Alas…

Five ten this morning and I strike a match and stick it to rolled up newspaper in the fire pit on my patio, and it lights the small hackberry branches from Cedar Ridge, twigs gathered from my own backyard, and hickory logs Ken gave me yesterday. I pull on my RHODES TAVERN sweatshirt because it’s a little cool out there, and I sit in my Adirondack with a cup of coffee and a chapter from my memoir, revising. And then it happens.

I get my title.

I cry. And it all falls into place. The structure. The ending. What I need to do to pull it together.

It is so obvious, beautiful, miraculous, meaningful, just perfect, and I cry some more.

I’ve been working on a title for this for five years. Nothing has been right. This is it.

And as the sun nears in the east and the few birch leaves left get nudged by the breeze, I sit there and look at the sky and feel the healing wash over me. Because in a memoir you write to discovery, and I have. I have something meaningful.

Something honest. I’ve wanted to write my subject with honesty since Dinty W. Moore in his workshop at the first Oxford creative nonfiction conference, when asked what he wanted to see in writing, said he wanted to see honesty … in the very thing I am writing about. I’ve been trying to get there for over two years, and I finally am.

And I cry some more. And I breathe in smoke and sniffle and realize that it just takes a little fire to get there.

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The Fire of Writing

“Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” [Rainer Maria Rilke]


Fire Writers

It works well. Fire and writers. Bonfires and readings.

Friday night, we — Currie, Chance, Susie, Colleen, Neil, and I — met in Neil’s pasture around a fire pit he carved out in July. We roasted hot dogs and ate them with potato salad, slaw, and beans. Then Neil made each one of us a s’more.

It was dark. Cold. We heard an owl, we heard coyotes, close, screaming. “That means there was a kill,” I said. Colleen brought her dog, Jazz, and for five hours, we took turns throwing sticks and branches for Jazz to retrieve.

Currie stoking the fire

We took turns adding logs to the fire — even Jazz threw a few in, we roasted marshmallows, we warmed our hands, we drew our circle in tighter. We even sang “Happy Birthday” to Chance and ate cupcakes and listened to musical cards. Mine had the song “Hot Diggity Dog.”

Colleen & Chance in a rare quiet moment

Then we pulled out our stories. And we took turns. We read by firelight and flashlight. We talked about storylines and word choices and novel first chapters and memoir segments.

Neil the Prof

It was quiet in the country, but for our voices and the words we’d put together, but for our laughter and sharing.

Susie taking a picture

Dark, in the country, under a half moon was a perfect setting for Chance’s description of death — as one meets darkness and sees something like a thousand fireflies in a field before him, and each glow is a memory.

This night will be one of those glows.


Ms. Muscadine

I bought a muscadine plant.

It was happenstance. I shopped for groceries last night at Publix and after I loaded them in my Outback, I returned the cart to the inside of the store, even though it was raining and I got wet, because that’s just the way I am. That’s when I saw them — about ten tall plants in black plastic pots sitting against a column in front of the store, raindrops running off their leaves. There were clusters of gold balls on the vine. I thought, No way, it can’t be, not muscadines, here, for sale. I stopped and reached down for the tag. “Muscadine Grape.” I went back inside and paid customer service $14.19, loaded up my selected potted vine and headed home.

So now, the Muscadine Lady has her own vine. Today, I must figure out where to plant it. Maybe tomorrow, I will pop one of those little gold balls in my mouth and savor it.

I first learned of muscadines and scuppernongs on my grandparents’ farm. There were two organized vines, though others trailed through treetops in the woods. One was on the side of the dirt road halfway between Papaw’s and Uncle Rufus’ house, near my great uncle’s barn, growing up a tall post and winding up a tree on a little island of scrub trees and brush between the road and a turn-off lane that led to the barn. I often took my bike to the farm when I visited in late summer and rode to the vine and ate the grapes handpicked and warm. Or I rode the old mare bareback and picked the higher-up fruit. The August sun beat down, my legs rested against Dixie’s warm wet back, and I smelled horse sweat, as I gobbled down the sweet grape.

The other vine was beyond Papaw’s barn, next to the gate that opened to the upper pasture and the pig pen and beyond that, the woods. My cousins and I would pick a handful as we ran down the cow path on our way to wade in the stream or play in the gully.

Those luscious days are long gone, and now, my muscadines are stories in an online journal: Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. I like the rhyme — muscadine and line. “Dine” is pronounced with a long “i.” Some people don’t know that, and say “deen.” I like the clusters of short fiction and creative nonfiction.

Muscadines…reminiscent of those summer days as a girl, a sixth generation Mississippian, on land acquired by my great-great grandfather in 1850, in the red clay hills of Kemper County.


Are You Visible?

This weekend I’m doing a lot of sitting there and looking around. I’m in downtown Nashville at War Memorial Plaza for the Southern Festival of Books. This is the 22nd annual three-day festival with over 200 authors and an anticipated 20,000 guests, many of whom hope to be one of those published authors signing books some day at the colonnade. Those hundreds of books being sold and signed – how does word about a new book get out? How does the reading public find out about a newly published author? Who markets these books? Not the publisher.

The author markets self. And Self must be marketed before the author is published. Before an agent or publisher signs you, he or she will do a Google search on your name to see how often it comes up, to determine what kind of Web presence you have. Publishers can’t do all your promotion. They want some assurance that you will be able to help get the word out about your book (so they can make money).

The author should have a platform. This means that you have an audience, and that you have a vehicle in place to reach that audience when your book is published, or between books. This is important for unpublished writers!

A platform includes a strong Web presence, stories or articles you’ve published, classes you teach, a blog related to you and your writing that you maintain regularly, and any skills or experience you have that makes you an expert in what you’re writing.

How are you different from all the other writers out there?

What defines you? What is your brand? What is your platform?

Platforms take time to establish. Get started now! Write down on a sheet of paper your online involvement (social media) and reading audience, your publication credits, your professional affiliations, education related to your writing, any awards you’ve won, classes or conferences you teach, and speaking engagements you’ve had. Polish this up in a two-column format and keep it with you. Use it when you pitch a book. Update it.

Maximize your visibility as a writer.


Shameless Self-Promotion for Locals

Do you have a story to tell? Stories last forever! Especially well-told stories.

“Creative Nonfiction: Writing My Real Life Stories” is designed not only for people who want to write and preserve family stories, but also for aspiring writers wanting to learn the basics of creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is the telling of true stories in an artful and compelling way. Sessions (4 classes) offer the fun of recalling and reliving memories, as well as solid instruction and hands-on experience—from that scary first blank page to a completed story. Scenemaking, character, dialogue, description, and detail—we study it all!

Write your story; have it coil-bound (or framed!) for a holiday gift! Do it now!

Classes are Wednesdays, November 3, 10, 17, 24 from 10:00 – 11:00 and Wednesdays, December 1, 8, 15 from 10:00 – 11:30, at the Franklin Recreation Center, 1120 Hillsboro Road, Franklin 37064. Cost – $48. Call 615.790.5719 to register.

Classes are led by Kathy Rhodes, author of Pink Butterbeans: Stories from the heart of a Southern woman, editor and publisher of Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal, and co-editor of Gathering: Writers of Williamson County. Rhodes is Founder and Senior Writer/Editor of TurnStyle Writing, Editing & Publishing (turnstylewriters.com) and a co-director of the national Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, November 11-14 (cnfoxford.com).


I Remember.

Lucille Mahaffey Hardy. May 31, 1921 – October 4, 2009.

I’m the type who needs company in remembering. I’ve always been accused of needing drama. I need to be alone some, but I need family. I need family to share memories with, family to understand my hurt and loss, family to share the hurt and loss, family to acknowledge, even family to gather together to do something physical in remembrance. I don’t have this and probably never will. Everybody is either too busy, too engaged in their own lives, too much in need of wrapping themselves up and being alone through it. I don’t even know if they remember what today is. It’s killer-hard to be the only one who needs someone and doesn’t have anyone who shared the person lost…and knows what a loss it is.

So today, I remember alone. I tried reaching out earlier, I’m not going to try today. Today, I will let work take a backseat. Work means nothing. I learned that the hard way. Twenty-six months ago I took a stand that I couldn’t miss work to go take care of my mother on an extended basis — I had a mortgage to pay, I had bills, I had to get that paycheck. So my mother went to a nursing home, entering fully social, walking around, eating, and doing fairly well for an 88-year-old, and three and a half weeks later she was dead. And four months later I lost that job that was so damn important. So screw the job, screw any job. Take care of the people who have been there for you all your life, who have sacrificed for you, who would do it for you now if the shoe were on the other foot.

Today, I put my mother’s pictures back on the shelf. I removed them and packed them away in a plastic container when I thought I was going to sell my house last spring. You can’t have family pictures out when you’ve got potential buyers coming in. Screw that. Screw selling the house, too, for now. I’ll keep on paying this burdensome note. It’s worth it to hold onto something special and familiar.

I made cinnamon rolls this morning. Store bought ones. I don’t usually eat sugary, store-bought stuff during the work week. I’m remembering Mama’s coffee cake…full of cinnamon and pecans and brown sugar…the cake made in a tube pan…and it stood about a foot high. I’ve never been able to make one that good, not in all my years, not with all the recipes I’ve experimented with. Just can’t do it. She could. She could do anything. She did do everything.

Later today, I will make tapioca pudding. Homemade. Because tapioca pudding is my comfort food. When I’m down, sad to the bottom of my core, when I need something warm and comforting, I go to tapioca. Tapioca does that for me. It’s because I remember being a little girl and sitting at Mama’s feet in the kitchen beside the stove, while she stirred tapioca pudding on the front burner. I loved the times when she made tapioca, I love tapioca because of those times with her. I need tapioca today.

Today, I will stain the block of pecan wood that came from my parents’ two pecan trees planted in the backyard in the late Fifties. My son got the piece of wood when the trees had to be cut down after the Great Ice Storm of ’94. I took it away from him, said I needed it more. Now, I will give it its rightful place on my hearth. I remember when the trees were planted. I remember the giant holes in the ground. Circular. Deeper, much deeper than I was tall.

Now there’s a hole in my heart. And in my life. And I don’t think it will ever close. I just don’t think I can fill it in.

Today, one year ago, Mama died. A horrible death. It’s hard enough to get over an easy death. But it is next to impossible to get over a horrible death. A death caused by everyone — every single person involved in her life, including all her doctors — making wrong decisions, doing the wrong things, not doing the right things. Screw us all. Her death shouldn’t have happened as it did, when it did. Screw us all. And screw those of us who have accepted it so easily, and forgotten.

I can’t. And never will.

So today, I will do what I do best. Run it off. Cry. Remember. Alone.

And then somewhere in my house I will tack up the old metal numbers — 807 — that I removed from her house the day we sold it. Somewhere, where I can see them every day. Even though I know I don’t have to see them to remember. Because I can never forget.

That, I can accept. And I can live with the fact that I will hurt until I die.

It takes one in every family to step out and make the effort to bring others together to remember in an open way — to join hearts and hands and share that person. To remember special times together, to tell stories, to share what life lessons were learned, to determine to move forward. It is sad when the request is met with excuses. An excuse is over in a day. A hurt caused by an excuse and a denial of open arms lasts a lifetime and doesn’t heal.