thoughts, in solitude in fading darkness. From over in Clarendon, a triple hoot of an owl pinched the silence. Then again. I watched the sky lighten in the east and all things before me take shape. A three-quarters moon was directly above, shining down on the frosty nandinas along the sidewalk, giving their leaves depth and texture. They looked sculpted in the moonlight, and sugar-coated. Their new growth stuck out here and there, awry, like the hair of a little boy just out of bed.
I like the idea of FIRST YOU, as on my cup, first words my eyes fall upon in the morning. I’ve always been an early riser, the first one up in my household. I used to sit in silence for a little while–doing nothing, but drinking coffee, watching the world wake up, going inward, observing, thinking, feeling. I need to return to some of that.
Silence leads to meditation, to knowing oneself and pondering spiritual things, letting them be present and urgent. It clarifies and motivates. The reason for stopping and sitting in silence is going.
I left my post with a cold butt and a clear head.
Occasionally, I like to take a break from the computer and sit at the breakfast table and work. I’ll write–longhand or laptop–or edit or pay bills. At least I try. As soon as I settle in, my sidekick sidles up. When anyone is sitting at the table, it is time to EAT! There is NO other purpose for being there. Chaeli rolls her ball right up to my foot, the ball with the hole that holds kibble which falls out as she pushes it through the house–in a circle, from the breakfast room, through the dining room, living room, foyer, hallway, kitchen, back for a refill. I have to admit, she brings a smile. I also have to admit that I might get a lot more done if I could simply ignore her. Easier said than done. (Pictured in her snood, which keeps her long lovely ears clean when she eats)
I grew up knowing about it. It was ten miles from my hometown–near Benoit, near the River. The River, that is, the Mighty Miss, the Ole Mississipp, the Old Man River. (Yes, it deserves a capital R!) It was believed the house was haunted. High school kids went there for kicks–for the thrill of maybe seeing a ghost. I only went once–drove by, didn’t get out. The house is famous because the movie Baby Doll, based on a screenplay by Tennessee Williams, was filmed there in 1956. Carroll Baker was Baby Doll, a 19-year-old naive, yet sultry, seductive girl, married to sexually-frustrated, older Archie Lee (Karl Malden), but who has never allowed him to lay a hand on her and by agreement, the marriage has never been consummated. Her first sexual encounter ends up not being with broken-down-gin owner Archie Lee, but rival gin owner and younger, vibrant, “wop” Silva. Themes of the film are lust, sexual repression, seduction, and moral decay. Amazing that it was filmed right there, deep in Baptist mud! In the 1950’s, no less. I was only in first grade at the time, so I wouldn’t have known anything about the steamy, suggestive, salacious scenes. I recently ordered the black-and-white from amazon.com because the Baby Doll house is referenced in my novel and one scene takes place at the current site of the house. I wanted to see it again.
The last time I went to the Baby Doll house was about seven years ago. It was about the time Dad was beginning to get ill. I was home for a visit, along with my sister and older son. I always loved going home, getting in the car with Dad, and going somewhere–especially to the River. That trip, we drove over to Rosedale and went to the riverbank in the rough part of town, then to Benoit. We drove up on the levee and followed it a while, and then decided to go find the Baby Doll house. It is stuck in the middle of nowhere and is decaying and dilapidated, what’s left standing ripped to shreds and falling down. It wasn’t safe to go inside. It’s the last high-style antebellum house left standing in Bolivar County. The only reason it was left alone during the Civil War was that Judge Burrus, the owner, knew the invading federal officer. It’s said that John Wilkes Booth stayed there for 10 days after shooting Lincoln.
My sister wanted to buy it and fix it up. My father walked around, kicking dust, commenting on details. I stood there in awe of what was and how time wears on something of beauty and significance until it wastes to beyond restoration. I will always remember it because it was the last time I went to the River with Dad.
What is it with this rain? For goodness sakes, is it ever going to stop? Three solid months of exceptional drought and two weeks of temps over 100, and now, ongoing rain, four days and counting, and I’m already complaining. Monday, it started with gentle drops, and I took my early morning walk in it, looking upward, letting it tickle my face like snowflakes and wash over me. Then the low gray sky released and poured cold needles. Tuesday, I wore sandals when I went to vote for mayor and aldermen, and my feet got soaked. So did my clothes, for that matter. Wednesday came with a swift wind and a hard mist, and it was cold. I slipped on my father’s Mississippi State sweatshirt, which I inherited after his death, along with 10 others from SEC teams, most of which were Christmas gifts from me. In August, I would’ve sworn I’d never need a sweater again, but last night I wore one.
It was cozy under the lights in the Writers’ Nook at the Cool Springs Barnes and Noble, though, for last night’s Writers’ Night. Robbie Bryan, Community Relations Manager, spoke on “How to Market Your Book” and “How to Get Your Book into a Barnes and Noble.”
If it has to do with books and book selling, Robbie knows it! He was prepared with details, examples, handouts, and humor. The thing that amazed me the most was his description of how quickly books move in and out of the store. Books arrive every day; there is only a finite amount of space on the shelves for books, so books are constantly moving. New releases on the step ladders in the front display windows change every week. A front list book–or new release–may have a shelf life of only 2 to 4 weeks. Think about it. In 2 weeks, a brand new book can go to old stock. Think about it as your book. All the time–one year, five years, whatever–energy, focus, grit, and brain drain poured into a manuscript, the excitement of having it accepted for publishing and the thrill of seeing it for the first time on a bookstore shelf. Then it’s over in 2 weeks. [Sputter, sputter, cough]
Seven chapters, 40,600 words into the Great American Southern Novel, I stopped, went back to the prologue, and read forward, whittling, checking the flow, the dialog, making certain facts and dates agreed, as I’d made changes along the way. Chapter 7 is an important one because it brings all the characters (except 2–for a reason) together in one location to interact.
Now as I move forward laying the words down, I am remembering a conversation with a publisher I met during the Southern Festival of Books. He stopped by my booth promoting the fact that his company, located in downtown Nashville, publishes Southern fiction; since I was promoting an organization supporting [Southern] writers, he thought I might direct some his way. His company, an award-winning, independent publisher of specialty and trade titles, with six imprints, has produced over 1,000 titles since 1984.
“What are you looking for?” I said. He launched into a 15-minute explanation of what he looks for in “good writing.” I can sum it up in 3 points. He’s interested in 1) the writing and the story. A good story that moves, a conversational tone, not a lot of description. He wants 2) quick movement out of the first page. He also wants it 3) tight and whittled down.
Now if I could just keep my internal editor at bay and move the story and string the words along without worrying about whittling it!
I hung out all last weekend on Nashville’s Legislative Plaza, in the shadow of the State Capitol Building, feeling the creative mojo of readers and writers there for the 19th annual Southern Festival of Books. I was in Booth #2, selling books with others who are members of the same organization as I. I sold 21 of my own books.
One of the highlights of the weekend was meeting Casey Clabough, who just published The Warrior’s Path. A year ago, he submitted an excerpt from the book to the online journal I edit, Muscadine Lines. Casey read selections from the book (nice voice, Southern steeped with a pinch of Virginia), an account of the old trace spanning the Iroquois lands of New York down the Appalachian Valley into the Cherokee country of Tennessee and North Georgia … the trail his ancestors traversed en route to the Smoky Mountains in the late 1790s. Casey set out himself to hike more than 500 miles of the route, connecting history, culture, and nature to his own people who followed the trail. The awesome thing about this is that after researching my own family a few years ago, I wanted to do the same thing. My Mahaffeys and Boones were migrating from Pennsylvania to Kentucky in 1799, and the Hardys were migrating from North Carolina to Alabama in 1819. I, too, studied the routes and wanted to walk on the same trails they did, connect with them, connect history to them, and get a sense of my own significant spot in the forming of this great nation. I wasn’t brave enough to set out and do it alone, though.
One of the disappointments of the weekend was that Elizabeth Edwards canceled her session. I truly wanted to meet her and buy her book.
It was great to catch up with Darnell Arnoult (Sufficient Grace), Tennessee Writers Alliance 2007 Writer of the Year, and to visit with Kristin Tubb, Kory Wells, Kay Heck, Jennifer Dix, Nelda Rachels, and Roy Birkhead, all Muscadine Lines writers. Kristin will be at the 2008 SFB with her youth novel set to be released next year. Awesome to be in a group that buzzes with energy!
… when I’ve got so much to do elsewhere? Because it makes sense. I’m a writer, genre of preference: creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is the telling of dramatic, true stories, using scenes, dialog, detailed descriptions, and other artistic techniques employed by poets and fiction writers. I recently attended the 2007 Southern Creative Nonfiction Institute in Oxford, Mississippi, led by Lee Gutkind, the Godfather of the genre, a charismatic man with tousled white hair, white scruffy beard, black-framed glasses, and a tiny round turquoise earring in his left lobe. Lee mentioned that blogging is creative nonfiction, and that set me to thinking. CNF has personal presence, self-exploration, and self-discovery. It is true, it is artful, and it strikes a universal chord. Blogging, a perfect venue! I’ve wanted to do a blog for a long time, but my cup runneth over already with other things, so what does one do when her days are already filled? She adds one more thing! Voila. FIRST DRAFT…Laying Down the Words. Oh yeah, I’m into this. So in addition to work, plus writing an essay each week, plus editing a journal, plus penning the Great American Southern novel, I hope to also lay down words across the page, lay out lines that turn into warm, witty, or wise pieces that will make you laugh, make you cry, but most of all, let you identify.