Monday, March 29, 2010

Learning from writers every day; Live forever Billy Joe Shaver

One of the many good things about being a writer, talking about writing and, well, writing, is learning something new from other writers. If you think about it, we all learn new things from writers every day, in one form or another.

One new exciting thing I’ve learned is about the Alabama Writers’ Conclave, which is the oldest writers’ organization in continuous existence in the U.S. Who would have known?

I paid the reasonable $25 per year membership fee and joined Alabama Writer’s Conclave after I heard about the long-lasting writers’ group from T. K. Thorne, a writer and published author from Birmingham. I met Ms. Thorne at a The Women’s Network event where was the guest of friend and attorney Frances Quick.

T.K. Thorne, who lives in Birmingham, told me about the writer’s conclave as we were discussing my writing a first novel. T.K. Thorne’s book, Noah’s Wife, an historical novel I’ve seen compared with Jean Auel (Clan of the Cave bear), is published and now available at, in a Kindle edition, no less. Ms. Thorne told me to keep writing, encouraged me even, but brought reality with the encouragement. Noah’s Wife was her sixth novel, I believe she said, and the first to find a publisher.

The Writer’s Conclave probably helps writers learn about publishing realities and more. The group of writers sponsors a writing competition annually and then makes the winning stories and poems available on line and elsewhere. The 2009 winners is available at their website,

I’ve considered entering something, maybe a blog posting everyone liked (category: nonfiction or humor? Is a blog posting unpublished?). I also thought about submitting my almost-finished-with-first-draft novel’s first chapter. We’ll see.

The April 20 deadline is coming up, and I thought I’d share the rules here in case other aspiring writers want to submit something.



Deadline: April 20, 2010 (postmark). Prizes: 1st: $100; 2nd: $75; 3rd: $50; 4th: $25 and up to 4 Honorable Mentions.

WINNERS WILL BE ANNOUNCED at the AWC Conference Banquet at the Hilton Birmingham Perimeter Park Hotel, Birmingham, Alabama on JULY 17, 2010.

Contest Rules: Entries must be original, unpublished, and may not have won a money prize in any contest. (Sitting AWC voting Board Members are not eligible.) Multiple entries are accepted, but only one prize is awarded for each category.

Send one copy of each entry on standard white paper in standard manuscript format (double-spaced, one-inch margins, 12pt. Courier or Times Roman font). (Note: manuscripts are not returned, so applicants should retain a copy).

• On first page include: Title, Category and Word Count (DO NOT show author name on the manuscript).
• Please number the pages.
• Enclose a separate cover sheet for each piece submitted showing: Contest category; manuscript title; your name, mailing address, e-mail address and phone number; and whether you are an AWC Member or non-member.
• Please be sure to provide a separate cover sheet for each piece submitted.

Entry Fees
For all categories (EXCEPT Poem and First Chapter Novel): $5.00 per entry if AWC member, $8.00 per entry if non-member.

For First Chapter Novel: $10.00 if member, $12.00 if non-member.

For Poem: $3.00 per poem if member, $5.00 if non-member.

Make checks to: Alabama Writers' Conclave. (Note: Membership and conference fees must be submitted separately to the AWC Treasurer)

Send contest entry manuscripts and checks to: Marian Lewis, AWC Contest Chair, 250 Hartside Rd., Owens Cross Roads, AL 35763.

NOTE: Please include a #10 SASE if you would like to receive a Winners' List after the AWC conference in July. If you would like confirmation that your entry has been received, also include a self-addressed stamped postcard (SASP)

Writing Competition Categories

Fiction - maximum 2500 words.

Short Fiction - maximum 1000 words.

Juvenile Fiction (stories for ages 4-12) - maximum 2500 words. MUST LIST GENRE AND TARGETED AGE GROUP (i.e. picture book, 3 & up).
Nonfiction - maximum 2500 words (PLEASE SPECIFY IF WRITTEN FOR ADULT OR CHILDREN).
Humor (fiction, nonfiction, or poetry) - maximum 2000 words or 50 lines (for poems).
Traditional Poem (any "form" poem, i.e. villanelle, sonnet, sestina) - maximum 40 lines.

Free Verse Poem - maximum 60 lines.

First Chapter of Novel - up to 10 double-spaced pages, first chapter ONLY.

Song of the week:

Speaking of writers, there is not a better songwriter, writer, period than Billy Joe Shaver. Even my main man Bob Dylan name-checked Billy Joe on a recent song. (“I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I'm reading James Joyce, Some people they tell me I got the blood of the land in my voice.” – From I Feel a Change Comin’ On, Together Through Life CD, 2009

Anyway, I picked this Billy Joe Shaver song at random. Plus, it has most of the required parts for a perfect country song. Count ‘em up, and see what you think.

I’m going crazy in ¾ time – Billy Joe Shaver

“The hill I've been climbing just turned to a mountain

I'm caught in the backwash of cheap talk and wine

To tell you the truth, I don't think i can make it

'Cause I'm going crazy in 3/4 time

I said to myself on the day that you left me

If I see what I sound like would I be so blind

But it's all in the search of a perfect companion

And I thought I had found one till you said goodbye
Yes, I'm going crazy in 3/4 time

Picture of the week:
Yes, that’s me and my hero Billy Joe Shaver, the original honky tonk hero, when he was in Birmingham a couple years ago. I’ve been waiting for a reason to have this be the picture of the week, and writing about writers is a perfect occasion. Live forever, Billy Joe Shaver.

Monday, March 22, 2010

All things equal, Spring can't help itself

On the first official day of Spring -- when the sun is directly over the equator and all things are equal – I went down to the river. And, Spring, it couldn’t help itself.

Spring made itself known along the river bank, where trees budded, turkeys talked romance and all critters great and small, flora and fauna, sighed and celebrated.

For me, on the pier, watching boats glide by – all of us apparently seeking the illusive crappie, the pretty perch, in an Alabama River and Pine Barren Creek muddied from rains and floods -- it didn’t matter that I could only catch a catfish, a little squealer that croaked at me as I freed it from the hook and kicked the whiskered creature back into the Big Muddy. Like the birds that flitted by and the occasional jumping fish – getting in practice for summer – it was enough for me just to be there with the sun shining equally on us all.

The Vernal Equinox, which happened officially about 12:32 CDT Saturday, March 20, means equal days and nights. Actually, Equinox means equal nights. The Vernal means Spring, and our brothers in the southern hemisphere had an Autumnal Equinox last Saturday.

Later in the day – that matching 12 hour day to a 12-hour night – I listened as bats rattled in drying grasses at riverside and then flitted out and gobbled mosquitoes (out and celebrating, too) with the practiced abandon of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Frogs croaked and birds twittered (sans iphones) and sang, all sounding so joyous that they seemed trying to outshout each other. Across the water, barn owls called to each other hoohoohoohoooooo.

Mankind has always celebrated Spring, as proof that winter ends, that food supplies will be restored and that days will be longer even without the extra cheating spring-forward hour modern man added. Spring is also significant in Christianity because Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. (This year it's on April 4). Also, the early Egyptians built the Great Sphinx so that it points directly toward the rising Sun on the day of the Vernal Equinox.

It all makes sense in a way that, to me, defies the idea that all this just happens, that our organized and balanced world is a happy cosmic accident. While faith is central to our celebration of Easter, Spring is evidence of the intelligent, interconnected, well-planned pattern that is our life of earth and skies.

I can only watch it in wonder and celebration. I hope you do, too.

Song of the day:

Beautiful Day, U2

“See the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colours came out
It was a beautiful day
A beautiful day
Don't let it get away

Touch me, take me to that other place
Reach me, I know I’m not a hopeless case

What you don't have you don't need it now
What you don't know you can feel it somehow
What you don't have you don't need it now
You don't need it now, you don't need it now
Beautiful day”

Picture of the day:

This Japanese Magnolia bloomed in front of the Delp Home on Selma's Historic Pilgrimage last weekend. Photo by Janet Gresham, a.k.a. Rambling Round, whose blog is called Selma, Ala. Daily Photo

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring break! whoo hooo! Remembering spring frolics past

March heralds student spring break frolics, the Associated Press article said.

The article went on to say that Alabama’s Gulf coast is hoping to beat last year’s $237 million in taxable lodging rentals, the best since Hurricane Ivan, in 2010.

“Spring break frolics” is a great description, and an apt one, as I remember spring breaks past.

Spring break has always been a fun time, even back when we called it AEA and before I knew that kids went to the beach or other exotic places during AEA. Spring break is this week, officially, in most of Alabama, but aside from watching and waiting, spring break is not on my radar anymore.

I am in that in-between stage, too old to accompany my grown children to any kind of spring break, even though I’d love to, and too young to have grandchildren (if we someday have some) to visit for spring break.

Gone are the days of being the “adult” on a spring break trip with a bunch of 12 to 18 year olds, and if I look back through the glass clearly, I ought to be screaming good riddance! But, hindsight is like that.

Instead, I find myself looking longingly back at spring breaks past, the good memories floating to the top like a bright pink boogie board in a perfect clear green-blue wave washing up on clean white sands.

Nevermind: finding beer funnels in the shower or past-curfew beach searching, or that heart-in-the-throat anxiety that something might have happened to yours or one of the precious ones in your charge (but nothing ever did, thank you Lord.)

For the record, usually the same kids were responsible for all of the above and never my angels…..

But no, instead, I recall the best of spring break fun.

To trace spring breaks past, I’ll group them into 1. my spring breaks. 2. my children’s pre-teen spring breaks 3. the teen spring breaks, aka, it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time-to-bring-all-these-kids-down-here-what-was-I-thinking spring breaks.

My spring breaks:

In the Grove: For the skinny grade-school me, and I recall sometimes my brother (whether we lived in Birmingham or Huntsville), our spring breaks were spent at Daddy and Emily’s in Pleasant Grove, which was then the COUNTRY, to help Nana and Grandpa with planting the garden. We’d plant the garden, have Coke floats for treats in the evening and at least one day, we’d go downtown Birmingham to shop (I told you it was a long time ago) or maybe to Five Points West and get a new outfit or pair of shoes. Whoo-hoo.

London on $300: Into my teen years, the ultimate spring break trip came in my junior year in high school when a group from Fairfield High School booked a trip to London for spring break. Chaperoned by Mr. Byrd, the school superintendent, and his wife (who may have had that good-idea-at-the-time thought before we returned), it was a trip of a lifetime for us blue collar kids. I still recall the cost, not cheap by 1973 standards, but still, it was $300 for the trip, plus spending money. A first airplane ride for many of us and most certainly the first transcontinental one, we saw London, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Stonehenge and a bunch of other cultural stuff that I was too young to fully appreciate, and we had a great time.

Children’s pre-teen spring breaks:

Chattanooga choo-choo: We packed up and went to Chattanooga, to see mountains and the aquarium there, one year when Mary Claire was maybe 5 and Will 10 or 11, Frank driving us through the mountains in an early supposed-to-be-extended-cab pick up truck, me and MC in the tiny back seat. We loved the aquarium. At the amusement park, Mary Claire ran amok in a go-cart and rear-ended another tourist before we tipped on out of there.

The Romine motor home express: Then, there was the year the kids and I piled into Daddy and Emily’s motor home and motored north with them to Guntersville for what I recall was the coldest spring break in recent history. Will and his Pawpaw cemented their mutual love for fishing, and all of us played Bingo (the real kind with paper cards and yelling BINGO!) at the “resort” lodge at night. Aside from the heating going out and using the stove eyes for warmth, it was a great, cold spring break we’ll never forget.

The teen years:

It was not until Will approached teenhood that I realized that some kids routinely go to the beach on spring break, with and without parents, and they frolic. Will went with others couple times, and I began what would be a sometimes tradition of taking Mary Claire and a friend or friends for a day or two. These trips all blur together with brief flashing scenes of:

• My pre-teen daughter and friend dressed too-old-for-your-age and looking to meet boys, and of Will and friends, not dressed too old but looking for girls who look like they are.

• Pleading young girls wanting to get 1 piercing, 2 piercings, 3 piercings, 4. No!

• Fire alarms pulled repeatedly throughout the early morning by some bored spring breakers in high-rise condos to the point where I think the security folks just turned them off. Luckily, nothing burned.

• A very drunk chaperone (not with our group) requiring multi-beach-police people to escort her (finally with someone carrying her arms and someone her feet) from the beach to the waiting police car. She had been dancing and talking to herself while walking on the beach WAY too early in the day when she attracted the attention of the law. My adult spring break partner of that year, Jane Lee, and I watched it all, as we sipped our cocktails, our charges resting (or planning) in the condo. We smugly thought we’re pretty good chaperones after all.

For the spring breakers already out there and those heading out for spring frolics, have fun and be careful. I found this advice from the Alabama State Troopers as I researched Spring break 2010. I’ll repeat this for anyone, teen, college kid, mom, dad or grandparent, thinking about hitting the road during spring break.

• Buckle up on each and every trip, whether it’s a trip to the beach, a friend’s house or a neighborhood store;
• Obey speed limits and all other traffic laws;
• Avoid drinking and driving at all costs; at best the consequences can be costly, and at worst, deadly;
• Keep focused on the roadway, other motorists, and your surroundings; don’t be distracted from the driving task. Hang up the phone and drive. (I added that one).

As Mary Claire heads out for a spring break respite with her still-in-college friends, I just help prepare, wish well and think about spring breaks past.

I no longer have to worry about or have control over outfits or funneling or piercing or curfew or any of it. For that, I am grateful. It is someone else’s turn.

To all spring breakers, obey the rules, have some sense and have a great, safe frolic.

Pictures of the week: Fairfield High School students posed in a boat at one of our stops on the Spring Break, March 1973, trip to London, England. Pictured are, from left, Colleen McArdle, Cathy Randall, Terry Palmore, Clyde Adams, and other two I know but cannot call right now. FHS alumni help please.

This second one is me at Stonehenge. Forgive me for the cool hat. It was the seventies.
Song of the week: Love Train

Written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and a number 1 hit for the O'Jays in the Spring of 1973, we sang this one, in our bell bottoms, on our Spring break trip, with a verse of “the next stop that we make will be England…”

Love Train, the O'Jays

"People all over the world (everybody)
Join hands (join)
Start a love train, love train
People all over the world (all the world, now)
Join hands (love ride)
Start a love train (love ride), love train
The next stop that we make will be soon
Tell all the folks in Russia, and China, too
Don't you know that it's time to get on board
And let this train keep on riding, riding on through...."

Monday, March 8, 2010

A-Changin': Lessons learned covering civil rights march, 30 years later

It’s been thirty years.

That’s what I realized as we drove around the by-pass through Selma, Ala. Sunday, on our way back from Alabama River camphouse to Birmingham. We took the by-pass to avoid the crowds on Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they were gathering for the Selma-to-Montgomery Bridge Crossing Jubilee, this year marking the 45th anniversary of the civil rights movement’s Bloody Sunday.

I counted up and realized it’s been thirty years since I covered my first civil right march commemoration. I remember the day well and still retain the life lessons learned then as a 23-year-old cub reporter and photographer.

It was March of 1980, and the staff of the Selma Times-Journal was all on duty that weekend, covering the big 15th anniversary celebration of Bloody Sunday, the halted civil rights march for voting rights – the event that resulted in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Just over a year out of Auburn University and J-school and about six months into what would be a decade of work covering the news wellspring that was Selma, Alabama, that Bloody Sunday anniversary was my first experience in civil rights rally and march coverage.

It was also my first in-person hearing of We Shall Overcome and my first exposure to the who’s who of the civil rights movement who call Selma home or are called home to Selma every year to remember what happened.

That day, we covered a rally at Brown Chapel AME Church, a beautiful, red brick church where one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sons spoke. Then, some of us followed the marchers and some of us went back to the newsroom to start writing and developing film.

That film developing was central to one of the lessons I learned that day. We’d all shot pictures at the rally and the beginnings of the march reenactment. Nikki Maute, Janet Gresham, Jean Martin and I all had our 35-mm cameras and Tri-X (400 speed) black and white film. We got some great shots, we thought.

But, for the first and last time in my dark room experience, I somehow switched the developer and the fixer as I poured these into a rarely-used 10-roll film developing canister. I realized quickly what I’d done: no images, no pictures. I’d ruined a frighteningly large batch of 15th anniversary negatives.

I still remember the dread of marching myself into the newsroom and editor Nikki’s desk to tell her. Speechless for what seemed like several minutes, Nikki said, it’s done, now let’s fix it.

Within the next hour, I located some others who had shot pictures at the events, including Frank Sikora, reporter then for The Birmingham News and author of “Selma, Lord, Selma.” He let me develop his film. And Frank’s pictures, along with some others we gathered, told our photographic story that day. We didn’t have the variety of likely award-winning shots we were sure were on those 10 rolls I had fixed into nothingness, but we got the special edition done, and Jackie learned the first of many lessons that life’s mistakes bring.

Learned lesson No. 1: When you make a mistake, admit it, own it and try hard to fix it.

That lesson served me well through life. Since the only way to never make a mistake is to never do, try and achieve, then we all need to know how to admit, handle and learn from our mistakes. Don’t make excuses; just try to make it better.

I learned other lessons from my first professional coverage of the civil rights movement that still defines the Alabama Black Belt.

These lessons are less direct and defined but stand on the strong premise that history has a lot to teach us, if we’ll listen and learn from it. And, people who sacrifice to make things better deserve to be remembered, listened to and learned from.

This is true if those sacrificing are civil rights pioneers (Selma’s F.D. Reese, Marie Foster and J.L. Chestnut come to mind) or if they are lesser-known heroes, our parents, our grandparents, our mentors, editors and others who came before us and tried to do the right thing. We must learn from them.

Even though I knew the history book stories well, it was difficult for me, then, to imagine having to march and face state troopers on horseback, in order to register to vote in the United States of America. But that’s how it was, then. This is not a small accomplishment being remembered year after year.

The civil rights movement had to force change, in many ways, because of fears and prejudices and the driving need to preserve power and -- we still see it today on all sides of the political spectrum -- the power of power.

But things change and continue to change.

That’s the big lesson I see as I look back at that enthusiastic, na├»ve young white girl covering her first civil rights rally. Selma is not the same; neither is Alabama or our nation. Certainly that young reporter is not the same either.

Change is the one constant. And we’d better get good at changing with it.

Song of the day:

The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob Dylan

“The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.”

Picture of the day: Selma Times-Journal newsroom, circa early 1980s. Some combination of this crew covered the 15th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march 30 years ago this week. From left, Jean Martin, Nikki Maute, Maxine McDonald, Janet Gresham, Jackie Walburn and Jeannette Berryman. In this picture, which I re-discovered while looking for some early writing samples, we were waving goodbye to one of the rotating sports editors.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Superbad the cold, a try at Dylan and reading what…

Week two of Superbad, the cold: I’m still coughing, but getting better after finding a doctor recommended by a friend. Armed with a diagnosis of bronchitis and four more medicines, I have my fingers crossed and feeling more like tackling that always-important to-do list. At the top today (after spending much of Monday at doctor’s office) is blog posting.

So, I’m feeling saucy enough to tackle last week’s challenge of creating clever imitation take on Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues where I use his rhyme scheme to rap poetic about aspirin, tissues, coughs and snifflies. I talked myself out of it last week, but I’ll try a few lines this week.

Tempo: upbeat, early folk rap and video of Dylan with hand-printed signs of lyrics (is this coming back to those of you old enough to remember?) Are you sick of Dylan references, already?

Sorry, it’s my blog, and I can Dylan if I want to.

Subbronchial homesick blues

Doctor’s in the exam room
Thinking about the medicine
I’m in my bedroom
Thinking ‘bout writing zoom
Book in office looms
Tissues out, laid off
Say she’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out kid
It’s nothing you did
Lord knows when
You’ll feel human again
You better duck down the freeway
Looking for a well friend
Man in the panther-proof cap
And the Bic pen
Wants 100 dollar bills
You only got 10.

That may be enough of weakly ripping off Dylan. But, I couldn’t resist. I also couldn’t handle four verses.

However, I love Dylan’s last line to this 1965 song so much I’ll write it here. (Stephen King opened a book with the quote; I can’t remember which one.) But the message is universal and the rhyme superb. Think about it.

“The pump don’t work
’Cause the vandals took the handles”

Also, thanks to followers and Facebookers for well wishes.

Reading what?

With time on my hands, and still much reading/writing research to do, these are the Southern books I read in the last week, finishing the last one now. These were all from the Southern Writers Shelf at the Hoover, Ala. Public library.

Wolf Whistle, by Lewis Nordan. This Mississippi-born novelist looks at civil rights era violence and one particular event from imagined (yet ringing true) characters and viewpoints.

Wonderdog, Inman Majors. Well-written, funny and smart story of a Tuscaloosa-based not-doing-well, just divorced, screwing-up-bigtime lawyer and former child star of cheesy dog and boy TV show. Oh, and he’s the governor’s son, too.

The Watermelon King, Daniel Wallace. Written by the Birmingham-born author of Big Fish, which they made into a movie in Alabama I believe, The Watermelon King uses imagination and keen characters to tell the story of Ashland, Ala.’s watermelon festival and how it impacted the life of one man and the mother he never knew. I’m still reading this one, which is set in the same fictional town as Big Fish.

Picture of the week: Lucille catching snowflakes. Is hasn't snowed here at the house yet today, although I hear it has downtown. But, I offer this cute one of Lucille frolicking in the snow-before-last. Our Lucille is growing, chewing and learning.

And, because everybody's got to sing the blues sometime, here is the song of the day:

Downhearted Blues, Eddie James "Son" House, Jr.

"Mmmm, mmmmm
Got up this mornin', feelin' sick and bad,
I's thinkin' bout the good time, that I once have had
I said, I got up this mornin', and I said I's feelin' so sick and bad,
Yeah, I's just thinkin' bout the good times, chil'ren, that I, I once have had."