My uncle was a horse

BB

I have one major rule I follow when I write:  Do no harm. It’s the first rule I teach my journalism students. As easy as it seems to keep, we all break it, though rarely intentionally. Words are powerful. Occasionally they get away from us.

So in keeping with my primary DO NO HARM rule, I hesitate to print this blog. But it’s a story that has stuck with me for decades. It deserves to be told, and I certainly mean no harm.

My earliest influence on me as a writer may have been my great uncle, Charlie Pat, a WW2 veteran. I was much too young to understand the complexities of my uncle’s condition. All I knew is that something happened to him in the war. I was told he was hit my shrapnel and suffered brain trauma. He was never the same.

Of course, I never knew him to be any other way.

My Uncle Charlie Pat thought he was Black Beauty.

Yes, I’m talking about the horse in Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel. I don’t remember how old I was at the time. I just remember I was horse crazy, and Black Beauty was my favorite book.

Back in the old days, we didn’t have Mindcraft or other computer programs to enhance our creativity. We had to rely on household ordinary stuff. My favorite “toy” was a black broom, the closest thing I had to a stick horse. And I rode it nonstop at my grandmother’s house, where, as you might guess, my Uncle Charlie Pat lived for a while.

I don’t think my parents or my aunts and uncles realized Charlie Pat thought he was a horse, but I did. I was too young to roll my eyes or criticize. I just sat down in the chair next to him in my grandparent’s itty bitty den, and I listened to all the stories he told of what it was like to be Black Beauty.

I never laughed. I had read the story at least a dozen times, and I knew every detail by heart. So did Charlie Pat. And when he told me the story, he told it in first person, just like the book. I sat enthralled. I knew my uncle wasn’t really a horse, but I bought into his reality, and I listened intently as he retold each chapter.

I always thanked him for sharing with me, and he smiled. There’s nothing more wonderful for an artist than to have an appreciative audience.

As odd as it may sound, Charlie Pat may have been the first person to inspire me to write. Although he didn’t write Black Beauty, his convincing personal narratives held me spellbound. He was able to quote every page verbatim.

As I grew older, I started to write. I became the characters in my stories. Today they’re bound in a three-prong folder, sitting on a bookshelf in my son’s room. He doesn’t even know they’re there. Maybe his children will find them someday and be inspired by their crazy grandmother who thought at age nine that she could be a writer, somewhat similar to my great uncle, thinking he was a horse.

If you think about it, all of us are quirky in our own way, and that’s what makes us so beautiful. We are works of art, but some of us are an acquired taste.

I was always perceived as that shy kid in class who never talked. I hated that stereotype. I’m not really shy. I just don’t talk much. In my decades here on earth I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve really opened up to.

But there’s a reason for that, I think. God gave me the gift of listening. God gave me acute hearing and sensitive (in)sight. I can see what others cannot. He also gave me the gift of storytelling.

I guess I am the only person in my family to interview a living, breathing Black Beauty proxy.

As I said, I was a major fan of Anna Sewell. Charlie Pat brought the book to life for me. And while his reality had been suspended long before I was born, I learned how to suspend my reality and to enjoy living in the moment whenever I took the time to be still and to listen to him. Charlie Pat pulled me into the story. For a short time in the den of my grandparents’ house, I talked to Black Beauty.

And I think that’s one reason I have been compelled to write ever since. Books let us live a thousand lives. Charlie Pat, for some reason, spent the last years of his life living as a horse.

Go ahead. Laugh. Life is funny. And frustrating. And tragic. But I’ll take funny over the other options any day.

What unusual occurrences in your life sparked your desire to write?

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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.

Monday Mentor: Kaye Dacus

Having just returned from the Middle Tennessee Christian Writers (MTCW) conference in Bellevue this week, I’ll have to admit I’m pumped about all the information I gleaned from this conference. I’m just about to set sail on the most intense writing adventure of my life, two back-to-back conferences, one in Indianapolis (ACFW) and the other here at home in Nashville (Midsouth SCBWI). I signed up for these conferences totally ignorant of what to expect. I am a newbie, afterall. However, after attending (and joining) the MTCW group, I feel much more sure of what I need to do to prepare. I’m not there yet, but I now have a very clear picture of what I’m aiming for.

Kaye Dacus

This week’s Monday Mentor is Kaye Dacus. Kaye is an accomplished writer, an experienced editor and the current president and co-founder of the MTCW. She is, in her own words, a woman whose life is dedicated to “hope, humor and happily ever afters.” I am especially grateful for Kaye’s dedication to make the MTCW conference a wonderful success. I also appreciate her taking the time to visit SerendipiTeeBlog.

Just who is the REAL Kaye Dacus?

I’m the daughter of Mike & Judy Dacus; sister of Michelle Dacus Lesley; aunt to Josh, Caleb, Michaela, Jordan, Benjamin and Jacob; and granddaughter of Crawford & Julia (Caylor) McLellan and W.C. and Edith (Bradley) Dacus—and cousin to a bunch of people!

I’m the author of humorous, hope-filled contemporary and historical romance novels with Barbour Books and Harvest House Publishers. I served as an officer with American Christian Fiction Writers from 2003–2005, and have served as president of Middle Tennessee Christian Writers since 2006. Even though I write romance novels, I love action movies and football and am not afraid to admit that I’ve never been kissed!

If we look closely, I believe we might catch a glimpse of your super woman cape. You seem to have found the right touch for writing books that readers can’t wait to read. You’ve had two books come out this summer. Please give us a taste of what’s waiting for us.

Ransome’s Crossing is the second book in the Ransome Trilogy from Harvest House publishers. Charlotte Ransome, desperate to reach Jamaica to see her secret fiancé, disguises herself as a midshipman for a convoy led by her brother, Captain William Ransome. Meanwhile, William and his new bride, Julia, face the rough swells of the sea and of marriage as they try to adjust to life together. When yellow fever befalls Charlotte and her identity is discovered, she begs first officer, Ned Cochran, and Julia to keep her presence and illness from her brother. But could this secret create insurmountable waves between Julia and William? And will Ned’s tender care of Charlotte change the tide of her affections forever?

 

Love Remains is the first book in a new contemporary series, The Matchmakers, with Barbour Books. Every grandmother wants to see her grandchildren happy, especially when it comes to their love lives. Join five active senior ladies—and one gentleman—who take a great interest in the lives and loves of their single grandchildren and become The Matchmakers. Zarah Mitchell and Bobby Patterson become the first focus of meddling grandmothers when he moves back to Nashville to work for the Tennessee Criminal Investigations Unit. Will Zarah be able to forgive the man who years ago chose a military career over her—especially when she learns he is investigating the historic preservation agency for which she works?

 What do you believe is the greatest conflict writers face today (especially writers who do not want to compromise their faith)? How do you believe they can overcome these obstacles?

I think the greatest conflict for most believers who are novelists is a conflict of reconciling the business side of the industry with what they believe is a personal ministry through writing. Publishing houses, whether publishing Christian fiction or general-market fiction, are in business to make money. Many believers feel they are called to write fiction as a way of ministering to or evangelizing others—and the lose sight of the fact that publishing houses aren’t there to support their ministry, but to publish books and make a profit from them so that they can continue to publish more books.

The best way to overcome this is to keep everything in perspective. If God has truly called a writer to write, then God will determine how that writing is to be used for His glory. We have to remain open to the possibility that, while He may have called us to write, He may not be calling us to be published—or to be published within our own timeframe. We just have to keep faithfully doing the work He’s called us to do and let Him handle what’s out of our control.

Why do you write?

My heart is, as it has been for more than twenty years, focused on writing light-hearted romances—romances that cast a ray of hope into the lives of people who’ve been told their situation in life is hopeless. I like writing characters who represent a growing segment of the population that seems to be increasingly left out in Christian circles: women in their late-twenties, thirties, and early-forties (and even older) who have never been married and who want to be loved and accepted for who they are, not pigeon-holed into a category, labeled, or, as happens most often, shoved to the side and ignored/forgotten about by their churches, coworkers, or even friends and family. I’m writing to the women who, like me, expected to be married before they turned twenty-five (-six, -seven, -eight . . .), but who may find themselves now in their mid- to late-thirties or forties and have never even had a date or meaningful relationship.

I’m writing for them (me, actually) so we can hang on to the hope of finding a well-adjusted, loving, marriage-minded Christian man out there somewhere and having a “happily ever after” ending with him (with the hope that he may be closer than we realize). I’m writing for the woman who, like me, feels most alone when she goes to church and sees all the married/engaged couples and families sitting together; who has to endure the family-focused activities, Bible studies, Sunday school lessons, and sermons (if you’ve never noticed, start keeping track of how often your pastor talks about families and/or marriage); who begins to feel it isn’t just the church that has pushed her aside and forgotten about her, but that maybe God has too.

How do you find joy in your creative journey?

Because I’m single and I write romance, the most fun part of writing for me is falling in love right along with my characters. It’s that fantasy of what could be, and what I hope God will one day bring into my own life.

Everybody has misadventures on the road to success. What is one of the wackiest things you’ve ever done to find your fifteen minutes of fame?

Hmmm . . . I’m one of those people who lives in a perpetual state of being anxious that I’m going to embarrass myself, so I try to avoid situations like that. I guess I’d have to say that the closest I’ve come to anything like this was when I got up in front of 500+ people at the 2008 ACFW national conference to give a devotional and told everyone that I was stalking James Scott Bell.

What is the best advice you can give a writer just getting started?

Above all else, finish your first draft. Spend more time working on your story—on developing the depth and breadth of your plot and characters—than on anything else. It’s less important to have a trunk full of rejections than it is to have a great story that will catch the eye of your dream editor/agent. And don’t rest on just one or two completed manuscripts. Once you send something out, start writing your next novel—and be planning the one after that. The best way to prepare for being a multi-published novelist is to write multiple manuscripts before you ever sign that first contract.

Please answer the question I didn’t ask but that you wish I did.

My great-grandfather was a multi-published author. John Caylor, Sr., held degrees from Howard College (now Samford University), Oklahoma Baptist University, the University of Alabama, and was awarded the Doctor of Divinity degree from Louisiana College. He served as Editorial Secretary of the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he was editor of Home Missions magazine, which, at the time, had a circulation of 175,000. He was listed in “Who’s Who” in America, and was a much-beloved pastor. Amongst his published titles were America Needs God, In Evangeline’s Country, A Path of Light, Ways of Witnessing, and, my personal favorite, The Great “I am’s” of Jesus (published in 1957 by Zondervan). Unfortunately, DeeDaddy died of cancer several years before I was born. But I’m pretty sure it would have made him proud to know that I’m (sort of) following in his footsteps.

Finally, please leave us with your favorite Bible verse, inspirational quote or song lyric. Tell us what it means to you.

My favorite passage is Hebrews 12:1-3:

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (NASB)

To me, this is my Christian journey in a nutshell—I wouldn’t be anywhere if it weren’t for those who’ve gone before me, who now surround me, and who will come after me; I must persevere in the tasks God has set before me—and I can do so only by living on faith in Jesus, who endured so much more than I will ever be asked to go through.

If you want to be a writer and are ready to take the first steps, you absolutely MUST begin your journey with a visit to Kaye’s website. She has a passion to unselfishly encourage beginning writers (like me). I can tell you first-hand that when I made up my mind to become serious about honing my writing craft,  I visited Kaye’s blog and found just what I needed to give me a clear understanding of the expectations of a serious writer. 

http://kayedacus.com/

I also highly recommend the Middle Tennessee Christian Writers group, which meets every second Saturday of the month in Nashville, Tennessee. If you live in the Middle Tennessee area, you should consider a visit. You’ll meet wonderful people who share your passion for writing and your love for Jesus Christ. 

http://mtcw.wordpress.com/