A Christmas Letter to Lee Smith re: My Favorite Christmas Book Which She Happened to Write

~ AN HOMAGE ~

December 8, 2011

To Ms. Lee Smith,

First may I say Merry Christmas to You and Yours. Second may I apologize, for this letter has been a long time coming, too long some would say.

You see I have been reading your books for many years and feel like we are close although I have only met you in person on two occasions. To hear Mama tell it we are practically kin, on account of our families were in the same business all those years ago, there in those beautiful Southwest Virginia mountains. And then you attended Hollins College, as Mama did, but I did not, a decision about which I was sure back then although now I think perhaps I was mistaken. You were from Grundy, I believe; I was a Wise girl.

(I especially like it that you choose to have “our” Piggly Wiggly show up in most all your books, a recurrence about which I am most pleased.)

There are many things about which I would like to write and tell you (like the fact that the first book I ever loved was The Last Day The Dogbushes Bloomed, which I read ON MY OWN when I was a girl who worked at the Wise Library one summer and I didn’t even know it was you who wrote it) but I will save all that for another letter. For now I will leave it at this: I am writing to tell you that I am re-reading your book, The Christmas Letters, because it is a very good Christmas story that is not at all sappy and if it is, it is sappy in a good way.

I have read it before and as a general rule do not re-read books because there are so many goods books in the world who could have the time? And so I tried to find another Christmas book, it being December. But every one reads like a Lifetime Television for Women movie, in which there is always a single girl and a lonely boy, and a well-meaning (quirky) friend, and a school Christmas play. Sometimes there is also a choir, which can be a children’s choir, or a choir of men who are down-and-out but who have really good voices, come to find out.

Anyway, what I want to do is this: Sit by my fireplace with a cup of hot tea and the quiet of the snow outside (I must confess that is not likely as I live in South Carolina now) and to read something with a genuine heart during this season of Christmas when my own heart is longing for it. And I think your story of Birdie Picket, and Mary, and Melanie, and them being women connected by experience, as well as family, and how you tied it all together with those recipes (mostly old-timey), is just exactly perfect.

With wishes for a very good holiday there in North Carolina (or wherever you might be now, and I hope it is somewhere writing a book like On Agate Hill which is my very favorite, except for Oral History. Or maybe Fair and Tender Ladies, it is so hard to decide),

Catherine Carter Rigg Monetti
daughter of Eliza Rose Sutton Rigg
of the Kennedy’s Piggly Wiggly stores in Wise, Virginia

ps: I have decided to make Mary Pickett’s Award Winning Carrot Cake for dessert on Christmas Day. I think my Eliza (the one who is my daughter, not my mother) will really like the cream cheese frosting, with all that “confectionary” sugar, as she calls it.

pss: Now that I think of it, my mother Eliza would like it too, except for the carrots.

proof we are connected

 

This post first appeared on The Daily Grace in December of 2011. Since that time I have had the great honor of studying with Lee Smith at the Key West Literary Seminar Writers’ Workshop. Life is so good!

Day 26: On Dreams. And Courage.

It surprises me, I have to say, how aware of it I feel sitting here by the pool in this most lovely courtyard in Key West. I am alone, you see, traveling alone, something that is not necessarily new to me. And still the solo nature of it all has heightened every sense I have. The wind, tropical but January-cool, carries the sound of the leaves all around that blow and wave and rub. Each is a different green, and the late morning sun shifts the colors moment to moment, the canopy above me a changing show of dance and light. The Hemingway cats, six-toed and fat, stretch and meow and saunter. And in a marvelous twist on all that is represented by this island’s hedonistic brand, in the distance I hear church bells ringing.

IMG_4148

Why is this? I wonder. What is it about spending (nearly) a week alone that turns up the volume?

I know, of course. I’m making good on a promise to live more courageously, to be more adventurous, to go more boldly. And while the story I repeat to myself is that it’s solo travel, the honest truth is I am here to realize a life-long dream of studying fiction writing with my favorite of favorite authors, Lee Smith at the renowned Key West Literary Seminar Writers’ Workshop.

(It took a shot of bourbon for me to apply for this coveted spot and another when I received word I was in.)

I take my first dive this afternoon. And for the next four days, I’ll push every writer comfort zone boundary I’ve developed–and more than one solo traveler fear. I’ll do so with this familiar mantra in my head:

You don’t serve the world by playing small.*

 

Live courageously. Be more adventurous. Go boldly.

Mantra, please serve me well!

 

*from one of my favorite writings/prayers/meditations by Marianne Williamson

30 Days of Joy

 

Lee Smith, Ron Rash and the Gift of the SC Book Festival

Long before I knew the bluebirds had fledged, I declared May 17th a day for the books, a sort of anno Domini event that would forever divide my life into the before and the after. I had just returned from a full day at the South Carolina Book Festival, you see, a day that so filled me with light and possibility I thought I might burst.

I want to tell you every detail I said to my husband the moment I reached him sitting there on the deck down by the pond. Even if it takes a long time, I don’t want to leave out a thing.

He smiled and sat back in the faded red Adirondack, happy to hear me out.

But let me go get the books I saidI want to show you while I tell you.

He smiled. I’ll get us a beer he said.

 

This is what Tim knows that you may not: I will go anywhere, anytime to hear my favorite author, Lee Smith. She wrote the book that, when I was 14 years old, ignited my intense passion for reading. I had a summer job at the Lonesome Pine Regional Library when I happened to pick up The Last Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed. I had always been a big reader (flashlight under the covers, etc.), but the first page of Dog Bushes poured over me in a way that made me know right then it was different from the others. It was to become my very first favorite book of all times.

How I love Lee Smith for that gift.

It’s not much of a stretch, then, to understand she also wrote the book that ignited my passion for writing. Fair and Tender Ladies is the kind of novel that brought it all home for me: the significance of place; a wild admiration for strong, persevering women; an overwhelming devotion to language that is filled with heart and honesty and grit. Every paragraph, in every Lee Smith story, stirs something in my soul that says Come on girl. We’re meant to do this.

It is terrifying, though, to face the vast expanse of the unwritten novel. It is overwhelming and burdensome, difficult to begin because it is impossible to see your way through. That’s because the process of writing is like moving half-blind through a black tunnel; while I have finally begun writing the thing, I’ve no idea where I am or the distance to the finish. I simply inch forward in the darkness, the characters revealing the story to me one tiny bit at a time. I watch, I listen, I write.

I could hardly believe my good fortune when I learned Lee Smith was to appear at the South Carolina Book Festival alongside the other Appalachian writer who has stolen my heart, Ron Rash. I had just read his remarkable Serena, a novel that grabbed me and pulled me under in such a good way I am still fretting over it, still carrying those characters with me two books later.

(Good God Ron Rash is a powerful storyteller.)

 

Ron and Lee
Moderator Janna McMahan, Ron Rash and Lee Smith, oh my

 

They did not disappoint.

Lee, on writing:

Every novel comes with its own demands.

There’s no story if there’s not some trouble.

I do a lot of pre-writing to understand the characters. It’s what happened in the past that formed their lives.

 

Ron, on writing:

You would think it would get easier, but it doesn’t.

It’s like being a mule. You just keep your head down and go up and down the rows. And you look for those moments of grace when it is easy.

The time flew by, the session finished, I made my way to the book signing line. I have met Lee several times and each time I play the card I am Posey’s daughter as she was an acquaintance of my mother’s. This time, I also desperately wanted to tell her I am working on my first novel. But in my head I heard that little voice that said: She hears that from every failed writer standing in every book signing line across the country. Don’t be just another drone.

I reached her and we chatted briefly, me remarking how much I enjoyed Guests On Earth, how thrilled I was she was there at the South Carolina Book Festival, Lee responding in such a gracious way you’d think we were old friends. Then like a 5-year-old with a kindergarten secret I blurted out I’M WORKING ON MY FIRST NOVEL AND IT TAKES PLACE IN SCOTT COUNTY.

The line hung there between us and I thought I might faint. Then she looked at me with kind and interested eyes, put down her pen and said How wonderful! Tell me all about it.

For the next four or five minutes she listened to me as if I were the first student in the first writing seminar she ever taught. She asked me questions; she answered my questions; she even made a note or two about some specifics in my story.

Then she signed my book and smiled, and as I walked away she said Write away, Cathy! Write away!

 

guests-on-earth

 

For the first time in my life I understood “on cloud nine.” I skipped around the exhibit hall, gravity-less, an insider, a writer among writers. I spent that day, and all the next, wildly taking notes as poets and novelists shared their stories and their lessons about the craft. Then I stood in line after line for inspiration and the author’s signature. I told each and every one: I am writing my first novel and without exception, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, these generous souls cheered me on with encouragement like: Remember the joy of the process and make time to write each day and I hope you’ll be here with me next year, signing your book.

And then I met the great Pat Conroy, who shook my hand and looked me in the eye and said: Shall I give you some writing advice?

Oh, yes.

 

Pat-Conroy
my heart beats fast just to see it

 

How grateful I am to this group of writers and to the organizers of the South Carolina Book Festival. It is a grand gift to all of us—but none more so than we who will take their advice and, just as they said, write on.

 

IMG_8038

jon

landfall

 

Home.

No kidding, this is the road to my hometown.

Isn’t that awesome?

It’s a journey I took last week, and while it was deeply emotional, it also filled my soul. I hope you will come along with me and, in the paraphrased words of the remarkable Lee Smith, rest your tired eyes against these strong, beautiful mountains.

looks like there might be a little storm ahead
a little scary. all i can do is keep driving.
dang. a little close.
sunnier skies ahead.

Day 29: Five Excellent Books, and a DIY Project

There are so many of us in my family, and that is a very good thing. We draw names at Christmas and that is also quite excellent—especially since my sweet sister-in-law, Lisa, ended up with me.

Here’s my Christmas Haul. (Thanks, Lisa.)

I don’t even have to open a book to feel joy. I just sit and look at the stack and smile.

As if that’s not enough, Lisa pulled together all the things I need to complete a project in Grace Bonney’s Design Sponge at Home and included them in a ziplock bag, as a part of the gift. How thoughtful—and how fun—is that? Like getting batteries included.

Here’s the video for that project in case you want to DIY.

BLEACH PATTERN TEA TOWELS

It is going to be a very Happy New Year, indeed.

30 Days of Joy

Day 23: How You React When Lee Smith Reads Your Post And Writes You Back

1. You stare at your computer screen in disbelief for 2.8 minutes, maybe longer.

2. You close the email.

3. You open it again, just to make sure it is really there.

4. You obsess over every sentence.

5. Especially the one that says: And you are quite a writer yourself.

6. You close the email.

7. You open it again, just to reread that one glorious sentence. (see #5, above) And, the part that says your letter has been the best part of my holiday.

8. You make yourself step away from the computer.

9. You wait four days.

10. You open the email again.

11. You smile all the way to your liver, thinking to yourself: Lee Smith read my post. And then she wrote me back.


 

Day 11: A Christmas Letter to Lee Smith re: My Favorite Christmas Book Which She Happened To Write

~ AN HOMAGE ~

December 8, 2011

To Ms. Lee Smith,

First may I say Merry Christmas to You and Yours. Second may I apologize, for this letter has been a long time coming, too long some would say.

You see I have been reading your books for many years and feel like we are close although I have only met you in person on two occasions. To hear Mama tell it we are practically kin, on account of our families were in the same business all those years ago, there in those beautiful Southwest Virginia mountains. And then you attended Hollins College, as Mama did, but I did not, a decision about which I was sure back then although now I think perhaps I was mistaken. You were from Grundy, I believe; I was a Wise girl.

(I especially like it that you choose to have “our” Piggly Wiggly show up in most all your books, a recurrence about which I am most pleased.)

There are many things about which I would like to write and tell you (like the fact that the first book I ever loved was The Last Day The Dogbushes Bloomed, which I read ON MY OWN when I was a girl who worked at the Wise Library one summer and I didn’t even know it was you who wrote it) but I will save all that for another letter. For now I will leave it at this: I am writing to tell you that I am re-reading your book, The Christmas Letters, because it is a very good Christmas story that is not at all sappy and if it is, it is sappy in a good way.

I have read it before and as a general rule do not re-read books because there are so many goods books in the world who could have the time? And so I tried to find another Christmas book, it being December. But every one reads like a Lifetime Television for Women movie, in which there is always a single girl and a lonely boy, and a well-meaning (quirky) friend, and a school Christmas play. Sometimes there is also a choir, which can be a children’s choir, or a choir of men who are down-and-out but who have really good voices, come to find out.

Anyway, what I want to do is this: Sit by my fireplace with a cup of hot tea and the quiet of the snow outside (I must confess that is not likely as I live in South Carolina now) and to read something with a genuine heart during this season of Christmas when my own heart is longing for it. And I think your story of Birdie Picket, and Mary, and Melanie, and them being women connected by experience, as well as family, and how you tied it all together with those recipes (mostly old-timey), is just exactly perfect.

With wishes for a very good holiday there in North Carolina (or wherever you might be now, and I hope it is somewhere writing a book like On Agate Hill which is my very favorite, except for Oral History. Or maybe Fair and Tender Ladies, it is so hard to decide),

Catherine Carter Rigg Monetti
daughter of Eliza Rose Sutton Rigg
of the Kennedy’s Piggly Wiggly stores in Wise, Virginia

ps: I have decided to make Mary Pickett’s Award Winning Carrot Cake for dessert on Christmas Day. I think my Eliza (the one who is my daughter, not my mother) will really like the cream cheese frosting, with all that “confectionary” sugar, as she calls it.

pss: Now that I think of it, my mother Eliza would like it too, except for the carrots.

proof we are connected

 

30 Days of Joy

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