Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference

Yes, it has a brand new name! Instead of Mid-South, this big gathering of creative nonfiction writers from all over the country will honor the town that is making it all possible! A town rich in writing tradition. Oxford, Mississippi.

Neil White, Kathy Rhodes, Susan Cushman

Neil White of Oxford, Susan Cushman of Memphis, and I (Kathy Rhodes of Franklin TN) met yesterday at Neil’s beautiful office at Nautilus Publishing in the Plein Air development of the artsy community of Taylor, south of Oxford, near Thacker Mountain, to plan, to develop a schedule, to determine our guest speakers.

Charming Artsy Downtown Taylor — the famous grocery and art galleries

Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference
November 11-14, 2010
Ole Miss Campus, Oxford MS

The conference will begin Thursday afternoon with a 4-hour class on creating scenes in creative nonfiction, taught by Neil White. Then Thursday night there’s the Thacker Mountain radio show. All day Friday, there will be four different manuscript workshops, led by Dinty W. Moore, Kristen Iverson, Neil White, and one other, TBA later. Saturday — Lee Gutkind will teach from 8-12, and in the afternoon, there will be a panel of 6 agents, editors, and publicists on the realities of publishing, moderated by Dinty W. Moore. Then, one-on-ones with the agents and editors! Sunday morning, there will be two panels: Writers Off the Page (markets for CNF) and Writers On the Page (the craft of CNF). A detailed schedule with costs for each day is forthcoming. But for the whole conference, the cost is $350 — and there’s an earlybird special of $325 for those who wish to sign up now! Checks can be mailed to Oxford CNF Conference, PO Box 40, Taylor MS 38673. (A website with PayPal is being set up for those who wish to pay by plastic.)

Confirmed staff to-date: Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, David Magee, Kristen Iverson, Neil White, Stella Connell, and Jeff Kleinman, with 6 others in the wings but not quite yet confirmed.

Conference Co-directors Neil White, Kathy Rhodes, Susan Cushman

Watch for more details and for a new Facebook fan page and in the meantime, if you have questions, please email me! For now, mark your calendar if you have not done so and consider reserving your spot early! Space is limited in some of the classes.

Neil, Susan, and I had a great planning session, lunch at Emileigh’s (thanks, Neil!), and then browsed at the Tin Pan Alley antique shop, where Susan and I shared a fun moment on a swinging bed. Yes, a swinging day bed! How I would love to have that on my porch! (How I would love to have a porch!) Alice who owns the shop wants to attend our conference and write her real life stories — and how we hope she will!

We hope you will sign up, too! I am so pleased and excited about our lineup and look forward to sharing ALL the details with you!

Creativity Takes Time

“Creativity takes time.”

This comes from Charlotte Rains Dixon, novelist, writing coach, blogger, who is coaching herself in her own novel-writing process right now because there are times when all of us have a hard time making a go of it.

I’ve been so busy lately with contracted writing that I have neglected my own creative flow. My blog posts have not been as regular as I had committed to in the beginning. My novel is once again on the back burner, and I fear it has been left too long out of preservation. My essay/memoir collection is growing mold. The days are going by swiftly, and my desk remains cluttered with Chapter Three of this work project and Chapter Four of that one. My head is also cluttered.

For me creativity takes time. I need to sit and just think—preferably outdoors, in nature where things sing and fly and crawl and grow and flow, caught up in movement and dynamic change. Think. It’s how I smooth myself out as a person—clear those sharp edges that keep me from being what I want to be. It’s how I make sense out of life when there is no sense in it. It’s then when thoughts come into my head that allow me to take one more step, whether writing that essay or making a decision.

Yesterday I walked down a quiet country road to a creek and a washed-out bridge. I went around the fence-block erected where the road abruptly stopped. Way down below, the river babbled onward, flowing with urgency, tripping over itself the current was coming so fast. I watched and thought how it smooths the rocks that stick up jagged at its surface. I watched as it moved forward to whatever was around that next bend, hell-bent to get there.

I love rivers. I learn from them. I’ve watched as other rivers move. They pick up leaves, sticks, and carry them along, twirling them about in surface speed, while fish swim in the calm just under the frenzied flow. The rains come, and the river moves faster to carry it all, to take it where it can be processed, where it is all smoothed out and quiet again and some sense of normalcy is reached.

I vow to sit by a river this week. Any river, anywhere. To take my pencil and paper and while life rushes in front of me, let my thoughts come as I sit at its edge and do nothing but listen. And write those thoughts down.

Because creativity takes time.

Hail and High Winds

The mention of it constricts my breathing and quickens my pulse. Bad weather frightens me, as well as fascinates me. All that power. Enough to make sane people stop what they’re doing and track red on radar coming at them.

When my children were little and we lived in a house with a long hallway and a cedar closet, many times as a storm approached, I yanked them up and stuck them in that dark enclosure pressed against and between hanging clothes, poor little guys probably scared to pieces and trembling as they were instilled with the fear of lightning and thunder and worried about their mama, out watching the dark clouds roil. It was a far cry from my childhood when my friend Mary Sue’s mother would make us sit on a foam rubber pillow during a thunderstorm because we’d be safe then.  We could still play paperdolls and draw pictures.

One afternoon when my kids were elementary age, one was in school two blocks from home and one at a private academy twenty miles away,  and a tornado was headed straight across I-20 toward us all. I couldn’t go get my younger one because even at dismissal time, they locked the school down, and with the older one, there was nothing I could do but picture him in that flat prefab aluminum building with twisting winds surrounding him. I sat on my den floor and watched TV radar, choked down some breaths, called some other mothers for support, realized that all the children would be huddled in the halls praying, and when the storm passed, all I could think to do was call the town’s police station and ask, “Can you please tell me if the academy is still standing?” It was.

Then came the night of a bad storm and straight-line tornadic winds and sirens going off, when my son who was home from college got up in the middle of the night with me, and he watched the black sky out the back door, while I kept watch out the front and the TV showed the inching red…and my husband slept soundly. That storm blew my fence down and laid a corkscrew willow across my patio and uprooted my neighbor’s hundred-year-old hackberry, as my child, my dog, and I huddled in my tiny bathroom…and my husband slept soundly.

Then there was the ’98 Nashville tornado, a full day’s outbreak of storms. As I backed out of the driveway to head to work across from Centennial Park where the storm hit, I heard the first alert of the day on the car radio. I pulled back into the garage, went inside and said to my husband who was showering, “We’re in a tornado warning and I’m driving right into it,” and then I left again before he could think to say a word. I only worked mornings, so when the Big One hit, I wasn’t there, but heard tales the following day of how the architects stood at the big glass windows and watched the birds fly backwards.

I’ve watched the movie Twister at least a thousand times. (I do love disaster movies.)

I don’t like it when the Weather Channel says STRONG STORMS for Saturday and when the Main Street Festival folks assign those of us who will be manning a booth a shelter to go to during a tornado warning.

Creative Nonfiction Classes

The days are ticking down, and in 17 of them, I will begin teaching classes at the Franklin Rec Center on Hillsboro Road. I will soon be counting the minutes! I have wanted to do this for a long time at this particular venue, but never had the opportunity or the time to pursue it. Well, baby, I do now!

The classes are meant for ANYONE who wants to write their real life stories — for the writer who wants to learn the basics of the genre of creative nonfiction and how to write it better … for the mother or grandmother/father or grandfather who wishes to write down and preserve their personal or family stories … for the person who has an idea to pursue or an adventure to tell about. Funny stories, poignant stories, tender stories. Real life stories.

Creative nonfiction is the telling of true stories in an artful and compelling way. Sessions will offer not only the fun of recalling and reliving memories, but also solid instruction and hands-on experience — from that scary first blank page to a completed story.

It’s for writers. It’s for those who are not necessarily writers and who are a little bit intimidated by that empty sheet of white paper with thin blue lines on it.

“Writing My Real Life Stories” is a 3-session course — May 5, May 12, and May 26 — from 10 a.m. until 11:15 a.m. — at the Franklin Recreation Complex at 1120 Hillsboro Road. The cost is $48. To register, call 790-5719, Ext. 10.

Telling stories comes naturally. When we tell our stories, we are remembering, reviewing, reliving, and reflecting back like silver mirrors. We are doing something important. We are leaving a legacy.

Nothing lasts forever until it is written down.

Come, Nashville area folks! Join us! And spread the word.

Throwing Away

The hardest thing to throw away was the box of electrical stuff. All the components that one would use to install outlets — the receptacles, the boxes, indoor electrical wiring — other things I don’t even know the names of. What would I ever do with them? And I certainly don’t want my sons messing around with those things…

Those things that were part of my life with an electrical engineer. He installed outlets in the garage or anywhere in the house he thought we needed one. I think he just wanted to do it because he could. It fascinated me. His engineering mind fascinated me. I wasn’t ready for that life to be over. It was taken from me.

My garage is still filled with boxes and tools and supplies that belonged to him. I still do not know how to throw away one’s life. But yesterday I made another attempt. I pulled out box after box, opened each one, studied the contents, and with each drop into the trash can, I’d say, I’m sorry Charlie.

The odd thing, I didn’t feel as bad about it as I did the last time. Three weeks ago when I went through this same process, I cried, with tears dripping all over my face and wetting my shirt. How do you throw away someone’s life. I feel as though I am throwing that person away. But that person is already gone. Can I make him last longer if I don’t throw away his stuff? It hasn’t been used in 21 months. It has to be done.

And so I pioneer yet another phase in my life. That of throwing away all the things that meant so much to someone who kept everything he ever had in case he might need it. Someone whose life I cared about. Someone whose things I respect.

And I remember times that I’d stand in the garage with him in years past and say just sort of teasing, You know if anything ever happens to you I’m going to throw all this stuff away.

And I can’t remember his answer. I think he’d just look at me for a moment and say he wouldn’t need it anymore then. Why can’t I remember what he said? Maybe it would help me now.

Jillie Bean

I don’t have a daughter. I’ve got two sons, so I’m comfortable grabbing up the boy twin and playing airplane and carrying him facing forward on my hip and letting him squirm down out of my arms. And then there’s the girl twin…

I’ve said on more than one occasion while shopping at Target, “Someone needs to pick me up and carry me out of here before I buy everything on the racks.” She’s fun to shop for. I get lots of pink.

Jillie in the swimsuit I bought her

She’s also the one who has some of my characteristics. She’s got my dad’s blue eyes that are turning green like mine. She’s dramatic. She’s embarrassed easily and a little shy. She doesn’t like to get in trouble; she wants to do everything right and pleasing. She’s verbal, loves music and rhyme and words.

“Shake it,” I say, and she dances. “Where’s your belly?” She pats it. “Where’s your foot?” She looks down at it. “Where’s your ear?” She points to it. “Hi,” I say. “Hi,” she says.

I sing. “The eency weency spider climbs up the water spout…” She puts her fingers together like a spider climbing. She tries to twist them and make them walk up. I stand and sing and act out, “I’m a little teapot, round and stout. Here is my handle, here is my spout. When I get all steamed up, then I shout. Tip me over and pour me out.” She watches intently. It’s catchy. She likes anything catchy.

When I say good-bye to her, I tell her to be a good girl and when I come back, we’ll do more of the teapot song. I tell her to keep on practicing the eency weency spider song. She’s sitting on my lap facing me and she puts her fingers together like the spider getting ready to climb and looks at me all proud.

Little Blessings

One year ago the evening of April 8, I got a text message from the delivery room that said, “theyre here.” With that, I was a grandmother. Twins. The little boy was 4 pounds 4 ounces. The little girl was 5 pounds 12 ounces.  I was there to bring them both home from the hospital. I was there for the first week of their lives.  I’ve been there fairly often during the last year — not often enough, but enough to bond.

The year has flown by. Jillian Dawson and Winston Hardy are now one. Their party was fun and happy, with beautiful cakes and dozens of balloons and a sandbox and a swimming pool for washing off in after they ate their bumblebee and ladybug cakes. Yes, they each had their own little cake.

I’m a long distance grandmother like my parents always were. I’d rather be closer to watch them grow and change daily, but that likely will not happen. So after partying hard and then a breakfast of blueberry pancakes and a bike ride, I packed up the Outback and headed north up the Natchez Trace.

It felt good to cross that Tennessee line. I rolled down the windows, let the wind whip my hair, turned up the Notting Hill soundtrack — my late husband’s (the original Winston) favorite movie — as loud as I could stand it and sang along…

“The smile on your face lets me know that you need me, there’s a truth in your eyes sayin you’ll never leave me, the touch of your hand says you’ll catch me if ever I fall, You say it best, when you say nothin at all.”

Sweet Sunday, sweet babies…

“It’s amazing how you can speak right to my heart…”

Born to be…


Harley and Me

Moon in my Yard

The orange moon will be coming up in the front yard. I’m out back, for now. It’s periwinkle dusk, a time when the whole world hangs in stillness. The sun has long gone down, one lone bird sings a last chorus, and a coolness is settling around.

I’m sitting in front of the chimenea on the patio. I’ve built a fire. I can’t build fires. For two years I’ve had the same wood in the pottery fireplace and every few months, I’ll try to adjust it and restart. Doesn’t work. This fire is nice. I started with newspaper, added a few small twigs, then a couple of logs. It blazes.

Heat sinks into my face. I look closely at flickering blue dancing atop a log, glowing orange inside the wood, and yellow silk fingering upwards in a rush, hurry, burn, hurry. What was once a living thing is charred, gray, powdered ash. I cry, and my tears are warm.

Above, the first star appears. Then another, and now many show up at once. I want to stay right here, sleep outside under these stars, under this sky, under the trees, because in a few days, leaves will cover it all up. I want to hold this moment before another change takes it away from me. By the time that big orange moon gets to the backyard, it will be high and out of my reach.