Thoughts from the SFB in downtown Nashville

It was hot!

This is the twentieth year for the Southern Festival of Books, when Legislative Plaza comes alive with more than 200 authors and their new books. The crowd swells as people walk from booth to booth browsing books, to sessions led by authors, to the food tents where the smell of fish and chips rises and hangs. A popular place on a hot Saturday was the fresh icy lemonade booth.

Kristin O'Donnell Tubb

Kristin O'Donnell Tubb

Kristin O’Donnell Tubb led a session Saturday afternoon about her new Young Adult novel Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different — a lovely little hardback with the coolest cover ever. Her release date is days away and she was not expecting to have her books at the festival…but she was ecstatically surprised to see a stack of them at the signing colonnade and went into a photographing frenzy, snapping pictures of Autumn on the tables among thousands of others at this, the biggest book event in the South. Maybe the world. Currie, Chance, and I took a moment to share the excitement with her, to buy a book, to have it signed. She was gracious to put our names in the Acknowledgments as being in the first critique group to lay eyes on the manuscript.

One of the biggest hits at this year’s festival is the T-shirt booth: It’s All About Books — novelty items for book lovers. Star and her friends, understanding what this event is all about, displayed stylish and colorful shirts printed with the most apropros sayings: LIT HAPPENS, BOOK SLUT, REAL DIVAS READ, and several others. Below, Barbara is holding the blue shirt and Andrea has the book slut one. I wanted one of those so bad, but chickened out and bought a Lit Happens. So did Currie and Chance.

Festival T-Shirts

Festival T-Shirts by It's All About Books

This is the second year the Council for the Written Word has had an exhibition tent. We are a nonprofit group that promotes writers and the art of writing in Williamson County and beyond. We hold two workshops a year and a critique group and we maintain a Bibliography of every writer who has ever lived in Williamson County and published a book, and we are the only county in the state of Tennessee to do this. Our members have an opportunity to display and sell their published works. I sold eight Pink Butterbeans on Saturday. It was fun to spend the day in the tent with Bill Peach, who knows everybody and everything, and if it ever gets dull, he can keep us entertained with his stories. And he’s got stories. He wore his “O” button yesterday. Can you guess what that stands for? Mm-hm, Obama.

One of my biggest delights was having Franklin’s beloved poet Susie Sims Irvin, a Council for the Written Word Hall of Fame honoree, sign her new children’s book Too Tall Alice…to save for the grandchildren now “in production.”

River, Currie, Kathy

River Jordan's Radio Show, BACKSTORY

To cap the day, Currie and I went on River Jordan‘s radio show to talk about our books and writing groups. River’s BACKSTORY RADIO, 98.9 WRFN-LPFM, Radio Free Nashville, broadcasted live from the midst of the signing colonnade. I’m not a great one to do an interview, but it was fun. Thanks, River, for the opportunity! I first met River several years ago the week before a Southern Festival. Her first novel The Gin Girl was just being released and she’d be doing a reading at the festival. She wanted a practice run-through so, having just moved to Nashville, she brought her galley to our Barnes & Noble writers reading night and read from it. It was a delight to meet her then and is always a delight to see her at writerly events now and then, as we all write, read, teach, and lead.

Currie and Kathy on radio's BACKSTORY

Currie and Kathy on radio

This is how Lit Happens.

He writes stories.

“I write stories,” he said.

This man with a turquoise earring and a passion for venti Starbucks Pike brews and old “Law and Order” episodes awakens at 4:30 every morning — because sleep is a waste of time — and writes a story every day.

“I’m not sure I’ve told you yet,” he continued, pacing his syllables as in a chant, a glint of mischief in his eyes, “but the building blocks of creative nonfiction are scenes and stories.”

He’d said it at least eleven times. It was a point he wanted to make.

“The smart writer sucks the reader in and manipulates the reader.” He paused for emphasis. “Catch the readers, tell them a story. Make the story as good as you can, make the readers want to hear the end. But don’t tell them.”

Black marker in hand, he paced to the left, then to the right, his steps in cadence with his words. He wore a black mock turtleneck and a dark gold linen blazer — was it planned, did he know Vanderbilt’s colors, should he have worn orange on a fall Saturday in Tennessee? Oh God, not even I remembered to wear orange. (Wait. This is a tangent. Let me stop here.)

Lee Gutkind talks about CNF.

Lee Gutkind talks about CNF.

“Stories are elastic. Pliable. Sometimes a story can be stretched out so much you can put other stories in it. Nine, ten, twelve, fifteen stories can be framed within a story. The frame is your container for all the other stories.”

I gripped my pen. I scribbled the words across the blue lines of my notebook paper, so fast they slanted left instead of right. I held my breath so I could write faster.

“Have some idea of where you want the story to go. But let the story take you where it needs to go.”

I smiled and nodded agreement. It happens all the time to me. The story takes over the wheel, pulls away left or right, ventures off down its own path, and I’m holding on to the back bumper, laughing at it, letting it go, stumbling along happily with it. It surprises me every time, and I love it. It’s what being a writer is all about.

Lee Gutkind led the Council for the Written Word‘s 15th Annual Fall Workshop, and there were 110 people in attendance. Lee taught the workshop in the same way he encouraged us to write creative nonfiction — in scenes and stories. Because the building blocks of creative nonfiction are scenes and stories.

CWW Fall Workshop with Lee Gutkind

CWW Fall Workshop with Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is a pioneer in the genre of creative nonfiction. He taught the first college course in the genre at the University of Pittsburgh in 1973. He founded the creative nonfiction program and MFA degree in the genre at Pitt—the first in the world, copied by universities nationwide. He is the former director of the writing program at Pitt and currently professor of English there. He has traveled worldwide to conduct workshops and to introduce the creative nonfiction movement in spots all over the globe.

In 2007, he brought creative nonfiction to the South — to Oxford, Mississippi. In 2008, he brought creative nonfiction to Franklin, Tennessee. (And I got to introduce him!)

Lunch Break at CWW Workshop

Lunch Break at CWW Workshop

Lee Gutkind coined the term creative nonfiction. Lee Gutkind is the Godfather of creative nonfiction.

Lee Gutkind writes stories. Because the building blocks of creative nonfiction are scenes and stories.


Friday evening a few of us enjoyed dinner at the Boxwood Bistro at The Factory in Franklin. We ate shrimp and grits and popcorn ice cream in a private dining room and talked till midnight.

Private Dining at Boxwood Bistro

Private Dining at Boxwood Bistro

Colleen, Dave, Sharon, Jim, Suzanne, Lee, Kathy

Colleen, Dave, Sharon, Jim, Suzanne, Lee, Kathy

The Many Faces of Making a Book

The last two Saturday evenings have been spent in the far back cramped corner of the Bronte Cafe at Barnes and Noble. The Selection Committee for the anthology the Council for the Written Word will publish in September of 2009 has met to discuss and Reject or Accept or Accept with Revisions (because some just may not quite be ready for prime time and some may not fit with the overall voice of the book and we did have so many!), stories by our members and Hall of Fame honorees. In a place of books — thousands of them — we are making yet another.

Poring over Manuscripts

Poring over Manuscripts

Bill offers wisdom on the Big Picture, Nancy is the queen of beginnings, Currie keeps the standards high even though she is the bearer of good or bad news, Angela tells it straightforward in her delightful British accent, and I laugh at her succinct summaries while submitting my own editing suggestions, and Louise keeps it soft and keeps us in line.

The Selection Committee

The Selection Committee

It’s a lot of work, it will hold us captive for a while, but it is rewarding to watch an anthology of maybe 25 or 30 writers take shape. It’s fun to let it trickle toward title and cover and to know that one day, the culmination of all our hard and diligent efforts will be sitting on a shelf at Barnes and Noble, not too far from where it was conceived.

And so we work … and agree … and disagree … and laugh at each other … and melt to the consensus of the group. And we compile a stack of stories to send on to our editing teams.

Kathy, Bill, Angela

Kathy, Bill, Angela

Kathy, Currie, Bill

Kathy, Currie, Bill

Angela, Nancy, Kathy, Louise

Angela, Nancy, Kathy, Louise

Find the Good

A book.

We’re publishing a book. We’ve got a publisher lined up. We’ve got committees in place to select the stories and choose a title and edit the manuscript. We’ve even got a professional editor lined up to proof the manuscript next spring. Our yet-unnamed book will debut in September, 2009. This is a good thing.

This venture belongs to the Council for the Written Word, a nonprofit organization with a mission of encouraging, educating, and empowering writers. I am president for 2008-2009, when this project will be active and will see fruition. The book will be an anthology of short fiction and creative nonfiction written by our members and by the noted authors who have been selected for our Hall of Fame of Williamson County writers.

Yesterday, the Selection Committee met for the first time in the atrium of The Factory. Louise, Currie, Nancy, Angela, Bill, and I have the honor of reading every submitted story and selecting those appropriate for the anthology. We left the meeting on a high — with the first 8 stories — well-told, unique, memorable!

One story in particular that provided encouragement to me was written by Alana White. In it she mentions a quote from the bottom of Alex Haley’s letterhead: “Find the good — and praise it.”

For me, the GOOD came when I checked my mailbox yesterday after arriving home from the meeting. I pulled a brown manila envelope from the stack. It was from a high school classmate whom I have not seen in xx years. In the enclosed letter he sent condolences about my husband. He lives near the nation’s capital now, and he’s been reading my blog (where he learned of my husband’s death) after he saw a newspaper article about my book Pink Butterbeans in our hometown paper, the Bolivar Commercial, three years ago. Most of my stories are about the Mississippi Delta, from whence he hails, as well. We were post-war babies and grew up in the 50s and 60s in that hot, flat land — it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. My memories are fond ones, though, and it is good to re-connect with those who were part of those days.

JPH, you made my day! Thanks!

CWW Workshop with Darnell Arnoult

CWW Workshop with Darnell Arnoult

I’ll tell you one thing for sure — Darnell Arnoult can lead a good workshop!

CWW Workshop


CWW Workshop 2

The Council for the Written Word had its sixth annual spring fiction workshop this morning. Darnell led our first spring workshop in 2003, and in the intervening five years, she has published a book of poetry and a great American Southern novel, Sufficient Grace, and among other honors and achievements, she was the 2007 Tennessee Writers Alliance’s Writer of the Year.

Darnell Arnoult

The colorful cover of Darnell’s hardback novel featured a birdhouse. Susie was in charge of decorations and food and had her husband build two birdhouses to decorate with, and we used one for a door prize and gave one to Darnell. Susie employed one of the book’s themes — food and baking — to prompt her decorating ideas, as she scattered old needlework doilies and cloths and aprons about the room, and served several kinds of pound cake (and of course, the obligatory Krispy Kremes!). There was food in every scene of the book — Darnell said she gained twenty pounds writing it. Susie, Currie, Colleen, Angela, and I were in charge of putting together the event. We’ve been doing these for so long that we can almost read each other’s minds and know where to divide the responsibilities based on the talents of each. (Like when we blew a fuse in the classroom due to three coffee pots going at full speed, Currie was naturally the one to find the fuse box and fix it!)

Darnell Arnoult leading workshop

Darnell not only puts energy in her own writing, but she fills her presentation with it. And speaking of energy … a novel, she says, should open with a confident voice, a specific event, and an early hook — something that will make the reader want to move forward.

If you have an impulse for a novel, Darnell continues, it will only get you fifty pages. After that, the impulse loses its gas, and at that point, novel writing is hard because you have to start pulling things out of the air. So from experience and observation, you pull in specifics with which you can bring in colorful and memorable details (and you get these from looking through the little notebook you are supposed to keep in your purse or pocket to record all the interesting and unusual details that happen during your days). Once you’ve written a scene, you go through the manuscript with a red pen and circle every meaningful specific, every image you can see vividly in your mind. Then you hold the page out and squint at it. When you see big holes with no red, look for a meaningful specific to add.

Darnell and Kathy


This afternoon, I called my mother and told her I had a workshop this morning. She said, “Well, I bought pork chops when you were down here last week and you wouldn’t eat them!”

I’m thinking that should go in the little notebook in my purse.

Fiction Crossroads

I just love it when things turn out so dandy!

The Council for the Written Word‘s sixth annual Spring Fiction Workshop is March 29, eleven weeks from today, and we are good to go. Everything is perfectly in line. We even have 24 people signed up so far.

Sufficient Grace

Darnell Arnoult is the featured speaker this year. “The Fiction Crossroads: Where Imagination and Craft Intersect” is the title of her presentation. Darnell’s novel is Sufficient Grace, and her book of poetry is What Travels With Us.

Currie, Colleen, Susie, and I met yesterday at Merridee’s in downtown Franklin to put the finishing touches on the workshop. I sipped Italian coffee and unrolled a cinnamon bun, savoring each bite, letting each sweet and spicy piece melt in my mouth. We went through our checklists to make sure everyone was in gear. Susie is in charge of the food and decorations. She enlisted her husband to build birdhouses to decorate with, because there’s a birdhouse on the hardback cover of Darnell’s book. We’ll give one away as a doorprize. I’m going to make certain my name is in that drawing, as I love birdhouses and have a collection in my backyard. There are only six in that collection, so I could use another. (Maybe there will be sufficient grace for me to win.)

“Get some of those pastel malted milk candy Easter eggs to go with the birdhouses,” Colleen suggested. And thus we slid into that genuinely creative spirit that makes all our workshops so much fun to plan and to attend.

Darnell Arnoult


Darnell led our first CWW spring workshop in 2003, held in the old public library at Five Points in Franklin, as they were boxing up and getting ready to move into the brand new Williamson County Public Library. Since then, Darnell has published her novel, which got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a nomination for 2007 SIBA Fiction Book of the Year, and a nomination for 2006 Weatherford Prize in Appalachian Literature. Darnell was selected as the Tennessee Writers Alliance’s 2007 Writer of the Year. I saw her at the Southern Kentucky Bookfest last spring, where she was having a ball signing her books, and again at the Southern Festival of Books last October, where she was just oozing smiles and happiness. It should be a wonderful workshop!

As for the writing part of the workshop…

How do you take an impulse for a novel and give it momentum? How do you improve on an early draft? How do you infuse your work with energy?

Darnell plans to tell us how, and goodness knows, her novel is chocked full of energy, with memorable details and memorable characters! She also plans to share how to get our manuscripts in the right hands. At least two in my writing group plan to have novels finished by the workshop date. If I get my Great American Southern Novel in gear, I might be the third!

Hurry March, and bring it on!