Archive for the ‘storytelling’ Category

NC Literary Festival: A reader’s feast, with a Southern flavor

In books, reading, storytelling, Tangents on May 1, 2014 at 5:35 pm

I’m on a roll with writing 3/4 of a blog post that’s intended to be timely and never is by the time I get to the final 1/4.  But in my parenting/work-juggling life, it’s too painful to toss out 3/4 of a blog post, so I hope this one falls into the Old But Not Yet Stale news category.


I spent many hours over two days at the NC Literary Festival, which was put on in early April at my new favorite place — the wildly colorful and inviting James B. Hunt, Jr. Library at NC State. (If you aren’t familiar with the namesake of the library, look up the former governor and education advocate; he is one of North Carolina’s finest people.)


checking out the funky chairs and stylish vibe at the Hunt Library


I’m sure there are many detailed, lofty and insightful accounts of the festival that you can find.

I’m afraid this is not one of them. But if you like stream-of-consciousness coverage, my festival take might be just your speed.

Writers talking

As a writer/editor sort and as a lover of stories, hearing writers talk about their work and tell their personal stories never gets old for me. I steal away to Quail Ridge Books for author appearances whenever I can, sometimes bringing my daughter and her homework along if a big favorite is coming to town on a school night.

The literary festival brought a two-day feast of writer talks to town — so many great ones were on the schedule that I was a little depressed that I have not yet found the holy grail I wish for often in my single working parent life: The ability to be in multiple places at once.

I wasn’t willing to give up on seeing everyone I wanted to see, so I decided to be strategic; I would take in the first 2/3 of one session and then slip out to take in the final 2/3 of the one that started later. This borders on rudeness, but I hope the writers forgive those of us who have a hard time choosing.

A good plenty

There were some big names on the marquee for the festival, but I did not end up hearing any of the ticketed event speakers, which included Lev Grossman, Junot Diaz and Richard Ford. This was due in part to the timing of the talks and in part to the fact that I didn’t make it by Quail Ridge Books to get the advance tickets (which were free).

Meaning no disrespect to these authors, I don’t feel as if my festival experience was diminished in the least, which is a testament to the lineup.

Here’s the menu I ended up with:

  • James McBride, National Book Award Winner, The Good Lord Bird
James McBride

James McBride


  • Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun and the new memoir Under Magnolia
  • Wiley Cash, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy
  • Lee Smith, Guests on Earth and too many others to list
  • Allan Gurganus, Local Souls and too many others to list
  • Michael Parker, The Watery Part of the World and All I Have in This World

And here are a few random notes and fragments I scrawled in a notebook because they resonated with me in some way — these are not verbatim quotes, as my reporter’s note-taking skills are not that sharp these days, and I often have trouble reading my loose handwriting.

~ Frances Mayes, in conversation with Elizabeth Hudson, Editor-in-Chief, Our State magazine

photo 1

  • We all carry stories and details … how do we mine ourselves for those details to tell a story? 
  • The light in the South is powerfully evocative, as is the fragrance (nothing like a Southern night) 
  • If you lose a parent when you (and they) are young, it makes you fatalistic … afraid you will lose someone else (like Mayes, I lost my father when I was 7 and he was 48, and I could very much relate to this)

~Lee Smith in conversation with Wiley Cash

  • The two read from their latest novels, and Smith noted that they both like to write in first-person — adding that 85 percent of first novels are written in first-person, which I found fascinating.  
  • First-person means you aren’t responsible for knowing all of the other characters’ thoughts. 
  • Smith recalled growing up around storytellers … trying not to fall asleep too early as a child so she wouldn’t miss the end of a story. Now, her stories always come to her in a human voice —  often that first-person voice of the character telling the story.
  • Cash said his stories start by knowing the characters before knowing what the plot will be. 
  • The voices of his characters are borrowed from people in his childhood – or, as he warned the audience, from anyone he happens to be sitting within earshot of …  given the excellent things I have … overheard … at coffee shops, etc., I was glad to hear this.  It makes me feel slightly less ‘Gladys Kravitz’ (if you don’t know what that means, don’t run to Google it; you’re too young and a Wikipedia explanation won’t do.

~Allan Gurganus and Michael Parker

photo 1

This was a great conversation, with many quotes from each of these NC writers that were keepers — I’m not going to try to make sense of which of my scrawled notes should be attributed to each writer, or I will never finish this post.

Gurganus was probably the source of more of them simply because Parker had prepared a lot of thoughtful, interesting questions for him.

  • Everyone is eloquent on one topic — their lives
  • Gurganus: My job is finding the genius in every character
  • We care about the music of the prose
  • Today people think of prose as the means to an end; in fiction, we think prose is an end.
  • Novellas: Gurganus loves the form and wants people to believe in it; tells a story about his Hillsborough, NC, neighbor, the above-mentioned Lee Smith, going to talk to a third-grade class and fielding a question from a child: “Is a novella a novel written by a girl?” 
  • The length of a novella is perfect – you can start it at dinner time and finish by bedtime
  • Gurganus pointed out that Parker now splits time between Greensboro and Austin, and the two talked about how landscape affects prose … NC is “vernal, crazy, green.”
  • Singing the praises of writers Mavis Gallant (who they noted had not gotten the credit/attention she deserved) and Alice Munro; Gurganus says he will pick a Munro short story arbitrarily and read it when he is feeling stuck.
  • Gurganus pointed out that the word ‘empathy’ did not exist until the 20th century, which I found interesting, as I have always found this to be a powerful word/concept … but unfortunately,  I failed to write down the context this fact 
  • ‘honoring the buried song in someone’ – this tied in with the discussion of empathy … somehow. 
  • Fiction is a force of memory
  • We are all walking around with encoded stories inside of us.
  • Another random note, I believe from a sidetrack about place and changes in place/surroundings: Gurganus discussing how mobile homes that were once modest and actually were “mobile” have now ‘swelled up like giant ticks’ … huge and immovable. Instant mental picture.
  • Both spoke of re-reading books a lot

And for any avid reader parents who are despairing that their kid may never develop a love of reading, Gurganus and Parker should give you hope: when my 12-year-old daughter, an avid reader, worked up the nerve to ask them a question, it was “What did you read when you were growing up?”

The answer? They didn’t really read when they were growing up.  Gurganus said he was too busy running around outside and playing in the woods (something he thinks kids today have missed out on) and only became a reader when he was stationed on the USS Yorktown during the Vietnam War.

Parker recalled how the first books that drew him in when he was a teenager were rock star biographies, something that gave him brownie points with my 12-year-old music lover.

Parker’s novel, The Watery Part of the World, is the only book I bought at the festival. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, so I broke my vow to stop adding to my embarrassing “TBR” pile until I start making more progress.

You can catch Parker in a “solo” appearance at Quail Ridge Books, my favorite bookstore, today, May 1st:


In short, this year’s festival was a great event in a beautiful space: Well-done.

Read a kid’s take on the Festival. 


the best kind of runner’s high

In places, run reports, running, storytelling on February 9, 2014 at 8:56 pm

As single working mothers go, I am not exactly one of those light-the-world-on-fire, never-fazed superwomen.


today’s view

I feel like an overwhelmed, not-so-coordinated juggler a fair amount of the time. But the joy of my daughter and my side pursuits (writing for myself and not my clients) usually balance out the daily frenzy.

But in the past few weeks, I’ve been overstretched, overstressed and confidence-shaken by many disparate Big Life things banging into each other all at once. Tapped out.

This weekend, I had my first down time and solo time in a few weeks, and no matter how many angles I played in giving myself pep talks, I couldn’t shake that ‘glass half empty’ state where every small disappointment or glitch in the day starts to feel like a personal dig from no less than the universe.

Even on my most overwhelmed days, I’m usually pretty good at finding an upbeat spot to land on. I learned resilience from watching my unfailingly positive and patient mom deal gracefully with one hard time after another while I was growing up, and it always rattles me when my resilience doesn’t rescue me from myself.

The clouds and cold rolled away midday today, and though my gray mood hadn’t lifted, I was determined to take advantage of the warmth and sun and go to my favorite running spot in the woods. My sad-sack conversation with myself went something like this:

“You know you don’t really feel like going. What you really need to do is stay home and work. … BUT if you don’t go and exercise your underused, over-sugared, cholesterol-collecting 49-year-old body, then you’ll really hate yourself.”

So I drove the 20 minutes to the state park, listening to Tina Fey reading ‘BossyPants;’ even Tina’s hilarious, self-deprecating stories of youthful screw-ups and disappointments hadn’t entertained me out of my funk.

After sitting in the car and stalling for a few minutes, I reluctantly turned Tina off and headed up my trail, more dogged than inspired.

I haven’t run very  much in recent months, and have been easing back in, doing run-walk intervals and going no more than 2.5 miles. Today, the idea of distance appealed to me and I decided I would take my time and run out to a tiny cemetery plot a couple of miles farther than I’d been going lately.

So I ran hard, then walked, and did that over and over again, soaking up, as I always do, the woods and the play of the sunlight and blue sky in the narrow spaces between the trees.

I made it to the cemetery and turned around to head back. On the final stretch, which can sometimes seem to have tripled in distance, I never once thought, ‘I’m  done … where’s the END?’

You have had to slog through a lot of backstory, and I appreciate that, so I’ll keep the punch line quick:

When I landed back at my “Blue Streak,” the name my daughter and I gave our car one summer, I felt like a different person.

150 percent lighter.

The glass was  half full again…. just like that.

My running intervals are not very speedy, so I doubt what I was feeling was a true, chemical-blow out runner’s high.

But whatever it was that my run delivered today was powerful tonic — and unlike anything I’ve experienced before. All these hours later, the lightness is still with me;  I have a newfound respect for what putting the heart and body through its paces can do to recalibrate the brain.

And so I’m here tonight to put my thanks on ‘paper’ — thanks to the woods and the sunlight … the legs and lungs … for restoring me to more than half-full.

victory on the playground (for Alice)

In storytelling, Tangents on November 5, 2013 at 11:59 pm
width="295"In fifth or sixth grade, my best friend  and I trained for the Field Day Three-Legged Race.
Yes, trained – we wanted to win that sucker, so we practiced our three-legged stride faithfully … at recess every day and probably at home, too.
Our training paid off: Sporting our long, stringy hair, glasses and very best 1970s lack of fashion, we won the Three-Legged Race that day.

 And we loved winning it.

10287040_10202947238614961_8936849695838270406_oNot in a ‘Chariots of Fire’/serious sort of way — probably more because it was a funny sort of thing to win and because we had invested serious effort in that funny thing, and our plan worked

Fast-forward a few decades, and she had to be just as methodical in dealing the biggest challenge of her life –  MS. Years into it, when the disease became relentless, she tried every option available to her, including experimental stem cell treatments. This time, when the stakes were so much higher, all the drugs and treatments and research did not slow that progression.

But she was never going to let the MS take control, and she wrote the end of her story, which was lousy, but on her own terms; I take a lot of comfort in that. I hope one day our society will come around to understanding/respecting the wishes of people we love who have terrible diseases and zero quality of life and are ready to let go.

Today marks five years since she left, and I miss her every day. But I hope that my posting photos and stories on Facebook and elsewhere doesn’t make it seem as if I am continuing to mourn her death. I’m really just continuing to celebrate her life; it is still making mine richer.

Thanks, Al.

Amy Hempel, on writing

In lines worth underlining, quotes about writing, reading, storytelling, words, writing on January 27, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Not so much a piece of advice as a question to keep in mind, which is the most basic of questions: Why are you telling me this? Someone out there will be asking, and you better have a very compelling answer, or reason.

There are people who have been raised by loving parents to believe that the world awaits their every thought and sentence, and I’m not one of them. So I respond to that. Is this essential?

The question might be, Is this something only you can say—or, only you can say it this way? Is this going to make anyone’s life better, or make anyone’s day better? And I don’t mean the writer’s day.

~ Wise words from an interview with Amy Hempel that I came across online years ago

#writerspace ~ Hemingway’s Key West studio

Books-served-up-on-a-cake-plate, 2012 Holiday Edition

In books, storytelling on January 1, 2013 at 1:47 am

Last year, I took a decades-old cake plate passed on to me by my mother and piled it high with beautiful books with red or red-and-white spines in celebration of the holidays; on my first try, I realized that this was too much of a good thing, and I added in a few books with striking black, white or gray-hued spines for contrast.

The books-on-a-cake-plate display is becoming a bookish decorating tradition along with our  picture-books-as-art decor. (During the rest of the year, the color scheme is all over the board.)

So which red & white books made the cake plate this year?  And which contrast books? Take a look.



While there are a couple of encore appearances, I tried to put together a new and different lineup for 2012. The stack I pulled from my shelves this year includes grownup novels, kids’ literature, nonfiction … books from years back and books from the past year or so … wildly popular current bestsellers (some I’ve read and others that are on my to-be-read list) as well as flying-under-the-radar titles.

I will know I’m taking this a little too seriously when I begin noting whether the books I’m browsing through at Quail Ridge Books & Music happen to have a lovely red spine.

(One of these days, I’ll snap the photo at just the right time of day to avoid glare and show off each book equally well.)

‘Maybe stories are just data with a soul.’

In storytelling, words, writing on September 27, 2012 at 2:18 pm

In 25 years of writing for a wildly varying assortment of for-profit and non-profit organizations, I’ve seen the same battle over perception playing out over and over again.

Nearly everywhere, I’ve encountered people who were convinced that if their story was told … well, as a story, with anecdotes or examples and in a conversational style, it would instantly lose credibility. Years apart, colleagues in two very different nonprofits expressed their deep-seated fear that an overhaul of their publication to a more magazine-like format would turn it into People. One mention of the word “magazine,” and all they could conjure up was a celebrity glossy. They were genuinely alarmed and not easily convinced.

These and other intelligent, highly educated colleagues over the years would hold tight to their academic or scientific or industry jargon, their way-down-in-the-weeds, eye-glazing detail and their “just-the-facts, ma’am” approach as credentials of a sort. One academic protested that his work didn’t need examples or more approachable language and explanations because there were only a few people in the world who followed his area of specialty, and they didn’t care about that sort of thing.

If there has been a common thread in my career, it has been this uphill battle to convince people that taking something complex and making it colorful and engaging is a good thing … that everyone, no matter how brilliant or credentialed, likes to be entertained when they read.

I’ve seen stellar short- and long-form writing (from ad campaigns to magazine articles) numbed-down after too many people in too many meetings gave in to this kind of insecurity – to the notion that it is more important to impress than it is to engage.

It’s always heartening to see businesses and nonprofits where the truly creative stuff makes it out into the world, unfiltered by “the committee” – where the creatives are allowed to live up to their job description. (After all, it does seem like a colossal waste of money to hire people with skills you have no intention of using.)


I watched a TED talk by Brene Brown a few weeks after writing this, and I was struck by the story she told at the beginning. An event planner was struggling with how to describe Brown in promoting an upcoming speaking engagement. She thought calling Brown a researcher would lead people to assume that her presentation would be boring, so she suggested calling her a “storyteller.” Brown recoiled at the description. “The academic, insecure part of me was like, ‘What?’” But she came around to the idea. “Maybe,” she thought, “stories are just data with a soul.” She told the woman to bill her as a researcher-storyteller – at which point the event planner laughed and told Brown there was no such thing. “…Stories are just data with a soul” is one of my favorite quotations now.

(“re-blogging” this post from my former business web site) 
Honoring Viki

“I would not like to live without dancing, without unknown roads to explore, without the confidence that my actions were helpful to some.” Sam Keene


Empowering the Creative Community

Brain Pickings

An inventory of the meaningful life.


Writer, reader, lover of adventures and all things outdoors.

Design of the Picture Book

the intersection of graphic design + picture books

Lost in a Book

Mother-daughter dynamic duo (covering the key 15- to 51-year-old demographic) waxes poetic about kids' books