Gathered here are bits and pieces of my non-fiction work. Some essays have been published, some not.
- Click here for "Graceland Bound," an essay in Deep South Magazine about my re-connecting with my Southern heritage and bringing my daughters back for their first Southern family reunion.
- Click here for "My Book The Movie" to read who I think should play the main characters in a film adaption.
- Click here for a piece called "What Writers Can Learn From Charlie Sheen" published on the Writer's Digest blog in June 2012.
- Click here to learn the "Top 5 Publishing Secrets No One Tells You" published on the Book Pregnant blog in 2012.
- The following poem/essay is on my first book tour experience in March 2012.
Thoughts on a Southern Book Tour
Mississippi grass so deeply green it seems to glow with an otherworldly fluorescence.
Redbud trees along the Natchez Trace Parkway bloom extravagant pink.
At Juanita’s in Greenwood you can buy a bridal gown, get your hair done, and get a bail bond.
Greenwood is also home to a burnished literary palace at Turnrow Books, tended by the gracious Kornegays, in the midst of a starving landscape distinguished by one of the highest illiteracy rates in the country.
Lonely, boarded up buildings in downtown Jackson. Hurricane Katrina hit the city at category 1 force seven years ago but it looks like it could have only been last year.
Decades strong bookstores like Lemuria Bookstore—where I bought a 3 CD set of Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, her strong voice filling the interior of my Chevy and guiding me along Mississippi's back roads.
The nine year old cousin I’ve never met climbing up into my lap at Reed’s Gum Tree Books in Tupelo, smiling his heart out.
Legendary Square Books in Oxford where Richard and Lisa Howorth and their staff are as much a part of community life as Ole Miss tailgate parties. The paternalistic ghost of William Faulkner hovers, ever watchful that the fire of Southern literature be tended.
Tennessee, Tennessee, Tennessee.
My grandmother’s grave in Middleton, gently scraping away dead leaves, wondering what she would think of the book that is my love letter to her.
Marlon at Memphis’s Madison Hotel who brought me my car on a Sunday morning and shook his head when I tried to give him a dollar.
“You going to church?” he said. “Put it in the plate for me.” And so I did.
The young mother of three at the reading at The Booksellers at Laurelwood who is trying to finish her undergraduate degree. Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing.
Forty years of waiting for a pilgrimage to Graceland. Lisa Marie’s voice in my head guiding me through her father’s house. His voice, his charm, the room where he sang to friends the morning of his death.
Open mic nights in Nashville with voices one can’t believe aren’t yet on the radio and a few one can only be thankful aren’t.
Parnassus Books event with Jeanne Ray and writers from the Nashville Writers MeetUp.
Bold azalea bushes in scarlet and fuschia. Warm, sultry evening air.
Nashville hums, feels expansive, like Los Angeles or New York but slower, easier. You might make it here.
Charlottesville, VA greets me with bursts of pink cherry blossoms and a Chick-Fil-A within minutes of the airport.
Jefferson’s solid hand guided the symmetry of the University of Virginia. The Rotunda sits atop the campus, beckoning.
I speak on a panel at the public library, the room packed--lovers of literature and books and reading. The air conditioning doesn’t work and I slip off my jacket, the early warm spell catching me off guard.
The graceful space of the Harrison Institute packed on a Friday night to hear from the incomparable Nicky Finney and Nikki Giovanni. Earlier in the day I hear the passionate Hillary Jordan and the engagingly funny Margot Livesey.
A reader has me sign her book. “I love debut authors,” she says. God bless you, I say.
And then it is time to go home.
To once again leave behind the beautiful place where I come from
and return to the place I have made my home.
- The following piece appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Holy Crossings.
A Pocahontas Christmas
The last Christmas Eve night I spent with my paternal grandmother bore little resemblance to the eighteen that preceded it. We traded sharing her full-sized bed at her home in Pocahontas, Tennessee, for sharing a hospital room in Columbus, Mississippi. She occupied the bed and I attempted to settle down in the pull-out chair that felt more like a lumpy floor cushion. A miniature Christmas tree sat on the side table. I had purchased it earlier that day in the dollar store at the local mall. It was a slight reminder of the six foot tall fake tree she put up every year in the picture window of her dining room. That tree was a marvel. Tucked into its plastic branches were small hurricane lights. As a child, I sat cross-legged on the floor and wondered what magic my grandmother possessed to make the red-tinted liquid interior of the lights bubble away so perkily, so perfectly.
My dollar store purchases had also included a stocking in an aggressively cheery green color with a puffy reindeer that played “Jingle Bells” when pressed. Clear medical tape held it in place against the hospital wall. The stocking stood in for the mantel in my grandmother’s living room that would have been covered in ceramic, mouse-sized Santa boots inscribed with the names of each of her seven grandchildren. Later, that ugly green stocking would hang from my own mantel and each year my wife would question it—Again? Do we have to put it up?
Holidays at my grandmother’s promised me, an only child of divorced parents living far from extended family, time spent with an infusion of cousins. Some were delightful, some were armed and dangerous, but all of them possessed the slow drawl that was a gentle, lilting language against my ear. I
had never acquired the drawl myself, growing up miles away from the Deep South in Oklahoma where it emerged more twang than lilt. It was one of my mother’s greatest sacrifices to let me experience Christmas with my father’s mother. The original separation agreement was for me to alternate between my mother’s family and my father’s but she conceded defeat after I pouted my way through an entire holiday season spent in Alabama with my odd and distant maternal grandmother.
Christmas in Tennessee meant getting up early to meet my grandmother in the warmth of the kitchen as she sat on a stool drinking a cup of instant coffee, savoring the fleeting stillness of a house filled with sleeping relatives tucked into every corner. Coffee was followed by the best breakfasts of my life—homemade biscuits of the thin and crispy-around-the-edges-kind, fried eggs cooked in bacon grease, and bacon, of course. The end of the day brought loud, late night card games around the dining room table with my aunt and cousins, all the entertainment any of us needed. At least until one of my cousins started bringing his Atari console.
There were strict rules about presents—none were opened, not even one, until after Christmas Day dinner. Instead, I would gaze longingly at the growing stash beneath the tree, many of those bearing my name in my grandmother’s handwriting had been selected by me from the Sears Wish Book. In the waning hours of December twenty-fourth, my father and I would park ourselves in front of the living room’s small television to watch Bing Crosby’s “Holiday Inn” after the Memphis station’s ten o’clock news. My dad loved the corny one-liners, the fake snow and Crosby singing “White Christmas” and I loved it because he did, both of us choosing to overlook the awkwardness of the strange blackface routine halfway through it
On her last Christmas Eve, my grandmother ate little of the dinner on the hospital tray. I consumed soup from the cafeteria--a bowl cost one dollar and fifty cents and came with a generous wedge of cornbread. Both were delicious and comforting. The cafeteria food was so good locals came for Sunday dinner. One of my grandmother’s lungs had been removed a few days prior in an effort to get rid of the cancer spreading through her chest. Her recovery was going well and it had seemed right for me to spend the night with her, just as I had so many other times. My aunt was a nurse at the hospital and had secured special dispensation for my overnight stay in a patient room.
With the lights turned off and the door shut, the only constant sound was the gentle hissing of the humidifier near the bed. I’m not sure who slipped into sleep first—my grandmother or me--but sometime past midnight, she awoke.
“Amy-girl? Is that you?”
No one before or since has called me Amy-girl.
The fearful tone forced me upright. A subdued glow from the lights in the parking lot made its way into the room, now filled entirely with tendrils of mist from the humidifier—they hung in the air like clouds out the window of an airplane, fluffy and buoyant-looking.
“Amy-girl, what’s going on?” she whispered.
The concern in her voice was not caused by pain but by awakening in a place that looked to be the nearest thing to heaven either of us had ever seen. Room 212 had morphed into the pearly gates and she was scared.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Don’t worry. It’s just Santa.”
She took in the sight of two small wrapped presents under the tree that had not been there earlier.
“Oh,” she said, smiling. “Is that all?”
- The following piece is an essay on the occasion of my 40th birthday.
Turning 40 in the Smurfs’ Comeback Year
Smurfs are something those of us born in the 1970s remember. Lately every time my family and I escape to the movies, we are bombarded by The Smurfs in 3D previews. I let out a whoop and clap as soon as the soundtrack’s bass beat of Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” booms through the Dolby Surround Sound. The fact that I am the only one in the theater who does this makes my eight year old daughter scowl and shush me. Score one for mom, I think, feeling pleasantly outrageous.
Though the hype is considerably less, another major event occurs this summer. I will mark a milestone birthday—forty. And I won’t be alone. The Census Bureau estimates 3.5 million other Americans will walk with me into the land of The Forties in 2011. Maybe Sony Pictures had this in mind when they planned the Smurfs release date. They want to get our money before we can't recall the Saturday morning cartoons of our childhood.
One of the smartest moves of my adult life was marrying someone ten years older. So while my turning forty is a relatively big deal, it’s put in proper perspective by my wife clocking fifty. And let’s face it. Fifty? That’s, like, really old. The AARP sent her a membership card, for God’s sake. Two days later an electric scooter sales flier landed in our mailbox addressed to her.
But. Still. 40?
Growing up on a dusty stretch of the Great Plains in southwestern Oklahoma, I imagined life unfolding in an orderly, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar kind of fashion, heavily influenced by favorite television shows like “That Girl,” “Wonder Woman,” and “The Cosby Show.” College degree first. Book published by thirty. Fall in love and get married by thirty-five. Have one or two kids by forty.
College graduation was accomplished by 1994. The falling in love part got a little turned around. I met my wife when I was twenty-one. We married, heart/mind/finances since it wasn’t legal at the time, when I was twenty-three. I birthed our first daughter, conceived through alternative insemination, when I was twenty-seven. Thirtieth birthday came and went with nary a book contract. Second daughter came along in 2003. And a third daughter in 2007. Three miscarriages punctuated the spaces between those small miracles.
And then last year my novel sold to a publisher. It was a book I’d been working on for most of my children’s lives. It will be published in 2012, in the middle of my “fortieth year” as my agent likes to say. I told her when we signed on with one another about failing to meet the published-author-by-thirty goal and that if forty came and went without a sale, I was holding her personally responsible.
The arithmetic on the original list has worked out pretty well. No major dreams have been left untouched, though I still worry something weird will happen—a surge in pulp paper prices the likes of which the world has never seen—and cause my novel not to be published.
Minor dreams have been abandoned or delayed. The semester abroad in Australia my junior year in college, when my beloved Tennessee grandmother died unexpectedly the month before departure and I couldn’t summon the energy to make the trip. The newspaper internship in Anchorage I didn’t get. The three babies I conceived but never got to hold. The trip to Paris with my wife to celebrate our birthdays this year, put off until the kids are older and our debt is lower than that of the United States government’s.
My thirties were spent making a living, making a book, making a home, having or trying to have babies. The babies work is finished. D-O-N-E. Now, we are engaged in the hard work of raising them. Our oldest daughter will turn thirteen this December and she is nearly as tall as my five foot six inches. Sarcastic wit is a current hobby and she excels at it. With adolescence upon us, the markers of high school graduation and college loom in the not so far distance. My eight year old surprises me with her expert comedic timing—she can quote lines from the film “Julie and Julia” at appropriate moments—and she possesses a startling depth of feeling. The baby will have the audacity to enter kindergarten next year. If we are lucky, we have six years left of our family as it is now—three daughters under one roof.
That doesn’t seem time enough. Maybe the strongest adjustment I will make as I near this birthday is accepting the basic premise that it’s all finite. And yet, the years can skid out behind us without our noticing, whole decades lost into the mist of diapers, work, zeroed out bank accounts.
The desire to stop time is powerful, to put my hands up to the Universe and say, “Pause here.” I love the way my youngest daughter’s small, chubby hand fits neatly within my own, how when I reach out to her, she takes my hand easy as pie, without hesitation. Last Christmas Eve the sight of all three girls tucked into my eldest’s bed on the one night of the year she allows her siblings the privilege--the two youngest at one end and the oldest at the other—caused my heart to seize. By next Christmas, the narrow confines of the twin bed may be too small to contain them.
Wrestling with the reality of time-limited life has lessened a certain kind of fear and increased another. Where before I may have hesitated to do something because of what people might think, now I consider not who might be offended or disappointed or critical of my choice, but the ultimate grown up question--What if time runs out before I get a chance to do this?
Whatever “this” might be—tell someone I admire how wonderful her work is, go to Paris, write a young adult novel, try hang gliding, learn to quilt.
Buy a convertible.
Dance to “Wild Thing” in my movie theater seat while short blue things prance across the screen.