The Bold Balance of Characters and Caution; Mississippi Uniqueness
Whenever I do a book store gig I try to incorporate a visit to a local school. This all started with my Mississippi miracle I’ve told you about before. I enjoy visiting with young people. I guess it’s because except for the gray hair and the age, I’m just a large child myself. If the good Lord hadn’t given me a good grown-up doctor brain and a fine wife and children I guess I might have starved to death. I never got all the kid out of me and in many ways never did learn how to be an adult. I found these kids to be so unspoiled, yet far more sophisticated than I was at the same age. I am certain they realized that part of my writer gig is that it makes me feel younger, and they granted me that privilege.
After I met with the Jr. English class, several of them wrote to thank me for coming. They picked up on my every idea, and then some.
One commented as adults their principal and I were bold. We met as total strangers on the golf course in 2007 and took a chance on becoming friends. I thought about that. I’m not sure we were so much bold as old. After three decades of one patient after another before you, a Doc gets a pretty good notion as to who tells you the truth and who doesn’t. Most people are straight up, but you only have about fifteen minutes to sift out any disingenuous motives. So far, I’ve never run into a gray-haired mandolin player who loved the gospel and had it turn out to be a problem. I guess I’d advise my young friends, yes, be bold, but be “old” too. Don’t lose your enthusiasm, but also proceed with caution.
They made some fine observations about character creation. As a doctor you have to be a perpetual student to survive. I remember the first time I visited Mississippi. We were near Biloxi. My dad saw a man walk across the street and said, “Look at the way he walks, he’s had a stroke.”
I thought if he could diagnose a man he’d never met from the driver’s seat of the family car he must be the smartest man in the world. It jump-started a life long habit of observation. I still recall how the man walked. He had what I now call an ‘antalgic gait’ (a sway) and his left arm didn’t swing right.
In the class we talked about character creation. As a writer, and as a doctor, you have to observe and record the smallest of details and burn them into your brain. As one student observed, “every character is somehow derived from the subconscious mind of the writer.” Give that young’un an “A” for the day.
As I read their feedback, a realization struck me. My daughter has always said I could spot a bad actor and find a legal and ethical way to neutralize them faster than any adult she’d ever meet. After all these years, I am pretty good with that skill, but my radar isn’t perfect. This student understood one aspect of my writing I hadn’t fully considered. It has evolved into a tool for me. My day job depends on an accurate interpretation of situations to avoid trouble for either me or my people. Creation of characters allowed me a safe way to examine human behavior. The student was right. Create your characters in fiction with abandon, but in real life hold your people close and proceed with caution. To be wild and dangerous in art might allow one to be sane and safe in reality.
Several commented as to the balance in life. I have said I am 80% doc and 20% artist, and that is the right blend for me. For them to understand this and go for it at such a young age was remarkable. I guess I was at least forty years old before I got a good handle on the concept. I was fortunate to have a wife and children who loved me in spite of an 80+ hour work week. The balance is indeed the ticket. A career as a doc is a marathon, and if you die early from overwork you’ve done no one a favor. Several wrote to say they could see in me a way to find the balance. It thrilled me to pass that one on, because I did not learn it easily.
One wrote to say they thought the sound of the mandolin was ever prettier than the guitar. Now there’s a kid who is high on my list for all time. (I love the guitar too, but I am a mando guy for the most part) Another planned to be a doctor, but didn’t want to give up their music. In me they saw how it could happen.
They understood the beauty of their own uniqueness. As one student said, “we are all the ‘only one’ of something.” Tom T. Hall once told me he thought one of the most important things for an artist was to have identity, ie find what makes them unique. And we are all artists, even if we just doodle on a note pad like I used to do on the church bulletin when the Preacher got too long-winded.
If I can be the world’s best physician bluegrass fiction writer, maybe they can be the best teacher/choir singing mystery writer or whatever else they might choose. They are from rural Mississippi. I grew up in rural N.C. Neither of us have limits on our imagination as to what we can be.
I recalled as a junior English student our teacher asked one boy (name changed here) “Jerry, who are you?”
He said, “I’m Jerry Smith.”
She replied, “No Jerry, who are you really?”
Jerry scratched his head and raised an eyebrow. “I’m Jerry Smith,” he blurted out. “I live on Peach Street.”
We were too naive to understand her point or Mr. Thoreau either for that matter, but I’m certain she wanted us to know the journey to self-actualization is a long road. For that matter, none of us figure it all out. As Indie would say, “We ain’t perfect; we’re only human.” The students seemed to understand this better than I did at their age. It takes time to grow a human being. Transformation to doctor, writer, mandolin player; each one requires the better part of a decade. They wrote to say they were going to renew their efforts and find the patience to give themselves time to grow and find themselves.
When I was growing up, Coach was the ticket. What he said was the law. One time I forgot my gym shorts and couldn’t work out, and Coach busted my rear end for it. I didn’t forget my gym clothes again though, you can be sure of that. The principal at this school was also a Coach. I always respect Coach, ’cause they are in the biz to help people. I hope I helped inject a little more of that respect in the students too. Guys, to this day if Coach tells me to do push-ups, I drop and try to give him my best, ’cause I trust him to look out for me.
One student in the class asked how long it took me to learn to play the mandolin. The standard bluegrass answer is “I’m still learning.” And bluegrass is a true art from. In it, we always continue to learn. These school children reinforced the concept to me all over again.
Mississippi, old Doc can’t help but love ya. I’ll be back. Maybe next time one of you will play a mandolin duet with me. Keep on learning guys; don’t ever stop.
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