Gathering Audience: Blackbird Academy’s Coffeehouse Reading

No Telling

In the beginning is the word, and we write for ourselves. Secret notebooks stashed in backpacks, odd scribbles on napkins or the back of a shopping list. Sometimes a string of words so bright we repeat and repeat them hoping the glamor of it won’t fly off before we can net the wild thing on paper. That’s how it begins.

Then we gather large stories in small rooms, tentatively sharing what we’ve written. That’s the next step, and the one that binds us to each other as writers. We grow into our voices and become fearless on the page.

Finally, we go out into the world. This time, family and friends in a familiar place so all this bravery has elbow-room and a soft place to land. There’s a certain alchemy in hearing your voice read aloud the words you’ve written, and to see an audience rapt. For you.

Next time, we’ll fling poems and stories even wider, because we can.

Top, left to right: Jennie Strange – Blackbird Academy executive director, Amy Ness – art instructor. Middle, left to right: Laura Craig, Hannah Laws, Mary Margaret Hambuchen. Bottom, left to right: Amy Ness, Tara Walls – dance instructor, Jennie Strange, Pam James.

Special thanks to Something Brewing for welcoming us and for having iced coffee on such a hot evening.

Singing in the Dead of Night

No Telling


I spend my Monday nights at Blackbird Academy. It’s a non-profit arts school here in town dreamed up by Jennie McNulty Strange offering dance, music, visual art, theater, and creative writing. I teach creative writing workshops to high school students and adults there.

It’s magical, really. all that creative energy in one place. Week after week I’m audience to these amazing writers who, having found a safe haven, literally pour the words out each week.

Next week my two classes will meet at the local coffee shop to give a public reading. What does this mean? Group poems as well as individual readings of poetry and prose. They are everyone of them nervous and excited because we’re moving a few blocks out of our nest and into the world. Writing does that. It makes us brave in increments until we’re standing on top of some picnic table shouting fresh poems scribbled on paper napkins.

While all of my students are trying their hands at online public writing right now, the high school folk are the most eager to find an audience. They’re fearless, I tell you. At their request, you are cordially invited to read their summer scribblings. You all know the importance of encouragement, so do please drop by their blogs, enjoy a read, and leave an inspirational note here and there.

Just imagine – they’re launching their writing lives and you’re here to watch. It’s like the moon landing, only more important. Enjoy!

This is Not a Book Review: John Fergus Ryan and The Redneck Bride

No Telling

I‘m sorry. I really am. I’m about to tell you not to live another hour without reading this novel, and you’re never going to find it. The Redneck Bride by John Fergus Ryan is pure southern Gothic, out of print and mighty scarce.

I got lucky. This book (literally) lept off the shelf and into my hands in the used book basement at the Cox Creative Center the other day. I caught it before it hit the floor and – call me crazy – I’m convinced Ryan’s rapscallion ghost was responsible. Probably smoking contraband cigars in the afterlife, right there in the basement. I don’t blame the haint – the book was misshelved in with the general fiction population rather than the special “Southern Lit” or “Arkansas” shelves. Five dollars later, I had a first edition hardback filled with illustrations and wearing a pristine dust jacket.

Don’t look for this to be Faulknerian. The Redneck Bride‘s narrator has poetic Attention Deficit Disorder, with a healthy dose of descriptive OCD – that’s part of its charm. But the one-liners hit hard. Sometimes hard enough to put the book down and walk away for a minute just to catch your breath.

Some years ago, Billy Bob Thornton attempted to produce a movie based on the book. No amount of research has turned up what happened to the project, and Billy Bob hasn’t yet returned my call/tweet. Ryan’s novel The Little Brothers of St. Mortimer did make it, but straight to DVD. It’s called The White River Kid and has quite a cast of stars. His novel Watching came out in 1998 and it looks like I’m going to have one hell of a time finding any copies of that one.

Sadly, John Fergus Ryan died in 2003. His obituary in the Memphis Flyer, eloquently written by Jackson Baker, is worth reading start to finish, especially the section on his writing process. In fact, someone out there needs to write Ryan’s life. His son, John Jr., illustrated The Redneck Bride, and I understand makes his living as an artist. Strangely enough, both father and son appeared in the film The People vs. Larry Flynt. Ryan Sr. was a firecracker for sure.

You know, I might just head to President Clinton Avenue and crawl back down into the used book basement again. Maybe ol’ John will sling another one out of the shelf for me. It could happen.

Scribbling a River

No Telling

Table at the Cox Creative Center

The Great Bear Writing Project made its yearly trek to Little Rock yesterday. An all-day writing marathon, a gaggle of teachers, and damn near perfect weather – it doesn’t get much better than this.

We met at the River Market, then then headed out with notebooks on the ready to wander and scribble. I’ve written about these marathons here before – the County Line Barn Sale marathon and the Harmony Grove/El Dorado marathon are two on-the-road examples. Last year’s Little Rock marathon was a little bittersweet, as our local Micheal Jackson street mime found himself a little lost. Sadly, he wasn’t there this year.

During the Great Bear Writing Project summer institute, we always head to the River Market District in Little Rock. On one small stretch of road, writers can walk and scribble from the Bill Clinton Library to the Capitol (if they’re ambitious). In between there are art galleries, museums, shops, food, crazy southern people, and a river runs through it. Literally.

I spent my time scribbling on the edge of the Arkansas River and in the Cox Creative Center – the water because I’ve always suffered from River Rapture, and the CCC because because they have thousands of cheap books in the basement. And because John Malkovich sat there. Once. I’ll post some of these pieces as soon as I can make out my handwriting.

The day ended in the basement at the Flying Saucer, a local joint known for interesting beer and waitresses who need to cover themselves. I love it in that basement. It’s dank and dark, full of couches and pool tables. Why there’s even an honest-to-God functioning cigarette machine down there. Ah, memories…

The basement is where we meet back up and take turns reading the day’s scribbling out loud. With their backs to the pool tables, these school teachers threw down some serious writing. Earlier in the day, my compadre Stephanie said marathon writing works because we’ve given ourselves permission to do it. She’s right about that. A little permission and these Arkansas teachers wrote fearlessly.

This is why I live for our writing marathons. If I ever win the lottery, I’ll give myself permission to throw one of these every single day of my life.

(Update: Debra Hale-Shelton at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote a lovely piece on our writing marathon. The Great Bear Writing Project enjoyed having her along for the ride.)

Kindles and Nooks and iPads. Oh my.

No Telling

Before I start getting all middle-aged-scrappy, let me fess up about my level of techno-intelligence. Like many Generation Jonesers (1955 to 1965), I know enough to be moderately tech-cool, but not enough to keep those damn Gen Y kids from making fun of me.

Well, they won’t be laughing at me here, because I’m about to launch into a full-blown I Told You So about e-readers. Everyone knows Gen Y isn’t reading anything that doesn’t flash through on their cell phones. That’s a shame, too, because they could save a fortune on textbooks.

E-readers were never meant for them anyway. Kindle, Nook, and the Sony E-Reader were meant for geezers like us who still read books and who can’t see well enough to read Eat, Pray, Love on a tiny iPhone screen without two pairs of reading glasses.

Then the iPad happened and sent all those overpriced e-readers scrambling. Prices are dropping like mad. Rumor has it they’ll be giving them away with book-bundle purchases soon. How many times did you look at your Kindle and say, Hey. I wish I could get online with this thing -?

Not me. I’ve got a laptop and a Blackberry-like phone and about two thousand real books. I’ll only consider an e-reader if, 1) the price drops down below fifty bucks, or 2) someone gives me one as a gift. After Christmas #1 might make it easier for #2 to happen. I can wait.

And the iPad? Well, it doesn’t have any actual keys, so probably not. I might be willing to play fast and loose with my tactile reading experience, but not with the punch and click of writing. The price ($499-$899) is too dear for just trolling the internet. I’d rather use a laptop or one of my old manual typewriters anyway. Don’t judge.

The problem is that technology is changing so quickly it’s tripping all over itself. No one wants to believe the $300 e-reader they bought last Christmas will be obsolete before the next one. Gamers are used to this sort of nonsense, but book buyers aren’t.

Which reminds me of my last trip to Barnes & Noble in west Little Rock. The joint was filled to the gills with folks strolling through the shelves, drinking coffee, flipping through magazines, and generally having a fine literary afternoon. Inside the front door was a Nook kiosk complete with a smiling and knowledgeable B&N employee.

Everyone walked right past him. Just sayin’.

This Rant’s Been Coming for a While

No Telling


There’s been too much tragedy around here without reasonable explanation, and I think it’s time for a few answers. In the stages of grieving this would be #3 – Anger and Bargaining. Clearly I’m on the upper end of of it and a good four stages away from anything close to Acceptance or Hope.

I guess the horror of Thursday’s campground flood here in Arkansas is the last straw for me. If I were a church-going woman there might be words to comfort during such an event. Here in the South we’ve been inundated by disasters natural and unnatural, and I refuse to believe it’s part of some plan, punishment, or reward orchestrated by a God arranging and rearranging our fates like a macabre puppet master. If That Televangelist (he knows who he is) chimes in to blame us all for homosexuality, Obama, or using the wrong dinner fork, my head will explode. Better yet, I’ll go fetch him so he can dig barehanded in the muddy bank of the Little Missouri River for other people’s children.

The tornadoes, the oil, the flooding. Hurricane season just began and we’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it probably will. When Katrina turned New Orleans into a scene from Dante, we pushed the boundaries of English attempting to create language to describe it. Tragedy, disaster, catastrophe – these won’t be enough to describe what could happen when hurricane meets oil, two, three, maybe four times. People will leave the coast forever.

My heart hurts and I’m angry. The Southern religious litany that makes reasons for unreasonable tragedies is too much for me to hear right now. All that “God’s plan” and “gone to a better place” business only makes it worse. I need to avoid all my Fundamentalist friends for a while – at least until I get to one of those other stages of grief.

I Love Her Despite Those Janky Ballpoint Pens

No Telling

My only daughter has disappointed me. Nature vs. nurture? I know I didn’t teach her this, and I’m convinced my genetic code was pristine on this matter. Clearly there is some throw-back DNA from her father’s side. And bad friends. There’s that. Why else would Em prefer trashy, generic ballpoint pens?

It’s not my fault. I come from a long and distinguished line of scribblers who appreciate fine writing instruments. Since my baby was able to make a little biscuit-fist I’ve given her only the sharpest of new crayons, the slickest Ticonderogas. At my writing desk, she’s had a life-long cotillion class of paper and pen.

Montblanc, Parker, Waterman – where did I go wrong?

The preacher’s kid rebels by breaking Commandments. A teacher’s kid skips school. My girl flaunts the cheapest of ballpoint stick pens and leaves them everywhere just to watch me cringe.

I‘ve tried to pretend they don’t bother me so I won’t feed the monster. This is a parental smoke screen I used with a particularly unsavory beau she wouldn’t shake. It didn’t work then, either.

(Honestly, I’d rather spend the rest of my writing life with a nasty ballpoint in hand than see that particular young man again. Things could be worse. It’s all about perspective and deciding which hill to die on. Don’t tell Em.)

The upshot here is The Perfect Grandson. Our hours at the desk together give me hope. Lay out one fine pen next to the trash his mother scribbles with – he’ll choose the Waterman every time. He may grow up to wreck cars and young girls’ hearts, but I’m guessing he’ll do both with a decent pen in his pocket.

He has to. I’m counting on him.

Note on the Fridge to BP

No Telling

Dear BP,

I don’t know where to begin. Clearly, neither do you. There’s no point in telling you how appalled I am at your corporate behavior and misbehavior. There are more than enough talking heads on every news channel and politicians running for re-election telling you that, and they’ve articulated this much better than I ever could. Besides, who am I to tell an oil conglomerate what to do?

As a mother and grandmother I am qualified to say this:

When you break something you must fix it.

We’re watching you, BP.

Live feed from BP.com

Growing a Writer

No Telling


The Perfect Grandson loves a good story. Always has. And it’s a good thing, because he’s surrounded by women who write and love to tell tales. Until recently, he’s been an appreciative audience when he could sit still long enough to hear the end of something. But that’s all changed now. The Perfect Grandson has learned the power of telling, and now we are the audience.

That picture, for example, is not an errant scribble. It’s an epic story of good versus evil, the treachery of power, of fighting snakes and roly pollies. The insects win, of course, because they are balled up and patient while the snakes ultimately turn on each other. There is no love interest in The Perfect Grandson’s story, but there is a great deal of grimacing and growling. I took this picture quickly, since his stories (much like his block-towers) are made to be erased/wadded up/knocked down. The MagnaDoodle is a perfect medium for such a writer.

Two days ago a bunny wandered into our yard and he spent the better part of five minutes talking to it from the window in a very personal way. The next five minutes, and until the bunny was frightened off, he made a story of how the rabbit came to be there, what he was planning, and where he was going after bounding off into the azaleas.

He’s figured out that everyone has a story. Some of these begin as nonfiction, take a left at creative non, eventually throttling full-down into the fictional straightaway. The Perfect Grandson went to the zoo yesterday, where he saw a few impressive snakes. Later, he and I poked around in our small garden where more than a few roly pollies scattered from under the clay pots. Voila.

I haven’t heard a serpent vs. rabbit story yet, but I will. I can count on it.

His mama started out this way, though not with erasable, bloody epics. Em sang her stories, playing fearlessly with sound and word combinations. Sometimes she’d stop suddenly, then begin again singing the song with alterations both verbal and melodic. I spent hours in the yard scribbling down her Singing on a Swing creations, knowing she was in full experimental/editing mode. One afternoon she slid triumphantly out of the swing, looked at me, and lisped “Princesses don’t have days like these.” Em pushed her hair out of her eyes and fell back into song. I understood completely.

Now she follows The Perfect Grandson around, taking notes because it’s her turn. Not long ago he came home from preschool crushing on a new girl. “I love Lilly,” he said, “She’s pretty like butterflies.” Em always seems a little gut-punched by his casual poetry, although some of that is an irrational fear concerning garage bands and hidden tattoos. He’s not yet three. God knows what he’ll do to break her heart by the time he’s sixteen, but I’m sure it will be something ridiculous she never saw coming. Better to relax while you can, I say.

When he’s not busy trying to put a baseball through my china cabinet, The Perfect Grandson and I spend time at my desk, writing. Already he has an eye for fine pens and reams of unlined paper. All he needs now is power over the alphabet and a some hand-eye coordination. A few days ago I was labeling his latest art story as he sat in my lap. Scads of carefully constructed diagonal lines.

“Put a name here, Mimi.”

“Okay, what’s this one about?”

“Snakes inna Rain.”

So I wrote down the title in big capital letters. He looked at one and pointed.

“Whas dat, Mimi?”

“That’s an ‘S’, punkin. It goes ‘sssssssssssssss'”

“Like a snake.”

“Exactly,” I said. And so it begins.

Off the Page

No Telling

This has been an unanticipated, extended blog break, hasn’t it? The thing is, the dozens of times I sat down to write, I came up blank. I firmly believe there’s no such thing as writer’s block, but I do believe in a kind of swirling madness that keeps writers unfocused and off the page.

There’s simply been too much going on and most of it was bad. Writing about unhappy events day after day feels too much like a junior high diary flashback, and we all know that’s no place to park a healthy psyche. Besides, there are enough Whiner Blogs out there who do this sadness-and-sorry thing much better than I ever could. I did a great deal of scribbling with fountain pens and Moleskines, not that I’ll ever want to read back over any of that maudlin crap. The beauty of a notebook is that 1) you can close it, and 2) you can throw the whole mess in the forgettable top of a closet or sling it into a fireplace.

Then the heavens opened up, remembered all that karma/balance business, and dropped something lovely in my lap. One of my other blogs, Easy Street Prompts, was listed on Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers. I danced, I twirled, I made up celebratory songs and sang them with the Perfect Grandson. Then I ran away with friends to Branson so we could do the post-final-exams shopping trip. We drank wine, ate sushi, and stormed the outlet malls. Glorious, I tell you.

Not until I returned did I remember the Easy Street site was kind of a forgotten mess. It took a little paint and html coding, but all is right with the world there now. In the process I found that making up prompts for others helped to get me back on the (nonflammable) page.

While I still don’t feel like writing up the sad things just yet, I’ve decided angry and funny are perfectly comfortable right now. There are plenty of fist-waving disasters and head-shaking crazies out there to keep me on the page while I work through those other things.

I believe I’m mostly cured now. Between inclusion on the Writer’s Digest list and that Liz Claiborne bag I fount at 70% off, I’m golden.