The partnership

I carry a notebook around with me, and I jot down things I want to remember to write about. But it’s a small notebook, and I have 50-year-old eyes, and so sometimes in the name of expediency, I lose either legibility or intelligibility and sometimes both.

Like the entry that I wrote a few weeks ago in bed, late at night. Here it is, in its entirety: Paul McCartney, song (talk to Renee) / partnership between reader and writer.

Now, this time, I happen to completely understand what I was getting at. For Christmas, I got Renee, who is a huge Beatles fan, this two-volume book of Paul McCartney lyrics and commentary, called, fittingly enough, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. It’s huge.

And one night we were lying in bed, reading our respective books, when she told me that she had just learned an interesting thing about a particular song – that while the lyrics were powerful and moving to us both, it turns out that when he wrote them, it was meant as a fun song, almost whimsical.

I bet you are wondering what song it was. I am too because while I wrote down the event, I made no mention of the song because I would surely remember it.

I do not remember it. My brief note was a bit too brief.

But I wrote it down because it so perfectly encapsulates the partnership that exists between the writer and the reader.

In 1994, I was dating a woman who was my superior in practically every way. She made more money than I did, she was older than I was, and she was smarter than I was. And when we broke up, which was, in hindsight, inevitable, I took it rough. Really rough, in the way only a 22-year-old could.

I went on a three-day drunk. I drunk-called her house at all hours. I showed up outside her house and the police got called – not by her, but by the neighbor who took umbrage to my declarations of my love in her front yard at 3 in the morning.

Eventually, I came to terms with the breakup, but like 22-year-olds everywhere that go through tragic breakups, I found solace in music.

At the time, there was a popular country music song called Little Rock, by Tom Douglas, sung by Collin Ray. In it, the protagonist is starting his life over in Little Rock after destroying his relationship and is now trying to rebuild his new life while mourning the loss of the life he had.

A sample of the lyrics:

Well, I know I disappeared a time or two,

And along the way, I lost me and you.

I needed a new town for my new start

Selling VCR’s in Arkansas at a Wal-Mart.

I haven’t had a drink in nineteen days.

My eyes are clear and bright without that haze.

I like the preacher from the Church of Christ.

Sorry that I cried when I talked to you last night.

I think I’m on a roll here in Little Rock.

I’m solid as a stone, baby, wait and see.

I’ve got just one small problem here in Little Rock,

Without you, baby I’m not me.

Now, you might look at those lyrics here in the cold light of day in the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-Two and say to yourself that they are trite and sentimental. And I would agree with you. But 22-year-old me in 1994 drank at least a few cases of beer while sobbing and listening to that song on repeat, for weeks and weeks. I wore out that cassette tape; playing that song, then hitting rewind and playing it again. One thing you can say for MP3 players – listening to sad breakup music is easier than it was back in the day.

I already knew the song, of course. It had been out a while. But when I went through that breakup, it perfectly captured the struggle, the mourning, the lament, and the hope of it all.

When Tom Douglas wrote that song, he had no idea who I was. He had probably never set foot in Southaven, Mississippi, the scene of the yard incident. But he didn’t have to. He wrote the words, but I supplied the meaning. We were in partnership, Mr. Douglass and I.

It doesn’t matter if he had ever been through a breakup. It doesn’t matter if he had ever dated anyone, ever. I supplied every bit of meaning that I put on that song. And while I hear that song today and it reminds me of that time, I recognize that, objectively, it’s not a great song.

But it didn’t matter.

I try hard to write in an accessible way – people who know me say they can hear my voice when they read my writing, which is 100% what I’m shooting for. And I’m fortunate that I have a really interactive group of readers. Not a day goes by when I don’t get an email or Facebook message from someone who read something I wrote, and often they will tell me the story of how something I wrote – sometimes something I wrote years ago – really spoke to them.

And sometimes, they see things in my writing that perplex me, because I didn’t put them there. Luckily for me, they tend to be good things, by and large, but still. But I guarantee you I saw things in the song Little Rock that neither the singer nor the songwriter put there. In the partnership between the writer and I, he supplied the worlds, and I supplied the meaning.

Now, I have to confess that as a writer, there are times this frustrates me. I will spend a great deal of time crafting an essay about, say, birds, and then I see where someone shared it on Facebook, and they talk about how it’s a testimonial to the enduring power of the human spirit.

I really thought it was about birds. But if they needed to hear about the enduring power of the human spirit right then, I’m willing to let them have it. After all, I just bring the words – they supply the meaning.

The First Time

I was 15 years old when I wrote my first short story. I have no idea what the impetus was for choosing the short story format, but if I had to guess, it would be because it would have seemed like less work since, you know, it was short. I wrote most of it in Study Hall and finished it at lunch, so, perhaps 2 hours was spent on this.

The experience was magical. Scenes and words were in my head and flowed from my fingers, pouring out like a gushing stream. I was so proud, and I showed it to three adults, all of whom I trusted, and all of whose remarks involved how violent it was, and I was made to see the guidance counselor as a result. I had no management.

I wish I could talk to 15-year-old Hugh. I wish I could tell him, as someone whose writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers and published books and other esteemed places that he had really good instincts. That his 800-word story that involved *checks notes* three scene changes, drug use, three homicides, teen pregnancy, and suicide was probably a little ambitious for his skill level, but that the plot was great for a first time effort, and that the plot twist at the end was ambitious as hell and something he should be proud of himself for trying.

I would tell him that he told when he could have shown, and that if all his knowledge of drug culture came from Miami Vice, maybe that shouldn’t be central to the story. I would also say how proud of him I was that he took a moral position in his writing, even if it is heavy handed, and that giving the drug dealer a Hispanic name was a bullshit move, but was no doubt also learned from Miami Vice.

Then I would have hugged him, and told him he could, at 15, do things and see things other people couldn’t, and that he could already tell a good story; that the people we trust don’t always know what to do with people like us who make things, and that sometimes they are afraid of us, and sometimes they are afraid for us, and because of that, we have to be careful who we let see the things that matter to us.

But mostly, I would have told him to keep going.

Content Warning: The following story is pretty violent to have been written by a 15 year old virgin who couldn’t bring himself to write out the word “fuck”, even if that is clearly what he was thinking, and involves depictions of murder and descriptions of suicide, but is pretty tame by modern movie standards.

* * *

David had been my best friend since kindergarten and I am a senior in high school now. David’s and my parents were out of town together and left us there so we could go to school Friday.

It was Friday night when, after drinking a ton of beer, David told me about his “enterprise”. He was taking cocaine and cutting it with roach poison so he could make more profit. I was appalled. The very idea of drug use repulsed me, let alone something as deadly as this. I knew David had been doing coke since 10th grade, but I couldn’t have believed him to be capable of so sadistic a crime as this. However, out of ignorance or fear, I ignored it.

Saturday afternoon, I went to his house and then we went over to the mall. That night, about 1AM, we pulled into a Circle K for gas.

“You pump the gas, Johnny,” he said. “I’ve got to use the john. Pull up and wait for me when you’re through.”

I pumped $10 worth and pulled up to the front of the store to wait for David. Rstless, I got out nd was pacing in front of the store when a move caught my eye.

Why was the store owner holding his hands in the air? Why was the woman screaming? WHY GOOD GOD? Why was David holding a gun? The old man handed David a wad of money, and David shot him in the forehead. His wife never stopped screaming. Wet sticky pieces ofher husband’s skull sliding down the wall and all this woman can do is scream.

“Shut up!” David yelled.

The woman continued to scream.

“Shut up, I said!”

David emptied the gun into her chest. The woman, not willing to die, lay writing on the floor.

I know all of this could not have taken more than 5 or 6 seconds, but everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.

David hopped in the truck.

“Drive, dammit! Drive!”

David gave me directions to his “place”. As I drove, my sphincter muscles were clenched tight with fear. Here I was, sitting next to a double murderer, who was calmly sitting there. Every time I would look at David, I instead would see that old woman, writing on the floor, spitting up pink blood.

David’s place was an old beat up shack at the old railyards I had heard about it for years, but this was the first time been there.

David was bad off. It had been six hours since his last hit and he looked pretty bad. He was shaking and breathing fast. Even though it was November 8th he was sweating like a cold water pipe in the middle of July.

“Did you see them? Did you see that woman scream,” David asked?

David had went pretty far before, but this was it. He had done the unthinkable. He had killed 2 innocent people in cold blood. I made up my mind. In the morning I was going to call the cops. I had a load of scholarships, and I did not want this to mess them up.


He was whimpering, crying with joy from the money and pain from his habit. It was too much. I flew into him.

“Dammit, why did you rob that store?”

“Why not?”

“You killed 2 people for…” I counted the money “245 dollars. Why?”

“I needed the money to buy a rock. I can make over $2,000 with that.”.


I was disgusted. Then it was about the same old thing. Money.

“Look Johnny. Go to the mall. Just outside the door is a guy named Ramone. Tell him it’s for me, and give him the money. He will give you a package, OK?”

Why I agreed, I’ll never know. Maybe I was still in shock over what happened. Or, maybe I already had an idea of what would happen.

Well, I went to the mall and got his package. I also stopped by the hardware store.

I went into the shack. David was sweating bad. I gave him the package and he tore it open like a kid at Christmas. He cut a line and snorted his life-giving powder. Revolting how one’s life could be dependent on something so terrible.

He stood up, euphoric, for about 30 seconds. Then he toppled, fell, face first onto the floor, writhing and hacking at the fluid in his lungs. Amazing what effect roach poison and coke will have on a person.

If I live to be 100, I will never forget how he looked at me as if I had betrayed him. Well, maybe I had, but what I have done is wipe a little of the scum off the earth. Is that so bad? I know I must answer in hell for what I’ve done, but my girlfriend is pregnant, and I want my kid to grow up in a decent world.

The above was the author’s last words, found in a sealed letter beside his body. He shot himself through the head at approximately 4AM Sunday morning.


The Woo Woo

I tend to be very pragmatic. It’s not that I don’t have room for the supernatural: It’s just that it has, in my experience, often been used as an excuse by people who don’t really want to actually take tangible action.

Many is the time when I have been faced with needs that surpassed my abilities and have asked for real, tangible help – Help me get this person fed. Help me pay this person’s light bill. Help me get this person a job. Help me get this person some clothes. – and I have been assured of their prayers.

They often reply to my Facebook request with a hasty “Praying!”, apparently in such a rush to get on their knees and beseech the Almighty on our behalf that they can’t use sentences. The fervent prayers of the righteous may avail much, but in my experience, landlords require negotiable tender.

My friend Kathy once wrote a fundraising letter, and when someone replied that they were praying for her organization to have the resources they need, she replied back that their prayer team was full, and they really just needed somebody to write checks.

That said, I have had experiences I cannot explain pragmatically. As my buddy Brian said, I hate it when my experience of God contradicts my theology. So, I try to be open minded, especially as I strive hard to not yuck somebody else’s yum, and I never want to take away something that brings somebody comfort.

This has led me to interesting places over the years. Meditation retreats. Sweat lodges.  Pentecostal worship services. Folk slain in the Spirit. Other folk speaking in tongues. Prayer walks. Beads. Dream catchers. Familiars. Teas and tinctures. Spells. Healing services. Oil anointing. Tibetan singing bowls. Sitting with the dead.

All of which is a preamble to my friend Amy, who several weeks back mentioned she was starting up a book group around The Artist’s Way, and did I want to be part of it.

Which is how I have ended up writing three pages longhand every morning for the last two weeks as I lean into the program, which involves, among other things, writing three pages longhand every morning, in a ritual they call Morning Pages.

Now, I will confess, it seemed somewhat silly to me, but I am doing it. And because I have learned that rituals are important, and the more I take a ritual seriously, the more value I will get from it, I have tried to ritualize it as much as possible.

The same time, every morning. The same notebook, that I don’t use for anything else. I bought a special pen that I use for writing these pages, and I always start them the same way. In short, I am taking it seriously.

Now, I don’t know if this will “work”. In fact, I am unsure how I would know if it did work, or define what I expect it to do. But I can tell you that somewhere after day 7, it ceased to be a chore, and now I actually look forward to it. And the other day, I kept going after my three pages were done, because I had more stuff still waiting to come out. And Friday morning I had an idea for a book come to me while I was doing it, for which I have since done a rough outline.

And I’m just getting started – I committed to another 13 weeks of this. And while I can’t make a pragmatic case for it, I guess it doesn’t hurt to be open to the woo-woo, either.

Being Creative

For a while in my 30’s, I lived in Midtown Memphis. It was a magical place, and still the best “scene” I have ever belonged to.

I had friends who were authors, musicians, lawyers, doctors, shopkeepers, poets, and gallery owners. I routinely went to art gallery openings, CD release parties, and book signings.  For part of that time I owned a small coffee shop, and on Saturday nights we would have live music, so I came to know jazz piano players, bass guitarists, and plain old rockabilly vocalists.

And one of the people I knew was an Elvis impersonator.

Now, I don’t know what your mental framework for an Elvis Impersonator is, but he probably wasn’t that. For one thing, he didn’t look terribly much like Elvis, and he preferred the title “tribute artist”, anyway.

But man could he sing. He had the whole range, so he could do Hound Dog, or Jailhouse Rock, or Blue Christmas, or even In the Ghetto. He was pretty popular, and stayed busy enough that he made a living from his performing, which few folks do.

He never performed at my shop – we were too small for him – but he often came by if we had a band in, and one night he hung till we closed the doors. He and I closed the place down that night, sitting in the corner table, drinking red wine from plastic cups and soaking the night in, neither of us willing to break the spell and have it end.

He told me about his career – how he had tried to make a living as a singer-songwriter, and had almost had a record deal, when the guy he was dealing with committed suicide and it all went away.

“And so now you make a living singing someone else’s songs.” I said, sounding more judgmental than I meant to. “Does that ever bother you?”

“Most people sing other people’s songs,” he said. “The difference is, I make a living doing it, and most of them don’t. And I get to make a living making people happy, and using my voice, and it’s lovely. It isn’t what I had planned, but it’s good. And besides – it never works out how you think it will, anyway. And that’s OK.”

There is a long list of things I cannot do. That isn’t negative self-talk – it’s just the truth. My attempts at drawing have always fallen prey to my hand-to-eye coordination, and my mental box of colors is the 9 color box of crayons, not the 64 crayon box. Grey literally is my favorite color. I cannot sing or, heck, carry a tune. I’m tone deaf.

In short, visual and musical arts are both closed worlds to me. I don’t understand them, and I mean that literally. When my wife listens to music, she actually hears things I do not. When I was about 8 years old, my mom’s friend offered to teach me the piano, and that lasted 3 lessons, until my tone deafness became obvious.

And so, I came to believe that I was not “creative”.

Which is, objectively, silly. I mean, just today, on my day off, I have drafted a synopsis and first draft of an outline for a book I want to write. Then I spent time building out a new website to sell the items which I hand carve, and then went to the church to sketch out plans for part of the renovation there I am spear-heading.  I came home and planted a rose bush, which will be the cornerstone of a memory garden I am planning, and I’m now writing a blog post, which will contain a story and which will finish out around 700 words, and what’s more, I’ve done more words than that daily for months now. And after I eat, I will go out to my workshop and carve some spoons and spatulas of my own design, which people will pay me money for.

I’m creative as hell. I’m just not a musician.

I guess what I’m saying is, it doesn’t always work out how you want it to. And that’s OK.

Habits Are Things You Get for Free

Yesterday, my friend Don told me that he admired my output since I began daily blogging. What he didn’t know is that if I don’t do it daily, it pretty much won’t happen at all. I write every day, because if I only write when I get in the mood, I will write never. In the first 9 months of 2021, I wrote 9 blog posts. Since October 1st, I’ve written 72, and since November 1st, I’ve written one every day.

Today I have written more than 2500 words, between two very rough draft blog posts, a newsletter, and this blog post. I have written about 25,000 words in the last 30 days, which is about half the number of words in The Great Gatsby, by writing every day. That is 25,000 more words that I would have written had I written when I felt like writing.

I publish newsletters on Monday and Friday, every week. As a result, I have sent hundreds of newsletters to my lists in the last 5 years. When I had a newsletter that I sent when I had something to say, I sent perhaps 3 in two years.

I was talking to a friend this morning as I was on the way to the gym to swim.

“I really admire your regularity. It’s impressive,” she said.

I told her that regularity was sort of my super power. Regularity can make you unstoppable. My ADHD brain thrives on structure, but has a really difficult time creating structure. Like many ADHD folks though, I thrive in structured environments, because it drastically reduces my choices, and choices are paralyzing for me.

That is why, for example, I wear the same clothes day after day. I don’t wear shirts with letters or graphics. I tend to wear earth tones, and literally I grab whatever shirt is on top of the pile.  When I wore suits for a living I did the same thing, only with blue and white shirts, red ties, and blue suits. I don’t have to worry about what I will wear, or if it matches or is appropriate. I have casual clothes and work clothes and dress clothes and there are rules for all of them, and I only own clothes that follow those rules. As a result, I bet I spend less than two hours a year thinking about clothes.

Some people exercise on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I would exercise Monday, Wednesday, and the forget and it would be Saturday and I would get mad and then forget Monday and say to hell with it.

Doing it every day means you don’t have to remember. How much time do you spend thinking about brushing your teeth? None, because it’s a habit. And as the writer and activist Corey Doctorow said, “Habits are things you get for free”.

I have a habit of exercising, whether that is a walk or a swim, every day. A habit of working in the shop after supper. A habit of reading before bed. A habit of writing. All things I get for free.

In fact, it’s the parts of my life I haven’t figured out how to create structure around that give me fits.

But I’m trying.