(The following is a guest post by author Tarren Young.)
Pretty Paper: A Christmas Tale
Willie Nelson with David Ritz
I have nothing against Willie Nelson, personally, but to say that I would read a book by him? Who even knew he had written any? But this book found me.
I believe books have an uncanny ability to find us at just the right time in our lives for one reason or another. Even if we have picked up the same book a thousand times before, if it’s not the right time, the story will not want to be read.
I was actually looking to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love for our December theme of inspirational reading. I had several people offer to let me borrow their own copies, but I knew that it would be a book that I’d want to have for my own - to highlight, take notes in, and (gasp!) dog ear my favorite pages.
I was proceeding to the checkout, with yet a different book completely (I had a Frederick Backman book in my hand titled My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry) when this one stopped me with the title alone - Pretty Paper. Immediately the song popped into my head—Willie’s version, not the Roy Orbison version. I couldn’t help but open the front cover.
I read to page five.
I always have to read at least the first paragraph before I buy a book. If it keeps my interest longer than the first paragraph and past page one, two, even page three, the author usually has a chance with me. So I read.
I read about Willie running into a guy down on his luck at Christmas time.
Of course, we’ve all read about that. Who hasn’t? And who hasn’t been there? What was so different about this guy that made Willie want to tell his tale?
I managed to read the book, a three-hundred and four page book that would normally take me close to a month to read (I’m a slow reader and have children) in three days! It was surreal how fast I finished this book. Willie doesn’t write high literature but maybe it was the ease of his writing that actually pulled me into the story.
Or was it something else entirely?
I like a wonderful story with such imaginative description that I feel I am right there in that scene—behind the wheel of a car careening out of control or hearing the lonesome blues of a honky-tonk. Normally, I would never have picked up a book with such simple writing, and again, no offense to Willie.
But something grabbed my soul. It downright gave me the chills, and it all happened on page five.
See, we all see down and out, hard times in our lives. Times when the world doesn’t seem fair, and that’s just the way it is for Vernon Clay, who Willie writes about, and who ultimately becomes the inspiration for the hit song Pretty Paper.
Willie first meets Vernon outside a department store called Leonards in Texas in the 1960’s, hawking simple things like ribbons, wrapping paper and pencils for the holiday season. Vernon is a double amputee, and doesn’t even have a real wheelchair—just a homemade one. Willie is drawn to the man from a distance and doesn’t understand why, it’s certainly not pity (well, maybe it is at first) but when Willie hears the man singing out his song to sell his items, he knows the man is a singer at heart. And, at the bottom of his heart and the tune he sings, is not only a tale of heartbreak, but one of blues. Like one character we meet, Skeeter Jarvis, we learn that the blues are the bottom line of all music. “Scrape off the fancy dressing, cut out the fat and what do you got? You got the crux of true-life music, and that’s the blues.”
In Vernon’s diary, Skeeter Jarvis mentions how Lightnin’ Hopkins once told him ‘”You play the blues to lose the blues.”
Was that it? Was that the reason, right from page five, when Willie writes, “He sang like he meant it. In fact, he sang like a singer. He sang in tune. Sadly, he also seemed to be singing in vain. I didn’t see a single person stop to buy his wares. And yet that didn’t stop his singing. I sensed that he sang to lift his spirits and stay warm.”
“And yet that didn’t stop his singing.” That was it! Those words grabbed me and shook me to the core. Those chills, that little glimmer of hope when I was not only feeling sick with a sinus infection, an asthma flare up and depressed over our circumstances in not having a real tree this year, and feeling anger, even bitterness, at how skinny our white fake tree looked. In one short, simple sentence, my whole Christmas outlook changed this year.
I certainly didn’t set out to read a Christmas story. I was just looking for an inspirational story and had my heart set on two other books, but the universe said no. This was the one I was meant to read because the book found me. There were many other life nuggets I took to heart from this book, such as Vernon interpreting Skeeter after having both a heart attack and a stroke as saying, “...that you can live with anything long as you can write about it.”
To a writer who typically loves Christmas, and was starting to trudge down the curmudgeon path this year, these passages were refreshing water. I was a bruised and thirsty soul coming out of the NaNoWriMo battle a physical winner, but a now seemingly purposeless soul in the writing arena. I can’t thank the universe enough for this book landing in my life.