Lessons from My 74th
Over most of my life, I have been learning how to be a storyteller. Storytelling is not a gift only conferred by the Almighty on a few unique folks who actually listened in high school English. In reality, far too many high school English students leave their final year with no desire to read or write something new—ever again. If you now find yourself, long removed from those hallowed halls of teenage hormonal excesses, wishing that you loved to read and could now put in words your stories for your offspring. How does one do it? As that Nike commercial said so succinctly, Just Do It.
To get started in reading that will pay you huge dividends, pay no attention to the New York Times, or any other bestseller list. Instead, invite a friend over for a coffee or a scotch or a bourbon—whatever libation that works for them. Talk about commonalities, then pick his or her brain about favorite writers. You are not looking for just a famous writer, but a writer who tells a good story minus all the big words.
My favorite writers who tell great stories entirely simply are Robert B. Parker in his Spenser series and John D. MacDonald and his Travis McGee series. They are both great mystery writers who have a nicely tuned sense of humor. Once you figure out your favorite kind of author, then and only then, try expanding. The first of my two beloved wordsmiths is the deceased Pat Conroy. And very much alive at 84, James Lee Burke. They are both Southerners who spin yarns with vocabularies that are not pretentious but descriptive in unique ways. Both of these authors create unique word combinations that allow the reader to perfectly understand their intent. Beautiful combinations that make the reader wish that they had written their words.
Actually, I have dozens of favorite writers whose books and characters I wait in great anticipation to be entertained by their written words such that I preorder their next books on Amazon without a worry about how good they will be. The will be good!
I have been retired now for a few years or so, and I find that my reading takes the same form it did for almost 50 years of my working life. Sandy, my wife, and I read every night before we went to sleep. We still do. Some nights it is only ten minutes, but it is incredible how many books one can read by devoting ten minutes a night to reading. Ten minutes a day. Try it.
As much fun as reading can be, writing is, I think, the more beautiful and essential of the two connected forms. Each person who reads this—I am sure—has wondered just where the heck do writers come up with their ideas?
There is an old saw about writing—write what you know. And I would add—that YOU have enough stories in your life and in your head to fill a library. And that these are your stories are what, for me, makes writing more essential than reading.
I turned 74 on December 8, 2020. Allowing for the fact that I can reasonably remember back to about five years old, I have 69 years of stories—most that my own children don’t know about. To get started writing, write those stories down and polish them, then put them on Facebook and maybe later on your own webpage. My page is called Southern Exposures and can be found at www.southern-exposures.com.
I started with my stories on Facebook and found that people enjoyed them. As I wrote, I realized that my children and wife did not know my school stories. I had them in my head; I just never found the right reason to tell them. When you write, you create that reason. It begins as your reason, and that is enough. But it will not stop there. My children and wife know of the old clay basketball court’s stories at Wilmer Elementary School only because I wrote the stories down. You will have friends who will reconnect because they remember those same stories. What a wonderful gift that is for a writer and a reader.
For me, the competitor, writing has always been about whether or not I could communicate exactly what was in my head with my written words. It still is. Even when some really well-meaning English teachers tried their best to direct me on how to write the perfect essay in a 45-minute English class, I still was competing! No one writes an ideal anything in 45 minutes. This particular essay on reading and writing has been in production for more than two weeks.
How about finding the time it takes to write compared to read? Admittedly, it may be harder to find that time than the ten minutes before Morpheus dusts our eyes with sand. The question I leave for you to end these argumentative sections on the value of reading and writing and tell you a story, “Can you really convince me that you cannot find ten minutes a day to begin writing your stories?
You know the answer. Now for a story
A week or so ago, I reconnected with a long-lost friend, Don Williams. Don was a year ahead of me at Semmes High School. He was a good (and big for the times) football player, and I played basketball and baseball. We had a connection. Don had run across my story about the year the school’s stage in the gym burned. It was 1962, and before our basketball season began. I was a sophomore trying to make the team. It seemed to that fifteen-year-old at the time that things could not be more challenging. Read the rest of the story at https://southern-exposures.com/2020/02/03/the-year-the-stage-burned/.
Don looked me up through Facebook (links to all my stories are posted on there), and we reminisced a bit about our blue and gold Bulldogs and the neighborhoods that made up much of the Semmes student body. Semmes was made up of about half country kids like me and half from the Mobile suburbs of Forest Hills, Alpine Hills, Springhill, Cottage Hill, Carriage Hills, Overlook, and others.
Don texted a fact that I never knew as a student about the students who came from those suburbs. He said he had had a choice of attending 3000-student Murphy High School in Mobile proper or attending the one-third smaller, Semmes High School. He said he was glad he had chosen Semmes and had never looked back. I glad, too. As Don and I messaged back and forth, his mention of those suburbs reminded me that the best I could remember, every girl I dated in high school seemed to have come from down U.S. 98 south of Semmes and just outside of the city of Mobile. While Don lived southeast of Semmes, I lived a few miles west of Semmes, only a few yards off Highway 98. I remember clearly from junior high and high school days where friends and I were on its shoulder after basketball and baseball practices with a thumb extended, hoping for a friendly ride. We always got one—my, how times have ever changed.
That renewed friendship with Don made me reflect on the changing times since those prime teen years at Semmes High School. From elementary school on, I grew up outside of Mobile—a country kid who hunted and fished; went to a country Baptist church; and graduated from Semmes, an Alabama country high school and Auburn, Alabama’s Land Grant University.
When my mother, Annah, sent me off to Auburn in mid-September of 1965, I rode from Mobile with my good friend Bubby and his father. As Mr. Smith, who I would later work for at Coca Cola during my Auburn summers, dropped us off at Magnolia Dorm. Mag Dorm was the freshman dorm from hell. As I entered Auburn, my mother could be relatively sure that I would return home to south Alabama with the same values she and my father, Glen, had imparted in me and (hopefully with a college degree!). My mother and father were my hardworking heroes—a mechanic and a country schoolteacher. Both were moderate Baptists and were parents who knew when to restrain, when to push, and when to allow the teenage freedom needed for the tricky passage to adulthood. Mostly they knew how to support me as a basketball player for my three years—my father’s game. Always perplexing to me was the trick that my genetic heritage played on me. My father was six-three, and I was five-nine at my best in my Chuck Taylors.
As I celebrate 74 years on our revolving blue ball, I am reminded of a poem I once wrote for a class of junior English students I was teaching at Baker High School. Our unique time together was over. It had begun when Mobile Public School Board, experiencing significant financial difficulties (as always seemed to be the case), in a fit of silliness, decided that every certified person in a school would teach a class to reduce the student-teacher ratio. That meant assistant principals and counselors. It was a joke. Adding the assistant principals and the counselors together at Baker High did not equal one teacher because we were all certified in different things.
Fortunately, I got to teach a most unique Advanced English 11 class. I was not state-certified to teach English, but I was Annah Dunaway-Certified to teach grammar, literature, and how to write a term paper! We knew how to properly write and speak around our house – country-people or not!
At the end of the year, I wrote that group of twenty remarkable students a poem. It went like this:
If, as the poet has declared,
We are a part of all who we have met,
Then, the part of me that is now you
Is far better than the part of me that was only me.
Thank you, Don, for those messages and for reminding me once more about the truth of that poem written many decades ago.
So, fear not, my friends. READ good books—lots of them, a little at a time. WRITE your stories you know—the ones you know by heart. CONNECT with people you once knew—and REMINISCE over old times. And just maybe we will all keep the chaos at bay a while longer.