Memphis mojo

“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.”   Samuel Johnson

Maybe it was three years ago when I took my newspaper staff on a writing adventure, a change of scenery. We took our notepads and writing utensils to an outdoor spot where no other students, staff and faculty were around, and we sat. And we listened. And we wrote.

My goal was for my students to listen to nature and to listen to their own imaginations so that they could find the story that lay dormant within their minds. I never imagined that I would be the one to benefit most from the excursion. Sitting there in the quiet of the outdoors on the bleachers in front of a ball field, I came up with an idea for a story that refused to go away.

As I sat on the bleachers in the silence, I watched my students drift away on their on journeys, and then my own thoughts flooded my mind. What if a couple of teens snuck out to the ball field behind their school to find a quiet place to write? What if they saw a couple of teachers sneaking out too? What if the students caught the teachers doing something that was clearly against school rules? What if what they were doing was so bad that it was a crime?

I didn’t actually write that story, but I did write a story about a couple of student journalists who witnessed their peers and their teachers take part in activities leading up to the deaths of three of their classmates. Actually, when I first made up my mind to seriously pursue my heart’s desire, I had two other stories in mind as well. I even started one of them, but the YA story wouldn’t go away. It latched onto my heart.

When I knew that I could not NOT write my YA story, I decided to learn as much as I could about my characters. The main character, TJ, grew up in Memphis, probably my favorite place to escape, so I went to Memphis and followed TJ’s tracks wherever they led. I’ve been to Memphis quite a few times, but I wanted to see Memphis with fresh eyes, my character’s eyes.

I started with Beale Street and headed straight for the soul food, Blues City Café and then Miss Polly’s. I go to both on a regular basis, but I’ll never forget my first visit to Miss Polly’s. I have sweet memories of greens, catfish and Joe Walsh. No, he wasn’t there.

If he were, I probably would have written a totally different story—from within my cell. I’m sure I would have stalked him the rest of the trip. Joe was playing on some West Coast stage, and I watched him on a little TV as I sat at my table that paid homage to one of the blues greats. But my laid-back experience allowed my mind to wander so that my story could develop.

During my journey I met an old man at Memphis Music, who had the warmest smile I’ve ever seen. I could have talked to him for hours. Then I stepped outside and put a few dollars in the tip bucket after watching the Beale Street Flippers do their thing.

The sun had set, and the moon had risen. I ventured into Tater Red’s, probably the scariest store in all of downtown. I don’t think I would ever buy anything there because I believe you can take the “bad” with you, but I saw what I needed to see.

Picture mojo and voodoo and then mix it with the crossroads and Robert Johnson. You see where I’m going. There’s a lot of other gimmicky, crass items in there as well, but I can’t help but wonder if evil truly lurks behind the voodoo shrine in the back of the store. I may never know, but should I write a sequel, perhaps TJ will return to his roots and tell us all.

I couldn’t miss hanging out at the Pepsi Pavilion to check out the band, and the later it got, the louder the women sang. Not the band, mind you. I’m talking about the older “girls” who had partaken in their own spirits—and I’m not talking about the ones at Tater Red’s. I wouldn’t have minded staying there until the band members packed up their equipment, but it was getting late.

I had to get back to my hotel, but before I left I took a carriage ride with a driver from Austria. He didn’t have a dog. Most of the other drivers do, but he had a cool accent and shared lots of cool stories about his life and about the history of Memphis. I could have ridden in one of the lighted carriages shaped like pumpkins, but I chose to save it for another trip. (Yes, I did go back and try out the pumpkin. How could a romantic like me give up the chance to play Cinderella?)

I haven’t taken my current students on a writing journey this year. But maybe I should do that as soon as possible. I can’t help but think of a quote by St. Augustine:

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

It’s time for me and my students to set out on another adventure. Even if we only go a few steps beyond our classroom, there is no limit where our imaginations will take us.

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2 thoughts on “Memphis mojo

  1. Hey you! I was just thinking about you. Hey, email me your address at MMC so I can send you stuff by snail mail. If I make it to Giles County, I might just have to surprise you!

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