On Writing Memoir–and the Art of Narration in General

Patricia Hamilton, who published my book The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir (Park Place Publications, 2013), has commenced a column in our local paper, Cedar Street Times (Pacific Grove, CA). Patricia’s column is called “The Importance of a Strong Family Narrative,” and it is focused on documenting one’s own life and passing what you’ve learned and known on to “future generations.”

Patricia contacted me and asked if I would respond to four questions posed by Dr. James Birren, “a pioneer in the field of gerontology,” questions which address the benefits of “writing our life stories and sharing them with others.” All too true to my nature (and “Blog Baroque” style), I responded to the questions in full, and answered them as completely as I could. In her first column appearance, Patricia only had room for brief quotation from my replies, so I would like, here and now (given the space that a blog provides), to present what I sent her in full—and even add some additional thoughts on narration in general. And I may slip in some photos at a couple of points, as  “illustrations” of what I’ve been talking about (I hope), or just to liven things up a bit, visually.

Here are my responses to the suggested benefits:

  1. Increased self-knowledge by telling your story and listening to the stories of others:

When I undertook the book project that took six years to complete—The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir—my major intent was to explore areas of my life I had deliberately avoided or ignored. I grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan: a boy who just wanted to be a boy who played ice hockey (goalie, no less), liked to box (a sport made popular by Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson), play jazz piano–and hopefully find a girlfriend. However, that boy was inundated with (imposed upon, to his mind) tales his parents told of “illustrious ancestors.” I tried my best not to pay much attention to them, swamped as I felt I was with tales of relatives who, as for their American history, went  back to 17th century New England and Middlesex County, Virginia; Civil War heroes on both sides (Confederate and “Yankee”); and notable 19th century authors who wrote praiseworthy memoir and hobnobbed with not just Mark Twain himself but Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. It would take this boy–me–a number of years to “reconcile discordant elements.” The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir told the story of that endeavor—and the extent of “increased self-knowledge” I would acquire was considerable.  Listening, at last, to so many “stories of others” and facing up to my own, I learned that we are everything that surrounds us—and I found myself part of an extended family I came to love.

(2) Awareness and appreciation of having lived through so much:

We all hope to get “better” somehow with age. Memoir is one way to make that happen. Aristotle called an act of improvement (rather than one that entails slowing down or falling short) “entelechy”: the fulfillment of potential. In theology, Thomas Aquinas applied Aristotle’s concept to pure being in a state of realization. Today, we can—by way of memoir and a thorough examination of family history—keep our individual worlds large and as complete and inclusive as possible. We can make what we have lived through ourselves and what others have lived through come alive again, on compatible terms—and the result is greater awareness of ourselves and of the gift of life which is the possession of everyone.

And here are photos of the good folks who helped put my book together–Patricia Hamilton of Park Place Publications and Christopher Hebert, editor–with the book itself in the middle. The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir is available at: http://www.amazon.com/Inherited-Heart-American-Memoir/dp/1935530712/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1415460740&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Inherited+Heart%3A+An+American+MePatricia Hamilton   Front Cover  Chris Hebert

(3) Greater comfort with other people by sharing experiences and struggles:

The lives I discovered—by way of books about my relatives and others written by them (I discovered that both my father’s and mother’s families were “filthy” with writers: good writers!); research at the Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; visits to former “Minor” homes in Virginia, and taped conversations with my “Yankee” mother, learning the history of her family—did teach me that we are linked, through inheritance, by all that surrounds us. I discovered that many of these folks leapt off the pages of books and letters in which they had been buried for years, some to the point of becoming “close friends,” as if they were living contemporaries. I not only shared the experience of writing the book with them, but contemporaries: my immediate family and friends; Chris Hebert (the best editor I’ve ever had); and Patricia Hamilton of Park Place Publications, responsible for making the book available in print—for coming up with the innovative idea of the postage stamp-sized photos (with captions) in the opening pages, and for getting me started on a blog (this one: Bill’s Blog, with WordPress).

(4) Fewer regrets as to our life choices and “the road not traveled”:

When I finished The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir (an undertaking that came to 476 pages, “edited” down from more than 600), I did not have room left for regrets regarding life choices of my own (one of which had been waiting until somewhat advanced age to start this project). I no longer saw options in terms of Robert Frost’s “two roads,” but saw my life (and that of many others) as a very wide river, a veritable Mississippi of “roads” made up of endless options I was in a position to take advantage of. “Memoir” was originally distinguished from reminiscence writing in general in that it was an account written by someone of importance who had lived through a significant era—but what is that other than “finding oneself” in a particular era? We are ALL someone of importance, and every era is significant. And the way to make that fact known is to explore your own life and family history and write about it—“not for glory and least of all for profit,” as William Faulkner said (although perhaps a touch of both just may fall your way), but just to tell your “story” and that of all the others who helped make you what you are.

Time out for photos I used as “prompts” for The Inherited Heart—some of which I did include in the book itself, both “postage stamp-sized” at the start and in an eighteen page photo gallery–and I think I’ll contrast the “eras” in which they were taken, just for kicks. Here’s my great-grandfather’s first cousin’s son in 1861, Charles Minor Blackford, age 27, and me with his Civil War sword in Lynchburg, Virginia in 2008; my mother and father with their first born son, my brother Lance; my mother and father, at about 50 years of age, in the living room of the home I grew up in; and me feeding our two sons, Tim and Steve, when I was 24.

Charles Minor Blackford  CSA Cavalry Capt Bill Minor  3.  11  Bill as Dad with Tim and Baby Steve

When I’d finished with the responses Patricia requested, I realized that, at the time she asked me to shape them to Dr. Birren’s set of benefits, I was reading (and still am; it’s a very large book!) Thomas Mann’s major work, Joseph and His Brothers, sixteen years in construction, four “books” actually (The Stories of Jacob, Young Joseph, Joseph in Egypt, Joseph the Provider)–amassing 1492 pages (in the masterful John E. Woods translation). If a major task of memoir is making the past come alive again, as best you can, I can think of few writers who have done a better job than Thomas Mann, although he did so not with personal history but Biblical history in Joseph and His Brothers. For Mann this effort was an act of  imagination (and considerable research), not memory—or at least not memory in the sense of personal reminiscence; but he employs a narrative technique throughout that I find remarkable: one which, if I had the nerve to try it on for size, I would love to attempt to make use of in memoir. A paradox: Mann’s work reads like “memoir,” an account of one person’s experience throughout a particular era, although that era is devastatingly distant from ours and the overall point of view is not that of Joseph but the author himself.

Throughout Joseph and His Brothers, Mann takes his audience, the reader, into complete confidence, as if the reader were (for each moment of time in the book) participating in the process of re-telling the traditional story (or stories), is actually involved in the writing to the point of  assisting in and sharing decisions as to just how the tale should be told. The reader becomes a co-conspirator, as it were, when it comes to what to include, and what not, and also the approach to storytelling overall.

For example, when faced with depicting the ambivalence and intricacy of Joseph’s brothers’ feelings after they have deposited a beaten, bruised, and naked Joseph, shorn of his coat of many colors (the garment itself ripped to shreds), in the dry well, Mann writes: “Some instances are best served with only half-words,” previously explaining: “In the end, what they had done to their brother they had done out of jealousy—and everyone knows what emotion is wrenched and distorted into jealousy. To be sure, when one looked at Shimeon’s and Levi’s well-oiled brutality any reference to that emotion might seem quite inept, which is why we need to speak obliquely, in half-words.”

That “we” is not just the classic editorial journalistic “we.” Mann means “us”: you and him, reader and writer. He seems to be consorting with his readers, seeking their approval of what he intends to do, or not to do. After such consultation with the reader as to whether he should name “that emotion,” Mann makes the decision on his own to resort to “half-words.” On other occasions he’ll issue a “warning” as to possible conclusions (“Once again, let readers be warned that they ought not consider Jacob’s sons to be especially hardened louts and deny them every sympathy.”), or he will take the reader into full confidence (without providing a “no disclosure” clause in the “contract” between them!), stating, “Just between us,” when revealing why Ruben has left the brothers behind to pursue his own “very different activities.”

Mann grants useful information to the reader, so that both reader and author can decide what to make of it and just how much to reveal or “tell”; or he comes right out and asks the reader, “Would it be saying too much if one were to include in his story how even now his thoughts [Joseph’s] built an airy bridge between these meadows here and his clan at home, his father and little Benjamin?” Mann abdicates authorial privilege, allowing the reader to contemplate whether the writer may have gone too far–even though the author goes right ahead to include what he’s just asked if he should include!

Mann will also warn the reader against “playing favorites” when it comes to the characters brought to life (those both author and reader have brought to life?). He warns readers to keep their distance from, or maintain control of their sympathies (a warning to himself as well?), saying, “We are easily moved to call some situation unbearable—it is the protest of fiercely outraged humanity, well intended and even beneficial for the person suffering. Yet such protest may easily also seem a bit ridiculous to someone whose reality is ‘unbearable.’ Those who feel outraged sympathy find themselves in an emotionally impractical relationship with a reality that is not their own; they put themselves in the situation of someone else who is already in it—an error of imagination, for precisely because of his situation he is no longer like them. And what does “unbearable” mean when it must be borne and one has no choice but to bear it as long as one’s senses are intact?”

Mann is constantly reminding the reader to be on guard with regard to her or his overall attitude toward the characters in Joseph and His Brothers—again, as if both reader and author had to collaborate on just how to make the right decisions, mutual decisions, as to how the characters might best be represented or rendered lifelike.

At times, he comes right out and offers an apology, or a disclaimer: “We are greatly concerned to impress upon everyone’s imagination a lively and real sense of such all-embracing discomfort. And yet, precisely for the sake of life and reality, it is likewise our task to ameliorate things out of concern that imagination not gain the upper hand and lose itself in empty emotion. Reality is sober and unimaginative—that is its character as reality.” In other words: Please help me decide just how far–and in which direction–I should go, Dear Reader! And in a subtle manner, he’s also teaching us, the readers, how to write–the important choices involved!

I love it! What fun! He actually cares about his readers! What a different, unique “twist” on a writer’s “superior” stance—a stance Mann had every right to adopt, for he’s obviously a genius and his own authorial prestige was large and lofty. I can think of few writers who can match his majestic sentences, sentences prolonged but hypnotic (like music) in the manner in which they unfold—and he has extensive, extraordinary knowledge (hard won knowledge, I know) of human behavior, just what makes us “tick,” both on the surface of things and down in the depths (of the well, of “the pit,” so to speak) of both self and “this world” we think we know so well and another some folks may anticipate. Throughout much of Joseph and His Brothers, Mann’s own wisdom strikes me as being as overwhelming as that of Jacob, Abraham, or maybe even God.

Subtle observations such as “Sympathy with pain that we must admit we have caused is very much like repentance” put the reader in the brothers’ place, so the realization goes two ways: theirs and ours, if we “buy” the truth of it. These “truths” as one-liners pile up, and I love ‘em: “For nothing happens twice, and everything is forever only like itself.” Yet, equally true, because looking ahead (to situations that will repeat themselves in Joseph’s life): “He had to descend into the grave again, for a man’s life revolves several times, bringing the grave and birth with it once more. Man must become several times over, until he has fully become.”

Time out once more! Let’s take a break from reading to look at some more photos I used as prompts for the new memoir project, “Going Solo.” Here I am playing tenor guitar at age 15, then playing a different tenor guitar at age 37; me with a pipe while attending Pratt Institute as an art student, age 20, and then visiting friends in San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) age 44; as a fledgling pianist age 14, then privileged to play with local greats Jackie Coon and “Fast Eddie” Erickson at age 61, and as a seasoned pro (ho ho) age 74 (and thanks again, Gerry Ginsburg, for that cool photo!).

Bill with tenor guitar age 15   Bill with Guitar

Bill with Pipe   Bill in San Miquel

 Bill as fledgling pianist Bill with Jackie Coon and Eddie Erickson    Bill at Piano at Wave Street

Returning to Thomas Mann: he constantly reminds the reader of the difficulty (the dangers, the risks, even though it may seem a convenience) in telling any tale just one way, especially a story with so many overlays of history, reinvention, and mythical fabrication as that of Joseph and His Brothers. Robert Graves’ “There is one story and one story only/That will prove worth your telling” is definitely not Mann’s way of working.  He constantly reminds us of “the welter of motives that make life so murky”—and the multiple choices, options, we will run into, as both writers and readers, if we wish to get the story (stories) right. It is as if, faced with genuine storytelling as the delightful yet demanding art that it is, we need all the help we can get—both audience and writer!

Mann is a master of truly getting beneath the surface of a character’s life, and he may even leave the reader out, not consult her or him if he feels there’s an important aspect of personality the reader may have overlooked or ignored. Joseph’s true thoughts, when he is initially left in the pit, the well, “were not with his automatic and superficial pleas and wails, but rather somewhere below them: and below these thoughts other truer still moved as their shadows, their ground bass, their deepest current, so that all together, arranged vertically, they resembled agitated music that his mind was occupied with directly—top, middle, and bottom—all at once.” Mann is a master of disclosing such “agitated” music—of going where so many writers (and angels too, I’ve been told) fear to tread. He is a master of mixing and balancing both angelic and agitated music—and he produces a music all his own. That music includes humor, abundant irony, gentle wisdom, intelligence, invention, imagination, wit, originality, and suggestions (not statements of advocacy or coercive slogans that threaten to dry up or parch the prose) as to what may constitute a good life (dare I say “morality”?)–but he keeps, always, to the “very natural story,” and let’s it do the work.

In his novel, Snow White (an hilarious retelling of that tale), Donald Barthelme halts the raucous narrative halfway through the book and provides a quiz—as if to catch the reader off guard and see if she or he is really paying attention, or even still awake. If I can work up the nerve, after I complete the sequel to The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir I am, at present, hard at work on (“Going Solo”), I just may, should I live so long, commence a third memoir (Wow! I’d have a trilogy!) with a brilliant first sentence (something in the nature of “Call me Ishmael” or “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” or “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed”), and may then turn directly to the reader and ask, “Please, will you kindly tell me just where, from this point on, we—you and I, Friend Reader–should go?” Or maybe I’ll  be brave (or foolish) enough to ask readers if they feel I got off to the best start (whatever that first sentence may be) and seek permission to continue on my own!

Thank you, Thomas Mann, for the options.

Next Blog out, I will present a full summary of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival (soon I hope, but perhaps in two parts)—a description and appraisal long overdue (well, at least two months), but kept in mind (Dear Reader, just for you) as potential writing all that time!

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The Virginia Adventure Concluded–Almost

I have enjoyed recalling and writing about our trek to Virginia so much that the tale seems to have reached “epic” proportions (in keeping with “Bill’s Blog Baroque”?), so I believe I will break the concluding portion down into two (manageable) parts: the first ending with the performance of Love Letters of Lynchburg in Lynchburg—the second closing with the last day of the trip itself.

At the end of the last post, I left our merry band of travelers on the road to Lynchburg. When I travel, I shut down my computer at home (it’s rewarding to do without it for a time), and aside from Betty’s cell phone, I’m pretty much out of touch with folks I’ve been in touch with regarding where I’m going to be while traveling (how’s that for a classic sentence—and paradox?). This was the case with Kenny Rowlette, the man who had extended the invitation for us to give a performance of Love Letters of Lynchburg, in Lynchburg, sponsored by the National Civil War Chaplains Museum—and set it up.

I’d enjoyed exchanging letters with Kenny before we left for Virginia: a man who wears many “hats,” not only as Director of the Chaplains Museum, but Special Projects Coordinator at the Liberty University library, and overseeing other campus projects, it seems, as well. However, I’d somehow lost contact with him up to the time Betty and I left home. On our way now to Lynchburg for that evening’s performance, I realized I did not know the exact time and place set up for an afternoon rehearsal.

I had received a letter in which Kenny spelled out a number of arrangements he’d made regarding publicity—only one of which actually materialized: a phone interview with Casey Gillis, a feature writer for Lynchburg’s The News & Advance, the result of which was a handsome article, “Reading of Lynchburg couples’ emotional Civil War era love,” in which Casey quoted very engaging portions of the script—so “choice” I thought she might have contacted Dallas Shipp, the actor who would play Charles Minor Blackford, and the only person to whom I’d sent the script. When I thanked Casey for the article, she said she’d taken the quotes directly off the CD I’d sent her—a labor of love I truly appreciated.

Here’s a portion of her article in which she quotes Susan (a moving scene in which Susan goes to Charles’ law office when he’s “off to war” and no longer in Lynchburg), the music from the score that accompanies that letter, a poster advertising the performance, and Kitty and Dallas again.

Casey Gillis Quote from LLL   Score for Susan at Law Office

Poster for LLL Performance   kITTY2   Dallas2

A WRVL radio host named Mark Douglas contacted me just before we left for Virginia, saying he’d like to do an interview for the “upcoming production,” but I had to respond saying we would be “in the air” (literally: our 6:00 AM flight from San Francisco) at the time he proposed. Consequently, I was more than a little “up in the air” when it came to publicity (how many people had received “word” of the event and how many might actually show up?), along with the rehearsal time and place for that evening’s performance. It turned out that Kenny had contacted Kitty Petruccelli, and we were to meet him at 5:00, in front of a large white building with pillars (the Student Union), after procuring a parking pass at the Visitors’ Center. So we were set on that score.

I had also written Greg Starbuck, Executive Director of the Historic Sandusky Foundation, which had commissioned the Love Letters of Lynchburg piece, and CD—and my sister Emily, her husband Doug, my wife Betty and I agreed to meet him at the Sandusky house, and then all have lunch together. Greg is a “good guy,” good musician (banjo and mandolin), and good company. Even though he was busy preparing to defend his M.A. thesis (“Hearth & Home: The Civil War in Three Virginia Communities”—Lynchburg, Winchester, Petersburg) just two days away, he made time for us, and took us to an excellent restaurant, The Crown Sterling. Here’s a photo of Greg and me that day, and also one of me holding a sword that belonged to Charles Minor Blackford, taken on a previous visit to Lynchburg.

Greg and I     CSA Cavalry Capt Bill Minor

Seated in a cozy warm wood ambiance at The Crown Sterling, near a splendid fireplace, we got caught up on recent activity, Greg having produced and directed a film, Hunter’s Raid: The Battle for Lynchburg—one which had been honored with three regional Emmy awards. Sandusky is a stately Federal Style brick edifice that “may well be Lynchburg’s most historic house” (it was once the “centerpiece” of a 1,200 acre plantation)—a home that landed in the hands of Major General George Christian Hutter in 1838; only to be given up, involuntarily, in 1864 (when Sandusky had its “fifteen minutes of fame”) to Union General David Hunter (notorious for the burning of Virginia Military Institute) during the Battle of Lynchburg (about which Chalres Minor Blackford had written a book!), a battle that lasted for two days, Confederate General Jubal Early having pulled off a ruse, running trains in and out of town, and fooling Hunter into thinking a “large body of troops” had arrived to defend the town—Hunter withdrawing.

Greg, a man of many talents, also produced a CD called Lynchburg Melodies: History of the Hill City in Song, as well as appearing on another CD, Vaughn & Starbuck: Songs of the Civil War Era, on which he plays banjo, mandolin, and sings, alongside Jerry Vaughn’s voice and guitar. Greg was also, at the time of our visit, involved in preparing a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of The Battle of Lynchburg. Catching up on all this, I was sorry in a way that we had not had more time at our disposal to take a leisurely stroll through the Sandusky house (the windows of which and parlor carpet had been recently restored), then to explore the Visitor Center, its patio also recently restored. But it was great to see and have lunch with very convivial Greg—and, as we left, he said he would be present at the performance that night at the Tower Theater, which cost millions to build, he said, boasting 640 seats, a balcony and orchestra pit, catwalks, a fly tower, and over 12,000 square feet of backstage and support area. Here are two photos of this excellent theater (the largest, most expensive “house’ I’ve ever played in):

Tower Theater3   Tower Theater Lynchburg

We were on our way, but in the rain again, and there’s a saying in Virginia, “When it rains, people just don’t go out.” I hoped that wasn’t true. We easily obtained our parking permit, from a very pretty, gracious, smiling young woman who seemed a Southern prototype, and we pulled up, as instructed, in front of the large white building with pillars. It was not long before Kenny emerged in the rain beneath an umbrella, a genial figure, and escorted Kitty and me to a room set aside for rehearsal. Em, Doug, and Betty would bide their time until show time—which meant at Starbuck’s.

Dallas Shipp was waiting for us, a young man every bit as personable as he’d appeared in a couple of YouTube videos I’d seen (O Brave New World of social media, when you can “meet” and learn quite a bit about someone before you fly 3000 miles to participate in a production and encounter that person in the actual, non-virtual world; seeing the videos, I’d decided Dallas was just right for the role of Charles Minor Blackford). Kenny left us to rehearse, saying he’d be back at 6:30 to take us to dinner before the performance. That gave us an hour and a half, so we chatted a bit, and then jumped right into a run through on the script, which went swimmingly, with ease and perfect timing. Dallas had obviously given much thought (and practice it seemed) to the script, and the exchange between the letters of Charles he read and those of Susan read by Kitty was perfect—and the blend of what they read with the music went as well as I’ve ever been able to bring it off.

Before we started, I told Dallas I was of the “Miles Davis School” of performance: find the best people and just let them do their thing, without interference or even “instruction.” The actor who had played Charles in California, Taelen Thomas, does one-man shows of everyone from John Steinbeck and Jack London, to Teddy Roosevelt and Leonardo de Vinci, and has a powerful voice. Dallas is of a milder disposition, and had an interesting “take” or interpretation of a section of the script which Taelen renders in disgust and anger: a scene in which Charles Minor Blackford returns to Fredericksburg and the home in which he grew up, after the dreadful battle there, only to find that “the Yankees had been up in the cuddy of the house and taken out barrels of old letters which were scattered all over the yard; among them I found a letter from Light Horse Harry Lee [Robert E. Lee’s father] to my grandfather. The whole house was covered with mud and blood and it was hard to realize it was the house of my childhood.”

Dallas felt Charles would not feel anger at this point so much as sadness, and he played the role that way—which was an interesting “twist,” and made me realize—even though I am no stranger to theater productions (I’ve had two plays I’ve written performed on stage)—that a variety of interpretations are possible given any particular role, that each actor brings his or her own reading or rendition to the part. In that rehearsal room, we seemed to “sail” through Love Letters of Lynchburg, in “one take” (as they say in the recording industry), and we sat and chatted and, in general, got to know not only the piece we would perform, but each other well by the time Kenny showed up and we set out to eat.

Kenny took us to a custom-made sandwich shop called Panera Bread, independent of the Liberty University campus but obviously popular with students. I settled for a Greek salad (love that lamb, cucumbers, Feta cheese, and Kalamata olives!) and we chatted about this and that (Kenny is a “Kentucky boy” and had some good tales to tell about growing up there—and we also talked music a bit). After, I rode with him (Kitty went in Dallas’ car) and Kenny took me on a quick tour of Liberty University (which, impressive as it is, seemed a “work in progress” with regard to building projects) before we arrived at the Tower Theater.

The theater is truly impressive with its splendid architecture, 640 seats and giant stage. We were met by a woman who would handle sound and lighting, and I was filled with delightful anticipation until I looked up at that stage (sets for Mary Poppins, in production, in place, but in no way compromising what we would do). I was filled with expectancy until I noticed that two microphones on stands were set in place down front, but … no piano! I felt as if I might have a heart attack on the spot. Love Letters of Lynchburg is a play for two voices accompanied by a complete musical score which has been performed by piano, bass, and flute—but this night by me on piano alone.

“Wh-wh-where’s the piano?” I asked the woman in charge.

“No one requested a piano,” she replied, in a voice that was decidedly official.

I pictured myself sitting in the front row, watching and listening to Dallas and Kitty read the lines in the script without a stitch of the musical backing I had painstakingly put together to flesh out the piece—and I thought of committing seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide, or harakiri) on the spot, although I lacked not only a piano but a good sharp samurai sword as well. Kitty spotted a piano behind a curtain, just off to the right of the stage facing front, but it was “wired” for sound for the Mary Poppins production, and the woman told us in no uncertain terms, “Do not touch that piano!” The stage area was monstrous (“over 12,000 square feet backstage”), and she marched us for a stretch that seemed like an extensive wilderness hike, all the way back to the Green Room, where we discovered an upright Kawai piano, which we wheeled back through the wilderness and to the front of the stage, off to one side of the microphones. It was hardly the Grand I had anticipated (and had asked for), and I had to tilt the angle so that I could see Dallas and Kitty, the audience, and the keyboard and score all at the same time. I also had to find a bench (but NOT the Mary Poppins bench, oh no!), and had to roll up my wet (the rain, remember?) outdoor all-weather coat to sit on, adjusting it for a height at which I felt comfortable playing.

But we were in business—sans Japanese ritual suicide. And the performance went as the rehearsal had gone: swimmingly, beautifully, pace, timing, execution, emotion—all! Dallas and Kitty were at one with the roles, the exchange of letters was quite moving, and I played some not too bad piano, if I do say so myself.

Here are photos of Charles and Susan in “real life,” as they looked in 1861, when the Civil War began:

Charles Minor Blackford       Susan Blackford2

Before we started, I did give the audience (not all 640 seats filled, by any means, but a substantial group for a rainy night such as Virginians are reported as not going out into) some background information  on the letters they were going to hear (the “state” of Charles and Susan’s life when the war began—a couple much in love and five years into marriage), and seeing Greg Starbuck in the audience, I introduced him and thanked him, publically, for having made Love Letters of Lynchburg possible in the first place. The audience was respectful, attentive throughout the performance, the applause sounded (and felt) good, and several members expressed their appreciation after.

Kitty, Dallas and I had our pictures taken out in the lobby, with Kenny, and with Greg, and we even received our due portion of the “gate” (although Kitty would have to wait a space of time for recompense for her train trip). Rather than leave to head back to Charlottesville right away (as I thought we would need to do), Doug, Em, Kitty, Betty and I decided we had time for a celebration beer (or two), Dallas and Greg Starbuck in agreement, Kenny declining on the ground that he was a Baptist and thought it best to go straight home. The rest of us “repaired” to a lively student hangout (the name of which I forget) at the campus edge, and enjoyed lively conversation that covered a wide range of subject matter, and beer (I had Guinness).

I felt great (emotionally, not just chemically) on the ride back to Charlottesville and The Comfort Inn, because I felt our “gig” had–in spite of the initial piano crisis–come off, unfolded, just as I’d hoped it would. It was a thrill to think that we had brought this performance to the very place, Lynchburg, in which half of the letters (Susan’s portion) were written, and also those of Charles in a metaphorical sense, for his share could not have been composed without his “home,” and those he called his “household gods” living there throughout the war years, in mind.

Love Letters of Lynchburg ends with a humorous account, on Susan’s part, of her having been sent to Charlottesville by Charles, at the time of the fall of Richmond. She wrote him: “And of course, My Dearest Husband, just what I told you when you insisted upon my leaving Richmond to come to ‘safety’ here in Charlottesville would happen has happened, and what I ran away from I ran into. When the rumor reached us that Union soldiers were coming down from Waynesboro, everybody set to work to prepare for the raiders by hiding everything of value. I first stored away the hams I brought away from Richmond in a safe place in the cuddy of Mr. Minor’s house [her sister’s husband, a professor of law at the University of Virginia]. We waited for the Yankees all day most anxiously, indeed in a state of wild ex­citement. I took our silver sugar-dish, cream pot, bowl, forks and spoons and put them into the legs of a pair of your own drawers from a trunk, tying up each leg at the ankle and buckling the band around my waist. They hung under, and were con­cealed by my hoops. It did well while I sat still, but as I walked and when I sat down the clanking destroyed all hope of concealment. Of course the ridiculous side of the situation struck me and I could not restrain my laughter, which sister said was very unseemly at such a time. But I could not help it. It was partly nervous, but there were many amusing scenes, as you can well imagine, and what is amusing will amuse me, you know? … [pause] … whatever the surroundings.”

And Charles responds with: “Left alone here in Richmond, I have missed you and your ‘counsel’ very much, especially following father’s death. Now, I have no one but you with whom to confer and upon whose judgment I can safely rely … [pause] … The streets are full of scared people, ladies and gentlemen, all in great distress, but all powerless to accomplish anything … [pause] … I hope to buy those hooped skirts you liked, with my last Confederate dollars … [substantial pause] … I just learned about the surrender at Appomattox. I’ve got a forty-two mile hike, alone, to Lynchburg, sleeping on the ground or in barns or sheds, but if I can get just one post-war legal case there, I can earn half a dollar and we can buy the first herring and slice of cheese we’ve had in four years … [long pause] … You’ve claimed that my letters to you are much superior to yours in every respect, and will be of more interest to our children because they describe ‘active operations,’ while yours are confined to the more limited circle of domestic life; but many such letters as I have written will be written by many persons, while there are few, if any, contemporaneous accounts of what took place at home and how people lived and thought during the long, dark days of this dreadful war. I am amused at what you say about our great grandchildren laughing at our long and loving letters. Well, let them laugh, but if they are only half as happy in their married life as their great grandparents, they will be far more fortunate than most people.”

It’s a perfect ending to what I felt had been a perfect night (with just the one, temporary. mishap—the piano crisis). I had hoped, here, to post photos my sister Emily took of the performance, but she is (by her own omission) the procrastinating type, someone who doesn’t get around to sending out her Christmas cards until April—so I have yet to receive the photos.

One quick “pitch”: the Love Letters of Lynchburg CD (with the original cast) is available for purchase at: http://www.historicsandusky.org/shop.htm.

Once back in Charlottesville, we dropped Kitty off at the side entrance of Lloyd and Ashlin’s home (after having the inevitable embarrassment of not being able to find Park Street again, at least for a while, when we reentered the city). We promised to pick her up early in the morning so she could catch her 8:30 AM Amtrak train back to Massachusetts—which we managed. Doug and Em would be heading north again themselves the next day, Thursday, so we planned to spend Wednesday at Monticello, which we did.

Monticello Thomas Jefferson  Ridgway

I’ll end there, with a small, mysterious visual enticement to (I hope) future reading—a sort of “Preview of Coming Attractions”: a “historical sketch” of Monticello I found in a book, Anti-bellum Albemarle, my father showed me when I was a teenager, and the same of a relative’s, Peter Minor’s, home Ridgway—with “Tom” himself, as represented in the well known Rembrandt Peale painting which serves as frontispiece for another book, Jefferson’s Albemarle, between the two.

The mystery of these “illustrations” will be cleared up next post—so stay tuned!

 

Old Capitol Books Coming Attraction July 13, and Beyond

This may be a somewhat “selfish” blog (coming after a post in homage to my friend, the writer Jeff Whitmore), focused as it will be on a public service announcement for an upcoming event this Sunday, July 13–and also another pitch for my book, The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, by way of a favorable review I received some time ago, have permission to reproduce, and would like to!

This Sunday, July 13, I will be giving a “reading” of recent poems–with lifelong friend, Santa Cruz poet Robert Sward–at Old Capitol Books in Monterey (2:00 PM): an event sponsored by the Monterey Bay Poetry Consortium. I put “reading” in quotes because I have been writing lots of original music lately and have set most of my recent poems to music. I now regard them as “song” (where poetry started in the first place, with the Singing Neanderthals and, of course, the Greeks, whose poems were at one with music—had a musical counterpart).

I will be assisted on Sunday, July 13, by vocalist/actor Jaqui Hope, also a friend–who sings in many genres (jazz, soul, gospel, rock); has collaborated with much of the Monterey Peninsula’s creative community; and is gifted with a voice much like what someone once said about Ray Charles: “a voice like warm sheets on a Sunday morning.” Jaqui and I had a rehearsal this past Saturday that went very well, and I am excited (I’ll be on piano) about presenting the songs which the poems have become. Here’s Robert, Jaqui, and myself:

Robert Sward        Jaqui Hope 2        Bill Author

I’ve been attempting to branch out in the Brave New World of social media, and I am now on Red Room (http://redroom.com/member/william-minor), and you can find two of the pieces Jaqui and I will do together there: under Videos, Audio, and Images (“My Fingers Refuse to Sleep”) and under Writing, “My Father Sings.”

Robert Sward is a Guggenheim Fellow; was chosen by Lucille Clifton to receive a Villa Montalvo Literary Arts Award; and recently published New & Selected Poems: work culled from more than 50 years of writing (unpublished poems and selections from his 20+ books of poetry).

I am looking forward to this Sunday afternoon very much–to presenting an afternoon of poetry and song which, I feel, should be enjoyable, meaningful, engaging.

Old Capitol Books is situated at 559 Tyler Street in Monterey, just across from the Transit Plaza at the end of Alvarado Street. There’s a $5 fee–but that’s a bargain (if I do say so myself!). Hope to see you there!

And here’s my book again: The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir–available at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Inherited-Heart-American-Memoir/dp/1935530712/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405007331&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Inherited+Heart%3A+An+American+Memoir

Inherited Heart Blog Cover

And here’s the review by Marge Ann Jameson, which appeared in The Cedar Street Times, January 10, 2013 (three days before my birthday!):

“I grew up in a home where legends greeted one everywhere: on the walls…on book shelves…and in everyday speech…”
– Bill Minor

The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir–© 2012
ISBN 978-1-935530-71-8
Park Place Publications, Pacific Grove

There’s an American proverb that claims, “A man who prides himself on his ancestry is like the potato—the best part is underground.”

That’s probably the case for most of us, and gentle, unassuming, witty and self-effacing William Minor might claim it’s so for him, too. But if you’ve met him, or watched him perform, or read any of his prose or his poetry, you’d probably say the opposite is true of Bill. His ancestry, which he has the privilege of tracing back as far as the 1500s, all funnels down to the talented, generous writer, artist and jazz musician we know. He is the fruit of his family tree and the loving gardener of it at the same time. He says, “What a thrill, in the course of this project, to discover all of these relatives – distant or fairly close at hand – who were writers and left such remarkable accounts of their own lives! And to think that they, given the reciprocity of all things, are somehow part of me and I of them!”

The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir is his autobiography. Self-published and dotted here and there with tiny errors, it is still beautifully written and well worthy of being read over and over. Appointed the repository of the photographs, letters and even books written by members of his family, and the owner of what must be hundreds of pictures dating from the Civil War forward, Bill Minor has woven them all into what he calls an autobiography, but is more a series of brilliant, stand-alone short stories and essays, loosely organized by subject if not an actual time line.

His stories and his memories behave as our own thoughts and memories might: Sitting before a warm fire, the family album on our lap, we leaf through it, gazing at pictures and now and then explaining them to a grandchild, we are taken back and forth in time and memory, each image or story leading to another and then back to the first. We might not have been present but we have the tale, handed to us, of uncles and great grandparents, children buried too early, lovers lost and famous people our ancestors might have known, and, in turn, of stories they, themselves told. If we’re lucky, as Bill is, they wrote them down and didn’t trust the proof to capricious memory or some uninterested descendents.

A Pacific Grove denizen, he named his first “multi-media” piece after our city. It was a collection of poems and woodcuts, published in 1974.

Bill grew up in Michigan and graduated from high school in the early 1950s. He tells of his childhood in those hopeful years and his coming-of-age in a family where he was the middle child and beset by insecurities and allergies.

Bill in a coat closet, winning a round of Spin the Bottle: “There in the dark (in more ways than one) I groveled like the rank amateur I was and ended up kissing what must have been Fred Schittler’s raincoat – something very slick and rubbery and out-of-doors. Perhaps it was a pet seal the family kept in the closet; I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t Patti, or so I hope.” We know the disappointment of girlfriends who left him standing on the doorstep or never let him even that close, so we’re the more pleased to remind ourselves that he has been married for 56 years to Betty, a girl he lost but regained later.

How does one compete with an older brother named Launcelot, mentioned again and again as “precious” in his father’s diary whereas Bill is termed “sickly”? He says they have become closer in these late years, but not, probably, as close as he is with his younger sister, Emily. Nonetheless, the stories of the family of five resonate with those of us who have siblings and who grew up in those years of this century when change was the norm and we awakened every day to something new.

He seems not to have taken after – or to – his father. There’s a loose comparison to Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s Salesman, and an echoing of the word “loss” in connection with his father. But it’s clear he admires his mother, referring to her as the true ruler of the roost chez Minor. She is still alive and still beautiful, he says, at the age of 101.

But it is Bill who shines through the stories of his family in The Inherited Heart, as hard as he tries to steer us toward the generals and priests and physicians and authors in his family tree. We probably identify more closely with the kid who touched Harry Truman’s sleeve when he passed through Birmingham, MI than we do with any president’s close adviser, so distant from our own lives as to be unattainable.

When you have the chance, and you will Friday evening when he performs (with Heath Proskin and Jaqui Hope) at The Works, go listen to Bill Minor caress the piano keys. Find one of his CDs (they’re listed in the book) and above all, purchase a copy of this book for your own. But don’t ask to borrow my copy of the CD “Love Letters from Lynchburg” or The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir. I lent out “Love Letters” and can’t remember to whom, and my well-thumbed copy of The Inherited Heart awaits another reading on my bookshelf.

Bill’s Uncle Cabell (James Cabell Minor, M.D.) wrote a book, published in 1917, called The Plan o’ The House o’ Man, Sir! Or The Parts Water and Position Play in the Prevention and Treatment of Physical Disorders of the Body. It sold for $1. Bill has a copy he inherited. Bill’s book costs $14.95, and surely you’d rather own The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir. You can order it from Bill by writing him (he’s still that old-fashioned) at 847 Junipero Ave., Pacific Grove, CA 93950 and adding $5 for shipping. Or you can buy it at The Works [now Bookworks again], 667 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove [and also at Old Capitol Books, 559 Tyler Street, in Monterey–and also on Amazon.com].

Thanks again, Marge Ann! And thank you to all those who have a copy of this book–or soon will! I’ll close with some photos (from the book) of my mother, Dorothy, at age 21; my father, Lance, at age 14 (looking much older, having gone to work on Arkansas road crews at 13); and me when I began to play the piano at age 14.

Mom at 20      Dad at 14      Bill as fledgling pianist

Next Bill’s Blog: I will return to my revised “game plan,” and post an account of the trip to Virginia for the performance of Love Letters of Lynchburg in Lynchburg (the piece for two voices and original musical score that is a spinoff from The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir–and available as a CD at: http://www.historicsandusky.org/shop.htm)–and then: a full account of the JAM (Jazz Age Monterey) “Jazz Bash by The Bay”–its present and its future, and other thoughts on the state of jazz in Monterey, California.

Where I Am Now–Revisited

I promised a fresh look at, or re-take (reassessment) of “Where I Am Now” with regard to Bill’s Blog, but I thought I might wait until I had acquired 1000 “views” on the blog before I did so—which I recently did (1,050 in fact)! So it’s time to celebrate still being at blogging—and still enjoying it!

Ironically (and irony seems to be a staple in my life), looking back at my initial intention or purpose in starting a blog seven month ago, I will have to admit–or confess–that not much of what I originally hoped to achieve has happened, but a large number of “side-effects” (as in those ads where “side-effects” take up 80% of TV commercial time? Ho ho) or “substitute” effects have taken place (Freud regarded both art and religion as “substitute gratification”–for you know what), genuine sources of satisfaction I had not anticipated when I began. These unexpected rewards confirm what I have long suspected: “I learn by going where I have to go” (Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”) or John Lennon’s astute observation that “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

When I started Bill’s Blog on July 20, 2013, I posted a piece called “Sound Check/Getting Started,” and that’s exactly what it was. At age seventy-seven, I was a complete novice when it came to “social media” or digital self-presentation. At the time, I hoped to make the blog as “accessible, congenial, comfortable” as I could, and I would like to think I have made good on that score, even if a few of the others fell short. Because I had a new book out, The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, a book I had worked on for six years, I stated that I hoped to call attention to its existence—and also tell the “story” of what it was like for someone seventy-seven years of age (someone who seemed to have exhausted the traditional means of “self-presentation”) to comprehend, assimilate, and embrace the Brave New World we’ve ALL become a part of, regardless of age. I suspected (rightly, I still think) that there were plenty of folks “out there” of my generation who had undertaken this adventure, and I hoped we might “share” our thoughts on the situation–or as they say in medicine and auto repair, our mutual “condition.”

Just for kicks, I think I’ll have some fun here with a small “photo essay” on the various stages of my life as an “author”:

Bill Skipping Rope Hawaii  Stafford and Me  Bill and Betts Russian Trip

Bill in San Miquel  Bill Giving Reading  Signing books MJF With Tiger and Em in Manchester  Signing Books Works  Bill at Expo2

From top to bottom: Skipping rope for joy in Hawaii, after first national publication (Carolyn Kizer took poem, “The Weekend,” for Poetry Northwest, 1964); with Bill Stafford in Wisconsin, 1968; Skinny! Wife Betty and I set for trip to Moscow, 1990 (wrote Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union); working on comic novel, Trek: Lips, Sunny, Pecker and Me, 1976 (not published until 31 years later!); giving a poetry reading (can’t remember where), 1982; signing copies of Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, with photographer Bill Wishner, 1997; on book tour for Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within, with Tiger Okoshi, his wife Akiko, and my sister Emily in Manchester, New Hampshire, 2005; signing copies of The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, 2012; Pacific Grove Expo, at table for Park Place Publications, 2013.

The book I hoped to “plug” was published in January, 2013, and did well at the start. The first “book launch” party we had (and more in a moment about the way I approached this event) drew a standing room only crowd, and I sold, and signed, more than a few copies, but it would appear, now, that The Inherited Heart has subsided into a period of winter hibernation from which I hope it will awaken (I’ve been listening lots to Tom Waits’ hopeful song, “You Can Never Hold Back Spring”)—that some sort of resurrection or revival just might take place.

At the suggestion of friends I attempted some wild or, for me, perhaps rash moves. I’d started out the blog by admitting that I loved a statement I found attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “I wish to be known all over Europe for my humility.” I wrote that throughout my time as a writer and musician, I’d tried to harbor a similar inclination, a sort of quiet pride in what I’d done. But I decided to “man up” (as they say), to no longer hide my light beneath the proverbial (Biblical) bushel, so I sent a copy of the book, and a “spin-off” from it, a CD called Love Letters of Lynchburg, to Garrison Keillor (whom friends had been telling me for years I resembled!) and to Alan Cheuse (whom I knew) of “All Things Considered” at NPR. I received a favorable reply from the latter, but no further recognition from either source. I’d thought of the book and CD as “companions.” The latter came about when I received a commission from the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia to write a script for two voices, based on letters my great-grandfather’s first cousin’s son, Charles Minor Blackford, had exchanged with his remarkable wife Susan throughout the Civil War, letters to which I added an original score of music. When I was well into the blog, I came up with the bright idea of sending a letter to thirteen genealogical societies in Michigan and Virginia (where most of the family history in the book—which was considerable—took place), inviting members to engage in online (or otherwise) dialogue with me regarding the daunting task of turning family history into “living presence,” making one’s ancestors come alive again. But I was no more successful in this venture. I did not receive a single reply out of thirteen attempts to “interact.”

The blog was, however, collecting a few “Comments” (mostly from friends) and I began to accumulate “visits” from countries other than the United States: the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Australia, India, Japan, Germany, and Singapore (more than just a few “views” from these places); Indonesia, Poland, Spain, Argentina, Sweden, Romania, Belgium, Italy, Finland, Norway, Philippines, Netherlands, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Georgia, Taiwan, Malaysia,  Oman, Austria, the Russian Federation, Denmark, Estonia, Cyprus, Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Czech Republic, Albania, Greece and Mexico. My wife Betty and I had lived in Greece for nearly a year (on sabbatical leave), traveled 4000 kilometers in the former Soviet Union (out of which I got the book: Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union, Temple University Press, 1995), and throughout Japan (out of which I got another book: Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within, University of Michigan Press, 2004). I once even got labeled a “pioneer” in the universe of jazz writing (Kevin Whitehead, a writer I respected highly, wrote, in his book New Dutch Swing, “Outside of S. Frederick Starr or Bill Minor, who’ve written about jazz in Russia, no American has written extensively about a foreign jazz scene”)– so I was pleased to see so many people taking a look at what I’d posted on the blog, whatever their reasons for checking out the site.

I was disappointed, of course, when it came to response (or the lack of it) to The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir itself—even though I had called attention to its existence, and accessibility (directly, from amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Inherited-Heart-American-Memoir/dp/1935530712/ref=sr_1_1s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1393464882&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Inherited+Heart%3A+An+American+Memoir), as best I could. A couple of “well known” writers I’d sent a copy to wrote back saying they’d received it (one liked the title of the book very much), but I never received any indication of its having been read by them, or even family members and relatives (aside from two) I’d hoped might take an interest in six years spent uncovering our mutual history. I tried, again, to call attention to the book: “Bill Has a New Book Out!” (July 22), “More Than Just Leftovers” (July 26), “Where I Am Now” (August 29) and “More Jazz” (December 18)—but to little avail.

Ironically (again!), the best luck I had proved not to be through “digital marketing,” but good old-fashioned leg work, taking the “product” out on the road and giving readings accompanied by music, so that an actual audience could hear what the book was all about and decide, on the spot, whether they wished to buy it and find out more. I’ve been a professional musician for longer than I’ve been a writer (I started at age 16), so I put together a fine “troupe” consisting of a bass player I’d worked with (played with) for years, Heath Proskin, and a vocalist, Jaqui Hope,who was also an actor (so we could also offer some portions of the “spin-off” CD, Love Letters of Lynchburg). In addition to readings with musical backing, we performed standards (such as “The Nearness of You” or “It’s Only a Paper Moon”) associated with the era depicted in the book—my adolescent years in the late 40s and early 50s—and people really dug these “shows.” We gave three, one of which, at the Museum of Monterey in Monterey, California, was filmed by John Mount and posted on YouTube, another at Old Capitol Books in Monterey was shown on Joanna Martin’s “Poetry Box” TV show in Santa Cruz .

More irony! One of the YouTube videos, a song Jaqui sang for which I wrote both words and music (“My Fingers Refuse to Sleep”: https://www.youtube.com/watchv=RLqjmDeiz2s&list=UUmsUUneDzClTnUJeBaOPPhQ), appeared (as the poem the lyrics came from) in a revival of the excellent literary journal, december, and has gathered  266 “hits”—an outcome I had not anticipated at all: the music topping the appeal of the book for which it was to be subordinate, a publicist! It became readily apparent that folks, for some strange reason (ho ho), would rather go out and listen to a woman who looks and sings like an angel (an immediate emotional experience) than sit at home and read a 476 page book on adolescence and family history!

Consequently, I switched the emphasis of Bill’s Blog and started to post accounts of and reflection on … music—since music seems to be at the heart of my life just now. I also “signed on” at Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/william.minor.56?ref=br_rs&fref=browse_search)   along with Goodreads, Google+, and LinkedIn, thus expanding my “social media” turf. When I started the blog, I had serious reservations about asking genuine long-term friends to become official “Friends” or “Followers.” I had always regarded friendship as a sacred matter (even more so than “Art”), a condition that came about naturally, spontaneously, and often accidentally, but once set in motion, a state that should span a lifetime. However, the transition aboard the blog turned out to be relatively painless, and in the long run both quite natural and spontaneous. I had avoided Facebook for the same reason, regarding it as a “venue” on which people seemed to collect friends rather than cherish them—but the further I got into it (and the other social media venues), the more I discovered I was wrong: that I thoroughly enjoyed the possibilities offered, especially with regard to interacting with people I’d been out of touch with for some time, and with writers, musicians, and visual artists I’d never met, but whose work I had admired for some time.

To make it clear that I intended to avoid pitfalls (I’d only heard about, before I “came aboard”), I posted a disclaimer on Facebook, saying that when I joined the social networking website, my wife Betty and I decided I should not employ it as a means of divulging family secrets or personal matters such as culinary preferences, birthdays, the number of grandkids we have (just four, but they’re all over 20 years of age), rapid (or rabid) aging, medical treatments or procedures, home improvements, the acquisition or demise of pets, civic service, low politics or high finance, Selfies, et cetera—but agreed that I should stick to “artistic” activiities, my own and those of friends and acquaintances.

I wasn’t making fun of anybody (except perhaps myself!), just having “fun” with what a seventy-seven year old might encounter if she or he attempts to hold on to some long-established “principles” while at the same time finding oneself succumbing to just about every temptation the new “medium” affords—such as dallying in highly “personal matters” or even “family secrets.”

It’s all a balancing act, it seems, and when I turned back to work on the “Going Solo” book manuscript, I discovered that Bill’s Blog had provided opportunities to experiment with various styles of writing (and “content” I might not otherwise go near), and on Facebook, practicing short sentences (or just phrases!) and truly having “fun” with photos (when it came to filling out the prescribed “Timeline” format), plus posting some of my own art work and YouTube videos (I’d also posted some of these on the blog). I found that my work on “Going Solo” was more focused now. I could hone in on what I truly wished to say (and avoid most distractions)–the result of “practice’ (as I would practice on the piano) on Facebook and Bill’s Blog (although I even regarded some of what I was doing in the latter as not just “secondary,” but perhaps my best ever writing—and possibly even a book in itself!).

O Brave New World indeed! Not everyone “out there” agreed. A former editor wrote, “Here’s another Facebook tip, Bill. It’s an acronym, TLTR, which means ‘Too Long to Read.’ My experience is that people move pretty quickly through their FB feeds, and benefit more from short, concise posts than your usual epics. Just sayin’ …” It amazes me, but does not really surprise me, that when imaginative people with genuine foresight invent a new practice such as Facebook (or blogging—although I don’t really see the “personal essay” style which blogging invites as anything all that “new”), the followers, or disciples, tend to adopt a fully orthodox, or dogmatic, view of just how the invention should be employed. They embrace it as a “religion,” and on highly restrictive terms imposed by the unfolding history of the new discovery itself, rather than adapt and make use of it on terms of their own.

When a person I much admire and respect, Bob Danziger (http://www.brandenburg300.com/), posted a Comment on the blog, in favor of a YouTube video I’d posted, and did so in a very insightful and complete manner, I responded by saying that, out of respect for him, I could not just reply, “Cool, Dude, thanks,” in the “new” prescribed (glib? cute? cryptic?) manner—so I wrote about a possibility I believe in: “Blog Baroque” entries, in which you can truly stretch out and say all that you wish to say—and if the attention span of the “audience” ain’t up to it, so be it! Selah! In a “Comment” response, a good friend, Julie Graham (http://juliecgraham.com/), put it best: “I love the term Blog Baroque and will share it with my other fellow bloggers (with all credit to you, of course!) And why not? In the age of texting and one paragraph blog posts, aren’t people craving yet the more in depth entry? Don’t people miss the richness and insight that a few more paragraphs with a few more adjectives afford the brain, always hungry for more information, more description? I think Blog Baroque could actually be the style we are all looking for – -not quite a feast (as a first person essay might be) but a true meal, instead of the ‘snack-size’ contemporary blog. Which of course, leaves one satisfied, but not nourished … I am happy to learn, thorough these ‘pages,’ about Robert Danziger. You are right: what better use of the social media we all find ourselves ever more involved with, then to share our interests – and hope to enlighten other writers, musicians and artists about other not-to-be-overlooked writers, musicians and artists.”

I’ve used the word “irony” several times in this post, and one last irony, in what I hope is a fully honest account of my conversion to social media, is: confessing there’s still something “in me” that’s reluctant and still longs for sweet (and sour but sacred) anonymity, for  privacy, even in public performance—maintaining self-respect, although required to “hustle” a bit in a world that often seems made up of nothing but hustle. I’d like to retain some measure of dignity—and above all, humor—while attempting to “sell” what one feels is worth offering to the world, and do so without “selling out.”

I recently read an editorial by Micah Zenko called “Real Experts Don’t Tweet,” in which he defends a statement he made (one which occasioned objections): “The smartest folks I know in just about any academic or policy field, don’t tweet, blog, or actively appear in the media.” Zenko’s own research is based on first-person interviews, but over time, he has discovered that the “most-informed and thoughtful people—from whom I learn about foreign policy or national security issues’’ are private individuals, who are “totally unknown to the general public.” These “wise people” have their own reasons for not being more fully engaged (disclosure might be “legally perilous,” or because “commentary can be misperceived in 140 characters”—Twitter). Zenko acknowledges that–“depressing news”–most policy outcomes “are not drawn by expertise,” and he finds what he calls the “expertise blackout” a loss “for all of us.” I agree, but …

A portion of me shares a reluctance to go fully “public,” based on awareness that one may never be appropriately or adequately “received,” and based on history (that nightmare from which James Joyce said he wished to “awaken”) and what I’ve perceived in my own lifetime. Two blog posts ago I offered a portion of the Preface from the book project (“Going Solo”) I’ve been at work on lately, and here’s what it said:

“It took a man, a poet (who would become a hero of mine), Archilochus of Paros (680-C.-645 BC) to invent ‘personality,’ but his discovery was less like what we know today (an individual wrapped up only in herself or himself, someone ‘exclusively subjective’), but a person who is able, in Werner Jaeger’s [Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture] words, to ‘express the objective world and its laws through his own personality … to represent them in himself … Personality, for the Greeks, gains its liberty and its consciousness of selfhood not by abandoning itself to subjective thought and feeling, but by making itself an objective thing; and, as it realizes that it is a separate world opposed to the external laws, it discovers its own inner laws’  … Archilochus transferred the battle of man against tyche (destiny) from the heroic world to the world of daily life … he sees himself as a hero, acting and suffering with epic dignity and passion … it was Archilochus who first formulated the idea that a man could be free only in a life chosen by himself.”

Amen again. So I will continue to choose what I post on this blog (and Facebook, Goodreads, Google+, and LinkedIn). It IS a balancing act: juggling publicity and privacy, individuality and “playing the game” well enough so that “the public” will recognize what you’re saying (and hopefully read it all, ho ho). So I have embraced blogging (and other social media opportunities), and the love affair has been good so far, and may even get better (I hope), if I can keep something Pascal said in mind (“All that is made perfect by progress perishes also by progress.”), realize that there’s far more to life than accumulating “Likes” (the risk that, as in baseball, “stats” may get mistaken for the game itself); and if I can continue to laugh on those mornings when I turn on my computer and discover that my e-mail In Box is gorged with 1500 pieces of Spam: Pfizer, Fox News, US Finance Daily, Pure Garcinia Cambogia Extract, or the 30 or so Russian women who wish to marry me sight unseen because I have translated Russian poems.

When it comes to “notoriety,” I hope to keep Osip Mandelstam’s words in mind (“No, I was no one’s contemporary-ever./That would have been above my station./How I loathe that other with my name./He certainly never was me.” (translation by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin), and Thomas Mann’s : “To long to be allowed to live the life of simple feeling, to rest sweetly and passively in feeling alone, without compulsion to act and achieve … there is a way of being an artist that goes so deep and is so much a matter of origins and destinies that no longing seems to it sweeter and more worth knowing than longing after the bliss of the commonplace … love of the human, the living and usual. It is the source of all warmth, goodness, and humor.” I hope and pray that social media IS a genuine meaningful “revolution,” and not just a passing fad like all those VHS movies my wife and I accumulated for our old age, or the 10 inch vinyl jazz recordings I no longer play.

The hype and hoopla of the past (about which I once complained) now seems quite innocent compared to that of the Overkill present, and our ongoing national disease (more irony!), the Self-Help craze that has reached epidemic proportions–rather than allow solid instinct and good sense to tell us what to do, or good Buddhist awareness that “If you can’t find it for yourself, who will ever find it for you? … It will be harder to let people go when necessary if you depend on them for your sense of worth … Keep as silent as a broken gong,” and just being deeply honest with yourself about your self. Or again, in Thomas Mann’s words: an occasional healthy awareness that your life is “habitually steady, simple, concentrated, and contemplative,” and  that “you belong to yourself.”

Any joking (or levity) aside, I’ll close with an account of two very fine things that could not have occurred without social media. I’d lost touch with Anthony Brown, an amazing drummer, director and arranger with the Asian American Orchestra, someone I wrote about in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within. When we were “reconnected” by way of Facebook and LinkedIn, Anthony wrote asking if I’d be willing to serve on a panel, in Osaka, Japan, on International Jazz Day (a day that is celebrated all over the world). I wrote back, saying I hadn’t been back to Japan since 1998, and the thought of International Jazz Day being honored and celebrated there was “tanoshii” [delightful], but that my heart sank when I saw the date, April 30—because I’ll be in Virginia then, as part of a performance of Love Letters of Lynchburg on April 29 (in Lynchburg) for the National Civil War Chaplains Museum (another wondrous invitation that came about largely by way of reconnection through social media—and more about this event in a subsequent blog post.).

It’s a shame to pass up Osaka, but a joy to be asked to perform in Virginia—so I can’t complain! I also posted news, on Facebook, about a project I’d worked on: providing copy for twenty-eight handsome shelters on the Monterey Jazz Festival/Monterey-Salinas Transit JAZZ BUS lines, which feature bright orange vehicles decorated with lively designs, each shelter providing historical photos, my copy (on Festival highlights), and music (when you make a smart phone connection with a bar code) from the year represented —all while you wait for your bus!

MST-Bus-1 Bill at JAZZ BUS Shelter JAZZ-Shelter

I’ve recently been re-hired to provide copy for 24 more shelters, and I reported on that and a masterful national award winning TV ad by Phil Wellman, Festival graphic designer, which can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mk9IhA9g7Ek. When I posted this news on Facebook I received nearly instantaneous responses from 26 people—in praise of the project!

So Where Am I Now with blogging? Probably just where I should be: enjoying it for what it is or can be, no longer infused with or motivated by the desire to sell books (but still hoping to sell a few, ho ho). My biggest goal now–is writing well (Dorothy Parker’s “best revenge”), and doing so on my own terms, while acknowledging the “gift” of the amazing range of means to do so available to a serious (and humorous!) writer today. In my next post, I’ll try–under the “about” and “Upcoming Attractions” sections of Bill’s Blog–to outline just where I hope to go (and “learn by going”) from here.

Bill Has a New Book Out!

Inherited Heart Blog Cover
Click on Cover to purchase book from AMAZON.COM

Bill Has a New Book Out!

The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir was self-published through Patricia Hamilton’s Park Place Publications in Pacific Grove, California, which does high quality work and with whom I’d already published a comic novel, Trek: Lips, Sunny, Pecker and Me–about an American family’s abortive pilgrimage during the American Bicentennial in 1976, a book that one reviewer described as “that rare thing in fiction these days, Twain-style, laugh-out-loud funny, tall-tale storytelling,” and another said was loaded with “colorful dialogue and steeped in cultural import.”

For The Inherited Heart, we worked in conjunction with Amazon.com Create Space, which provided excellent immediate service on every level: layout, proof pages, final printing, delivery. My son Stephen, a website designer and project manager by trade, set up the cover, based on a design we worked out together. I asked for and received “blurbs” from several writers I respect highly, and Patricia was of immense help throughout–just as she has been with this blog. Once I had received a hard copy sample of the book, I proofread “religiously” (endlessly, it seemed) and corrections were made digitally, and then submitted as “final.” Patricia came up with a brilliant idea regarding an 18-page Photo Gallery I wanted (to “flesh out” the book), a gallery positioned midway, but introduced up front, along with captions, by way of rows of small (smaller than postage stamps) replicas of the photos–an innovation that works well, I feel, for the sake of enticement. When I finally held “my baby” in my hands, I was well pleased with the results–but realized I’d have to find a whole new route in order to promote and “market” the book effectively.

Although I employed the traditional means of promoting a book–announcing its “arrival” on my website (www.bminor.org), showing where it is accessible (amazon.com, and from the author, firsthand), setting up two “launch parties,” giving talks (Rotary Clubs, Writers organizations, etc.) and solo readings, TV interviews, copies sent for review or just as gratitude to people who’d shown interest in my work along the way, and word of mouth spread among family and friends–one of the most productive and enjoyable means turned out to be music. Bassist Heath Proskin, Vocalist Jaqui Hope and I (piano and reading) put together a performance that included spoken word (a reading) with musical accompaniment, billed as a “Book Launch Party, with Live Music.” We presented this at The Works bookstore in Pacific Grove, California–a venue with a bandstand for just such “shows,” and again at Old Capitol Books in Monterey. For these, I designed and printed a flyer to send out to folks on a substantial list I have (I still enjoy doing this, “hard copy,” and addressing each envelope by hand!), and I passed copies–and a press release– along to editors who’ve been “good to me” at several newspapers.

The digital age has been characterized as “impersonal,” but when I look back at what it took to reach this point with the book, I realize it took the help, the personal assistance, of several friends and family members–lots of “hands on” or “homegrown” activity combined with State of the Art technical support. My conversion to a Brave New World of self-presentation and interaction had begun.

Here’s a portion of what appeared on the flyer: Jaqui Hope, the book, Heath Proskin and me.

Jaqui Hope 2    Inherited Heart Blog Cover    Heath and Me

The following is a description of the book that appears on its Amazon.com site:
Come enjoy the story–set to music—of a boy who grows up just outside of Detroit, Michigan. All he wants is to be a boy who plays hockey (a goalie, no less), likes to box (under the influence of Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson), learns to play jazz piano (under the influence of Art Tatum and Nat “King” Cole), and perhaps find a genuine girlfriend—but he is inundated, imposed upon—to his mind—by stories his parents tell of illustrious ancestors, with the implication that he has much to “live up to.” Swamped with tales of ancestors who go back to 17th century New England and Middlesex County, Virginia; Civil War heroes on both sides (Southern and “Yankee”); notable authors who wrote praiseworthy memoirs and hobnobbed with Mark Twain and Walt Whitman—it would take this boy a number of years to “reconcile discordant elements.” The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir tells the story of that endeavor, directly, up to the age of nineteen, and indirectly—through simultaneous narration or “robbed time”—throughout a lifetime. The book tells the tale of many meaningful, invaluable discoveries made along the way. It’s a “trip,” an adventure, described in the author’s lucid, playful and purposeful prose—a book that will appeal to everyone with a family (which is all of us!), those interested in American history, American humor, boyhood adventures, adolescent agony, or just those who enjoy storytelling at its best. The book suggests that we are each linked, through inheritance, by all that surrounds us, to an extended family we may learn to love.
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Here are two photos my son Steve took at the first “Book Launch Party, with Music”:

Bill Reading at Launch    Book Launch Troupe1

And two photos of our “troupe” that David Royal took on a promo “shoot”:

Pianist and author Bill Minor, center, with vocalist Jaqui Hope and bassist Heath Proskin in Pacific Grove, Calif.    Pianist and author Bill Minor, center, with vocalist Jaqui Hope and bassist Heath Proskin in Pacific Grove, Calif.

I’m happy to report that doing things the “old way” (after having made good use of the new in terms of obtaining a “product”)—taking the show on the road, going from “town to town” so to speak, employing actual rather than virtual public appearances–still works, still, literally, “pays off.” But I also learned that it’s just not enough. The first phase of my conversion, the first alternative means I tried on for size was to post some of what I did by way of music on YouTube—and this source has proved so enjoyable and, in a world with so many sources competing for attention, effective in attracting it, that I’ve become a True Believer. I’ll save examples of music I placed there for another post (and the “music” section of the menu), but I will say now that having gone from “manufacturing” homegrown CDs with the assistance of a digital-savvy friend and accomplished musician, Richard Mayer (and NEATO jewel case tray liners and liner notes; Media Face II labels, and Adobe PageMaker 7.0) and having moved on “up” to Movie Maker and actually learning how to edit videos myself has also been an Adventure, in and of itself!

I would also like, in a future blog post, to talk about the sort of pleasant surprise that can come about when you undertake a major project related to family history–a fortunate (“lucky?”) spinoff project from the book: a spoken word/original music CD called Love Letters of Lynchburg that was commissioned by The Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia, prompted by chapters from the book I discussed with its Executive Director, Gregory Starbuck, chapters focused on Charles Minor Blackford (my great-grandfather’s first cousin’s son) and his wife, Susan Leigh Blackford, who exchanged, throughout the Civil War, some of the most beautiful love letters I’ve ever read. I prepared a script and wrote an original score for flute, bass, piano, and two voices (this work has been performed, live, four times in the Monterey Bay area). The CD, (and Greg just asked me to send more copies, so I guess it’s doing OK!) , is available at: http://www.historicsandusky.org/shop.htm

I’ll close out this introduction to The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir (and post testimonials for the book on another occasion) with an “aside.” The era in which I “came of age” discouraged nearly all attempts at diversification of interests. It was an era of “specialization,” and if you attempted to do many things, the prevailing belief was that you did not do any one of them very well. I suffered at the hands of this attitude all of my life, and still do to a certain extent—at least up until now. I took my first teaching job in 1963 at the University of Hawaii, and then another at Wisconsin State University-Whitewater in 1966. By then, I was exhibiting woodcut prints in places such as the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Smithsonian Institution (I was originally trained as a visual artist—at Pratt Institute and the University of California-Berkeley), had a short story selected for inclusion in an anthology called Best Little Magazine Fiction (I appeared there with Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates), and was playing keyboards with a folk-rock group called The Salty Dogs (our seventeen year old lead guitar player claimed he was merely using the rest of us as a “stepping stone to the Ed Sullivan Show”). Yet my English Department chairman, when I came up for “tenure,” looked me right in the eye and asked, “Bill, what is it you really do?”

What I really did was what I’d always done: many things. I realized that however diverse they might be, they were all coming out of me, out of my very own self, my own soul. And now, at last, it seems we’ve reached an era when doing many things–“multi-tasking” in the lingo of the times–is no longer a crime, but respectable. The Brave New World of digital self-presentation and interaction has made a wide range of creative activity not just possible but perhaps even admirable. I have an “Art Gallery” on my website (www.bminor.org). Prints and paintings that include the text of Russian, Greek, and Japanese poetry are on display in that “museum,” alongside my own translations. Perhaps, in the future, I can take you on a tour of that same gallery—or a portion of it—on this blog site.

Other possibilities, related directly to The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir would be to directly address and open for online discussion general issues related to genealogy (what to do with your ancestors once you’ve found them), memoir itself (how to make the past come alive again), research (what and where are the best sources of information), and disclosure (what not to tell about your relatives!)—to name just a few.

If you are working on a memoir or have written one, or have interest in family history in general, let me know what you’d like to talk about online–and we’ll get started!