This is my third Thanksgiving without my husband. The fifth without my father, the second without Mama. I’ve trudged through the previous holidays, numb, trying not to feel, not feeling what I wanted to feel. This year, I’m ready to face it head on.
There will be ten around my table. We’ve all experienced great loss. Husband, wife, brother, father, mother, grandmother, grandfather, stepfather. It’s like the past has fallen out from under us. What was normal has been ripped away, and now there’s a new normal.
Filling one of the chairs around my table is a tiny boy, one and a half, who carries forward the name of his great-grandfather and his stepfather, both of whom died before they knew about this child. But here he is, walking, talking, laughing, taking things apart, riding his four wheeler, and he and his twin sister are carrying us, the older ones, into a future where everything is new. This boy and girl are symbols of springs that come after winters, of fresh life that comes out of an empty void.
How do we let the old go? We don’t. It’s always there, our base, part of us. But we’ve gotten this far by calling up every bit of substance within us, shouldering into it, and taking steps. We walk, we move ahead, we embrace the new and find joy in it.
Life is brief, fragile, and unrepeatable. Don’t we know it. This Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful that I am able to grasp it and hold it and cherish it.
I like getting up at 4:30, taking a cup of coffee upstairs to my office, sitting at the computer next to the tall ceiling-to-floor window. I pull up the blinds so that there’s “world” next to me — the street that cuts away and slips behind the island with oaks that I named Rhodes Island, the light pole tucked away in brown leaves and acorns, and a view to the end of Wimbledon Circle before an arc takes it out of sight. It’s a dark world that early, and no one else is up. I like it this quiet. I like to watch the paper man come. I can hear his car motor humming along fast and then he swings in front of my house and WHAP! the newspaper hits the aggregate and slides like a player trying to reach third before the ball gets there. Thuds follow him on down the street. I like watching the sky in the east, across the street from my window, take on a shade of blue and lighten. And while all this is happening, I am writing — right now a book proposal for a memoir — and I love this time because it is silent — only the sounds of my breathing and the computer breathing — and I am more creative in the early hours, and that’s what I am thankful for today. The early hours.
He is a black beauty, but his name is Forrest, after a Confederate general, because all Neil’s horses are named after such. He’s fifteen hands high, he’s gentle, and he loves carrots.
My friend Julie Gillen attended the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, totally immersed herself in the classes, panels, people, and charm of the town, and then like the rest of us, had to say good-bye. She got to do one thing I didn’t get to do — go to Rowan Oak at night and linger near where Faulkner wrote, and soak in the spirit on the porch of the tall white house. I did get to eat at Ajax with Julie and others of the Nashville Writers Alliance–catfish and black-eyed pea cakes. Julie captures her feelings in the following Guest Blog.
Leaving the Writer’s Conference
by Julie Gillen
The single-cup coffee maker drips into my cup, as if to say goodbye – see you next year – or maybe never. There is always that possibility.
I compare and contrast the then and the now … the then of the perfect fall day on the Ole Miss campus – college kids scurrying about like squirrels – sun filtering through the Grove – and me skipping school to boot.
Ahhhh, the reminder of the newness of the old, waiting in the car while Katy [daughter] drops off her application for grad school – waiting, watching, remembering.
Later that evening, alone at the writer’s conference, I meet someone – four people in fact — and suddenly I am in love. These people understand me and there is talk … and laughter and drinks and hors d’oeuvres,and mingling and jingling and the spouting off of your best lines and life experiences.
The reminder of the newness of the old.
There’s dinner and drinks with your new love – a walk through the magic of the college town at night – still warm, still autumn, still perfect, still young and still new.
And the next day it rains, just a tad. Your new love does not dwindle, but it looks around a bit and goes in its own direction, just like you.
You sit together during the sessions, a couple here and there – skipping a bit or two – but you all hook up and go to dinner again in the one car and the drizzle of the night. You eat, you drink, and you wonder if they are thinking about their old loves, back home.
Romance is short and sweet, for sure.
Still, you are in love – your relationship is maturing. You all hop in the car and drive out to Rowan Oak at night like a bunch of kids – banging on the door looking for Faulkner.
God, Faulkner is sick of this. You all go back to the Inn and say good night and go to your own rooms because you are tired, you are old. The clock on the nightstand says 8:30 p.m.
You pack your things so you won’t have to do it in the morning – it’s always worse in the mornings – the sound of goodbye – the absolute closure of the gathering – the parting of the ways.
So here you sit in your white bathrobe from that last conference in L.A. – drinking a cup of coffee and getting dressed and writing all at the same time.
Was it 7 or 7:30 you were supposed to meet them? You really should write this stuff down, Julie.
So it’s time to step into your final outfit and zip up the suitcase. Haul your stuff out to the car, meet your new love for breakfast before returning to your old one.
It’s okay, it’s all good. You are a changed person and you have new friends. You just dread that checkout , like a shot in the butt that will sting but will ultimately make you stronger, better, and more immune to the dark realities of life.
~ Julie Gillen
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Sometimes a picture can capture the spirit of a place or event, and here are a few that give it that old college try (Ole Miss, that is), showing who was there and what they did — some memories of the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi.
See you all in 2012!
The campus of the University of Mississippi was on fire with fall, and more than 100 writers there for the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference were on fire with a passion to write and publish their stories. We all took stories to Oxford with us.
Walking from the Inn at Ole Miss to Overby Center to the student union over a quilt of leaves, I couldn’t help but feel a pull. Leaves red and orange above me, yellow and brown blowing around my feet, like times were changing, cooling, settling down to winter, yet I felt that struggle, like a birth or rebirth, like things are ratcheting up, as if it were spring with new life. Others felt it, too.
By the end of the weekend, we were all ready to go home and write.
The Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference was an outstanding success from my perspective as a participant, as well as co-director of the event. I left the quaint Mississippi hill-town with a clear picture of where I need to go with my memoir. I heard so many others say the same thing.
We all left Oxford inspired to focus on the writing. It is all about the writing, we heard over and over. The writing must be good. Books get published because they are well written. As I drove home up the Natchez Trace from Tupelo to Nashville, I kept pressing the accelerator harder as I reviewed the weekend, trying to figure out just what made this conference so super-above-all-the-others-I’ve-attended.
First of all, everywhere I looked while on campus I saw smiling, happy faces. What a bunch of positive, upbeat people, all determined to take their projects to success.
Secondly, this conference seemed to go straight to the irreducible minimum of writing, being creative. Be patient, write, get it right before you do anything with it.
I heard Lee speak about his writing schedule. I’ve heard him tell this before, but this time, he seemed to punch the point home. Lee Gutkind, the “godfather” behind the genre of creative nonfiction, gets up at 4:30 AM and writes until he has to be somewhere. It’s a ritual for him; he works every single day, even Sundays and Christmas — you have to write to be productive, he says. It’s like practicing the piano. You can’t expect to be an accomplished pianist unless you stay at it, spend consistent time with it. Many of our presenters were university professors, and they are all dedicated to rigid writing schedules built around their daily classes. I devote my early mornings — from 5 till 7 — to writing, as well, and am wondering if I should feel guilty about not writing on Thanksgiving or Christmas, and as I’m feeling this twinge of guilt, I’m thinking that maybe I have written on those special holiday mornings.
Many of the presenters mentioned that in the evening before they go to bed, they prepare for the writing they will do when they wake up the next morning. I’ve done this, too, and my days are so organized and productive.
I am inspired by the quality of writers and writing represented in Oxford. The people who attended have a passion for their work, a passion for storytelling, and they are committed to seeing the writing process through to being published. All of them, every single one. They were all anxious, but eager to pitch their projects to the eleven agents and editors/publishers at the Pitch Fest.
I am uplifted by the positivism shown by the presenters in light of a publishing industry in turmoil. Things are rapidly changing on all fronts in the book world. Davis Kidd in Nashville is closing. Barnes and Noble is up for sale. Independents are evaporating at the rate of 20% a year. Three days ago, the New York Times announced that there is now a best-seller list for e-books. David Magee says that hardcover books are the most romantic things in the world, and I agree, but we’re moving to electronic readers — the Kindle, the Nook, the IPad. We must embrace that; these are opportunities, not evils. The death of a book does not mean the death of literature.
I am assured that in one venue or another in this changing industry, all the concepts and stories that went to Ole Miss for a four-day conference and floated on air waves above leaves crunching on campus sidewalks and sidewalks on the Square downtown, in Off-Square Books above a sleeping Mamacita — all will find a home.
Five days. In five days I will drive to Oxford. All the months of planning, promoting, and posting about it — and it’s finally here. Four days of creative nonfiction … bringing Lee Gutkind back to the South, bringing the top leaders in America in this genre to one quaint town in the Mississippi hills, bringing agents, editors, and publishers to share their knowledge on the state of publishing today.
As a co-director of the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference (Nov. 11-14), it has been my job to talk it up, to tell about it at every venue I have attended, every speaking engagement, and every workshop I’ve led. People who follow me on Facebook know it’s all I’ve talked about for months, except for an occasional motorcycle ride with 12 men, the grandtwins in their pumpkin costumes, and the one-thousand-dollar oil change.
All that talk — and with the other co-directors doing the same and even more of it [Neil White and Susan Cushman] — has paid off. Nearly 100 people — more with volunteers and presenters — will descend on Oxford later this week for workshops, panels, social events, Thacker Mountain Radio, and a pitch fest. Writers are coming from every corner of America…from Maine to Washington, from Florida to California. Seventeen will attend from my state of Tennessee.
One of my tasks (and what a pleasure!) as a co-director has been organizing Dinty W. Moore’s workshop on Friday. It’s manuscript critiquing, and all 12 people in the class have submitted ten pages to workshop; the essays and memoir excerpts all came to me, and I disbursed them to Dinty and to each class member, after, of course, reading a bit myself, only to discover the quality of writing we’ll experience at this conference and the passion of the writers for the genre. The class has gotten acquainted online; folks have shared about themselves in emails and many of us have friended each other on Facebook. I call them Dinty’s Dozen. The Dozen will meet for dinner before the critiquing class and will walk into the classroom knowing something about the others.
This will be my third experience with creative nonfiction in Oxford. I attended “The 5 R’s” in 2007 when Lee Gutkind first came to the South to teach. My blog started as a result of this: Lee said to start one, that blogging is creative nonfiction. I also attended the first Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford in 2008, similar to this one — Lee as key speaker and many of the same presenters returning. These have been mountaintop experiences, and I have high hopes for this week!
Five days. Five days. A week from tomorrow and it will all be over. How can that be? How much can I absorb between now and then? Got to make every moment count. Network, connect, listen, learn, lift my writing to a higher level, stretch myself, take in more and more, hang on every word, grow in the genre, love it even more.