Women Writers of the South

Historic mural depicting the Harper Lee novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” located in Monroeville, Alabama.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Southern women writers have been the greatest influences on my writing. I share their passion for the Deep South and its diversity of people and cultures. Their natural writing style lends itself to the rhythm of storytelling. I admire their ability to use their writings to make us laugh, cry, and empathize with others, as well as their fearlessness to turn a light on the dark underbelly of our sweet-tea society.

I think the first inkling that not all southern little girls grew up in a safe, loving environment like mine came when I read South Carolina native, Dorothy Allison’s novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, which will break your heart. It educated me to the fact that bad things really do happen to good people, to children, and the secrets families hold can rip them apart as well as protect them. I returned to these themes when I wrote Breaking TWIG.

Alabama’s Fannie Flagg is a woman of many talents. Best known for Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which became the film Fried Green Tomatoes, her writing is funny and candid, without being cruel. Her characterizations of Southerners might seem somewhat stereotypical to anyone not from the South, but as someone who grew up in the Deep South, I find them spot-on.

My favorite southern woman writer, the one who influenced my writing the most, is Harper Lee, who wrote the1961 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. She published only one novel in her lifetime, but a half-century later, To Kill a Mockingbird stands as one of the best-loved works in all of American literature.

I first read her book when I was in junior high. At the time, my own Texas community was struggling to come to grips with the Civil Rights Act and integration. The story, which originally touched sensitive chords in America’s unfolding Civil Rights drama, still reverberates today in the national consciousness. It’s a book about courage, and I think it took courage on the author’s part in 1960 to write with integrity and honesty about the issues of racism and injustices in her own community. Harper Lee stayed true to her story and to her characters, and I regard that as the ultimate responsibility of any author.

Thanks for stopping by,




Jimmy Buffett, Livingston Taylor, and “the ability to observe”

By Leslie Budewitz

As Christine Schimpff-Carbo mentioned earlier this week, our community recently hosted the 4th Annual Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival and Workshop. “The Crown” features all styles of guitar—acoustic fingerstyle, classical, jazz, rock, and blues, with classes for beginners and singer-songwriters. Instructors are themselves working musicians. A guest artist in each category provides additional instruction, and performs a public concert. Students also give two concerts. In seven days, we attended nine concerts—and loved every one.

Mr. Right studied with Bret Boyer, a singer-songwriter from Austin who is a talented—and demanding—teacher. Students—12 in this year’s class—worked with Boyer for three hours every morning. After lunch, they could choose to attend a Master Class taught by one of the guest artists—Lee Ritenour, Pat Metheny, Robben Ford, Livingston Taylor, Mac McInally, or Scott Tennant and the LA Guitar Quartet. Guest artists and other visitors, like luthiers Aaron Greene and Linda Manzur, gave late afternoon presentations.

mac-mcanallyI snuck into the Master Class held by singer-songwriters Livingston (he calls himself Liv) Taylor and Mac McInally. McInally is a member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefers Band, and he, Taylor, and Buffett know each other well. Both classes were informal—and completely wonderful. The musicians took questions, talked about their art, and played a bit.

And taught and inspired.   liv-taylor

Liv Taylor told us this story. As a professor at Berklee School of Music in Boston, he was on the bill for the Boston Strong concert, a fundraiser for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. His brother James was on the ticket, too, as was Jimmy Buffett. Before going on, Liv was backstage, along with dozens of other musicians, crew, sponsors, organizers, and other folks. He spotted Buffett arrive, and watched him disappear. Oh, Buffett was still there, physically. But he “cloaked himself in anonymity,” dropping all aura of celebrity, not ignoring anyone who spoke to him, but not seeking out conversation. He was, as Liv said, simply a shortish, plumpish, baldish, older guy standing in the middle of the crowd, invisible.

And that, Liv said, allowed Buffett to observe and absorb the emotions of the people, who moved around him as if he wasn’t there. He was not backstage talking about himself; he was watching and listening to other folks.  And as a result, Liv thought—and McInally agreed—Buffett was able to be fully present when he performed in a way that others, including James Taylor, were not. (Liv says James can do that very well, but was not fully on it that day. Have I mentioned that Liv is highly opinionated?) Buffett was able to communicate with the audience because he had come to understand what they were feeling.

And the lesson, says Professor Taylor, is this: “You must protect your ability to observe.”

The next day, I read a newspaper story about the Pattee Canyon Ladies Salon, a group of 9 Missoula artists who meet twice a month to draw the nude figure, and once a year, exhibit together. Drawing the nude, sculptor Beth Lo said, creates empathy with the subject, for both artist and viewer. The figure is a good subject, painter and fabric artist Nancy Erickson said, because “You can make it new each time you draw the figure. So it’s a good subject for all of us to look at. You learn to draw that way.”

In other words, the practice teaches an artist how to observe.

What Liv Taylor, Beth Lo, and Nancy Erickson are saying is that observation is the key, for artists in every medium. The work—the novel, the painting, the pot, the song—tells the truth only when it is built on our observations of human nature. Only in that way can it truly connect.

“Listen to what the man says.” to quote another great songwriter. If you want to create, “protect your ability to observe.”


Inspire, Transition…. Transpire – Christine Schimpff-Carbo

My son was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to a week-long guitar workshop (the Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival) that takes place at the end of August every year on Flathead Lake in quaint Bigfork, Montana. This year the artists in residents were from various genres (jazz, blues, rock, classical, folk, country) and included Pat Matheny, Robin Ford, Lee Ritenour, Daryl Stuermer, Scott Tennant, Livingston Taylor and Mac McAnally. Because my son was there every evening, I went to several of the concerts, each one taking place with late summer not-too-warm, not-too-cold western Montana weather. Each one entirely inspiring. 

I have written before on the type of things that help lure my muse: reading other authors, exercising, looking at artwork, visiting with other writers and so on, but I left out watching musicians perform. I definitely need to add them to the list. As I sat under the white tent under the Big Sky and watched the talented musicians get completely lost in their guitars, basses, keyboards and drums, it made me want to get lost in my computer keyboard, drumming out words instead of notes to tell a tale, to weave a plot, to use my imagination.

But as Kathy Dunnehoff mentioned in her last blog, the transition to that creative spot can be tough. Putting aside the daily work, chores and other habits to sit down and practice the craft is challenging, inspiration present or not. Even though my son was having the time of his life in Bigfork at the festival, he was also very stressed because he was missing the first week of his freshman year of high school and the first week of soccer practice. He had many transitions to make.


I was thinking the word transition had the same prefix as the word transpire, which has the same root as inspire – to breath into. Transpire means to happen, to take place, to materialize and come about. Trans means across or movement, a crossing or conveyance from place to place. Ultimately, we all need to feel inspired from time to time if we are going to make the transition to writing where we have made writing transpire and put words on paper. When that crossing takes place, it’s a very stress-relieving place to be, because ultimately, once that creative work has transpired, we truly feel as if we’ve had life “breathed” into us.

My son is in his third week of school now. His stress has melted away as he has crossed over from inspiration to the daily routine of making his schoolwork, guitar playing and soccer playing transpire. I am also slowly, but surely, making my next mystery happen as well. As we do this, often from pure willpower, we feel better. We feel inspired and the cycle continues until we break it with a bunch of laziness or unforeseen circumstances. When that happens, it’s back to all the old tricks to get inspired in the first place.

And if you can’t get inspired, then you simply have to sit down and do it anyway. As Tchaikovsky declared, “a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”  I promise: the very act of doing your creative work will breathe life into you.

A Stairway of Transition

By Marie F. Martin
stairway2In pondering what to blog about my mind returned to Kathy’s theme of life’s transitions. Blinny Platt of Harbored Secrets goes through a continuing upheaval and this is how she manages to deal with one. A little pretense goes a long way in overcoming turmoil. The following is an except from her story.

No amount of pouting or worrying would make it happen any faster. Or put a halt to it. Didier would arrive when he arrived. To help pass the afternoon, I hustled upstairs to retrieve my library book from the bedside table. I held The Good Earth against my chest. The well-worn classic smelled of ink and many hands. I embraced comfort from the sense that so many people had read the words I now enjoyed.
Would that sense of connection be lost on the isolated prairies? Returning to the homestead was beyond comprehension, so was leaving my very own room. I flopped on the bed to memorize each detail: tiny cracks in the plaster, the slight slant of the blue curtains on the window, and the nick in the dresser I kept rubbing with lemon oil.
Concentrating on the familiar imperfections calmed my growing apprehension, and I determined to stay in control. Pretense was the only way to do so. I’d be a highborn lady and contain myself with precise movements. I would calmly read and calmly wait for Didier on the veranda.
I glided down the hardwood stairs to the main floor with all the elegance Princess Elizabeth possessed.

Maybe one just needs to glide down a stairway every time they are fussing internally about something. For me I want my buddy Katy Lou at the bottom of that descent. Marie F Martin_edited-1 (2)

Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl

ImageKaren Wills  

As a teenager, I read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Anne’s writing about coming of age (thirteen to fifteen) while her family and four others hid in a secret annex of the building where her father had worked, was to captivate postwar readers. We can’t resist that eloquent, idealistic adolescent, caught in what she describes as “crazy circumstances,” i.e., the Jewish plight in Amsterdam in WWII. She experiences human nature at its most petty, its most noble, and fears it at its most brutal. She encounters first love. Sensitive Anne confesses to her confidante, the diary, that she feels isolated. She is the universal young girl with a diary, only more gifted than most in her ability to convey details, express insights, narrate events, and joke with a wicked sense of humor while not sparing herself.

     I loved Anne from the start. I loved that she began writing stories and dreamed of becoming a writer. I loved her reasons: to contribute to the record of Dutch people who lived through the war, to live the life she chooses, to have her work survive her death. Even though she died in a concentration camp before her sixteenth birthday, she met two of those goals,

      At eighteen, I visited Amsterdam and the secret annex, now a museum. I wasn’t prepared for how tiny the rooms were where Anne lived for over two years, crammed in with seven others whom her diary describes loving, infuriating, celebrating, and nursing each other. Because of her, they live on, too. The pictures of movie stars less remembered than Anne remain on the walls where she glued them. She had been, after all, in some ways a typical teen.

     In some ways, she wasn’t typical at all.