A Tear for Bois Sauvage: A Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

fullsizeoutput_17f7It’s not often that the ending of a book makes me moist-eyed.  And I can’t ever recall when the acknowledgements did that.  But there it was in the final sentences on page 289 of Sing, Unburied, Sing, the 2017 National Book Award-winning novel by Jesmyn Ward:  “In closing, I’d like to thank everyone in my community in DeLisle, Mississippi, who inspired my stories and gave me a sense of belonging.  I am ever grateful for every one of you.  I love you all.”

I’m man enough to say it was raining on my face in that moment.

Part of that was just because I so admire books that can evoke a place and Jesmyn Ward does that, even if DeLisle becomes Bois Sauvage in her fiction.  (She also used it as the setting of her Hurricane Katrina book, Salvage the Bones, which won the National Book Award in 2011.)

51ipyal4R-L._UY250_But the main reason was that she had so earned the sentiment in this book.  Every one of the troubled characters in the book is treated with respect and even love, from drug-addled Leonie, trying so hard to be a daughter and a mom and failing so miserably most of the time, to Jojo, her 13-year-old son who is growing into manhood with an ocean of wounds.

At the center of the book is a road trip that Leonie takes to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, with her addict friend Misty and her two children, Jojo & Kayla, to pick up her abusive husband, Michael, on his release.  Only the trip is just the tip of a much larger iceberg.  There are ghosts along the way.  Leonie is haunted by her brother, Given, who was murdered by Michael’s family in a “hunting accident” years before.  Jojo is visited by Richie, a teenaged boy who died at Parchman while Jojo’s grandfather was serving time there.  The circumstances of his death become the occasion for Jojo’s coming of age and coming to terms with his grandfather.

The best window on how to read this book is actually offered before the first page where Ward includes this quote from fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty:

“The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit.  But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.”

Ward knows there’s more than humidity close in the air in Mississippi.  There’s the past that never dies, the hope that persists through tragedy, and the deep movement of song.

71-wjMrvimL._UX250_

Jesmyn Ward

It’s not that it’s all mystery and lyricism.  Ward takes us into the swamps of racial interactions.  Leonie is black, Michael is white and their families have trouble with their relationship because of it.  There’s a terrifying scene when the family is pulled over and brutalized by a police officer on the way back to Bois Sauvage.  There are also bald-faced racists spouting vile things.  But somehow Ward moves us to care for the monsters and to recognize that bigger forces, like the system of historical racism, are at play.

On display at every moment is the humanity of these characters—the way they sabotage themselves and wound each other but also the way they meet each other with tenderness and remorse.  The book is full of bodies in close connection—fathers and sons rolling on the floor fighting, little girls clinging to the neck of an older brother, an addict coming back from an overdose with her head in the lap of her husband.  Even in the violence there is intimacy.  And even at the end there is the possibility of transcendence.

This is a beautifully-written book that gives dignity to people who don’t usually receive it.  When she received her recent National Book Award, Ward noted:

“Throughout my career, when I have been rejected, there was sometimes subtext, and it was this: People will not read your work because these are not universal stories. I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people or because I wrote about black people or because I wrote about Southerners.”

But like Faulkner and Welty, whom she claims as literary kin, Ward does know that the whole universe is in every particular, and every place is in her place, and those who have died yet live.  It’s worth shedding a tear over such a place because, like her, I came to love them all.

Advertisements

Free to Use Dangling Participles: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 2 of 3

kelli-tungay-324329

photo by Kelli Tungay via Unsplash

Let’s not put Katherine James’s debut novel, Can You See Anything Now?, (recently reviewed here on Heartlands), into a box called Christian fiction.  She is a Christian and there are strong Christian themes in the book, but this is not an Amish romance.  James tackles difficult themes like suicide, cutting, and substance abuse with vivid, fully-fleshed out characters.

In the first segment of this interview we talked about her life and her upcoming memoir.  Here we explore the freedom to write and following your instincts.

How long have you been living with this book?

Quite awhile. It’s one of those things where it’s in your head and you write notes and you leave it  alone for a while.  Actually, the first draft, (it was a messy draft), was before everything happened with our son.  So, it would probably be six to seven years ago.  Then, I just let it sit while we struggled through that whole time.  Interestingly, it seems like our struggles with our son informed the book, but the book was written before everything happened with our son.

Wow, that’s extraordinary.  Did you feel that the book was preparing you, in some way, for what happened?

Oh, that’s a really good question. It probably was in that, on a subconscious level, these were the sorts of things that were in my head.  Probably, because, by that time, we did have a lot of kids around our house that were struggling. We met some girls through our daughter. Our kids are all very close to my husband.  So, she would bring strays over to the house and sit them down in our living room with my husband and say, “Alright, you need to talk to my Dad.”  Then she’d sit them down and she’d leave to go to do something. So, my husband Rick would just be there with this girl and eventually they talk.  And I would come in and we’d talk together.  So, it was good. Kids stayed here a lot. Probably because we let them smoke. We were so stupid in a lot of ways.

Tell me a little bit about art and perspective and how that informed this book, because it’s so much a part of the book. You start with that really striking image in the beginning of Margie, one of the main characters, with her head above water following a suicide attempt.  You play with that perspective and then you keep shifting each chapter to different characters. How does your visual art sense play into constructing the book?

Very intensely.  It’s such a part of it.  I imagine the physical feel of things. I think the shape of my memory about the physicality of things, including what things look like is very permanent and perceptive. So I can remember things that way.  Verbally, I remember very little. Even when I read.  I’m a very slow, slow reader. Although I can stall on sentences and paragraphs and just be blown away, and very much appreciate excellent writing, that doesn’t mean that I remember a whole lot.

713640

Katherine James

For some reason, I can remember physical environment, images. And then, words would come out of those images.  I always think of Faulkner, because I think that I’ve read somewhere that he started with images.  I could really connect to that.

When I started to write, the most freeing things that anybody told me, (I think it was one of my professors when I was getting my MFA), was that you can do anything you want with fiction.  I was kind of blown away by that.  And I wasn’t sure. “What do you mean ‘anything I want’?”

“Any. thing. you want.”

And I go, “No way! I can have dangling participles?  Which, I don’t know what those are, but I can have them?  I don’t have to worry even about sentence structure if it sounds right?”  It was so freeing and after that is really when I hit the page.  I felt the freedom to keep going because my limitations really did tend to be not really knowing so much.

I don’t think that I’d be a very good composition teacher.  I could definitely teach poetry or fiction and I could teach those things well.  But when it comes to the mechanics of writing—the Chicago Manual style—I would just rip that up because it would really mess with my brain. So, that one statement was really powerful to me. It gave me this freedom to keep going.  Kind of like the Cubist movement maybe.

I’ve always heard that about writing: You learn all the rules so that you can break them.

[laughs] I never learned all the rules. I learned to break them immediately.  That’s why my poetry was so easy.  Sure, I knew how to write a sonnet and all of that, but free verse was big when I really started writing poetry in grade school.  It was really like, “Oh, I really can do anything I want”—I thought that was okay with poetry. But I didn’t know that with fiction that was true, too.  It can carry over into narrative nonfiction—at least these days it can.

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Did you just feel that you were just following your instincts as you moved from chapter to chapter in this book?

Yes.  Every writer is so different, but, for me, usually I’ll write the first three chapters or so.  The characters begin to take shape and the environment   From there, I start to have a sense of where I’m headed.  Often I will go all the way to the back, to the last page, and I’ll write it.  I’ll write exactly where I want it to end.  Then I start back where I was before and I know exactly the ending that I want to get to.  So that’s the goal.  I can go anywhere in the middle but I know that’s where I want to end up.

It’s interesting how writers write.  I’ve heard that John Irving actually starts at the end and then writes towards the beginning.  I imagine if you could do that your plot would be phenomenal.

Of course, there are plenty of writers who do the outline or put little stick-up notes all over their desks, or Scrivner on the computer. I’ve tried that, but just doesn’t seem to work as well with me.

Segment 3 of the interview: “A God’s-Eye View”.

Writing and Painting Through Pain: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 1 of 3

ian-schneider-66374

photo by Ian Schneider via Unsplash

How can we see the world in new ways?  In her debut novel, Can You See Anything Now?, (recently reviewed here on Heartlands), Katherine James uses her background in painting and the difficult passages in her life to weave a story of a healing town named Trinity and the people who live in it.  It’s a small town like many others with the familiar divisions between left and right.  But it’s also a story of people coming together and seeing the possibility for something more.

It’s a great new book and I was happy to be able to interview her recently.  We talked writing, painting, faith, and more.  In the third part of this interview we dig deeper into the book itself.

You’re writing a memoir that’s due out next spring.

Yeah, it’s kind of an intense one. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too hard to write. I guess I can kind of remove myself from situations, but about 4 1/2-5 years ago, our son had an heroin overdose.  He did live through it but it was one of those really bad ones…in a coma and all that.

The timing in our world right now, with the opiate addictions and everything, I just felt like it was time to sit down and write it out.  During that time, there was a lot that went on. My husband and I took in a lot of his friends and helped them out.  It was successful. We didn’t know what the heck we were doing. We had no clue. We weren’t a rehab. Everybody was clean by then, but, you know, struggling.  We talked to a lot of them about Christ, and we saw some lives change. We went through a couple of deaths, a couple in prison.  You get the whole smattering of everything. But it was tragic. So, the whole memoir is kind of peppered with the story of our son having the overdose, and going in and being at the hospital, and all that.

713640

Katherine James

I just finished reading your article about your experience with breast cancer…the “Being Pretty” post in The Other Journal. So, you’ve had a whole lot of ^%#* happen.

[laughs] I know. I’m really hoping we’re out of this. But, at this point, I’m just careful in looking around the next corner, terrified of what’s going to happen.  Yeah, we had that.  It looks like everything’s cool but then, two years or so, really quite miraculously, I caught it early enough. I just happened to feel a lump. It was one of those things where the doctor said I saved my life. So yeah, that was a tough, little journey.

After the tragedy of our son, I could almost laugh the whole way through, honestly.  I was kind of like, “This is nothing.” So, I lose my chest. Who cares about that? [laughs]

Having told me the story of your son’s experience, I can see how that informed the book.  With all this going on, has writing become more important? Or has it assumed a different place within your life…a different size?

No, it has always been there, honestly.  I’m probably good at two things and two things only, really.  I can draw and paint. And I can write. That’s about it.

You don’t want to put me in an office—not because I’d hate it, but because every organized thing, I would just make it disorganized. So, that’s about all I have.

When I was painting, I always had this thing in the back of my mind where I’d rather be writing. With painting and writing, when that’s what you are doing, I feel like that’s the only way I can really focus on anything. You can always go back and perfect it, over and over again. Rework perfection.

With painting, it’s: ‘Quit trying to cover up your messes.’ It’s a whole different thing. That’s why I work with oil, because it all mixes together a little bit. I don’t know if you’ve ever painted…

No, I learned a whole lot about painting from your book.

So, with oil, it all mushes together, which is wonderful. The oil mixes with the oil and you can make this beautiful color that’s nice and smooth. You’re making new colors on the canvas as you paint. In writing, it would almost be as though your sentences were overlapping on each other.  And when you wrote a new sentence, the other sentence would have to somehow mesh with the one before.

So, the memoir is done ? Well, except maybe for the title. [laughs]

[laughs] Yeah, it’s finished.  Honestly, I’ve never written a book that’s non-fiction before. I mean, I’ve written other novels that I just thought were crummy. I never really did much with them, but it was good to write.  I think you do have to write a couple of book-like things before you can narrow in, and say, “Hey, I’m actually going to pursue this one.”

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Can you talk about the personal struggle of writing a memoir?  What was it like to go through that, reliving some of those painful parts of life and joyous parts?

Memoir is a beast for me only because it’s true; I can’t just make things up. It was really hard to have something linear, so that it made sense.  I had too much material.  I had to decide what to put in there and leave out.  So, that was really difficult.

As far as actually writing the thing, surprisingly, I disconnected myself from it.  It wasn’t particularly hard for me to do. However, I wanted my son to vet it, and also my husband. My son read the first two chapters and then he came in and said, “It’s really well-written, but I just can’t keep going on.”  It didn’t hurt him, he just said, “It really hurts me that I hurt you that I hurt you so much.”  Then, he apologized again that he’d ever done that to us. So, that was just really sweet.  Then, my husband felt the same way.  After reading the first few chapters, he had to just gave it back.

Segment 2 of the interview: “Free to Use Dangling Participles.”

Coming Off Leave(s)

scott-webb-59043

photo by Scott Webb via Unsplash

Leaves don’t so much change color in the fall as they become what they’ve always been.  The chlorophyll that gives all deciduous trees their summer uniform of green begins to break down in the cooling days of autumn.  The carotenoids in the leaves remain, lending trees their brilliant yellows and oranges.  Those colors have always been there, they are just revealed in the retreat  of the chlorophyll.

I believe I have experienced a little of the wisdom of trees in my own leave, which comes to an end with October’s arrival.  Over this time, I have allowed the identity of my role as a clergy person to draw back and underneath I discovered colors I hadn’t seen in a long time.  Of course, that clergy role is not like a coat that is shed.  In fact, it’s more like a brand burned in by an iron.  But it’s not all that I am.

Who I discovered on this journey is a little of the boy who used to follow his instincts with a nagging sense that they made him somewhat strange and unfit for normal society.  Lo, these many years since, I found that boy charming and needlessly burdened.  He was on to something that I still need.

fullsizeoutput_18a2So, on this renewal leave, I wrote like that boy, who would come home each day and tap fantastical stories at his father’s Selectric typewriter.  I wandered the small town of Archer City, Texas like that boy wandered his own home town, fascinated by the people whom he met and wanting to get the mystery and wonder of the place somehow into words.

I sang along to Tennessee Ernie Ford gospel songs with a 70-something cowgirl late into the night in her West Texas garden festooned with strings of light and a bright pink rifle.  I ate dinners with friends who, amazingly, are still good friends years after leaving Dallas.  I took a road trip with Suzanne back through the heart of the country staying ahead of a hurricane.  I explored the desert and the prairie.  I stayed with a cousin who told me family history I had never heard.  I heard more from my father as we shared a few nights in his hospital room.  I worshipped in a Latino church, a cowboy church, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  I talked with shop owners in East Jerusalem, walked miles through Bethlehem, and floated in the Dead Sea.

The boy loved such adventures and moments as these.

But about that wisdom of trees…

matthew-payne-219008

photo by Matthew Payne via Unsplash

Once I had a revelation under a tree.  I was at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan and I had just attended a session with the great poet and memoirist Mary Karr.  She told about a spiritual director who got her out of a stuck place by asking the question, “What would you write about if you weren’t afraid?”

I left the session and went out to sit under a spruce in the April sun.  I opened my journal and asked the same question.  As clearly as I have ever heard God speak in my life I heard three things: “Be free.  Tell the truth.  Don’t do it alone.”

I strive for these things, but I tasted them more fully in the leave.  I glimpsed the colors that had been muted by the drive to produce and the wholly worthy work of turning energy into sustenance, which is the work of chlorophyll.

In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr talks about the journey into the second half of life as a kind of search for authenticity.  He sees our stumbling forward to understand life as “a gnawing desire for ‘ourselves,’ for something more, or what I will call ‘homesickness.’”  I understand that desire and it is a kind of rediscovery with acceptance—a knowing that the people we have been in the past are the people God has made us to be, but we have never fully received that gift.  I trust, as I return, that the colors will remain and that the boy will flourish yet.

Can We Talk About Sexuality?

41BB69XhR3L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.” (9)  So says Jill Johnson, one of my co-authors of the new book, Living Faithfully: Human Sexuality and The United Methodist Church, just out from Abingdon Press.  But this book may help us to bring our best selves to the discussion.

Living Faithfully is designed to help participants “understand and grapple with various views about the ministry and teaching of The United Methodist Church around human sexuality.”  I’m happy to have been a contributor to this new four-week small group study.  (I got chapter 4.)  A Leader Guide is included with lesson plans for facilitating the study.

The book includes biblical and theological reflections along with information on United Methodist structure and diverse perspectives.  You’ll learn about the Commission on a Way Forward and where the denominational discernment is moving in the next few years.

“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.”

I come to a close in my chapter with the following thought: “Full inclusion of LGBTQ persons and diversity of biblical interpretation are important to explore.  But we may not be able to go far in the conversation unless we first have spirits formed by Christian community and the disciplines of that community.  Without that soil to grow in, our debates will look suspiciously like those that dominate our divided nation.” (82)

I pray this book helps to understand an important issue, but more so, I hope it brings people together for deep and fruitful growth as beloved community.

Available now from Abingdon Press, Amazon, and other fine purveyors of United Methodist resources.

 

A Dialect of Longing – Poetry Tuesday

jason-briscoe-105340

photo by Jason Briscoe via Unsplash

And what is wind

but a dialect of longing?–: the high

pressure rushing to fill the low, the sky

 

trying to slake its heats against the earth’s

asymptotic cool, its somersaulting cools

against the earth’s radiance.  All weather

 

springs from currents of failed desire.  No wonder

the wind, when it says anything at all,

howls.

513bNNOVAjL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_                                    *

O fugitive God, my glorious jilt,

 

my heart has learned a tempest’s grammar

in your pursuit.  Listen: it thunders up

its truest, its most hopeless, prayers

 

for you.

–Kimberly Johnson, “[              ].” in a metaphorical god

Writing: “A Blessed Unrest” – An interview with Trudy Hale – part 3 of 3

Trudy

Trudy Hale

Trudy Hale, editor of Streetlight magazine, and owner of The Porches writing retreat, has talked in previous segments of this interview about her love affair with the retreat house and the writing life.  In this segment we continue the conversation about the compulsions of writing and the forms it takes in her life.  And we come back to something dear to this site as well – the importance of place.

So, you’ve got that quote on your welcome sheet from Martha Graham.  That’s one of my favorite quotes, and I saw it for the first time on your sheet.  That last line: “There’s only a clear, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching, and makes us more alive than the others.”  You know, the fidelity to that process.  I know why that speaks to me.  Why does it speak to you?

It goes back to that idea that if you’ve been given a gift–the writing.  It’s like the biblical thing, the person with talent.  We all have different degrees of talent, but if you don’t use that talent in some way, you’re not going to feel fulfillment.  There’s some dis-ease; something’s not right.

But there’s another part of the quote that I really like: “It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions.”  There’s always going to be others writers infinitely more brilliant, and you can’t get in there and do these comparisons.  It’s your job to let your expression come out, and that’s your purpose.  You’re always going to feel as an artist, that gift, and it gnaws if it’s neglected–it’s kind of that thing.  It’s a gift, but also somewhat of a curse; you can’t just sit around and not use it.  You’re troubled by not using it.

It’s the fire in your bones.

IMG_2930Yeah.  It’s gonna give you unrest.  It’s a gift, but it’s gonna…what is it?  Prickle, and poke, and holler at you if you’re neglecting it for too long.  And [the quote] also gives you permission to express, to have your expression, and not–  There’s something writers have, that overly self-critical voice.

Yes.

Their editor comes in before you’ve allowed the expression to get out on the page.  You can always go back and make it better.  That’s why I love that Annie Lamott quote: you just gotta get it down.  It’s so easy to get discouraged.  A writer once told me, “Don’t get it right, get it written.”

It’s so easy to get discouraged.  A writer once told me, “Don’t get it right, get it written.”

The whole thing about honoring the time, too.  The thing I fight in myself is the feeling that, “Oh, well, that’s the frivolous side.  That’s the frivolous thing to do.”  Rather than see it as the most essential thing to do.

That’s exactly it.  That’s another thought–“I’m wasting my time.”  Those are little demons, you know?  You gotta shut them up.  But that’s that voice, that self-condemnation that’s trying to prevent you from expressing yourself and getting the work done.

There’s nothing like tapping into the creative.  William Blake wrote a lot about the creative and the artist, and that artistic expression and that act of creation, no matter what medium or form, is the closest that we get to the divine.

So, all those little thoughts like, “Oh, I’m wasting my time,” I’ve had–everyone has that, like, “Oh, what’s the point?”  And that’s a little demon.  You gotta chase that one out with a broom.

Absolutely.  And then, seven more will come in, right?

I know.  It can happen. You’ve written a scene and it’s not alive in some way.  It’s flat on the page.  And just to think, “Okay, I’m just going to keep working on it,” and not pass any judgment on it, and not beat yourself up.  There’s a lot of interior work that has to be done in the writing and the process of creation.

A lot of times in my writing, I would seek distraction, and not sit down and do it; something to distract me from writing.  We do something else, and we try to feel virtuous.  You sit down and write, and you go, “Oh, I’m wasting my time.”  But then, I’ll get up and make up a bed and feel like I’m virtuous.  But I’m not fooling myself.  I know what I’m doing.

You sit down and write, and you go, “Oh, I’m wasting my time.”  But then, I’ll get up and make up a bed and feel like I’m virtuous.  But I’m not fooling myself.  I know what I’m doing.

That’s right.  Wherever you go, there you are.  So, how does Streetlight fit into all this for you?

When I first moved to Charlottesville, I met a writer who was involved with Streetlight, a literature and arts journal, and they needed an editor.  At the time, it was a hard copy magazine  Then, in 2008 with the crash, the printer who was donating fell through.  For a while, we went on a hiatus.

Then, (and this is where the old house once again came to the rescue), I had a writer in residency at Porches who was a web designer.  I said, “Hey, I’ll trade you some time at The Porches if you can set Streetlight up on a digital platform.” So, that’s how the magazine was able to reinvent itself.

Then, our editor-in-chief moved out of town and I was asked to step into the position. “Temporarily,” I said.  Well, cut to three/four years later, I’m still the editor-in-chief and loving it. We have a talented, dedicated volunteer staff.  Just recently we’ve added podcasts and we’re publishing an anthology of 2016.  You’ll be able to download it as an ebook or a hard copy.

hneader-imageThe magazine, I realize, shares a similarity to what we’ve been talking about with the retreat. And to Heartlands.  It’s about place. The power of place. The magazine especially likes pieces that have a strong sense of place. We are excited by writing with an emphasis on the interaction of place and one’s personal relationship to it.

This same idea is what I try to keep reminding myself in the writing of my memoir.  When I describe the three flights of steep stairs, the rattling hand-blown glass in the windows, the groans of the heart-pine floors, I struggle to make it like the material equivalent of my inner being, and how fixing what’s broken in the house, fixes what’s broken in me.

Writing at The Porches – An interview with Trudy Hale – part 2 of 3

aaron-burden-90144

photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

In the first part of my interview with Trudy Hale, editor of Streetlight magazine and owner of The Porches writing retreat, we discussed the relationship she developed with a neglected farmhouse in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains.  In this segment, we talk about the writing.  (And all the ways we contrive not to.)

The Porches is such a healing place.  How has living there changed your writing?

Oh, that’s a great question.  Well, first of all, I have written more descriptively, or taken more time with description.  You have different craft elements, and writing descriptions for me is the most–I hate to use the word tedious—but there are other parts of the craft that I like, like the dialogue.  Just to stop and linger descriptively about the physical aspect of where the characters are, I find that I’m able to slow down more as I’ve been writing here, and to linger more, and to flesh out the bones of the story.  I have a tendency to kind of speed along the story, keep the pace going.  I’ve been able to, once I’ve been writing here, to say, “I need to linger here,” and be more concrete and let all the senses play out; taste, touch, smell.

IMG_6054But one thing that’s happened to my writing, too, is, because I’m so involved with the retreat, I sometimes find it harder to take longer periods of time to write, and this is something I’ve got to work on.  I enjoy doing the retreat so much, but sometimes I’d rather make up a writer’s bed–and I hated housework when I was growing up.  I hated domestic stuff.

I never enjoyed doing any kind of housework before, but making up a writer’s bed brings me a certain amount of joy; turning the sheet down, and making the room up.  It’s almost like I’m making this room for someone who’s going to come here and create, dream dreams; and that’s an attitude that’s definitely changed in me.  But it also is something that I will–because I enjoy it–I’d rather do that sometimes than sit down and write.  You know how we do with writing–Resist it when it’s the very thing that sutures our soul back together.

Making up a writer’s bed brings me a certain amount of joy; turning the sheet down, and making the room up.  It’s almost like I’m making this room for someone who’s going to come here and create, dream dreams.

Yes.  You need a retreat other than yours.

I need a retreat from my retreat or better writing habits.  I have met so many wonderful writers and people.  It’s really enriched my life to have conversations about writing.  I used to socialize a lot more at the beginning of the retreat.  I’d have a glass of wine and hang out, but I realized, as time goes on, I have to focus on my writing.

Yes.  So, when you’re in your rhythm, what does that look like for you?  What does your writing process look like?

Trudy

Trudy Hale

I have to write in the morning.  I have to honor that time, and I’ve had to really fight, because there’s a part of me that wants to take care of the retreat first, or check all the emails.  And I have to become conscious–okay, you’re going to sit down and do the writing–because if you start checking the emails, you fall down the rabbit hole.  When I have that first cup of coffee, I say, “It’s not going to make any difference to whose ever email that you don’t get back to it ’til 11 o’clock instead of 9 o’clock.”

I have to have a very direct conversation with myself.  I go through runs.  I’ll establish a habit when it becomes easy because it’s a habit–like you get up, and exercise, and brush your teeth.  But then, I’ll have these times where I have taken a trip and it’s broken my rhythm, or I have some family crisis.  So, it’s a constant rededication to honoring that sitting down, and also not being judgmental, and keeping the faith, like, “Okay, maybe this morning I’m going to write a lot of stuff that’s not going to be used, or won’t be as good as I’d like it, and just put that aside and say ‘That’s okay.’”

So, a lot of it’s an inner dialogue with the self about the writing and the relationship with the writing, and it’s an ongoing relationship.  And there’s good days and there’s bad days.

But there’s nothing like it; that feeling when you’ve really gotten into it, and time…  I guess it’s like a musician or any artist.  It’s like there’s no time.  It’s like you go in what they call the zone.  You know when you’ve gone there.  That feeling—there’s nothing like it; and it nourishes, it restores, it centers.  It feels like I’m a stringed instrument and someone’s tuned me.

It’s like there’s no time.  It’s like you go in what they call the zone.  You know when you’ve gone there…It feels like I’m a stringed instrument and someone’s tuned me.

It’s great.  And if I go for too long a time without really honoring that writing time and writing, I get really kind of grumpy…just a little out of plumb.

In the third part of this interview we talk more writing and Trudy’s ongoing projects – Streetlight magazine and writing workshops.

 

This Old House: The Love Story – an interview with Trudy Hale, part 1 of 3

PorchesSummer500pxThere’s a great love story going on up in the Virginia foothills rolling up to the Blue Ridge.  Actually, there’s a bunch of them.  Every writer that finds his or her way to Trudy Hale’s writing retreat in the little village of Norwood discovers something to love.

I’ve got my list: The big stony bluff over the James River with the eagle circling overhead.  The regular hum and ring of coal cars carting West Virginia down to Newport News one trainload at a time.  The silence of a long hike along the Tye River where you can feel free to work out your deepest thoughts by hollering at the top of your lungs.

But I haven’t even mentioned the house, The Porches, with its double deck of porches overlooking the James.  The Porches–with its creaking wood, laden with memory and books, adorned with Trudy’s treasures from a life in Hollywood, the South, and points far beyond.  The Porches–which welcomes writers to days of silence and the holy struggle of finding words.  Or not.

Trudy

Trudy Hale

The real love story here is between Trudy Hale and the house.  Something I discovered when I asked her for some time to talk.  Trudy is a writer, teacher, and editor of Streetlight magazine, who also happens to own and love The Porches.  Trudy, in addition to being a great and generous conversationalist, has inspired me to keep this writing life alive.  In this 3-part interview we explore the house, the craft of writing, and how a place can change you.

[This post is a little longer than normal, but settle in.  It’s a wonderful story…]

So, Trudy, what possessed you to buy a farmhouse in Virginia off the Internet [and leave behind a writing life in Hollywood]?

Well, it wasn’t me that bought it originally.  It was my former husband who bought it in a manic episode.  He shot a miniseries in Richmond, and we always liked Virginia, and we were both from the South.  He was from Georgia and I was from Memphis.  But because of his bipolar, slowly the scripts stopped arriving at the door.

So, we thought, well, we really like the South.  You can get a lot for your money.  And while we were thinking, (we were selling our house in Topanga Canyon), he had a manic episode, and a very severe one.  He found this house at 3 a.m on the Internet, and I knew right away that it was not right for us.

But he was convinced.  He was determined to buy it.  And so, my daughter and I said, “We’ll fly down to Richmond, and we’ll go see it.”  We were sure that he would come to his senses and see that it was just very dilapidated and way out in the country, and wasn’t in Richmond or Charlottesville.  I really love Charlottesville, and that’s where I was trying to push him — west to Charlottesville from Richmond.

IMG_4086

Where the Tye meets the James

We come out here and look at the house, and he’s still manic.  At one point, he went out on the upstairs porch, and my daughter was filming him.  He has a big Panama hat and his plaid pajama pants that he was wearing.  Behind him, there’s this post with these black holes of rot.  He’s coming towards her, and she says, “Hey, Dad, what do you think?”  These tears came in his eyes, and he said, “I’ve come home.”

So, my daughter and I sat out on the porch, and when I looked out across the river valley, all of a sudden I just felt this…where my whole spine relaxed.  And there were different depths of the view — you had the foreground with the trees and then you had the river bottom and the river bluff.

It was something about the land that just drew me out of myself and calmed me.  And I thought, “Well, it’s not a bad place to land ’til I figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”  Because I had decided I could not live–we’d been married 25 years, and by the way, we’re very good friends.  I couldn’t just continue to go through these episodes.

So, he bought the house and I told him that I would move him and all the furniture to the house, and then I was going to look for me a place in Charlottesville.  We packed the dogs up and we moved.

Then, we get here and he is now in a full-blown clinical depression; and he sees the house, and he sees the holes in the wall.  We had bought it from this French artist, and she had put all these armoires and art posters to cover the big holes in the plaster.

She was an artist.  She never fixed the porch and she never did any renovation or maintenance to the house.  It was falling down around her ears.  In fact, they wouldn’t let the people go out on the porch for fear it would collapse, because it was in such bad shape.

But she painted murals.  She wouldn’t fix the porch or anything, but she would go around and paint the knobs of things, like little bird nests on knobs and little sunflowers.

We arrive, and my husband totally freaks out when he sees what he’s bought; and his wife is leaving him…threatening to leave.  He puts his bed in the dining room with all his boxes, and I put my bed upstairs in this room with this crazy wallpaper.  I think, ferns and plumes and…  Did you ever read the short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?

No.

Okay.  What’s her name?  Perkins.  That’s it.  [Charlotte] Perkins Gilman.

Anyway, I slept in that room, but as he was lying in his bed and not getting out, I began to walk around.  I was so conflicted, because I would look at things and say, “Oh, wouldn’t that be beautiful if that was just painted?”  And the porch, and the being out in the country, the birdsong, and the river, and I’d take walks.  The house began to speak and she said, “I used to be beautiful.” To me.

I was really conflicted for many months.  I looked at other places. I got a real estate agent.  But I would think, “Well, we just need to paint, and we just need to…”  The house began to really cast a spell on me and seduce me.

The bottom line was I couldn’t live with him anymore.  So, instead of me moving, I said, “Let’s find you an apartment.  I would like to stay here and fix the house up.”  At some point along this thing of me being seduced and falling in love with the house, I said, “I’d like to start an artist colony.”  Because I thought I really couldn’t justify living in such a big house by myself, or afford it, really, and all the repairs.  So, that’s the birth of The Porches.

Wow.

old barn_thru_windowSo, he moved to Charlottesville, and we saw friends and went out.  And after five years, he moved back to California to be closer to our kids.  So, Alex, what’s interesting is—it was a curse.  I thought, “Oh, my God.  My life is just falling apart.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I was walking around in this ruin, way out in the country, totally isolated, no friends out here, all my friends and my kids back in California, and I was a wreck for a long time.

I was in tremendous torment, and the house seemed like a curse.  And even when I’d walk up to the third floor and all the plaster was falling down, and I was cursing the fact that there was a third floor, because that meant more rooms that we had to fix up or block off…ultimately, it became the greatest gift, because I would have never had the courage, being in California, to think, “Oh, I’m going to go buy this antebellum house down on the James and start a writer’s’ retreat.”  What seemingly were the ruin of a marriage and a financial disaster just turned into the greatest gift for me.

What are you working on now?

I’m actually working on a memoir that focuses on how I ended up coming to this house.  But it’s really about living and loving a person who has bipolar and that relationship—how much it gives you and how hard it is.  All the pain, and all the joy, too.  And oftentimes, people who do have that illness are very creative people.

And the house does become a character, in a way.  I mean, it’s like as I began to love this house back to life, I was able to love myself and reinvent myself after this very difficult marriage.  And it’s like a house becomes this–I wouldn’t say an alter ego—but it’s like a friend or mentor to me.

And we were able to restore ourselves together.

Wow.

You see it’s like a pebble in a pond, because it starts to reverberate.  And first, you land in this place, it’s like you’ve landed on the moon.  And then, part of gaining my sanity was to reach out and see who was in the land, what was the community; make connections, because I felt so untethered.  When I began to write about that–now, this is the irony–it’s like I got too far away from the house in the writing.  And somehow–here come the villagers–and the energy kind of went–

You were diluting the love story between you and the house.

That’s great!   That’s what happened!  That is what happened.  I left the love story, and the love story of me and the house.

[Part 2 – Writing at the Porches]

 

How to write a good country song

IMG_3306When was it that a hit country song became a list of country-fried images?  Seems like all you have to do is string together bare feet, pickup trucks, fishing poles, and mama and you’ve got you a bestseller.  (And, yes, I do know that I was a country music DJ back in the day when John Anderson was “Swingin’” on the porch with Charlotte Johnson while her daddy was in the back yard rolling up a garden hose and he was feeling love down to his toes.  But this is a rant with a point, thank you very much.)  And that point is that easy call-outs to a romanticized rural lifestyle somehow work.  So Josh Turner can laud his “Hometown Girl” who grew up “where the corn grows up to the road side” and who “couldn’t hide her beauty with a baseball cap” and he’s got a Top 10 hit.

971161_643248222352937_645312764_n

Adia Victoria

Meantime, I’ve been listening to Adia Victoria, whose own version of the blues has been described as Southern Gothic.  Adia, like Josh, was born in South Carolina, but her view of the place is decidedly darker.  “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout Southern belles,” she says in “Stuck in the South,” “but I can tell you something about Southern hell.”  Her music, as her voice, growls with subversive energy.

But I didn’t come to do music criticism.  (Although, Sam Hunt…”Body like a Back Road”?  Are you serious?)  I just came by today to say once more that we need a little more texture in our view of the places we live.  I say this as somebody who is a sucker for gauzy sentimentality.  A fireworks show after a baseball game can get me misty and a far-off train whistle stirs my high lonesome sensibilities.  It’s not healthy to remain in those places, though.

As a church leader, I know the comforts and the dangers of nostalgia.  When a church defends itself against self-reflection by glorifying an idealized past, it is preferring not to see the world as it really is or people as they really are.  It could be that the children and youth who used to populate Christmas pageants as bathrobes shepherds (I’m getting misty again) still bear the image of God (they do) and could enrich our lives and our worship if we chose to engage them deeply (they could).

We rightly bristle when our communities are lampooned and real people are reduced to stereotypes, but I worry that we do it to ourselves, too.  We grasp an identity or an ideology that reflects a piece of who we are and see all things through that lens.  Seeing our culture only as noble pickup trucks or vicious hanging trees is not really seeing at all.  We are more than that.

Seeing our culture only as noble pickup trucks or vicious hanging trees is not really seeing at all.  We are more than that.

The role of good worship and of good art is to offer us a frame to see the world in its depth and to resist final declarations about it.  In both we pause before mystery and use what resources we have to give voice and notice to what we see.  Perhaps we sing.  And with any luck we rise above schmaltz to poetry.