Thanks, Bill.




Though I was born and raised in Mississippi, my mother and grandparents were from the north, from Pennsylvania, and were transplants to the south. I grew up feeling like a transplant too. I didn’t have the drawl, I wasn’t raised on field peas and cornbread, and there was no bible thumping in our family to speak of. More than once, kids would say to me, “You talk funny”, my early introduction to irony. I felt like the proverbial stranger in a strange land a lot of the time, and sometimes still do.

I went to college at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. On Saturday evenings I’d drive home to my grandparents’ house in Clinton, a couple of hours away. It was great in the spring and on toward summer. Tooling down highway 49 in my little 1970, very used blue VW Beetle, channel hopping as radio stations faded in and out over the miles. I loved the ridges on the radio knob, the way they felt under my fingers as I cranked up and down the dial searching for a signal. One evening I was down on the left end of the dial and stumbled across a bluegrass song.

I almost switched the station automatically. My mother worked in sales at a country station, WJQS-AM, when I was a kid and was a country music fan. That naturally meant that country was insufferably uncool. I was a staunch rock and roll girl. Sure, my grandparents instilled a love of old jazz and big band and swing, but country? No thank you. Heck no. Ugh. Ew. Ick. Blech.

But this wasn’t exactly country. I kept listening. It was kind of like country, though. It stopped me. It felt almost subversive to listen, like I was discovering something about myself I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. It was embarrassing—and fascinating. I couldn’t decide how I felt about it. But I kept listening.

Then the song was over and the announcer was there, talking about the songs he played and the artists coming up. Watson, Lawson, Monroe, Clemens, Stanley, Hartford, Blake, Skaggs, Krauss, Grisman, Harris, O’Connor—I didn’t recognize a single name. I got the sense there was a huge body of music that I was totally unaware of, a solid rock wall of new songs and artists to chip away at and become familiar with if I wanted. The announcer, too, was a new voice. Bill Ellison. He was the antithesis of the usual slick DJ patter. He sounded like he was sitting on a porch, a yard dog dozing at his feet. So warm, friendly, casual, like a friend who happened to be on the radio. Half a dozen words and I was drawn in by the lilting rasp of his voice. He sounded like a real person. “You’re listening to Grassroots on Mississippi Public Broadcasting” he said, I felt like I had just found something big. I kept listening.

The music, too, sounded like it was made by real people, so plain and beautifully simple, yet so precise. It was like listening to living history. Some songs ran like a freight train at breakneck speed, rattling on the rails, threatening to throw a rod yet sticking the landing every time. Other songs were, as they say, high and lonesome (what a gorgeous phrase), aching with longing and regret. Some raised up praise to Jesus, but in such a sweet, simple, humble way that it felt truer than the ploddingly formal Anglian hymns we sang on our occasional churchgoings. This bluegrass was strange, beautiful, moving music, filled with pine trees and muslin cloth, iron and dirt, faith and love and loneliness and loss. Spare music with a shining, stripped down sound. Not much vibrato, just clean, clear tones, authentic and earnest but with a sly sense of humor now and again. And it was so personal, so intimate. I felt like I could hear the singer and the song, the picker and fiddler and mandolin player all standing together, gathered around a microphone big as a hubcap, leather shoes tapping the floorboards in mad time.

And the harmonies, lord, the harmonies. Tight as a pair of starlings in flight, so subtle and entwined I almost couldn’t pick it out. But when I found my alto part and settled into it, what joy and satisfaction! Singing along with the windows down at the magic hour, hair in my face, sun keeping time through the trees, fields unfurling on either side with lush velvet winter rye, a rich riot of greens in the raking light of evening. I learned the particular way each note, each word, sits on your tongue like a sheltered dove before taking flight over a swell of guitar and banjo. I learned how to tense my jaw, biting into the words like a crisp apple, and how to let it flow loose and warm like sunlight through honey. I could sing long and loud, there in my VW Bug—not well, and not for show but for the sheer pleasure of it. It helped me understand the music and feel the stories behind it. For maybe the first time in my misfit life, it made me consciously, deeply grateful to be in—and from—Mississippi.

I still felt like an outsider but it didn’t matter. The bluegrass songs on that radio show just spoke to me. I may not come from twelve generations of Mississippians, but I connected with that music as if I had. It was the first time I consciously felt that maybe I was part of Mississippi after all. This was music I had discovered and fallen in love with on my own. No one told me to. I found it alone, and alone it became mine.

I spent a lot of time listening to Grassroots during that time in my life. Now, many years later and after decades away, I’m back in Mississippi. And in that funny way that life sometimes goes, that selfsame Bill Ellison and his wonderful wife Lynn are now our neighbors. The first time I got to talk to him on the street I tried to explain how much Grassroots meant to me, how it came out of nowhere onto my radio dial, helped me find my feet and opened up a new world of musical bliss that I still hold close today. But I’m pretty sure it just came out as squeaks and stammers and hand gestures, because I was trying to fit the story of my life onto a gum wrapper and failing. But I did manage to send him the link to my post about WZZQ, where he worked. He read it and said maybe I should do some more writing, and I knew in that moment what I wanted to write about.

So today, on Bill Ellison’s birthday, I’m the one getting the gift—the chance to try again to tell him what his show means to me. And I’m just one person. Countless people around the state over the years feel just as strongly about Bill and about Grassroots as I do, and they know a whole lot more of the music than I ever will. But I’m glad to let him know one girl’s story, anyway. Doing a radio show can be a lonely, isolating business. You sit in a room by yourself and try to figure out what to play and what to say. You don’t ever really know if anyone’s listening, even when you’re looking at the Arbitron numbers. Bill Ellison’s commitment to Grassroots is a true labor of love. It is a gift, keeping the flame of roots music alive in Mississippi, where it needs to stay vibrant more than anywhere else, because this is the place where it all began.

He doesn’t just spin the records. He and Temperance Babcock play it live around the state on a regular basis and they’re mighty good at it. I’m listening to Grassroots on MPB as I write this tonight, and it’s as sweet and high and lonesome as it ever was, and Bill is in fine voice. And it moves me just as much. My sweet grandparents are long gone now, but when I listen to Grassroots on a Saturday evening, it feels like I’m back there in my VW Bug, flying over the bumps, singing along with Alison Krauss, on my way to their house, my home, where joy and love and home cooking await. So happy birthday, Bill Ellison, Thank you for that memory, and for what you do for the music lovers of Mississippi. We are so lucky to have you.

Thanks, Nan.




Since I’ve been back in Mississippi I’ve been thinking about the past a little more than I used to, and in a different light. Having kids has also changed my perspective, too. My mother and I aren’t close, but as I get older I realize more and more the ways she has shaped my life for the better. I modeled myself after her in ways I wasn’t even aware of until recently. In many ways, she’s been a great role model.

She made me strong and independent, both by circumstance and by example. I didn’t have a perfect upbringing, but it made me strong. That strength helped me hew out a life of my own, and still helps me every day. She was strong and self determined, so I grew up the same way. That was a gift. I could not have accomplished what I have without that strength, and it came from her.

She gave me a strong work ethic. She has worked as long as I’ve known her. She was never a stay-at-home mom. That was normal to me and I never had a problem with it. I watched her pour herself into her work (radio sales back then), and I knew she was really good at it. It never occurred to me that I might not be able to succeed because I was female, because I watched her do it every day. I don’t mind hard work and my career is built on it. She taught me that, again by example.

She gave me freedom to screw up. And I did screw up, a lot. But I also learned, and managed to make some good choices along the way, ones that have brought me to where I am today. She didn’t micromanage my life. I’m good (but not perfect) at running my own life because I’ve been doing it since I was a teenager.

She had my back. When she felt I needed it, she’d go to bat for me. I didn’t always like my home then, but it was always there for me. Even now, if I were stranded in Albuquerque and needed bus fare back, I think I could call her collect at 3am and she’d wire it to me. She has also helped others in need over the years, which is an honorable thing.

She didn’t allow me to pick up a drawl. She was as responsible for that as Nanna and Pop-Pop. That small detail shaped my entire life.

She gave me a career path without even knowing it. Maybe it’s genetic, who knows? She worked at WJQS 1400-AM Country Gold when I was very young, and it fascinated me. I still have a soft spot for local radio, especially from back then. Growing up, it was the coolest thing in the world to go see her work radio remotes and hear her on-air. Even at home, I’d listen to JQS on the big console radio tuner/turntable in the living room, sitting through country songs to hear the spot breaks. And when I was really young, maybe seven years old or so, she brought me in to the station to cut a radio spot for Harrison’s Ringworm Lotion. Growing up around radio, it was natural that I would eventually get sucked into it myself, and I did.

She gave me the best writing advice I ever received. When I was in elementary school, I had to write a book report and I was stumped about how to do it. She told me, “just tell about what you read”, and left me alone to do it. So simple, yet so profound. That’s exactly what I did and it worked. Even now, when I’m overwhelmed by a writing project, I tell myself those words and it helps every time.

She is a good cook. I remember homemade lasagna and pork chop casserole and crab casserole in particular. They were delicious, and I enjoyed being in the house when she was cooking. She was a card-carrying member of the Cheese-of-the-Month Club, a foodie before there was such a term, so I learned to be one, too. She didn’t mind if I cooked, so I taught myself how to bake fairly young. I taught Joey to bake, too, and now he can make an apple pie from scratch that is easily better than any I have made.

She had Silvia. She’s wonderful, a gift, and I’m so glad she’s my sister.

I wanted to acknowledge and recognize some of the positive ways she has influenced my life. I thank her for that.



Thank you, friends of my kids.


Weekends around here have changed a lot in the past year or so. The kids are both teenagers now, and their social calendars are full. Most weekends contain at least one sleepover. Tonight Emmy’s sleeping at her friend’s house and one of Joey’s friends is spending the night here. He brought his PS4 and I whipped up nachos and miniature chocolate chip skillet cookies for everyone and Joey’s having a blast. It’s a cheerful cacophony of gaming, verbal sparring and laughter, and it makes me happy.

When we decided to move back here, I worried the kids might have a hard time finding friends. My own memories here were mostly of feeling out of place, like I didn’t belong, like there had been some mixup and I was just here until we returned to live in the Hamptons or the Rockies.

In the beginning it was rough for the kids. They felt out of place because they really were out of place. They were just desperately wanting to get back to their life and their friends in Utah. It has been so tough to watch them go through that.

But now, two years on, they each seem to have found their tribe. Emmy has a small, close group of girlfriends who are smart, funny, creative and gloriously nerdy. She seems completely at ease and completely herself with them. Joey has a somewhat larger group of high school friends, all good, bright kids who seem to be there for each other. Friends are arguably as influential on teens as parents are, if not more so. It looks as if their circle of friends will be a positive influence on them. For that I am thankful. Once again, my kids are getting it right more than I ever did.



The 39 Steps: a primer on story writing by Frederick Barthelme

Frederick Barthelme

Frederick Barthelme

Author and writing teacher Frederick Barthelme used to hand out at the beginning of his workshops. This is great advice. Be sure not to follow it to the letter.

  1. Step one in the great enterprise of a new and preferable you in the house of fiction is: Mean less. That is, don’t mean so much. Make up a story, screw around with it, paste junk on it, needle the characters, make them say queer stuff, go bad places, insert new people at inopportune moments, do some drive-bys. Make it up, please.
  2. Don’t let it make too much sense.
  3. Do use stuff that you care about when you’re making it up. If you’re mad at your mother, husband, boyfriend, wife, lover, neighbor, dog, take it out on a mother, husband, etc. and put it in the mouth of one of your characters. If you’re full of love for the sea, say something nice about the bath.
  4. Leaven the piece with some merchandise (figurative) you don’t particularly care about but that seems to you odd, intriguing, curious, baffling, quirky. Attach this material to your characters.
  5. Do not use the above to rationalize disconnected, ersatz, or unrelated oddball debris. “I’d like to talk to you but there’s a giant in my room” isn’t the answer to any narrative question.
  6. Long plot explanations aren’t going to get it. Like, when something neat (horrible?) happened to one of the characters a real long time ago, and you really really want to tell us about it, you know? Don’t.
  7. It doesn’t particularly matter which characters these things you care about (see #3) get attached to (these are things like pieces of dialogue, bits of description, some gesture, a look somebody gives somebody, a setting, tabletops). In fact, you’re probably better off if the stuff attaches itself in unexpected ways to wrong characters (so you don’t go meaning too much, see #1).
  8. Remember: Many things have happened which, to the untrained eye, appear interesting.
  9. Grace Slick.
  10. At every turn, ask yourself if you’re being gullible, dopey, pretentious, cloying, adolescent, Neanderthal, routine, dull, smarty-pants, clever, arty, etc. You don’t want to be being these things.
  11. Be sure there’s a plot for the reader to grasp; while not necessarily the center of the story, it’s key to lulling the reader into that comfort zone where he’s vulnerable.
  12. We can’t care about sand mutants; if you do, or think you do, kill yourself.
  13. Coherence is a big part of the game. Make sure the story is coherent, that the scenes flow each from the last, that the reader has the clearest sense at all times of what is going on. Err on the side of clumsiness to start with; back away later.
  14. For dramatic purposes you’re probably well-served sticking close to an objective narrative (1st person unvoiced, or 3rd person objective-in either case, the camera view). This forces you to write scenes in which characters do and say things to/with/for each other; these things will then construct the story for you. This expedient blocks the “telling” problem.
  15. Organize the story’s structure around the simplest available strategy. For example, if there’s no obliging reason that the story be told in flashbacks, don’t use flashbacks. Don’t use flashbacks simply because you get to a certain point and then think of something that requires telling in flashback if it is to be told at that point. Instead, return to the front of the story and add the material in its appropriate spot.
  16. Plain chronological storytelling is a good idea. Rules on deviations:
    (a) avoid disruptions in time as much as possible;
    (b) flashbacks (and similar) are ten times more confusing to the reader than they seem to you (keep in mind for use in strategically confusing parts);
    (c) flashbacks, dream sequences, drug-induced beatific appreciations, Mongol hordes, etc. are not good excuses for lumbering attempts at the high rhetorical bar;
    (d) deviations from a norm tend to draw attention away from the story, away from the characters, away from the emotional/spiritual center of things;
    (e) sometimes you may want to do this.
    16(a) In the redundancy department: Give us as much of the ground situation as you can as soon as possible. The first paragraph is not too soon. The first page is not too soon. Tell us who, what, when, where, etc.
  17. Do not do this “artfully.”
  18. Remember that you want something to change over the course of the story. Something big and visible to the reader. Start with one situation and end with a clearly different situation. In between tell us how you got from the one to the other. Don’t be subtle designing this change-for purposes of nailing dramatic structure be as reductive as humanly possible.
  19. Remember this simplified structure is not the story, but the hanger on which the story hangs. The story is shirts and jackets, ribbons, the perfumes of the closet, details, bits of persuasion, rubber gunk underfoot, attitudes, hints, suggestions-everything you can attach to this hanger.
  20. Obviously, these carefully hewn 39 steps must be adapted to your way of working. If you’re murky, then take these as bible and pare away. If you work bare bones, then murk up what you do. Throw stuff in. Make a mess. Don’t clean up.
  21. If you write a sentence that isn’t poignant, touching, funny, intriguing, inviting, etc., take it out before you finish the work. Don’t just leave it there. Don’t let anyone see it.
  22. To repeat, there is no place for rubbish & slop in the highly modern world of today’s fiction. Every sentence must pay, must somehow thrill. Every one.
  23. Also: Obscurity is not subtlety; intentional obscurity is pinheaded and unkind.
  24. Doing odd stuff is good, especially like when you make characters do it in the story, like when stuff i s happening to them and they just do this unexpected, even inappropriate stuff, and then somehow it makes a little sense. This fills the heart.
  25. Don’t let too many paragraphs go by without sensory information, something that can be felt, smelt, touched, tasted. Two or three paragraphs is too many.
  26. Don’t be enamored of the idea you start with, or the idea that comes to you after you’ve been working on a piece for a time. If you’re lucky the idea will keep changing as you write the story.
  27. Don’t reject interesting stuff (things for characters to say and do, things to see, places to be, etc.) because the stuff doesn’t conform to your idea. Change your idea to wrap it around the stuff.
  28. If you have a story in mind to start with, leave it there. Ditto a “character.”
  29. Apropos the big issues, note that parents don’t sit around getting heartbroken about abortion, they get heartbroken because they killed the baby.
  30. Or, because the baby was born with fins for hands. It’s the particular.
  31. Sometimes it’s useful to shut your eyes and imagine a scene as if it were in a movie; this helps flatten things and helps you “see” what the scene looks like.
  32. Also, when doing the above, notice the things you notice in your own “real” life-like what’s at the horizon, how the sun is in the sky, what kind of light’s going on, the way the street, ground, grass, dirt looks, your interest in bushes, what’s happening at the edges of things-buildings and signs and cars, the sounds of stuff going on around the scene-who’s that wheezing? what’s that rattle? are those leaves preparing to rustle? Etc.
  33. No characters named Brooke or Amber.
  34. Study steps 1,7,13,16a, and 24