The Best Critique

100_3397My best friend, Lori, died ten years ago today, and I still miss her. Maybe not every day, like I did at first, but a lot. Especially when something excellent or awful is happening—I want to call her and mourn or call her and celebrate. Weddings, graduations, births (her grandsons are the cutest kids in the world and I HATE that they don’t get the awesome experience of having her as their grandma)—all are sweetness laced with sorrow. In those moments, I catch the eyes of those who loved her too and can almost see, like cartoon speech bubbles above all our heads, “I wish Lori were here . . .”

On her birthday this year, I was shelving at the library, and as I put a book away, I realized the title was Lonesome Dove. Memories of watching the television version of the book with Lori and her husband Chris flooded over me—I remembered Lori’s giggle at Robert Duvall’s line, “I’m down to one leg and fading fast.” I heard Chris drawling, “Lori, darlin” at her like Duvall did to the good-natured whore in the movie, and grief made me physically weak. I had to find a quiet corner to compose myself.

It never goes away, and I don’t want it to—those memories are worth the pain.

lonesome dove

When I was offered the publishing contract for my book, I told my husband the good news, and he rejoiced with me, hugging me in the kitchen and repeating, “That’s awesome, honey!” I then called my daughter and parents, squealed for awhile with them, and then started composing a “hurrah” message to my other BFFS—Jenna, Shannon, Trish, and my sister, Sara. As I scrolled through my contacts, I saw it: Lori’s name and number (I can’t seem to let myself delete it, though I know the number is no longer hers), and here it came—that dry-aspirin sorrow that curled around the edges of my tongue. More than anything in the world at that moment, I wanted to call my lovely friend, who was always my biggest writing cheerleader. I stepped outside, onto the porch, and cried familiar, angry tears.

I visited her grave that evening to tell her all about it; her site is on my regular walking route, and I stop by often to give her updates. I tell her how her kids and husband and parents are doing; I mutter about what is going on in my own life; I fuss about irritations or chuckle about something and wish I could hear the wind-chime tinkle of her gorgeous laugh. I kiss my palm and lay it on her tombstone and tell her, “I love you and miss you, pal. I’ll talk to  you soon,” before trudging on. Though I know she’s not there, that she’s in heaven having a great time, talking to her at her grave is a comfort to me.

When I wrote my story “Mitigation”I sent it, in its rough form, to Lori to read. I saved the Facebook conversation Lori and I had about it because it was just the best critique of anything I’d ever written; I had no idea that she would be gone six months later. It was precious for the words; it’s even more precious because it was the last critique I’d ever have from her.

Here’s part of our conversation:

    • January 14, 2010


Lori Kauffman


GREAT story! What a compelling glimpse into how every woman feels at some point! I liked how you created the weight of all 24 years within just a few short paragraphs, and how when Linda STEALS the truck and gorges herself on the elderly’s food, I completely understood and sympathized with her insanity! I think we as women often identify ourselves too much through who we are to someone else. I know I have felt that sense of emptiness that comes from not being “seen” any longer. You summed up that feeling so well in Linda’s line …“I love him,” she said, “if only because he once knew me when I was someone else. If he doesn’t see me that way anymore, then I am afraid I am lost forever.” How Linda finds herself filling up this emptiness is just genius … Meals on Wheels for Christ’s sake is PERFECT, Becky!

I also liked you developed the theme of the emptiness of material possessions. These people had spent a lifetime accumulating things that only made them feel all the more empty inside because that’s all they had invested in. “And with that guttural noise, one more piece of the carefully arranged mosaic of their marriage fell away.” That line was so good I had to stop and read it several times over! In fact, that paragraph was so well-written I could almost taste it! I love short stories, Becky, and this story is EXCELLENT. It made me feel like a Peeping Tom stealing a glimpse through the curtain into Linda’s life!

Regarding your concern about the ending, I felt Linda’s response to Harold rang very true. In fact I found the ending quite hopeful. Linda is a woman who, after 24 years of being someone’s wife and accumulating the “stuff” of life, has realized that is ALL she has. It was empowering for her to write that check for her freedom, and through their exchange in his Corvette, I feel we further understand this sense of empowerment she is feeling. How she has no sense of concern for the aftershocks to their social standing but rather can’t wait to bake for those poor Meals on Wheels folks truly communicates the metamorphosis she’s undergone. I love how you describe her chuckling to herself in the jailhouse mirror!

So now I have to ask a question – I hope I don’t offend you if I should have known this – but where does the title come from —– Seventh Stage? Thank you so much for sharing! You are an incredibly talented writer, my friend!


PS: The Tea Room sounds great!


Becky Lewis Marietta

Oh, heavens! You are the one I will be sending all my stuff to from here on out–THANK YOU, my friend! Not only did you say nice things about the story (kindred spirit of mine), but you gave a real professional review–and you got all the nuances! You should review books–you’re really good at summing up the main points. I’m humbled and DELIGHTED that you liked it so much.

The title WAS a little cryptic (I have trouble writing titles sometimes because they are so important and I love other people’s clever titles,). I got it from the seven stages of grief–the seventh stage, which is the last one, is acceptance and hope.

Interesting note: I got the idea from listening to the news on the radio–someone actually did steal a Meals-On-Wheels, and I thought at the time, “What kind of person would steal a Meals-On-Wheels? What would MAKE a person steal a Meals-On-Wheels?” That was the germ that turned into the story.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for reading it and thank you, thank you, thank you for your kind words. Really, that’s why I write–that connection with someone else in the world who “gets” it. That’s it–you’re my official favorite reader!

So, how does Monday lunch at the Tea Room work for you?
Love ya,


Lori Kauffman

I love the “cryptic-ness” of the title … acceptance and hope … indeed, that is the icing on Linda’s cake! I graciously accept the “official favorite reader” title if it means you will share more with me!

The story is really great, Becky, and I think what makes it great is how it rings true to our humanity (we’ve all felt like Linda at one point or another), and how your writing style is so descriptive and poetic. It’s not just me that “gets” it, Becky — I think it’s the kind of story a LOT of people will feel a connection with.

Monday Lunch at the Tea Room sounds great! How about we meet there at 12?


Becky Lewis Marietta

Love, love, love to you!
Yep, 12:00 on Monday–it’s a date!

Lori Kauffman


Lori Kauffman

LOVE to you! Can’t wait ’till Monday!

After Lori died, I changed the main character’s name in the aforementioned story in honor of my friend who helped me believe in myself as a writer. When I wrote my novel, I gave one of my favorite characters Lori’s maiden name because though she is not here with me physically, her fingerprints are all over the place, in my writing and on my heart.

I love you and miss you, pal. I’ll talk to you soon.

lori becky (2)


Holding Pattern (Or, My Wah-Wah-Wah Post)

As are many of us struggling with the COVID blues (actually, for me it’s more like the mean reds), I’ve been in a holding pattern in most areas in my life. Yesterday, frustrated by yet another plan gone awry, I wailed at my husband, “2020 was supposed to be the year of Becky!” There were/are two big milestones for me this year—I turned 50, and my husband and I will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary soon. I was going to go on a grand zip line adventure for my 50th because one of my greatest childhood memories was riding the rickety (and, now that I think about it, pretty dangerous) zip line in the playground at Titchie Swot at RVA.

zipline trolley

I remember climbing up the planks nailed into the tree and stepping onto the wooden platform, my knees shaking a little, my hands sweaty. Titchie Swot zip line protocol demanded that the last person to have zipped would wait and hold the trolley wheel until the next person was ready to go. I accepted the handle, watched the other person disappear back down the tree, and turned to face the line. Gripping the handles on either side of the wheel that was balanced on the cable, I took a little hop up and jumped out. As I zoomed over the playground towards the big tree on the other side of the line, I whooped and hollered, giddy with the freedom of flight.

Me during the oh-so exciting Titchie Field Day at RVA, circa 1981

Thirty-nine years later, I still remember the danger, the excitement, the exhilaration vividly. So when I started planning a daring do for my 50th, all I could think of was that zip line. I found a place that had several zip lines interconnected, a three-hour “tour” of the tree-tops, and booked two tickets for me and my husband, along with a nice bed-and-breakfast stay. Then COVID struck, the zip line shut down for a couple of months, and I ended up having a very nice, but not very exciting, supper with my family for my birthday.


wah wah

For our 30th anniversary, Casey and I were in the thick of planning a two-week trip to Croatia. (Yes, Croatia. It’s gorgeous. Don’t you judge me.) We’d planned the itinerary and were almost ready to finalize booking with our travel agent, and then COVID hit. So no trip overseas for us this year—maybe, if the city and state don’t shut down again, we can do what I planned for my 50th on our 30th. Or we may just have a nice supper.

debby downer

And then there’s the effect of COVID on my writing. After a bit of a dry spell, I finally had an idea for my next novel that excited me. I started researching and planning, even going so far as to learn how to tell fortunes with some gypsy cards from the 1940s. I muttered possible dialogues as I watered the garden or went for a walk around town. (If you’ve seen me doing that, friends in Siloam, relax. I’m only a little bit mad.) I wrote three beginnings, trying to figure out which way I’d like to go, and then the mandates from the university where I adjunct started appearing in my inbox, like so many goat-head burrs on my socks.

Exhortations to be ready to teach face-to-face while staying far, far away from my students poured over me and made my head and my heart hurt—one of my classes is a writing class for students who aren’t quite ready for English I. They generally need a LOT of interactive coaching (read: me looking over their shoulders and asking questions or making suggestions) and cheerleading, as I try to convince them that they are NOT terrible at English; they simply need to learn the tricks, and I’m just the old gal who can teach them. Standing in a duct-tape-on-the-carpet “box” at the front of class, a mask over my face as I try to teach, unable to show my smile of encouragement, is frankly a nightmare. So is making sure all the assignments in and out of class are online accessible—no longer can I, on the spur-of-the-moment, say, “Get out a piece of paper and let’s create some sentences.” No, I have to plan ahead and create a discussion board post for every interaction. Normally I spend an extraordinary amount of time trying to convince my students NOT to look at their laptops or phones in class and instead engage face to face, because research has shown empathy has gone down with the advent of screens and the technology that runs them. Now I’m supposed to instead encourage my students to stare at a screen all day, every day. So much for building empathy by looking at and responding to a human being’s expression. I’m telling you—the effects of social distancing and mask wearing are going to be catastrophic psychologically in the long run, especially for our young people. Humans aren’t meant to live this way.

In short, we’re doomed.

So, hello hours spent on Blackboard, goodbye, great new idea for a novel. It’s sitting on the shelf dimming as I work to create folders, links to assignments, narrations for PowerPoints. I do hope it will brighten when I pick it up again, but I’m afraid that like so many of my dreams this year, it’s already slipping away from me.

Getting a contract of publication for my current novel has been the only thing that’s been really splendid this year. My novel is now in the hands of my editor, who says it should be ready for me by the end of August. I am looking forward to seeing her suggestions and spending some time on the rewrites, but I gotta be honest—I’m a little afraid to hope. 2020 has taught me not to make plans.

Five more months until 2021. Until then, I’ll be circling the runway (or the drain) with the rest of the world.


Walking Away from the COVID and Into the Wild West

elizabeth bennet walker

            Like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, I have nothing, in short to recommend me but being an excellent walker. I can walk for miles and miles as long as I have a good book in my ears and it’s not too cold. (Heat I’m fine with, but cold? No thanks. When I get cold, it takes forever for me to warm back up, and it physically hurts me to be chilly. I’ve been known to cry angry tears when I’m freezing.)

Since the COVID madness, I’ve ramped things up, walking four miles a day on average, and the more stressed or mad I get, the longer my walks become. In fact, I rage-walked 6.83 miles one day last week because I was OVER IT ALL.7 miles

I’m not ill-informed, stupid, selfish, or stubborn; I just don’t believe in a piece of cloth’s ability to solve a natural pandemic, and based on all the flip-flopping and conflicting statements, I don’t believe the “experts” really do either. I do believe completely in Ronald Reagan’s quip that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” As someone who grew up in a foreign country that was sort-of free (there were elections, but the outcome was predetermined; you had to be very careful not to criticize the government; I lived through a failed military coup when I was 12 and remember the countless police checkpoints after the coup was put down), I was raised to believe in the Constitution of the United States and its purpose: to protect her citizens FROM the government by limiting its powers. This idea that we are now beholden TO the government instead hurts me deep in my soul.

But I digress; back to books and walking. My go-to audiobooks these days have weirdly been of the Wild West variety (not my typical). I listened to a book about Doc Holliday that I LOVED (called Doc, by Mary Doria Russell), which made me want to load up the car immediately and head to Dodge City and then on to Tombstone. (Hey! A new bucket list item!) A couple of days ago, I finished a book by Larry McMurtry (of the Lonesome Dove fame) called Zeke and Ned.

What an unexpected joy! The story was great, the characters fantastic, and the setting a pleasant surprise; because Zeke and Ned are part Cherokee, they live in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, a town very familiar to me as that is where I received both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree and started my college teaching career (at the former Cherokee Female Seminary, now known as Northeastern State University).nsu

An even more unexpected delight was the reference to Siloam Spring, Arkansas, the town just over the border where I teach, shop, and yes, walk. I’d never heard any book before mention Siloam Springs, and though it was only briefly discussed as a place where the men went to gamble, it was still very cool to imagine a writer of McMurtry’s status noticing the town enough to put it in the book.

I’m not sure why I’m so attracted to Wild West stories these days. Maybe it’s because I relate to and long for the fierce independence of the characters of old, be they sheriff, outlaw, prostitute, or farmer. I imagine the bemused expressions on the faces of these scarlet fever, smallpox, and dysentery survivors as they are told to stay home for an illness that has claimed less than .26% of the population. Then they’re informed that if they do go out, they must cover their faces “to protect others.” Their response would likely be to laugh uproariously before reminding the mask mandate-giver that only bank and train robbers cover their faces.

I am also drawn to the old-fashioned style of writing in westerns, regardless of the author. For example, in Zeke and Ned, a character is raped, but instead of every gory detail that television, movies, and many contemporary books in other genres love to provide, the terrible event is relayed simply by the observation that the woman “was outraged” and scoundrels “treated her rough.” My horror and sorrow for the character was not lessened by the lack of voyeuristic explanation.

I love all the “-some” words in westerns—“bothersome,” “troublesome,” “tiresome,” “worrisome,” “winsome”—and that usually the most swearsome words are “hell” (usually preceded by “aw”) and “damnation.” Other non-swear swears abound—“tarnation,” “I’ll be blasted” (or “hornswoggled”), “darn-tootin,” “by ginger,” and “jumped up Jehoshaphat.” I’ve always believed that excessive swearing shows a limited vocabulary and lack of creativity; saying, “Now git—you’re as ugly as homemade sin, and that mug of yourn is curdling my milk” is so much more interesting than “eff you.”

I appreciate, too, the manners and codes of honor in these books. Everyone knows his or her place and someone is always on hand to gently (or not-so-gently) remind those who forget. People in western novels talk, but they also listen, and if they disagree, they at least offer courtesy in the disagreement. Nobody is screeching to get his or her way—opinions are presented, and then that’s the end of it. Conversation is just that–a “talk between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged” (Merriam-Webster). It’s not a must-win-at-all-cost argument, which these days seems to be all conversation is anymore, at least on the internet.

Finally, though everything doesn’t always end “happily ever after,” justice is always served. The bad guy gets his comeuppance; you can bet he’s going to end up shot or hung for the outrages and rough treatments he indulged in. Order is restored. The brothel madam with the heart of gold marries a man who treats her right, and if the cowboy hero dies, it is with his boots on and his reputation grown as big as a Texas sky. The hero’s faithful horse and even more faithful dog remain alive and unscathed, either to ride the hero off into the sunset or to sit quietly by his grave, mourning his loss forever. When the last page is turned (or read, as in an audiobook), I can sigh with satisfaction and trudge back to the chaos of this world, my feet sore, the heel pads almost worn to bone, my heart hoping for a return to stability and justice and freedom.

calamity jane