Friday, April 30, 2010

Stalking Bret Lott

I was a middle school teacher in the spring of 1999 the first time I heard Bret Lott's name. It was the end of a day near the end of my third year of teaching and I was going to be married in the summer. I was driving home, headed down highway 18 in Lenoir, North Carolina, crawling through a string of stoplights. A few furniture factory plants, a Little Caesars. An outdoor sunglasses vendor.

Go beyond the call, the radio announcer said. It was a Christian station and this was his bit. His job was to spotlight a believer impacting his community with an outreach of some magnitude or to call attention to a Christian making news in the secular world. He particularly liked to mention Christian sightings in the entertainment industry. Billy Baldwin holding Bible studies in his trailer. An eighties sitcom star who now played a Christian superhero. Kirk Cameron. One of the nurses on ER. And today, Bret Lott, an outspoken believer who wrote literary fiction and whose novel Jewel had just been selected for Oprah's book club. In his memoir Before We Get Started, Lott later referred to Oprah as the Force. Of course, this was going to change everything for him, his book, his career.

And for me: I'm not sure I'd even heard the term literary as a genre used before. I knew I liked John Irving. Margaret Atwood. I knew I didn't like Christian fiction as a genre. I'd been frustrated with how cut-and-dried what I'd read of it made the Christian life and its struggles seem. I knew, even back then--me, young and teacherly, living in a tiny apartment on top of a graveled hill, in my last days of laundromats and Lean Cuisine dinners--that life of any philosophical stripe is gloriously complicated.

I read Jewel on my honeymoon and enrolled in a creative writing class the following spring. By the fall of 2001, I'd quit my job and was checking out MFA programs. My friend Sheryl Monks likens the call to write to Joseph Campbell's notion of the hero's journey: a mentor steps up, wiggles a finger. Come. I've yet to meet Bret Lott in person, but I've accepted his invitation all the same. I've pursued him the way every aspiring writer should seek the creator of work that inspires us: I've read his books. He taught me voice and how the lyric quality of really good prose can elevate and crystallize any scene, no matter how domestic, how ordinary at first glance. A woman rises from bed on a morning in 1943 and knows she's not of the "rightful age" to bear children and already, I know this woman. Already, I'm in her world and I'm worried for her and inspired by her, and at the same moment, I'm the writer, reading to learn. It's Bret Lott, wiggling his finger. Come, he says.

I was finishing up my MFA when he became the editor of The Southern Review, and for the next couple of years, I submitted regularly. I got my first "ink" from TSR: a scrawled few words on the bottom of the rejection slip: much to admire. A few submissions later, and I had it, not an acceptance, but a hand-written rejection from the man himself: Dear Ms. Woodring--The writing in this is wonderful, but I grew impatient with the disparate pieces the story tried to juggle--Keep us in mind! He signed it; here was proof that finally, finally, I'd made contact. He had read my work.

I kept going. Years later, after the publication of my first novel and my story collection, I submitted a story to a literary magazine contest he was judging. It was a story I'd actually written years ago, when I was full-swing in my Bret Lott phase, when the rhythm of his prose beat through my thoughts constantly. I revised it a bit, and was beyond thrilled to learn a few months later that Lott had selected my story as the winning entry. He wrote of my story, "it is a quiet cameo, a beautifully rendered portrait..."

This happened in 2009, ten years after that spring afternoon when the sunlight filled my car and the radio guy implored me to go beyond the call.

So, what about you? Who is your writing mentor? Have you met him or her? Tell me how his/her work has played a part in calling you to this writer's journey. Any good stalking stories?

(November, 2011: update.)


sherylmonks said...

This is such an inspiring post, Susan. So glad you have gone beyond the call, been brave enough to answer and obey God's annointing on your life. Have a big beautiful time in New York. It's all just beginning!

Susannah said...

Intriguing post, Susan! Thanks for sharing your 'journey' here. Admittedly, I don't/haven't read Brett Lott. (Perhaps I should, no?)

Distilling my answer to 2 'mentors,' they'd be Peggy Noonan and Beth Moore . Peggy for her deceptively 'easy' style that holds such beautiful insight/wisdom, & Beth for the way my spirit responds to her 'teaching.' Wow.

The question you've raised is worth more contemplation for me, though...

Btw, I get frustrated w/ the 'Christian fiction' genre, for the same reasons as you. Grace is so simple, but our lives are not so tidy. Ah well. Maybe I'm off to find some Brett Lott...

Kathy Waller said...

Your story *is* inspiring. Taking that step must have taken faith. Buried in the sixth paragraph is the sentence, "I kept going." A key? The initial change is dramatic, but the quiet "keep going" is necessary.

I've read Bret Lott's "Before We Get Started" and "A Song I Knew by Heart." From the former, I (seem to) remember his account of sending in early submissions under an impressive name--something like "H. Bretley Lott--and then scaling back to plain, simple Bret, and plain, simple language and stories. That's when I switched from "Mary Katherine" to just plain "Kathy."

I was struggling to find my voice when I turned the car radio to "Selected Shorts" and heard Judith Ivey read Lynna Williams's "Personal Testimony," a story whose narrator, a Baptist preacher's eleven-year-old daughter, discovers a talent for writing personal testimonies for the older kids at an Oklahoma church camp (and makes a killing at it). In between guffaws, it hit me--there was my voice--the same one I *think* in.

The writer I stalk is Clyde Edgerton. Reading his books is like reading, and hearing, my childhood. He makes me cry with one sentence and laugh with the next. If I had my way, I'd be doing what he does, except with a Texas setting.

I agree about Christian fiction. It seems that anything with that label is simplistic or, worse, preachy. It's those "glorious complications" that create philosophies and true literature.

[PS I just received a copy of The Traveling Disease. I'm 26 pages into it and this comment may be the last thing I write until I've finished reading.]

jessica handler said...

I'm so glad I read your blog. It pushes me in the right ways. My writing mentors? So many from Queens... Oh, and Pat Conroy was an OUTSTANDING writing teacher, in my senior (I think, maybe junior) year of high school!

Jessie Carty said...

Another fantastic post Susan! I have a hard time remembering exactly when the call to write came to me. I was one of those kids who liked to write little stories and poems even in grade school. I was inspired by my high school creative writing teacher and later by the first of two poets I worked with as an undergrad, Christine Garren but I gave up on writing for a while in my 20's so what brought me back?

I actually think it was being depressed with my job and reading and working through the exercises in "Finding Your North Star" by Martha Beck. It helped me realize that writing/telling stories was something fundamental to who I was and yet I had just pushed it aside.

This feeling was solidified after a trip to Japan where I saw monuments to Basho and thought, I want to try haiku. I came back and started writing haiku in the spring of 2006, had a few published and started revising and writing free verse again while applying for an MFA program in the fall.

Oh look at me babble but you got me thinking and reminiscing!

I also love Bret Lott's writing memoir as well as anything by Clyde Edgerton and Pat Conroy. Great choices here!

Susan Woodring said...

Sheryl, thank you! I just got home. I got to meet my editor at St. Martin's while I was there. She's really terrific--even warmer and funnier in person than on the phone. I can't tell you how amazing it was to sit across the table from her and listen to talk about my book. So thrilled to be working with her. And, I got to see my agent, who is wonderful. He's been reading bits and pieces of this blog and he thought what I wrote about beginning that hideous search--looking for an agent--was pretty funny.
We (mom and I) did Chinatown and WICKED and Greenwich Village shopping and the FAO Schwartz piano from BIG.
Can't wait to return...

Susan Woodring said...

Susannah, I just found your blog! I'll definitely be stopping by!
I LOVE Beth Moore. She is such an incredible speaker, and her Bible studies are amazing. That woman is the real deal.
You should definitely pick up something by Bret Lott. I'd recommend Songs I Knew by Heart or Jewel and you really MUST read his writing memoir.

Susan Woodring said...

Kathy, I loved hearing about your writing moment, the genesis of this crazy pursuit. I think that's exactly what I admired so much about Lott's work--the voice. That's still what I'm most interested in when I read, and it's hugely important to me as a writer. I can't begin a story until I hear its voice. It's just crucial.

I've only read one Clyde Edgerton: Walk Across Egypt. I love any writer who accomplishes humor and poignant simultaneously.

Susan Woodring said...

Jessica, I agree: so many from Queens!

I'm so glad you're enjoying the blog. You're saying so pushes ME in the right ways...

Susan Woodring said...

Jessie, I think there are often a number of little starts that spark the fire. It is amazing to look back on the journey, isn't it? I am definitely going to check out the Martha Beck book you mentioned. So happy you found your way to Basho and poetry!!

Susan Woodring said...

I need to add this: I sent an email to Bret Lott and got back the most beautiful response from him, so gracious and encouraging.

Susannah said...

How generous of Mr. Lott to write to you! This reminded me of an experience I recently had w/ Beth Moore (yes, she is absolutely the 'real deal'). Regarding that exchange & relative to 'mentors,' I posted this piece today. I included a link to your blog also (hope that's alright).

And yes, I have a 'hold' on a few of Mr. Lott's books @ the library, as well as a copy of The Traveling Disease coming via Amazon. ;)

emilberry said...


I just bought this novel at McKay's Used books. It's sitting idle on my dresser. I had noticed the "Oprah Book Club Stamp." I too have wondered how that seals an author's fate. I am truly inspired and thrilled to begin this novel next. You have great taste in books! I am really going to miss our class.


Susan Woodring said...

I am, too, Emily. It seems we never have quite enough time. I'm toying with the idea of doing a semester-long workshop of some kind. Still thinking...

I hope you enjoy Jewel. The thing to do, I think, is to read widely, then, once you find a book you really like, read absolutely everything you can find by that writer. You have to completely trust your instinct, though, for this to work. Love who you love.

Adam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam said...

I'm so glad I found this blog! Keep inspiring us who wrangle in the world of words.


Susan Woodring said...

Adam, Thank you so much--I'm so glad you found your way here and that my ramblings are useful to you. Always great to meet a fellow word-wrangler. :)

Christy Tennant said...

I love this, Susan. I'm researching Bret because I'm interviewing him tomorrow for my podcast, IAM Conversations. I don't know if you'll read this comment before I speak with Bret, but if there's anything you'd like to know, please feel free to send me your questions for him! I'm at christy (at) Thanks for this inspiring post!

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