To keep my butt in the chair while I’m writing, I’ve tried coffee, gummy worms, and a good pen. Most important, though, is a haunting memory. It could haunt me because it’s sorrowful or scary, joyous or hilarious, but if I don’t have that memory, no amount of extra dark roast will do.
That memory is usually messy and embarrassing—which is why it haunts. It’s a challenge to work with, making me so uncomfortable I’m tempted to put down my pen. But I must write; I must tell the story.
Believe it or not, Willie Nelson helped me understand a few things about memories and stories. The night I went to see him receive the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song given by the Library of Congress, ol’ Willie taught me a thing or two about storytelling.
Sing, Dance, Clap
Neil Young and his buddies opened with Willie’s song “Whiskey River.” They called for whiskey to do its thing, borrowing Willie’s line about not letting memory “torture” him. They sang while strumming on guitars and stomping their boots. Young wore a suede duster, and the fringe would swing to the beat of the music. Watching him, I wondered whether dancing to a strong beat helped lessen the torture of a haunting memory. Sitting in the audience, stomping my feet and bopping my head, I thought maybe it could.
Young and his friends sang the invitation to stay, to stay all night. They moved across the stage, huddled almost, each man taking a turn on his guitar while the others seemed to protectively riff along with him—more quietly so the guy who was playing would shine, but loud enough he was supported. They strummed their guitars, sharing what messed with their hearts while crafting with friends something fun and beautiful.
That memory still might torture us, but we can clap along to it.
The boys on stage inspired Senators and Congressman to dance in the aisles—I’d never seen so many Type A-ers do-si-doing in their Capitol Hill wear. One woman who’d wrapped her mate’s red tie around her head shouted, “Willie Nelson fans are crazy!”
Willie says, “My kind of singing isn’t meant to be perfect. It’s meant to reflect the imperfections of a human being, like me.” I thought about his song, “Always on My Mind.” Here’s a narrator basically apologizing for all the things he’s done wrong to a loved one, but saying she was always on his mind. Then he asks her to tell him her sweet love hasn’t died. This song was #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1980. It was the Song of the Year in 1983, and won a Grammy for best male country vocal performance in 1982.
Sitting down to write about doing wrong by someone I adore, then making it public, makes me more uncomfortable than being chased by a yellow jacket. But this song sets out to do what Willie says about storytelling: reflect our imperfections. Perhaps reflecting our imperfections is the only storytelling that matters.
The Raw Poetry of Storytelling
Singers the likes of Edie Brickell, Alison Krause, and Jamey Johnson sang Willie’s songs as he sat off to the left of the stage at the DAR Constitution Hall and listened to accolade after accolade. I have forgotten who said it, but during the praises someone mentioned that Willie was willing to “wander through the raw poetry of time.” I scribbled that down.
I skimmed through his songs on the concert’s brochure. “Georgia on my Mind, ” “Let It Be Me, ” and “On the Road Again” were just a slice of titles on a long list. I wondered how these songs started out, and what Willie decided to wander through to write them.
After a while, Willie walked on stage to receive his award. With a seating capacity of 3, 702, the concert hall was not large; I had a good view of the man I’d always thought was a little freaky with his long blond-white braids and red bandanna. This concert, though, changed the way I thought of him. In a short time, I’d grown attached to his story and his music, and watching him walk on stage made me nervous—for Pete’s sake, the man’s in his late 80s.
When he spoke, he sounded frail and a little overwhelmed. I wondered whether that weakness came from age, or from all those stories—all that raw poetry. I’ve had a few of my essays out in the world, and while I love hearing that my work resonates with others, I’m also exhausted when a story spreads its wings and tries to fly. It’s not just wandering through raw poetry that is work—it’s sitting with it, turning it over, pushing and pulling it, thumbing dents in it until it becomes something that leaves us, and leaves us breathless.
A Storyteller in His Element
Willie thanked the audience, thanked the singers for their performance, thanked the appropriate DCers for the award. It was a short speech, and I thought, “Oh gosh, he needs to get to bed.” Then he said, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to play for a while.” And with the agility of Michael Jordan when he flew through the air, tongue out, ready to slam dunk, Willie pivoted, grabbed Trigger, his guitar, and transformed. Watching his fingers picking at the strings, I knew I was watching a legend.
Accepting our imperfections and sharing them—whatever they are, and whatever shape we are in—as gifts, as offerings, is hard work. Maybe we need more than a swig of java to get through it—maybe a shot or two of whiskey really does help with this process. Whiskey, and some good music.
That night in the DAR Constitution Hall on D Street, old Willie Nelson showed me you can have a sorrowful, shameful, sad, haunting memory and still stomp your boots, wiggle your hips, and clap to the beat of that memory’s music. And sing. Yes, you can sing.
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