Stories & Webs

My writing has been shaped by a history of reading about violence, and that violence is perceived as transformative and even spiritual in its results. That violence began with my earliest discovery of books and stories, those from the Bible. While one might argue the books of the Old and New Testaments offer proverbs and pastoral psalms as well as guidance for love, they are full of justification for and forgiveness of violent acts. Violence can certainly be physical AND psychological and emotional. When I studied literature in college, medieval literature, Beowulf, all the way to Southern lit, Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away—a lineage of violence in the history of literature captivated me.

Nightmares have plagued my sleep. Vivid, horrific cinematic-type dreams of war, abductions, gang-mafia-mob torture, one-on-one murders, etc. that haunt my days, too, and so, I made a choice in my twenties to stop viewing extreme violence on the screen, not to read horror books, and to limit my in-take of mainstream fictional violence and television programming. That didn’t stop my nightmares but at least they weren’t layered with tv and movie imagery, or characters from a slasher book. I couldn’t watch tv at all without seeing commercials for violent investigative crime shows, depicting images of torture in a matter of fifteen seconds. There was no guarantee that I wouldn’t see it, so I stopped watching tv. While I want you to understand that I do not have my head in the sand, please know that I have always read the news (The Washington Post) religiously, and a lot of books of both fiction and nonfiction, mostly literary fiction and political nonfiction, some memoir, some poetry, some history, some philosophy and theory, art criticism…that’s enough, you get the idea. I don’t need the tv images to understand violence. I am regularly horrified because the images are already in my head.

So, I made a promise to myself after writing my first novel, Multiple Exposure, that I wouldn’t focus on violence in the next books that I wrote. That was in 2012. The spider was already my logo, and I viewed storytelling as a web, but Multiple Exposure was still focused on violence and fear, even if the narrative wasn’t exactly linear. In my point of view at the time, the spider as consumer was as violent as life needed to be, and consumption-conflict might be present but it didn’t have to be the source or the result of the story’s meaning, linear or not. And spider woman in the indigenous stories I read was like my relatives who told stories and histories and spun dreams, fantasies, and tall tales. I was drawn to her story web.

My transformative and spiritual experiences in life were sourced from something other than violence—I had been regularly transformed and felt a spiritual connection to trees and plants, people, animals, landscapes, even to history and people and moments in history that I learned about when I visited a place. My spiritual experience and transformative life lessons were not shaped by violence happening to me or around me. While I was defined by violence and influenced so profoundly that I was shaken by empathy for every crises I read about in the papers, and I still am, sometimes, I focused my writing on telling a different kind of story. I took what I considered to be a new route, though I’d already been writing these stories about a medicine wheel in college.

In the stories, I wanted to show sorrow for the passage of time, for those unattainable moments that we all want but don’t achieve, for the sweetness that surprises us, for the full circles and spontaneous songs we sing together and the moments of longing when we want to be heard and felt, understood beyond even our own knowing. That was my focus for the Family Medicine Wheel series, and the first book was published in 2015. I wanted the narrator, Robin Ballard, to reveal a woven story, not linear, and more than that, I wanted it to be interwoven with the stories of her family members, with their secrets and lies. I wanted the books to reveal how stories move in and out of our lives, and we are yearning for information about aspects of how our family’s stories intermingle with and define our own at different times. We struggle with trying to make sense of them, as Robin does. Success and failure are not singular tracks limited to one aspect of our lives. The reader might think that Robin could succeed at songwriting with Kevin, while failing to fall for him romantically. And then, later, one sees that Robin being single is a success, and the songwriting is a burden once she discovers her joy in managing the tea shop with her aunt. This is only one part of Robin’s life from the books. And, she is only one character of many.

The stories of Robin’s ancestors are equally as focused on transformative redemptive experiences, free of violence as the main initiator of change and more appreciative of a connection to the landscape, their place in history, their growth into the future. Robin’s great-grandmother and her friends carry plant medicine, and go searching for it, and moreover, each character has at least one talent that they offer as a medicine to the people around them, to the world. That’s the intimate take-away from both books in my series.

Yesterday, I read these excerpts (copied below) in Rob Brezsny’s most recent newsletter, and they are the best descriptions of the sentiment I hold in my own heart when I write the Family Medicine Wheel books and how I changed my writing focus:


It’s hard to find modern stories that don’t depend on endless conflict to advance the plot. I understand the attraction to such stories, but I don’t understand why they dominate storytelling.

Are authors and filmmakers really unable to conceive of the possibility that entertaining adventures might emerge from pursuing discovery and excitement and joy as much as from overcoming relentless conflict and difficulty?

Read what Ursula K. Le Guin has to say about the subject.

“The Hero has decreed that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of the narrative, including the novel, is conflict; and third, that the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it.

“I differ with all of this. I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.”

“One relationship among elements in the novel may well be that of conflict, but the reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd.

“(I have read a how-to-write manual that said, ‘A story should be seen as a battle’ and went on about strategies, attacks, victory, etc.)

“Conflict, competition, stress, and struggle, within the narrative conceived as carrier bag or medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.”

—In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin writes much more on these subjects:



In her essay “Spider Woman as Healer,” Nancy Corson Carter writes:

“I am inspired by another way of storytelling—not the linear, singular, ‘breakthrough’ and ‘power over’ brilliance of the ‘hero’ narrative, but the spiraling, juxtaposing, and interpenetrating ‘power with’ luminosity of the weaver in the act of telling.

“I imagine the weaver as the one who attends and intends while the hero extends; the weaver carefully untangles knots that need to be rewoven, while the hero cuts them asunder with his sword.

“Ursula K. Le Guin writes of an ‘unheroic’ fiction under the rubric of the ‘carrier bag theory of fiction.’ This term comes from the idea that the earliest cultural inventions were probably containers, slings, or net carriers used to hold gathered things.

Le Guin decries the hero or ‘killer story’ as one that ‘hid my humanity from me.’

“In its place, she celebrates a new/old story, a ‘life story’ that many people have told for ages, in the forms of myths of creation and transformation, trickster stories, folktales, jokes, novels.’

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My books in the Family Medicine Wheel series:

Poke Sallet Queen & the Family Medicine Wheel

Ripe for the Pickin’

In Appreciation of Trees

I’ve missed my favorite trees from the past the way you might recall a friend who moved away and wish for their company. I’ll never see some of the trees again. They’ve been chopped down, they’ve fallen, been struck by lightning, or they are somewhere else I’ll never return to, or they’re on private property—trees that were my secret escape when I was growing up. I ran to them, sitting on their roots, my back resting on their trunks, and I’d tell them my frustrations. I’d ask where to go and what to do. Tulip poplars mainly. I followed the wind on a few occasions. I still love the flowers and the wonder of such a flower falling so far from the tops. 

Self portrait: Originally taken for an Instagram yoga challenge in 2016. #AsanArts
Tulip poplar flower. All nature photos by me. All yoga photos by Terry Morris.

There are trees that I knew only for a short time in my life—like a fun neighbor. We had a huge weeping willow, the largest I’ve still ever seen, and I could disappear underneath it. The canopy towered to the ground, as if Cousin It was a tree, and I loved it underneath there as much as I loved watching the Addams Family. This was my own special hideaway, and then we moved. I pass by that location every so often through my life on my way to visit my nana, and the tree is gone. There’s not even a stump that I can see from the road. I don’t recall when it wasn’t there on my drive—maybe in my twenties. 

I’ve never met a more gorgeous magnolia than one in my friends’ yard in Knoxville. It was impressive, old and large, uninhibited—the branches stretched low, medium, and high, filled with flowers and the tree held them up as candles. I picked my way through and underneath it until I reached an opening near the trunk—a circle of space, pristine for watching the birds flit up and around, for seeing the glowing yellow of the flower centers and taking in their fragrance, witnessing the tiniest insects and particles dance in the sunlight. I reached the trunk, straddling branches. 

Behind our last home, a small cluster of walnut trees grew with a hackberry. I watched a marsh hawk routinely perch and survey the ground. She flew down and grabbed lizards and small snakes. A gang of crows threatened to attack her one day. They showed up one by one. I don’t know how many there were in the end. Loudly, they cawed. They pressed around her, toward her, and they tried to take her branch. She defended by threatening her talon and hopping toward the crows as if in a joust. Eventually, she flew away. They could not catch her, though they pursued her. She returned the next day. 

Another Instagram yoga challenge photo. I enjoyed going out into nature for the yoga challenges.

Trees were my escape on playgrounds. If there wasn’t a tree, I felt exposed and anxious. The presence of a tree is calming to me.

The sycamore tree with the elephant’s face and trunk extending away from the riverbank. The roots that I walked upon, where I sat, and pools gathered between them, holding squiggly slimy life. The tree shedding as a snake, whorls of bark floating on the water. 

In college, the ginkgo behind Harned Hall that shines golden in the autumn. Looking out the window and daydreaming during class, seeing the leaves dance toward the football stadium. The band played, and the music drifted inside the classroom—ah, brass. Bright out there with a heavy discussion in here. 

After beginning our family, we leave behind the Japanese maple planted by the sidewalk of our first home. I watched it grow from knee-high to taller than me in five years, after my friend brought it as a gift. I was surprised and flattered by such a beautiful tree. The rich brown of the tree’s mahogany leaves tinted red and tipped yellow sometimes. I didn’t want to leave the tree, but it was happy. 

The sprawling oak with a hulking trunk—guardian tree watching the field and the barn where the mules emerge and trot up to the fence. Fat acorns beneath my feet, between the blades of grass crushed shells over the years as if pounded from beach waves. The seashells sprang to my mind—those under the mossy oak while the sea breeze blew the grey Spanish moss as beards on the beach. The trails alongside, leading away, but this tree, here, by the coquina quarry, how did it survive so? 

Holly leaves needled into my bare feet, one stuck there so I waddled on the side of my foot, limping to get to the trunk, to sit under its evergreen, but it defied friendship in my grandmother’s yard. No other trees were near it, but a whippoorwill called every evening from the cedar trees across the farm road. 

The sounds from the trees are often soothing. The creaking reminds me of hardwood floors or of rocking chairs and porch swings, again, sounds that I enjoy. The knocking of woodpeckers, tapping branches, scratching leaves, rustling limbs—all quite pleasant sounds in nature. 

The tinkling chimes in the tree, little bells ringing in the forest, dangling from maples and hemlocks, an invitation. Chirps and calls, screech owls and hoots, hawk cry, wren scolding, dove coo, wild turkey laugh, gobbling above, flapping, leaves drifting down. 

“What kind is this?” I asked, touching its bark. I knuckle bump my favorite grapevines when I run on the trails. I pat the trunk of a burr oak and keep going. I feel a tap on my shoulder sometimes when I move through a cluster of young trees. My toes dance on the old roots, up, up, up as stairs—roots bigger than the young trees’ trunks. And tumbling down into creeks, cooling the feet in the summertime. We wade into the sunlit patches where trees with hairy roots drip into pools. Quick rush and cool down and on the move again, looking up into the branches, telling the motion of storms to come, of oceans far away delivering buckets of waves. The shelter of the trees from the blinding rain, the cove of dry, huddling very close to a big base, where there’s an almost steamy space to wait it out when no rock enclosures are nearby, feeling thankful for the tree while resting there. They host so many lifeforms–vines and moss, fungi, insects… us…

I could continue to write about favorite trees…

Finally—Pre-Orders on Ripe for the Pickin’

My new book is finally available for pre-sale here!

This novel is past, present, and future—a road trip and musical journey inspired by nature, family, and storytelling. Years in the making, I am surprised when a book is finished. Usually, I’m in editing and revision mode so deeply that I don’t see the end of the process clearly. I sense that it’s coming, but I don’t finalize books based on schedules. There’s not one action that says, this book is complete now. Combinations finish books. I hope that you’ll check out my book, Ripe for the Pickin’, inspired by places I love in Tennessee and Tennessee stories, plants, and music. Here’s the book cover, designed by Erica Trout Creative. You can read all about the book on the Thorncraft Publishing website.

Ripe for the Pickin’ by Shana Thornton. Book two in the Family Medicine Wheel series. Available March 4, 2022, through all major booksellers.

Thoughts While Looking at Orchids

The orchid is a kaleidoscopic plant. I hold my face very close to its face. What combinations propel it to bloom as the sun turns, as the humidity shifts? Until, a striking pattern of color and form emerges and spirals open, lilting as a dancer into multiple characters with conversations in their bodies. The orchid is capable of holding the gaze for valuable time and resources, even for life itself, as tales of orchid hunters and smugglers are sure to prove. 

Picasso & Orchids Collage by Shana Thornton. Orchids photo by Terry Morris. Cheekwood “Orchids in the Mansion” 2021. Picasso photo from video at Figares exhibition. Frist Art Museum 2021.

What presses an orchid and an artist to create, even the simplest of forms into an expression? This is not a callow show and representation. 

Textures. This one with its grey bulbous wormy-faced ends growing over the edge of the pot, reaching out as short tentacles, root-like but partially airborne. The green wedge-shaped leaves are hard and I could carve words into the flesh of them with the tips of my fingernails ever so slightly, and they seal them up afterward. The leaves sit that way, maybe growing another. It’s a long time. A thin stem arches up, nimble threading of lifetimes, those folds, as if butterflies about to emerge, greyed by coming into form and existence at first, as nearly all life, grey casting—and the pallor catches upon opening and unfolding and growing and it deepens and becomes rich and bold, taking its browns and greens, taking blue and purple, expressing yellow and pink, mauve and cream, maroon and orange forms defying categorization. Air plant. Blooms pull the stems in acrobatics. Tree leaping and clinging simultaneously.

A tendril swivels and pauses, steady. Another tendril swivels and pauses, steady. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Steady gaze. A long time…

Just before Valentine’s Day, we visited “Orchids in the Mansion” while the sky threatened ice and snow. The frigid air was a contrast to the tropical reflections that greeted us indoors, and sweat slid under our coats. Later, at Picasso’s Figares exhibit, the artist is there—painting a vase with flowers first while wearing a coat and scarf in the video.

See the artist’s focus mesmerized. Is it any less evident in the orchid? Or, in my eye pressed to a kaleidoscope’s lens? 

When you behold a flower in a state of wonder. 

Does the orchid marvel at the world—life sky, canopy bodies, its mouth open and tongue flared out for catching rain and travelers, faces peering in as if answers to existence awaited? 

Akin to wonder, to amaze, akin to bedazzlement, akin to bewitchingly cool. 

But, there’s a pressure to find and discover another expression. Not only of beauty, but of understanding, of appreciation for the connections of the artwork itself. Such complexity is wrapped into this simple sentiment—this basic need—as an artist that it is overwhelming, debilitating, and alienating at its most difficult, while it’s healing, exhilarating, and captivating at its most liberating to be aware of a creative state of being. 

Steady gazing to close until wispy as paper to ash by the burning of the sun the blooms fall away one by one. 

Orchids in the Mansion 2021

The original Picasso video on YouTube.