My All Time Favorite Christmas Story

They are a vanload of pilgrims, climbing through the swirling snow of a late December night from the Denver airport up toward ski country – a family from Missouri, another from North Carolina, a couple of college kids headed home for the holidays.  And the Guitar Man.

He wears jeans and a faded leather jacket.  His luggage consists of a duffel bag and a battered guitar case – a six-stringed Martin or Gibson probably, wood worn bare by the brushing wings of a million notes and chords.  He’s in his late twenties and he has a nice smile.  But he has a road-weary look about him, sort of like his guitar case.

The van driver is a jolly sort who keeps up a running conversation with his passengers, partly to relieve the boredom of the trip he makes up and down I-70 so many times that every boulder, every snow-crusted pine is etched in his subconscious; but also because he’s genuinely interested in people and he full of the holiday spirit.  He’s got Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops playing “Good King Wenceslas” on the stereo.  And he wants to know who the pilgrims are and where they’re from.  That’s how they get to know that they’re Missourians and Carolinians and college students, trading names and places and bits of personal background here in the warm temporary intimacy of a rubber-tired cocoon.

The last to speak is the Guitar Man, who says he’s a folksinger.  He’s been traveling the East, playing coffee houses and college campuses and small bars, trying to figure out if he can make a living with his music.  He’s soft-spoken and engagingly modest and the rest of the passengers can hear the music in his voice – a traveling troubadour, a man who tells stories in song.  And he has a story of his own.

There’s a lady in Frisco, a little mountain town just off the interstate.  A rather special lady, or at least she used to be.  She and the Guitar Man were more than friends once upon a time not loo long ago, until the music took hold and pulled him out on the road.  The Lady in Frisco begged him not to go, but it was something he just had to do.  The music was strong inside him – stronger, he thought, than love.  So he went, hoping that maybe love would wait.  During these long months while he was out there in the coffee houses and bars, the Guitar Man and the Lady in Frisco haven’t spoken or written, not once.  That was the way she wanted it.

Now, on this snowy night just before Christmas, the Guitar Man is headed back to Frisco, back to the tiny apartment where the Lady lives, carrying his duffel bag and his guitar and his heart.  The Lady in Frisco doesn’t know he’s coming.  And he doesn’t know what he’ll find when he gets there.  Maybe there’s someone else.  Maybe she’s so hurt and disappointed, maybe she thinks he’s so unreliable, she doesn’t want to see him any more.  She may not let him in.  But he’s come all this way to try.

The Guitar Man’s fellow pilgrims are all but struck dumb y his bittersweet story and by the anticipation of what’s to come.  The Guitar Man will be the first passenger to disembark, and all of the others will get to see if the Lady in Frisco turns him away.  If she does, he’ll ride on to the next town and find a place to crash for the night.

The van climbs on, past the meadow where the buffalo herd hunkers against the frigid night, past the rocks where the big-horn sheep scramble by day, up and over the Continental Divide.  The driver and the pilgrims are quiet, lost in their thoughts, considering the Continental Divide of the heart where east meets west and sometimes the altitude and the bitter wind are too much, where even the most resolute traveler has to turn back and seek shelter elsewhere.

On the stereo, the joyous strings of the Boston Pops ring out, “O Come All Ye Faithful.”  But the pilgrims hear another song of another season:  Ramblin’ Man, why don’t you settle down; Boston ain’t your kind of town; There ain’t no gold and there ain’t nobody like me.

And then they’re in Frisco and the van is crunching along a back street, pulling up in front of a row of one-story apartments.  Inside the van, you can hear a pin drop.  The Guitar Man climbs out.  “Good luck,” the driver says.  The Guitar man smiles, closes the door behind him, hoists his duffel bag and guitar case, and climbs the steps.  There’s a Christmas tree in the window, all decorated with colored lights and tinsel.  But for the pilgrims in the van, their faces pressed to the windows, it won’t be Christmas unless…

The Guitar Man knocks.  The door opens, the rectangle of light framing a young woman in a bathrobe.  The folks in the van can’t see her face very well, but they can imagine surprise, shock, maybe even anger.  Or maybe nothing.  That would be the worse.  “Come on lady,” somebody in the van says softly, “let him in.”  But they stand there in the light for a long moment, the Guitar Man and the Lady from Frisco, oblivious to the cold, the rest of their lives hanging in the balance.

Then she steps back from the door, making room for him.  The Guitar Man turns and gives the van folks a thumb’s up and then he enters and closes the door behind him.  In the van, they’re cheering and crying.

The pilgrims move on into the night, now lovely and silent and at peace with itself, all of them touched in some deep place of the soul they had forgotten was there.

The Power of Expectations

My late father-in-law, Paul Strong, was one of the finest men I’ve ever known, and one of the most inspiring.  When he was 67 years old, he suffered a massive, debilitating stroke.  He was rushed to a hospital in Birmingham, where the doctors said he wouldn’t last the night.  The next morning, he was still there, in a coma, clinging stubbornly to life.

That went on for several days.  The doctors would tell the family that Paul couldn’t last, to prepare for the end.  He kept clinging until the doctors grudgingly said he might live, but he’d never be able to go home.  He’d have to spend the rest of his life in a nursing facility.

To get to the point, Paul came out of the coma and went home, where with the help of his wonderful wife Lillian, his loving and supporting children and friends, and the most tenacity I’ve ever seen in a person, he lasted 17 more years.  That was incredible in itself, but the real story is in how he went about it.  Paul Strong decided that he was not only going to live, he was going to get better.  Each morning, he awoke determined to be in better shape by the time he slept that night.  He worked hard at walking, talking, keeping his mind alert.  But he did it with a great sense of humor that brightened up everybody around him.

When I eulogized him at the funeral, I spoke of the stroke, his physical burden, as a brick wall against which he pushed every day.  The pushing itself made him stronger, but over time, with his great grit and determination, he moved the darn thing.

I think one of Paul Strong’s best strengths lay in his expectations for himself.  He expected to get better, but more importantly, expected to do the work it took to get better, to move that brick wall a millimeter each day.  He worked at living up to his expectations, and he showed the rest of us how powerful expectations can be.

I thought of Paul today when I read about Cam Newton, the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers.  Cam didn’t get to start yesterday’s game at Seattle because he violated the team dress code.  Coach Ron Rivera has a rule: when you travel with the team to a game, you wear a dress shirt and tie.  The team may be struggling on the field this year, but by golly, they’re gonna look professional when they travel.  Cam showed up for the trip in a turtleneck, and he got benched.

newton turtleneck.jpg

There’s a lot of press and water cooler talk about how Ron Rivera’s dress code is penny-ante, nit-picking, nothing to punish your starting quarterback over.  I disagree, and so does Cam Newton, who to his great credit backed up the coach and said, in effect, “I messed up.”  Rivera has expectations for his team that run the gamut from wearing a tie to blocking, tackling, running pass routes correctly, having respect for the organization.  Some of those expectations may seem small, not worth sweating, but together they spell discipline.  And discipline gets results.

I’ve visited this topic before with the Panthers, some years ago when owner Jerry Richardson fired a popular coach who had done some good things before the team hit a significant decline.  Richardson had expectations, and when they weren’t met, he made a change.  And I’ll bet a wad of money that Jerry Richardson backs Ron Rivera to the hilt in this latest situation.

I learned about expectations early in life.  My father was a tough guy, a former college football player and Army Green Beret.  He was a hard man to please, and there were many times when we tangled over what I thought were his unreasonable expectations for me.  But somehow, along the way, I came to expect good things from myself, and if I’ve done some good things along the way, I credit Dad for instilling the habit of expectations in me, for taking responsibility for what I do…and don’t.

Ron Rivera and Cam Newton and Jerry Richardson are a good example for us to pass along to our kids.  If we expect good things, and let them know we do, they’re more likely to do good things.

I know this for sure, Paul Strong would give Ron and Cam a big old atta-boy.

Mama Cooper and Creedence: A Musical Journey

It’s a Saturday afternoon and my 11-year-old granddaughter and I are driving down a backroad singing along with Creedence Clearwater Revival from her iPhone.  Devanna knows all the lyrics, and I can join in on the choruses.  There’s a Bad Moon A’Risin’, I’m belting out in my best imitation of John Fogerty. 

Devanna is a bit surprised that – at my advanced age – I know anything at all about Creedence, or any other musicians you might call “cool.”  And I’m a bit surprised that an 11-year-old is into all that great music from the 60’s and 70’s.  But we grin at each other and keep belting.  I Heard It Through The Grapevine.  Which, as a former newsman, I’ve always considered a perfectly good way of disseminating information, especially when it comes to being jilted by your honey.

I tell Devanna that my musical tastes gallop off in a thousand directions at once.  I love and appreciate rock, country, folk, classical, jazz, gospel, anything that has good lyrics and a decent melody and beat.  I’m partial to Fleetwood Mac and the New York Philharmonic, Willie Nelson and Thelonious Monk.  My automobile is pretty much basic transportation, but it does, by golly, have satellite radio.

Where did this musical eclecticism come from?  I’d say it began with my grandmother, Mama Cooper, who was a piano teacher in my Alabama hometown.  When I was old enough to sit on the bench of the Story & Clark in her parlor, she started teaching me.  I stayed with it until I was old enough to chase girls, but by then, I knew the basics of how notes go together to make a composition, which key had three flats, and how 4/4 time differed from ¾.  And I had a growing notion that you didn’t have to be stuffy about your tastes, that there was all sorts of good music out there, in all sorts of genres.

My immediate family enjoyed music.  Mother played the piano, Dad had a nice baritone voice, and on family trips, they and we four kids sang a lot.  Down By The Old Mill Stream, Where I First Met You, With Your Eyes So Blue, Dressed In Gingham Too, etc. etc.  I played baritone sax in the high school band and sang in the choir at Elba Methodist.  And I launched my broadcasting career as a teenage disc jockey at WELB, the Mighty 1350, playing everything from Ray Charles to The Florida Boys.  After that, I disc jockeyed my way through college in Tuscaloosa.

Fast forward to 2002, when I had an idea for a story that seemed to work best on a live stage.  Not only that, I started hearing original songs in my head, and they seemed to play a central role in telling the story.  And so “Crossroads” was born.  I remembered enough of those basics from Mama Cooper’s piano lessons to put notes on paper and flesh out the words and melodies.  A fantastic composer, Bill Harbinson, took my hen scratching and turned it into a wonderful musical score.

The play sold out 26 performances at a professional theatre in Blowing Rock, North Carolina and launched my career as a playwright.  Seven other plays followed, one of them another musical, “The Christmas Bus.”  They’ve all been published and are performed by theatres across the country.

So yes, Devanna, I know a little bit about a lot of music.  Enough, you might say, to be dangerous.  I can sing the chorus to Bad Moon Risin’ and I can hum the melody to Symphony Pathetique.  It’s all in my head and it enriches my life in ways more numerous than I can count.  It can summon all of the human emotions, and maybe some I never imagined before.  I recommend it as an essential part of the human experience.

Thank you, Mama Cooper.  And thanks, too, to Creedence.

When Wooly Worms Disagree

I love this time of year in the North Carolina mountains.  The leaves have fallen in a blaze of color, the air is crisp, and the wooly worms are out.

You’re familiar, of course, with the legend of the wooly worm.  The woolys have alternating bands of brown and black on their furry bodies, and from ancient times, folks have studied the bands to predict the coming winter – black bands for cold and wet, brown for milder and dry.

In the mountain town of Banner Elk, there’s an annual Wooly Worm Festival in October.  One of the features is a wooly worm race, in which the entrants climb up a length of string.  The winner is proclaimed to be the champion predictor of what’s ahead.  More about that in a moment.

So I’m out for a walk in the mountains and wooly worms are everywhere.  The first one I spot has bold black tips front and back and a length of brown in the middle.  So, a tough start to the winter, a mild middle, and the usual nasty February and March.  Great.  Now I know how to plan my wardrobe.  But wait, the next wooly I spy has all brown.  Not even a hint of black.  So this guy is telling me the entire winter will be mild.  The longer I walk, the more woolys I see, the more confused I become.  They have every color combination imaginable.  Alas, my only sartorial choice is to layer.

What’s going on here?  Do wooly worms communicate with each other?  Do they get together and have a convention and over-indulge in wooly worm libations and decide to play a fast one on humans?  Okay Charlie, you go all brown and I’ll go wild with stripes and maybe even a little fuschia thrown in.  Then we’ll watch these hapless humans from the underbrush and laugh our butts off.

Another possibility is that the wooly worms could care less about predicting the winter, and are more attuned to finding a good place to hibernate.  And finally – and I think we have to give this careful consideration – is that this year, the woolys were too much distracted by the political campaigns and got thoroughly confused.

My friend Delbert Earle says his great uncle Orester (an avid amateur meteorologist if there ever was one) puts no stock whatsoever in wooly worms.  He consults his bunions, which he claims are a wildly accurate predictor of weather in the offing.  Orester will sit barefoot in front of the TV, watching the folks on the Weather Channel, and mutter, “That’s not right.”  Occasionally, Orester is right, which, unfortunately, encourages him.

Now, about the winning wooly worm at the Banner Elk festival?  His name is Hans Solo, which gives him a certain panache, and here is his prediction: a normal start to winter on December 21, followed by a couple of weeks of cold and snow, then 7 weeks of above normal temperatures with little or no snow, and finally a couple of weeks of average temperatures with light snow.  Somewhere out there is another wooly with the same markings, but I didn’t see him on my walk.  There are a couple of them in the underbrush laughing their butts off.  And I’m layering.  When all else fails, I’ll go see Orester.

Robert Inman's novels -- Home Fires Burning, Old Dogs and Children, Dairy Queen Days, Captain Saturday, and The Governor's Lady -- are available on Amazon Kindle and through Amazon.com.

Once A Fighter Pilot, Always A Fighter Pilot

I have a soft spot in my heart for fighter pilots, and that’s why I took more than passing interest in the story of Jeremiah O’Keefe, who passed away recently in Mississippi at age 93.  Jerry, as he was known, flew a Navy fighter in World War Two and, as the news story recounted, pretty much remained a fighter pilot all his life.

Let’s go back to April, 1945.  America and its allies are winning the war against Japan in the Pacific, closing in on the Japanese homeland.  O’Keefe takes off on his very first mission, part of a 24-plane squadron assigned to protect American ships unloading troops and supplies on Okinawa.  Suddenly, they’re warned of a large number of enemy planes heading their way – kamikazes, intent on ramming themselves into the ships below.

Jerry and his fellow pilots intercepted the Japanese planes, and by the time the battle was over, he had shot down five of the enemy, thus becoming – in his first taste of combat – an “ace.”  Jerry’s squadron was named, appropriately, the Death Rattlers.  Jerry kept flying and shooting down enemy planes until the war ended – and won a chest-full of medals for his heroics.

Like most of the young men who served in uniform in the war, Jerry went home, took off his uniform, and went to work in a family business – funeral homes and insurance.  He served a term in the Mississippi legislature and eight years as mayor of Biloxi.

Jerry O’Keefe became a champion of equal rights for black Mississippians.  When somebody at the Biloxi city hall issued a parade permit for the Ku Klux Klan, Jerry rescinded it, and when Klan members marched anyway, he had them arrested.  He got death threats, and a cross burned on his lawn, but he never backed down.  After all, he was a fighter pilot.  Japanese kamikazes or Kluxers, you just didn’t mess with Jerry O’Keefe.

One of my uncles was a fighter pilot in World War Two.  He flew Thunderbolts from England to support the allied campaign in Europe.  Had to bail out once when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire, but survived to fight another day.  After the war he finished his college education, went to medical school, and became a doctor.  He was a terrific doctor – smart, creative, compassionate, willing to try just about anything to help his patients.  Personally, he lived a bit on the edge.  I loved him dearly and thought he was one of the most interesting people on earth.  He was always, in my mind, a fighter pilot.

I paid tribute to my pilot uncle in my first novel, Home Fires Burning.  There’s a young fighter pilot in there, Billy Benefield, who is inspired by Uncle Bancroft.  He lives on the edge.  He’s the kind of guy who lands his Army Air Corps plane in the pasture next to his girlfriend’s house so he can take her for a ride.  Later, he battles Japanese planes in the Pacific.  He could have been Jerry O’Keefe.

As a storyteller, I’m drawn to characters who have some edges, some flaws, some texture.  People who are anything but dull.  Sometimes they get themselves into big trouble because they take risks and do outrageous things.  But that makes them infinitely more intriguing that folks who never take a chance with life.  Give me a fighter pilot any day.

 

I've Seen the Future and It Has No Driver

            Two geezers (about my age) are traveling by automobile.  Charley’s behind the wheel, Sam’s in the passenger seat.

            Sam says, “Hey, you just ran a red light!”

            Charley says, “What, am I driving?”

            I thought about Charley and Sam when I read the recent news about driverless cars.  The head of Ford announced that his company plans to mass produce self-driving taxis and have them in commercial operation by 2021.  Uber, the ride-sharing service, isn’t waiting around for Ford.  It plans to begin testing self-driving Volvos in Pittsburgh in a matter of weeks.  And then, the news that there’s already a self-driving taxi service in operation in Singapore.  A future of obsolete humans is coming faster than you think.

 Singapore Driverless Taxi

Singapore Driverless Taxi

            So Charley says, “What, am I driving?”

            And Sam says, “No, you’re not.”

            I’m intrigued by the idea, especially since my wife tells me I am a stubborn driver, one of those guys who hates to ask for directions.  I confess, I am loathe to admit that I don’t know where the heck I am or where I’m going.  But modern technology, in the form of GPS, has already come partly to my rescue.  Now, if I get lost, I blame it on Lillian.  That’s the name we’ve given to the woman whose voice come out of the GPS device.  Lillian was my late mother-in-law, a dear and beloved lady who was very good at giving directions.

            As a person who makes up stuff for a living, I’m always intrigued by people who create and the ideas they come up with, whether they actually work or not.  And my fevered imagination tends to take things to the next level – as in, if driverless cars, why not writerless books?  Just think of a story and it appears on paper without all that typing drudgery.  Or cookless meals, that appear without the mess of pots and pans.  You see where I’m going with this.

            My friend Delbert Earle says his wife is the creative one in his family.  She has invented the pre-soup-stained necktie.  The place where Delbert Earle works has a cafeteria where he and his buddies go for lunch.  Delbert Earle loves soup, but is somewhat challenged when it comes to handling a soup spoon.  His wife got tired of having his ties dry-cleaned, so she opted for if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em.  She put soup stains on all of Delbert Earle’s ties.  Became a trend-setter.  His buddies were taken by the novelty of it – not having to worry about getting soup on your tie -- so she’s doing the same for them.  She offers ties in chunky vegetable, tomato bisque, and gazpacho.  For Casual Fridays, she’s thinking about pre-soup-stained polo shirts.  Like the driverless car, it removes the issue of human error.

            Delbert Earle is fascinated by the idea of the driverless car.  He foresees the day when young women will be able to text on their cell phones, read People magazine, put on makeup, brush their hair, sing along with loud music, and even eat soup while they ride in driverless comfort to work.  But hey, he says, lots of them do that already.

            Let me hasten to associate myself with Delbert Earle in welcoming the driverless age.  No more blaming me for getting lost and refusing to ask for help.  Blame the whole dang automobile.  I will, however, miss Lillian.

           

Players in a Play, Warts and All

            My friends and I were talking the other day about habits – particularly how, as we get older, we have to temper the habits, especially the bad ones, we once had as younger folks.  The older we get, the less able we are to handle bad habits, the ones like smoking, drinking and cussing.  Our bad habits don’t get us in as much trouble these days as they used to because we simply can’t handle trouble the way we used to.  I think it’s a subtext of that thing called growing old gracefully.

 Mark Twain

Mark Twain

            But I reminded my friends of what Mark Twain once said about bad habits.  He said we shouldn’t abandon them too readily.  We should keep some in reserve for the day we really need to give up something.  He told the story of the woman who went to her doctor with an ailment.  He advised her to give up smoking.  Well, she didn’t smoke.  Drinking?  She never touched a drop.  Cussing?  She was appalled at the idea.  The doctor, unable to help, sent her home and she died soon thereafter.  She didn’t, you see, have anything to give up.  Twain never had that problem.  He smoked, drank and cussed.  He always had something in reserve.

            I thought about this business of habits when I was talking to a group of folks about my writing, about how I imagine characters and place them in a story.  I told the folks that in order for a story to begin for me, I have to imagine one person who absolutely intrigues me – a person with energy, quirks, foibles, warts, enough rough edges to make them truly interesting.  A person with some bad habits.

Once I know enough about that character to get started (never too much, because I want to discover things as we go along), then I can put them in a particular time and place, surround them with other characters, give them a compelling dilemma to deal with, and we’re off and running.  Then, my job is to be honest with the characters, present them warts and all.  To be, in other words, genuine.

Sometimes my characters infuriate me.  Often, they embarrass me.  I know from experience that they can have the same effect on my readers.  The central character in my novel Home Fires Burning is Jake Tibbetts, a crusty old southern editor who says his main purpose as a newspaper man is to “keep the community’s bowels in an uproar.”  He is a wonderfully maddening human being.  I once got a phone call from a reader who said, “I stayed up all night with that book, and if I could have gotten hold of Jake Tibbetts at 3:00 this morning, I would have wrung his neck.”  There were times in the writing of the book I felt the same way.

As a writer, I’m vitally interested in the inner life of humanity – those things that go on deep in the heart and soul, often concealed from the rest of the world, but crucial to knowing who a person truly is.  As William Faulkner put it, the secrets of the human heart.  There are dark and light places in all of us, and as a storyteller, I want to explore all of those places through the lives of the people who populate my tales. 

One thing I promise you.  The people in my stories may make you cringe, make you cry, make you furious.  But they will never be dull.  They will always have something in reserve to give up.  Mark Twain got it right.

Elephants At The Kitchen Window

My wife Paulette was reading awhile back about where you grow while you’re asleep.  “If that’s so,” she said, “I should be nine and a half feet tall.”

Paulette is one of the world’s great sleepers.  Now, I don’t mean that she sleeps all the time.  She gets eight good hours, and then she’s up and rearing to go.  When she’s awake, she’s a real dynamo – great wife, tireless worker.  But when she sleeps, brother, she sleeps.  Rip Van Winkle could take lessons.

I heard one fellow say that there are two kinds of sleepers in the world: light sleepers and heavy sleepers.  In any marriage, there’s likely to be one of each.  If two of the same kind marry, one of them will change, especially if both are heavy sleepers.  No marriage can succeed without one light sleeper.  After all, somebody in the marriage has to hear those things that go bump in the night – like elephants trying to get in the kitchen window.

I don’t know how heavy sleepers get to be that way, but my friend Delbert Earle says it’s all because of something he calls the Immutable Theory of Energy.  I think it’s a notion he got out of Popular Mechanics years ago.  Delbert Earle believes that we are all born with a certain amount of energy, and that we spend our lives using it up.  He says we can’t get any more than we originally had, but we can control how fast we use what we do have.

Delbert Earle says he is a heavy sleeper because he is conserving his energy.  He has finally convinced his wife not to wake him up when she hears elephants coming in the kitchen window.  She takes care of it herself.  So far, none have gotten in -- or at least that’s what Delbert Earle thinks; after all, he’s been asleep.  He has found no elephant tracks in the sink.

We light sleepers – Delbert Earle’s wife and I among them -- are guardians of home and hearth.  But I suspect the heavy sleepers will outlive us and be happier in the process.

Just thinking about it makes me want to take a nap.

I Feel Safer When You Hold My Hand

Our granddaughter has been visiting for a couple of weeks, and now that she’s back home, I miss her.  She’ll soon be eleven – smart, clever, and equipped with one of the most vivid imaginations I’ve seen in a person of any age.  She’s into Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and she makes up stories in those genres herself.  When we go to the swimming pool, we act them out.  She will one day be a movie director.

I look out for her, as grandfathers should.  When we cross a street or a parking lot, I say, “I feel so much safer when you hold my hand.”  And she does.  And we pass safely.  I’m reassured, and I believe she is too.

Both of my grandfathers were gone by the time I came along, but I had a grandmother who held my hand.  Nell Cooper was the family matriarch of our large, rowdy small town southern family.  I was the oldest of twelve grandchildren.  I could do no wrong.  That feeling has been a great comfort to me all of my life, knowing that I was extra-special in the eyes of one very special person.  It’s something worth living up to.

My grandmother and I took summer vacations together – nothing exotic, like Acapulco or the Canadian Rockies.  Instead, we got in her old Chevrolet and drove about forty miles out in the country to the crossroads home of my great-aunt, Mama Cooper’s sister.  And there we stayed for a week, sometimes two.  Just this one little snotty-nosed kid and two older women who doted on him.  Aunt Mayme, our hostess, told great smutty jokes, which had mostly to do with bathroom stuff.  The kid laughed his butt off.  When we returned home, I was rife with rottenness.

Sometimes, other sisters showed up (there was, at one time, nine of them) and they would visit as women do and tell stories and I would just sit there and listen and soak it all in.  They were daughters of a Methodist minister, and they had grown up in times of camp meetings and revivals and moving from one parsonage to another.  They were full of life (and sometimes mischief) and the tales they told to and about one another were better than any Star Wars or Indiana Jones.  

I truly believe those women made me a storyteller.  Every person who wants to write stories should have such a storehouse of material, delivered in person by people who represent their past, their legacy, their baggage.  That kind of material goes into a special place in the mind and heart to be doled out later as the need arises.

If I had one wish, it would be for every grandchild to have a grandparent who thinks the kid is extra special, who isn’t afraid to act silly and have adventures large and small, who feels safer when the kid is holding his or her hand.  I’m sure glad I had mine.

At Work in the Garden of the Mind

I’m at work in the garden and thinking about Price McLemore.

I met him years ago -- a cotton farmer in Montgomery County, Alabama, one of the few left in the area at the time.   He loved the feel of the soil, the rhythms of the seasons, and the notion that the land he farmed had the history of his family tied up in it.

One Spring day, in the little outbuilding he called an office, he showed me his journal.  It was a huge, leather-bound ledger that was the written history of the McLemore farm.  It went back a hundred years to the time before the Civil War.  Every McLemore who had farmed the land had made an entry in the journal every day of the cotton-growing season every year.  They started at planting time and went through harvest.  It was a matter of honor that no McLemore missed an entry.

Each recorded faithfully what the weather was like on a particular day, how the crop was growing, the rainfall, the battle against the boll weevil.  Over the span of time, the McLemores found that growing seasons repeated themselves if you recorded enough of them.  No matter what the present year was like, you could probably find a year somewhere in the past that resembled it.  And that could help you plan on how to spray and fertilize and when to hire workers to pick the cotton.

It amounted to a crude science, but it went far beyond that.  It said to me that man and nature are one, each with its seasons, repeating themselves in universal timelessness.  Birth and death, seedtime and harvest.  What goes around, comes around.  There’s a comfort and a hopefulness in that.

As a writer, I’ve come to think of my life as a journal, in which I have recorded every aspect of my being.  Whether I’ve written things down as they occurred or not, they’re all there – everything I’ve experienced, every thought or idea I’ve had, everything I’ve read, every place I’ve been, every person I’ve encountered.  Seeds planted, waiting to spring forth later as fruits of my imagination, just when I need them for whatever story I’m working on at the moment.

To have a proper garden, you have to tend to it – plant those seeds and nurture them through their growing time.  The best way I do that is by reading.  When I read a story, it opens my imagination and makes way for a seed for later harvest.  And that’s why I’m so passionate about young people using the summer for reading time, reading things just for fun, as I did when I was a boy.  I’ve been enjoying the harvest all my life.

So I’m working in the garden, literally and figuratively, tending the okra and squash, the cucumbers and onions, the peppers and herbs.  Thinking about young people and their imaginations, and about Price McLemore and about rhythms of life.  And I feel a little better about the world for all that.

 

The Freedom To Be Different

One of my favorite books is Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen, the story of the making of America’s constitution in 1787.  It was indeed a miracle, especially since so many people had a hand in it.  I dare say our constitution is the best work ever done by a committee – anytime, anywhere.

When the delegates left Independence Hall on September 17th after finishing their work, a woman in the crowd asked Benjamin Franklin, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

And Franklin answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Eight years later, in a speech to Congress, Fisher Ames talked about the difference between a monarchy and a republic: “A monarchy,” he said, “is a merchantman which sails well, but will sometimes strike on a rock and go to the bottom; a republic is like a raft which will never sink, but then your feet are always in the water.”

I like that – the image of our nation as a raft, all of us sitting on it together, all getting our feet wet.  Ben Franklin and Fisher Ames were telling us this republic of ours isn’t a spectator sport.   We grant ourselves great individual freedoms, but in return we assume great individual responsibility.  The republic doesn’t work unless we debate and vote and participate in its business.  Unless we get our feet wet. 

It doesn’t work unless we all work at protecting its freedoms, even when – especially when – they make us uncomfortable.  We insist on the right of people to say and write things we don’t like, to have ideas and religious beliefs and lifestyles we don’t agree with.  In short, to be different.

We dare to be different in America, and that’s the great engine that drives our national vigor and creativity.  We sometimes get things done by disturbing each other, by shaking each other out of ruts, by each of us contributing our diverse viewpoints to the whole.

If we ever stop that, if we ever insist that every American be the same, we’ll turn this raft of ours into a prison.

The Wonderful World of Plike

Two of my brothers-in-law, Paul and Jerry, recount with pleasure their boyhoods when days were filled with play in the woods and fields near their Birmingham home.  Days filled with plike.  As in, “Plike I’m the Lone Ranger and you’re Tonto.”  Plike being Southern for “play like.”  When you’re 10 years old and you’ve got a fertile, unspoiled imagination, you can be anything you like.  If you’re the Lone Ranger, you don’t even need a mask.  You plike you’ve got one, and if Tonto raises the issue, you make him ride side-saddle.

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I had the same kind of boyhood experience and – like Paul and Jerry – it was a powerful influence on the person I would become.  It was the kind of thing, for them and me, that nurtured imagination.  When you plike you’re the Lone Ranger, you are no longer a scrawny tow-headed boy, you become a hero of the Wild West.  You become not only hero, you become his story.  And you lay the groundwork for the imaginative work you’ll need to tackle as an adult.

My grandson Paul will be 2 years old in a couple of weeks, and he’s already heavy into plike.  His dad David and I were talking awhile back about Paul’s toys, about how it’s important that he have things that require his imagination to bring them to life.  Paul has several wooden toys.   By themselves, they don’t sing, dance, talk, or make armored personnel carrier sounds.   Instead, Paul has to lay his hands on them, engage his mind, and make them into whatever he wants them to be.  Paul’s favorite toys are construction vehicles – we call them “diggies.”  And the first verbal phrase he put together was, “Dump it out.”  Paul can also tell you where diggie operators go for breakfast: Waffle House.

Paul is following in the footsteps of his parents, who had the same kind of play experience as kids.  Our daughters’ favorite dolls when they were growing up were Raggedy Ann and Andy.  They didn’t cry, wet their underwear, or say “Mama.”  At least not on their own.  But when the girls’ imaginations took over – well, they could be the King and Queen of England if that’s what the girls wanted.  They also loved Legos, because you could turn them into things of the imagination.

When I walk through the toy section of a superstore, I see shelves full of toys that do things.  They do too much.  They don’t leave enough to the imagination.  They don’t leave room for plike.  And if kids aren’t getting in enough plike time when they’re young, how are they going to conjure up the imagination to solve adult problems – like how to save the world from global warming?

I guess I never really grew up, because I’m still heavy into plike.  That’s what I do when I write stories – make up stuff and put it down on paper.  People ask me where I get my ideas from, and I usually say, “I have no idea.”  But that’s not really so.  I have a whole storehouse of imagination to draw from, and I started storing stuff in it way back yonder when – like Paul and Jerry – I pliked my way through childhood, and never stopped.

In Praise of Booksellers

The world of words and ideas lost another champion recently with the passing of Nancy Olson, the founder and longtime owner of Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh.  Nancy was a kind, warmhearted and generous person who loved books and loved authors.  When you went to Quail Ridge to promote a new book, Nancy drew a crowd, made you feel at home, and made sure everybody who came in the store in the days and weeks after knew about your work.

Nancy was an independent bookseller, and one of the most successful anywhere.  Booksellers all over the country knew about Quail Ridge and admired the way she ran her store.  Those who studied how she did it knew that she combined the two essential ingredients of any successful bookseller: a love of books and authors and a keen business sense.  She made her store a warm and inviting place, she was a master of personal service to her customers, and she knew how to promote and market.

Not all that long ago, there were thousands of local, independently-owned bookstores in America, a great many of them started by good folks whose main attribute was a love of books and writing.  Any town of any size had at least one independent store, and in larger communities there might be scores of them. 

Then along came the big chains with huge stores and inventories and great buying and marketing clout.  It was devastating for the independents, just as the mom-and-pop grocery stores fell victim to the Krogers of the world.  Hundreds of independents fell by the wayside.  But a few, like Quail Ridge in Raleigh, survived because folks like Nancy Olson knew that a love of books wasn’t enough.  You had to know how to count and how to let the world know what you were doing.

More recently, bookstores of every size and shape – chains and independents alike – have struggled in the new world of e-books and online ordering.  When you can turn on your Kindle and order an electronic version of the latest hot seller, or go online to Amazon and get a physical copy delivered in a couple of days, why bother to get in the car and drive to a bookstore?  The reason you should is that those booksellers who have weathered the storm give you individual service, host authors to tell you about their work, and generally make you feel at home when you walk in the door.

My books are available in all sorts of formats and sources, but so-called “midlist” writers like me would not exist if it were not for people like Nancy Olson.  When you enter one of their stores and ask, “What have you got that’s good to read?” they can recommend a book that fits your particular taste.  To a bookseller like Nancy, every customer is an individual, unique and special.

I sure do miss Nancy Olson.  But Quail Ridge Books and Music is still going strong under new leadership, and when I have a new book to show off, I’ll make a beeline for that place.  And I’ll feel unique and special, too.

Call Yore Mama

The late football coach Bear Bryant made a television commercial for the phone company in Alabama some years ago.  The script called for a very brief appearance by the Bear, who was to pick up a phone and simply say, “Call yore mama.”  When the camera rolled, he picked up the phone and said, “Call yore mama.”  Then he paused for a second and ad-libbed, “I wish I could call mine.”

The Bear offered to do it again and follow the script, but the folks from the phone company wouldn’t hear of it.  Perfect, they said.  And when the commercial played on television around Mother’s Day, the phone company did a record business.

Bear Bryant left his mama on the farm in Moro Bottom, Arkansas back during the Depression and went off to college with all his belongings in a paper sack.  He became a world-famous man, and by the time he retired, he was the winningest college football coach in history, with a fistful of national championships.

His name was synonymous with athletic excellence.  But he would always tell you that he rules he lived by were the ones he learned at home with his feet under his mama’s table.  He would always tell his players to perform on the field in a way that would make their mamas and daddys proud.  He figured if you could play on Saturday and look your mama in the eye on Sunday, you had done all right.

I’ve always believed that if we’re lucky – and smart -- we don’t get too far from our raising.  There are lots of good mamas and daddys, and they send their children off into the world with qualities that last.  The first things kids want to do is to be independent, untie the apron strings, kick off the traces, make their own rules.  But oh, how often we find ourselves coming back to what we had to begin with.  Faced with difficult decisions, we wonder deep down inside what mama would say.  Could we look her in the eye on Sunday morning?

Bear Bryant had it right.  I think he called his mama long after she was gone.

Delbert Earle's Perfect Yard

It is a warm Spring afternoon, the kind you can have here in the Carolinas even before the first of May. 

My friend Delbert Earle is sitting at his kitchen table, next to the window that looks out on the back yard.  He can feel the warm breeze on his face, smell the scent of nature budding and bursting, all full of herself. 

He can hear the chattering of bird couples, fussing with each other over their redecorating plans:  “Shall we put the twig here?”  “No, silly, over there.”

            Every once in awhile, Delbert Earle leans toward the window and calls out, “Green side up!”  His boy Elrod is planting sod in the back yard.

            “Aw, Daddy,” Elrod calls back in disgust.

            Delbert Earle laughs.  Even Elrod cannot diminish his feeling of well-being this Spring afternoon.  This will be the year Delbert Earle has the perfect yard.

            Only fescue and ornamentals will sprout from his ground.

            Chickweed and crabgrass will move down the street for the summer.

            It will rain every third day – a warm, gentle rain.

            And Wal-Mart will run their best fertilizer on constant special.

            There will be no leaks in the garden hose, no pigeons in the eaves, no fungus in the photinia.

            The lawnmower will crank every time on the third pull.

            And the day the “Yard of the Month” committee shows up in front of Delbert Earle’s house, everything will be lush and green and exploding with color.

            As Delbert Earle ponders horticultural perfection, he can almost hear the song of the turtle-dove out in the yard where Elrod is planting sod.

            “Green side up!” he calls again – the call of the American Dreamer.

            After all, what’s Spring for, anyway?

There's Shortcuts, and then There's Shortcuts

My dear wife and I lay no claim to technological expertise, but we do have a navigation device in our car.  It invariably gets us where we are supposed to be, and it saves me from having to listen to the back seat driver who’s sitting in the passenger seat.  Our device features a nice female voice.  We have named her “Lillian,” in honor and memory of my late mother-in-law, who was very good at giving directions.

The only problem with Lillian is that she doesn’t know shortcuts.  When we are on a journey, she will direct us along main roads, especially Interstates and four-lanes, and for the most part that works well enough.  But occasionally, we enjoy traveling on byways, especially when they save time and aggravation.  Lillian doesn’t understand that.

We were planning a trip to eastern North Carolina recently, and we knew that if we followed Lillian’s directions, we would pass through a town where the main thoroughfare runs past an endless collection of strip shopping centers, all of which have traffic lights.  At the best of times, it is like swimming through molasses.  At peak traffic hours…well, you might as well pack a lunch and maybe even sleeping bags.

My good friend and excellent neighbor Jerry came to the rescue.  He suggested a shortcut that would bypass that traffic-challenged town, saving us a substantial amount of time and mental anguish.  We took his suggestion, and we’re so glad we did.

Jerry’s shortcut was a two-lane rural road that took us through verdant countryside of woods and pastures, comfortable old homes and churches, poultry houses and fields fresh-plowed and ready for planting.  On a warm sun-blessed day, with trees showing the first vivid green of early Spring, it was a comfort to the psyche.  We stopped for lunch at a crossroads café that reminded us of our mothers’ home cooking.  There wasn’t much traffic, but that didn’t really matter.  We were taking our time, resting our souls.  Thank you, Jerry.

Not all shortcuts are created equal.  There is one in particular that stands out in our memory as a shortcut gone bad.  We traveled often when our kids were young from North Carolina to Alabama, and that meant I-85 and I-20.  I always felt as if I were going to battle, facing peril like a man.  So it was with great joy that we received word of a shortcut between Atlanta and the Alabama line, courtesy of a dear lady named Lottie Daugherty, a friend of my mother-in-law.

Next trip to Alabama, we joyfully exited I-20 at the assigned interchange and drifted off into countryside.  And drifted and drifted and drifted.  We saw parts of West Georgia that most Georgians probably never knew existed.  The kids got rowdy with boredom in the back seat, and it seemed that every school bus and farm tractor in that part of the state decided to take our shortcut at that particular time.  We staggered back onto the Interstate an hour later, exhausted and feeble of mind.  We referred to that short cut in later times as the Lottie Daugherty Nature Trail.  We never again set foot on it.

So there’s shortcuts, and then there’s shortcuts.  These days, being a bit more travel-wise, I am wary of them.  I would never take another one suggested by a person named Lottie, lovely as she was.  I only travel those vetted and recommended by good friends like Jerry.  His is a gem.  For everything else, there’s Lillian.

The 101 Funniest Movies, Part Two

Awhile back, I wrote that the screenwriters’ organization I belong to, the Writers Guild of America, was compiling a list of the 101 funniest movies ever made.  Each writer was invited to nominate 15, and the ballots were compiled to come up with the top 101.  The results are in, so here are the top 10 vote-getters.  The envelope, please:

1.       Annie Hall

2.      Some Like It Hot

3.      Groundhog Day

4.      Airplane!

5.      Tootsie

6.      Young Frankenstein

7.      Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

8.     Blazing Saddles

9.      Monty Python and the Holy Grail

10.  National Lampoon’s Animal House

11.   This Is Spinal Tap

12.  The Producers

13.  The Big Lebowski

14.  Ghostbusters

15.   When Harry Met Sally

If you’d like to see the entire list of 101, it’s at http://www.wga.org/101Funniest.html
 

Now, compare those final results with the 15 I nominated, in no particular order:

The Pink Panther
A Shot In The Dark
The Graduate
The Producers
Caddy Shack
Weekend At Bernie’s
Ferris Beuller’s Day Off
Broadcast News
Driving Miss Daisy
The Long, Long Trailer
Home Alone
My Cousin Vinny
Mrs. Doubtfire
The Birdcage
Shrek

As you can see, only one of my nominees, The Producers, made the top 15.  8 of my 15 made the final cut of 101, but those were mostly far down the list.  It would seem that my sense of humor when it comes to movies is woefully out of touch with that of my fellow screenwriters.

When I shared my list of 15 with you last year, I said that what makes a movie funny is – to me at least – great comedic acting.  To be funny, a movie script has to start with humorous words, and that’s what screenwriters contribute.  But a fine comedic actor can take those words and turn them into something much more.  That’s why 2 Peter Sellers films are on my list.  I stand by that.  It reinforces my notion that one of the best parts of working in film -- or stage, for that matter -- is the collaborative nature of the work.  When a host of talented people bring their creativity to storytelling, it produces something unique and special.

You’ll have your own list of funny movies, and your own reasons why you think they make the grade.  I welcome your comments.

To Thine Own Self...Remembering Pat Conroy

            The most honest writer in America is gone.  Pat Conroy passed away last week and the literary world is remembering him as a giant who used the stuff of his own life to craft unforgettable fiction and nonfiction.  I remember him as one of the warmest, most generous people I’ve ever been around.

            It was 1986.  My first novel, Home Fires Burning, was scheduled for publication, and my editor, on a lark, had sent Pat a copy of the bound manuscript.  Pat was already a household name in American letters with The Water Is Wide and The Great Santini, both of which had been made into acclaimed movies -- not likely to have any interest in a novice like me.  But, incredibly, he did.

            Pat had been living in Italy, but came home to do the promotional tour for his new novel, The Prince of Tides, which was becoming a huge success.  One of his stops was Charlotte and a signing with his longtime friend, bookseller John Barringer.  And one of the publicity events in conjunction was a visit to the television station where I worked.

            I made it a point to meet Pat, mostly because I admired his work so much, but maybe secretly hoping some of  his talent might rub off on me.  He recognized my name immediately.  “My agent gave me your book, and I read it on the plane back home.  It’s terrific.”  I, who made a living gabbing on television, was speechless.  Pat was not only effusive in his praise and encouragement, he offered on the spot to write a “blurb,” a brief appraisal that my publisher could use in promoting the book.  Over time, I learned that Pat was just that way – a kind-hearted man who always had time to share himself with other writers, especially the new and struggling.

            Several years later, I introduced Pat to a standing-room-only crowd at a Charlotte literary festival.  We had a chance to visit backstage before the event, and I told Pat that like him, I was raised by a hard-nosed military father.  “I’m so sorry,” he said with a smile.  Pat’s dad, a Marine Corps pilot, was a monster who browbeat, belittled, and physically abused his wife and children.  Pat captured him exquisitely in The Great Santini.  My own father was mild by comparison, but Pat and I toted around similar baggage. 

            Pat was brutally honest in his writing.  In both fiction and nonfiction, he used the angst of his youth to craft stories that were so painfully authentic that they could make you cringe and cry.  He stepped on some toes and made some enemies, but he did it anyway because he had to.  “The reason I write,” he said in an interview, “is to explain my life to myself.  I’ve also discovered that when I do, I’m explaining other people’s lives to them.”

Pat created out of himself, and in that, he was a great inspiration to me and so many others who scribble, and even those who don’t.  He was the epitome of that oft-quoted line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Polonius says to his son Laertes, This above all: to thine own self be true.

I’m working on a new novel now, and reaching back into my own sometimes-painful youth, the way Pat Conroy did so eloquently and unflinchingly.  As I write, I’m aware of a dim figure looking over my shoulder, and with that presence, I feel braver, more sure of myself.  No, the Pat Conroy I knew did not die last week and never will.

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

It’s an old joke.  A fellow goes to New York to attend a concert, but gets lost.  He spots another fellow who’s carrying a violin case.  “Sir, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”  The musician smiles and says, “Practice, practice, practice.”

I think of that story sometimes when I’m working on a writing project.  In this sense, practice doesn’t mean practicing writing, it means all the work you do to get ready to write.  It’s like a sports team, spending the long hours it takes to hone skills and work on a game plan before the game actually happens.  The game itself is the culmination of all that practice time.

The practice time a writer spends often means the hours of research that go into making characters and their story authentic, and that’s true of both fiction and non-fiction.  If your audience finds something in your work that doesn’t ring true, it’s likely to affect how they perceive the whole of the work.  If the inauthenticity is serious enough, the audience member thinks, This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  Why should I believe anything he says?  Get the details right and the audience will willingly take a leap of faith into the story.  Get it wrong, and you’ve lost them.

I know from experience how that can happen.  In my novel Old Dogs and Children, I have a character cutting his finger in a woodworking accident.  He goes to the emergency room, and I have the doctor splashing alcohol on the cut before sewing it up.  After the book came out I was talking about it to a group that included a retired physician.  He said, “A doctor would never put alcohol on a wound like that.  Alcohol damages tissue.  There are much better things to use to sterilize.”  So the doctor in my audience didn’t believe my emergency room doctor, who – in my bumbling representation of him – didn’t know what he was doing.  I don’t think the error ruined the book for the doctor in my audience, but it taught me a lesson: make sure you know what you’re talking about.

Now here’s an example of how my practice worked.  A few years ago I wrote a play for Children’s Theatre of Charlotte called “The Drama Club,” which featured as its theme a struggle across racial divides in a high school.  I knew going in that I had to portray an honest and authentic world of high school, so that the high schoolers who came to see the play would find it plausible.  If they got it, I was successful.  If they didn’t, I lost them.  So I did a lot of research, including spending hours with a high school drama group, just being part of the furniture, watching and listening.  Several thousand high school students saw performances of “The Drama Club,” and the overwhelming response was, Yeah, they got it right.

I also know about bad practice, and that comes from my totally undistinguished career as a high school football player.  One season, our team won 1 game and lost 9.  The team we beat was 0-10 and we thrashed them 7-0.  Our practices were abysmal.  We spent most of our time just banging into each other, the harder the better as our coach saw it.  We learned nothing about our upcoming opponent, had no game plan to speak of.  The results spoke for themselves.

Writing practice – the kind I’m talking about – partly involves thinking about the heart and soul of the characters and having some idea about the general shape of their story.  Given the characters we’ve imagined, is what they do, say and think during the story believable?  It also involves getting the other details right, as much as humanly possible. 

It doesn’t all have to be done before a word is put on paper. The danger there is getting so caught up in practice that the game itself never begins.  Instead, it’s an ongoing process as the story unfolds and we began to understand more about who our people are and how and why they move through life, bumping up against themselves and each other, making sparks, making a story. 

So if we’re going to get it right, we practice, practice, practice.  Because it’s the only way to get to Carnegie Hall.

The Lively World of the Solitary Mind

It snowed, and I’m grateful.  For three days, I left the house once to check the mailbox (empty) and again to sweep the accumulated snow off the car.  It was only a six-inch snow, thereabouts, and it began to melt the day after it fell, but still – excuse enough to hunker down inside and enjoy the rare solitude.  Look out the window at the kids sledding on the hill behind the house, remember a bit about what it was like to be young and unencumbered, but enjoy the nostalgia with a warm cup of tea.

I’ve always believed that nature periodically forces solitude on us for our own good.  We dash about in our busy, noisy world, galloping off in all directions at once, and that’s okay for awhile because that’s just life.  But sometimes we need to check out.  I remember the words of my Bible School teacher on a rowdy summer morning eons ago:  “The Lord,” Mrs.  Prescott said, “wants everybody to sit down and shut up.”  And that’s what nature says to us once in awhile, maybe just to help us regain some sanity.

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With three days of solitude, the pages piled up on this new novel I’m working on.  I sat down and shut up and the story began to truly take hold in a way it hadn’t before.  I have this character who fascinates me, and I have put him in a particular time and place, surrounded him with other characters, and given him a dilemma.  A really big one.  I know enough about him now to keep going, to imagine how he might (or might not) face his dilemma.  And that’s the story, or at least the essence of it.  Now that it’s taken hold, it’s with me constantly.  I daydream in the day and wake in the night, some scene or bit of dialogue taking shape, becoming more than itself.  Nothing to do but write it down.

It’s a hard thing for a writer to do, to give yourself over to a story.  There’s first of all the busyness of life.  Most writers don’t make a living at it.  We carve out precious minutes, hours if we’re lucky, to do that thing we feel we must do.  But life intrudes: friends and family, the grocery store, runny noses and scraped elbows, jobs, doctors, school, etc. etc.  How can we shove all that aside to let a character and a story take us over?  It takes being selfish, which we’re taught at an early age is a bad thing.  William Faulkner knew about that when he said, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

And then there’s the issue of honesty.  If a character intrigues me, it’s a sure thing he or she has some intriguing flaws that give depth and texture to life.  My job is to portray that character, warts and all – to be honest and authentic, so that when you read the story you will say, “Yeah, that rings true.”  If I shy away from the dark places in my character’s soul, it’s because I’ve let myself become faint-hearted.  And then I cheat three people – the character, myself, and my reader.

This character I’m visiting with these days has some dark places, and it takes time and quiet and maybe even a little bit of perverse courage to look him in the eye, listen, and believe what he says.  It takes a willingness to be uncomfortable – to cringe at something he says or does, to ache for him when he is impaled on the horns of his dilemma.   Solitude gives me the time and space to buck up my courage and say to the character, “Okay, that hurts.  But go ahead.”

I’ve told before the story of a writer friend whose young son was asked on the first day of school, “What does your father do?”  The child answered, “He stares out the window a lot.”  So I’ve spent some precious days staring out the window, seeing the snow but really looking through that into the world my fevered imagination has invoked.  The days of snow and solitude will stay with me for a good while to come.