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What I’m Doing This Summer

What I’m Doing This Summer

It’s July. July? Once again, the summer is getting away from me, though this one is a little worse than most. For the last couple of years, we’ve been planning and then building a house (pictures to come) and we’re now at the part where decisions have to be made every day concerning, well, everything. Every. Little. Thing. It’s overwhelming, but I can’t complain. This house has been a 25+ year dream in the making and, once I’m there, I’m not going anywhere. This will be my last house.

Not surprisingly, building a house and having two teenagers at home hasn’t been great for the writing routine. For now, I’m just catching what time I can for my own work, but for the first time in years, I’m having serious trouble with focus. Happily, I go to what I can best be described as “grown up summer camp” at the end of the month. I’ll be attending the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Tennessee Williams Scholar, a fact that I still can’t believe. I’m dreading the workshop (because I’m terribly under-confident about the beginning novel chapters I submitted to be reviewed), but I’m looking forward to meeting other writers and listening to so many that I really admire. This will likely be my last post until I get back, so, until then, check out all the great details about the conference. Happy summer, everybody!

Midwestern Gothic – A Literary Journal » Blog Archive » Issue 16 (Winter 2015)

Midwestern Gothic – A Literary Journal » Blog Archive » Issue 16 (Winter 2015)

I’m delighted to have a new short story out in print (and through other digital means) in Midwestern Gothic. I think this particular story is a perfect fit for this journal and I hope you’ll check it out.

Midwestern Gothic – A Literary Journal » Blog Archive » Issue 16 (Winter 2015).

Common Reading Program | AUM Academics

Common Reading Program | AUM Academics

If you’re in Alabama and you’re anywhere near Montgomery AND you’d like to hear me attempt to offer my two cents on the art of Southern storytelling, come on by Thursday, October 23rd and see me at AUM’s Goodwyn Hall at 6:30pm. I can’t offer you the promise of baked goods (I’ll be way too far away from home to bribe you with that), but I can say that I will try, as usual, to be entertaining. I’ve even got a slide show! For more information, click the link below

Common Reading Program | AUM Academics.

Dreams of Barry Hannah and Stumbling Forward

Dreams of Barry Hannah and Stumbling Forward

Barry Hannah was nicer than I thought he would be, sitting behind a messy desk and telling me that my manuscript would be published “as is,” that the editors had requested no changes. He talked in that loop-the-loop way that he wrote, the words making sense, but not making sense. I asked him if I could change the title of my book, which I had submitted as “Stumbling Forward,” and he said that, of course, that would be something we would talk about later. But he had liked “Stumbling Forward,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the manuscript or his life.

It was only a dream, but it was the last dream I had before my husband shook me awake and asked me to come have coffee with him. There is no good reason for Barry Hannah to show up in my dreams. I’m familiar with his work and his distinct voice as a writer, just as I’m familiar with his reputation–not always good–outside the classroom. I went to the Oxford Conference for the book (2010?) the year he was to be the central, celebrated author when he died shortly before it took place. I went to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, but after Mr. Hannah had stopped attending. I listened to him at a conference many years ago, carrying on about the proper way for a writer to ask for a book blurb from another writer, but that’s as close as I ever came to meeting him.

But there he was last night: jovial, weird, maybe a little drunk. The manuscript on his desk, my “Stumbling Forward,” was the same one I mailed in real life yesterday morning, sending it off to be considered by a small press I have long admired and which has grown in reputation of the last few years. I was surprised to learn that I had sent it under the title “Stumbling Forward,” when I had intended it to be the same as what I mailed in real life. What the dream title represented, though, was how I felt over the last few months of writing and editing and re-writing and re-editing, that I was stumbling forward, picking myself and my work up over and over after apparent failure after failure. When I had finally put all the stories together to make the collection, I went back through to do a last edit, marking each page with a bright sticky note. The photo here is what it looked like after that first, big edit.

photo-11

Unfortunately, all those little sticky notes don’t just represent spelling and grammatical errors, but big mistakes, too. They pointed to things like a page full of back story that clearly didn’t belong and was slowing down an otherwise decent story; a set of connected stories in which I changed the name of a character’s hometown half-way through and never noticed. They represented the striking of entire sentences, a few whole paragraphs, the addition of a short, new line here and there. Gratefully, reading the stories together as a whole made these errors stick out in neon in a way they never had when read as separate parts. It was strangely grueling work, going over every last word, watching so closely for mistakes. Editing is not the fun part of writing (if there is a “fun part”), but it’s the necessary, technical aspect that makes good stories the best they can be. And I realize now that it was like stumbling forward, catching myself at the last second only to stumble again. There was such relief putting that manuscript in the mail yesterday. Today is a dayfor catching up on practical matters (laundry, dishes, appointments previously neglected, and preparing for my upcoming class), but already I feel the pull toward the work I put aside to finish the story collection. And tomorrow, I will start on that again, no doubt that I will stumble and stumble all the way to the end.

Let the Mystery Be

Let the Mystery Be

A friend and I had been talking about what we wanted chiseled on our headstones when we die (mostly this conversation consisted of wisecracks more than any sentimental morbidity) and, this morning in church, I thought about the song title “Let the Mystery Be” and what a fine epitaph that would be. The song is one by Iris DeMent, an artist I first listened to about 20 years ago. I knew she was coming to St. Louis soon and, when I got home, I looked up her website and found this beautiful bio statement. The way she describes songwriting and the need to wait, to listen for that voice, to know when the words and music are right, is so much like my experience with writing, I really could’ve cried. Check out the wisdom for yourself and be comforted. And let the mystery be.

Bio | Iris Dement.

Author Event – Daniel Woodrell, “The Maid’s Version” | St. Louis County Library

Author Event – Daniel Woodrell, “The Maid’s Version” | St. Louis County Library

Daniel Woodrell lives in West Plains, a town not far from my own hometown, Mountain Grove, and he doesn’t do a lot of public readings. Don’t be intimidated by his scary characters; Mr. Woodrell is really nothing like the folks who inhabit his stories and novels. Come duke it out for a seat at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters on September 30th.

Author Event – Daniel Woodrell, “The Maid’s Version” | St. Louis County Library.

Taos Summer Writers Conference

Taos Summer Writers Conference

I returned on Saturday from a week-long writing conference that was totally worth it. I’ve been disappointed by such conferences in the past, but this one was different. Having spent five years (you read that right–I took the long road) in an MFA program, I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to “workshop” again, but by mid-winter this past year, I realized that I missed this aspect to writing and the writers community. I knew I didn’t want to join a writing group again, but I needed feedback on a first chapter I had recently completely re-written. The Taos Summer Writers Conference hosts a number of writing workshops of all levels, taught by some literary heavy hitters: Robert Boswell (my literary superhero), his amazing wife, Antonya Nelson, Wally Lamb, Pam Houston, Joy Harjo, just to name a few. My own instructor for the novel-in-progress was Laura Brodie, a writer of both novels and non-fiction. Her workshop was smart, wise, compassionate, funny, and practical. My peers were archeologists, medical doctors, psychiatrists, English professors, event planners, military air pilots, grad students and…housewives (that would be me). I’ve rarely been in a more interesting workshop group, one that was both smart and critical of work presented, but also kind and open-minded. And how can you go wrong in Taos? The dry air and mountains and sunshine, which were all *really* great once I got over the altitude sickness, complete with a short episode of vomiting, made the experience all the more positive. My hope is to return to this conference again, but participate in one of the master’s classes for the novel (requiring a fully completed manuscript). Check out this year’s schedule of events:

Taos Summer Writers Conference.

Pushing Boundaries | The Review Review

Pushing Boundaries | The Review Review

In the name of a little self-promotion, I’ll ask you to check out this review of the Colorado Review, which includes my story, “Retreat.” I’m a huge fan of “Justified,” so being mentioned in the same breath as it is kind of great.

Pushing Boundaries | The Review Review.

Booklets!

Booklets!

Last week, I was down with a monster of a cold, one that made me too sleepy to read for much more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time. That was a real shame, because I’d just started reading *The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady* by Elizabeth Stuckey-French (so fun, so satisfying) and longed to get back into its pages. Thank God for magazines. Not only did a new issue of Southern Living and Hobby Farms land in my mailbox–along with a mountain of catalogs, packed full of summer clothes I probably don’t need–but a lovely little booklet, Gravy, published by The Southern Foodways Alliance. A booklet! Just the right size for holding in my hands as I lay propped up in bed on about 17 pillows, the articles only two or three pages long and exactly the right length for a girl liquored up on Nyquil. “Booklet” is such a lovely word and one too often replaced by the more literary chapbook (though my husband holds that “chapbook” sounds like some awful skin condition that happens to you in winter). It’s a surprise, really, how much I like this abbreviated format of writing. Generally speaking, I ascribe to the idea that if a little of something is good, then a lot of it is even better. You can’t have too much cake, too many gorgeous dresses, too long a trip to the beach.  And on the writing front, I’ve become an adamant opponent of flash fiction, especially its mini-cupcake version, micro fiction. For me, there’s nothing that can compare with the long, messy version of the short story or the novel. There just isn’t. I get plenty of small images delivered to me each and every moment of my life, but it’s the culmination of experiences, of days running into years and into decades, that delivers to me the fuller picture, the meaning behind the scenes. Stories and novels weave together ideas and scenes in much the same way, leaving me as satisfied as I would be at the end of a finely prepared meal.

Still, Gravy hit the spot. With articles about lemon chess pie and Mexican ice cream and a woman who dreams of leaving her job at a television station to make fried pies full-time, these small articles were enough to make me stop feeling so sorry for myself. Though only a couple pages long, each little article was complete, giving a small history of the person interviewed, while remaining focused on the central purpose of the article: to explain how a really awesome scoop of ice cream, or a sno-ball laced over with sweetened condensed milk and a crumbled praline, or a well-made fried pie can change the course of a life. The articles are an extended look at a single detail, the micro and the macro all in one–the perfect short read.

(As a side note, The Southern Foodways Alliance is a wonderful organization dedicated to the preservation of food traditions all through the American south. Gravy and a super cool bumper sticker are just two perks of membership. Check them out at http://www.southernfoodways Read the rest of this entry