Part 2 — My Top Ten List of Mysterious Writing Adventures

Fall is almost here, and I can’t wait to go exploring! For me, fall is my favorite time of year and my favorite time to write. I think Edgar Allan Poe and I would have been kindred spirits. Although he is a bit more melancholy and macabre than I, we both share a liking for the beauty of the mysterious, the twilight hour, the chills and the thrills. Poor Edgar was so heartbroken that he wrote only of the dark side. I tend to find the light the dark tries to hide. Most of the time, I discover it through laughter. Most of my weird adventures have hilarious resolutions. But for now, let’s get our imagines primed for a great season of writing. Let’s take a look at few more fun places to visit, physically or mentally.

So here goes: Part 2—My Top Ten List of Mysterious Writing Adventures

6. Memphis, Memphis, Memphis
I could write an entire blog on the mysterious places of Memphis, starting with Voodoo Village. But I’ve already talked about that one too many times. How about starting with the Phantom of the Orpheum. Supposedly, a ghost haunts the grand Orpheum Theater. Witnesses say they have spotted a little girl named Mary skipping about the mezzanine in a white dress and stocking feet. History reports state that a little girl the age of the apparition was struck down by a street car and later died in the theater lobby, where she was carried after the accident. Of course, the story is legend, the subject of one of several walking history tours. But it is an interesting story.

Everybody knows Elvis has left the building—and this dimension. I believe he is in heaven. But did you know that ten days after his death several men tried to steal his body and hold it for ransom? However, they were soon caught. The “explosives” the men had planned to blow up the mausoleum turned out to be fireworks, and the charge was dropped to trespassing. I do know for a fact that if you look hard enough you will find Elvis (or one of his clone tribute artists) in many places in Tennessee, for starters either on Beale Street or downtown Nashville. There is an Elvis “fortune teller” machine in one of the souvenir shops near Legends. Ask Elvis a question, and, hey there, pretty mama, he’ll tell you your fortune. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Speaking of Elvis, did you know he really liked the rollercoaster called Zippin Pippin at the now abandoned Libertyland theme park in Memphis. Sometimes he would rent the entire park so that he and his friends could play without being bombarded by fans. A week before his death, he lost the buckle off the belt of one of his famous jump suits while on that ride. The roller coaster was sold, and where it is now, who knows?

And while we’re on the subject of Memphis, ever heard of the Dark Day of Memphis, when for no reason the entire city was blanketed by darkness? The event happened December 2, 1904, and lasted for 15 minutes. Weirdings!

7. Voodoo Hill in Rutherford County
According to legend, there is a shooting range in Rutherford County called Big Springs Target Sports, a place that has lured celebrities as famous as Charlton Heston. But that’s not the weird part. About ten miles from this spot is a mysterious spot that has skeleton heads in trees, monstrous guard dogs chained to a tree, a myriad of bats, and coyotes roaming the place. Anybody who knows me well knows I’ll be the first to suggest exploring the scariest of places. Bring it on. But this place? From what I’ve read, the people at this place are even more strange than the animals. I’ve heard the place is scary at night, but even scarier in the daytime. As adventurous as I am, I’m doubtful about checking out this place. It would be a great setting for a story, but I would like to live to write about it.

8. Booger Swamp
Here’s a story for all the recent grads who are going to Tennessee Tech this fall. According to legend, there is a place on Dry Valley Road, about a half mile north of the intersection with Black Mountain Road, where lies an old swamp that is said to be haunted by an apparition with a pure white body. On a personal note, I do not suggest going for a romantic ride in the country in this area. You might bring home an unwelcome hitch hiker.

9. Giant Bones of Williamson County
Back in 1821, when explorers found giant bones in graves, rumors of an “oversize race of monstrous humanoids soon swept across the region.” Where the bones those of giants? Probably. Where they human? Probably not, at least according to scholars, who claim the bones belonged to mammoths or mastodons that had been buried by Ice Age hunters. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see them. I wonder where they are now.

10. Egyptian artifacts in Nashville?
Wouldn’t it be great to be Indiana Jones for a day? When I was young, my mom filled my authentic canteen with Kool-Aid, and I set off on my banana seat bike to discover new adventures. I came back with all sorts of cool junk that I imagined to be long lost artifacts. But in the early 1890s, a man named George Wood found more than what he bargained for. He was turning up the ground on his farm and unearthed a stone box that contained a skeleton holding a small disk inscribed with what appeared to be Egyptian markings—at least that’s what Harvard zoologist Barry Fell believed after examining it. It was also his belief that the ancient Egyptians had taught the people of the New World how to build pyramids, “passing along the mythology of the ancients.” What do the symbols say? Fell believed the symbols were an IOU. I wonder who owed whom what. If you want to see if for yourself, you can find it in a very safe spot—the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.

Want to read more Weird Tennessee? Check out the book by Roger Manley. If you like adventure that’s just a few miles down the road, then this book can take you on a wild ride close to home.

http://www.weirdus.com/states/tennessee/index.php

http://www.amazon.com/Weird-Tennessee-Tennessees-Legends-Secrets/dp/1402754655

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Memphis poetry in prose

Douglas Miller Photography

Beale Street slows down around 4 a.m. The cops clear the streets around three, and I suppose the remainder of the patrons, in various stages of sobrietry, find their way out of the bars to their cars, cabs, hotel rooms, wherever their destination might be.

I go to Memphis because it speaks to me, speaks to me on a level that bypasses exposition and jumps directly to the dialogue. I have a story to finish.

This time I knew I couldn’t stand on the outside and look in. I had to become one of the characters and live it.

Five p.m.

I realize I left my sunglasses in my truck. I didn’t think I’d need them. I didn’t think I’d need sunscreen either, but the sun blazes and reflects off the pavement, burning my eyes and skin.

Scene one. The quintessential music emporium.

I walk in the shop, failing miserably at concealing my thoughts, and an elderly black gentleman approaches me. I’ve seen him before. He’s kind and gentle and moves in tandem with the beat of song playing the background. He’s dressed in white, and his whole being smiles.

“Baby, what is wrong with you? Why you got your head down?  Don’t you know you’re too beautiful to be looking so down?”

And I smile because that is what you do when someone gives you kindness.

“What’s got you so down?”

I just shake my head. He stands well over six feet tall and towers over me. He puts both hands on my shoulders, and I look up.

“You know if you don’t hold your head up, you gonna run into something.”

He holds his hand out. I extend mine.

“Where are you from?” he asks and shakes my hand, and I tell him.

“A 747 would get you here in no time.” And he laughs. I laugh too. He thanks me for visiting his city, and I thank him for being so kind.

Next door evil lies in wait, packaged in bottles, wrappers, oils, voodoo dolls of every size and assortment. For the right money, a person could buy whatever’s needed to remove a curse or to administer one. Guaranteed for health, finances, power, and love.

I’m surprised to see the store has undergone transformation. I venture through an opening and find another room of odd relics. To the far back, a beaded curtain separates patrons under the age of 18 from the secrets on the other side. I respect the veil and let my ears pick up more of the story near the front door.

Scene two. Two women, meeting for the first time, one black, one white, talking about men.

“Oh, no, the English, they keep their distance. They don’t like it when you get in their space. The Irish are like that too, but, now the Scottish, the Scottish like the Southern women. My man is English.”

They go on sharing the peculiarities of the male species.

The black lady throws back her head and laughs. “Honey, I can tell you are so East Coast.”

And I wonder why this East Coast woman is working a shop that sells t-shirts and voodoo paraphernalia.

“You have got to look me up if you get up there.”

And they exchange numbers. The chapter closes, and I walk out the door to Handy Park.

Scene three. A soon to be empty stage.

“The band is going to take a five-minute break. We’ll be back in 15 minutes.”

Figures. But I’ve never seen so many vendors. My first stop in Memphis was the Peabody. I had to check out Lansky’s. But $120 for a dress? Uh, no.

But in Handy Park, the same $78 blouses sell for $15 bucks, some $25. The African women and men call to me.

“Come inside. Come look at these dresses.”

I eye a lovely top, reminiscent of something a gypsy might wear. And before I know it, the woman has pulled the blouse from the hanger and is putting it over my head.

Too big. It just doesn’t look right.

But I spot a black dress with a hint of orange embellishment. It seems to fit my mood. And I had dreamed of orange the night before.

I pick it up. I put it back. It falls off the hanger.

“This dress. It wants to go home with you.” The woman laughs.

I laugh too and pick it up again. It is ever bit as pretty as the $120 dress at Lansky’s at about a sixth of the cost. I buy it, as well as a blouse. Both for a fraction of the Peabody couture.

I don’t like wearing anything around my wrists. I don’t like wearing rings, but I see a really unusual bracelet at another booth, again something I might find at Lansky’s with $20 or $30 price tag.

“Five dollar.”

I hand the woman a $20 bill, and her brow furrows when she cannot find the correct change. But then her face lights up, and she hands me $16. A one-dollar act of kindness for making me wait.

I smile and say “thank you.”

I roam a bit and then squeeze into an open spot at the foot of W.C. Handy’s statue to listen to the band.

“Happy Father’s Day.” The lead singer tells the crowd. “I know there are some good fathers out there. I have a good father. He never leaves me.”

And I know he’s talking about God.

“I see the children out there.”

He’s right. Handy Park is open to people of all ages, no cover charge.

“Let’s remember the children.” The singer continues. “You all dance and have a good time. But please don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your own children to see.”

And the band plays. The trombone player wanders the crowd with his tip bucket, and when it’s time for his solo, he stops and plays wherever he lands. I slip some cash in the bucket. I always remember to tip the band.

“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.”

I’ve heard this song before. And my mind wanders to another venue, another singer, another town. And I wonder who she is and why she’s gone.

I take that as my cue, and I close the chapter.

Tomorrow will be another chapter and another song.

Last Duck March of 2011

I spent New Year’s Eve alone in downtown Memphis watching five ducks parade down a red carpet. Before you feel sorry for me, let me reassure you I had other options. I could have gone with the guys and watched Vandy take on Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl.

Me and football? Nah. I don’t like football.

I didn’t want to ruin the game for them. Plus, I like alone time. I like thinking my own thoughts, and Memphis possesses just the right ambience for writing.

I had no transportation, a little money, and a notebook. I was set. I found a safe spot at the foot of W.C. Handy’s statue in the park and let my stream of consciousness form words on the page. I would have made William Faulkner mighty proud.

I made the trip to Memphis to rediscover myself. Amidst my recent tragedy, I misplaced my goals, my dreams, my desires. But in Memphis they began to trinkle back, one by one as I listened to music drift in and out of one doorway then another.

The blues has a way of cutting to the core and making people move. You have to do something when you hear the blues. You just can’t be. You have to be something. I searched for what I was.

The first word that came to mind was crazy. My friends warned me not to go alone. They said I’d end up getting mugged or worse.

Nonsense. But a quick scan of a vendor’s wares reminded me how naïve I can be. For five bucks I could buy  a rhinestone Glock belt buckle. If I were in the wrong place at the wrong time, say just a couple streets over behind the Fed Ex, I could buy the farm.

I wasn’t afraid, but I wasn’t stupid either. I set my radar on high alert.

The wind picked up and rustled my pages. It was too chilly to stay outside much longer. I figured I might as well do a little shopping (loosely translated looking), so I headed to the Peabody Hotel to check out the boutiques, terribly expensive but free to browse.

Somehow I found myself in the lobby, awaiting the grand event of the day—The Last Duck March of 2011.

I had heard of the Peabody Ducks, but I never took time to watch them. As the story goes, after sipping a little too much Jack Daniels, General Manager Frank Schutt let loose three live decoys in the hotel fountain. The guests fell in love with the ducks. A former Ringling Bros. animal trainer took the official position of Duckmaster and trained the ducks to walk the red carpet from their pent house abode to the marble fountain and back each day. Thus, a tradition was born.

I am a writer who searches for metaphor, another level of meaning, both in literature and in life. For some reason, The Last Duck March of 2011 stuck with me. It had to mean “something” more than just a one-time event. Where’s the serendipity in that?

So I did a little research to unearth any symbolism associated with ducks. Because ducks can run, swim, or fly to elude their enemies, they are considered resourceful. Celtic legends also depict ducks as symbols of simplicity, honesty, and sensitivity. J.D. Salinger’s Catch in the Rye relies on ducks to convey a message of the motion of life.

But what about me?

Why did I spend an hour at the Peabody Hotel, notebook in hand, waiting, waiting, waiting to watch five ducks waddle down a red carpet to an elevator door?

Oh, it was a grand to-do, mind you. I snagged optimum seating, a red chair in front of the entourage. Children and adults lined the red carpet. Everyone toyed with their cameras, checking the flashes, waiting for the special moment.

The truth is I really didn’t care about the ducks. It was something to do. I watched. They waddled. I left.

It was getting late, so I made my way to Starbucks to finish my writing with the help of a grande three-pump, nonfat, half-caf, no whip mocha. Not that I’m picky or anything.

As I waited for my drink, I cast my eyes on a small table for two. But before I could sit down, some guy staked it out by setting his backpack in one of the chairs. I took a bar seat by the window. It was just as well. I could watch the carriages roll by. I looked over my shoulder. It figured the guy would be a writer. He gripped a pen and scribbled words in his notebook.

Inspired, I took out my notebook and wrote my own words in a frenzy, page after page. Then three street kids walked in. If I had to guess they lived behind the Fed Ex Forum, which is directly across from Starbucks. If I traveled a few streets over in that direction, I bet I could find a real Glock, not like the one with Rhinestone bling on the vendor’s table.

The funny thing was I knew these kids.

These were the kids I had written about in my first manuscript and the incomplete sequel. I watched them out of the corner of my eye. Unbelievable. The characters I created were so real to me I recognized them when I saw them on the street.

That’s when it hit me, and I almost said it aloud. “I have got to get my ducks in a row.”

My metaphor.

The year 2011 was very difficult for me, but 2012 doesn’t have to be, despite what people have predicted. I can choose to make the best of my situation, and if 2012 does turn bad, at least I will have spent my days living instead of hiding.

So if I have one resolution for 2012, it’s to get my “ducks in a row.”

I will polish my manuscript and send it to the agents and editors who have requested it. I will finish my sequel and plan out my other two story ideas that await being written. I will work on my lyrics and take a chance on a few dreams.

I have to get my ducks in a row.

What’s your metaphor for 2012?

Memphis metaphor

“Blues is easy to play but hard to feel.” ~ Jimi Hendrix

What do I know about Jimi Hendrix? What do I know about playing the blues?

The truth? Nothing. Not really. But I do know how to feel the blues. I’m not talking about sorrow. Both of my parents passed away in the last three months, my father on June 27. I’m immersed in sorrow.

But the blues is more than sorrow. The blues evokes a yearning, a wanting. The blues evokes every feeling imaginable, even that twinge of hope that resolution is just a note away. Everybody wants resolution. Everybody feels the blues, but I think writers, artists, and musicians truly get it. It’s like another dimension of communication.

So many people see life in black and white. If you know anything about graphic design, you know photographs, if not in color, are best viewed in grayscale, not black line. Such is the blues, such is life. The blues finds itself somewhere between heaven and hell, and while the singers may stand undeniably on one side or the other, the fact is people are neither black nor white.

Read Psalm 51:5 and Ephesians 2:1-3. Then read James 1:17 and Romans 8:28. A war rages. Notes bend. There’s a need for resolution. Fulfillment. Redemption.

I just got back from Memphis. The first thing I did was visit Memphis Music, my favorite Beale Street shop. An elderly gentleman in his 80s, Mr. Clyde Hopkins, “the Godfather of the Blues,”  greeted me with his CD, Don’t Mistreat a Friend. He told me he’d autograph it if I bought it and said it would be special because I got to meet him in person. How could I resist? I bought it. My only regret is I didn’t get a picture of him. But I took plenty of others.

As soon as I stepped out of Memphis Music, I headed  to Handy Park, where I found the Juke Joint Allstars on stage. They’re so cool they autographed a CD for me right in the middle of a song and extended an invitation for me to join them on stage. Another trip to Handy Park, one of many, gave me the opportunity to snap pictures of a young girl in the audience who wanted to sing the blues. One of the band members handed her his guitar, and another set up a mic. The girl could sing.

Deciding what to eat on Beale Street is never a problem–catfish or ribs, occasionally oysters. Deciding where to eat is a challenge. The Blues City Cafe is a must for all first timers, but Miss Polly’s is just as good and has the best catfish around. The cornbread is good too. Ever tried it with a little jalepeno?

I asked the cook if I could take a few pictures inside the place. All the tables pay homage to the blues greats. The cook was quite gracious. He even offered me a chance to take a picture of him then and again when I saw him standing outside the restuarant. Memphis folk are twice as nice.

I mentioned oysters. My grandmother used to make fried oysters, and maybe that’s how I learned to like them so much. But you can’t get fried oysters around here. Memphis truly has it all, even an Irish Pub called Silky O’ Sullivan’s, and it serves delicious fried oysters. I didn’t make it there on this trip, but I was standing out front when the owner pulled up in his sportscar. Wow. I’ll probably never stand that close to a car like that again.

For the first time in years, I took a walk along the riverside, and I think the walk was the best part of my trip. It gave me a chance to think about life, about people in my life.

When I’m in Memphis, I do a lot of people watching and analyzing. Maybe that’s why I’m so interested in folklore–stories handed down from one generation to the next. Memphis is rich in tradition and lore. Some of the supernatural lore is commercialized; some of it is the real deal. But it’s nothing to play around with.

No matter where we live, everybody has a story. Everybody sings the blues. We may want to see life in black and white, but truthfully it’s all shades of grey. And if we want to see it in living color, colors we’ve never seen on this earth, well, we’ll have to wait for heaven for that.

 
 

Writer Recess

Ahoy, ye mateys. I’ve been on somewhat of a writing rant for the last couple of posts, so I’ve decided to unwind a bit with an easy, breezy topic.  The new year’s almost here. Let’s take a moment to relax. What say ye?

I’m winding up the last bit of my Christmas vacation, and when the calendar rolls over, I won’t have time for idle chit chat. I have a lot of work to do on my first WIP for the ACFW Genesis contest, and I plan to finish my second WIP. I have another idea floating around, and it would be fun to dive into something new.

With all of these ideas swimming around my head, I feel like I’m going under before I even set sail. What I need is a break, a vacation, a moment for mind to stop swirling and to start drifting.

Remember when you were back in elementary school? Those were the good days, huh? We went outside to play, and a simple playground transformed in the blink of an eye into a major league stadium, a safari hunt, a battleground between Mario…and well whoever Mario battles these days. I’m not much into video games.

How about joining me for a Writer Recess? I occasionally use these writing exercises with my students. It’s a great way to relieve stress and to get those creative juices flowing. Maybe they’ll help you too.

Movie Music. For this exercise, I don’t give my students any warning. I ask then to take out paper and pen and to prepare to write a stream of consciousness story or movie script based on what they hear. I provide the background music, and their characters must engage in dialogue and action as the music guides. For years I’ve used snippets of instrumental rockabilly, ska, Irish bagpipes, electronica, rap, blues, big band, etc. I try to pick music that’s not on their iPods.

Maybe you could set your iPod on shuffle and write to whatever tune pops up.

Dangerous Dialogue. The day before this exercise I have my students choose well-known characters (real, fictional, and even cartoon) and drop their names in a bucket. The students then pair up and draw a name. I create a scenario, and my students must make their two characters meet and solve a problem. It’s a GREAT way to help students learn how to get into the heads of their characters and to write the way their characters speak—not the way they speak.

Just for fun you could imagine “what if” two totally opposite characters from your two favorite shows met up for a blind date. Who knows? Change the names and their descriptions, and these characters may develop lives—or a romance–all their own.

Character Creation. Similar to the Dangerous Dialogue exercise, the Character Creation exercise allows students to become masters of their own universe. I give them a sheet of paper with background questions similar to those a dating service might ask. My students can create whoever or whatever they want to create. Sometimes they choose their alter egos, their evil twins. Sometimes they create their fantasy dream dates. Sometimes they go for shock value and try to make me laugh by their outrageous personas. It doesn’t matter. I then put the students in groups of three or four and make their characters interact. I ask them basic questions about where they met and how they came together, along with conflicts and resolution. But then I throw in twists. For example, as the students create their stories, they must incorporate one character’s pet peeve and another character’s annoying habit. This exercise forces them to fill in gaps and to learn transition from one scene to another.

You might consider choosing three random names from the phone book and creating personas for each. Then let your imagine take the story where it will.

I Spy. This exercise is the most dangerous yet. It borders on stalking—and my students get a thrill of “going undercover.”  I ask them to observe a random person at the mall or the coffee shop. They must stay a respectable distance and do nothing that will get me or them arrested. All it takes is a few minutes of observation. The students must then create a background story about who the random person really is. Sometimes the stories get really wild—but so far we’ve all remained jail free.

There’s no need for you to alter the plan here. Just go and have fun. But please don’t carry it to the extreme. Always respect other peoples’ privacy and dignity—and, you single people, this should not be used as an excuse to get a date.

Date Night. For me, nothing sparks my creativity than to become a part of the story and to spend some quality time with my characters in their environment. As I’ve mentioned before, my current WIP takes place in Memphis during the Christmas season. Oh, how I wish I were there to “feel” the atmosphere. But the days are packed. The town is so far away. If I can’t make it to Memphis, I’ll just have to bring Memphis to me—maybe indulge in some soul food, maybe listen to a really good blues guitar player. No writing, just thinking. The writing can come later.

Pick your spot and go. Does your character like espresso, greasy cheese burgers, sci-fi conventions. Go! Have a blast. “Feel” the atmosphere. “Feel” the story. And then write it.

Cinderella always gets the diamond

Cinderella always gets the diamond.

Monday we traveled to Memphis so that I could gather background information for what I hope will be the second of a series of books about teenage traceur and journalist TJ Westbrook. This time TJ is on a mission to resolve the mystery behind a gang-related drive-by shooting that resulted in the death of his childhood friend Tyreese.

My trip itinerary was simple. Go to Beale. Eat ribs. Listen to music. Walk wherever TJ might walk. Meet people. Talk to people. Gather details, lots of details.

And I did all that, but a serendipitous meeting with a colorful carriage driver opened a portal to a world of story I never knew existed.

I have a pretty wild imagination, so I’m always thinking what-if. But when I met this guy, my thought process went beyond, way beyond, what-if. Talking to him was almost like talking to a ghost. The experience was surreal.

I have been to Beale many, many times, and I’ve admired the carriages on numerous occasions, and I have ridden them more than once. But I had never seen a carriage decorated like this one. It was the gaudiest and the most beautiful carriage on all of Beale.

Picture lights and decorations from a Mardis Gras float. From the moment I stepped up and took my place on the velvet seat, the driver spun one yarn after another, taking me back to another time, leaving it up to me to discern truth from fiction.

I chose to believe it all.

Angels rested atop of the carriage. According to the oh-so-charming David, our driver, they dated back to World War II. They belonged to a relative, perhaps one of his grandparents. According to his story, when the Germans invaded Orleans, France, his kinfolk hid away in a church, taking with them a few of their belongings, including these whimsical angels decorating his carriage.

The war was hell upon the surrounding area and destroyed everything and everyone in its path, except the church and its inhabitants. His family hid there for days until the German soldiers found them and threatened to make examples of them.

But when a ray of sunshine shone through a hole in one of the broken stained-glass windows, it beat down upon the breast of the angel, creating a glimmer that caught the attention of one of the German leaders. He was so moved by the experience that he ordered his men to leave. The story and the angel decorations survived and rode with me today.

David told us one story after another. It was dark, and I couldn’t see to write in my little black notebook, but his tales mesmerized me. I was fixated on his every word. I only wish I had my digital voice recorder.

He took us to a little park and stopped by a fountain he described as the most beautiful thing in all of Memphis. It was a statue of Hebe, the mythical Greek goddess of youth, given to Memphis as a gift from France, as a symbol of hope and healing after the city suffered a a horrific yellow-fever outbreak.

He launched into another story, and then stopped. He turned around and looked at me and explained that his “Mardis Gras” carriage was good for only a few rides and that he had to work at keeping the pieces glued on.

David then held out his hand and presented to me what looked like an old, old piece of costume jewelry in the shape of a large jewel.

“When the angel cries, Cinderella always gets the diamond.”

It was a gift, totally unexpected, with a meaning I do not understand, but it was a gift that launched a thousand ideas that will find their way into my current WIP or the next.

Priceless.

The evening didn’t start out so great, but it was coming to a magical close.

For starters, earlier that night the police pulled us over and gave us a ticket the moment we arrived in town. We were driving on expired tags. We’re both teachers. We both work from sun up to sun down, and we both just forgot to make time to pick the new sticker. It was an honest mistake.

I have to take some of the blame for the second time we were pulled over that night—again for the expired tags. But this time we had just left a place called Voodoo Village, quite possibly the scariest place I’ve ever been in my life.

It was my idea to go there so late at night—stupid me, stupid idea.

Prior to our trip I did a little Internet research about “interesting” places around Memphis, places that TJ might travel as he searches for the person who killed his friend, and I talked Kenny into checking it out. (That’s kind of my MO, sad, but true.) Tonight’s rendezvous reminded me of Adam and Eve all over again—Eve tempting Adam to take a bite out of the a forbidden fruit, to go to a forbidden place. I learned my lesson.

So when the policeman pulled us over in the pitch black night, Kenny didn’t want to lie.

“Sir, why are you in Memphis? Who are you here to visit?”

But Kenny couldn’t tell him the whole truth. I was wearing black and carrying a little black book. By all appearances I could have been a Caucasian voodoo priestess. Just imagine how this answer might have sounded.

“Mr. Police Officer, we just left the Voodoo Village.”

Just how quickly do you think we would have been seated in the back of the officer’s patrol car? So Kenny went with the next best answer.

“Officer, I came to eat ribs.”

 The officer stared at him for a bit, fired a few more questions at him, eyeballed the ticket and then allowed us to pass with a salutation.

“Welcome to Memphis.”

We asked our carriage driver about Voodoo Village, but he was hesitant to answer. He suggested the place was originally occupied by gypsies, not voodoo priests, who hung shrunken heads on the gates and the limbs of animals from the trees to scare away intruders.

Internet accounts offered other explanations. The place is everything as described, but out of respect for other people who live in the neighborhood, I’ll offer no further details. Everyone deserves privacy. (I do not recommend anyone trying to find this place. It’s in a secluded area where intruders could disappear without warning.)

NO TRESPASSING

For all I know my carriage driver could have been a gypsy himself—if he were real at all. (Note the imagination kicking in here.)

All I know is handed me a treasure.

Don’t you just love a good story?

Please leave a comment if you have a good story about a serendipitous meeting! I would really like to hear your story. I have been trying to contact this carriage driver. If you happen to know how to get in touch with him, please contact me. God bless.

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.