It was pointed out to me last spring that my experience with written storytelling might benefit others if I cared to go on the road with a how-to show-and-tell. My novel Elgan and Grace was in fact, a collection of such stories, albeit with editorial massaging and continuity. Did I want to share my “secrets?”
Several Dallas area retirement communities wanted their folks to hear about it, and now, in August, at the Senior Center in Richardson Texas, I would walk before a classroom of budding writers with lots of life in the rearview mirror, and plenty of free time.
It was about noon-thirty when I arrived at the Center on Arapaho Avenue. As a writer, my mind never stops, so I’ve become a functioning insomniac. My brain writes twenty-five hours a day whether I’m at my desk or shopping or cooking or restlessly pillowed in search of a few hours of REM. I’m often getting to sleep just before sunup. So, dopey with a sleep deficit, I began setting up my white board, arranging my notes for the podium, squirting Visine into my puffy, blood-shot peepers, and slapping myself across the face.
People began to arrive in some numbers. Every performer knows a good audience will feed you all the energy you need. All you need to do is know your stuff.
On just a few hours’ rest himself, my son Christopher was about to introduce me to a full room of about forty eager Depression Era Americans, ready to learn about memoir writing. (Christopher works long hours providing home care for the elderly, and this day had started for him at 5:00 am. He had two appointments behind him, and one booked for 3:00.) It was now 1:00 and time to do his five minute hype for his Dad.
The folks were keen to hear what I had to say. Groggily, so was I. No problem. It turned out all I needed to do was begin.
After Christopher’s short, snappy introduction, I reassured the folks why we were here. Then I segued into reading a snippet of the book.
The “talk” became a lively discussion. The women and the men alike, were good-natured, animated. Their questions were apt and useful to each other.
My visit with these good citizens served a premise: When a person has lived a life, there are stories to tell. In every case – no exceptions. We need to be confident. These are valuable stories. Valuable to our audience and to the teller-writer. Stories entertain and inform. They can bring cheer to a gloomy reader, or pathos to show that we are not alone in our tragedies and challenges, and in our losses.
Perhaps most important to these folks, the activity of mining their memories provides a way for the aging mind to sharpen itself.
Still, the gap between agreeing and actually doing must be bridged. How to do it? That is what I began to investigate with my new friends.
Then time ran out.
The forty or so note-takers showed their approval with lusty applause, and there was spontaneous enthusiasm for a full-scale multi-week workshop very soon. At least half the room signed up informally, on the spot. What fun.
But the lesson for the teacher was not over.
I boxed up my notes, posters, and a few remaining copies of my book and left the classroom. Instantly, I walked into a wall of melody – a rich, aural embrace of an expertly played piano. At the far side of the large communal room, an aged gentleman hunched forward, elbows out, at a polished ebony upright, immersed in playing his heart out.
The soulful George Gershwin torch song, Someone to Watch Over Me resonated all around the empty great hall.
Navigating my stage props past silent domino players and abandoned billiard tables, I crossed the large public room to a bench close behind the Piano Man.
The absence of any sheet music notwithstanding, his rendition was wonderfully arranged. He reached the end, then segued back to a full treatment of the classic saloon song starting with its gorgeous intro. A few minutes later, finally satisfied with his vamp, the virtuoso paused his weathered right paw dramatically and gently caressed the concluding single note with an index finger.
I stood and applauded all the way to his side.
His name is Mr. J. He’s an old Hollywood pro from the Golden Age. As we chatted, he went into a soft tease of the Tommy Dorsey theme, I’m Getting Sentimental over You. “A friend of mine wrote that song,” Mr. J said. “Dorsey paid him $25 for it in 1937. That was real eating money back then.”
Mr. J is old. The sounds he got out of that upright are young. He told me proudly he had the only key to that piano’s lock on his keychain.
“So you just come in and play Gershwin and Porter and Berlin when you feel like it?” I asked.
He turned his head my way impishly. “When I can remember them.”
Finally, I was wide awake, and… ‘younger than springtime.’
All American Songbook. [insert citation info]
© L.E.Taylor 2013