Before A/C

July 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

I grew up in the days before everyone in the South had air conditioning, but until this summer, I don’t remember ever being so weighted down by the South Carolina heat. “Maybe it’s age,” my husband said, but I will not grace that comment with a reply—not today or six months from now. (:\
I have decided that South Carolinians must be at least 40% aquatic because we almost literally swim through days like today when the temperature is 95 degrees and relative humidity hovers around 97% with no breeze to stir even a blade of grass. How else could we breathe? Maybe we have developed some invisible gills to assist us. Or maybe our lungs have evolved to tolerate the high levels of moisture. Who knows?
At any rate, today I had to be outside for a while, and I was miserable. Charlie, my cat, is almost totally blind, but he still loves to go outside and make his daily rounds. We usually start the day at sunrise with a walk when the air is cool and the sun’s rays slant through the oaks and pines. Both of us enjoy the time. He meditates on the shifting light and shadows as the sun rises and feels absolutely independent and in charge of himself (important for a cat!), and I make my daily fifteen laps=one mile from the mailbox to the end of the street. Charlie supervises and counts from his chosen spot on the cul-de-sac.
But in the afternoons, our time outside is not quite so enjoyable. He loves to roll in a patch of sand and soak up the heat, while I wait impatiently in the shade of a tree, or sometimes if he doesn’t wander too far, I can sit on the porch. Today was a porch day. I paced and sighed and prayed he would get his “fill for the day,” and we could hurry back to the a/c inside. But Charlie lingered, climbing the lattice in search of lizards, mounting the bird bath for a quick lap of water. And while he attended to his curiosity, I suddenly thought back to my childhood summer afternoons. Surely it was as hot and humid then, as now. But we often passed them hours on end on my grandmother’s open porch. When the air grew thick and heavy distant thunder rumbled raising our hopes for an early evening shower, my grandmother guided me to the front porch where we took seats in a rocker or the porch swing. Then she’d hand me a large metal bowl and a brown grocery sack of field peas or butter beans. A small table held a pitcher of lemonade or sweet tea and usually cookies or brownies or slices of pound cake. We endured many sultry afternoons, rocking, swinging, and shelling while sharing local gossip or old family stories. Yet I don’t remember every breaking a sweat or wanting to strip down to my undies in attempt to get cool. I just remember the stories and the time we spent together. And of course, later, there was always a delicious supper to eat (fresh from the garden) while we listened to the rain making music on the roof.


It Takes Two: Gift and Craft

July 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

It Takes Two: Gift and Craft

As a writer, one of the most difficult situations to witness is another young writer who deliberately murders his talent by refusing to do what is necessary to develop craft. It is a form of suicide, for no matter how beautiful the words, the turn of expression, no matter how gut-wrenching the emotion of the work, without craft, the message weakens and dies before it becomes what it is meant to be.

I have a young writer friend like that. He is very talented, one of the more gifted I have had the pleasure of reading. He loves to read. He loves to write. But he does not like the discipline of craft. He and I have circled this particular issue for years now.

Tonight, he demands to know how I can declare his writing beautiful, how I can say I am moved by it if he does not indeed know craft. In my mind, it is simple. I used this analogy: The first few times you had sex with someone was filled with fire and passion, with freedom and newness, and probably satisfying for you, but I wonder about the partner. As you grew older and learned the pleasure in delay, in focused touch, learned about your lover’s body, developed the knowledge to satisfy both yourself and your lover, the sex grew better, right????

We may have beautiful, sexy bodies, pretty words, a great kiss, an available bed, but we only become true lovers when we learn how to use the beauty, the enticement, the fire, the passion to achieve satisfaction for both people. And I believe that is true of loving and of writing.

I may have powerful, emotional subjects to write about. I may have breathtaking words, phrases, images to use. But, just as with sex, when in the middle of foreplay or the act itself, if I linger too long on one part of the body, or if I don’t vary the tension and intensity of my touch, or the rhythm gets skewed too slow or too fast or just plain monotonous….or perhaps I even stop to answer the phone or go to the bathroom, well, then, I can pretty much forget getting my partner to a satisfying ending. He/She will be back at start and most likely at stall. “We have to start all over again.” His/Her attention will not be so easy to regain. He/She will be waiting for me to get lazy or self-focused and disappoint–AGAIN. My lover will not be satisfied.

If the writer weaves and wroughts a wondrous world and the reader is lost in the sensation and feel of that world and then BAM! the writer interrupts to tell the reader what to think, or feel, or the lover says to his love, “Hold everything, I have to go to the bathroom!” well, damn. The moment is lost. So is the lover. And so is the reader.

On Work and Why We do It

June 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

One of my son’s friends is a pastor who counsels a lot of young people and has a great blog. I found his post yesterday particularly  relevant for writers, so I’m passing it on below. 

What My Dad, the Spurs and The Wire Taught Me About Work

My dad was a farmer who probably should never have been a farmer. I don’t mean that he wasn’t good at it. He was. Really good. I mean how he got into it. His dad was a farmer, and his dad’s dad was a farmer. So when he came back home, with a masters degree in History in hand, he farmed. 

Sometimes he would take me with him. He’d sneak into my bedroom early, before the sun was up, and with hushed voice tell me to put on some old clothes. We’d climb into his GMC pick up, khaki colored, front window slightly cracked from that time a sudden bump on a dirt road sent my head crashing into it, and we’d head to the farm. 

Mom would sometimes protest, but this was men’s work. Men’s work that thankfully involved stopping at a convenience store along the way to pick up a honey bun and coffee. We didn’t drink it black. People who drink their coffee black feel like they’re trying to prove something. We took it with copious amounts of cream and sugar. This was playing hooky from school at its finest. 

I can remember him asking me several times on those sacred trips, “What do you think you want to do when you grow up?” My only category was a farmer, so that’s what I said. And he would always say back, “It doesn’t matter to me if you’re a farmer, or a doctor, or a ditch digger, as long as you love what you do.” Those words still ring in my ears. Looking back I’m not sure if they were a promise offered from contentment, or a warning offered from frustration. My dad was the best farmer who probably should never have been a farmer that I ever knew. Because whether he loved it or not, he put himself into the work. 

Which brings me to the Spurs, who, now that I think about it, are kind of like the farmers of basketball. Slow. Old. Boring. Plodding. Unselfish. All of these are words that are regularly used about them. Flashy. Impatient. Selfish. Young. These are words that are almost never used about them. They are a throwback team, but not even to the NBA of Jordan, Magic and Bird. More to the NBA of Havlicek, Cousy and Russell. A precious basketball relic playing in our midst. 

The thing about the Spurs that feels so strange is that they are men who put their work before their personalities. In an age where “Which [Insert TV Show] Character Are You?’ quizzes clog up our Facebook feeds, it’s almost impossible to imagine a “Which Spur Are You?” quiz. Mainly because we know so little about them, their private lives, their personalities. 

It’s not that they don’t have personalities. It’s that it seems they genuinely believe that the work comes first. You show up and do your job. Day in and day out, night in and night out. Discipline. Self-control. Work ethic. Selflessness. Humility. These things matter. Because the best way not to be a flash in the pan is to be a slow cooker instead. To know yourself deeply without feeling like you have to share yourself widely. I bet the Spurs’ Twitter feeds are incredibly boring, if they even have them at all. 

Which brings me to one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite shows, The Wire. It comes from a conversation between Lt. Daniels and a young officer, Carver. Daniels is warning him about the pitfalls of trying to climb to the top. And in a moment of prophetic wisdom, Daniels says to him, “Comes a day you’re going to have to decide whether it’s about you, or about the work.” 

If it’s about you, then the work ultimately becomes life or death, make or break, sink or swim, home run or strike out, and I just ran out of extremes, but you get the point. It becomes a way of telling myself, my family, the world, that I am somebody. Work becomes something I need to justify my existence instead of a joyful, if at times frustrating, part of my existence. 

If it’s about the work, then you become a small part of something much bigger. You put the time in, you work hard, you spend yourself. But it’s not for yourself. It’s for others. It’s for the work itself, because you love it, and you hate it, but you’re committed to it. Not in order to stop time for everyone to notice you, but to keep time, to stay in rhythm with it, joining countless others in this line of work that has a past and a future, both happily without you. 

When the work is about you, it makes rest impossible. You NEED the work, need to prove yourself through it, find yourself in it. 

When it’s about the work, you can rest. It’s an integral part of your life, but it’s not your life. You can take it up and put it down. You can be yourself in it because you have a self, a life, apart from it. 

This is the most freeing thing I could ever tell a twenty something who sits down to coffee with me and wants advice about which direction they should go. 

First, that their work, whether it’s farming, doctoring or ditch digging, deeply matters to God and therefore to the world. It’s work we need. It’s work that’s good. It’s work that matters. 

But the second is the harder one. It’s not about you, it’s about the work. It’s not an accessory to show off at parties, a desperate attempt to justify your own blood and bones. 

It’s a calling, a holy invitation to put your head down and plug away in obscurity for the love of the work itself, in all it’s glory and frustration. 

Do something you love, that you’re good at. Absolutely. 

But don’t make it about you. Make it about the work.

Call for Submissions

June 7, 2014 § 3 Comments

Call for Anthology Submissions–Deadline  June 30, 2014

Writers are most often advised to never throw away anything they write. The logic is that one day, an editor somewhere might really like the idea. And now a project a friend and I began several years ago has moved from file drawer to desk top! A publisher is interested in our nonfiction proposal His Mother!,a series of essays, true stories, and poems written by women about their mothers-in-law. (We hope there might be a sequel at a later date for the men: Her Mother!)

 That woman Hollywood not long ago dubbed Monster-in-Law, certainly has a rep. A history. She’s made a name for herself. And it’s NOT good. But is it true? Is it deserved? Just what is the REAL story behind this woman who, throughout the ages, has created such a commotion, caused such talk, evoked so much emotion? Authors Sandy Richardson and Dinah Johnson want to know. So they are asking women of all ages, ethnicities, and races to tell them, to break the public vow of silence, to challenge the taboos and write honestly and openly about HER—the mother-in-law—titled His Mother!

 The answers Sandy and Dianne have so far received will surprise, delight, and dismay you, just as it did them. Among the stories already collected, you will read:

            * how the mother-in-law of a celebrated poet  threw herself out a window

            * how one well-known author once locked herself in a closet when her mother-in-law showed up unexpectedly

            * about the threats one writer endured from her husband’s mother.

            *and the anger, regrets, and sorrow another writer feels over her m-i-l’s mental illness that kept  

              her from experiencing the loves and joys of family.

 But beyond these, you will discover an overwhelming number of in-law relationships built on kindness, generosity, and love. You will delight and laugh out loud at some of the antics in these stories and poems written by women across the world on their mothers-in-law.And yes, there are some tears and sadness, but in His Mother! the buzz is busted, the rep recouped, and the history re-written as the love, laughter, and joy found in real relationships are celebrated.


DEADLINE: June 30, 2014 (the package is due at the publishing house no later than mid-July)

Submissions must be essays, nonfiction stories, or poems. Word limit 3500. Attachment file in RTF or doc

Email submissions to

Double spaced, Times Roman, font size 12, one-inch margins all around (except poetry, please center).

Title page should include: title of piece, your name, address, phone number, email, and number of words.

Please include a brief bio

Title of piece centered at top of the first page. DO NOT NUMBER PAGES.

You will be notified of receipt of your submission..

PLEASE REMEMBER THIS IS PROPOSAL, NOT A GUARANTEED PUBLISHING CONTRACT AT THIS POINT. IF YOUR SUBMISSION IS ACCEPTED FOR INCLUSION, I WILL NOTIFY YOU VIA EMAIL. We cannot offer payment, but if accepted and published, this will be an excellent publishing credit for your platform. 

Saying Goodbye to a Mentor and Friend

April 24, 2014 § 2 Comments

A hard week. A sad week. A celebratory week. Tuesday, I said goodbye to my mentor and friend, poet and professor, Ellen Arl. I had the privilege of making comments at her service. I have posted them below.

     Twenty years ago, I entered a USC Sumter classroom, my head down, chewing on my lip, praying the professor sitting center stage at the front would not notice me. I slipped into a far desk and shuffled papers across its marred surface.

     “Mrs. Richardson?” The voice called from the front.

     Oh, God, I thought. She knows my name.

     “Yes, m’am,” I muttered, focused on the patchwork of initials carved into the Formica desk top.

     “Mrs. Richardson, come up here,” she commanded.

     I yearned to be anywhere else. But I was of a generation that “minded the teacher,” so I stumbled from my desk. The room suddenly void of oxygen.

     Walking that ‘green mile’ to the front, I asked myself first, why had I thought I could handle an Advanced Creative Writing class and second, why had I presumed I could survive Ms. Ellen Arl. The student rumor mill broadcasted that few survived the first week of her classes, much less a whole semester.

     I cleared my throat; my eyes scanned her desk, the floor, her face, then quickly back down again to the floor, the door, and my shoes.

     “I understand you want to be a writer,” she said.


     “Are you not sure, Mrs. Richardson?”

     “Uh,uh, yes, m’am.”

     “Then let’s make you a writer.”

     I peeped up at her. She smiled a big, lots-of-teeth smile.

     Over the next two years and several other classes under Ms. Arl, I toiled under that smile. She, in turn, chiseled, sliced, cut, and diced EVERY SINGLE WORD I submitted. There were times I cried. Times I cursed. Times I wanted to run as far away as I could get from her. But she wouldn’t let go of me.

     And as unlikely as it was, we became close friends—friends who ate dinner together, sipped on Ying Lings while eating crème brṹlée, and argued books. We attended poetry readings, made butter lambs, sipped tea on cold afternoons, and road the decorated streets of Sumter at Christmas time looking for “blow-ups”(the term we used for those huge inflatable characters that decorate lawns around here during holidays.)

     We shared laughs and tears. But mostly, we shared our love for the written word. I never left our shared time without having heard a new story from her, or at least, without being inspired with an idea for one of my own. And she never said goodbye without ending with, “I LOVE you, Sandy.”

     I told her she was a Drama Queen.

     But it did not change her. Our last conversation on Monday ended with those same words: I LOVE you, Sandy.

     Ellen Arl did exactly what she said she’d do that first day I entered her class—she helped make me a writer. For that, but most of all for her generous love and friendship, I am forever grateful.

     I love you, too, Ellen.

Stephen King on First lines

April 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Read: Stephen King on first lines  here:

Check this out: By Heart

April 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.