Andi Cumbo - Writer, Editor, Online Writing Courses, Classes & Lessons

November 23, 2014
by Andi

The Healing in Messud’s A Woman Upstairs – The Sunday Salon

This week, I finished Claire Messud’s brilliant novel The Woman Upstairs. I’d read much of the discussion when it came out, including her wise and sharp statements about the idea of “likability” in characters.  So I went into this book braced to find the protagonist a horrible person. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself in a profound new way in the character of Nora. After all, I consider myself fairly likable.

A woman in her late 30s/early 40s, who is single and childless, an artist who has chosen a career away from art and who finds – in a family that comes into her path – the excitement and presence that she has been seeking . . . until she is betrayed.

So much of this I understand – feeling isolated as a single woman in a world where most of her friends and colleagues not only are married but have children.  The artist who cannot find her way to her art.  A woman grown a tang bitter but still trying, still working hard to be kind.

Of course, I am sitting on the other side of many of those things, so I can speak from a distance, I guess. But I didn’t find Nora unlikable at all. In fact, I found her very human, very real, and very honest.

Messud’s language is beautiful – rich with description and temperature.  I felt almost as if I knew just how the air felt in every room, every space.  And her ability to paint portraits of the characters without overcreating them for me . . . that I’d love to emulate.

Overall, here’s what I’d say about this book – it’s challenging – both as a read and to the establishment who seems to think that only male authors can explore less than ebullient, super friendly characters. (No one would critique Philip Roth for writing a protagonist who wasn’t bubbly.)  The language is gorgeous, and the honesty of the story – one often untold – about a middle-aged woman who has not obtained much of what we say women should obtain – a family – is needed.  Healing, in fact.

Have you read The Woman Upstairs? What did you think of it?


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November 22, 2014
by Andi

Everyone Loves to Hear a Good Story – A Writers Write Interview with Allen Madding

I may be mistaken, but I”m pretty sure Allen and I met on Twitter, probably in some way that involved mutual friends and my newly acquired (husband-driven) interest in NASCAR.  He’s a kind man, and I think you’ll enjoy his interview.  PLUS, the e-book version of book Shaken Awake will be FREE on Amazon tomorrow in honor of his birthday, so grab a copy

1. Tell me about your latest project.Shaken Awake by Allen Madding

My latest project is Shaken Awake, the story of a church in downtown Atlanta, Georgia faced with a dwindling and aging congregation that has been forced to shut down the majority of their building and dismissed much of its staff. With limited funds, they shutter all of their ministries and programs leaving only a couple adult Sunday School classes and a Sunday morning worship service. When a homeless man freezes to death on the steps of their sanctuary, the church begins to re-examine their mission and priorities.

2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?

As a child, I spent my summers peddling my bike to the local library and participating in the summer reading program. I averaged a good 12-15 books during summer breaks.

3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?

Life has been pretty hectic over the last 4 years working a full-time day job and managing a non-profit in my off hours. This schedule has made it hard to set a schedule for writing. I do a lot of my writing late at night after everyone has headed to bed and the house is quiet. During my day as thoughts come to mind, I will jot notes using my smartphone, and then later I can flesh those ideas out when I have time.

4. Who are you reading now?

I just finished reading two of Mark Batterson’s books, and I just started reading Billy Coffey’s newest work.

5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?

I fell in love with Frank Herbert’s Dune Trilogy about half way through the first book. His writing painted vivid images in my imagination, and I could leave my surroundings and immerse myself in the story.

Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is definitely a favorite. I have always loved hiking and Bryson makes you feel like you are right there on the trail.

Larry McMurtry’s Texasville is one I can go back to time and time again when I want a good laugh. Having grown up in a small town, I can relate to the characters and their flaws. And who cannot love a book that opens with the main character sitting in a hot tub shooting holes in a two-story dog house?

6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?

I do not know that I have struck a balance. I have always put more emphasis on the writing than the platform. At some point you wake up and realize you need an audience, and I guess I am now working the other side of the set of scales.

7. What is a typical day like for you?

I am up around 6:30, on the road by 7, and arrive at work around 7:30. I am back on the road home around 5 and roll up at the house around 5:30. After dinner, I catch up on social media, watch a little TV and/or do some reading. My wife and our two dogs typically head to bed around 9:30 and that’s when I focus on writing or working on projects for the two nonprofits I support.

8. Describe your dream writing space? 

Two years ago we hiked up to the Lenn Foote Hike Inn the day after Thanksgiving. We literally spent two days sitting in their Sunrise Room in front of a pot belly stove sipping coffee and reading while enjoying the view of North Georgia Mountains. I often think that would be an awesome environment to sit and write daily.

9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?

Several years ago, I wrote a strongly opinionated piece for Insider Racing News. A couple of my motorsports colleagues took exception to the piece and invited me to discuss it on their Sirius Radio show. I accepted, defended my opinion, shot down their attempts to discredit my opinion, and gave them several points to consider from my perspective. I closed the conversation reminding them that they both had written pieces that I thought were off the mark and that opinion pieces are not about who is right and who is wrong but different perspectives on a given topic.

10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?

Stop saying you are going to write 500 words and have someone read it and tell you if it is any good. Write. Just write. Then write some more. Do not sit around wasting a great deal of time trying to decide your writing voice. Just start writing. You will find your writing voice by simply writing. Everyone loves to hear a good story, and we all have hundreds trapped inside us waiting to be told, so sit down and write them – short or long.

Novelist Allen Madding

Allen Madding is a follower of The Way, writer, blogger, guitar player, Harley Davidson motorcycle rider, hiker, traveler, Atlanta Braves and Dallas Cowboys fan, and an information technology professional who lives with his wife Allison in St. Petersburg, Florida. He volunteers with Feed St. Pete, a food pantry providing food to struggling families in Pinellas County, Florida. You can find more about his work on his website and  follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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November 21, 2014
by Andi

LOVE Me Some Essays – A Top Ten

If I had to pick one genre of books to read and one only (please God, don’t make me pick!), I would choose essay collections.  I love the terse, lyrical nature of the form. I love the variety – memoir, reflection, journalism, humor.  And I love the way that the form is so wide open in terms of style and length and voice.  Essays make me quite happy. The Writing Life By Annie Dillard

So today, here are my favorite 10 Essay Collections:

1.Season of the Body by Brenda Miller – To be fair, Brenda was one of my teachers, and I adore her. But even putting aside that bias, this collection is brilliant and beautiful and strong. Her creative use of point of view is inspiring, and the way the essays circle back to the body again and again . . . well, you’ll be breathless.

2. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin – Courage and beautifully brazen critique. . . absolutely some of the most powerful writing of the 20th century. Plus, Baldwin – oh his life just makes me both shout for joy and weep.

3. On Looking by Lia Purpura – When I want to read something that makes me see anew and also lifts my soul with the beauty of language, I read Lia’s work. Strong but soft, and she is a master of the lyric essay.

4. The Art of the Personal Essay. Edited by Philip Lopate – A sweeping collection that gives an overview of the essay form – from Montaigne to Dillard. Beautiful introduction by one of America’s great essayists, Philip Lopate. If you want a deep introduction to the essay form, this is the book for you.

5. Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver – I remember reading this book on a cold, snowy winter night by a woodstove, and it moved me so that I read much of it aloud. Lyric language put to political awareness. Lovely.

6. Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food by Wendell Berry – Wendell Berry! Perhaps the man I most aspire to be like in both my writing and my life. This is a wonderful collection of his writing about farming and food supply and the sincere joy of dining together.

7. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard – My favorite essay of all time – “The Fourth State of Matter” – is in this collection, but the whole book is amazing – full of description so rich that you feel as if you are there – both in body and mind – with the characters.

8. The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson – I have read this collection in small doses because Robinson’s thinking and prose are so rich, so dense that I have to walk away to take in what she has said. Not easy reading but well worth it.

9. My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum
– This is another title where I know just where I was as I read it – on the CalTrain between Santa Clara and San Francisco. I felt Daum’s words echo much of what my life was in that younger time.

10. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard – If you are a writer (or if you are a person who writes who has yet to work up the courage to call yourself a “writer”) this book you need for your shelves. Wisdom and artistry and an honest that will make you pucker.

I have a whole slew of titles I still want to read Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith, and Mystery and Manners by Flanner O’Connor.  Plus, I really need to get to the Braindead Microphone by George Saunders.  I relish the expectation of these titles, new essays to add to my collection of this favorite form.

What do you think of essays as a genre? What are your favorite collections?


If you’d like to have more recommendations of essay collections, check out this list of 25 by Flavorwire.

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November 20, 2014
by Andi

The Uneasy Comfort of a Ghost

Today is a one word in front of the other kind of day. For some, feet are best, but since I make my progress mostly in language, I’ll hold with words.

Lucy Chambers, ex-slave

Lucy Chambers, ex-slave, photographed by the WPA

The list beside me – written on a list labeled “Today” and bordered by peacock feathers  – seems impossible.  Beyond my hours and my strength, yet, it must be done.

So rather than doing, I settle back into what I know must happen first – a bit of rest, a bit of prayer, a bit of clearing in my mind.

I am sitting – my eyes closed, my jaw relaxed – as the sun comes over the trees to the East and basks my face with what can only be called glory.

I think of her, the woman in this house, and I wonder if she ever sat – for a few moments of resting – in this very spot and let the sun sooth her, too.

Often, I feel her – her spirit lifting into the edge of my mind just by my hairline – when I am weary or overburdened – although my burden is light when I think of hers. I see her her shadow, or the shadow of her shadow, and I take comfort.

As if a friend has arrived to sit with me a spell.

I cannot explain that, do not understand why a ghost, or the ghost of an enslaved woman in particular, might comfort me, but she does.

And I realize with an understanding as deep as I can take it that I cannot – must not – expect this from her, because then, well, then would I not simply be stepping into the role of her mistress. I am not – will not be – do not wish to be – could not be her owner . . . and still, here, now, I know that these words speak of that, and I am horrified.

So, in this office, the sun lifting the burden with its light, I imagine her – lithe, tall, agile or more like me, a bit bottom-heavy, strong, sturdy but not all that graceful.  I cannot see her face – do not know whether her eyes were round or shaped like leaves, or her cheeks full or spare – but at some moments, I know her to be young – fresh, hopeful. Others, she is older, settled, a bit more pulled in.

I suspect at times she was quite angry with righteousness, and as a human, bitterness must have tested her tongue from time to time.

I look at her beauty as I look at the gorgeous strength of my dearest friends, and I am in awe.

For me on this sun-filled morning in this 210 room where she and I share air, she is comfort and reminder.  The work – when done for life and justice – is good.  We must keep on. I must keep on . . . to change myself, to hope for change in all.

What keeps you moving forward in your work?  What images, phrases, people spur you to keep on?

If you are interested in learning more about the particular struggles of enslaved women, please visit Gloria Sonnen’s very informative webpage.

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November 19, 2014
by Andi

Enough: A Meditation

I try to live in a noble way, think of the good meanings

of ritual objects and the taste of spices and fruits.

– from “Since You Asked” by Eloise Klein Healy

The cold this morning – somewhere near 15 degrees Fahrenheit – made my bones ache as I fed everyone today.  The kettle full of steaming water I poured into the dogs’ and goats’ bowl was cool enough to drink as I turned to walk away.

It’s these mornings that I feel my body most alive.

Much of the world is hard these days – ISIS and the continuing struggle set in relief by Ferguson, young girls murdered nearby, and the lifting brief relief of the pipeline defeated.  I am choosing not to spend my time and energy there because, well, what is there to do.

And for that, I am disappointed in myself – both for my desire to focus elsewhere and my own futility.

Instead, I’m pouring my tastebuds out over the meal I will make for friends tonight – grass-finished beef, homemade noodles, fresh bread from the Mennonite market.  I savor the thought of the hot shower that will soon paint my shoulders.  I see the glimmer of sunlight on the walnut branches and wish I could paint.

A junco has just climbed to the tippy top of the apple tree just below this second story window where I stare.  Her belly is fluffed against the cold, and I think she is the wisest among us perhaps, her days spent in eating and the tiniest twitches of movement to see what is below her.

Soon, I will load dry rasps of wood into the belly of the iron gift that sits in the reading room.  He will sigh and pop with the heat, and I will lose myself in his dry breath for a while.

Days when the cold spins up my legs like water, I remember that there is enough to do here – enough honesty to seek, enough prejudice to overcome, enough bravery to muster.

And on these days, I hope – I pray – it is enough.

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