Draw Your Ancestors

1. Classroom Faces

At the start of this school year, I moved into a new classroom and had a new, big, blank cinder-block wall to fill. So I used one of those giant printers to print out life-sized and larger-than-life photos of a few American literary icons, and I arranged their faces into a huge collage:

Your Words Can Change the World
(Left to right, this is Eudora Welty, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Walt Whitman, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison.)

I think of it as a (partial!) Mount Rushmore of American writing, a wall of literary ancestors. Their job is to remind us that our words, too, can change the world.

Over the course of my Creative Writing course, we’ll read at least a little something by most of these writers, and sooner or later we’ll talk — at least a little — about the rest. To be sure, it’s a subjective and incomplete wall of ancestors, filtering the “canon” through my own biases and tastes, but it’s a start. (I keep in the hollow space of my podium a huge, rolled up head of Kurt Vonnegut, whose impish sidelong glance I just couldn’t fit, physically, anywhere into that puzzle of faces. Later I may create a second line-up on another wall; in the meantime, when Vonnegut comes up in discussion, I can whip out and unfurl his image.)

2. Student Drawings

Especially because Creative Writing happens to be the first period of the day — and because I think some “mindless” drawing can awaken some playful, spontaneous, unpredictable part of the brain — I sometimes like to start the class by asking students to draw for five or six minutes. I’ve asked them to reserve the first three pages of their Creative Writing notebooks for these start-of-class drawings and doodles, so that by the end of the year those pages will be crammed with all sorts of images — images which will serve as untamed and untranslatable intro to all the words that will follow. Of course, half the class complains that they “can’t draw,” which is the real point (it turns out, they can). But because they only have five minutes for the drawings, the perfectionists have to abandon perfectionism and the slow-to-starters have to jump in, ready or not. There’s no time to think, and everybody is equal.

I started the year’s drawing times by having students choose one of the big literary faces on the wall and try, quickly, to draw it. At the start of the year, they’re likely to know something about one or two of these writers — probably Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes — but the rest, so far, are strangers to them. Ultimately you have to choose your own creative ancestors, and I know my students haven’t chosen these particular writers as theirs. But that’s part of what I like about these first drawing activities: I tell them to just choose whichever face stands out or interests them the most, and spend a few minutes with it. Maybe later a voice or a meaning, or some historical weight or baggage, will attach itself to the face and the drawing. But for now you’re just moving your pencil or pen across a sheet of paper, waking up your brain.

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Later on, students will add to the same three pages their own self portraits — and self portraits of themselves as superheroes or supervillains — and they’ll look up pictures of their own creative heroes and their own creative ancestors and draw their faces, too. The ones on the wall are just our starting point, and I absolutely adore the results:

Another reason I like starting with the same limited group of faces, before students branch out into their own, is because I love the variation you get from a few repeated, recognizable images. Each Gertrude Stein reflects its drawer’s personality above all; the result is part Gertrude Stein and mostly that student. No two Gertrude Steins are alike — but they’re just enough alike to make those differences magical.

You can see a few of the students’ own heroes and ancestors mixed in among these sample drawings; I’ll post some more later on in the year. (One day I gave them the option of drawing anything in the room. A student in my film class had recently brought in a wonderful, creepy E.T. mask that her father had made her, out of felt, years ago, as a Halloween costume; it was still hanging on a hook in the front of the room, which is why you see that E.T. There are a couple of stuffed Kermit the Frogs on my bookshelf, too.)

So:

3. Your Turn

Here’s an assignment, if you want one. I recommend starting your day with this, to warm yourself up — if not first thing in the morning, then right before you begin the most productive part of your workday. Take about five minutes to draw one of your own creative heroes or ancestors (a writer, artist, musician, filmmaker, comedian, teacher, lawyer, whatever — maybe choose somebody you admire from your own line of work, someone whose example reminds you why you do what you do).

Keep it to about five minutes. That way it’s not a huge time commitment, and it takes the pressure off: you can’t expect it to be super-accurate, and you can’t worry about whether it’s “good.”

When your five-ish minutes is up, look back upon your creation. Don’t ball it up or throw it away. Take a picture or scan it, and send me a copy (burgin@bhammountainradio.com). Then put the original on your refrigerator or over your desk, or leave it in a public space for a stranger to find.

Here’s an idea, if you want to really go all-in: get a notebook just for this. Spend five minutes doing this, every day for 30 days — or, if you like, for 365 days. Set a goal and keep it up. Create a diary of five-minute faces, a one-of-a-kind, homemade, ever-growing book of ancestors. Occasionally send me pictures (again: burgin@bhammountainradio.com).

Or, finally, an alternate assignment, if you prefer the mystery of losing yourself in a stranger’s face: Google “Czech authors” or “Ugandan authors” or “Indian” or “Hungarian authors” (someplace whose literacy ancestry is unknown to you). Choose the face that most arrests you, and spend five minutes drawing it. Be sure to write the author’s name beside, around, or under the drawing, and maybe (quickly) add to that a book title, birthdate, or fun fact, whatever you get when you click that person’s picture.

I am certain that you will create something magical that otherwise would never have existed. Give it five minutes and see.

P. S. This week I got my hands on the new book by Lynda Barry, Making Comics, and it’s wonderful, offering many of Barry’s own exercises to draw your way into unexpected and extraordinary, imaginative places. Don’t let the title fool you: her book isn’t for aspiring comics artists (although those people should get it, too), nearly so much as it is for the rest of us — especially those of us who quit drawing pictures around the same time we stopped being kids.

P. P. S. Here are a few of my favorite things from the drawings above: Langston Hughes at an enormous, blank typewriter; all the Toni Morrisons; the bored, tired, or mildly annoyed Whitmans; “powerful.” Also this truth: that sometimes when you’re drawing, your pencil produces something your brain didn’t mean or want (a “mistake”) and you just have to run with and reclaim it. So Zora Neale Hurston becomes “Evil Zora Neale Hurston” — which is pretty wonderful in itself.

Don’t forget to send me your drawings! Thanks for reading.

Some Birthdays & Obituaries & Lives Well Lived

Lately we’ve been losing some greats — musicians, poets, and icons of various stripes. A couple of weeks ago, my friend Gerald posted these words on Facebook:

The recent passing of Dick Dale (81), W. S. Merwin (91) and earlier this year Mary Oliver (83) has caused me to reflect on how my heroes have changed. When I was young I worshiped artists who flamed out early: Ian Curtis, Arthur Rimbaud, Jimi, Janis and Jim. The list goes on. Now, I’ve come to admire artists that not only live a full life, but those who continue to do their work until they pass.”

Hear, hear. I’d add to this list the poet Donald Hall, who died last year at the age of 89, and whose Essays After Eighty I adore. For the last few years I’ve kept by my bedside either that book or its follow-up, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. I look to Donald Hall’s last books for their wisdom and their wit but above all, I think, for the simple beauty of their sentences, each laid carefully after the next. I hope that something in those books will rub off on me and that somehow, someday, I’ll write sentences that seem so effortless and clean.

Then there’s Andre Williams, the outrageous R&B wildman original, who was funny, creative, irreverent, raunchy, prolific, and gleefully strange all the way up to his death, just a couple of weeks ago, at the age of 82.

He’d released his last album at the age of 80. It’s called Don’t Ever Give Up.

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Some of our creative elder-heroes still walk among us. Austin Kleon’s new book, Keep Going, opens with a quote from Willie Nelson. “I think I need to keep being creative,” Willie says, “not to prove anything but because it makes me happy just to do it…. I think trying to be creative, keeping busy, has a lot to do with keeping you alive.”

Willie Nelson turns 86 this month. Last year he released his seventy-third album. It’s called Last Man Standing.

And then of course there’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti, still with us at the age, now, of a hundred. For his birthday a couple of weeks ago, he released a new book, Little Boy. City Lights bookstore threw him a huge birthday party. (I couldn’t make it to San Francisco, but I did make him a card.)

Meanwhile, a little closer to home: last Saturday, in Petal, Mississippi, the British-born ballet dancer Henry Danton celebrated his own centennial. He still actively teaches and dances and is writing down the details of his long and celebrated career.

“I don’t have a lot of free time,” he told the Hattiesburg American. “And I want it that way. I don’t want to retire.”

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Stories like these keep popping up into my news feed lately. A week or two ago I read about Delana Jensen Close, who just published her first book, a novel called The Rock House, at the age of 95. She started writing it sixty-plus years ago, back in 1955. She told the Associated Press that “It had to come out” and compared its long-awaited release to the birth of a child. “In the days after it was published,” the A. P. reports, “she literally treated it that way — carrying the book around in a basket with a baby blanket.”

The Indie Book Awards gave Close the prize for this year’s best historical fiction. She has two new novels underway.

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Maybe, like I did, you grew up on Beverly Cleary books. This Saturday, Cleary turns 103.

Back when she was just a hundred, someone asked her the secret of her longevity.

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” she said.

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And here’s my favorite story from 2018: “Alabama man turns 99 this Fourth of July, plans to cast his first vote.” John McQueen of Montgomery voted for the first time in his life last summer, in Sen. David Burkette’s runoff election. (Burkette won.) According to Al.com, McQueen stays active today, working in his garden and singing gospel music. “I still work,” he told the paper. “I ain’t never stopped…. I believe if I stop and rest I won’t last long.”

Here’s McQueen, just before his ninety-ninth birthday, singing at a rally for Sen. Burkette: “You Don’t Know What the Lord Done For Me.”


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All this has gotten me thinking about Stranger Malone, a musician I interviewed at length some years ago and wrote about for the Old-Time Herald magazine. The first time I laid eyes on him he was already past ninety, performing onstage at a summer outdoor festival in Western North Carolina, blowing a clarinet and playing the bones, standing in the hot sun in a heavy corduroy suit. Long before that, way back in the twenties, he’d played clarinet on records by Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers and Clayton McMichen’s Melody Men. After he died, he was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest working recording career in history, one that stretched from 1926 to 2003.

Stranger didn’t care to make distinctions of musical genre. “I like sentimental music,” he told me, defining the common thread in his repertoire. “I feel sentiment about life: I think life is a marvelous thing, and I think we should take care of it. And I like songs that express that idea, that this is a marvelous world, we better take care of it.

“So I like that type of music. But the nonsense I leave behind.”

Malone died in 2005, at home and in bed in his Rome, Georgia, apartment. A musician friend found him there, after he’d failed to show up for a recording session. By his hand was a book called Life is Worth Living.

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And then there is Doc.

My dear friend, the late Frank “Doc” Adams, told me, in our very first conversation, about his cousin, Arthur “Finktum” Prowell. Finktum was a roustabout, an old carnival worker, a comedian and singer. He was a dirt-poor rambler and a lifelong bachelor; he refused to profess religion, and his own family declared him no good. Doc adored him. No matter what others thought, Finktum was wholeheartedly and unrepentantly himself.

“And,” Doc told me, “when he died, he died singing: ‘Life is Like a Mountain Railroad.’ See, he could sing, man, and he died.”

That, I think, is the way to go.

Doc himself died at the age of 86, in 2014. That may sound old to you, but the news of his death shocked everyone who knew him: Doc was so alive, so fundamentally full of youth and vitality, that the thought of his dying just didn’t compute. He and I had published a book together in 2012, and Doc was still brimming with new ideas every time we met. At the time of his death, he was trying to reunite some old musician friends for a recording session in his basement. He had some poems he was planning to set to music And he’d been working on a barbecue sauce he intended to market — he’d just perfected the recipe and was working on a design for the label. The ideas just poured out of him — for collaborations, research projects, presentations, performances, recording dates — and it sometimes breaks my heart to think of those projects that never reached fruition.

But then again, that’s the only way it could have been, and that was the beauty of the man. If he hadn’t been still working on a million new ideas at once — if he’d finished everything and just sat back and slowed down — he wouldn’t have been Doc.

In our book, I asked him how he wanted to be remembered, and he said this:

“I want to be remembered as a person who didn’t quit.”

And that’s the thing about all these creators — Stranger Malone and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Dick Dale and Doc Adams and Delena Jenson Close and Henry Danton and Andre Williams and Mary Oliver and all the rest of them — they’ve shown us how to keep going, to keep creating, to never give up, to continue the work. They didn’t, don’t, and won’t quit.

And, listen: I know we’re just lucky to be here at all, that we’ve got to make the most of the days we’ve got. I’m not betting on making a hundred, or even forty-five. Of course, I can’t help but hope I’m here a long, long time, still creating new things, still getting closer to my best, all the way up to the end; and that when I do come to die, I’ll die singing, like Finktum.

In the meantime, for however long I’m here, I’ll just be doing my best — to learn from a wealth of ancestors and elders, to keep my hand on the throttle and my eye on the rail, and to leave the nonsense behind.

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Thanks for reading this blog. If you’d like more, take a minute to hit the “follow” button. You can find my radio show, The Lost Child, on Instagram and Facebook, and find my book Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man wherever you buy your books. If you’re in or around Montgomery, Alabama, this weekend, stop by the Alabama Book Festival on Saturday (April 13); I’ll have a table there with the Doc Adams book and a whole bunch of zines. Hope to see you around. 

Tell me what you think.

Okay, friends and strangers, I could use your feedback.

Here’s a short, working synopsis of my book in progress. I invite your input (on content, style, or any nitpicking details) in the comment section below. To chime in, you need zero prior knowledge of the subject matter, just an honest gut reaction. I’d like to know what works for you here and what doesn’t, and what could work better—anything you think might better persuade a person to pick up and read this book.

Thanks for taking a look.

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Magic City Bounce and Swing tells the story of one of American music’s most essential unsung communities.

In an era of pervasive segregation, African American educators in Birmingham, Alabama, created a pioneering high school music program that offered students a life outside the local mills and mines. After graduation, students trained under John T. “Fess” Whatley and other Birmingham bandmasters fanned out all over the country, joining the nation’s top jazz bands. They backed Bessie Smith on stage and on record and populated the bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and others. The Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, an ensemble full of Birmingham players, became one of the swing era’s most popular and enduring dance bands, and their biggest hit—“Tuxedo Junction,” a tribute to their hometown scene—became an American anthem. When the country went to war, other Birmingham jazzmen filled the ranks of the Army, Navy, and Air Force bands that provided a soundtrack for the cause.

Often making their mark from the sidelines or behind the scenes—as composers and arrangers, sidemen, businessmen, mentors and teachers—Birmingham musicians exerted a broad influence on the popular culture of the nation. Drummer Jo Jones pioneered the shimmering, propulsive rhythm that came to define the sound of swing. Bandleader Teddy Hill helped launch the careers of some of the giants of modern jazz and, as manager of Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, became a catalyst for the bebop revolution. Sun Ra—one of American music’s most inventive, iconoclastic originals—pushed the jazz tradition to its furthest-out, most exploratory fringes, communicating a new music for the cosmos. Other players remained in Birmingham, shaping the local scene and passing the tradition to new generations. The contributions of these musicians and others meant more than mere entertainment: long before Birmingham emerged as battleground in the struggle for civil rights, its homegrown jazz heroes helped set the stage, crafting a unique tradition of achievement, independence, innovation, and empowerment.

Drawing on troves of previously untapped sources—interviews, news reports, home recordings, and more—Magic City Bounce and Swing reveals, for the first time, the story of this remarkable community. Tracing the intersecting lives of its unforgettable cast of characters, the story crisscrosses an America that’s been largely forgotten: from segregated high school band rooms to the swanky gala dances of the South’s black elite, from jazz-fueled religious revivals to smoky urban night clubs, from touring vaudeville tent shows to the world’s most glittering ballrooms. What emerges is nothing less than a secret history of jazz—and a joyful exploration into the hidden roots of America’s popular culture.

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That’s it. Thoughts? 

P. S. Thanks for reading (and commenting)! If you’re curious about the book above, please in the meantime check out my previous book, Doc, which was just reissued in paperback. If you’d like to see more of this blog, look for the “Follow” option at the top of this page. If you want more music-related stuff, please check out my radio show. And if you just want to say hello, just say hello!

Back to the Future & boxes of books

When Back to the Future begins, it’s 1985 and George McFly is in every sense a loser. Then his son Marty travels thirty years into the past and sets off a chain of events that rewrites forever the whole family’s reality. When the movie ends, it’s 1985 again, but it’s a different 1985, one in which George McFly is no longer a loser at all. He’s a writer. And in the last minutes of the movie a box arrives in the mail, full of the first copies of his first book. The family opens up the box and it’s stacked with hardback copies of A Match Made in Space, a novel, with George McFly’s picture on the back.

I loved that movie when I was a kid — I still love it now — and that little moment thrilled me every single time I saw it. Because even then (I guess I was eight or nine), I wanted to write books. And so that tiny, unlikely moment at the end of Back to the Future became for me, for a few decades and running, what I imagined it must look like to be a writer. You were just a sort of regular guy (a little nerdy, maybe, but no loser), but  then sometimes a box would show up on your doorstep, full of the books you’d created. I never could imagine much in the world that might be better than opening up that box.

Usually the way something looks in the movies isn’t much like it looks it real life. So when my book Doc first came out, I was surprised and delighted when it happened just like it did in Back to the Future, in that scene that was still so much in the back of my mind. A box arrived on my porch, and my heart raced, and I opened it.

I’m working on another, brand new book now — an outgrowth and kind of sequel to the first one — and I can’t wait for the day its first copies arrive on my doorstep. But in the meantime another happy milestone happened today: Doc has just come out in its first paperback edition, and this afternoon I got a box full of the things.

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I’ll admit, the delivery this time was a bit anticlimactic: the release date was yesterday, but there was a glitch with the distributor. A release party and reading, scheduled for last night, had to be postponed at the very last minute, so we pushed it all into the new year. (If you’re in Birmingham, mark your calendars — it will be on Thursday, January 10, at the Little Professor Bookcenter in Homewood, come hell or high water.) But still it was satisfying to open that box. I’m very happy that this book is out at last in paperback. I hope it’ll get Doc Adams’s important and inspiring story out to a new world of readers. And it’s $15 cheaper than it was before, which is no small thing in itself.

In 1955, Marty McFly tells his future dad, George: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

Later, in 1985, George McFly opens up a box of books, hands one of them to Marty, and tells him the same thing.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

This is what writing is like.

This is what writing is like.

Emily Brontë, age 21, in the margins beneath a new poem:

“I am more terrifically and infernally and idiotically and brutally STUPID—than ever I was in the whole course of my incarnate existence. The above precious lines are the fruits of one hour’s most agonizing labor between ½ past 6 and ½ past 7 in the evening of July – 1836.”

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Emily Brontë

There’s also this, from Flannery O’Connor:

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.”

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Flannery O’Connor

Hang in there, writers. Better luck today.

Create Your Own Creative Writing Exam

For the last several years, the first semester exam for my high school creative writing class has come in two parts, spread out over a few class periods.

For Part One, students receive a small slip of paper that says “CREATE YOUR OWN CREATIVE WRITING EXAM,” and just a couple of sentences’ instruction. They have one 50-minute class period to create an exam for the course, and the only requirement is that they use the entire period. They may take the full 50 minutes to make the exam, or if they finish it before the period is over, they can actually take the exam themselves. One or two students usually panic, afraid that they won’t do it “right”; I more or less refuse to give any other direction, but if a student is sincerely worried I’ll just tell them, “Create an exam you would like to take” or “Just be true to the spirit of the course, and I promise you’ll be fine” — and after a little hand-wringing they start writing.

Somehow I usually manage to convince at least most of the students that Part Two of the exam will be completely unrelated to Part One, that Part One is a stand-alone exercise, a warm-up for something more exam-ish. But of course it is all a set-up: before they come back for Part Two I compile questions and prompts from all twenty-something exams into a single, epic document. They have a little more than two hours, over two days, to accomplish as much as they can. They can skip any questions and go in whatever order they want. Again, the only requirement is that they use the entire allotted time: they shouldn’t try to do it all, just to do as much as they can.

Both parts of the exam are always great fun for me to read. I’m always impressed by how funny and poignant, how creative and absurdist and profound these students can be, even in the middle of exam week, and I’m always reminded how glad I am to know all of them.

In case you would like to take this year’s exam for yourself, I am posting it in the link below. Set a timer for 60 or 90 minutes or whatever feels right and see what you can do. I did not create any of these questions; each one was created by a sophomore, junior, or senior in high school.

Good luck.

Create Your Own Creative Writing Exam 2017

P.S. A couple of students’ questions reference the wonderful artist and writer Lynda Barry and this 14-minute video, which we’d recently watched in class — and which I recommend also to you.

How to be a poet (drawing)

Wendell Berry

A few years ago I drew this picture of Wendell Berry for my friend Daniel on his birthday. Daniels wife Lucy commissioned the drawing and gave me one of Wendell Berrys books as payment. She also suggested the text, “How to Be a Poet.”

A few weeks ago, while I was moving, I came across my copy of the drawing, which I’d mostly forgotten. Now I’ve put it where I see it every day. I’m not a poet exactly, but I find Berrys reminders a comfort and encouragement. Heres the full poem. Maybe it will be useful, also, to you.

Don’t forget to breathe.

How to Be a Poet
By Wendell Berry
(to remind myself)
i
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
ii
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
iii
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.