On Writing, Art History, and the History of My Art-Writing

I earned my MFA in Poetry from Georgia State University where I studied with the great poets, David Bottoms and Leon Stokesbury. Afterward, I taught at the university level for three years, then I lived in Germany as an exchange student for two. Coming back to the States, I moved to the mountains of northeast Georgia to live and write full time. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since — novels, poems, and personal lyrical essays.

My husband and I routinely attend antique shows and flea markets. In order to have something to do while he shops for antique fishing tackle, I collect tiny chairs — 3″ high being my preferred size. I try hard not to focus on doll house furniture, and I lean hard toward artist-made chairs, obviously hand-made iterations, and the occasional museum miniature. I once missed out on an silver signed-and-numbered artist-made armchair, and I have yet to forgive myself. If you see it out there, please get in touch.

My bent toward artist-made pieces might be because my first college degree was in art history, from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. There I had the joy and privilege of studying with Dr. Alessandra Comini who forever changed the way I thought about art by tying it to the artist’s life and time. During her lectures, Dr. Comini brought art to life, and my deep appreciation for art continues to this day.

That appreciation might also come from the fact that I model for artists. For years, I have stuck poses and held still in drawing, painting, and sculpture studios. Life modeling was how I got through my MFA in Poetry debt free—all for sitting still. I love being part of the creative process, and I love it even more when artists give or sell me their work. The running joke at our house is that any picture of an animal likely belongs to my husband, while any painting of a nude woman belongs to, and probably is, me.

You probably won’t be surprised to find that I love going to museums. When my husband and I travel, we scope out what each area has to offer, and we go! On trips to antique shows in the northeast, we visited the Yale University Art Museum (awesome collection), the Wadsworth Atheneum (great shows), the Norman Rockwell Museum (so much more interesting than you could ever imagine, and the Mark Twain House (a jewel in the midst of a busy neighborhood). He enjoys (or secretly hates) going to museums with me since I know just enough to be dangerous, and I love to share my knowledge. (That’s a nice way to say I talk the entire time.)

Even more than going to museums though, I love to write about art. For years, I traveled as my local paper’s Roving Arts Reviewer, seeing plays and Cirque du Soleils (that horse one, oh my!!), exhibitions and openings. I had a monthly column about what I’d gone and seen. I also wrote what I call “house” articles for a local publication in which I toured the finest homes in the area and learned the vocabulary to describe $6.-million-dollar lake houses (some of which you can find here under Reviews).

During all this, I was writing novels–and here begins the rather long segment in which I describe the (complete!) novels I’ve written that haven’t found agents, the arduous path of which did lead me to find my calling–writing about women and myth and art! So, hang on, it gets better!

My first novel was about an artist model (write what you know, dontcha know!), but it was boring since, a) I was a poet who had never taken a novel-writing class and, as such, didn’t know how to plot; and b) models just sit there literally doing nothing. To get more action into the thing, I wrote two novels about the mountains where I live—one very “Breaking Bad”-vibe-ish, though I’d never seen the show!

The other was about a young man who’s raised by a boring shop-owner dad who wasn’t his actual father. He was a whiskey-drinking gambler and rapscallion not to mention womanizer; but, for all his flaws, he does right by leaving his son a ton of land that will soon be worth a fortune. This novel flipped back and forth in time, present and past to show the changing history of this area. Personally, I loved this one a lot, but no one else seemed to. Didn’t have an “audience,” I think is what got said.

(By the way, I do query. But after about a dozen rejections, I figure there’s something inherently wrong with the manuscript, and I move on and write another. I guess I find writing novels easier to face than rejection! Would Freud have a field-day with this?)

To be more “big city”–and because I’d lived there for a dozen years–I set my next novel in Atlanta. It was a kinda-thriller story about a girl who took a drug to forget a painful memory but was left with the ability to touch people and see the past in which she solves a mystery about her sister’s murder (get in touch if you want to represent this one!). But that was kinda dark and kinda not me. Plus, someone warned me that if I “went out” with that type of book, I’d always have to write that type of book, and I didn’t want to. So I quit writing like that.

Next, I wrote about Europe because I lived there for two years, ostensibly working on my Ph.D., but mostly traveling and seeing art. (And men, yeah, I was seeing a lot of men at the time.) I wrote two novels about three sisters who travel together and apart, one experienced traveler and two not-so-much (not like me and my two sisters, at all!). I thought these novels were hilarious (not to mention well-plotted and brilliant!), but they didn’t find an agent either. Believe it or not, I wrote about these here mountains again after that, a rather lovely tale about a lake I had the joy to grow up on.

So, yeah, it felt like I’d tried just about everything by then. But I wasn’t going to give up–I’m still not. I’m part of a writers group that meets every month, so I had to write something to send them. That kept me motivated to find my next novel idea. I’d been volunteering at a local art center as an installations assistant, and that experience made me want to set a novel in a museum. I found a painting that inspired me–Ruben’s “Samson and Delilah,” and I wrote a novel based on it–the modern-day plot following that of the Bible story, but with a better ending for the Delilah character. The plot involved all my favorite stuff—art and museums and travel to Europe. But, yeah, you guessed, no agent seemed to want it.

Still, I’d found my calling–writing about art and myth and women in ways that is empowering.

Then I wrote a novel based on the Persephone myth, the art of which was inspired by Bernini and his masterful marble sculptures. That novel was based in Atlanta and Rome–which I’d never visited. So, I applied to take a Master Class with Elizabeth George through Hedgebrook in Tuscany, figuring I could visit Rome on my way to the class. And that’s EXACTLY how it worked.

My research around Rome–taking place after I’d drafted the novel–revealed many mistakes. One being, there’s a scene in my novel in which a woman nearly steps off the curb of a sidewalk into an oncoming car. But, lo and behold, there wasn’t a curb on the street outside of the hotel where I’d set the thing. Hmmmm. So, yeah, Elizabeth is write–you should really research your locations before writing your novel!

That being said, my time at Ca’di Pesa in Tuscany was absolutely inspiring, and it led me to my next novel, the one I’m currently hard at work on. This novel is based on the myth of Arachne, and it features five women called to a house in the south of France to compete for a job directing a new art foundation. The work of art at the center of the thing is drawn from Louise Bourgeois, whom I completely and totally adore, one of her massive spiders. (If you don’t know here work, stop right here and look her up. Your life may never be the same.)

So, that’s where I am in this novel-writing thing. And you now know what I stand around doing all day (I add this because I think a lot of people think I don’t really do anything all day long while at my desk). I’ll keep you posted on this novel’s success (cross them fingers), which I’ll be querying about at the Atlanta Writers Conference in May. If you’ll be there too, please touch base. It’s always more fun when you see a friendly face.

Until then, write on!

at desk in studio

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