Bathtub Books

0103171248_resizedThese days, I reduce, reuse and recycle books.

I reduce by avoiding Amazon.com. If I can’t find a book I want at a local independently-owned bookstore, I think twice about the purchase.

I reuse by giving away autographed books by local authors as auction items or door prizes at fundraisers. I borrow and return books in good shape to The Little Free Library in Pine Level, the Selma Public Library, the Harrison Center for Active Aging in Selma, and HealthQuest Fitness Center in Smithfield.

I recycle by sharing books with others in the book bucket at church.

But I have a confession to make. On occasion, I rip up paperback fiction, page by page, as I read and soak in the bathtub.

These are dog-eared paperbacks bought for 25 cents at yard sales.

I rationalize the books are going to get wet anyway. And no one is going to miss the millionth copy of a book by an author with a monopoly on an entire shelf in Books-a-Million in Goldsboro. You know, branded names who dominate endcaps, have promotional tent cards on Joe Muggs tables, and make the New York Times bestseller list before a single new volume is on the shelf. In a three-second glance at cover design, title, name, it’s an impulse buy. The author is cents-on-the-dollar richer, a million times over. The rest feeds the corporate machine of agents, publishers, marketers. The story is just another harpoon dragged along with the whale. The “buy” is all. By ripping up yardsale paperbacks, I’m not destroying a work of art – it’s just paper and color – the equivalent of a “paint and sip” painting.

Or so I rationalize. My latest bathtub book is by a male romance writer who bristles at the label. He insists he’s a fiction writer. No matter. He is creeping up into the Barbara Cartland (1 billion), Danielle Steel (800 million) and Nora Roberts (400 million) sales club with his 105 million books sold. The book is about a widow and her dog. I’m a remarried widow. I have a dog. That’s why I picked it up. But this widow exhibits none of the crazy tornado family rollercoaster behavior I went through 18 years ago. The auto mechanic friend who loves her, the crazy rich guy who tries to woo her – even the loyal dog – are all cardboard stick characters, and the plot is a half-hearted “stranger comes to town.” A typical online review is “wasn’t a huge fan of this one, but I am looking forward to his next novel.” Huh? But I paid a quarter for this one! I know I will forget this paperback as soon as I drain the tub and discard the last page.

I admit my compulsion in ripping up paperback fiction is rooted in jealousy. “I can write better than this,” I think. But then, I haven’t. And which one of us is in a little tub in Pine Level, and which of us owns a mansion built to his specifications lakeside with who knows how many bathrooms with soaking tubs?

Oh well. This prolific male romance writer is cranking out two more books at this moment. He has the opportunity to make many more sales. Women in soaking tubs have made him so. His books pop forward on chain bookstore shelves like store brand tomato sauce cans neatly stacked at Town Market. I put one in my cart this week, and next week, there will be another.

Popular columnist shares humor, honesty over coffee

1129161829b_resized

Barry Saunders reads from his second book, “…And the Horse You Rode in on, Saunders!” Event organized by Mountaintop Productions Public Relations, Smithfield.

National Novel Writing Month, and our final write-in, ended with a great plot twist on Tuesday, Nov. 29.

 

Writers Gary Ridout, Evelyn Wool, Hope Dougherty and I were finishing our labors at Grapes & Grounds coffee shop in Smithfield, N.C., when in walked award-winning Raleigh News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders!

Saunders was there to discuss his book, …And the Horse You Rode in On, Saunders! The book is a compilation of his columns from 1995-2005.

We joined the gathering crowd and listened as Saunders spun stories and shared the humor and honesty of 23 years of toiling in newsrooms. The biggest surprise? He loves it when people criticize his columns. If he’s not being challenged, he doesn’t think he’s doing his job. He knows he has a tough audience to please, and works hard not to be predictable.

I started reading Saunders when I moved to Pine Level two years ago. His columns were a window on my new environs, where some locals called me “Miss Cindy” or “Suge” while others were taking a raised-fist stand on HB2, voting rights, eminent domain. All his subjects were relevant in my little corner.

The Saunders column that cemented my subscription to the N&O was “Writing Salvaged My Life,” (February 8, 2015). His subject was Shelby Stephenson, who grew up on a farm in Benson and was, at the time, being installed as North Carolina Poet Laureate. After reading an earlier column (Saunders: “If it weren’t for my danged deadline, I’d still gladly be listening to Shelby Stephenson’s stories.”) I drove to Raleigh to witness the installation myself. I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to stand under the state capitol dome, in a chamber filled with educators and literary hall of famers and see a humble writer so honored.

Saunders wrote: “Stephenson said he sometimes reads publicly, often with other noted Tar Heel poets as Jaki Shelton Green. ‘She’s always getting on me for writing about possums,’ he said, laughing at the gentle rebukes. ‘I’ve written two books about possums. We ate so many of them growing up that I try to give back to the possum community.’”

He also quoted Stephenson: “Creativity is in each of us. It’s not something just a few people have.”

Saunders made me realize how accessible Stephenson is. So I asked the laureate to speak to our writers group in Selma, which he did. Stephenson also traveled to my former hometown of Manassas, Virginia, where he participated in a poetry event, “In the Company of Laureates,” at the Hylton Performing Arts Center that involved five state poets laureate and others, which a fellow writer, June Forte, arranged in October 2015.

Tuesday night, Saunders shared with the gathering at Grapes & Grounds about growing up in Rockingham, N.C. and his college days at Morehouse. His first newspaper job at The Atlanta Constitution, was writing obituaries. He said he learned the hard way, that spelling names correctly is vital, “because some people only get their name in the paper twice, when they are born and when they die.” He is still haunted by a hurriedly typed “Rhett” that should have been “Ray.”

Saunders shared that in 23 years of writing columns, he’s had to apologize and “eat crow” about 10 times. He said people respect you when you admit your mistake. And his favorite columns are the ones that produce positive action, like helping an ex-felon find a job or a teenager getting much-needed shoes. His worst column? Well, the title of his book is the tail end of a curse one reader hurled at him after publication of a particularly trouble-stirring one. Saunders joyfully admits his book would make a great holiday gift for friends and enemies alike.

Copies of Saunders’ signed book are available at Grapes & Grounds, located next door to the Howell Theatre at 135 South Third Street in Smithfield, N.C.

If you’d like to meet with other local writers, the Johnston County Writers Group meets the second Thursday of the month at 6:30 pm at the Selma Public Library, 301 N. Pollock Street in Selma. Our next meeting is Dec. 8, 2016.

Preparing to Vote

episco-votes

I love voting. There’s something about walking into a polling place and showing my voter registration card, reciting my name and address and then going into a private space to cast my vote that is life affirming. Yes, I have this freedom. Yes, I have this voice. Yes, as a woman, I have this right. Yes, I am proud to be an American.

Of course, I’m old enough to be nostalgic for the time when I pulled a huge lever to shut the half-curtains of a voting booth. I loved clicking down the little metal levers in secret and then yanking the big lever again to cast my vote and exit. Modern touchscreens just don’t offer the same satisfying tactile and sensory experience. In my current voting precinct, I write on a paper ballot and feed it into a machine. Thankfully, I get an “I voted” sticker. I remember when budget cuts prevented Prince William County, Virginia from providing stickers. I don’t think they’ll ever do that again.

http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/politics/I-Voted-Now-Give-Me-My-Sticker-106603794.html

I love voting so much I worked as an election official for several years in Manassas, Virginia. That was fun because I was able to participate on the inside and see what goes on within precincts. The work was tedious and the hours long, but I loved standing outside in the dark and shouting, “Hear ye, hear ye, the polls are now open.” I loved waiting on people and asking even the most familiar faces, like the city mayor, or my next door neighbor of several decades, to state their names and addresses.

I was amazed at how much stuff people carry around in their wallets and purses – stale cough drops, outdated car insurance cards, dried out ink pens, etc., tumbling out while they searched for their IDs or voter registration cards. I always thought it would be a useful community service to offer a table near the exit where people could dump out and toss or shred the accumulation. It would be a timely Election Day piggyback, like offering flu shots at church coffee hours,  or reminding people to change their smoke alarm batteries when they set their clocks an hour forward or back with Daylight Savings Time.

By the time the polls would close, I’d been there so long, my feet ached and I was slightly punchy. That’s when we would pull together as a team to report totals, get our documentation organized, initialed and sealed, pack away the equipment and clean up. Ironically, we’d be the last to know who won because we were closeted away from all the news coverage.

This Election Day is important, not just because 2016 is a Presidential Election. In this General Election, I will be voting for 39 local, state, and federal candidates, from school board members to the US Senate. There are also two items on the referendum. In my little town of less than 2,000 people and one stoplight, these are on the ballot:

  • President and Vice President of the United States
  • US Senate
  • US House of Representatives
  • NC Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General
  • NC Auditor, Treasurer, Secretary of State and Superintendent of Public Instruction
  • NC Commissioners of Agriculture, Insurance and Labor
  • NC State Senate and House of Representatives
  • NC Supreme Court Associate Justice, Court of Appeals and District Court Judges
  • County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education
  • Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor
  • Two Referendum items

Getting to know these candidates and issues is taking some work – going to candidate forums, looking up candidate websites and Facebook pages, and listening to long-time residents to get their insights. I attended a church breakfast before the Selma Railroad Days festival and was able to meet several candidates, too. I’m helping our church outreach committee register voters and offer rides to the polls, both for early voting and on Election Day.

So this month, in the last 30 days before the election, I’d like to encourage everyone to learn as much as possible about the candidates and the issues. Volunteer and get involved.

Most of all, vote on November 8, 2016.

 

On Being a Literary Citizen

When my friend Barbara Presnell invited me to The North Carolina Writers Conference on July 29-30 in Greensboro, I didn’t want to go. I was still wallowing in rejections. How could I hold my head up among an assembly of the state’s leading writers, editors, publishers, educators and literary professionals?

I forced myself to go, and all it took was a few conversations in the lobby to realize the struggle for acceptance and valid pay for valid work never ends, even among those accomplished writers with a vast body of work.

magsObserving the sessions was like running my fingers over a bas relief of “the writingest state.” I heard from those working to document the legacy (North Carolina Literary Map), showcasing the latest work of outstanding writers (magazines like Our State, Pinestraw, Salt and O Henry, and online journals like storySouth) and bringing writers out of isolation to write in community (North Carolina Writers Network). I also heard about the gaps that need more work. For example, a panel of Andrea Selch, Kimberly Becker and Krista Bremer spoke of their personal experiences in confronting discrimination due to sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion. Moderator Jaki Shelton Green challenged the gathering to “bring diversity to the room” by next year’s meeting in Rocky Mount in July 2017.

Even now, I can’t stop thinking about young Andrew Saulter of Unicorn Press, demonstrating how he can sit at a table in a coffee shop and mak20121206-113933e books by opening his metal artist’s box and drawing out a spool of linen thread, which he strings on a needle to weave through awl-poked holes of paper to hand-bind a chapbook of poetry. He does this, book by single book, until a stack of 400 are ready to sell. Looking at his simple tools – etching knife, steel ruler, bone folder, glue brush – made me more determined to return to Pine Level and be someone who ekes out a piece of literary landscape here.

That evening, amid testimonials and red velvet cake, Poet Betty Adcock was honored by her peers. The speakers – Jim Clark, Noel Crook, Al Maginnes – pointed out that for someone who never earned a college degree, she managed to garner major literary prizes 0806160947a_resizedand fellowships (including the Guggenheim), and mentor generations of rising writers as a resident writer, faculty member and visiting professor. Katherine Stripling Byer shared literary gossip, sidestepping a skinny dipping incident until Adcock brought it up herself. Noel helped her read her latest poem, soon to be in her seventh collection. Past honorees Ann Deagon, Ruth Moose and Bland Simpson were among those present; Adcock’s name joins a distinguished roster of honorees that includes Paul Green, Doris Betts, Reynolds Price, Fred Chappell, Shelby Stephenson and Margaret Maron.

I gleaned the book tables for take-home treasures, settling on Malaika King Albrecht’s Lessons In Forgetting, Jo Maeder’s When I Married My Mother and Good Country People: An Irregular Journal of The Cultures of Eastern North Carolina from the famous R.A. Fountain General Store. I also picked up an Anti-HB2 bumper sticker from Literary Lantern Press. (This ridiculous anti-tourism measure confronts me every time I volunteer at the Selma Visitor Center and have to tell a timid traveler, “yes, it’s okay to use the restrooms.”)

pineneedles1975nort_0008

My best memory of the conference will be sneaking away to visit the UNC-G campus with Barbara, 40 years after we graduated. We found our dorms, the Quad, nearby Yum-Yum’s. The Holy Grail was the Presby House where we both took Fiction Writing 101 with Lloyd Kropp, and after graduation, where Barbara was married to her husband of almost 36 years, Bill Keesler. We skirted one-ways and dead ends to find it, a squat 1960s building dwarfed by high rises; now labeled the Graduate Welcome Center. We parked and walked the perimeter. “This is it,” she said. “This is where my wedding picture was taken.” We walked up the steps and cupped our hands against the window. There was the fireplace. There was a similar circle of chairs.

Jean hung up the pay phone in the dimly lit hall. The weight of her body wanted to pull her through the warped tile floor. “Papa’s dead,” she said, half to herself, and half to Mrs. Hobgood, her landlady, who stood in the doorway, clutching a blue chemise robe to her breasts.

Forty-plus years, and the anxiety of a 19-year-old, reading her work aloud for the first time burned the opening paragraph in my brain.

Now I’m back in Pine Level, toiling away at my computer as I have always done, published or not. I’ve marked my calendar for Sept. 18, when Barbara launches her latest book of poetry, Blue Star (Press 53, 2016), at the Lexington Public Library. I plan to be there, as she has been there for me, even when I whine and complain about not being published.

“I think you are doing the work you are supposed to do! That’s my new philosophy,” she said.

Thank you, Barbara, for inviting me to The North Carolina Writers Conference.

 

My Julii Horribilis (My Horrible July)

0608160838_resizedJuly brought computer problems, a coup d’etat for my old printer, and more writer rejections. Three of them in one day. Stop!

This, on top of the other rejections I’ve gotten for my writing since January 2016.

I’ve been depressed for days. I even yelled at teenagers for throwing a soccer ball against a neighbor’s shed. I blamed the heat, but there are certain signs that I am getting old. One is realizing my doctor is younger than me. Another is having to check the final age range on a survey (60 – Death). A third is yelling at neighborhood kids.

Goo Roo of Pine Level straightened out my computer problems, but it took time. Three weeks to be exact. I kept showing up at their offices, hoping that my sad looks (“this is my main writing tool!”) and couch-slouching (“I’ll just sit here and read all 577 pages of Look Homeward: The Life of Thomas Wolfe”) would make the process go faster. Working around me, and ignoring my prolonged and meaningful sighs, Josh, Greg and Denise of Goo Roo got the job done.

campnanowrmo

Now that the new laptop is humming along, I’m back to working on my current project, a new short story called “Shelf Life.” The story is part of a Camp NaNoWriMo challenge to myself to write 50,000 words this month. With five days to go, I’m only at 14,000. That makes me one of the slower participants among the 11 virtual cabin mates I’m with on the NaNoWriMo website. But I’m not giving up.

Now I find out my printer is terminal. This device has served me faithfully for at least a dozen years, which I’m sure galls Hewlett-Packard to no end. So the company hastened its demise by doubling the cost of the ink and making the driver obsolete. Planned obsolescence depresses me. I became used to picking up pages off the floor because the output tray was broken. I didn’t mind, except for one writer in my critique group who didn’t number her manuscript pages (and you know who you are).

It’s okay. I only have two ink cartridges left. As soon as they are gone, I will hook up the new printer we bought on sale today at Office Max in Smithfield. We even purchased ink at back-to-school sale prices.

So I will stop whining and get back to work. Rejections are part of the process. Equipment problems happen. Yes, it was a horrible month. But I’m attending a gathering of writers in Greensboro this weekend as a guest of my friend, poet Barbara Presnell. And I hope August will be better! I’m already looking at new places to submit my creative writing.

Obstacles to Writing

obstacles1

I returned from the Looking Glass Rock Writers Conference with several goals in mind for this month:

• Revise my short story
• Select one short story and three poems to submit to a literary magazine
• Read Marjorie Hudson’s short story collection, Accidental Birds of the Carolinas

Then my new computer crashed. Josh at Goo Roo computer service in Pine Level reloaded it twice with software and twice more it crashed. After the third time, I returned the Lemon Lenovo to Goo Roo. Gary, the owner, is sending the Lemon back and ordering me a new computer (under warranty). He said he would have it loaded with software and ready to go by tomorrow. This back-and-forth ordeal has taken three weeks.

Meanwhile I’ve been using an old Lenovo with missing keys, a loose electric cord socket and a battery that doesn’t hold a charge at home, and a notebook computer with a jump drive at the Selma Visitor Center. It also has a loose cord and old battery.

Losing access to my new laptop has made me realize how dependent I am on one device for everything – work, email, writing, photo storage, flyer creation, connections to social media, history, security, church, community, and more. It is my work station, my post office, my social meeting place, my media center – everything.

I’ve even been depressed, thinking, “Why don’t I just give up writing? Become an old lady with a landline and a marble covered composition book. Use a pickup and just drive around the county doing volunteer work. Help my church and my neighborhood. Plant a garden. Swim and lift weights at the health facility. Let go of writing. Read other writers and review their books on Amazon. My friend in Asheville just sent me an autographed copy of her neighbor Terry Roberts’s new book, That Bright Land, that he signed at Malaprop’s bookstore. I should quit writing stories and poems.

Not.

I can’t even sit in a church pew, listening to the sermon, without pulling out a pen and writing something in the margins of the bulletin.

To my dying day, I’ll be typing or squirreling away notes. That is how I process life and create: I write. I may not be published, but I will always be a writer.

So I’ll get my new computer back, transfer the new drafts from the jump drive, and persevere in working on my writing goals. I’ll continue to read North Carolina writers like Marjorie Hudson and Terry Roberts. I’ll reap tomatoes from my first tomato plant and keep donating time to the community.

I am a working writer.

Romance and Hope at a book club meeting in Pine Level

12669415_1097965340235519_4722601771389755474_n

As a writer, you’d think I consume book after book, like a chain smoker igniting one cigarette with the stub of another.

Not so. Much of my reading time is spent on digital and print news – The Washington Post, the News & Observer, the Smithfield Herald and the Selma and Pine Level News. How can I resist headlines like this one:

P1230182

Participating in the book club through St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Smithfield, North Carolina, forces me to read books.

This book club gathers once every two months, in member homes, after the eight o’clock morning service. We laugh, we talk, we eat brunch and drink coffee. We discuss the book du jour, from The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins to A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg. In the process, we share our lives with each other. The selection of the next read is by vote. Some books are challenging. Some are popular. Most are books I wouldn’t have picked up on my own, which almost makes it seem like a blind date with a book.

P1230184

On Feb. 14, it’s my turn to host the book club. Since it is Valentine’s Day, we voted to read the romance Irish Encounter by Hope Toler Dougherty.

Hope is a local writer, and I invited her to join us for the discussion of her work. She is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, but I met her through the Johnston County Writers Group, which meets Feb. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Selma Public Library.

hope toler dougherty

Hope is a librarian in the town of Princeton, which is so small, the public library is housed in, and amplified by, the media center at the local high school. I have visited this library numerous times and have thoroughly enjoyed hearing presentations by other local writers, such as Alice J. Wisler, Cindy K. Green and Ellen Edwards Kennedy.

P1230187

I’ve also attended two of Hope’s presentations. One was the launch for her book, Mars with Venus Rising, which takes place in the town of Mars, Pennsylvania. The second was a craft talk, about things like using the software Scrivener to organize your manuscripts. Writing is hard work, and often a thankless endeavor. Editing, publishing and marketing your books is even tougher. Hope has worked hard to get two books published, and is currently working on a third and fourth manuscript.

I’m hoping the Valentine’s Day meeting of the book club will bring us all a good time, with lots of laughter, as we discuss Hope’s work.

I wonder what book we will read next?