Halloween

When I grew up, Halloween was a big deal. I never had a fancy costume, but my mom let me buy a new plastic mask at the dime store each year. I carried my candy in a big plastic jack o’lantern that had a smiley face on one side and a frowny face on the other.

The worst Halloween I ever had was the night my pony escaped. After getting home late from work, my dad had to drop everything to drive out to the farm where we kept him to get him back in the fence. There was no trick-or-treating with my friends that night. (And before you think you I was a spoiled little girl, bear in mind that I saved $25 in pennies, answered a farmer’s ad on Swap and Shop, and arranged for Jerry to be delivered in the back of a ton truck to my grandparent’s house all by myself. I was a determined child. I just didn’t realize then what a sacrifice my father made for me. I realize now.)

Because I was determined, I couldn’t imagine a Halloween without trick or treating, so I found a paper grocery bag, cut out eyes and a mouth, and visited the two neighbors to the left and right of Mom and Pa Bell’s house, which was across the highway from Jerry’s barn. For me, Halloween was never about the candy. I just liked the eerie feeling of the night. I liked the stories. But back then the monsters never really showed up, and there was something cozy about feeling scared and secure at the same time. Now the monsters are much more prevalent. If you don’t believe me, just watch the evening news.

Every Halloween my dad and I picked out a pumpkin, and as I got older, I would draw a face on it and carve it myself. I can still remember laying a newspaper on the rug and scooping out the pumpkin’s insides. Ewww. It was kind of gross and kind of fun at the same time.

Then I would set the pumpkin on our front porch and light a candle to place inside. I never wanted the night to end. I stayed up as late as I could, and my mom would carry the pumpkin from the front porch and put it near my bed for the glow and pumpkin aroma to lull me to sleep. I hated waking up to November 1 because I knew I’d have to wait another year to tell spooky stories and to look for ghosts.

Ghosts have always been my guilty pleasure.

I am an adamant believer in the spirit world, but I don’t believe ghosts are the spirits of the deceased. I used to worry that my ghost stories would offend fellow believers, but then I met Charles K. Wolfe, who was my English professor at MTSU. Thanks to Dr. Wolfe, I realized my love for ghosts was actually my love for storytelling and folklore. He encouraged me to embrace my own family folklore and oral tradition, and as a result, I wrote my first published article while a student in his folklore class. Many years later my story made its way into The Tennessee Folklore Sampler.

When I think about Halloween, I can’t help but think about my mom. Her birthday fell the day before. I always made a point to find her a fun Halloween birthday card because I knew it made her happy, or maybe it just made me happy. I credit my mom for turning me on to storytelling. She and I used to stay up late talking about the Bell Witch, and then she would knock on my bedroom wall when I went to bed later that night. She had a bit of mischief about her, but the joke was on her because I usually ended up wide awake in parents’ bed listening for the slightest noise.

Today I still collect stories—folklore, urban legends, ghost stories, whatever you wish to call them. And I ask my students to collect them. Stories ignite our creativity, preserve our family heritage, and serve as means of social control. Sociologists and folklorists tell us that “scary” stories help keep wayward teenagers in line and curious children from wandering away. Remember what happened to Hansel and Gretal!

In a few hours, I will be on the road to research for my manuscript Crossroads. It’s a dark, perhaps stormy night, and I’ll leave it up to you to guess where I’m headed. You’ll have to check the next blog to find out the details. Until then, happy storytelling.

Sometimes they listen

I often ask myself, “What the heck am I doing here?” I’m an incredibly sensitive, self-conscious mouse that suffers a complete meltdown in the face of rejection.

I’m a teacher. Every day I face a hundred or so human beings telling me to my face that what I value is irrelevant. Kind of a blow to the old ego.

Every day I have to put on my happy face and smile when I hear, “You teach English? I hated English.” And that’s from the adults.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m a lit freak. I like reading. I like writing. I like tearing down sentences the way some of my students like rebuilding engines. I like exploring stories that are challenging, ones with many levels of meaning. I’m kind of like an Indiana Jones of the written word.

My Motlow college students taunt me. “But Mrs. L., does everything have to have a hidden meaning? Why can’t a writer just write? Why do we have to analyze everything? Can’t we just read for fun?”

Well, yeah, kiddos, of course, you can. But don’t you get chills when you find the hidden gem in a poem? Don’t you dance to the cadence of well-written prose?

Never mind. I know the answers.

But occasionally, one or two students will approach me after class and say, “I get it. This stuff is really cool.” Of course, they wait until everyone else has left the room. It’s just not cool to like what some old dead guy wrote decades ago.

Several years ago, when I was working as a freelance music journalist, I met the Smalltown Poets, an Atlanta-based band, whose members were inspired by their creative writing class.

I guess that’s why I’ve always wanted to teach creative writing. I like being a bridge that links people to their dreams.

I did a little research and found a quote from Michael Johnston, Smalltown Poets band member, who explained how his teacher’s words inspired him.

“Our teacher said, ‘the best writing is honest writing.’ If you’re being vulnerable about who you are and let that come across in your writing, then that’s going to move people.”

Yes! That’s it. I envy Michael’s creative writing teacher. I wish I my words could move people. I wish I could make my students FEEL something when they read.

Yesterday one of my journalism students and I were discussing classic novels. He brought up 1984, Brave New World, and Animal Farm, which he has yet to read.

“Oh, yes,” I said. “Animal Farm, you have to read that one.”

And then our roles reversed. My student became the teacher.

“Hey, Mrs. L, did you know Pink Floyd’s album Animals was based on Animal Farm?” An avid Pink Floyd fan, my student spouted off a brief history.

Huh? You mean Roger Walters actually paid attention to his English teacher? He “got it”? Wow.

Our conversation inspired me to do a little digging to discover other music, inspired by lessons in literature.

  • Both David Bowie and Warren Zevon were inspired by the works of Lord Byron.
  • The Beatles included an image of Edgar Allan Poe on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and John Lennon referred to Poe in “I Am the Walrus.”
  • Both Tool and Brittany Spears referred to Poe’s “dream within a dream” in their works.
  • Christian ska band Five Iron Frenzy includes several quotes from “The Raven” in “That’s How the Story Ends,” and members of the Christian heavy metal / thrash band Tourniquet wrote “Tell-Tale Heart” as a tribute to Poe.
  • Sheryl Crow’s song “All I Wanna Do” was inspired by the poem “Fun” by Wyn Cooper.
  • “All along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan (and also recorded by Jimi Hendrix) was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The song also makes references to the Book of Isaiah.
  • Guns N Roses recorded the song “Catcher in the Rye,” inspired by J. D. Salinger’s novel by the same title.
  • Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was born from Albert Camus’s The Stranger.

Wayne Kirkpatrick has penned and co-penned numerous songs for artists of many genres—Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Little Big Town, Bonnie Raitt, Garth Brooks, and many more, including Eric Clapton, who recorded a Grammy Song of the Year, “Change the World.”

I was talking to Wayne during an interview several years ago. Nay, I was gushing during the interview—I really admire him. I asked Wayne about songs from album The Maple Room, particularly “That’s Not New Age.”

Even today I’m intrigued by the song because, one, it responds to the religious critics who questioned his relationship with Christ just because of his art, and, two, it includes the following line: “This won’t be another Salem/That was inexcusible/You won’t be my Cotton Mather/And I won’t be your crucible.”

Wayne Kirkpatrick, thank you for reminding us we aren’t God and we can’t judge another because we can’t see into anyone else’s heart. Thank you for following your convictions. Thank you for listening to your English teacher. Thank you for appreciating literature.

So what’s the take away from this rant?

I can’t make my students like or even appreciate literature. But sometimes they do. It just may take them a while to digest what the writer has to say.

I’m not a famous or important anything, but I am somebody who benefitted from lovers of literature and writing.

Thank you, Charles K. Wolfe, for publishing my first work and inspiring me to write about music.

Thank you, Pat St. Clair, for inspiring my voracious appetite for grammar. Because of you, I’m confident I can write ANYTHING. My college professors told me so.

Thank you, Joyce McCullough, for Friday vocabulary tests that made me fall in love with words and for the little red journal in which I wrote all my thoughts. You wrote back to me. You were the first person to read my thoughts and to make me realize I might have something interesting to say.