The Write Idea


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!


The Hunger Games

Sorry to be so long gone from this forum. I’ve been reading more young adult literature than anything else lately, partly in preparation for my family’s Very Exciting Work as extras in the movie based on the Suzanne Collins best-seller. Had never heard of it before the movie came to town and am discovering that many of my reliable adult reader friends love it. I just started it.

So … who has read The Hunger Games? Love it? Hate it? Excited or trepidatious to see the Hollywood version? What do you think of the people who have been cast in lead roles (Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, etc.)? Come on, now. I know you have opinions.


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.


Monday Morning Goldberg

Filed under: Uncategorized — ljcollins @ 8:46 am

It’s Monday. Time to start writing. Here’s another little gem from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Ready, set, write! 

Okay. Take something specific to write about. Let’s say the experience of carving your first spoon out of cedar. Penetrate that experience, but at the same time don’t become myopic. As you become single-minded in your writing, at the same time something in you should remain aware of the color of the sky or the sound of a distant mower. Just throw in even one line about the street outside your window at the time you were carving that spoon. It is good practice.

We shouldn’t forget that the universe moves with us, is at our back with everything we do. And if you throw a line in about it, it reminds the reader, too, that though we must concentrate on the task before us, we mustn’t forget the whole breathing world. Tossing in the color of the sky at the right moment lets the piece breathe a little more.

… So when we concentrate in our writing, it is good. But we should always concentrate, not by blocking out the world, but by allowing it all to exist. This is a very tricky balance.


The Day the Dogwoods Bloomed

Filed under: Poetry — ljcollins @ 10:59 am
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I rarely write poetry, but wrote this yesterday and got some nice feedback, so I decided to share it here.

One flawless day

when the dogwoods opened

their scarred hands

my dog and I walked

along narrow rhododendron

paths, familiar.


We paused at the small

cemetery where

Ellen and Henry Smith’s four babies

are buried, circa 1890.


In the fairy circle

of stone nubs rising from moss

a sudden shimmering

rose from the ground

brushed my skin,

hurried up my body.

It seized my heart

and I cried out,

“Daddy, where are you?

Are you OK?

Am I?

Daddy, I wish you would come to me.”


Astonished by this

unknown ache

I let a pine tree hold me

while I cried.

Sinking down

I grasped a worn down stone:

baby, name unknown.


My dog stood near,

a small statue

alert to bird calls

and the possibility of squirrel.

Also still, I squatted,

aware of the call of loss,

waiting for the soft signals

of presence.


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?


Generous Writing

Filed under: Quotes — ljcollins @ 7:47 am
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It’s Thursday and maybe you’re feeling a little blocked or like you’ve run out of fresh words to write this week. So that must mean it’s time for a kick in the pants from the two Annies. Here’s a word from Lamott’s Bird by Bird:

“Annie Dillard has said that day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects. If you give freely, there will always be more. This is a radical proposition that runs so contrary to human nature, or at least to my nature, that I personally keep trying to find loopholes in it. But it is only when I go ahead and decide to shoot my literary, creative wad on a daily basis that I get any sense of full presence, of being Zorba the Greek at the keyboard. Otherwise I am a wired little rodent squirreling things away, hoarding and worrying about supply. Arthritis forms in my hands and in the hands my mind is using to shape things, in the hands of that creature in the cellar who wants and needs to use all of his favorite rags in the ragbag he works from.

“You’re going to have to give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward. There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver.”


Writing … wedding vows!

Filed under: article — ljcollins @ 12:17 pm
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Many of you know that I have a varied work life that includes freelance ministry, as well as freelance writing and editing. I recently came across a fun DIY wedding blog, Hindsight Bride, and this week I’m a guest blogger on it.  If you know folks planning a wedding, I recommend this blog, as well as a workbook for writing vows, written by my good friends, Shonnie Lavender and Bruce Mulkey. And, of course, if the couple you know needs a fabulous wedding celebrant I highly recommend, um, me!


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.

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