The Write Idea


On hoodies and motherhood.

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 5:58 pm
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Every day for the last several months my tall skinny teenaged son has left the house wearing a hoodie. When it was cold enough for a winter jacket, he opted for a hoodie. When it was warm enough for a tee-shirt, hoodie. He pulls the hood over his head and slouches forward, eyes down as he walks wherever he is headed: the bus stop, the corner convenience store, a friend’s house.

And never do I worry that he will be mistaken for a criminal.

This is what it means to live every day with white privilege. To be a white mother of a white son means that I don’t have to teach my son to watch his back. I don’t have to explain to him the life and death need to be extra-deferential to police officers or for that matter, other adults. Do I hope that he is always well-behaved and respectful in public? Of course. Do I worry that if he fails to live up to those expectations he’ll be shot? Never.

This afternoon I attended a vigil for Trayvon Martin in Asheville’s downtown plaza, in front of the courthouse and county jail. A jail, like every other in this country, housing a disproportionate number of young black men. Our African-American mayor stood in her hoodie, describing how it feels to be the mother of a nine year old boy in this community. The fact that she is the mayor does not make her family immune to our nation’s sickness.

In the writing class I’m taking this spring, we are reading Lost in the City, a book of short fiction by Pulitzer Prize winning author Edward P. Jones. Jones writes unsentimental stories of African-American families in Washington, DC, with clear-eyed prose. The stories are set in different decades over the last fifty years, but all of them are set in a milieu of despair. In the book black girls die, black boys have run-ins with the cops, black families suffer estrangement and hope, black communities pull together and apart.

To be reading these stories as I watch the news unfold is to know that however far we have come, we have not come nearly far enough. We can elect an African-American president or mayor, we can hire an African-American chief of police, we can sing songs of freedom while holding hands, but it is not enough. Emmett Till died more than fifty years ago. How many more black mothers will watch their boys murdered for the crime of being black? Too many.

Being at the town plaza today required nothing of me other than a split second of time. What will it require of me, of my hoodied son, of all of us, to stand up to racism? What will it take to create the beloved community dreamed into a vision by another murdered black man?

I can never stop living with the reality of my white privilege. But at the very least, I can pay attention to it. And I can teach my hoodied son to notice his, as well. It is not sufficient. But it is necessary.



Magazine Month

Apparently, March is a good magazine month for me. I’m grateful to the beautiful Laurel of Asheville Magazine for featuring my new book, Sacred Separations: The Divorce Ritual Workbook.

In addition, I have another article in WNC Woman, a lovely magazine where I’ve been privileged to write about several of WNC’s amazing women over the past few years.

The Laurel also listed my upcoming retreat with the fabulous Barrie Barton in the calendar, so that any of you facing the possibility of change (and who isn’t?), might come and find a way to move more smoothly across those choppy waters. Check it out and pass it along.



Falling Apart In One Piece

Since my current post on my new blog is a book review, I’m sharing it here as well:

Books about divorce have created a whole new genre of literature, it seems. I plan to review some of them here from time to time and wanted to start with one of my favorites: Stacy Morrison’s Falling Apart in One Piece: One Optimist’s Journey Through the Hell of Divorce. Morrison had recently given birth and bought a house and was in the running for her dream job as Editor in Chief of Redbook Magazine when her husband announced one night that he was done. She got the job and lost the husband.

Her memoir tells the story of the two years after the night that she heard the fatal news and how she coped and didn’t cope. She writes with poignant vulnerability, honest self-reflection and genuine humor of the ways in which her life turned upside-down and inside-out. With a literary symbolism she could not have manufactured, her basement begins to flood and her roof begins to leak the same month that she starts her new high-powered executive position while still reeling from her husband’s unexpected announcement.

Unafraid to describe the nights she lay on her kitchen floor, noticing the crumbs under the stove while flattened there from the weight of her grief, she takes us through the familiar yet exquisitely personal storms, internal and external, of living through a nightmare. In the end, Stacy emerges from the fog with her natural optimism intact. This is one of those reads that feels like a long phone conversation with a friend. If your friend happens to be a well-connected New York magazine editor, that is. But that’s the beauty of this story. Great shoes and a great career can’t save you from bad plumbing or the misery of loss. I laughed and cried and winced my way through it and recommend you do the same.


Dear Mary Karr

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 11:45 am
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Dear Mary Karr,

I take it all back. Well, maybe not all. I did say you create beautiful sentences and so forth. I stayed up much of last night to finish Lit. I sobbed and laughed and stopped again and again, breathless as I read and re-read some of those amazing sentences you can spin. I even fell to my knees in prayer at one point. (When in the world was the last time I actually prayed on my knees?) You have written a fantastically gorgeous story of addiction and recovery–which is to say of brokenness and healing, of insanity and sanity, of sin and redemption. Thank you.

Thank you for your honesty about how ugly life can really be. Thank you for the humility you wrestled so long to avoid. Thank you for the commitment to your craft that makes your story not only true, but also beautiful. Thank you for daring to get sober and get help and then for daring to tell us how shitty it really felt.

I don’t know if I would have appreciated this story as fully had I not read The Liars’ Club, so I don’t know if I should tell folks to read that book first, though it lacks the simplicity and clarity of this one, or whether I should tell them to skip on ahead to the best stuff. Either way, I’ll be sure to tell them to read Lit.

I’m sorry you had to live through it all, from the crazy childhood through the mental ward, but given that you did, I’m glad you turned it into something not simply entertaining, but saving.

Yes, saving. I’ve heard plenty of sermons in my 48 years, but it’s a rare one that sends me straight to my knees. So, thank you.

Your friend,



Memoirs Galore

This weekend I started three memoirs and finished one. First, the two I did not finish: finally getting around to Mary Karr’s Lit. Since I wasn’t wildly in love with The Liar’s Club, it took me a while to get to this one. Skipped right over Cherry. The other memoir is not one I would have found on my own, but I got it at a silent auction recently, along with a pile of other books by women authors, all donated by one of the wonderful local independent bookstores. Noelle Hancock has written one of that sub-genres of memoir where the author does something for a year and writes about it. Think Julie and Julia or the couple who decided to have sex every night for a year. Or Jesus is My Guru. (Oh, wait. That’s the one I’m writing this year. Never mind.) Anyway, Hancock has written My Year with Eleanor, in which she takes to heart Eleanor Roosevelt’s oft-repeated quote, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” She sets out to do just that for a year and write about it. I’m up to her swimming with sharks in month two.

So, the book I did finish is Backwards Off the Curb by Chris McMillan. I was fortunate to meet Chris not long after I moved to Asheville and knowing her sense of humor, her foul mouth and her sincere spirituality, I have been looking forward to this book for some time. What I didn’t know was of her poor Savannah upbringing.

In this touching memoir, Chris weaves together the story of the year she got in a van and took a two-month leave of absence from her marriage, with stories of her Southern childhood, her marriage and her years in business. Moving deftly back and forth between adventures on the trip, such as her first encounter with a convent, and the earlier stories of her life, Chris writes with honesty and humor. From running away to get married in Paris at age twenty to running away from that same marriage 34 years later, she lets us see her vanity and fear and temper and dreams. Determined to find passion and purpose in spite of a childhood that inspired anything but, Chris shows us the characters who shaped her and the struggle she went through to reshape herself mid-life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, a story of spiritual renewal and feminist empowerment, laced with a great deal of humility and plenty of laughs. Chris emerges in her 7th decade of living as a delightful new writer. Congrats, Chris!


Of Moons and Mountains

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 9:44 am
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It took me forever to get through Thirteen Moons, which says a great deal more about my distractibility than about Charles Frazier’s writing. Set in the mountains near Asheville before, during and after the Civil War, the novel follows the life of Will Cooper from age 12 into his elderly years. Sent as a bound boy to mind a shop in Cherokee territory, Cooper’s life becomes intertwined with the Cherokee fate during the Great Removal, when nearly a whole nation is sent on the Trail of Tears away from their homeland out to Oklahoma. Cooper and his adopted father Bear remain in the mountains with only a few remaining Cherokee families. A tale of finding and losing love, wealth, family, status and home, a melancholy voice prevails across eight decades of adventure.

Frazier’s grasp of history–regional, national and even personal–astounds me. I can only imagine the long hours of research that went into making this wild tale believable down to the details of fashion and food. His clear love of the geography of the Appalachian mountains, first seen in his award-winning Cold Mountain, weaves through every page, beginning to end. It’s a tale of American history told from the vantage point of one mountain range, whose changes echo the changing world beyond. Unlike Cold Mountain, women play only an auxillary role in the book; we don’t get to know any of them from the inside out, only from the point of view of the men who obsess over them.

As long as it took me to read it, when I finished I was tempted to go back to page one and begin again.


Midlife Memoir

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 3:40 pm
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My father, a well-respected preacher with a mellifluous voice, and my mother, a genuinely Christian woman with an unflappably upbeat perspective on the world, raised my brothers and me in a small Midwestern town amidst conservative values. I became a minister, endured a difficult 14-year marriage, moved to be near my parents at age 43 for the first time in my adult life, and got divorced. So perhaps it is no surprise that I could not put down Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Janzen was raised by a Mennonite preacher and his unfailingly cheerful wife, considered seminary before becoming a Ph.D. poet, and when her husband of 15 years left her, moved back in with her conservative parents at age 43 to the Mennonite life she had long since left behind. This book is a side-splittingly funny memoir of that experience.

Janzen, who spends most of her time writing poetry, shows that she is a natural storyteller. There isn’t one of her relatives, neighbors or friends I didn’t wish I could meet after her hilarious accounts of their encounters. The Mennonite Lunchbox Hall of Shame is practically worth the price of the book (especially since she includes the recipes at the end). And being a bit of a religion nerd, I fully enjoyed her short and sassy history of Mennonites in the appendix.

While the book made me laugh uproariously at times, it’s also a poignant and honest telling of the stinging pain of midlife trials and the blessings of family who keep on loving us in their own quirky ways. Janzen clearly loves the parents who took her back in when her life crashed to an undignified halt. And boy, could I relate to that.

I feel almost too connected to the subject matter to say anything objective about this wondrous little book. I’d love to hear from others whose path may not follow hers quite so closely. Did you still relate to her? Did she make you laugh out loud?


Presenting Heather Newton: A Beautiful Debut

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 8:38 pm
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Apparently the way to get me to buy a book is to have an author reading in a local independent bookstore. The last four books I bought were all during such events: one with Elizabeth Gilbert that I wrote about here, one with Louisa Shafia for her gorgeous cookbook, Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life (and then I got to go have dinner with her–that she cooked!), another one I’m going to write about soon (no spoilers here) and today’s topic: Heather Newton.

Heather is a local author and attorney. She works as a lawyer four days a week and on Friday she faithfully holes herself up to do nothing but write. She’s also a wife and a mom and, from all accounts, a genuinely nice human being. First, can I just say–wow. As a mom who is trying to make a living for myself while writing a couple of books and hopefully also succeeding in the nice-human-being arena, I’m impressed. Had she managed a sweet little self-published novel for regional audiences, that would still be quite the accomplishment. Instead, she’s written a complex and nuanced first novel full of intrigue and intimacy, loss and longing. Published by Random House, the book is already collecting humming reviews.

So let me add mine.

Under the Mercy Trees weaves together stories of the Owenby family through the unique voices of four characters. Set in the mid-1980s in rural western North Carolina, we gradually come to know several generations of family members through the memories and perceptions of the varied narrators. The story begins when Leon Owenby, a loner who lives in the old family homestead, goes missing. Martin, the youngest brother and the only member of the family to leave the county, reluctantly comes down from New York City, where the folks back home imagine him leading a glamorous life. In fact, Martin’s life is anything but. He is drunk much of the time and broke all of it. Martin’s voice provides a pivotal point of view for remembering the difficult and impoverished life he left behind, only to find a different kind of poverty and shame in his late middle age.

The other narrators are Martin’s high school girlfriend, Liza, his ghost-haunted sister Ivy, and Bertie, the wife of his brother James. While Newton alternates between voices, she also takes us back and forth between past and present, seamlessly crossing the distance between the 1950s childhoods of the narrators and their lives and concerns in 1986. The main characters’ grown children play out another generation’s angers and insecurities while the mystery of Leon’s disappearance blows like a ghost through every interaction.

Martin remains lovable in large part because of the other characters’ care for him. Liza and their childhood friend Hodge and Martin’s siblings all maintain a gentle respect for him, even as he tries to disguise his dilapidated life. Each main character carries a particular yearning that Newton slowly unfolds for us over the course of the book, painting a canvas of old longings that shape lives for decades.

I especially loved Ivy, the only narrator who speaks in the 1st person. At the reading, Newton shared with us that she felt Ivy had to speak in first person for the reader to be able to see and understand the ghosts as Ivy sees and understands them. Each narrator has suffered heart-breaking loss, but none more than Ivy. Yet she, who lives amidst the twin worlds of the living and the dead, walks with more equanimity through her hard-edged world than any of the others.

While I would never categorize Under the Mercy Trees as a mystery, the unraveling of Leon’s disappearance provides the mirror in which all the characters see themselves. There is mercy in the book, but no heaven-rending redemption. Rather than tie any neat packages to end this memorable tale, Newton offers the mercy of unspoken forgiveness and the quiet dissolution of guilt mixed with the continued reality of deep hidden hurt. She offers us a family in all of its unresolved love and hate, still suffering, still hoping, still together.


Eat, Pray, Marry

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 4:31 pm
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Two weeks ago I heard Liz Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, speak locally. Sponsored by Asheville’s wonderful Malaprop’s Bookstore, the speech was moved to a large auditorium at the University of North Carolina-Asheville to accommodate the crowd of several hundred (mostly) women. Let me just say that before reading EPL I was convinced I wouldn’t like it. I read it to understand what moved other people about her spiritual journey, not because I expected to be moved myself. I assumed I would find her spiritual exploration shallow and ungrounded.

Instead, I became a fan. The fact that I was a recently divorced woman when I read it may have had something to do with my reaction. I’d also like to think that I’m a discerning enough reader simply to appreciate her good writing. The girl can write, after all. But really, I loved that she let us in: she spoke of her neuroses and self-absorption and self-doubt and anger and fear and hope and love with an honesty that allowed me to sink and rise along with her emotions. Through her love of travel I flew with her to Italy and India and Indonesia, experiencing the different pace and sights and smells of each country.

So now she’s written another book: Committed, A Love Story. Actually published a while back, this book tour celebrates the paperback edition. Readers of EPL will remember that she finally succumbs to loving again near the end of her stay in Bali, having fallen for an older Brazilian man, also divorced, who gently courts her.

She does not, however, succumb to the temptation to marry. Quite the opposite, as we find out in this book. She and her beloved, Felipe, vow never to marry each other, having each been torn up by their experiences of divorce. They establish a two-continent relationship which is going just swimmingly until Homeland Security steps in and arrests and deports Felipe for misusing his temporary visas. Thus begins a journey for the two of them, internal and external, toward a legal marriage that will be recognized by the government and allow them to continue their relationship.

Liz, still being the lovable neurotic we met in EPL, can’t just consider this issue of marriage in isolation. She decides to plunge into months of research on the subject, its meaning across cultures and history, its meaning among her own family and friends, and its meaning among its promoters and detractors. The book, then, weaves the author’s all-consuming struggle to face her own marriage demons with the intellectual task of understanding what marriage actually is.

I found the result to be an enjoyable read, mixing fascinating cultural and historical tidbits, disturbing statistical reports and provocative philosophical questions with her own sweetly self-absorbed love story. It does not carry the emotional punch of Eat, Pray, Love (maybe because I’m not considering marriage any time soon?), but it does provide a good ride across southeast Asia and the history of marriage.  And it saves me reading books like Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History, from which she liberally quotes.

So, to the talk then. Gilbert charmed us. She read a bit from the book and then opened the floor to questions and responded with that kind of off-hand, self-deprecating humor that one might use in a group of women friends. She easily laughed at her own foibles, the bizarre reality of her overwhelming success, seeing Julia Roberts play her on the big screen, and the terror of making her TED Talk. At the same time, she spoke of her work as a writer with reverence. She admitted to having chosen this work as a vocation when, as a teen, she lit a candle, promising to devote her life to the careful work of writing. Gilbert still feels writing to be a “holy calling”.

She described her routine of getting up early, around 5 am, and devoting the first part of her day to writing and research. Then, by about 1 pm, she says she isn’t good for much else but staring at a wall for the rest of the day. But while she believes in the hard work of staring at a blank page every single day, she also knows that the Muse makes a difference. “People say that the work is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, and while that may be true, you can’t dismiss that 1%. That would be like throwing out the pearl for the oyster shell.”

When writing about yourself, I suppose it helps to be likable. And Gilbert is immensely that.


Good writers, mediocre books

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 9:29 am
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While I’m on the topic of beautifully written books I had trouble getting into, let me bring up another.  Last month I finished David Whyte’s The Three Marriages. I heard Whyte speak this Spring and bought the book during the intermission.  I love Whyte’s poetry. Love it. And hearing him speak was like being physically embraced by his poems. He is handsome, funny, warm, moving, theatrical, genuine, wise.  (Enough descriptors?) In short, a delight to hear.

The premise of this prose book is that we each enter into three kinds of marriages in our lives:  marriage to our work, marriage to ourself and marriage to an intimate other.  He uses the concept of marriage metaphorically, not literally, and his examples include people who did not marry in the traditional sense of the word.  For each of these three kinds of marriages he suggests that we go through similar stages: courtship, the shock and disappointment of the everyday tedium or conflict followed by a new level of commitment, and finally a kind of contentment and purpose. Actually, I’m not doing him any justice in this oversimplification, but maybe that’s part of the problem.  Whyte rambles through these stages with lovely, funny, poignant stories and simple, wise observations, but at the end of the (long) chapters, I often thought, “Now what was the point?”

As both Whyte and Karr are first poets, I wonder if this is part of the difficulty I have with their longer (in each case, I thought, too long) books of nonfiction. Poetry thrives in a detail. Poetry is non-linear. Poetry doesn’t need to hold your attention for several hundred pages.

So while both write exquisite sentences, tell amazing stories, bring to life eccentric characters, and, in the case of Whyte, draw interesting and inspirational connections, staying with these writers through hundreds of exquisitely detailed pages of writing left me feeling uninspired.

I’d be interested in others of you who have read books that seemed beautifully written yet didn’t hold your attention. Is there a lesson in here for a good editor?

The main lesson I’m taking from The Three Marriages is to stick with Whyte’s poetry.

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