My Apologies for Shooting a Blank Yesterday!

Dear Blog subscribers:

I apologize for the errant email that Mailchimp sent you yesterday. I’m having my website transferred to GoDaddy, and a new version of WordPress installed. According to my guy Cory, an old plug-in (don’t ask me–I don’t know a plug-in from a bathtub stopper) triggered Mailchimp to post the notice that the new WordPress sent–not just to me, but to all of you. Hello World indeed! Sorry!

Cory is Cory Laux at and he’s swell. If you need a website or help with WordPress, I recommend him. He knows a widget from a washer and communicates in English clearly.

2014-06-18 10.28.06I haven’t posted lately because I’ve been running around a lot. First there was Bemidji, where I gave a reading and workshop at the Literary Festival. I wanted to be photographed hugging the giant leg of Paul Bunyan, but I was embarrassed to ask a tourist to shoot me in such a compromising position. My workshop was entitled (by me) “From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: Everything I know about Creative Writing.” I told the participants that I had covered the ridiculous in the title, and that in a two hour workshop there wouldn’t be enough time to get to the sublime. Then I tried to tell them some of what I’ve learned the hard way about writing. Mainly that ultimately you have to teach yourself. In the process it helps to read a lot, not just as a consumer but as a writer. Hopefully you learn how to read your own stuff as a reader would read it, not just as the author. There’s a big difference.

The last two weekends we’ve been running up and down the road to Madeline Island, Wisconsin, to the house my mother-in-law rented. The first weekend was for her big 90th b-day celebration. Catered dinner for 30: fresh Lake Superior whitefish rollades with artichoke-chevre-lemon-parsley filling; warm potato salad; and there was supposed to be a green vegetable, beans or sugar snap peas, only the caterer forgot them. In case you’re wondering, a “rollade” is not something you take for indigestion; it’s a little pile of whitefish-artichoke-chevre-lemon-parsley stuffed in a puff-pastry pouch. Let’s just say that the food on the plates looked a little . . . white . . . and a bit spare. Jeff and I went out at 10:00 that night to try to find a hamburger, but Tom’s Burned Down Bar only served drinks, and the other two restaurants on the island had stopped serving food. Nonetheless, the birthday was a big success, and quite the occasion. Continue reading “My Apologies for Shooting a Blank Yesterday!”

Unplugged: A Writing Retreat at Clare’s Well

Clare's Well
Clare’s Well 

I just spent four nights at Clare’s Well, a Franciscan Sisters’ Spirituality Farm in Annandale, MN, about sixty miles from the Twin Cities. For the time I was there, I was unplugged, in more ways than one. There was no Internet in my “hermitage,” though there is in the main farmhouse, where the nuns who run the place live. I went to get away from email and Internet, from TV, newspapers, news, music, airplanes passing overhead, traffic, city life, cooking and cleaning, my husband and dog, and most of all my distracted, busy self. I went there to write.

The novel I’m writing is based on the 1947 lynching of a young black man, Willie Earle, in my hometown of Greenville, S.C., by a mob of white taxi cab drivers the night after he was arrested on suspicion of killing another driver. The murder and trial are brilliantly documented in piece by Rebecca West, called “Opera in Greenville,” which appeared in June 14, 1947 issue of The New Yorker.  I’m writing the stories of four fictional characters who were impacted spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically by the incident. I wanted to finish the section I was working on about Alma, a black maid in Greenville who, in my fictional world, had known Willie Earle when he was a child.

My hermitage: St. Francis house
My hermitage: St. Francis House 

Sitting on the floor on a prayer cushion in the “House of Francis,” my one-room cottage, I cried like a baby as I wrote the final pages of Alma’s story. I forgot even that I was writing, and only came to when I realized I was crying. The story unfolding quite apart from my conscious mind was so real and alive to me, and so sad.

I doubt I could have entered into the writing that deeply at home. It took the solitude and freedom from my regular life that Clare’s Well provided. What a gift!

God had a sense of humor when he made me
God had a sense of humor when he made me 

The 40-acre retreat center is run by three Sisters who make such respite possible. People stay in one of three hermitages for spiritual retreats or simply to read, to pray, to renew, to be alone, and to enjoy the beauty of nature and the farm.  It is a beautiful place, so quiet, with only the sounds of nature, and the squawking of the silly Guinea hens, whose appearance reminds one that God has a sense of humor.

Every day, the nuns, Carol, Jan, and Paula, feed the retreatants lunch and dinner. Can you imagine? It’s like having three to five guests for two meals every single day—argggh.  But it was incredible to be fed without having to think up what to have, buy it, fix it, and clean it up.  All domestic responsibilities fell by the wayside for the five days I was there.  I was a bit in shock at all the time that opened up–time to be by myself, to think only of my novel or nothing at all, to wander around farm and fields, get a Trager massage Continue reading “Unplugged: A Writing Retreat at Clare’s Well”

“APING” Guy Kawasaki with a Little Crowdsourcing of my Own

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur by Kawasaki and Welch
APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur by Kawasaki and Welch 

I listened to a webinar this past week on by Guy Kawasaki, who is BIG right now for his (self-published) book (along with Shawn Welch) on self-publishing: APE:  Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur.  I found the talk superficial and simplistic but maybe you get what you pay for (it was free).  I can’t judge the book by a 30 minute webinar, but Kawasaki is one smart guy, “chief evangelist for Apple” (what does that mean?  Is that an actual job?), author of 12 books, including Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions, which was a New York Times best seller, and What the Plus!  Google+ for the Rest of Us.  He’s a marketing genius, apparently, and is now an expert on self-publishing, which he refers to as “artisanal publishing,” meaning writers who love their craft and are involved in every aspect of it from beginning to end, just as there are “artisanal” beer makers, bakers, cheese producers, etc.  Guy can coin a phrase.

During the webinar, he did acquaint me with a term I had never heard of: crowdsourcing.  What the heck.  He crowdsourced APE, sending out first an outline of the book, then the manuscript-in-progress, and the final draft to all his considerable social media contacts, soliciting feedback, expert info others had that he lacked, fact-checking, and even copy-editing.  He didn’t go into a great deal of detail about his crowdsourcing in the webinar, but I found a more detailed description of it on a website called The Creative Penn, by Joanna Penn.

Penn asked Kawasaki how he managed to get 145 reviews on Amazon for APE within a few days of publication, 135 of which were five stars.  He said he sent an email to 4 million of his social media contacts (and you thought you were popular), offering a review copy of the near-final manuscript.  That enabled him to have 1,100 readers before it went live.  4 hours before Amazon turned it on he sent emails to those readers asking them to post a review for him.  He woke up the next morning to 45 five star reviews.

Not many of us have 4 million social media contacts, the publishing track record Kawasaki has, or his incredible business background and marketing savvy (not to mention ambition and energy).  Nor are most of us publishing a book like APE, which is right place/right time.  Still, I was fascinated by his experience.  Crowdsourcing sounded so savvy, especially for a non-fiction book like APE:  solicit alpha and beta readings from people who have self-publishing experiences, stories, and expertise he could draw on!  It makes tremendous sense–an on-line, stream-lined version of research.

Still, crowdsourcing seems anathema to writing novels.  What happened to the writer alone at her desk with nothing but her own mind (such as it is), trying to open that proverbial vein?

Continue reading ““APING” Guy Kawasaki with a Little Crowdsourcing of my Own”

A Trip Back to Greenville, S.C.

Edith on her porch
I’m back from my rich and wonderful week in the town where I grew up, Greenville, S.C. I was there to research a possible new novel (described in a previous blog post; look for “Willie Earle”) but of course being in Greenville feeds my soul, not to mention my stomach. I ate lots of grits, collards, blackeyed peas, fried chicken, barbeque, fried chicken livers, and Duke Sandwiches (which date back to 1917 in Greenville!). These are little no-count sandwiches on white bread (though Duke’s has caved by putting some of them on wheat bread, but no thanks if you’re a purist like me), with fillings like bland pimento cheese; a slice of ham as thin as a playing card spread with a smear of mayo and mustard; egg salad that has no discernible taste; baked ham, pepper and onion, a ground-up concoction that confuses your taste buds, etc., all wrapped in cellophane and sold for $1.79 each. I crave them. As far as I know, you can only get them in Greenville…

It’s true I gained two pounds, so this first week back I’ve been busy getting back to yoga, swimming, and going to this little health club I belong to for people over fifty, where for some reason I am the only twenty-five year old…

In between eating, I got thoroughly saturated in Willie Earle-dom while I was in town. I spent two days at the library reading their chaotic but extensive files on the lynching and trial; scanning through old newspapers on microfilm; visited the Strom Thurman Institute (of all places) at Clemson to view the FBI files of the confessions of the defendants who were acquitted; visited the jail in Pickens from which Willie Earle was taken by the mob, which is now an art museum; drove to the creepy, deserted patch of woods where he was murdered sixty-three years ago; saw the courthouse downtown where the trial took place (and which I have seen all my life); found a photograph of my daddy in his twenties in the amazing 5,000 Coxe photo collection at the Historical Society; and drove all over Greenville, transfixed by the blooming dogwood and azaleas.

Continue reading “A Trip Back to Greenville, S.C.”

Here at Hambidge #3: Willie Earle, Rebecca West, and Professor Will Gravely

The project I’m working on while I’m on a writing residency at Hambidge in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a new novel (still a gleam in my eye) based on a lynching incident in my hometown of Greenville, S.C. in 1947. A twenty-four year old black man, Willie Earle, was arrested for the robbery and stabbing death of a white taxi cab driver, Thomas Watson Brown, taken from the Pickens County jail near Greenville by a mob of thirty or more white taxi cab drivers, driven to the woods nearby, and beaten, stabbed and shot twice with a shot gun. Forty-four year old Strom Thurman had only been in office as Governor of South Carolina for a month, and out of character in terms of his later reputation, immediately issued a statement saying “I do not favor lynching and I shall exert every resource at my command to apprehend all persons who may be involved in such a flagrant violation of the law.” He called in the FBI, who in conjunction with local and state law officials arrested thirty-one men and got statements from twenty-six of them confessing participation in the lynching. In May of that year, the largest lynching trial the South had ever known got underway in the Greenville Courthouse. National and international press such as Time and Life covered the trial, and The New Yorker sent the British writer Dame Rebecca West (just back from covering the Nuremberg trials) who wrote an amazing novella length piece about the trial that appeared in the June 14th 1947 issue (available free on-line). The defendants were acquitted by an all white jury in about five hours.

Growing up in Greenville, I had never heard of this lynching. I learned about it when, doing research in the 90s in the Greenville library, I accidently came upon West’s brilliant piece, “Opera in Greenville.” We tend to think of Tom Wolff and Truman Capote as originating “new journalism” a couple of decades later, but West’s piece is certainly that: a nuanced, complex, bristling, brimming, subjective piece of reporting that not only captures the facts and trial in unforgettable detail, but also directs our understanding, perspective, morals and values . West refers to Greenville as being rhetorical, but proves she can kick a rhetorical ball a good ways down the field herself; here is her description of Roosevelt Carlos Hurd, the taxi dispatcher whom nine taxi drivers identified as firing the fatal shots:

“…a man of forty-five with hair that stood up like a badger’s coat, eyes set close together and staring out under glum brows through strong glasses, and a mouth that was unremitting in its compression. He looked like an itinerant preacher devoted to the worship of a tetchy and uncooperative God.”

And here’s her description of the judge, J. Robert Martin, Jr.:

Continue reading “Here at Hambidge #3: Willie Earle, Rebecca West, and Professor Will Gravely”