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 Man Who Knew A Briar-Eating Mule

It’s interesting the things you remember about people when they’re gone.  Example: Doug Mayes, the longtime Charlotte newscaster who passed away a few days ago at the age of 93.  When the tributes poured in for Doug, and there was an avalanche of them, folks talked about what a calm, reassuring presence he was on the evening newscast and what a gentleman he was, both on-air and in person.

I remember and honor all of that, because Doug was a friend, colleague and mentor.  But I will also never forget his imitation of a mule eating briars.

Doug was a Tennessee country boy who never forgot where he was from.  He went off to serve in the Navy in World War Two, already an accomplished musician, and came home to play string bass on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville before he began a many-decades career as a broadcaster.  Doug retained throughout his life the qualities he was raised with – honesty and forthrightness, homespun wisdom, loyalty to friends and family.  They are qualities that serve any person well, and he was richly endowed with them.

But Doug Mayes also brought from his Tennessee roots the knowledge of the sound a mule makes when it’s eating briars.  I’m sure he observed it first-hand, following a mule around a field during Spring plowing when he was a boy.  There’s no sound quite like it in the world – hard to describe, but when you heard it, you knew right away it was authentic.  It was a mule saying, As a mule, I’m bound to eat briars, but it’s a bother, and I’d have just as soon not done it.

Doug never did the imitation on the air that I know of, but sitting beside him on the news set at Charlotte’s WBTV many an evening, I came to know the imitation well.  He would always come forth with it when things were tight – when news was breaking fast and the air was filled with tension, when all hell was breaking loose back in the control room because a piece of film or videotape wasn’t ready.  Our motto was, “Don’t ever let ‘em see you sweat.”  The audience could care less if you were tense or the film wasn’t ready.  You were there to give them a calm, accurate, balanced view of the world at that moment.  But that didn’t mean we weren’t sweating underneath our makeup.  So Doug would do the mule bit while we were in a commercial break and that would ease the tension and we could get on with things.

I arrived at WBTV in 1970, a wet-behind-the-ears youngster out of Alabama, going to work for a station full of the giants of Carolina broadcasting, Doug among them.  They – Doug especially – made me feel at home, made me feel valued, made me want to do my best to uphold the standards he and the others had set.  They made me feel part of their family and gave me a home I didn’t want to leave during the 25 years I worked there.

I was proud to be among them.  And I was proud to know and work with a man with roots deep in the good, solid things about America.  A man who knew first-hand what a mule sounds like when he’s eating briars.