Irises, Rainbow Colors, and Courage

Irises have rich historical meanings, and when given as gifts, they convey deep sentiments: hope, faith, wisdom, and courage. The flower takes its name from the Greek word for “rainbow.” Another Greek word, “eiris,” means “messenger.” The Greek Goddess Iris acted as the link between heaven and earth. She delivered messages for the gods and from the Underworld and traveled along rainbows as she moved between heaven and earth. Purple irises were planted over the graves of women to summon the Goddess to escort the dead on their journey upward into the afterlife.

I like to think this is symbolic and that the flower also inspires us with courage to rise up and reach out above our darkest times into growth and newness of life.

The purple iris also denotes royalty. During the Middle Ages, the purple iris was linked to the French monarchy, and the Fleur-de-lis design, inspired by the flower, eventually became the recognized national symbol of France.

The iris is also the state flower of Tennessee.

Iris spikes and blooms standing tall

Irises from my friend Colleen

I have iris rhizomes from friends in Tennessee, from my grandmother’s farm in Mississippi, from William Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, (white cemetery iris) in Oxford, Mississippi. I dug up some irises from my old house in Fieldstone Farms and brought them to this new house on the hill. They fill in my landscape with their showy spikes and their flowing, silky, spring colors. I am surrounded by hope and faith. By wisdom. And courage.

Irises from my grandmother – might be 50-75 years old,
growing on land that has been in our family since 1850

The iris provides the perfect cover image for Editor Susan Cushman’s anthology, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. My essay, “Pushing Up the Sun,” is included in this new book, released in March 2017. The flower is soft, delicate, in a silky, flowing design—feminine. But you better believe she is hardy, and no matter what she faces, whether being pounded by snow, rain, or hail, being slept upon by rabbits or stepped on by children or mowed down by a careless landscaper, she comes back. And she comes back bigger and stronger. Every year, those spikes strengthen and rise up and reach high, producing wrapped blooms that grow tall and open into flowers, repeating in second bloomings, and more.

What a perfect gift of hope and faith and wisdom and courage for Mother’s Day! And a book signing for this anthology will be held at Barnes and Noble Cool Springs in Brentwood, Tennessee, the day before. May 13, 1:00. I welcome you to come! Susan Cushman, editor, will be there. River Jordan, local author and contributor, will join us.

And a big shout out to Barnes and Noble — the best book store a local author could hope for!

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The Greatest Writing Conference in the History of Events Planning

Tears pushed against the backs of my eyes, bumping into the laughter. It hit me that this was more than just another writers conference where you go and sit for a long time and listen to speakers and then go home and try to apply what you learned. I felt a sense of community here. I sat on the couch in Room 203, drank a glass of wine, held a napkin with a W on it for Wessman (NancyKay), and picked out the cashews from the jar of assorted nuts. I shared, and I listened to the stories of others, and I heard us all saying the same thing. We have a fire in our guts to write our stories and publish our books.

This core group gathered in #203 has come together more than once. We have lifted glasses of wine not only in Oxford, but at other similar creative nonfiction events in towns nearby.

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Neil White

The 2013 conference was the third one in Oxford headed up by Neil White, the Godfather of Creative Nonfiction in the South, I guess. In 2008  Neil brought some of the biggest names in the genre to lead workshops and panels in the quaint and charming Mississippi town of Oxford, and Susan Cushman of Memphis and I were both there. Susan and I had met five months earlier at a Saturday workshop Neil put together. He’d invited Lee Gutkind, the so-called Godfather behind the genre, to speak. Lee, a charismatic man with tousled white hair, white scruffy beard, and a tiny round turquoise earring in his left lobe, told us he wanted to bring creative nonfiction to the South because it was the most widely published genre in the world—everywhere, but in the South. Lee has been to all the conferences.

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Lee Gutkind

The second Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference was in 2010, and Susan and I went back as co-directors, assisting Neil. Susan then hosted a creative nonfiction workshop in Memphis, and last fall I led a workshop in Clarksdale at the Shack Up Inn.

A handful or two of writers have been to two or three or more of these events all connected to Neil White. We have come from coastal Alabama; Georgia; Mississippi—Meridian, Jackson, Madison; Tennessee—Memphis and Nashville. Deep South writers. We have shared stories, both written and personal, because our written stories are personal. And we will come back to the table for more sustenance and inspiration. We are the core of the community of Creative Nonfiction in the South. And we are community. And we are at the center of something big.

We’re calling ourselves a tribe.

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Room 203, after the final party

Tribe: an aggregate of people united by community of customs and traditions and adherence to the same leaders.

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Dan, Emily, me

And this year there were new friends and new faces from all over: California, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Washington, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Kansas, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Coast to coast, top to bottom, writers made their way to a little Mississippi town with a great big voice and a tribe. I talked to many writers, and they have that same earlier-mentioned passion for their work — deep, significant, intimate stories — true stories.  The tent is now wider; the tribe is bigger!

Harrison Scott Key, winner of Creative Nonfiction’s Southern Sin contest says, “Neil White has put on maybe the Greatest Writing Conference in the History of Events Planning.” 

We all left Oxford-town knowing it takes sacrifice and persistence to get where we want to go. We left saying stuff like “better than ever,” “does anyone want to be an accountability partner?”, “can’t we do it every year instead of every other year?”, and “sure I’ll give Clarksdale (CNF workshop) another go.”

Thanks, Neil White and Susan Cushman, and Carroll (wow!), Maggie, and Genie, and to everyone — attendees, speakers, workshop leaders, panelists, River Jordan for her fabulous historical rant — “go to sleep, baby, Nana’s got a deadline,” scorpions on the manuscript and pillow, and completing a book before a sure-death within six months after a mammogram (oh yes, it’s true, men, and I don’t open my results for three days after I get them in the mail and one time it was three months!) — photographers, shuttle drivers, Inn at Ole Miss staff, everybody, and the tribe. I love you all!

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2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference and Workshops

cnf.OverbyCenterOverby Center

A gathering of the finest editors, agents, instructors,
and writers in the US!

cnf.lee1Lee Gutkind

May 2-5, 2013
Oxford, MS
On the Campus of the University of Mississippi

cnf.Neil and Dinty at Off SquareNeil White, Dinty W. Moore

More Information! Register Now!

Call to reserve your room at The Inn at Ole Miss
1-888-4 UM ROOM

cnf.shackupsusanneilkathy

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

Presenters:

Lee Gutkind * Dinty W. Moore * Neil White * Virginia Morell
Mike Rosenwald * Jessica Handler * Beth Ann Fennelly * Lee Martin
Leigh Feldman * Deborah Grosvenor * Bob Guccione, Jr. * Julia Reed
Stella Connell * Jamie Brickhouse * River Jordan * More!

cnfoxford.com


Go Back to the Delta

Creative Nonfiction at The Crossroads
September 21-22, 2012
Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale MS

A WRITING WORKSHOP WITH NEIL WHITE

Come to the land of the blues, hear it, experience a bit of its history, feel the mystery born out of its extremes, draw from the creative spirit so rich and full here, brought to completeness in the heat and hardness that was once…the Delta.

1960

Coming out of Memphis, I sit in the backseat of Dad’s 1960 Ford Fairlane with the glass rolled down, leaning into the opening, arms folded on the window, chin resting on them. The hot wind hits my face and whips my hair. We have been to the zoo, then shopped a bit in Whitehaven. Mama always picks up a bag of that orange marshmallow peanut candy when we go to a five and dime. I got one of those new rubber coin ovals with a slit down its middle that opens for accepting change when you squeeze it in your palm.

All of a sudden, from the top of a shady ridge, the road goes down—straight down into unending flatness and cotton fields. The last hill always causes a stir in my soul, a thumping in my chest, a funny feeling in my stomach. It is like Almighty God started digging here and scooped out a big basin of rich land so farmers can plant cotton and kids can grow up looking at it.

The Delta begins here. It is bordered on the east by the Yazoo, born of the confluence of the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha near Greenwood, and on the west by the Old Man River, who “must know somethin, but he don’t say nothin, he jes keeps rollin along.”

Highway 61 cuts through the Delta—two lanes, straight-as-an-arrow, with just enough room for two cars to pass, one going south, one going north. The whole earth outside my window is cotton. Row after row, pressed against the road, running out to the end of the sky. Nothing but cotton as far as I can see. I smell the dirt, I smell the green, I feel the hum of growing things. I think it is mine, all mine—I was born of it, steeped in it. When it is cotton pickin time, I know that God is on his throne and all is right with the world.

Weatherbeaten cypress shotgun shacks sit just off the highway, squeezed in between crop rows, careful not to take too much space away from the cotton. The houses are one-room wide, two, maybe three rooms long, with tar paper to cover cracks in the boards. If we don’t go too fast, I can see straight through the front door and out the back. Every house has a front porch with an old ripped-up couch on it where people sit stirring a breeze with cardboard funeral home fans. Every porch has a galvanized tin tub hanging by the front door for taking a bath in, and every yard has a pump for water and an outhouse in the back. The yards are broom-swept, baked hard, and full of children rolling old tires or bouncing balls or watching cars go by. I see skinny dogs with their ribs showing and stacks of firewood and pink rose vines winding around wire fences and yellow cannas coming out of old tractor tires splashed with white paint. I see drooping clotheslines with big-cupped bras and blue work denims.

On down Highway 61 fieldhands chop cotton. They wear overalls or ankle-length skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and big straw hats or bandanas wrapped around their heads, with nary an inch of skin showing. I wonder why they are dressed like this when it is hot as an oven outside. Mama says it is to protect them from the sun. They move forward and backward from the waist up, in unison, sticking hoes to the ground, chanting words to old spirituals, made-up words, field hollers. One lead voice sounds stronger than the others, all singing in rhythm with their hoeing, landing hard on the word that comes as the tool strikes the earth. Mournful lamentations spring from those souls trapped in an endless cycle of hard work and no way out. Stuck here, they toil from “can see till caint see,” choppin cotton, to bring cash to the pockets of wealthy planters. …

***

Come to the Delta sharpen your writing tools, let the spirit of this place strike your soul, work, write, read, listen, in the heat draw from the riches of this place, tap the creative spring here.

Email me: kathyrhodes at turnstylewriters dot com


The Delta and Writing True Stories

When I was ten and riding in the back seat of Dad’s Ford on Highway 61 out of Memphis…

Suddenly, from the top of a ridge, the road went down—straight down into unending flatness. That last hill always caused a stir in me, a funny feeling in my stomach. I believed Almighty God started digging here and scooped out a big basin of rich land so farmers could plant cotton and kids could grow up looking at it.

The Delta began here. It was bordered on the east by the Yazoo River, born of the confluence of the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha near Greenwood, and on the west by Old Man River, who “must know somethin, but he dont say nothin, he jes keeps rollin along.”

Cotton fields stretched out before us all the way to the end of the sky. The fields parted just enough for a road to pass through. Highway 61 cut straight down through Delta cotton—two lanes with just enough room for two cars to pass, one going north, one going south. The whole earth outside my window was cotton. Row after row, pressed against the road, running all the way to where the earth stopped and the blue of heaven started. Nothing but cotton as far as I could see and I could see maybe fifty miles. I smelled the dirt, I smelled the green, I felt the hum of growing things. I thought it was mine, all mine, because I was born of it. When it was cotton-pickin time in the fall and the fields were white, I knew God was on his throne and all was right with the world. …

COME TO THE DELTA! COME TO CLARKSDALE! COME TO CREATIVE NONFICTION AT THE CROSSROADS!

Neil White will be teaching a workshop on writing true stories, September 21-22 at Shack Up Inn. Message me for more details!

COME AND EXPERIENCE ALL THAT IS — OR WAS — THE DELTA.


Snapshots of Oxford

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.

Lee, Steve, and Dinty at Off-Square Books

Lee Gutkind relating the 5 Rs and the 2 F-words

Ellen Ann Fentress and David Little at the Saturday night reception

Heather (center) timing Pitch Fest participants

Half of Dinty’s Dozen, the name I attached to the 12 people in Dinty W. Moore’s Friday manuscript critique class;
Allison Green and Carol Wandrey in front

Neil White on a Sunday panel about the Writer’s Life Off the Page

Dinty W. Moore signing a book for Julie Cantrell at Off-Square Books

Lauren pitching to Lee at Saturday’s Pitch Fest

Lindsey, Julie, and David at a reading/signing at Off-Square Books

Neil White and Lee Gutkind at Off-Square Books after Thacker Mountain

Role Playing in Friday’s “A Day with Agents” session

Tense moments — waiting to pitch!

Robert Goolrick read from his novel A Reliable Wife and his memoir The End of the World As We Know It at Off-Square Books Saturday night —
blew us all away!

See you all in 2012!


Oxford

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.

Susan Cushman and Kathy Rhodes at Thacker Mountain Radio

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.

Neil White talks about the personal essay.

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.

Kathy Rhodes, Carroll Chiles, Susan Cushman in Overby Center

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.

Lee Gutkind talks about reflection, real life, and research in CNF.

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.

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.

Pitch Fest — Gillian MacKenzie

Pitch Fest — the lines for Dinty W. Moore, Walter Biggins, David Magee,
and Jeff Kleinman

Panel — The Realities of Publishing