DECATUR—Right now I’m onstage at the Princess Theater. People in the audience are looking intently at me as though I am wearing thong underwear. This is what it feels like to perform.
The Princess is one of those theaters that’s expressly American. The tall neon marquee is unforgettable, towering over the wet streets of Second Avenue. Photographers come from all over to take the marquee’s picture because everyone loves art deco theaters.
This building was originally a livery stable back in 1887. Which means that this floor was once covered in, literally, millions of fresh horse apples. This gives me chills.
In 1919 they renovated the building, turning it into a vaudeville playhouse and silent picture theater. Soon, the floor was no longer covered in horse excrement, but popcorn. The theater entertained mostly kids who screamed at a silver screen while an elderly woman, probably named Miss Ida Mae, played an upright piano along with a Charlie Chaplain flick.
Throughout history some big acts played the Princess. Ray Charles once performed here, so did Glenn Miller. They all stood where I am standing. That’s kind of cool.
In honor of this occasion, I’m playing my old crummy guitar. It was built in 1919, the same year this room was resurrected.
I got this guitar from a trim-carpenter in Houston who found the guitar shattered in a dozen pieces. He was not a guitar maker, just a run-of-the-mill carpenter. He glued it back together the best he could, but he admits he did a sloppy job. I didn’t care. I’ve been playing it ever since.
It’s not a valuable guitar. For its whole life it’s been a low-grade instrument owned by a list of no-name street performers. In other words, it’s a glorified piece of junk.
But I’ve always liked pieces of junk. Because when junk lasts for a hundred years, it’s no longer junk, it becomes archeology. There’s something to be said for lasting and still making music, even after you’ve been busted.
I am fingerpicking a melody that was written around 1919. My granddaddy would have been eight years old in aught ‘19, and I like to think about that.
This is my second time playing the Princess. The first time I did a show here a few years ago, my guitar broke. I had to go on with no music. I’ll never forget that night because that was the first night I met a lady who would become one of my book editors, Stephanie.
Stephanie came to the show and sat in the back. I was nervous to meet her because she was a big-time editor for a big-time publisher. She drove all the way from Tennessee just to ask if I wanted to write books for them.
I didn’t know what to say. I was floored. Actually, dumbstruck is a better word. For one thing, I was wondering why anyone would want me to write a book.
There are a million accomplished authors out there, and I will never be one of them. I don’t have the training, the pedigree, nor the physique to be “accomplished” at anything.
For example, I once spoke at a writing conference a few years ago, filling in for an author who was sick. The only reason they called me—the lady on the phone actually said this—was because nobody else was available.
I felt out of place. I was on a panel with some well-known writers and you could see the audience scratching their heads when they saw me. I could read their thoughts. They were thinking: “Who is THAT guy?”
The audience asked questions like: “How much diagramming do you do for characterization analysis?” Or “Can you describe your pre-manuscript outlining and plot sequence development?”
I just sort of looked at the audience, scared horse-apple-less.
When a young woman asked me how I employed “active voice” to aid “antagonist-protagonist relationships,” I almost passed out. I had to ask her to repeat the question. She repeated it three times and I STILL had no idea what the hell she was asking.
So I cleared my throat over the microphone and it almost blew the loudspeakers. Everyone in the audience covered their ears and I wanted to die.
“Um…” I said. “When I write, I just try to do a good job.”
Nice going, dork. I might as well have been wearing bib overalls and shouting “WEE DOGGIE!” Everyone chuckled like I was making a joke. And I realized something very important that day. I am a joke to some literary people.
But somehow I lucked out and my editors are beautiful human beings. And that night at the Princess Theater was the beginning. Stephanie drove several hours just to tell me personally that she thought I was special.
And she’s not my only editor. One of my other editors, Jocelyn, went to a Braves baseball game with me in Washington D.C. and—this is true—DID THE TOMAHAWK CHOP beside me. They don’t teach the Tomahawk Chop in grad school.
Here on stage, I am lost in my own head. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I am kind of like this old livery stable. I know what I am underneath the trim work, I’m covered in horse apples. Or maybe I’m like this old guitar. I was once a piece of junk. But someone looked at me and saw something else. Then a carpenter put me back together.