The Story Behind the Stories: The cemetery setting in “Clovis Clementine” from God’s Naked Will

15 Feb

“…He sees his screams and their echoes bouncing off the trees and tombstones of the cemetery like steel marbles that bounce off in all directions after being dropped on a concrete floor.”Image

ImageImageThe slough flows just inside the woods beyond the tombstones, just like in “Clovis Clementine. “They actually performed baptisms at the slough in the story.ImageThe slough flows just beyond the woods. Again, this is just like Lamm’s Chapel Cemetery in the story of “Clovis Clementine.”


“…The small summit fell away to the east and south, and the markers of the graves dotted the easy slope of the hillside.” Image

The slough flowed around the south end of the cemetery before looping back north through these low-land woods.Image

The slough lies just beyond sight in the woods marking the boundary of the cemetery.Image

The Story Behind the Stories: The Cemetery Setting for Clovis Clementine

Many times when I create a setting it is based upon a place I have already visited. For instance, in the story “Stud fee” from the book God’s Naked Will the characters are on top of Mt. Nebo in the state park of the same name near Dardanelle, Arkansas. I had visited MT. Nebo in the past and watched as the daredevils jumped from the mountain top strapped into the hang-gliders. I was fascinated by this and determined to write a story about them.

     In the story “Clovis Clementine” I created a cemetery. I had an idea of what I wanted to describe, and I have even posted pictures on this blog in the past of the cemetery that inspired the location described in the story. Here is the description of the cemetery from “Clovis Clementine” as it appears in God’s Naked Will :

…Clovis diligently maintained the cemetery–mowing the grounds and trimming the grass around the trees and tombstones as needed. The Lamm’s Chapel Church and parsonage sat on the crest of the only hill in the bottoms. The small summit fell away to the east and south, and the markers of the graves dotted the easy slope of the hillside. There had been many floods and storms, and that always meant extra work for Clovis. The rising water always came from the bayou that flowed at the far northeastern end of the grounds where they held the baptism services, and no boundary existed there except the tree-line. Water flowed across the cemetery and back into the swamp, eventually dumping into the Blue Hole of the St. Frances River. The floods covered the lower half of the cemetery until the waters receded, flowing through the south end, leaving all types of tree limbs, old tires, and trash caught in the fence.

I have been searching for a cemetery where I could find water flowing within sight of the tombstones. This has been difficult to find because the fiasco described in the story has repeated itself so many times that cemeteries are now located on high ground. Of course, all high ground near flowing water is subject to being flooded. Yesterday while out driving a came upon the Hosea Cemetery up by Knobel, Arkansas, and I have never found a place that more perfectly fit my description of the cemetery in “Clovis Clementine.” I have included several of the pictures I took for this blog. At the south end, a slough ran east and west. It seemed to curve south a bit before looping around the southern end of the cemetery and flowing back to the north through the woods that marked the boundary of the cemetery. I took several pictures of the place, and the experience was magical, as I felt as if I had stepped into the world of one of my stories into a setting that I had created.
I believe it takes a sense of place like this for writers to create a setting so real that our own readers can experience that same feeling without being there. I realized standing there in that cemetery that the feelings I was experiencing were exactly the feelings my readers should have simply from the words. Then I became a bit discouraged. Was I in fact capable of creating such a vivid description of my settings that I could transport my readers away into the world I had created for them?
I knew I had a lot of work to do!


How true Creative Nonfiction? Detremining MY Definition of Truth for the Genre

14 Feb

Determining My Definition of Truth in Creative Nonfiction


The boundaries of creative nonfiction will always be as fluid as water.

                                                                                                —Mary Clearman Blew


            In an essay titled “Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction” that originally appeared in The Fourth Genre and has been reproduced in many other creative nonfiction texts and anthologies, Brett Lott states that “Any definition of the true worth to you as a writer will and must come to you experientially. What creative nonfiction is to you will reveal itself to you only at the back end of things, once you have written it.” This essay and phrase intrigued me. I am now nearly three years post-MFA and still lack a firm grasp on what creative nonfiction has revealed itself to be.

            There can be no discussion of creative nonfiction without a debate over the degree of truth to be observed, and this debate always focuses on the debacle surrounding the James Frey book. (I will not call it fiction or nonfiction.)

            Frey’s mistakes have not furthered the debate over the degree of truth necessary for creative nonfiction, but merely polarized the extreme positions and created an environment where all future memoirists will be required to tag and qualify all creative material.

            At one end of the extreme stands Lee Gutkind, the self-proclaimed Godfather of creative nonfiction. “The importance of providing accurate information cannot be overemphasized: names, dates, places, descriptions, quotations may not be created or altered for any reason.” (Gutkind 10)

            At the other end of the spectrum stands a host of others who allow a more liberal interpretation of the truth. B. Minh Nguyen and Porter Shreve state in the introduction to their textbook titled Contemporary Creative Nonfiction that “a work of personal creative nonfiction cannot guarantee accuracy, nor does it need to—but must still, at its core, be emotionally true.” (4)

            Leeway is given to an author who evokes the emotional truth of the experience he is describing in a manner that allows for a better understanding of the impact of the event.

            Operating at this end of the spectrum are a host of other writers, including Mimi Schwartz, who admits in her essay “Memoir? Fiction? Where’s the Line?” reprinted in Dinty Moore’s textbook The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, that she has used composite characters:

            …in a memoir about six months in my marriage, I made a few composite characters

of minor characters and wrote this disclaimer in my introduction:

The story is 90% factual; the rest is made up to protect those who didn’t ask to be

In this book…I had three friends who were thinking about divorce, so in the book

I made a composite character and we met for cappuccino. (290)

 The admission by Mimi Schwartz is clear. The character she met in her memoir was not real. The conversations she had in those scenes never occurred. Why, then, is this bending of the truth acceptable, but James Frey is metaphorically burnt in effigy for his creations?

Another example of a wonderful memoir is the National Book Award winner The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. In this book Didion never reveals what caused her daughter’s mysterious illness. For the sake of argument, I want to speculate about this cause. Would Didion’s memoir have been criticized if the daughter’s illness were caused by some personal fault or habit, for instance a heroin addiction? Would Didion have deserved criticism for omitting such a fact?

Perhaps the degree of truth is not as important as the reason for the factual distortion. In the Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate says:

The personal essayist must above all be a reliable narrator; we must trust his or her core of sincerity. The spectacle of baring the naked soul is meant to awaken the sympathy of the reader, who is apt to forgive the essayist’s self-absorption in return for the warmth of his or her candor. (Lopate)

               In a sense, the author of a piece of creative nonfiction assumes the role of a political speechmaker. If the person giving the speech loses credibility during the course of the speech, the listeners will begin to drift. If the voters cast a vote of confidence for the speaker and learn later they were lied to, they will be outraged. In the Old South, such politicians were tarred and feathered and rode out of town on a rail.

            In Tell it Slant, a textbook about writing creative nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, the authors note an interesting fact:

            …when a writer publishes a piece of fiction that contains highly autobiographical elements, no one flinches; in fact, such blurring of the boundaries is often presumed. But to admit fictional techniques into autobiographical work creates controversy and furious discussion. The nature of the essential pact with the reader—that sense of trust—demands this kind of scrutiny into the choices we make as nonfiction writers. (38)

A sense of trust is the most important element of creative nonfiction. When we bend the truth too far we violate this sense of trust. Brett Lott states in his essay mentioned earlier that “It appears that an accurate portrayal of the author is the key to the skewing or omission of facts.” In Diddion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, an omission of any possible causes of Quintana Roo’s illness in no way slants my view of the author. The story is about how the author dealt with the death of her husband during her daughter’s sickness. If the daughter had ever in fact been responsible in any way for her own sickness, Didion acted properly by not revealing this fact. The cause of the illness does not affect the emotional truth of the story–Didion’s loss of her husband while tending to her sick daughter.

The revelations made by Frey about his factual deviations prove that his indulgence with the standard of truth is a different matter. A note from Frey is included in the latest paperback edition of A Million Little Pieces. In this note, Frey states:

I embellished many details about my past experiences and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the greater purpose of the book…I made other alterations in my portrayal of myself, most of which portrayed me in ways that made me tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am…My mistake, and it is one I deeply regret, is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience. (VI)

James Frey created a version of himself that never existed. That was the James Frey he described in his memoir. His factual distortions were not to protect anyone else, but to portray himself as a tuff guy who overcame his addiction to drugs by fighting a twelve-step system that he actually embraced. This was his unpardonable sin.

With creative nonfiction, the author is saying, “This happened to me.” A literal interpretation of this caveat would make any improvisation or embellishment of fact unacceptable. But writers of this genre do alter facts when they can not remember them. Facts are also altered when authors do remember, but cannot disclose the factual truth in order to protect the privacy of persons involved.

In my own work, I have an essay titled “My Jericho March.” I created a composite scene representing many different issues from my childhood. In this scene, I help my sister bury a puppy, and we talk about the age of accountability. I express my rage over our religious indoctrination by going immediately inside the house and telling my mother I was not going to church with her anymore.

This scene represents a compression of characters, events and time. My sister never had a puppy named Elvis. But we had many puppies that we buried in the exact spot and in the exact manner described in the essay.

I had experienced many instances of rage and frustration over the systematic brainwashing of my siblings in the Pentecostal doctrine; I had heard all my life about that magical moment when I reached the “Age of Accountability” and would burn in hell if I died unsaved.

The framework of the essay—a classroom assignment with 5000 words—made it impossible for me to accurately develop these scenes. So I created the puppy Elvis to allow me to condense the type of relationship I shared with my younger siblings. This allowed me to show in one instance the frustration that had accumulated to the point where I was actually brave enough to tell my mother I would no longer go to church with her.

My description of the confrontation with my mother over attending church with her is factually accurate, but the timing is not. The day I confronted my mother, I had played softball all day long and was exhausted. When I walked in the door, I was told to get ready for church. I walked up to her and said I would not. Then she said that I had reached the age of accountability and God could no longer hold her responsible for my soul.

In reality, I stood waiting to be slapped, just as I had described in my composite scene. The slap never came. In my presentation of this turning point in my life, I believe I created a composite scene with a compression of time that allowed me to accurately depict the relationship between my mother and my family. The setting was real; the characters were real, and the climax of the scene occurred exactly as described. I made no attempt to make me look as more of a troubled teenager than I already was. If she had struck me, the scene might have had more impact, but that would change the entire nature of the moment. Her relinquishment of control over the one thing in my life she absolutely insisted I do—attend church—was a turning point in my life. The emotional truth of the scene lay in her surrender, not in her violence or in the death of a puppy. My apprentice work as a writer is simply a crude attempt to reveal this truth. In “My Jericho March” I omitted many of the worst battles I had with my mother.  But my mother is still alive and has a different view of our confrontations.

In the future a disclaimer may be required at the front of every book of creative nonfiction. This is regrettable. The ridiculous, orchestrated actions of all of the parties involved in the Frey debacle have set back the academic debate over this delicate issue and caused tremendous damage to the art as a whole. Many of the extremists who favor an absolute standard of truth claim vindication. Academics who espoused a relaxed standard on factual accuracy and an absolute standard regarding emotional truth are running for cover in light of the public response to Frey’s revelations. At the AWP panel on creative nonfiction—held in Austin in 2006—emotional truth was never discussed in depth. Frey’s actions dominated the panel discussion.

Oprah herself has been the subject of terrible criticism from such popular culture institutions as Saturday Night Live and the cartoon South Park. The reaction of Oprah to the Frey revelations is depicted in the most degrading manner. And she deserves the criticism—as does Frey.

Oprah’s reaction, if tempered and presented in the right manner, could have elevated the debate and exposed the true flaw of Frey’s mistake—that he lied in order to portray a different image of himself than truly existed. I would have loved to see Steinberg, Gutkind, Moore, and Schwartz debating this issue with Oprah—revealing that an absolute standard of factual truth is not necessary.

The emotional truth is revealed in that moment when the experience of the author becomes universal with the experience of the reader. This is what readers of creative nonfiction yearn for. They could care less if the shirt the narrator wore that day was green or blue.

For all the good she has done, Oprah missed the chance of a lifetime to have a significant impact on the direction and development of an emerging literary genre. The debate now has turned to criticism of the parties involved and strayed from the issue that should be confronted and debated by all. We should still be asking how this episode will affect the writing public in general and the individual writer in particular. Do I need to be concerned about my factual discrepancies when I submit my creative nonfiction for publication? Will publishers in the future—who are increasingly more aware of the bottom line—shrug off publishing creative nonfiction books when the facts cannot be proven by any standard of truth? Will publishers eventually require an investigative background check of all factual claims in creative nonfiction?

The tragic results of this may be a backlash against the genre itself. People read creative nonfiction because of the unique relationship they share with the author. In the future, the buying public may look at all works of creative nonfiction and question the truth contained within those pages. If my fear becomes a reality, page after page of disclaimers will not bring back the readers who feel they have been betrayed and as a result turn their backs on the genre. The tremendous boom in popularity of creative nonfiction could be over.

In a capitalist economy, the buying public eventually decides all issues.

But if the mistake that James Frey made can be clarified and an attempt made to continue to teach and police the proper standards of truth for creative nonfiction, then Frey could go down in history as having a positive effect on the genre.

A new standard of truth could emerge that emphasized the mistakes of the past where truth was sacrificed in order to satisfy the vanity of the author or to sell books. Examples of the tremendous literary talents of Terry Tempest Williams, Joan Didion and Scott Russell Sanders could be used to show how composite characters and compression of events can help clarify the emotional truth of the lives these authors write about—a truth that would otherwise read like the 9-11 report published by the federal government.

The factual truth of that report took hundreds of pages to print. The emotional truth can be seen everywhere.

 Works Cited

Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Knopf, 2005.

Frey, James. A Million Little Pieces. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Gutkind, Lee. The Art of Creative Nonfiction. New York: Wiley and Sons, 1997.

Lopate, Phillip. “Introduction.”  The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology

                          From The Classical Era to the Present. By Lopate, Ed. New York:

                          Anchor, 1995. Xxvi-xxvii.

Lott, Bret. “Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction.” The Fourth Genre. Ed.

                            Root, Robert L. and Michael Steinberg. 3rd Ed. New York:

                            Pearson Longman, 2005. 359-365.

Miller Brenda, and Suzanne Paola. Tell it Slant. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004.

Nguyen, Minh B. and Porter Shreve. Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I and

                            Eye. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.

Schwartz, Mimi. “Memoir? Fiction? Where’s the Line?” The Truth of the Matter:

                            Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Dinty Moore. New

                            York: Pearson Longman, 2006. 286-91.

CD Mitchell: Fighting the Good Fight

8 Feb

CD Mitchell: Fighting the Good Fight.

A review of “God’s Naked Will” and an interview by Leonard Gill of C.D. Mitchell (

The Story Behind the Stories: Goat and Dumplins

5 Feb

The Story Behind the Stories: Goat and Dumplins

As a teacher of creative writing, I have always encouraged my students to keep a journal. In fact I keep several different journals, one for each project I may be contemplating or working on. As I get older, I become more forgetful. When I have ideas, or notions as I sometimes call them, I have to write them down. John Dufresne had a series of blog posts titled “Today’s Short Story Waiting to be Written” and I made a series of entries with that title. I was so impressed with his series that I now require my creative writing students to make at least a weekly entry in their journals by that title.

But simply writing down your ideas still isn’t enough. One must go back through those old journal entries and browse for material or ideas on occasion. The story “Goat and Dumplins” came about as a result of these practices.

Living in northeast Arkansas has given me plenty of material to write about.  I come from a family of storytellers—perhaps that is why religion is a family business. But I remembered an event that happened when I was a kid, and Daddy happened to retell the story in such a way that I immediately went to my journal and wrote a description of what he revealed that day. Nearly five years later, I was camped out during the Fourth of July celebration of 2001 on the Spring River in the Arkansas Ozarks when I had some extra time and thought I’d write a new story. I immediately went to my journal and read through the whole thing.

Daddy had told the story about going out to the St. Francis River to buy goats for us kids. There is a picture on my website of my sisters and me in our barn riding the calves bareback. The two goats Daddy bought that day are also in the picture.–creative-nonfiction.html

I remember loading up with Daddy and driving out to the river to buy our goats. As you drove over the St. Francis River Bridge going east towards Kennett Missouri, you could see dozens of goats on the north side of the bridge. I don’t remember how we got there, but I do remember Daddy buying us a nanny and a kid.

But on this particular occasion Daddy got to telling about the man he bought the goats from. The guy was famous, perhaps notorious would be a better word, for leaving his house doors open so the goats could walk through the shotgun style structure to get to the back yard. He didn’t want them to have to walk too far because it worked the tallow off them. Daddy said when he walked into the kitchen to have the man write him a bill of sale for our goats, the man’s wife was in the kitchen cooking dumplings. On the counter was a white leghorn chicken scratching in the flour.

The day Daddy told that story I went straight home and wrote the tale into my journal. A couple years later I was returning to Paragould from a trip to Destin, Florida. We had stopped in one of the small Mississippi towns along the highway between Hattiesburg and Jackson because one of the girls with us wanted some doughnuts. While in the store, I saw a woman like I had never seen before. She had one gold tooth, right in the middle of her top row of teeth, and she was the perfect description of Doris in the story. The entry in my journal had to wait until we got home and unpacked, but before I went to bed that night, I described that woman perfectly and made a note that I would use her as a character someday.

During my senior year of high school, a man named Joe Thompson used to run a little bar just across the Missouri State line. On Wednesday’s he had free fish fries. He ran gill nets on the St. Francis River and caught loads of buffalo, and he’d cook them up and salt the hell out of them so you’d buy more beer. He’d load up a beer carton full of fish and set out some dill pickles and you could eat all the fish you wanted. All of those Thompson boys were fine people! Joe was the inspiration for the character Bobbie Joe Willie. Although I never met him, Mike Thompson, a nephew to Joe, was killed at Halliday when his vehicle was struck by a locomotive. I mention this accident in “The Mayor of Delbert, Arkansas” as a tribute to the family.

So during that July holiday I found myself with some spare time.  I thought I’d pull my journal out and do some writing.. Thumbing through the pages I went back and reread all of my old entries. The idea for “Goat and Dumplins” was hatched.

I knew I couldn’t just write a story about going to buy a goat. I needed to have some type of a legitimate plot. Earlier that same day I had been engaged in a conversation with some fellow rednecks sitting around a bonfire, drinking beer and discussing the merits of our respective ex-wives. The discussion had boiled down to two-types—the Barbies and the real women. My new friends discussed heartily the merits of each type, and split perfectly down the middle on which type they preferred. It was the basic “Ginger” or “Maryanne” argument. If you have never watched “Gilligan’s Island” and have no idea what I am talking about, simply goggle “Ginger or Maryanne?”

The original draft of the story ended as Jimmy Lee and Bobbie Joe Willie were driving to Puxico. I had workshopped this draft at McNeese where it was roundly trashed. One of the senior members of our workshop even left a rather nasty note, in essence saying if this was the best I could do he’d rather not read anything else I wrote. That kind of pissed me off, but I knew the story still had potential, and I knew just what kind of jerks some of my classmates could be when critiquing stories. So I stuffed it away and waited a year or two before returning to it.

I honestly can’t remember if Kristen Iversen or Cary Holladay at Memphis or Neil Connelly at McNeese had made this suggestion, but someone believed the story ended too soon. I went back and reread the story several times looking for a different way to write the ending. One thing I learned from this revision is that many times, the key to your story is already there. I focused on the rift between Jimmy Lee and Rachel over correcting their child. That was another of those plums I had made a note of in my journal and just threw into the story because I thought it sounded like the kind of thing couples would fight over. But it occurred to me that was the theme of the whole story—doing right for fear of punishment, or doing right simply because it was the right thing to do. The light switch went off. In the story, Bobbie Joe Willie was humping Doris and stopped only because he knew if Claudie Walker ever saw him again, he would kill him. Jimmy Lee had every intention of going to see Gayle, but didn’t after he saw a first hand account of what might happen if Bull Anderson found out about the affair.

The ending came easily after that.


The Story Behind the Stories: Alligator Stew, Freddie, and the Kegerator!

27 Jan


The Story Behind the Stories:
Alligator Stew

This story has many different influences and sources of inspiration, and I hope I don’t forget any of them. Our family had several close friends who were also like family. I guess in a way they were family of sorts, as they were usually related by marriage to my uncles or aunts or cousins. One of the most fascinating of these people is a man I will simply call Mack.
Mack farmed a large acreage out on the St. Francis River. He hunted and fished with our family for years. I will never forget going frogging with Mack, my father, and my Uncle Phil when we got stuck in a deep mudhole and Mack walked out of the woods and brought back a big, dual wheeled John Deere tractor to pull us out. I remember another night running trotlines on the Blue Hole.  We finally gave in to the cold weather. But when we got back to Mack’s farm, he stripped naked and used the water hose to shower before going inside the house. I still don’t see how he avoided hypothermia. But if he was trying to impress this young boy, he did a good job of it.

But what fascinated me most about Mack was his lack of fear for snakes. My boxing coach, Robert Lowrimore, was the only other person I knew who simply had no fear of snakes. Mack once told me he used to catch cobras in Vietnam with his bare hands. Most people who would make such a statement would be liars, but I firmly believed Mack would do it!

So I wanted to write a story about Mack and the St. Francis River. Much of the history of the river that I give in this story was given to me by Mack while we were fishing the Blue Hole. His tales of river boats and huge cypress trees and bears and panthers never bored me. I knew I had to write a story about this man, but how to go about it was a problem.

I read a newspaper article of a local incident where a young ladies boyfriend had called her parents. After advising that he was about to kill their daughter, he put the young lady on the phone to say goodbye. Her father had feared something like this was about to happen and had bought her a .25 automatic pistol a short time before.  When she got on the phone, the father told her to kill the bastard. The boyfriend took the phone away and said goodbye.  He later drove the girl out to a secluded spot in the county. When he came around the car for her, she shot him three times.

Another influence on this story was a man from Hogeye, Arkansas, (Yes, it is a real place) named Gerald Koonce. Gerald kept a “Kegerator” in his house. He had two refrigerators. One held an extra keg of beer. The other had a tap ran through the door and a line out the side to a CO2 cylinder so his beer never went flat. The top of the frig was filled with quart Mason jars. I emptied many of those Mason jars. I haven’t seen Gerald in years, but I plan to make a trip to Hogeye and give him a copy of this next book. I hope he’s still alive and doing well. The refrigerators in Freddie’s barn in the story are exact replicas of Gerald’s set-up in his kitchen.

            The mention of the alligator killed at Coldstream is a reference to an event published in our local newspapers. Apparently while seining the ponds the employees realized they were being followed by an eight foot gator. They killed it. But they made the mistake of taking pictures of it and having them processed at Wal-mart. Wal-mart reported them to the game warden who wrote them a ticket. This was told to me first-hand by a nameless soul, who shall remain a nameless source.

The story also has connections with the Atchafalaya basin, voodoo, Creoles and Cajuns, and much of that was to lay a foundation for a novel to follow. There will be a collision between witchcraft, voodoo and christianity–I promise!

The story was submitted to dozens of journals and was roundly rejected. But then I saw a call for papers that wanted stories that reflected the true, gritty south. I made a revision to the story that I had been resisting for sometime. The main character’s history involved family ties with the Klan. But his daughter was dating the only black man in the county, and he had a secret in Louisiana, a black son by a Creole woman, and he travelled south to see them both every summer. I was hesitant to use the word “Nigger” for all of the reasons we all know. But the story did not ring true given the background I had created. So I revised the story and used the word one time and submitted it to John Dufresne who was then serving as the Fiction Editor for the inaugural issue of Real South.

He accepted the story, and even suggested the characters would make a great novel.

I have included the story in this collection, and even made it the title story. The characters are continuing to live on as I work on my novel involving the characters in “Karen” another story in this collection and “Flying Lessons,” the last story of the collection and the first chapter of the novel to follow. The novel will involve the running of sex slaves and illegal immigrants as well as guns, drugs and nerve gas by river boat up the intra-coastal waterway from Brownsville and up the Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri and Ohio Rivers.
I hope you enjoy this excerpt.



Alligator Stew

The ringing phone brought Freddie straight up out of bed. He recognized Lee’s voice on the other end.

“You been half-way right by me, you asshole, so say good-bye to your daughter before I blow her head off.”

“Lee, send her on home and forget this shit.” But Lee was already off the line and Charlotte came on. The tenor of her voice when she said, “Daddy,” brought Freddie to his feet. She was scared.  Mattie sat up from where she lay next to Freddie and turned on the overhead light.


“Help me, Daddy.” She was crying.

“Listen, Charlotte. Have you got your pistol?”

“Yes, Daddy. I do,” she said between sobs.

“You kill that black bastard tonight.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

“He’s a dead man. I won’t let him live another day. But you can’t let him take you with him. Put a bullet between his eyes. Do you hear me?”

“I will, Daddy—”

“That’s enough, old man. I got some business to take care of.”

“I’m comin’ to find you, Lee. Right now.”

“Don’t bother. I know I gotta kill you, too. I’ll be right out, soon as I’m done with her. I’ll stick you in the same hole, if I can find you.”

“I’ll be right here—”

The phone went dead. Freddie eased the receiver back to its place, while Mattie stood in front of him, wringing her hands. “Lee says he’s gonna kill her, but he wanted her to say good-bye first. She says she has her pistol with her. They never said where they were.”

“You can call Wilson. He can go out there,” Mattie said.

“Go out where? If Lee kills her, he’ll do it somewhere besides his house, and he said he was coming straight out here to get me next.” Freddie got up and pulled on his clothes. Out of the bureau drawer he pulled a Ruger Redhawk .357 and a snub-nosed Dan Wesson .38. The Ruger was in a shoulder holster he put on, and the Dan Wesson he stuffed in his hip pocket. Mattie had gone into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee.

“Hey, Mattie, has Charlotte got any clothes here?”

“Her closet is full of stuff from last time she was out. I washed and pressed them all.”

“Bag’em up and throw ‘em in the truck with my stuff.”


“If she kills that boy, we’ll have to leave for a while. I can take her with me.”

From Planet Opinion, Published in Planet Weekly, Thursday, October 28, 2008

24 Jan

Home arrow Features arrow Goals

Goals Print E-mail

When I lived in Tuscaloosa, I was fortunate enough to write a column for The Planet Weekly. The paper was actually a bi-weekly, and of course I wasn’t paid a penny for my columns, although I was allowed to retain all rights to the essays so long as I acknowledged they appeared first in The Planet Weekly. My time with the paper was a good time, and I did benefit from the experience in that it kept me writing consistently about topics I normally would never have considered if I hadn’t had a deadline for a byline.

So as I go forward this year, I thought I’d post some of those essays as I am working on combining them for a book. Since this is January, I couldn’t think of a better one to begin with than this one on Goals. It is neat to read this now and to see the goals I have achieved and the ones I am still working on, as well as the ones I either gave up on or shifted my focus to other areas. Then again, when setting goals, flexibility is important. But I do believe for aspiring writers there are work habits espoused in this essay that can help.  I hope this makes a difference in your writing year, and that you will share that difference with your CommentsJPEG BookCover God'sNWCD AutographingTBIBjpegalligatorstewfrontcover96dpi1.jpg

 I do not believe in New Year’s resolutions. They are too easily made and too easily broken. I do believe, however, in carefully setting ……


C.D. Mitchell


     I do not believe in New Year’s resolutions. They are too easily made and too easily broken. I do believe, however, in carefully setting and planning goals. Every January I look in my journal at the goals I set for myself on New Year’s Day. I believe in short-term and long-term goals. So each year I reset my short-term goals and assess my progress towards my long-term goals. For my long-term goals, I usually set five and ten year benchmarks. This past year I was blessed to achieve my ten-year goals that I had set back in 1997.

     It is time to start over.

     We need to have a vision of ourselves and what we hope to achieve. After we set our goals, we must have faith in our ability to make our goals reality. Because only hard work and dedication will ever pay off, you must have a work ethic. Tenacity and honesty go hand-in-hand. Your will to achieve your goals must outweigh your resistance to those goals, and only you can assess that will.

Honesty with yourself is vital when setting your goals, whether long or short-term. Your goals must be reasonable and attainable, yet they must be a challenge. You have to be honest with yourself both when setting goals, and then later, when you assess your attempts to make your goals reality.

     A thin line separates the gray area that exists between confidence and arrogance. Success will be seen with bitterness and jealousy, and you will learn that your friends will be eager to claim your success has fallen into your lap. They will fail to acknowledge the hard work you have done to achieve that success.

     I measure my success by how closely I come to accomplishing my goals. Here once again is where honesty with one’s self becomes vital. If you did not attain your goals for the year, you must ask yourself why. Is my failure due to my effort, or circumstances I cannot control?  If the failure is due to my lack of effort, is my goal that important to me after all? Have I set a goal that really doesn’t matter? If missing my mark is not due to a lack of effort, then have I set a goal that is unattainable? Or have other factors that were unforeseeable intervened — factors that are not likely to occur again?

     Once again, you must be brutally honest with yourself when assessing your efforts to achieve your goals and when assessing whether your goals are attainable. Perseverance is the one thing we have absolute control over. If after assessing your efforts you decide the goal is still important to you and worth the effort, then perseverance comes into play.

     Goals are unattainable without perseverance.

     There must be a relationship between your long-term and short-term goals. They must work together. One of my long-term five year goals is to win a major writing competition. In order to achieve this five-year goal, I have set an annual mark of entering at least thirty contests each year. Over the course of five years, that will place my writing in 150 contests. If at the end of five years I can look back and say that I faithfully entered my writing into these contests and still did not win, then the fault is mine. I will need to do something to improve my writing, or give up altogether.

     But I will have made a reasonable effort towards accomplishing this goal.

     So after all this preaching, what are my short and long-term goals?

     My ten-year goals are to be a tenured professor in a creative writing program of national importance and to own my own home. I also want to have at least four books of fiction and nonfiction published by that time. My writing income should be enough to sustain me at that point although I will continue to teach because I love teaching.

For my five-year goals I want to be employed in a tenure track job in a creative writing program of national importance in a town where I will feel comfortable completing my life and career. I want to have an agent and have my first books of fiction and nonfiction published and my second books of fiction and nonfiction written and in the hands of my agent. I want to have won at least one major national competition with both my fiction and nonfiction. I want to be debt-free.

For the coming year I have set my annual goals that I hope will help me achieve my long-term five and ten-year goals. I will submit my stories relentlessly to contests. To document my efforts, I will record each submission and make sure that I have entered at least thirty contests before the year is out. I want to have my first book published this year and to finish my memoir. To achieve this goal I have submitted my fiction manuscript to several publishers and contests and will aggressively submit this manuscript the rest of the year to contests, publishers, and agents. I will attend writer’s conferences where publishers and agents are present and available for manuscript consultations. This will put my work in the hands of people who will either buy it or tell me what I can do to make it more marketable. While attending these conferences I will study with some of the best writers and teachers of writing in the country in order to continue to improve at my craft.

     I will work diligently to finish my memoir and to submit the essays and the finished manuscript for publication. After I finish the memoir — which is over half-written — I will begin a new novel that I hope to have started before the end of this year.

     In order to find a tenure track job in five years and to be tenured in ten, I will aggressively apply for tenure track jobs listed with the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Higher Education Jobs Web-site. I will send out at least fifty job applications every year. I have already met this quota for the coming year and will likely double my effort before the month of May has arrived.

Once again, here is where honesty and perseverance pay off. In order to land a tenure track job, I will have to have at least one book published. I cannot just go out and publish a book. Having a book accepted for publication isn’t like saying I will go outside and cut down the fifty trees that line my backyard. The act in itself depends upon someone else. However, if I persevere and diligently send my work out for consideration and constantly strive to make myself a better writer by studying my craft, by reading the works of other great authors, by attending writer’s conferences and visiting with agents and publishers, I know I will achieve my goals.

     In 1997, I was tired of building houses for a living. As a goal, I decided that within five years I would return to graduate school, and that within ten years I would be teaching at a major university. In 2002, I began graduate studies that culminated with a Master of Fine Arts Degree from the University of Memphis in May of 2006. I began teaching at the University of Alabama last fall.

     I did not achieve these goals without hard work, perseverance, and sacrifice. And these goals are not something that will ever win me a national award for effort or achievement. But they were goals I set for myself and worked hard to accomplish, and I can look back now with satisfaction at the past ten years. Once again, honesty is the most important quality of all. You must be honest in setting your goals; you must be honest in assessing your efforts to achieve those goals, and you must be honest with yourself when assessing your willingness to sacrifice in order to achieve those goals.

     I have adopted some lofty and difficult tasks for myself over the next few years. As I said earlier, there is a thin line between confidence and arrogance. I believe arrogance is expecting your goals to occur without making the necessary effort. Confidence means having faith in the old adage that good work habits will outdo talent every time. It means that I have carefully thought out my goals and the steps necessary to achieve those goals, and that I am well on my way to making sure my goals become reality.

     I am not a dreamer. I set a goal and chart a careful path and do everything I can to stay on that path. That path will lead to success, and that success is defined by me.

     So you may laugh at my words today. I wouldn’t blame you if you did. After all, the goals I have set would challenge many writers with far more talent than I have. But I haven’t set my goals based upon my meager talents. I have set my goals based upon my willingness to do the work and make the sacrifices necessary to make those goals reality. You still may not be convinced, especially if you don’t know me personally. But those who do know me will be coming to my home in five years to get an autographed copy of my first book.


CD Mitchell can be reached for comments or questions at:

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Review of God’s Naked Will by Thomas Gagnon, Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene

22 Jan

Thursday, October 10, 2013

God’s Naked Will & other sacrilege


God’s Naked Will & other sacrilege

By C.D. Mitchell
BurntBridge Press
159 pages
Review by Thomas Gagnon 

            First-time author C. D. Mitchell excels at making scenes.  He often opens with sensational information, which evolves into a drama both compelling and realistic—no contrived plot twists here.  But also often, something is missing.  Most of these stories are all about their scenes, while the characters—if not missing in action—stay two-dimensional.
            First, the positive, and there is plenty of positive to accentuate.  Mitchell does create utterly memorable scenes.  Near the end of the first story, “Clovis Clementine,” the already horrible life of Clovis takes an especially ghoulish and ghastly turn.  During a flood, he imagines that dead bodies rise up and talk to him—at first, a high school classmate that he had attacked and killed, and later, at three-pages’ length, “the Colonel” who urges him to join the devil’s ranks.  A scene like that has lasting impact, and there are many such scenes throughout this short story collection.
            One other scene—a favorite of mine—occurs in the title story, “God’s Naked Will.”  It is a dialogue over the phone between a Pentecostal preacher, Mooney, and a receptionist at an escort service, absurdly named God’s Own Escort Service: A Touch From Above With Every Date.  The absurdity continues with the line “God’s Own Escort Service.  How can we touch you today?,” but the ensuing conversation takes unexpectedly dark turns:
            “I want someone who knows how to keep her mouth shut.  But I also want someone
            who knows what she’s doing.  And she must be white.”
            “What are you, a bigot?”
            “No.  But my faith prohibits inter-racial marriages.”
            “Your faith probably prohibits premarital sex, too.”   (55)
Such unexpected darkness—or, at best, murkiness—is a strength in all Mitchell’s stories.
            Also positive, Mitchell boldly presents distasteful issues and situations.  The mere concept of the Lord’s army (introduced almost right away in “Clovis Clementine”) induces shivers.  And it gets more distasteful than that, in story after story: schizophrenia, suicide, adultery, horrific hypocrisy, capital punishment, voyeurism, verbal abuse, and sexual perversions.  Nor are these evils hurriedly set aside.  Rather, they stay front and center, throughout.  For instance, the sexual perversions in the story “Original Sin”—especially, lust masquerading as nudism—never quite disappear.  Although the bride, Lesley, knows ahead of time that she will be getting married nude in front of strangers (on p. 124), she cannot reconcile herself to the thought (on p. 139).  On the contrary, she suggests to the groom, Zach, that they leave as soon as possible.  They don’t.  Lesley cannot escape from human sin.  Consequently, neither can the reader.
            This is impressive.  What is not impressive is the lack of characterization in most of these stories.  Clovis is not so much a person as he is a misfortune incarnate; the same is true of another character with severe mental illness, Sally in “Job’s Comforter.”  Although Lani in “Stud Fee” has interesting moments, Mike, the stud, does not.  Elias in “Healing Waters” achieves an anti-climax rather than a climax.  And so on, with one exception: Reverend Mooney.  Mooney takes on dimension because he is both astoundingly hypocritical and apparently unaware of his hypocrisy.  He contains a world of contradictions, which are not amusing and yet are not wholly disgusting, either.  It is clear that the unrealistic tenets of Mooney’s own faith are partly to blame for his faults.
            Each story is a mix of the well-done and the problematic.  Since schizophrenic Clovis believes in the Fundamentalist Christian concept of the Rapture, it is apt that he fears the flood is a particularly ominous sign.  But, the many similes describing Clovis’ schizophrenia merely strain the brain.  The can of mace in “Job’s Comforter” is a Chekhov’s gun that never goes off—an excellent aspect of the story.  But, the metaphor of Job’s comforter is utterly perplexing.  Whereas Darleen does aim to comfort her schizophrenic daughter, Sally, Job’s comforters do not comfort Job.  Other stories are more (or less) out-of-balance than these two.
            For all its imperfections, however, some stories in the collection do linger in the mind.  Important questions about faith are framed by intensely dramatic (but plausible) situations.  Yes, it is a bumpy ride, but it is an enjoyably bumpy ride with resonance. 

Book Festival and Conference Opportunities for Writers and Published Authors

21 Jan

March 7th through 9th–The Dahlonega Book Festival, Dahlonega Georgia
I will be appearing here as a Regional Author.

March 27th thru 29th: The Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers Annual Conference, Faulkner State College, Fairhope AL.
This conference offers readings, panels and a long list of publishers and editors in attendance.

April 2nd thru 5th: The Delta Blues Symposium: Delta Diversity hosted by Arkansas State University, Jonesboro AR.
I will be teaching a creative writing workshop and offering free critiques of submitted story manuscripts. All events at this conference are free.

April 24th-26th. Arkansas Literary Festival. Little Rock, AR

May 2nd through 4th. Dallas/FT. Worth Writer’s Conference. Hurst Conference Center, Hurst TX.
I will be teaching two classes on craft at this conference.

June 12th thru 17th: Southeastern Writers Workshop, June 13-17th, 2014.
I will be doing manuscript critiques and teaching two classes on writing craft and marketing at this conference.

August 14th thru 23rd: Breadloaf Writer’s Conference. Middlebury, VT.

October 10-12th The Southern Festival of Books, Nashville TN.

November 1st: Louisiana Book Festival, Baton Rouge, LA

I have tried to include good links to all websites and Facebook pages for your convenience!
I hope you find this information helpful, and keep up the good work!

CD Mitchell
Author,: Alligator Stew; God’s Naked Will


The Story Behind the Stories of Alligator Stew

17 Jan

The Story Behind the Stories: Alligator Stew: More Stories from Delbert, Arkansas
Video trailer for Alligator Stew:

As a writer I am constantly asked how I got the ideas for this story or for that book, so I began a series of blog posts when God’s Naked Will was published titled The Story Behind the Stories. After writing about each story, I took a break for the holidays, a move, and to get another book edited and published. Now that Alligator Stew is available for preorder ( it’s time to renew the series. I thought I’d begin with an entry on the book itself.

Alligator Stew began back several years ago. In 2002 I had returned to graduate school in Lake Charles, Louisiana, attending the MFA program at McNeese State University. As I wrote stories for workshop, I was pressed with needing to discover a theme that connected the stories.

               During a week in October, from a Thursday to Thursday, we had two hurricane threats. I was working at the local Sears store, and we must have sold nearly 300 generators. Fortunately for Lake Charles, both hurricanes curved and missed our town with the main force of the landfall. I never once lost electricity, and even went for a bike ride during the hurricane with fellow writer and MFA student Jessica Pitchford.

The week after the hurricanes missed, Sears had nearly 275 generators returned for refunds. That was when I noticed the pattern.
I had lived through the Iben Browning prediction of a major earthquake along the New Madrid Fault in 1990. The Y2K debacle had just passed. I was raised in a Pentecostal church that predicted the end of the world and apocalypse with every shot fired in Israel. Since that time we have had Harold Camping twice predict the exact day of the rapture, and the Mayan calendar prediction of the end of the world.

                As with all things, people react to these events in different manners. Most completely ignore them. Some give the predictions lip-service. Others react in fanatical ways. On cable television now there are shows such as “Doomsday Preppers.” Our parents likely knew people who had fall-out shelters stocked with food and water during the cold war.

            But for the most part, people reacted much like my home town did in 1990. As the predicted date approached, there was a small buzz of hysteria. On December 3rd, my own law office was closed. The schools dismissed for the day, and the people held their breath waiting for any indication of that first tremor that never came.

            But what struck me as different after experiencing the same thing in Lake Charles after the hurricanes was that at least when the hurricanes missed, the threat was over for a while—until the next hurricane developed. When the earthquake became a nonevent on December 3rd, the threat was just as great the day after and the day after. But for the most part, people felt like idiots for giving in to the hysteria, and they went back to living their normal every day lives.

                   I had also been introduced to Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Later I bought and read The Half Mammals of Dixie by George Singleton. George is a prolific writer and has had other story collections published, such as Why Dogs Chase Cars.

                  George Singleton used the town of Fifty-Six, South Carolina in his books, and he was doing exactly what I wanted to do for my town. I just had to come up with a name for it.

                   A close friend of mine had a horse that he needed to name. The horse hated getting his feet wet, and nearly killed me one day when at a dead gallop, he darted left to avoid a small puddle of water, and I went right and collided with an oak tree. I hated that horse and never rode it again. I also hated the name he gave that horse—Delbert. But when I thought about that word for the name of my fictional city, I loved it. So Delbert, Arkansas, is named after a horse that hated to get its feet wet.

                 The original collection went through some changes and morphed into a manuscript I finally started submitting for publication. I continued to write more stories, to add or subtract, to revise and edit. The collection had evolved into a large collection, nearly 280 pages titled “Stud Fee” after one of the stories.

After reading the short story “God’s Naked Will” at the Fairhope Writer’s Conference, I was approached by an editor who said if I could put together enough stories for a collection based around a religious theme, he’d love to publish it. That began a nightmare publication process that over two years caused me many sleepless nights and taught me many lessons about the publishing industry and the need to carefully select who you allow to publish your work . However, I stole four stories from the original “Stud Fee” manuscript, and wrote four new stories to create the story collection God’s Naked Will. That left me with a depleted manuscript of the original stories that sat neglected for some time.

Once God’s Naked Will was finally published, I turned my attention back to that original manuscript. I read through it again and realized I still had the nucleus for a good collection of stories. I began to look for publishers to send it to. That was when I came a cross a call for manuscripts by Southern Yellow Pine Publishing.

                 SYPP wanted manuscripts that dealt with some historical aspect of the south; my collection was an attempt to give a fictional account of the 1990 earthquake prediction, so I sent it to them. The editors were intrigued, and asked if I could add a couple more stories, which I did. The rest is now history. SYPP has shown me just how wonderful an experience publishing a book with a quality publisher can be!

            Alligator Stew also provides the basis for my novel to follow. John Dufresne selected the title story for the inaugural issue of Real South. In an email about the story, John suggested I make those characters into a novel. I am following that advice. The final story will be the first chapter of the novel I am now working on, and the characters in the stories “Alligator Stew” and “Karen” will all play major roles in the novel to follow. I also plan to write more about the characters of Delbert, Arkansas, and would love to some day write a novel of Jennie’s life. I have even been asked to create a novel from the characters in the story “Stud Fee.”

            As I go forward in the coming weeks, I will begin with the first story of Alligator Stew and prepare a blog post on each story in the collection—how the story came about, where the ideas came from, any special problems with the editing or revision process. As a teacher of creative writing, my intention is to create a collection of essays that will help future students of fiction writing or literature better understand the creative process.

What a Blessed year of Achieving Goals and Setting New Ones

23 Nov

This is my favorite time of the year. November begins a time when my brothers and me celebrate three birthdays during November. Halloween actually begins the month, and Thanksgiving and the excitement of the coming Christmas season always end the month. In Arkansas, deer season is anticipated even more than football season, and the college football season is winding down to the anticipated rivalry games. The fall colors have come and gone, duck season opens as the now harvested rice fields are pumped up again and filled with millions of visitors—all types of ducks and geese—making their way south down the Mississippi flyway to winter in a warmer climate.

The past year has been one of great blessings in my life, and the next year promises to yield even more of those blessings. I began the year with no published books. I ended the year with one book published, another to be released in January that is already complete, and a novel under contract. I have appearances scheduled for March, April, May and June of 2014, and I will schedule many more. The publication of the books has allowed me to now apply for tenured creative writing teaching positions, and this fall there were more of those positions open and soliciting applications than at any time I can remember in recent years. I am excited to think of where I may be this time next year.

So during this time of Thanksgiving I want to take time to thank God for all of his many blessings. My life is truly blessed by my wonderful children and their spouses, my family—including my brothers and sisters and mother, and my dear friends.

             Sometimes we do not understand the paths God may lead us down. But returning home a year ago last August was a blessing. I have been able to renew many old friendships, make new friends, and be a part of my children’s lives in a way I have not been able to be in many, many years. I have been able to exorcise a few of my own personal demons while struggling with a few more. But even though the uncertainty of the future can be a bit unnerving, knowing one has done all he can do to make the future a success tends to be a balm against that rash.
It seems to me the future should only be feared when we fail to take control of our futures and apply guidance, principle, dedication, planning, and perhaps most important of all, flexibility. I still believe that to do this it is important to have ten year, five year, and one year goals.

            I find myself in a unique situation as I have this year accomplished several of my five year goals that were benchmarks to my ultimate ten year goals. In the next months I will be forced to sit down and re-evaluate my goals and set new ones. My ten year goals will not change, but I am now closer to achieving those goals, so my five year goals(benchmarks) and one year goals(steps to take to achieve those benchmarks) now must be re-evaluated and re-calibrated to recognize the achievements I have made and the new efforts I must make.

          To some, this may sound daunting. To me, it is as simple as writing a story. I simply sit down and write the story I want my life to follow, and I plot it out, thinking through my scenes and settings. And just like a story I am writing, if I suddenly need to take an unexpected twist in the plot, I do, and I do so while realizing it is the unexpected and unplanned events in life that provide the challenges and truly make any achievement worth accomplishing.

            I made my greatest mistakes when I lost sight of my goals. As a college professor, I have had many students seek my advice on what they should do for their careers. I counseled them on their goals, and always asked what their ten-year goals were. Without exception, they had no ten year goals. I challenged them to sit down, and imagine reasonably where they wanted to be in ten years. Be honest with yourself and set those ten year goals. Then deciding on a chosen path becomes easy. Will this path ultimately take me closer to achieving my ten year goals? If the answer is no, then that certain path should not be chosen. Goals will provide guidance during the best and worst of times. Goals will keep you motivated and moving forward. Goals will give you benchmarks to measure your achievement so you may feel pride in what you have accomplished.

I challenge anyone who reads this blog to skip their New Year’s resolutions and establish a carefully considered set of ten year, five year and one year goals. Your ten year goals should be that ultimate achievement. Your five year goals should be the benchmarks necessary to put you well on-track to achieving the ten year goals. Your one year goals should be the baby steps you must take to get there. These are the little things you must do in order to be successful. For instance, if you want to publish a book in five years, you might set a one year goal of completing a quality manuscript and submitting it to 25 publishers a year. At the end of the year if you do not have a publishing contract, you can look at your one year goals. If you submitted to 25 publishers and got 25 blank rejections, it may be time to revise. But if you submitted to two publishers and got two blank rejections, how can you know where you stand?

Please challenge yourself with your goals. Goals must be attainable, but they must challenge you to do so, and therein lies the need for a sincere honesty with yourself and your situation.  But most of all, I wish you success as you struggle to meet those goals!