Friday, May 31, 2013

Reflections of the My First Day of First Semester in the MFA

Yesterday was the first day of the Converse College MFA, but we all glided into our new setting. We received our packets, school IDs, parking passes, and key (if you're staying on campus). We had our meeting warning us to keep up with the work, follow the rules, and what material we needed to turn in when we leave.

At dinner, there was a hum that can only be attained through people with like minded passions. Individuals jumped from various conversations speaking with fellow students and faculty members. It was similar to writer's conferences that I've been to, but we all know that once this week is over, we're tied to one another for the next couple of years.

I got to meet the ladies who are part of my first group. Kim, Kathy, Sara, and I will be critiquing each other's work under the guidance of our mentor, Cary Holladay. It was so nice last night because Cary sought each of us out in the crowd to welcome us and introduce herself. I was at ease. We had already had the opportunity to spend a few minutes getting to know our fellow students before the faculty arrived.

Any time someone reads your work in progress it can be like being caught on your worst day — no makeup, hair all mussed up, and that pallor you have when first startled awake from a deep sleep.

It is still scary to let people read your finished work, but by that time, hopefully you're presenting your best and not likely to land in the worst dressed list or as they say in the South, "Bless her heart. What was she thinking when she picked out that outfit? Did she not look in the mirror before she left the house?"

I'm looking forward to the second day. We have a full day of craft lectures, critiques, and readings scheduled.

Last night Susan Tekulve and Denise Duhamel were our faculty readers. Susan's novel, In the Garden of Stone was just published by Hub City Press and won the SC First Novel Prize. Denise's latest book of poetry, Blowout is also available

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Day Before The Semester Begins

Tomorrow begins my 10 day residency with the Converse MFA program. We'll meet twice a year, but the rest of the time I will work with my mentor. For the first semester, I have Cary Holladay. I've read a few of her short stories and I'm in awe. While she is an accomplished writer and renowned professor, she is new to this program too.

We have craft lectures and reading scheduled with Susan Tekulve, Denise Duhamel, Marlin Barton, Suzanne Cleary, Allison Joseph, Jon Tribble, Robert Olmstead, Jim Minick, Cary Holladay, John Bensko, Richard Tillinghast, Dan Wakefield, Rick Mulkey, and Leslie Pietrzyk.

I am excited and overwhelmed. It is scary when you go into a new situation and I will be having workshops with people I don't know.

For those of you who don't know, workshops are where you meet with your mentor and fellow students and critique one another's work. While it is usually in the best of spirits, I have been through some tough critiques while in the BFA, thankfully not with my mentor, but with one student in particular. I finally quit subjecting myself to her criticism. It wasn't worth it to read what she had to say. It is hard to see your work slashed and laid open for all to see. When you write, you expose yourself and there you are waiting for other people to criticize you.

One of my professors told me that workshops are valuable, but you also have to pay attention to who is critiquing you. Note the general consensus of the critiques. If the majority says to cut a scene or make a change, you should consider it. If one person just doesn't seem to get your work, then maybe they aren't your target audience. Be respectful, listen, but remember that you are the author — it is ultimately your decision when revising.

While reading my fellow students work (we received them back in April, but I like to wait until closer so that the pieces are still fresh in my mind), I was amazed by the talent. I know you'll be seeing some of these folks in print in the future.

I also saw some areas for possible improvements. I saw mistakes, which were easy to point out because I am guilty too.

I had to read several war stories. I liked the first one, but after that it was too much for me, and not because the writing was bad, but just because it is a subject that doesn't appeal to me. I'm a middle aged Southern woman, war stories just aren't my thing.

When critiquing, I try to keep to the golden rule by saying things in a way that I feel I would like to receive them. I hope my fellow students do the same.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: The Wisdom of Hair

“The problem with cutting your own hair is that once you start, you just keep cutting, trying to fix it, and the truth is, some things can never be fixed. The day of my daddy’s funeral, I cut my bangs until they were the length of those little paintbrushes that come with dime-store watercolor sets. I was nine years old. People asked me why I did it, but I was too young then to know I was changing my hair because I wanted to change my life.”

I believe that hair is probably one of the most defining features of any true Southern woman. We are taught from a young age to wash, condition, roll, tease, comb, brush, and curl our hair. Most Southern women my age have been subjected to visiting the beauty shop, not a salon, but the beauty shop, the kind you find in the movie, Steel Magnolias.

The novel is set in 1983, when big hair was all the rage in the South. Zora Adams has the grades and brilliance to go to college, but she doesn't have the means. She sets her sights on beauty school, where she can learn to cut and style hair and make a living for herself.

She's spent most of her life in the shadow of her mother, who is an alcoholic Judy Garland wanna be, complete with hair, make-up, and clothes. But there is only so much a girl can take and she leaves her Mama and her beloved mountains for a beauty school near the coast. She meets Sara Jane Farquhar and they quickly become best friends. She is the first true friend Zora has ever had.

Zora and Sara spend their days at school, learning about fixing hair, fixing hair, and drinking wine. Sara pines after the yard boy while Zora is more interested in the young widower, Winston Sawyer, who drinks himself to sleep every night.

Zora and Sara have some wonderful adventures together. This is what true friendship really is like. I enjoyed the characters, the setting, and the story.

This is a wonderful read for those days when you would just love to get wrapped up in someone else's troubles, heartaches, and blessings. 

I would like to thank the wonderful ladies at She Reads for turning me on to this great new author.

Kim Boykin's The Wisdom of Hair is a Spring Okra Pick from SIBA.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sunday Dinner: Chocolate Chip Cookies

The delicious smell calls to you the minute you walk through the door, there waiting for you are fresh baked cookies and a glass of milk. My Mama wasn't really the kind to have fresh baked cookies waiting for you when you came home from school, but that didn't mean she wasn't a good Mama.

I came home from school crying because nobody picked me for their kickball team, they had to take me.

"Are you going to cry about it or do something?" she said.

"What can I do?" I whined.

She took me outside. We only had a basketball, but it would do. There in the backyard, she first taught me the rules. She rolled the ball and taught me to wait for the kick. She taught me how to align myself and to get some momentum from the ball. I was not a very coordinated child, never had been, but we worked that afternoon and every afternoon for a couple of weeks.

The time came when a team had to take me. It was my turn. Everyone came in from the outfield. They laughed at me. The ball rolled faster than usual towards me. I waited, preparing myself for the right moment, and then I stepped up kicking the ball. It went in a nice beautiful arc, just beyond the infield. Nobody was there, they all went running, chasing after the rolling ball. All my teammates crossed home plate and I made it to third. 

That afternoon when Mama got home from work, I told her about my victory. She was so proud of me. We went outside and practiced for a bit.

After that day, I was never chosen first, but at least the team was happy to have me rather than being forced to accept me. 

Mama taught me to practice. 

Practice and perseverance might not make you perfect, but it can definitely make you proficient.

For Sunday dinner today, I'm taking it easy. We're having tacos. And for dessert, we'll be having chocolate chip cookies.

You can find the recipe my Mama used and passed down to me here. You can also find it on the back of the package of Nestle Tollhouse Chocolate Chips. I've tried others, but to me, these are the best. I leave out the nuts, my family is not a big fan. Sometimes I add peanut butter chips too.

Happy Mother's Day!

If your Mom is still with you, take a moment to tell her how much she means to you. 

I find it hard to fathom, but some people didn't grow up with exceptional mothers like mine. If you are one of those unfortunate people, why don't you think instead of the grandmother, aunt, teacher, or any woman who came along beside you to help you during your youth. I know they will appreciate it and it will make you feel better.

Friday, May 10, 2013

It Would Have Been 5

"Five years ago today I married a wonderful man. "We're making bittersweet memories," one of the wedding guests said. It was a small wedding in the living room of our home surrounded by family and friends. We said our vows in front of the fireplace, looking in each others' eyes, holding hands. He stumbled over the words: in sickness and in health. When it was my turn, I squeezed his hand gently with each of those words.

Just a month earlier he had been in a hospital bed. The doctor had given him ten days to live. Mike was always surprising his oncologist and mostly in wonderful ways.

Mike had a quiet strength about him. He was an encourager. He was a listener. There were so many lives he touched during the cancer year. He taught me so much.

Not long after our wedding, Mike was told he was in remission. The doctor cautioned him that the cancer would eventually take his life, but for then, he should do the things he wanted to do. I asked Mike if there was a special place or thing he wanted to do.

"The average ordinary days are extraordinary," he said.

We spent time doing our favorite things: sitting on the deck, watching "House" on television, riding in his new car, going to church, visiting with family and friends, playing Yahtzee, and so many other simple things.

One of Mike's favorite things was to go to McDonald's for his Big Mac and chocolate shake and drive to the local park, where we would sit by the lake and have a little picnic.

This man was a blessing to me. Five years later, he continues to bless me in ways I could never have imagined. I am a better person because of the time we spent together. I cherish those moments. And he taught me so much about living in the moment and appreciating the simple things.

Mike's mother, Jan Kuhn has written a memoir, "Hi, Mike. It's Mom!" about his life and the cancer. If you're interested, you can find it on Amazon. The Kindle price is amazing. My mother in law is a wonderful storyteller and I believe she captures her son in a way he would be proud.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review of In the Garden of Stone

As I read the first pages of Susan Tekulve’s In the Garden of Stone, the image of my grandmother as a young girl came to mind – the details of washday and baking day evoked the beautiful rich stories of everyday life my grandmother once told me of when she was a girl.

In the Garden of Stone is a novel in stories, which for a writer can be daunting and risky. Many readers favor a traditional plot that remains with the same character throughout the novel, but in Tekulve’s novel, it is the land that binds the passing generations.

Tekulve sets the novel in a coal town in the Appalachian mountains. The story begins in 1924 with Emma as a young woman, “sixteen, old enough to work like a woman alongside her mother and speak her mind.” Later you see Emma as an old woman, ravaged by the same disease that incapacitated her mother, but there is still that quiet strength and resolve that remains with her throughout her life.

The story ends almost fifty years later. The changing landscape continues to resonate with beauty and history throughout the pages of the novel. With each passing generation, the way of life changes — the coal mines close and a new way of life emerges. But for some, the land remains a source of pride and heritage.

The story is told through the perspectives of Emma, the matriarch; Dean, her son; Sadie, Dean’s wife; and Hannah, the daughter of Dean and Sadie.  I found the transition and influence of each passing generation mesmerizing. You could see how Emma’s choices and life continued to influence her child and grandchild.

Character, plot, and setting all come together like a prize winning recipe to make a good story. I’ve had the privilege of having Susan as my teacher and mentor. She’s an excellent creative writing teacher because she is an excellent writer. It was amazing to see her applying the principles she teaches so well. 

Susan Tekulve is the winner of the South Carolina First Novel prize. In the Garden of Stone is published by Hub City Press.

If you would like to read more about Susan and her culinary skills, follow the link for an earlier post for Appalachian Wedding Cake.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review of Orphan Train — Entertaining and Enlightening

However hard I try, I will always feel alien and strange. And now I’ve stumbled on a fellow outsider, one who speaks my language without saying a word.

Short on time, busy with finals, projects, work, family, etc., I wondered how I would possibly be able to fit in reading and reviewing Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline for She Reads for May. I knew from the dust jacket copy, it would be a book I would thoroughly enjoy. Instead of reading it, I decided to listen to it.

I downloaded it from Audible to the app on my phone. Sometimes I love technology. I listened while walking and doing my daily routines, you know the kind that don’t require your undivided attention, but must be done — laundry, dishwashing, commuting, etc.

Penobscot Indian Molly Ayers is seventeen and about to age out of the foster care system. She’s in trouble for stealing a library book, a worn, tattered copy of her favorite book, Jane Eyre. Molly is forced to do fifty hours of community service and she will do these hours by helping ninety-one year old Vivian Daly clean out her attic.

As Vivian and Molly begin to go through the trunks, Vivian reveals her story, a story she has never shared with anyone.

Like Molly, Vivian is also an orphan. She was not given the name Vivian at birth. She was born Niamh (pronounced Neev) in Ireland. She came to America with her parents, two brothers, and sister. She lost her family in a fire. Niamh and her mother were the only survivors, b heer mother was mentally unstable and placed in an institution. Naimh is placed on the orphan train, which is leaving New York City bound for rural areas in the hopes that good people will want to adopt and provide homes to the trainful of orphaned children.

How much of our identity comes with a name? Niamh immediately loses her name when she steps off the orphan train. First she is given the name Dorothy. And like Molly, Dorothy lives in several homes, none of which she ever truly belongs. She eventually becomes Vivian, but I won’t ruin the story by telling you how.

I loved listening to the book. Jessica Almasy and Suzanne Toren wonderfully portray these women. Molly’s character is given the right “bite” and sarcasm I would picture her to have. With Vivian, there is an underlying tone of strength and courage that surviving such a life would leave you with.

Of course Vivian’s past is full of many secrets and Molly is able to use modern technology to find answers to some of Vivian’s questions.

Whether you read the book or listen to the audio version, Orphan Train is a novel that is sure to delight you — entertaining and enlightening.

Please check back tomorrow when I will be reviewing In the Garden of Stone by Susan Tekulve.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sunday Dinner: Appalachian Wedding Cake

Appalachian Wedding Cake

Today I have a guest post from Susan Tekulve, the author of In the Garden of Stone.

I came to know my mother-in-law, Mary, through the recipes she gave to me. In my memory, I always see and hear Mary in the kitchen of the two-story brick house my father-in-law built after he retired from the Norfolk and Southern Railroad, in the mountain town of Bluefield, Virginia, where Mary had lived all her life, and raised all five of her children.  When my husband, Rick, and I went back to Virginia for a visit, Mary and I often woke before dawn and sat across from each other at the kitchen table, waiting for the sun to rise, and for the rest of the house to wake.  Sometimes, we peeled apples together. Rick’s grandmother still lived back on the family’s home place, on a ridge between a limestone quarry and the town’s cemetery.  Below the grandmother’s house was a green apple tree that continually dropped spotted, lopsided apples onto the gravel drive leading to the grandmother’s house.  Rick’s father wouldn’t throw any of the fallen fruit away.  Summers, he brought home a bushel basket full of bruised and torn apples every evening, after he’d been up to check on his mother.  
Mary and I would stand in the morning quiet of her kitchen, peeling and discarding the damaged spots off each apple, dropping the good slices into a pot of water, sugar, cinnamon and cloves, boiling this mixture into dark brown apple butter. While the apples simmered, Mary baked six thin layers of a gingery molasses cake, three at a time, in three well-seasoned cast iron skillets. When the cake layers cooled, she stacked them, frosting each layer with the apple butter.  The cake was supposed to “age” for a day, so that the apple butter could soak into the spiced layers until they became sweet and delicate.  Nobody in the house ever waited for this cake to age.  They ate it young, right after supper, which was always served at midday at my in-law’s house.  
Mary called this dessert molasses cake, or apple stack cake. Though she made this cake for all kinds of family gatherings, it was once the traditional wedding cake at Appalachian weddings.  The brides who lived on the remote sides of these Southern mountains relied on their guests to bring a thin layer of molasses cake when they arrived at the wedding, and the brides’ family members would assemble the cake, spreading apple butter between the layers. It is said that the popularity of the bride determined the final height of the cake.
This is a humble-looking cake that most women of this region make without a written recipe.  It’s not difficult. It requires only the patience for simmering a bushel of apples into butter, and waiting for six layers of cake to bake. While we waited for the cake layers to cool, Mary often told stories about her family.  She’d grown up in a trailer on the other side of Bluefield, on a ridge known locally as Dump Hill.  My father-in-law always said that Mary’s early upbringing was so rough that the details of what happened to her as a child on Dump Hill could not be repeated.  Though she hardly ever spoke of herself, Mary told stories about the women of her family.  These women married young and faced almost unendurable hardships—poverty, abandonment, violence--and endured.   
Perhaps the bitterness of Mary’s past was what prompted her to adore anything sweet. Perhaps her hardscrabble childhood and early marriage made her into the genuinely kind mother woman who readily adopted me as her daughter-in-law, and taught me how to make the Appalachian wedding cake recipe she’d learned from her own mother-in-law. 
When Mary passed away from cancer, Rick’s father began making all of Mary’s dessert recipes—brown sugar fudge, chess pie, and banana pudding—for the family. The last time Rick and I visited Virginia, I woke early and found Rick’s father in the kitchen. The whole house smelled warmly of the ginger and molasses cakes that he’d been baking while the rest of the house slept.  As he assembled and iced the cake layers, his grizzled face softened, turning almost boyish.  I could tell he was remembering Mary, perhaps recalling her as a young wife, still healthy enough to stand in that kitchen for hours, peeling those homely apples, baking those humble layers of cake.  Larry had baked his cake layers in different sized skillets, and he’d iced the layers with cooked apples rather than apple butter.  The finished cake looked a bit like a lopsided beehive, but there was no mistaking.  It was an Appalachian wedding cake.    We ate it “young,” drizzled with caramel, and dusted with powdered sugar. 

Here is the recipe for Appalachian Wedding Cake.  I use 3  9-inch cake pans instead of 3 cast iron skillets—mainly because I don’t own 3 cast iron skillets that are the same size.  If I don’t have the time to make my own, I use apple butter that you can find at produce stands or at church bake sales.  I pretty up the cake a little, dusting the assembled layers with powdered sugar, drizzling the top and sides with caramel sauce, garnishing it with a few slices of dried apples.  

Appalachian Wedding Cake

1 cup sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, room temp.
1 cup molasses
3 eggs
4 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ground clove
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 ½ cups apple butter, preferably homemade
powdered sugar, for dusting
Dried apples and caramel sauce for decorating

Method:  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Grease 3 9-inch cake pans.  Combine all dry ingredients and sift.  Cream butter and sugar together.  Add molasses and eggs and mix until combined.  Alternating dry and wet, add in sifted flour mixture and buttermilk.  Stir in vanilla extract and divide half the batter among the three greased cake pans.  Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when tested in the center of a cake.  Let cool for a few minutes, then invert cakes onto paper plates.  Bake the other half of the batter.
When all cakes have cooled, spread several tablespoons of the apple butter on each layer—stacking as you go.  Wrap cake tightly and let “mature” for a day.  Or, if you can’t wait that long, dust finished cake with powdered sugar and serve.

I hoped you've enjoyed Susan's post.

Please check back tomorrow for my review on the She Reads May Selection, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.

On Tuesday I will be reviewing Susan Tekulve's In the Garden of Stone.