Sunday, June 28, 2009


Letter to Amy Hudock, our wonderful instructor

(I’m reminded of the song, “To Sir, With Love”

but I don’t write song lyrics, just haikus.)

To our dear Amy

Thank you for this course

Now we can write short memoirs

You’re a great teacher

Dear Amy,

What a gifted teacher you are.  Thank you for one of the best writing courses I’ve ever taken – and I have taken a lot.  My other best course was a non-graded creative writing course I took in Ohio.  One of the reasons I liked your course so much was that I came to feel comfortable with you and the rest of our small group.  I felt I could be me and be accepted.  I have not always felt that way at work and in life in Charleston.  As you know, even though Charleston has a lot of great qualities, it is sometimes hard to live in such a conservative area.

I appreciated your mini-lessons every day – even the one on writing dialog – that was the most challenging for me.  I was particularly enthusiastic about the mini-lesson on writing for publication our last day because I teach this topic too.  My focus is on writing for professional journals and that’s not what I want to do anymore and not what most of my students want to do.  I loved getting new information and plan to steal (oops, I mean, creatively borrow) your lesson plan and adapt it for the online writing class I’ll start teaching in August.  I also plan to submit something if you think anything I’ve written this semester is ready.  Your suggesting “Teaching Tolerance” for my piece on my father made me feel good because I know and respect that journal.  Writing about my father was so hard for me because I felt pressure from myself to “do him justice”.  Actually, almost any kind of writing, except haikus and journal writing, is hard for me because of the perfectionism /procrastination factor.  I wrote a children’s book more than twenty years ago and have revised it several times and still have not submitted it.  Maybe I’ll do that soon.

The books and our discussions of them were helpful.  I was relieved not to have to do a great big creative group presentation on them.  In my view, in a two-week intensive (and intense) writing course, we should be spending our creative energies on writing, not on teaching.

Teaching still scares me even though I’m good at it now.  More than thirty years ago, shortly after our daughter was born, I interviewed for a junior faculty position in the Biomedical Communications Division at Ohio State where I was going to graduate school.  The interviewers looked at my resume (English major, master’s in journalism, course work toward a Ph.D. in educational communications) and said, “Do you think you could teach our course on medical writing?”  I said “yes” with confidence on my face and enthusiasm in my voice and fear and terror in my heart.  I had never even taught a college course, much less medical writing.  I was intimidated and scared.  In addition, I had extreme speaking anxiety about teaching.  I had taught junior high school English, English as a second language, and social studies on the Lower East Side in New York City and it was the hardest job I ever held. (A few years later, our daughter said, “Everything’s hard when you first try.”  I have always loved that quote.)   Well, I had six months to get ready for the course and I did it and did it well.  Could go into more detail about how hard I used to work on my teaching but that would make a good memoir.  Suffice it to say that I used to write my “spontaneous” humor in my lesson plans. 

Now that I have retired (graduated) from academic life (except for an occasional course and some consulting), I’m looking for my next passion, my next obsession, and your course helped me along the way to finding that.   The feedback and support from you and my classmates helped me want to work on “finding my voice”, which has been covered up a long time.  Although I am not entirely happy with the papers I’m passing in to you, I am much happier with the “final” drafts than with what I originally wrote and that is thanks to the feedback from you and my response group and the thinking you all made me do about my topics.

Thursday, when you brought me a list of emotion words while I was reading my piece, I had mixed emotions – pun intended.  On the one hand, you singled me out – I felt like I should go back to remedial memoir writing, not a graduate course on memoir writing and wondered why I ever thought I might be able to write memoirs.  On the other hand, you singled me out – I felt like I was special to you and you cared whether I learned and improved in your course and knew that if I worked on it, my writing could get better.  Life is often gray to me.  That’s my personality type.  (By the way, you seemed to feel bad when I spoke to you about this in class.  Please do not feel bad and please continue to give that handout to your students. It’s helpful.)

What a high it is to have my own blog and to be on Facebook.  I’ll probably change the name of my blog at some point so it won’t be limited to writing, but I loved learning how to do it and hope to show my students how to do theirs.  If I had not taken your course, I don’t think I would have done a blog or joined Facebook for quite some time.   I’m also happy to be able to see my classmates’ and your blogs and to be able to stay in touch with you.

Giving us feedback all along was great.  With such a small class, I think you could have joined our response group earlier, sharing  early drafts of your own work as well.  At the beginning of the course, I felt sorry for you and us that we had such a small group.  Now I’m so glad we did.

Thank you again.  I hope you and your daughter have a wonderful summer.

Fondly and with great appreciation and respect,




P.S.  You already saw the following at the bottom of my kaleidoscope piece.  I wrote it on the porch at our table at The Citadel beach house.

*    Thank you, Amy, for making us write a memoir about an object.  I gained insights from it.  Not finding my kaleidoscope to bring helped me be more specific about why I say I am a kaleidoscope because I had to bring items that represented my kaleidoscope and I did not have any trouble finding 750 words for this assignment and writing in first person.  I’m finding a little bit of my voice.  Of course, it also helped that I am looking out at the ocean, which I love.  I plan to use my pass to come here some more during the summer – a comfortable place for writing.

P.P.S.  I’m looking forward to our get together later in the summer.

P.P.P.S.  I’m sorry this is so long because I know you have a lot to read.  It is not the first draft.  I did edit it somewhat.  My husband read it and thought I said “thank you” too much.  Oh well, they are sincere.



Assignment 3 Final -- The Kaleidoscope

Assignment 3, Final -- The Kaleidoscope

June 28, 2009

Lilless McPherson Shilling

When I was eight, my parents gave me my first kaleidoscope as a birthday present.  Before that I had never seen one.  What a treasure.  I looked at it endlessly, enjoying the changing shapes and bright colors, savoring the feel of it in my hands, listening to the sound it made as I turned it.  It was small enough to hold in my hands.  Nine inches long.  Three inches in diameter.   Round – a tube -- I liked its symmetry.  Turning the tube was gratifying as the little pieces of something clicked into place, mysteriously making new shapes in a random way, keeping themes but never repeating the same “show” because the colors changed.

Eventually, I could not help myself and I had to take my kaleidoscope apart to find out how it worked.  How surprised I was to find that a few bits of colored glass  -- like sea glass  -- and mirrors could make such an array of shapes.  And how sad I was that I no longer had a working kaleidoscope – just the pieces.  In those days I did not feel my parents, who did not scold me for taking it apart or perhaps did not even know since they had four children and didn’t always pay attention to what we were doing, could afford to buy me another one.  I did not ask.

As a child, from time to time I came across other kaleidoscopes at friend’s homes or in stores.  I greeted them like old friends. Whenever I saw one I played with it, still enjoying the colors, the random designs, the symmetrical shapes, the feel, the sounds. But I never owned another one until I was an adult.

As an adult I have bought a few of kaleidoscopes.  One is similar to my childhood toy.  A few years ago I found the supplies for one at a children’s craft fair.  Another doesn’t have colored glass bits in it.  You just look through it and the mirrors make symmetrical but broken up shapes out of what you are pointing to. 

In thinking about my treasured toy, I realize that I am like a kaleidoscope.  I see myself as constantly changing -- or at least wanting to.  I also see myself as ordered, held in check by certain parameters.  I love bright colors.  My interests are sometimes random and fleeting but there are recurring themes.

The kaleidoscope represents diversity.  I usually embrace diversity – within parameters – within reason.  I include units and assignments on diversity in my writing class and in all other courses I teach: marketing, change management, interpersonal communication, leadership, human resources management, and health care delivery.

Recently, I looked for my kaleidoscopes and could not find them.  So I made a box filled with objects that reflect my interests, hobbies, and passions.  Here are the treasures in my “kaleidoscope box”:

*    Colorful yarn that I’ll use to knit or crochet a scarf for a friend.  My grandmother taught me to knit and crochet when I was eight. Years later, my mother-in-law showed me how to make dish cloths out of cotton yarn and now I make them all the time. Recently I made about 35 knitted dish clothes in various colors to give to the Shilling family members who came to our daughter’s wedding. Knitting and crocheting are a way of multi-tasking, reflecting how I live.  

*    A coral sponge visor that says “Holden Beach, NC”.  This represents my love of the outdoors, the sun, the beach, and North Carolina, where my brothers and I own a farm we inherited from our mother.

*    A colorful coffee mug that lists cities in North Carolina. I gave the mug to my mother years ago.  Although she moved many times in her adult life, she always said she was from North Carolina and she loved the mug.  I took it back after she died. 

*    Photos of our daughter, Paz, who was born prematurely.  One shows her seven days old when she was still in the hospital, looking out of what I see as an intelligent, curious, and creative face.  Her head of dark brown hair has a bald spot where it was shaved for her IV tubes.  Another shows me kissing her little head right near the IV tube that is taped on.  Another shows her, my husband, Mackie, and me at home on our patio.  She is still looking out of her intelligent, curious, and creative face.

*    A small dog figurine represents our dog Betsy, a German shorthaired pointer mix. She used to belong to Paz and Paz gave her to us.  Betsy brings unconditional love into our lives. She also needs a lot of exercise.  Every day my husband takes her to the beach in the morning and I take her for a walk on the golf course near our home in the evening.  Because of these walks, I log at least 10,000 steps a day on my pedometer and get to see the sunset every night.  Many birds – egrets, great blue herons, ibises, mallards, Canada geese, wood storks, blue birds, gold finches, cardinals, robins, anhingas, and others live on the golf course in the ponds and creeks.  We have our own rookery; the golf course is one of my favorite places.

The last kaleidoscope I bought was the one that only has mirrors, that focuses on objects in our external word.  When I look through it, I think about the first kaleidoscope my parents gave me for my eighth birthday, and gain insights about my life.  Is not finding even one of my kaleidoscopes lately a message that my life and my home are too cluttered, that I’m not sure of my way, that I need to focus on some themes or some passions that bring me joy, that will help me find my way?


Assignment 2 Final -- Our Farm

Assignment 2, Final

Our Farm

by Lilless McPherson Shilling

June 28, 2009



My grandparents are buried in an old cemetery in the woods in a rural area in North Carolina. My mother sometimes took my three brothers and me to visit their grave site. After my mother died in 2006, our families took her ashes there, sprinkled them between her parents’ graves, and held a private memorial service for her. We planted a hosta plant over her ashes.  Then we rushed to the nearby creek to wash off to try to avoid getting chiggers.


My first time back was a few weeks ago, when I visited the graveyard alone.  The hosta was still there.  I stayed a while to talk with my mother and weed the plot.  Then I rushed to the creek to wash off.


About a mile away is our farm.  I visited it too.  I call it our farm because my three brothers and I own it now. The house on it is empty.  No one has lived in it for many years, but it still holds many memories. Unpainted and dilapidated, it only stands erect because plants are holding it up and is barely visible from the road because of the grass, bushes, and trees that hide it. Once it was a comfortable country home. It had shingle siding and a tin roof. Flowers, plants, and trees abounded in the yard: a gardenia by the chimney, the cedar tree by the mail box, purple bearded irises, a grape arbor, crepe myrtle trees, rose of Sharon trees, a weeping willow tree, a locust tree, loblolly pines, blackberries, raspberries, and thistles. The cedar tree is still there but the mail box isn’t. Everything else is overgrown.


The house stands on a five-acre lot and the land around it is one hundred acres, about half of which is wooded and half farm land. Today a local farmer rents the farm land to plant cotton and soy beans.


Located on Nixonton Road near Elizabeth City in eastern North Carolina, our farm was originally the home of my great grandparents, the Davises. In 1947, when I was about five, my grandmother and grandfather (the Pendletons) moved into her father’s old deserted home. My grandparents renovated it and added a porch, garage, new kitchen, new bathroom, and new bedroom to the three bedroom, one bathroom house.


When my grandparents lived there they were among the few people in the area with indoor plumbing and electricity. The water at the farm house, which tasted like iron and had a slight rust color to it, came from a well. Most of the people (black and white) in homes nearby had outdoor pumps and outhouses and used kerosene lamps for light. The children I played with when I visited my grandparents lived in those homes. While I did not feel like I was better than they were, I did feel privileged compared to them.


Keeping the farm in our family was not easy. When my grandparents died in 1960, my mother and her two siblings inherited the property. For a while, renters lived in the home and it gradually went downhill. Then, my mother, who was divorced and whose four children were grown and gone, moved into the home to take care of it. This proved difficult and lonely for her but she was determined to keep the property in the family. However, when one of my brothers and his wife had their first child, they asked our mother to come live near them and help them with the baby. Again, renters moved in; and again, the farm house declined. Soon my mother’s brother and sister wanted to sell the farm, calling it a rural slum. My mother resisted their efforts to sell the property because it represented a legacy from her parents and she felt land was a good investment. In the late 1980s, When my uncle died, his family was insistent about selling out. Around that time, we sold some of the timber and my brothers and I used our portion of the profits to buy out my uncle’s part of the property. The McPhersons then owned two-thirds of the property and my mother was delighted. When my mother’s sister died a few years later, her children did not insist on selling the property because all of us knew how important it was to my mother. But after my mother died in 2006, her children started to urge us to sell or buy them out. Finally, in 2008, we bought them out. Now the McPhersons own the entire property.


While our farm house is almost gone, our plants are still living, and our land is still there.  We still smell the cedar tree. We still hear the bob whites and other birds. Cars still pass by on the old country road.


When I go back to our property and feel a sense of ownership and can picture a future for my brothers and all our families there, I realize this is why my mother struggled to keep her parents’ home.  This is what she wanted. Our legacy continues.  It is worth getting chiggers.


Our farm house still stands

My family owns the land

We will persevere





Assignment 1, Final, June 28, 2009

Jim McPherson: Father and Role Model


Recently, I was in the small waiting room of an office that belonged to two chiropractors. One of the chiropractors (not mine) was at the desk, talking loudly to his son and daughter-in-law who were also sitting in the waiting room. I noticed he was speaking with a heavy African-American accent in a disparaging way, pretending he was Barack Obama. Although I don’t usually butt into other people’s conversations uninvited, I was so riled by the man’s remarks that I said, “You know, Barack Obama does not speak that way at all.  He went to Harvard Law School and is an eloquent speaker.”  The man apologized and I accepted his apology.  Then we all talked about tennis for a while because his son and my daughter used to play together in high school. Later I mentioned I teach marketing and suggested that it would be better for his marketing if he not talk politics in the waiting room.  My chiropractor happened to overhear this conversation and told me later he was glad I spoke up. 

 I thought about what made me speak up -- the example my father set.

My family lived in Iowa during part of my childhood. Once, when I was about seven, my father heard me playing with my friends and repeating something I had heard my friends say, “Eenie, meenie, miney, moe. Catch a nigger by the toe.” Although he did not get mad or holler at me, he explained that “nigger” was not a nice word. “That’s a mean word. It hurts people’s feelings. Also, we need to be especially careful what we say because we are southern and people think all southerners are prejudiced against Negroes (the polite term in my father’s time).” I learned that day to say, “Catch a tiger by the toe.”

“I’m Jim McPherson.” That’s how my father introduced himself. Although he was known at work as Dr. McPherson, he always introduced himself as Jim McPherson and did not insist on people calling him doctor or professor. He believed that people who deserved the honor did not need to flaunt it. His way of introducing himself reflected his egalitarian view toward people and life.

One summer day when I was 13 my family was driving along Route 1 on the way to North Carolina, where my grandparents lived, from Arlington, Virginia, where we lived then. In those days, U.S. 95 did not exist and cars did not have air conditioning. Hot and hungry, we stopped in a restaurant south of Richmond to eat. I quickly ran into the bathroom and when I came out, I heard my father saying, “I’m Jim McPherson, and this is my family of six people. We were planning to eat here but now we will not because your restaurant discriminates against Negroes.” I asked my mother what Dad was talking about and she pointed to a sign that said: “This establishment reserves the right to refuse service to anyone.” My mother explained that my they were offended by the sign because it was a way of discriminating against people because of their color. We then all filed out of the restaurant – still hot and hungry.

Dad was raised in a wealthy home. His family had African-American maids. He wore nice clothes, played tennis, and went away every summer to camp. When the Great Depression hit, his father lost his ice packing business.  My father’s sister, a teacher, paid for him to go to college because his parents could not afford it.

At college Dad pledged a fraternity but later lost interest in and respect for fraternity life. He once told me he thought he would have matured a lot more in college if he had not been a member of a fraternity. He also detested the system of blackballing, where just one member of a fraternity could bar the entrance of a potential brother.  And he never respected the “sanctity” of private clubs that barred African-Americans, Jews, or women.

He was a Democrat but not a Dixiecrat. He worked for civil rights for African Americans in the 1930s, long before the official “Civil Rights Movement” began in the 1950s. As a photojournalist for a local paper in Norfolk, Virginia, he took photos and wrote stories about the living conditions in the slums, trying to help improve those conditions.

Years later, when he was working at the National Education Association in Washington, DC, and in charge of arranging a conference for audiovisual educators, he called the manager of a St. Louis hotel to arrange for the meeting to be held there. “Hi, I’m Jim McPherson and am looking to bring a national group of educators to your city for a conference,” he said. After they talked a while and the manager understood who would be coming to the meeting, he said, “We’ll be honored to hold your event at our hotel, but, of course, your colored members will not be able to stay in rooms at our hotel.” With that my father said, "Well, then, we will not be coming to your city at all."  And he pulled the meeting out of St. Louis.

When Dad died at age 60 of a massive heart attack in 1972, I was devastated. At first, I felt as though my feet had been cut off.  He was my mentor, my base, my foundation.  But today, I remember the example he set for me.  I am a parent and role model too.  Today I speak up for others and against prejudice and inequality.  I carry on my father’s legacy and I know he would be proud of me.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bret Lott's Book

I enjoyed reading Before We Get Started and hearing what Bret Lott had to say when he visited the Lowcountry Writing Project. However, Lott's book was not as easy to get through as the others we read for this course. I admired Lott's honesty and willingness to talk about his struggles and rejections. Two anecdotes I particularly appreciated were when he talked about his camping trip with his sons and when he talked about his book signing experience when a woman asked him to dedicate his book to her dog.  I read part of the book before he spoke and part after his talk.  Frankly, he did not seem that interested in talking with us.  Perhaps he has been asked too often.

Daily Log, June 25, 2009

Submitted by Lilless McPherson Shilling

Journal. Delores led us in our journal writing. She asked us to write a six-word memoir based on some of the following topics: your first job, your first kiss, what you were like in elementary school, secret of being in a good relationship or marriage, your biggest regret, the best trip you ever took.

Delores gave us a handout of personal history questions from Real Simple magazine and suggested a website for six-word memoirs:

Snacks. I introduced the snacks, including some that were “memoir” snacks: orange slices, ginger snaps, fig bars, popcorn, and fruit cocktail.

Odds & ends. We talked about plans for the October writing marathon.
Book discussion. We discussed Bret Lott’s memoir, Before We Get Started. The conversation centered on Lott’s reliance on faith and the similarities and differences between Lott and Stephen King.

Similarities: Both authors discuss rejection, the influence of their wives, and the importance of discipline and honesty in writing. Both admire the writing of Raymond Carver, a short story writer.

Differences: King uses humor and profane language to humorous effect. While both referred to other writers, Lott uses much longer quotes.

Mini-lesson. Amy led us in a mini-lesson on dialog. She asked us to think about when to use it, when not to use it, how to use it, and how to make it sound realistic. She said, “In memoir, it’s a way of bringing other peoples’ voices into your text.” Our exercise was to create a dialogue between Stephen King, Bret Lott, and William Zinsser. She handed out “12 Exercises for Improving Dialog.”

We devoted the rest of our session to response group and writing time.