GoodReads and Bad Poetry

* In Ozark, Alabama, circa 1986. Shelley McLaughlin Hoerner (left), Mellisa Henderson McLaney (right), and performed this dance, to Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," in several beauty pageants, not as contestants, but as half-time entertainment during intermission. My dance teacher, Molly Mizell Comin, says this photo was actually from a Carroll High School production of The Wizard of Oz. 

* In Ozark, Alabama, circa 1986. Shelley McLaughlin Hoerner (left), Mellisa Henderson McLaney (right), and performed this dance, to Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," in several beauty pageants, not as contestants, but as half-time entertainment during intermission. My dance teacher, Molly Mizell Comin, says this photo was actually from a Carroll High School production of The Wizard of Oz. 

After three rounds of voting, What Stands in a Storm made it to the finals in the GoodReads Choice Awards - Best books of 2015. This is the only major book award decided by readers, and it's a pretty big deal. I honestly didn't think I'd make it this far, and now I'm up against some heavy hitters in the Science & Technology category: Susan Casey, Elon Musk, and Oliver Sacks. (Note: feel free to ignore the rest of this post and just vote.) 

I still feel weird about self promotion and social media, but it's an essential part of today's marketplace, and I'd be foolish not to do it. I decided to campaign for votes, and my platform is self-humiliation. I promised that, if 10 people shared the voting link on Facebook, I would post a photo of my 10-year-old self dancing with a tornado in a beauty pageant.* I got 10 shares. Thus, the photo above. If I got 20 shares, I promised a selection of bad adolescent poetry, written in high school about a tornado. I thought I might get out of this latter deal, but yesterday my friend Chris Spencer alerted me to his 20th share. So I went and dug out the notebook:

The notebook dates back to November 1993. My junior year at Choctawhatchee High School in Fort Walton, Fla. I don't remember who my English teacher was that year. But I know that is when I began, in earnest, to write. Which, in high school, usually involves bad adolescent poetry (is there any other kind?) and/or journals steeped in hormonal angst and cluttered with cliches. The tornado poem was my stab at a sonnet, during a brief foray into the Romantics. I don't remember writing it, but I stumbled upon in a month ago when my mom found this old notebook in a drawer. 

During my senior year, AP English was my favorite class. I can still hear Mr. Adams reading us Wallace Stevens's "Bantams in Pine-Woods" and awkwardly trying to explain the messier parts of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot (it made him pace and sweat). He once spontaneously removed his shoes and threw one out the window. The next day, a bird flew into the window, and he reckoned it was the spirit of his shoe. That same year, another favorite teacher, Ms. Evanchyk, asked me to write a news story for the student newspaper, Smoke Signals. It won a little award. Then she arranged an after-school internship at the Northwest Florida Daily News. That's where I wrote my first published piece, a personal essay about prom (and how much more of a hassle it is for girls than for boys). Once I saw my byline in print, that was it. I knew I'd be a writer. 

Here's the thing, though. It doesn't happen overnight. I've been chipping away at it for 21 years since that column, and it still takes me seven drafts to get a piece of writing to the point where it feels ready to publish. (Note: It never feels done. Just far along enough to publish.) I still chip away at it, every single day, copying passages of greater writers into a notebook, so I can feel what it feels like to write sentences like that, and so I can re-read them to myself and aloud to word-obsessed friends. I read through old notebooks, with mortification, because it reminds me how far I've come and how long I've been trying and how much father I want to go. I am still embarrassed by my first drafts (and often my second, and third, and fourth drafts).

"The thing about writers is that, with very few exceptions, they grow slowly—very slowly," John McPhee said in an interview with the Paris Review. "I sent stuff to The New Yorker when I was in college and then for ten years thereafter before they accepted something. I used to paper my wall with their rejection slips. And they were not making a mistake. Writers develop slowly." 

So in that spirit, here's that sonnet, from September 1993. I was 17.

Once upon a spot in time
I walked a long tornado’s path
and saw the ravaged, crooked line
of Mother Nature’s rage and wrath

A tree, uprooted by thin air
(as witness to the violence)
raised twisted branches in despair
in the aftermath of silence

And so this place did speak to me
of overwhelming power
and how it stood so helplessly
to face its final hour.

Unsettled and disturbed, I left
to think of what could be bereft.

As a bonus, I did find this slightly more redeeming description of a storm whipping through my back yard. I was always enraptured by thunderstorms. I loved sitting outside and watching the light show, feeling the thunder rattle my bones. Though I did not understand that thunderstorms are the mothers of tornadoes. I guess I wrote this right around graduation time, when I was 18:

The storm came suddenly and without warning. Thick, dark clouds approached from the south, and all background noises ceased. What followed was an ominous calm. The bay’s swirling emerald waters lost their [sic] lustre, turning metallic, impermeable, formidable. The first fragment of cloud fell and shattered the glass. One by one they fell, peppering the deck with little shiny spots, and beating a sporadic yet captivating cadence.

The storm grew progressively worse. The rain came driving down in waves, drops striking the ground in little explosions. At the climax of the tempest a huge bolt of white light struck ground over by the bridge. With a sound like the crack of a whip resonating across the bay, the lights of the town flickered and died. The audible pop as the television went off was replaced by the continual sigh of the rain. This left one with naught to do but think.

—dated May 12, 1994

GoodReads Choice Awards: Please vote!

I have a big, huge (but very quick) favor to ask... Would you please visit GoodReads and vote for my book? I'm honored and thrilled that What Stands in a Storm was nominated for the GoodReads Choice Awards (Science & Technology) for best books of 2015. It's the only major book award decided by readers. 

The voting takes place in three rounds. If you vote now, you can help me make it to the semifinals. If I make it, I may be begging you to vote again...) I have nothing to win beyond bragging rights, but it could help raise awareness for a book that needs help getting on the national radar (<—Ha. See what I did there? I'm a sucker for double entendres.)

ROCK THE VOTE: 

Opening Round  Nov. 3 - 8

Semifinal Round  Nov. 10 - 15

Final Round  Nov. 17 - 23

VOTE NOW.

The King of Tides

One of the most delightful things for writer is when someone stumbles upon a story and takes the time to respond. This month, a personal essay of mine landed in the seat-pockets of Southwest Airline planes, and friends have been posting little snapshots of the magazine on their laps. I love hearing where they're going on the flight when they find it, and how it made them feel. I've even heard from a few strangers who took the time to find my website and send me an email. It makes my day every single time. I reply to every one.

This month's story, The King of Tides, may be the most stumbled-upon story I have ever written. It is an homage to a father-daughter relationship, disguised as a fishing story, and it had been "marinating" in my heart for seven years, ever since my father died. I had feared I would never find the right venue to tell it — with the right audience, and enough space to tell it right — and thought I would one day just write it for myself. But last year at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference (where I am headed again tomorrow), I met a young and gifted editor who would find the perfect home for my story.

It isn't often one gets 3,000 words for a personal essay. Long-form has largely given way to charticles and listicles and roundups of trendy things described in 75 words or less. A lot of publications don't believe in readers who read, assume our attention spans are all eroded by Facebook link bait and faux news about Kardashians. In most of the magazines I write for, a 1,200 word story is on the long side. 

But I think people crave longer stories, even need them. When you flip through a magazine that serves little more than the literary equivalent of heavy hors d'oeuvres, do you really feel satisfied? I believe every magazine needs moments where people lean forward in their chairs and think, "Ooh! I'm going to try that!" But we also need those stories where we lean back into our chairs, lose ourselves in a story, and forget the time. Stories that make us feel.

Perhaps one of the things that made Southwest the perfect home, is that the audience was captive, suspended above the buzz of life, cut off from social media, with time to read and think. In the stories most important to me, I want every reader to feel a moment of "me too." My hope for this one was that a few business men sitting on a plane would remember their own fathers, and rub pretend-dust from their watering eyes. 

Although I am much too old to be crying on an airplane, I felt compelled to express my appreciation for sharing your story, one stranger wrote. You write beautifully, and reading your reminiscences brought to mind a number of fond memories of my dad, whom I lost to cancer four years ago.

Another wrote, Lost my dad to small cell lung cancer 10 years ago this winter. Was Stage 4 when diagnosed the Monday after Thanksgiving, 2005. He passed on Christmas Day at age 73. I got home from Iraq in time to spend the last six days with him at his home. As Midwesterners, we routinely used bobbers. To this day I can't eat bluegill or catfish without thinking of my dad.

This, my friends, is why I write. To make someone feel, and remember. And realize no matter how lonely we feel, we are never truly alone. 

***

read The King of Tides on Southwest magazine's website,
and look for it on airplanes throughout the month of July. 

 

April 30: Special Event in Tuscaloosa

I had been thinking for some time about a way to give a little something back to Tuscaloosa, my college town (twice) and the setting for most of my book. I believe in "paying it forward," but there have been so many needs and causes that it was overwhelming to choose. 

I finally found the perfect cause: Alberta School of Performing Arts.

Back story: Alberta Elementary School was flattened by the April 27, 2011 EF4 that devastated Tuscaloosa. What stands in its place—a brand-new school with state-of-the-art theaters and music rooms, plus an innovative arts curriculum—is something that did not previously exist in the Tuscaloosa public school system. The original student body has returned to this beautiful Title 1 school, which serves one of the least-affluent neighborhoods in the city. And next year, students from all over the school system will apply to join this arts-focused magnate school. (Read more about the school and fundraiser here.)

This school exemplifies the underlying theme of my book: Beautiful things come from our brokenness. Which is what I've chosen to call the fund-raising event I'm hosting this Thursday, April 30.

The 2-hour event will feature a brief talk and reading, and a panel discussion with Tuscaloosa characters from the book, including meteorologist James Spann, who will talk about weather safety and how the April 2011 storms changed him. Other characters include: 

  • John Oldshue, storm chaser who captured the EF4 on live TV 40 minutes outside of town
  • Adam Watley, a paramedic who responded to Rosedale and rescued many people
  • Kelli Rumanek Arthur, a UA student who lost her home and roomates, and struggled with anxiety attacks and PTSD
  • Andrew Lee, a disaster coordinator at a hospital that treated an estimated 1,000 patients in one day
  • Chelsea Thrash, a college student who was thrown and paralyzed...and who learned to walk again
  • Ashley Mims, who lost her daughter, Loryn Brown, to the storm.

The program is free to the public, but donations are welcomed and will benefit the Alberta School of Performing Arts. In addition, Barnes & Noble will donate 10% of the book sales to the school. A reception and signing will conclude the evening, and members of the audience will be able to meet and talk with the panelists. 

Turnout at Tuscaloosa events has been surprisingly poor, considering the book was set in this town and the storm such a big part of its history. I am not sure if people are tired of hearing about the tornado, or not quite ready to remember it so intimately. I'd like to emphasize that this is not an evening of mourning. It is an uplifting acknowledgment of how far we have come, and what we have learned, and gained, from 2011. It will be a testament to the healing power of storytelling, and I hope members of all facets of the community—storm victims, volunteers, rescuers, students—will come and join us.

When I reached out to the Tuscaloosa News to pitch a story about the fund-raiser, I never expected a front-page story on the anniversary of the tornado. I am grateful, not only for the great placement, but for the fact that the reporter, Ed Enoch, took the time to listen -- really listen -- and understood nuances that rushed reporters sometimes miss. He got it. As a result, we received $800 in donations on the day the story ran. 

Please help me reach our goal of $5,000. Every bit counts. 

If you can't make it to the event, please donate at gofundme.com/alberta. 

On the Radio*

Andrew Yeager from NPR member station WBHM did a wonderful interview piece that ran on Friday, April 24. Take a listen here. Thanks for all the great feedback on this!

Also, top Alabama literary critic Don Noble reviewed my book for Alabama Public Radio / NPR member station WUAL in this radio spot that ran on March 16. 

(*If you heard Donna Summers singing when you read the title of this post, bonus points for you!)

Book Launch at Books-a-Million

What Stands in a Storm debuted yesterday, and my 15-city book tour kicked off with a signing at Books-A-Million, a company based right here in Birmingham! BAM has been behind this book since before it was finished, and is donating a portion of the sales at each signing to the memorial scholarships/funds of three students in my book who lost their lives to the storm. They are incredible young people who have forever embedded themselves in my psyche, and I hope they will continue to influence many others through this story.

Their families were all present for the launch, and having them all there at once was so meaningful. We have remembered, laughed, and ugly-cried together. I feel close to them in a way that is hard to explain. Like family, almost, but different. They have given me—and you—the gift of their story, which was not easy to share. (I will thank them by name in a later post, after the book has been out for a while, because some of you may not want to know what happens to the people in the book until you read it. The families shared their blessing on this.)

But here: three brave mothers, who have had to learn to live in a world without their child:

Please, go hug or call your kids right now and tell them that you love them. Every time I think of these mothers and their kids, which is pretty much every day, I hug my son. As one of them (A.M.) told me, "You can never over-use the words 'I love you.'"

Big thank-you to everyone who came out tonight. Very first in line was Sherrel Stewart, a long-time Birmingham News reporter/editor who taught my Advanced Reporting class at the University of Alabama, which is the class I now teach at UA. (And I was in that classroom, coincidentally, the day my book sold in New York to Atria Books / Simon & Schuster.) It was strangely wonderful to look across the room and, much like a wedding, see people from different parts and times in your life all together in one room. It was magical. Thank you. 

 

 

Early Reviews: Memphis Commercial-Appeal, AL.com, Tennessean, Clarion-Ledger

"...page-turning entertainment and beautifully-reported reality."
— Memphis Commercial-Appeal / Chapter 16 

"...the culmination of more than a year of research, hours of interviews and phone calls and video, hundreds of pages of Facebook posts and texts and chat room messages..."
AL.com

"The book wasn’t merely about three days of storms, it was about the redemption that followed."
The Tennessean

"...a well-researched work that serves as both a reporter's factual account of a tragic and historic weather event and a storyteller's chronicle that conveys the emotional and personal tolls it took on Alabama."
Clarion-Ledger