I doubt that Andrea Bocelli and Doc Watson ever met each other, but they sure had a lot in common, and not just blindness.  Both men saw things the rest of us don’t, and turned them into great music.

Arthel “Doc” Watson lost his sight before the age of one from an eye infection.  His parents taught him to work hard and take care of himself – and all of his life, he did.  He bought his first guitar with money he earned helping his brother chop down trees, and then he taught himself to play it.  By the time of his death at the age of the age of 89, he had won 7 Grammy awards and a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

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And what a lifetime it was.  He not only wrote and played and sang songs, he created a whole new style of guitar picking.  He had a world-wide legion of devoted fans who listened to his music and went to his concerts and were dazzled by his artistry and captivated by his genuine warmth.  He was a fine musician and a fine human being.

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Andrea Bocelli, the superb Italian tenor, was born with poor eyesight and lost it entirely after an accident on a soccer field at age 12.  By then he had already fallen in love with music, learned to play the piano and other instruments, and at age 7 decided that his voice was the best of them.  At last count, his recordings have sold more than 150 million copies worldwide.  Bocelli, like Doc Watson, has a devoted following who appreciate not only the quality of his voice, but the passion he brings to the interpretation of great music.

I once heard Doc Watson say that losing his sight made his develop and rely on his other senses, especially his hearing.  He told of playing hide-and-seek with his brother, and being able to tell where the brother was by listening for the tiny sound of his movements and breathing.  He developed a keen ear for voices, and if he heard you once, he knew who you were.  Unquestionably, he brought all of that to his music.  He listened to fiddlers, took apart their technique in his head, and adapted it to his guitar.  It was unlike anything guitarists had ever heard, and the best of them adapted and built on his unique style.

Bocelli, with his keen ear, finds and uses the subtle nuances of his songs.  In an interview a couple of years ago, he talked about the value of silence.  “Even in the most beautiful music there are some silences, which are there so we can witness the importance of silence.  Silence is more important than ever, as life today is full of noise.”  Listen carefully to Bocelli sing, and you hear how beautifully he uses silence.  He appreciates that even more because his life is consumed with sound, not sight.

I thought of Doc Watson and Andrea Bocelli when I was speaking to a group of children about reading and imagination.  “Imagination,” I told them, “is what you see when your eyes are closed.”  It’s the pictures in your mind that are triggered by everything else in your world – what you see, hear, taste, feel.   And if we don’t have use of our eyes – like Bocelli and Watson – our imaginations are even more exquisitely cultivated by the senses we do have.  I believe those two wonderful musicians give something unique and special to those of us who admire them because they are using their imaginations to the fullest.  In this way, they see things others miss.

When I write my stories, I’m in a sense writing with my eyes closed.  I’ve entered the world of the characters I’ve imagined.  I can see and hear and touch them, watch them move about and bump up against each other and make sparks and a story.  My job then is to give them free rein, to be honest and faithful with them, and to trust them to lead me through the underbrush and find the path.

If I do that, things turn out fine.  And in a very small way, I get fleeting glimpses of what artists like Andrea Bocelli and Doc Watson see.  It’s beautiful.

Christmas Is For Storytellers

My favorite time of the holiday season is Christmas afternoon.

It stems from my boyhood in a small southern town  in a family of storytellers to whom I owe much of who I am as a writer today.

We were a large, rowdy group – my mother, her three brothers, in-laws, cousins, and my grandmother,  Nell Cooper.  She was a feisty, independent soul – widowed at a fairly young age with four children at home.  She raised and educated them and in her later years enjoyed having them close at hand.  Especially on Christmas afternoon, when we all gathered at Mama Cooper’s house.

It was the family tradition for the twelve cousins (I was the oldest) to draw names a couple of weeks before and exchange small gifts.  Mama Cooper would hand out presents to each of us, we would all have punch and cookies, and then the kids were sent outdoors to play with the stuff we had gotten from Santa that morning.  The adults would gather around Mama Cooper’s dining room table and tell stories.

Mama Cooper was the tee-totaling daughter of a Methodist minister, and she did not allow fermented spirits in her house.  Except on Christmas afternoon.  The boys would concoct eggnog, liberally flavored with bourbon, and the more eggnog that was consumed, the better the storytelling got.  My dad and three uncles had been in World War Two – two pilots, a sailor, an infantryman – and much of the storytelling involved that time in their lives.  Never about combat, but about far-flung places, girlfriends who became wives, the fast-moving and often chaotic world into which they had all been catapulted  from that small southern town.  And about life back home while the boys were off at war – the ration books, the gold stars in windows, the heady uncertainty, the powerful sense of relief when it was all over and they could put small-town lives back together.

Nell Cooper and her family, c. 1927

Nell Cooper and her family, c. 1927

Curious kid that I was, I would leave the little young’uns playing in the yard, sneak back into the house, and hide in the living room, listening to the tales being told on the other side of the wall.  I don’t remember many of the details of the grownups’ stories, but I do remember vividly the realization that I was hearing things about my parents, aunts, uncles and grandmother that I could have scarcely imagined.  I understood that there was a rich texture to their lives, an undercurrent, that shaped the people they were now, and that the texture, the undercurrent, was the most fascinating part about them.  It made them intriguing, even exotic, and it had a profound impact on my evolving view of the world and human experience.

As a writer, I am all about characters and relationships.  There are things about people we see and hear, and there are things unseen and unheard.  There is a tension between the faces we show to the world and the things that are in our hearts and souls.  That tension has a great deal to do with who we are and how we relate to the people around us.  Our relationships are profoundly affected by our hidden places, our secrets, the soul stuff.  And how we each reconcile the tension between the obvious and the secret has a great deal to do with how genuine we are as people.

Okay, that’s all a mouthful, but it’s as close as I can get to my approach as a storyteller.  My job is to present a character who bubbles up from my imagination, present that character as honestly as I can, warts and all, and plumb the depths of the hidden stuff.  I hope, when the work is done, you’ll find something that resonates with your life, your world, your relationships.  If I do, I’ve been successful.

It all goes back to Christmas afternoon at Mama Cooper’s house.  Ever since, those few hours have been special to me.  This Christmas afternoon, I’ll take some time to be quiet and think about those good people there in Mama Cooper’s dining room and thank them for the gift they gave me without ever knowing they did.

Merry Christmas.

The Moment I Became A Storyteller

I’m back home today – Elba, Alabama, the neatest little town on earth – with my new book.  About four thousand people live here, and that’s about what it was when I was growing up in the 50’s.  It was, and I’m sure still is, a village that nurtured its young.  And it was a great place to learn to be a storyteller: a small stage on which the same people interacted with each other day after day.  If you were smart enough to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut, you could learn a lot about what makes human beings tick.  You could see people accommodating each other despite their differences.  And there were just enough oddballs of various stripes to make it intriguing.

As I drove into town, I remembered the exact moment when I became a storyteller.  It happened in the attic of my grandmother’s house, which is still standing.  The attic was a large room, added by my grandfather after Elba flooded in 1929 so his family would have a dry place to seek refuge if the river got out of its banks again.   When I was a kid, it was a sort of family dumping ground.


My father and three uncles were in World War Two, and one of them, Uncle Bancroft, was a fighter pilot.  He flew P-51’s out of England, supporting the Allied march across Europe.  Part of the rich family lore was the story of how Uncle Bancroft was shot down and lived to tell about it.  He was escorting bombers when his plane was crippled by anti-aircraft fire.  Somehow, he managed to nurse the plane back to the English Channel, where he bailed out and was rescued by a British ship.  As a youngster, I thought that was about the coolest thing I had ever heard.

When Dad and the uncles came back from the war, they stored various items of their memorabilia in my grandmother’s attic, and in Uncle Bancroft’s footlocker, I found a parachute.  It had a silk canopy about four feet across, which I later learned was used for a flare.  But in my fevered 10-year-old imagination, I got the idea that this was the very parachute Uncle Bancroft had used when his plane got hit.  I could just see him there in the cockpit, getting the last bit of juice out of the smoking, dying engine, managing with great skill and courage to make it to the coast, throwing back the cockpit, climbing out on the wing, and leaping into space.  Dang!

Propelled by terminal foolishness, I tied that parachute to my skinny shoulders, climbed out on the attic roof, and got ready to emulate Uncle Bancroft’s death-defying leap.  It was at the moment my feet left the roof edge that it dawned on me I had done a very dumb thing, and that I should probably tell stories rather than act them out.  Luckily, I crash-landed in the nandina bush below with nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises.  There was no British ship to pick me up.

In the considerable years since, I have done any number of foolish things.  But mostly, I have written about other people doing foolish things.  It’s a lot safer.

Floating To Earth On Faith

My father was a paratrooper.

He served as an infantry officer in World War Two, and settled into a mostly quiet life as a father of four in a small Alabama town.  Then the Army summoned him again.  He was called back to active duty for the Korean Conflict, and that’s when the paratrooper business began.  He was a rugged guy, a former college football player, and for some reason he sought the more rugged side of Army life.  He joined the Rangers, and then the Special Forces.  He was a Green Beret who jumped out of airplanes.

I suspect my mother thought he was nuts – a guy with four young children at home who jumped out of airplanes.  It wasn’t until he was back from Korea that we learned that he and his comrades jumped out of airplanes behind enemy lines in North Korea and did mischief.  It’s a good thing we didn’t know.  He stayed in the service for awhile after Korea and we lived on Army posts – Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, Fort Benning.  He kept on jumping out of airplanes.


Sometimes we watched.  Mother would load the four kids in the car and we would park next to a large field.  We’d hear the drone of the planes and then they would roar into view and people would start jumping out of them.  Suddenly the air was filled with parachutes, hundreds of them, all floating to earth.  It was an awesome sight, and as the oldest of the four kids, I thought it was fabulous.

It all came to an end when Dad’s unit got orders to go to Japan – a two-year peacetime deployment.  That’s when Mother put her foot down.  Enough foolishness.  Dad got out of the Army and we returned to small-town Alabama life.  If Dad missed it, he never said so.  But I suspect he did.

I’ve thought about those paratroopers often in my adult life.  I did an Army hitch, but never jumped out of an airplane.  But I’ve always wanted to.  It’s on my bucket list.

I’ve also thought about it in another way – how similar it is to writing.  When a guy jumps out of an airplane, he’s taking a leap of faith – trusting that his parachute will open and he will float to earth.  When I stare at a blank page and begin to tell a story, that’s also a leap of faith.  I have to believe that my characters will truly come to life and lead me through the roller-coaster ride of the tale.  I have to believe that somewhere in the future I will land safely and write “The End” and think I’ve done okay.

It’s taking that first leap of faith that’s the hardest part – flinging oneself out the door of the plane of imagination.  It takes a bit of a certain kind of courage, and maybe – like my Dad – a touch of madness.  There are so many people with a tale to tell and the aptitude with words to tell it.  But few ever do.  Taking the first step can be daunting, even terrifying.  My friend Ralph Keyes talked about this elegantly in his book The Courage to Write.  If you’re thinking about writing, you should read it.

This new book I have coming out in September, The Governor’s Lady, took me ten years to write.  It was a time when I was becoming a playwright – seven plays, two of them musicals, all produced and all published by Dramatic Publishing Company.  But the book was always there, and I always returned, trusting that I would land safely and write “The End.”  Eventually I did, and readers will decide if I did okay.

There’s an old joke among paratroopers.  A young trooper, about to make his first jump, goes to his sergeant and confesses he’s terrified.

“Nothing to it,” Sarge says.  “Your parachute is attached to the plane, and when you jump, the line pulls the chute out of its pack, it opens, and you float safely to earth.  In the very unlikely event the main chute doesn’t deploy, you pull the handle on your emergency chute, it opens, and you float safely to earth.  When you get down, there’s a truck waiting to bring you back to the barracks.”

Reassured by Sarge, the young trooper leaps out of the plane.  The main chute doesn’t open.  He reaches for the handle of the emergency, and it comes off in his hand.  As he plummets toward earth, he says, “Yeah, and I bet there ain’t no danged truck down there, either.”

I guess that’s the risk paratroopers and writers take when they make the leap of faith.  As one who’s leaped a few times, I can say the risk is worth it.

The Music of Writing

            My grandmother was a piano teacher.  Widowed in middle age with four children, she made her living by sharing her love for music with several generations of young folks, me included.  The popular book for beginners back then was “Teaching Little Fingers to Play,” which is about an apt a title for any book I can imagine.  Thousands of little fingers stumbled across the keys of her Story and Clark upright piano, and many became proficient, a few truly talented.  I fell somewhere just shy of the middle.

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            I wish I had stayed with those piano lessons longer, but at a point in junior high school I got a job and discovered girls, and left the lessons behind.  Still, there are things about my hours at the keyboard of that Story and Clark that have stayed with me.  I can read music, I understand harmony, I have a good feel for rhythm.  The basics.

            Music has always been an important part of my life.  I sang in the high school glee club and church choir.  I became a teenaged disc jockey and worked my way through college spinning records for stations in Tuscaloosa.  I came over time to an appreciation for just about any musical genre  you can imagine – rock, pop, country, bluegrass, classical, jazz.  I retained enough of those basics of composition to write the songs, music and lyrics, for two stage musicals.  I hear music in my head, and some of it is new stuff.  I know enough to put it in a lead sheet and then turn it over to my music professor friend, Dr. Bill Harbinson, who arranges it into what I call “real music.”


            Music informs my storytelling.  I figured out early on in my playwriting career – from studying the work of talented people like Rodgers and Hammerstein – that a song in a play should illuminate character, advance the plot, or (hopefully) both.  The songs should be an integral and seamless part of the story.

            Music and lyrics are woven into my novels.  In Old Dogs and Children, Dorsey Bascombe plays the trombone, and he tells his small daughter Bright that “a trombone is the sound of God breathing.”  In my new book, The Governor’s Lady, a bluegrass band “makes the air dance with their fiddles and guitars and banjos.”  And Pickett Lanier, later to become a governor and presidential candidate, writes and sings a song for his new wife Cooper:

            If I was a three-legged dog, two legs front and one leg rear,
            I’d rouse myself in the evening time, get my three old legs in gear;
            Leave my place in the cool, cool shade, drink my fill of Gatorade,
            And hippity-hop to you, my dear.

            It says a lot about Pickett, and not for the better, that he puts aside his guitar and turns to politics.

            Music has also given me a sense of the rhythm of a story, especially one played out over the length of a book.  To me, a good story has an ebb and flow to it.  It can’t go at break-neck speed all the time.  It needs moments to pause in the cool, cool shade and ponder.  Those are important moments to me in discovering who my characters are and why.

            So it started there on the bench of my grandmother’s Story and Clark upright as she patiently taught my little fingers to play.  Now, when I write, she’s always at my elbow.

Robert Inman’s previously-published novels – Home Fires Burning, Old Dogs and Children, Dairy Queen Days, and Captain Saturday – are available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo in e-book format.