I was actually looking forward to jury duty! It’s been a busy few weeks and I was hoping to get a bit of diversion, maybe even some allowable judging of my fellow man.
The process was fascinating. Hearing the explanation of why we were there, watching the line as people waited to ask the judge for a deferment to a later date. This was her first trip to Alleghany. She was very attentive. Listened carefully to each plea to be excused. But, you could read her lips between the sweet smile. Nice try, but not enough of a reason to get you off. Back into the jury pool. It was people watching at its finest.
I heard names I recognized. Now they had faces. I saw faces I recognized. Now they had names. There were even a few who I knew by name and face, only to find out that name was not their legal name…which I could understand, since I was the Ginger Collins who answered to Barbara Anne when they called the roll.
It wasn’t an episode of Law & Order, but it was a genuine cast of characters who had me jotting down details to enrich my character descriptions in future stories. There were a few rugged individuals. Leather-tan faces, backs hunched over, a slight limp in the walk. I cast them as outlaws or eccentric millionaires. There were women with classic features, looking like they had finished the dishes and removed their apron just in time to get to the courthouse. Of course, there were a few bad fashion choices. There always are. But my favorite of the day was the man whose face was the rural version of British royalty. The jug ears, the prominent nose. To my eyes he could have been a cousin to Prince Charles who somehow ended up in the North Carolina mountains. I spun a yarn around that visual for a good ten minutes!
Then it was over! After all the prep and procedure, we were released. This means I will never find out what those three men in the blue suits at the front table were talking about. Maybe that’s my next story!
People who are meant to be together find each other. The story behind the formation of our trio in 2010, proves it. That story later. Now I will just introduce us as three women in a critique group…very individual… yet alike in as many ways as we are different. From the beginning we truly enjoyed the style, substance, and subject matter of each other’s stories and worked together to get the words polished, submitted, and published. This always made for long confabs, always over food, with lots of conversation on a variety of topics. But, it always came back to writing and the journey to publication. When I lived in Atlanta, our critique group sessions consisted of long and lavish lunches at Neda’s, followed by the reading of our latest pages. It was an entire literary afternoon. It was glorious.
The fateful trip to New York City in January, 2011. It didn’t get above 15 degrees during our entire visit.
In January, 2011, our trio traveled to New York City for a Writers Digest Conference. Our novel manuscripts had received rave reviews from what we considered to be discerning readers and we were confident agents would find our stories appealing. Our elevator speeches were flawless, our leave-behind material was impressive. We were ready for success. It didn’t come. There were requests for 50 pages here and there, and a couple agents asked for full manuscripts. But nothing came of it. Nothing.
It was a level of disappointment that hit all three of us equally. We were experienced business women. Business analysis, marketing, advertising, and media…among many other things. When you put it all together, we were pretty smart chicks! How could we be rejected? We were in agreement, never had we put that much time and effort into something and not come out winners.
After a period of mourning for my dream of being a novelist, I settled into mountain life in Alleghany County. I boxed up the writing, even gave some books away. I turned my back on creative writing and went back to the familiar of marketing materials, print ads, and press releases.
Jill started a photography business in addition to her active website business. Neda went from high-end retail to a new life in real estate. We connected when possible on my quick trips to town. Always lots of laughs and marvelous tales of our most recent adventures. We were busy with our new projects and it was clear that writing had fallen to the wayside for all of us.
Now we’re back. Energized, refocused on our writing goals, and taking the next steps. This blog post is my first step. Journaling our adventures, sharing what we learn, and finding the joy in writing that once kept us so inspired and motivated.
Once a week. That’s my posting promise. Here goes!
When Ron Houchin met with our writers in April he stressed the fact that even though we may have our favorite place to write, with the atmosphere, music, silence, candle, cushion that gets us “in the writing mood,” we need to be comfortable writing anywhere, because if that’s where the spirit moves us towards a thought or idea or reflection, we should not wait to capture it on paper. Let those words fly onto the page, red hot, fresh out of the oven.
As I sit in the Alleghany Library I’m putting that advice into practice. I’m writing off the top of my red head as I decompress from one meeting and prepare for the next. Later this afternoon I’ll lead the monthly meeting of Alleghany Writers. Days aren’t usually this jammed and I’ve been working hard to unjam even more, but sometimes the personal, home, and community interests converge in a perfect storm that requires seamless preparation, full attention, and a professional manner. All the things that spell out work instead of play.
So, even though I am drawn toward creating a copy draft for a Horizon Bistro brochure, I feel compelled to write some words that are soft and round and curly before I start writing something as pointed and sharp as a promo piece for catering and carry out.
My first thought is to finish the piece I started early in the week for our monthly prompt exercise. It’s a picture prompt, and the challenge is to describe the setting. The look, the feel, the abstract, the concrete. All of it.
I got a good start and knew the finish. What I didn’t have was a middle. When I started working on the middle the word count grew and the story took off into its own novel! I was going for a cute little vignette with an ending twist. What I got was a rambling beginning going nowhere.
Guess I’ll dig into the ramblings and carve out 500 words that describe the setting….an outdoor summer wedding. I’m envisioning the love story you see on the Hallmark movies. She’s the rich girl. Privileged. Not yet spoiled, but on her way there. He’s the hardworking guy who works on the family property. A “hand,” who has a special connection with her horses. Each sees the potential in the other. The photo shows the final scene, their wedding day.
I’m off to write some soft, round, and curly words………………………………….
I wrote this early Monday morning. I “let the cookies cool” as Ron Houchin says about first drafts, and went in for edits this afternoon. When it felt good enough to pass on, Melvin read it for his approval. This one passed, barely. I might be willing to recount an evening with airplane bottles of rum stuffed in my shirt to prepare for a concert, but the hub gets last look and sign-off on what goes into print. Essays and memoirs…fiction, too.
Preparing the post I decided to add videos from YouTube, but only if they were clear representations of the scenes I described from memory. They magically popped up on the second key word, and, in the case of that Jewish boy from Long Island, he was exactly as I remembered. Exactly.
I really do love music!
You will rarely see me at one of our local outdoor music events. I have never been to the Blue Ridge Music Center, except for a quick run-through with my friend Martha on a sunny afternoon Parkway drive.
You probably won’t see me at the indoor music events, either. Maybe a Camerata or the Symphony, but not the mountain roots music so prevalent in town. It’s just not a draw for me. It isn’t connected to anything I know.
And yet, I really do love music! Singing around the house is the norm. Lyrics embed in my mind and I’m compelled to vocalize. Always harmony. Especially strong with twangy, country duets like Love Can Build a Bridge by the Judds, or anything from the Eagles or Doobie Brothers. The draw for me is the memory it provokes. I like music that takes me on a ride back in time.
Walking through a store the other day, I caught the tune playing on the stereo in the background. I had to force myself from diving into the harmony with Billy Joel singing Piano Man. “And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar, and say man, what are you doing here?” But, I wouldn’t pay money to see Billy Joel in concert. The 2018 Billy Joel is not what I want running through my memory. Still a dynamic performer, yet not the Billy Joel I remember performing “Always a Woman to Me” on Saturday Night Live, some smoky night in 1979.
I watched from my spot on the carpet at Mary and Steve’s apartment in Westerville, Ohio. Our group met there weekly as the last stop of the evening, the place to gather with a date, after a date, or as the first venture out for the day. We watched Saturday Night Live together, our whole crew snugged into a sofa and two chairs, with the others resting their backs in between. Drinks were fresh, mostly sweet things like Tia Maria, or Baileys, or Drambuie. Nightcaps. Matches were lit and ashtrays settled in communal spots. No one was asked to step outside and smoke. Actually, not sharing was considered rude.
The focus was on the television. Laughing at Belushi and Ackroyd. Since I went by Barbara in those days, there was always the residual Baba Wawa joke after Gilda Radner did her anchorwoman skit. Then Billy Joel sat at the piano. He wore white. He had those big eyes and that strong voice, and all of us girls wished we could be the one he met backstage after the performance. Christy Brinkley got that gig.
There were the times I flashed my Marshall University Journalism press pass and got back stage at the Dick Clark traveling Bandstand. Got in, got an interview, promised to send a copy, never did.
The most memorable of that era took place at the Memorial Field House in Huntington, WV. Probably around 1966. My friend Jane and me were “chaperoned” by two black guys we knew from Marshall. It was the visceral experience of a lifetime. Two white girls in a sea of dark, learning what integration felt like.
But, it was “cool”, because everyone was there for the same reason. James Brown, with Ike and Tina Turner. Yes, James Brown and his Band of Renown, on stage with Ike and Tina, in front of a crowd of maybe 1,000 fans. Remember, it was the mid-sixties, and a gathering that size made up of mostly African-Americans was not a common occurrence in Huntington, West Virginia. That’s why Jane and I wanted to be there. So we could say we were there. So I could write this story fifty years later.
We stood on folding chairs and watched James Brown sing, “Please, please, baby please don’t go.” He collapsed, men ran out with the shimmering cape to scoop him off stage, only to see him throw aside the cape and do that signature strut back to the center microphone. The building reverberated and the crowd roared. Slim pints of gin and whiskey were passed along the rows without a thought of the dangers in communal drinking. Take a drink, pass it on. We’re all friends here. To prepare for the evening, Jane and I refilled minis bottles and stuffed them in our bra. The rum was warm but it was 150 proof, and we were set in case a stray Coke was available.
Then came skinny Ike on guitar, with that lower-than-low bass voice. Next to him beautiful Tina swirling in an orbit of fringe while her arms churned, “Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river.” The backup singers with thighs like cheerleaders and voices full of growl and three-part solidarity.
It was an electric night and it’s where I go when I hear Private Dancer or What’s Love Got to Do With it. It would never cross my mind to go see her in concert today. I agree, she is still amazing, rocking those heels and swinging that hair, but I don’t want to replace my 1966 Ike and Tina memory.
Showing my age?
Concerts just aren’t for me anymore. I’ve become impatient about the traffic, crowd, and noise. I’ve seen Bowie at Wolf Trap, and danced through the early 70’s with Bachman, Turner Overdrive, Three Dog Night, and Fleetwood Mac. So, I’m good. I’m sure I’m not alone, but sometimes feel that way in a community hard-wired for the “get up, get out, and listen to the mountain music,” crowd.
So, to my friends in town…don’t think that I am shunning your efforts to bring vitality to Alleghany County. They just aren’t my thing. I’m focused on the alternative. I’ll do my part to promote art and community culture by focusing on our writers, helping them develop the art and craft of the written word, and offering a performance venue at the Horizon Bistro. Local talent, regional names, and national bestsellers. That’s what gets me up and out!
I’ll keep my treasure chest of musical memories and let the written words in my stories be the lyrics, while I hum along in harmony.
Often you meet a person and don’t realize the impact they can have on your life.
I wrote the opening to this interview on May 6, the day after our Writers At The Bistro event at Horizon Bistro in Sparta. It was a short review of “From Lemons to Lemonade,” presented by NYTimes and USA Today best selling author, SE ‘Susan’ Smith.
As it states in the interview, the circumstances surrounding our first meeting make a great opening introduction. The audience got a good laugh at the telling. As I look back on the impact and potential for Alleghany Writers and our local writing scene, it is a prime example of “fate plays a hand.“
Spending time with Susan since the event has been personally inspiring. This woman loves, loves, loves writing stories, and she has a keen sense for marketing that has taken her to the top of her category in the publishing world. Hearing her share the journey has me taking a closer look at how I spend my time. It has prompted me to refocus on the things I really love to do. I really love to write! And it’s time to get out those notebooks with all the story ideas and get to writing. With the Alleghany Writers creative writing group up and running, I can shift more time from the organizing. Or, as Susan put it, focus on “be-ing” instead of “do-ing.” Writing is hard work, but it’s joyful work, and I’m in need of some joy. Look for a more regular posting schedule in the future!
May 6, 2018
It was through a cosmic set of occurrences that I came to know author S.E. ‘Susan’ Smith and became immersed in conversation at her home on an afternoon in March. She shared the story of how she became an author and rose in popularity to become a multiple New York Times and USA TODAY best selling author. It was an inspiration…as a writer with a goal to be published, but also as a woman who has been at that place, the moment you make the decision to take control of your success and become the mistress of your own destiny.
A prolific writer with a mind for marketing. Susan has developed new markets with stories for teens and children, expanding the brand with plush animals, coloring books, tote bags, and other items.
Susan appeared May 5, on the Horizon Bistro stage in downtown Sparta to an enthusiastic crowd of readers and writers. She brought her story of turning life “From Lemons to Lemonade.” She talked of the challenges, her inspirations, and gave us a look at the many ways readers help build the characters and story lines. As an example of her faithful fan base, there were readers who drove from northern Virginia, West Virginia, Texas, and Oklahoma to see their favorite author and hear about the new stories she has coming in the next few months.
Thanks to Chef Garrison Wagoner, owner of the Horizon Bistro, for giving Alleghany Writers a spot on the Bistro stage. Susan’s appearance premiered First Saturday performances of Writers On The Bistro Stage. Check the Alleghany Writers Facebook page for our upcoming schedule.
While Susan takes time to speak with attendees, a group of her faithful fans distribute books and other cool “swag.” Susan admits to loving the goodies and makes sure there are lots of fun items to hand out at book signings.
Here is my interview with Susan, printed in the Alleghany News on April 25.
My adventure started with Cynthia Grant. Since she was home recuperating after foot surgery, I delivered promotional posters and handouts to her house for an upcoming Alleghany Writers event at the Library. As people came by to visit, Cynthia handed out the information. Surprisingly effective!
Cynthia gave handouts to Julia Simmons. Julia went for coffee at Sparky’s and heard two women talk about their recent move to Alleghany. She heard one woman say she was a writer. Julia approached, introduced herself as a friend of the Alleghany Writers creative writing group, and offered one of the handouts she picked up from Cynthia.
That person was SE ‘Susan’ Smith. Julia got her card, dropped it off with me on the way home, and I sent Susan an email that evening as an introduction to our group and to Alleghany County in general. There was a reply in my inbox the next morning, and by the afternoon I was sitting with Susan, her sister Linda, and Sirah the pup, overlooking a scenic view of Low Gap, and talking about writing. I doubt that a character from the worlds of S.E. Smith could have orchestrated a more serendipitous event!
As a fellow writer I understood her enthusiasm about getting stories out of her imagination and down on paper. Susan is immersed in her characters and their stories.… so are her readers! The sheer number of published books and their popularity show her ability to engage readers in the worlds she creates. But, as I sit next to this very pleasant woman, dressed down for an afternoon of writing, and not appearing anything like someone who has been named multiple times to the New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author lists, my first question begins with the word “how.” How did it all happen?
About her start in writing, Susan says, “The school district I worked for was reorganizing. I had been with them for 15 years as both a teacher and as tech support staff. One day they tell us ‘everyone is gone, you have to reapply.’
“I was rehired, but developed this rebellious mood of wanting to escape the ‘real’ world for a while. So I started to read. I soon found there were few stories with females who were strong, fragile, brave, scared, namely a woman who was real to me. And, I wanted to read about an alpha guy who was strong, vulnerable, willing to learn, and who wasn’t afraid to admit he was in love, even if he wasn’t sure what to do about it!”
Susan found the heroes and heroines in books couldn’t match the ones she created in her own imagination. “I thought about all the stories in my head and decided I could always write them down for my own pleasure.”
Her sister Linda encouraged Susan to send her stories to a publisher. She did, but received the, “thanks, but no thanks” response that often nips the budding novelist. Not Susan. She kept writing, just to see where the characters would go. The stories collected into a growing pile.
Eventually her sister encouraged Susan to publish so she could share the stories with friends. She was still working her full-time job, a job which now included eight schools, not just one.
“I took my courage and started researching. I found out about Kindle Direct Publishing, learned to do the covers, and late on a Sunday night, I hit the SEND button to publish the books I had written.”
Along with positive feedback came sales, and the book sales grew to the award-winning popularity she has today. It confirmed what Susan knew in her heart. There were people out there who wanted the same reading experience. Now the publishing world of S. E. Smith spans the genres of science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, and contemporary stories. They combine action, adventure, and romance with the themes of family, friendship and true love. Her audience is world-wide, including adults, young, adults, and children.
How did Susan Smith get to Sparta? It’s another version of the story we know well. Looking for a mountain home to get away from Florida summers. Went from county to county. Nothing fit the bill. Their realtor told them about a home in Alleghany County. That home didn’t suit, but when they followed a “by owner” sign up the road, there it was. The home, the property, the view. Everything they wanted. Now Susan and her family are Alleghany homeowners and look forward to being part of our community.
When we visited Aruba on our honeymoon in 1993, I had only a hint of where our lives would lead. I knew I had finally chosen wisely, and now had my last and best husband. The years have confirmed this to be true. I have been his navigator on road trips, first mate to his captain, and the one who held the stick when he measured out our new home site. All exciting adventures. Maybe not holding the stick, but definitely building a new house!
Island Time – Aruba, February, 2018
Over the years Melvin has always been supportive when it comes to my writing…my desire to work with writers, play with writers, and surround myself with writerly folk. He understands my passion for Alleghany Writers and the development of a literary community in our county. Even on our second honeymoon last February, he was happy to follow as I pursued the island writers of Aruba.
The following essay tells the story of what I found, who I found, and the impact of the experience. It was printed on the Op/Ed page of the Alleghany News, May 2.
Experiencing the Power of the Arts
When Melvin and I decided to spend our 2nd honeymoon in Aruba I became determined to connect with local writers while I was there. My initial goal was to find Dan Putkowski, an American ex-pat novelist who writes about the island with an unvarnished view. But contact information was slim. He had no social media presence. Dead end. His book, The Blue Flag, was fascinating and I knew I had to visit the setting, San Nicholas. I wanted to drive down the streets for a better look at the buildings and establishments he described. If I couldn’t find the author I could at least absorb the atmosphere that served as the backdrop for his stories, see how close the real thing was to what I imagined while reading.
When we arrived at the condo I pick up a local lifestyle magazine from the coffee table. Immediately my initial goal of finding a famous author was replaced with the desire to meet Maria Silva, the “PR Diva” of Aruba. The magazine pages told the story of her Poetry Nights and described how these literary events provide entertainment while fostering positive change on the island. The article celebrated ten years of “Poetry Night on Aruba,” and the success of “Poetry is an Island,” Aruba’s first poetry festival, held in August, 2017. I realized this was my opportunity to connect with the island writers, and to meet a woman who shared my mission.
We made the initial connection through Facebook and arranged to meet at Flor de Oriente, a recently remodeled rum shop tucked away in a neighborhood of Oranjestad, just past the rim of where cruise ship tourists drift. The distinctive block buildings nod to their Dutch heritage, colored in a deeper version of the usual Caribbean pastels.The outdoor bar area sits at the end of an open-air market space.
I wait for Maria and watch vendors wind down for the afternoon. My eye catches on a figure still full of energy, sorting through a rack of shirts and dresses. He is Nelson Gonzalez, contemporary artist and founder of the Art Rap Foundation.
Nelson markets a unique line of hand crafted accessories and works to organize community art projects around the island. He has represented Aruba in educational collaborations with countries like Cuba and Venezuela, and tells me of how the writing, music, and visual arts work together, opening doors for young artists, and building bridges through cultural arts. Does he know Maria Silva? Of course he does!
When Maria arrives, I find her to be a beautiful and charismatic woman, passionate about promoting the local writers and artists of the island. Venezuelan by birth, but firmly rooted in Aruba, Maria is the owner of Vibrations PR, and an organizer of local events. We sat outside in the always-present Aruban breeze and talked about all the ways writers add to the cultural development of a community.
“The intention of Poetry Night has always been to promote creative self-expression through the spoken word,” Maria explains. “When the event outgrew its first location it became a pop-up event. It moved from backyards, to vacant lots, to abandoned theaters, gaining followers every month.”
“Not just adults,” says Maria, “but kids and teens, too. As the audience grew, the usually conforming and predictable regulars evolved, and began to share a mix of rebellious and vulnerable thoughts with the audience.”
To celebrate their ten-year milestone, Vibration PR and BASHA Foundation joined forces to present Aruba’s first poetry festival, “Poetry is an Island” on August 27, 2017. While poetry was the main attraction, the event included a pop-up street fair, music, limbo dancers, and interactive games.
The festival was a definite success and audience members have already marked their calendars for August 2018. Maria Silva’s goal was to support and develop appreciation of the written word. The goal was reached, and more. The audience enjoyed quality entertainment, and the individuality of each artist in the community was acknowledged.
The value writers add to the community is universal, but it took a trip of 1700 miles to see an example of how local writers can enhance the cultural mix and add a certain dynamic to the community.
As Alleghany Writers wraps up our 3-days of poetry workshops with Ron Houchin I am even more convinced that Alleghany’s new interest in creative writing can move us toward a richer and more diverse community.
I watched Ron interact with students after the workshops, and overheard conversations during our workshop lunches and breaks. There was talk of history and famous poems, and how it’s possible to inhabit the poet’s frame of mind while reading. There were other conversations about how darkness can come to light and truth can be told through the words of poems and short stories. There was some pretty heady stuff happening in our small town of Sparta, North Carolina. I suddenly felt like Maria on that first Poetry Night in Aruba ten years ago. Full of possibilities.