Tag Archives | Andi Cumbo-Floyd

Ghosts as Truth-Tellers by Andi Cumbo-Floyd

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach! ― Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol

I can’t tell you what I really believe about ghosts.  Are they real in the sense that they occupy time and space and energy with the living? Are they the spirits of dead people or the energy echoes of those who lived before us? Are they figments of our guilty, grieving, hopeful imaginations?  I have no idea. . . like I said, I don’t even know if they exist.

But I do know this – they are powerful in our American culture and in many cultures around the world. They occupy a liminal space between the real and the magical, a space that allows them both the authority and the transcendence to speak truth with a power that a mere mortal cannot.

Some of the first stories I remember being moved by as a child were ghost stories from the Appalachian Mountains where I was raised.  There, the ghosts of American Indians walked the woods with lanterns, and the spirit of a teenage girl who died young gets a lift home from a man on a foggy night.  Those stories scared me, yes, but they also taught me something really important about human nature – that we cling to our histories, our heritages in every way we can and that this clinging can create beauty and power that stretches beyond a lifetime.

I see this in my own work as I write about the history and legacy of enslavement in Virginia, in the way I feel the presences of the people who have gone before, in how the ancestors speak to me in tingles and in the research finds that propel me forward.  Do I think it’s the spirits of the actual people who were enslaved that help me in these ways? I’m not sure. But I know that when I am open to their experiences, when I am seeking their stories, when I am letting the tingles of intuition and the tidbits of information resonate through me, I find history and story that I would never discover on my own.

It’s for this reason that I chose to use ghosts as the great teachers and guides in my Steele Secrets books.  I take my cue from Dickens here, who knew that a ghost might speak a truth that could ring like a bell when it was free from the living entanglements of prejudice and self-interest.  A voice free from the chains of society and the worries of a life cuts through the clutter of our dailyness and widens the cracks where the light gets in. (Perhaps Leonard Cohen will haunt us with his blessing forevermore.)

People are wary of ghosts because we are afraid, I expect. We sometimes claim religious reasons or science as a reason for our fear or disbelief, but I wonder if sometimes we are also afraid of being the Scrooge in the story. Are we concerned that we need to be taught a lesson and will be whisked off to our fondest and darkest moments? If so, maybe we need to take our cue from Scrooge again and give in to the journey so that we can come out the other side with softer hearts and a way of being that gives Tiny Tim the space to share his words that bless us all.

About the Author: Andi Cumbo-Floyd

andibio1Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer, who lives on 15 blissful acres at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, 6 goats, 4 dogs, 4 cats, and 22 chickens. Her books include Steele Secrets, The Slaves Have Names, and Writing Day In and Day Out. The next book in her Steele Secrets Series, Charlotte and the Twelve, is now available.

You can connect with Andi at her website, andilit.com, or via Facebook and Twitter.

Outlets, Time Limits, and Fellow Travelers: A Few Guidelines for Writing about the Hard Stuff by Andi Cumbo-Floyd

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I’ve been at this long, wooden desk for hours. My neck is sore, and I’m chilled by the climate-controlled air in this bunker of a space. My eyes burn from trying to read 19th-century handwriting. But it’s not my body that hurts the most; it’s my spirit.

After six hours of searching hundreds of documents for tiny mentions of people who were enslaved by other people, I have exactly two pages of notes, and I know exactly six names.

One man named Peter owned two chickens.

I don’t know who they loved, what their favorite food was, or favorite color. I don’t know what they thought about their awful situation or whether or not they imagined they’d ever be free. I know almost nothing, and this reality could break me if I let it. But these people survived profound horror. I cannot let words on pages break me. I won’t.

The research and writing about people who were enslaved in Virginia is not easy work.

It’s soul-tearing, heart-rending labor that zaps me physically and psychologically. But I have learned – in over five years of doing this research as a total labor of love – that I need some guidelines to help me, to keep me from being broken.

Five Things Help Me Keep Going

  1. Outlets. I need places where I can put the pain and stories I immerse myself in. For me, that place is my books. I imagine these people on the page. I try my best to tell their stories. I create new stories that are drawn from the real-life ones, filling in silences and embodying people who, through the violence of history, have been made invisible to many of us.
  2. Time Limits. Through practice, I have learned that I can only do this work – particularly the research – for a few hours a day. I cannot work 40 hours a week on these stories, as much as I’d like to, without doing some real damage to both my spirit and my perspective. I need to limit myself so that I can do good work for the long-haul.
  3. Systems. I have found that systems – for tracking information, for sharing what I find, for filing my notes, for writing from those notes – are crucial for me. They keep me moving ahead when the weight of these stories threatens to crush me. I use careful spreadsheets and timelines, organized photographs and photocopies, and immaculate files of notes to help me keep some distance from the stories, not so I don’t feel but so that my feelings don’t overtake my ability to tell the story.
  4. Escapes. Sometimes, I just have to step away into another world entirely, move out of the antebellum South and move into a place where a man travels in a phone box or where a team of FBI profilers solves crime. I may need to dive into a story of mythical sirens or climb into the pages of a mystery set in a cheese shop. The deeper I am into the work of researching and writing about enslaved people the lighter my reading and watching need to be.
  5. Fellow Travelers. By far, the most important resource I have when this work is so hard and painful is people. My friends who also research slavery, my friends who understand the legacy of racism, my friends who are activists and historians – they are the ones who keep me going. They get it. They know the way stories wrap around us like hugs that squeeze too tight. They know the way elided information can break your heart. They know the way someone saying, “Why can’t we just get over it?” can bring up a rage so fierce it could burn the paper at my fingertips. I need these folks to keep me going, and they need me, too.

I don’t know what you write – stories from trauma, personal struggles, injustice writ large on the lives of people we know – but I expect that at some point in your life you have written or will write about something really difficult. If you do, be wise my friends.  Protect yourself with limits and tools, people and escapes that will keep you strong for the journey.

We need your story.  And we need you healthy enough to tell it.

About the Author: Andi Cumbo-Floyd

andibio1Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer, who lives on 15 blissful acres at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, 6 goats, 4 dogs, 4 cats, and 22 chickens. Her books include Steele Secrets, The Slaves Have Names, and Writing Day In and Day Out.  The next book in her Steele Secrets Series, Charlotte and the Twelve, is available for pre-order.

Connect with Andi at her website, andilit.com, or via Facebook and Twitter.

Studio Tour: Andi Cumbo-Floyd

Modern Creative Life Presents Studio Tours

Just now, outside my office, the sun is shining, and the golden days of autumn are descending with the few leaves that have begun what will be a deluge in a few weeks. Here on the farm, we are in the between time that is the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, and I am in the midst of it, even here in my office.

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Every day, I work out of what was the summer kitchen on this old plantation here at the edge of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

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Most days, if the weather is at all temperate, I keep the door open to a wide view of the farm yard, the garden, and the cattle pasture beyond.  It’s the view the enslaved woman who was the cook here would have seen every day when she turned from the stove that once sat where my desk chair now settles.

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The ceiling above is made of wide, pine planks, the ones that were nailed up right around 1800, and the floor mirrors the ceiling.  The walls have been sheet-rocked and insulation tucked behind to keep it temperate for me when I work, but some of the window panes still have the original wavy glass and a layer of film that is more than 200 years in the making.

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I have a table in the corner that was made by my parents’ dear friend Steve more than 25 years ago, and on it rests a printer, paper, and the chicken-tending supplies we sometimes need when we become poultry vets for our flock who lives next door.

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I work at my mother’s desk, and every time I open its single drawer, I am reminded of her because of the pile of pens there and because the scent pulls her to my mind, even now almost 6 years after her death.

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We bought this farm almost two years ago now, and from the get-go, we knew this small building would be my office.

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It’s close to the house – with a side door that gets me right to the kitchen for lunch – but it’s separate, so I can be free of seeing the dishes or the laundry when I’m working and free of working when I’m in the house.  Housework and entrepreneurship can be constant, so this separation helps reduce my stress and keep me sane.

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It’s also ideal because our hound dogs, Meander and Mosey, can visit me here, sleeping in the rocker or on the bed at my feet, but then wander the farm and pastures when they’re so inclined. And I don’t have to open and close the door 500 times to allow them that freedom.

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This space is also entirely mine. I painted it a golden yellow hue called “Macaroni and Cheese” because I wanted the room to be bright and warm, and I have adorned the walls with some old crutches – my husband finds them creepy – that we found in the attic above (the space where the cook may have slept), and in other corners, I have placed some of my mom’s quilts. I have art given and made by friends around me, and the bulletin board above the bookshelf filled with writing books is covered with reminders of why I do what I do.

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This office is my haven and my remembering space. It’s sacred.

About the Author: Andi Cumbo-Floyd

andibio1Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer, who lives on 15 blissful acres at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, 6 goats, 4 dogs, 4 cats, and 22 chickens. Her books include Steele Secrets, The Slaves Have Names, and Writing Day In and Day Out.  Her latest book for writers – Discover Your Writing Self – will be available Oct. 3rd. You can connect with Andi at her website, andilit.com, or via Facebook and Twitter.

9 Ways of Nourishing a Writer’s Soul by Andi Cumbo-Floyd

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Some days, it feels like I have so much to learn – about craft, about platform, about critique.  When the world of being a writer is too much with me, I look to these and feel my spirit ease.

  1. They are locked behind the diamond bars of my nightstand, their bottoms out, stacked pages. I prefer the ones without cute kittens and free of lines although this means I will write crooked. I like the scour of rough paper, and a deckle edge lifts my heart.  But I’ll take any journal as long as it’s wide open for wandering.
  2. If it will slide between my fingers without catching on even the paper-smoothed skin, I love it.  The same if it will sway under my touch before pushing back against my hand – velvet or a buzz-cut head. But if it will slide onto my foot and cushion it with soft, fabric that can only be called fuzzy, I love it best. A cold autumn afternoon’s gift rising from my soles.
  3. I don’t know why – until a few days ago, I thought I was the only one, but Kelly loves the same – I love a hot bath where I can let the water run for long, long minutes.  It’s the sound, I think, the white noise of it. I’ve even been known to free the plug with my toes – since my hands are full with pages – and let it drain so I can keep filling the tub with heat and sound.
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  4. The gloaming.
  5. When a book jacket will embrace all the pages I’ve read or, near the end, all the pages I have yet to read, I smile.  The flip of opening so easy this way, as if the story has been waiting for me to return. “Here,” she says, “we were here together.”
  6. The shadow of a lamp darkens the corners. The glow is the yellow of tempered light. I don’t have to tolerate the falseness of a bulb so high overhead it only shades my soles. My space. It reminds me of the perfect library carrel, the only place in the world where we use that word.
  7. I want the rasp to be almost silence. The way you only hear your heartbeat when you settle onto your pillow. Pen to paper, I want to not hear it, not feel it even, except in the motion like wind lifting the hair from behind my ears to bring cool to the nearly forgotten folds.  A felt tip, maybe. Or the Uniball Vision Elite. . . one that gives me the shapes I treasured in elementary school pencil tips gone skewed at the tip, where shadows and points play together. But without the pressure of even my hand.
  8. Leave me alone there after you convince me that you really are fine to run errands or sit by the water. Find me a bookstore near your favorite fishing hole.  Then, I will wander amongst the artifacts I love most in the world. I will lift them to my nose and smell their wonder. I will lean them against each other. My fingers will bounce along their spines.
  9. A porch. A breeze. Two friends who know the gift, the languish, the labor of words.

About the Author: Andi Cumbo-Floyd

andibio1Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer, who lives on 15 blissful acres at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, 6 goats, 4 dogs, 4 cats, and 22 chickens. Her books include Steele Secrets, The Slaves Have Names, and Writing Day In and Day Out. You can connect with Andi at her website, andilit.com, or via Facebook and Twitter.

Some Days Alone, Some Days Together: The Writer’s Journey by Andi Cumbo-Floyd

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I got this message via Twitter today:

I listened to ur podcast w @JamesPrescott77 – I just adore you and could listen to you lots. You make me feel peaceful. – Cindy W. Brandt

Today, I am feeling weak and drained, word-worn and wan.  But Cindy’s message, it’s like a spark that find tinder I didn’t know I had.  “If Cindy appreciates what I have to say, maybe I can keep going.”

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Yesterday, a friend wrote to three of us, a little coterie of other writers that has formed via the glorious binary of the internet, to tell us how something was being “worked out in him” about publication and about aging and about how this writing thing is wrapped up with our identities in ways we cannot extract and don’t always love.

Within a few hours, we had each replied with words of sympathy and encouragement, sharing our own struggles and fears. Each email felt like someone was pouring a little cool water on the tips of my fingers that had been burned by the writing life.

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A few weeks ago, I spent three days running into people whose faces had been only thumbnails until we met over the free coffee at a conference.  I greeted, I chatted, I even hugged.  (I’m not a hugger.)  I spent time with people I’ve known for decades and with others I hope to know for the rest of my life.

I came home totally full, absolutely exhausted, and with the first cold I’ve had in 9 months. All of those things came as gifts, tissue-laden and rich, from moments when I could feel the heat radiate from another person’s skin.

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It is so very easy, in this writing life, to hunker down and “do the work,” to tuck myself away into my office with two heaters, a hot beverage, and five open computer tabs.  I can go weeks where the only people I see are the ones who come to me: my husband, my father, my soon-to-be step-mom, my in-laws.

Sometimes, I must shut myself away, refuel in the solitude and silence of my work.  Sometimes, I need the focus that I can only achieve when I’m spending most of my days saturated in words already written.

Sometimes.

But other times, these notes from friends, these missives of the digital, these conversations over coffee with too much cream and sugar are just as necessary.  A big hunk of fresh-based, coarse bread, a perfectly-spiced slice of meat, and a pear – sustenance for the writer’s journey.

And that’s how I see community – both face-to-face and digital – in my writer’s life.  The times I interact with other people in real, rich, not mediated ways, they are like my traveler’s rations that I wrap in a clean piece of cloth torn from my grandfather’s work shirt.  I carry them with me for the next set of days alone here in this room with my computer.

I wouldn’t survive the journey without them.

About the Author: Andi Cumbo-Floyd

andibio1Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer, who lives on 15 blissful acres at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, 6 goats, 4 dogs, 4 cats, and 22 chickens. Her books include Steele Secrets, The Slaves Have Names, and Writing Day In and Day Out. You can connect with Andi at her website, andilit.com, or via Facebook and Twitter.

Editor’s Note: If you’re looking for a little face-to-face community to carry you on your journey, Andi is hosting a Writer’s Retreat at her  farm in Virginia.  You can get more details here – http://andilit.com/writers-retreat-at-gods-whisper-farm   Relax, learn, share stories, and help each other find footing for the next days’ walk.

Me Before Chickens, Dogs, Cats, Even My Husband: A Typical Day in this Writer’s Life by Andi Cumbo-Floyd

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It’s 5am – or 4:50am or 5:11am – and I’m awake. I’m mostly awake because this is the time I typically get up, but I’m also awake because Mosey, our basset hound, typically wakes at this moment and is sharing his joy with me by licking my toes.

I then feed Mosey and Meander, our other hound dog. By then, the coffee is almost done, and I’ve built a fire in these God's Whisper Farm sunriselate spring mornings. I’ve packed my husband’s lunch and washed the few eggs we gathered late last night.

By 5:30, I am settled into my grandfather’s tufted leather chair and have my mother’s Bible in hand. A chapter from there. A daily read about fasting that I consider intellectually but not physically. A few prayers jotted into a notebook. Then, I lean back with as many chapters of my book of the morning – at this moment, it’s Christie Purifoy’s Roots and Sky – as time and the chill in the air will allow. These are my quiet moments, my centering moments. The only words that I let precede my own for today.

Here in the cold days, I work from our dining room table. (I’m eager to return to my office in what was the summer kitchen of this 200-year-old farmhouse, but that will call for days of sun that warm the walls.) By 6am, I open my laptop and quickly shut down all the browser tabs I forgot to close last night. I slip open MS word and begin.

I tap words ahead into the rising dawn. I do my best not to change anything, trusting that I’ll see better what needs revision when I have plotted the full path of the book. I resist – mostly – the urge to open one of those browser tabs. I keep going until I reach 1,000 words, the magic number Shawn Smucker suggested to me years ago. When I am in rhythm, this takes less than 20 minutes.

For all intents and purposes then, the most important work of my day is done when I get those 1,000 words finished. That’s not to say what I do for the rest of the day – the edits for clients, the manuscript reviews, the notes to communities I organize and writers I love – is unimportant. But for my mental health, for my clarity of mind, for my ability to speak with integrity about the writing life, those 1,000 words are my bedrock.

I have to say there’s another component of this urgency I have to do my personal creative writing first; it has to do with my identity as a Southern, Christian woman. All three of those aspects of my societal upbringing have taught me – through model and intention – to put myself last, to always do what is most important for others before what I do for myself. And while the central underpinning of those teachings – the lessons about selflessness and the need to avoid selfishness are important – many Southern, Christian women, myself included, have come to believe that we are as always to subjugate our calling, our health, our own needs to the wants of others. So when I do my writing first, I am establishing my own personhood as fundamental to the rest of the work I do. I am important, and those 1,000 words help me remember that.

When my 1,000 words are done, I feed our chickens, goats, cats, and Great Pyrenees and then come in to sit with my husband before he leaves for work. Once his truck pulls out of the quarter-mile drive, I’m back to the laptop – writing email missives to clients and crafting newsletters. Then, I edit or listen to client manuscripts for a few hours before taking a lunch break.

This lunch break thing is new for me. I don’t have colleagues to break with, and I don’t have an hours-per-week expectation set from a boss. Therefore, I don’t have boundaries coming from outside myself, and if I’m not careful, I feel pressured to do more every day. Thus, I never stopped for lunch, powering through until my husband came home and the animals needed another round of food. This continual 10 hours of work – 6am-4pm – not only made me cranky and exhausted, but it also made me frenzied and unable to quit work when the day needed to wind down. My belief that it had to all be done now made my chest ache, and I always felt like time was scarce. Somehow, a lunch break has changed all that.

So I eat lunch and watch a TV show on the DVR – Supernatural is my show of choice at the moment. Nothing like some vampire hunting and some pop religious questioning to give the mind a break.
Then, I go back to work for three or four hours until that truck with my beloved rolls back down the lane.

Feed everyone.

Feed ourselves.

Then, by 6pm, we’re back to something else. My husband is usually in his shop working on a car. Some God's Whisper Farm duskevenings I have to work, but I’m making that need more and more rare these days. Instead, I read or listen to podcasts if my energy is still high. As spring comes on, I’ll have garden chores to tend in these hours when the sunshine stretches himself.

Some nights, I’m exhausted and just settle into my recliner – crochet nest nearby – to work on an afghan or stitch a hedgehog. On the days when I’m most tired –usually later in the week – I just watch TV, letting the stories get along without me just fine. (Since I’ve been a full-time editor and writer, I’ve found that I take great comfort – GREAT COMFORT – in the fact that movies and TV shows don’t need my help to get to a resolution. It’s a strange thing to find myself relieved that I don’t have to work out the story myself, and it’s a gift that lets my mind let go of sifting through word choices and point of view strategies. )

9pm means I’m in bed, blankets tucked up to my chin and a book at hand. I’m asleep by 9:30 unless that book is REALLY good . . . and sometime after, my husband and two hound dogs join me under the covers.

It’s not the life everyone would choose, but it’s mine, and it’s so, so good.

Incidentally, this essay is 1001 words. Got my word count in for today. ☺

About the Author: Andi Cumbo-Floyd

andibio1Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer, who lives on 15 blissful acres at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, 6 goats, 4 dogs, 4 cats, and 22 chickens. Her books include Steele Secrets, The Slaves Have Names, and Writing Day In and Day Out. You can connect with Andi at her website, andilit.com, or via Facebook and Twitter.

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