ISSUE THIRTEEN [R]evolving Research: Scrapbook, Endless

I’ve spent most of the past week+ methodically recording the contents of J’s main scrapbook. I’m only about 25 percent finished. This is going to take awhile. Fortunately, it’s easy for me to get a rhythm going if I do it while watching T20 cricket. Whatever works, right? This might sound tedious to you, but I’m a weirdo who finds this kind of thing to be ridiculous amounts of fun. Every day that I work on this mini-project, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be the caretaker of J’s legacy. Who knows how many impulsive decisions were made over the years to ensure that her scrapbooks and photos were not tossed in the trash? I’m well aware that this path was a fragile one. One false step could have resulted in an unknowable tragedy.

RESEARCH NOTES: WEEK 15

  • VICTORY: I’m feeling gratitude this week. My victory is that this project fell in my lap.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERY: I am learning so, so much from the contents of J’s scrapbook. Too many amazing things to decide between.
  • FRUSTRATION: My writing hand hurts.
  • CURRENTLY READING: Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors by Sarah Stodola (for some personal inspiration)
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 15

Until next time!

ISSUE TWELVE [R]evolving Research: Newspaper Clippings and Eye Strain

Sorry for posting this two days late. I had internet problems on Tuesday and was too busy to fit this bit of writing into Wednesday’s schedule. Let’s get started!

And I thought that endlessly staring at online copies of census records was hard.

It turns out that poring over century-old newspaper clippings (I’m talking physical copies) is even worse on the eyes. Who knew, haha? I finally forced myself to start cataloging the contents of J’s small but mighty scrapbook. It’s tedious only from the standpoint that it is going to take weeks (I’m on page 8) to finish. Other than the necessarily slow nature of the process, it is really damn exciting. I’ve already learned a great deal more about J and her early career in Memphis. This has also, of course, opened up many, many, and I do mean many, new avenues to explore. Dozens. All by page 8. Researching a biography is hard, y’all. That’s mostly a good thing, so I won’t complain.

RESEARCH NOTES: WEEK 14

  • VICTORY: Making it to page 8 of the scrapbook in about an hour. It’s not that impressive (the early pages aren’t very dense), but it’s a nice start.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERY: I’ve been able to add a few songs and engagements to J’s timeline.
  • FRUSTRATION: Being unable to work at this full-time.
  • CURRENTLY READING: I’m tying up loose ends with a couple of previously-mentioned books.
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 11

Until next time!

ISSUE ELEVEN [R]evolving Research: Getting Organized (Again)

Happy New Year! 2021 will be the first full year of my research. (I only started this project about three months ago.) I’m excited to find out where things take me. I’ve already learned a significant amount of information about J, yet I know it’s a drop in the ocean of what I’ll need in order to write this biography.

RESEARCH NOTES: WEEK 13

  • VICTORY: Cleaning and organizing my studio. It’s much easier to get absorbed in work when my surroundings are neat.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERY: I wasn’t as behind on my organization of research sources as I thought.
  • FRUSTRATION: I’m working more hours at my day job(s). It’s great being able to pay bills, but I am constantly busy…and tired.
  • CURRENTLY READING: A Brief History of Memphis by G. Wayne Dowdy
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 11

ISSUE EIGHT [R]evolving Research: Accidents Happen

This was an off week. Last Tuesday, I had an accident at my day job (not my fault, for what that’s worth). Complicated research was not exactly at the top of my mind, but I managed to do a considerable amount of relevant reading. My new website, Alternative Muses, which is dedicated to J, also went live. If you haven’t checked it out since then or at all, I’ve fleshed it out a lot.

RESEARCH NOTES: WEEK 10

  • VICTORY: Not getting a concussion AND still being able to read for hours on end whilst stuck in bed.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERY: I lost out on a great e-book deal last week because I forgot to order it in time. I snapped it up a few days ago for 50% off the other already-fantastic price.
  • FRUSTRATION: Not being able to move enough to go upstairs to my studio.
  • CURRENTLY READING: Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel. Almost finished. I also started a couple of new books. I’ll cover those in upcoming issues.
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 12

Until next time!

ISSUE SIX-[R]evolving Research: The 103-Year-Old Singing Groups

This week brought our first real snow of the season, more reading (lots of it), and a new tidbit about J’s husband that should open the floodgates to a considerable amount of fresh information. All in all, it’s been a relaxing and productive period.

RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 8:

  • VICTORY: Reading at a pace that actually satisfies me.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERY: I discovered not one, but two “new” musical groups that J’s husband, R, produced. Both pretty prominent in their day.
  • FRUSTRATION: Directly contradicting point one: not being able to read 24/7.
  • CURRENTLY READING: Babbits & Bohemians: The American 1920s by Elizabeth Stevenson (see here).
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 10

Until next time!

ISSUE FOUR-[R]evolving Research: The 110-Year-Old Magazine Spread

Researching J also means researching her husband, R, and his career. Being twenty-one years older, his advent as an entertainer and theatrical manager nearly coincided with his future wife’s birth. Later, their showbiz careers were inextricably connected for the two decades preceding his death.

Going down all of these necessary by-roads and highways is one of the reasons I expect my research to take around five years.

RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 6:

  • VICTORY: Once again carving out “enough” time for my research.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERY: A three-page spread about R and his various theatrical and musical companies, in a 1910 issue of Lyceumite & Talent.
  • FRUSTRATION: Not being able to read all the things all at once.
  • CURRENTLY READING: Frommer’s Nashville & Memphis
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 7

Until next time!

ISSUE THREE-[R]evolving Research: The 98-Year-Old Notice

This last week was extremely busy for non-research reasons. After years of hard work, my mom’s little tea/coffee shop/bookstore/art gallery/bar finally opened. It has been all hands on deck since last Wednesday. I couldn’t dedicate as much time as normal to my bio subject, J, managing about 30 minutes each day. That is the absolute minimum time that I’m happy with, preferring to dedicate at least 10 hours per week to this project. As busy as I’ve been, though, I’ll consider this a victory.

I’m still doing tons of reading. Books and periodicals. Once I get through this week, it’ll be back to regular morning “office hours” up in my studio. I’ve found that’s the best way to plow through big information searches/dumps. It’s tiring, at first, for this night owl but, hey, that is what a big cuppa is for.

RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 5:

  • VICTORY: Not falling asleep whilst reading late at night, haha.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERY: Finding a brief notice of J in a 1922 issue of The Music News.
  • FRUSTRATION: So tired. Overworked. Not doing all the things.
  • CURRENTLY READING: The August 1910 issue of Lyceumite & Talent
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 3 1/2

Until next time!

ISSUE TWO-[R]evolving Research: The 102-Year-Old Diploma

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”-Kurt Vonnegut, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young

How many lists can a person make about writing lists? I’m not sure, but I believe this project is going to test existing limits for me. And I say this as someone who is a lifelong list producer. 

Of the many lists I worked on this past week, one is head and shoulders above the rest as the most epic and time-consuming. It’s still a work-in-progress and will require near-constant updating for, well, years. This list contains pages and pages of books I’d like to track down and read, in any format I can get my hands on. Books about Memphis and its history, books about the 1920s-1940s, books about the early 20th century, books about 100-year-old stage musicals…just for starters. I might have to transfer this list into a separate journal. Sigh.

Incidentally, this was also the week that I more or less gave up on the very idea of reading for pleasure. Fortunately, I honestly love all of the subjects I need to research whilst bringing J and her world to life. It’s not a problem, exactly; but, rather, a temporary pivot to a new and differently fulfilling mindset.

RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 4:

  • VICTORY: I’ve not missed a day of research in the first month of work.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERY: I found J’s high school diploma for sale on eBay. For real. From 1918!
  • FRUSTRATION: I have yet to purchase the above diploma due to weird COVID-era finances. Sob.
  • CURRENTLY READING: The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic That Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 7

School photo. From my collection.

**

Until next time!

ISSUE ONE-[R]evolving Research: The 98-Year-Old Dog

“The difference between doing something and not doing something is doing something.”-James Corden, May I Have Your Attention, Please?

As some of you know, I am in the early (and I do mean early) stages of researching material for a biography. The best-case scenario has me completing said research in about three years. Say, the end of 2023. It is the biggest, grandest, scariest, and most exhilarating project I’ve ever contemplated. A few weeks in, and I am having a helluva good time. Let me explain.

Since learning to read–way back when at age three–I’ve adored reference materials and all related paraphernalia. Dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopedias. Dates, facts, figures. All marvelous. Sigh. Good thing, that. Why?

Because I could not imagine trying to tackle the life of an obscure musical theater performer (whose career started 100 years ago) without this weird native penchant for unearthing mundane or evasive details. This project is hard, y’all. Daunting. Elephantine. 

And all the more rewarding when I discover a tiny puzzle piece, such as her purebred dog’s birth date and parentage, 98 years after the fact. He was an Airedale, in case you were wondering. Black and tan. I imagine he looked like this:

Not really her doggo. This is a 21st-century good boy. Public Domain.

Maybe I will eventually find a photo of her actual good boy. I’m already in possession of some of her archives (an origin story for another post). Anything is possible in the world of biography, right?

Speaking of those puzzle pieces, dozens are already in place. Those mostly belong to the outer edge. Inside? One here, a couple there. Largely unconnected but waiting to be joined to the rest. An exciting concept. Can’t wait. Only approximately 9,957 pieces to fit in place. Or more. Who knows? I certainly don’t.

I spent the first couple of weeks poring over dry historical records: census, birth, death, marriage. Obituaries, burial info. All helpful in forging connections, resulting in several spontaneous aha moments! I know I’ve not seen the back end of those. Not yet. Not for a while. Weeks? Months? Years? Who knows? I certainly don’t. 

Going forward? Archives are about to be this girl’s best friend. My subject, J, performed in 45 states, lived in a couple. Traveled for pleasure. There’s so much to learn.

I plan on sharing a tightly curated version of my research journey here. What does that mean? A weekly post will go up every Tuesday, with the periodic stand-alone piece appearing as needed. Should be fun.

**

RESEARCH NOTES WEEKS 1-3:

  • VICTORIES: I plotted out her family tree and know (almost) everyone’s vital statistics.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERIES: J’s dog’s pedigree; her son’s college yearbook; a ship’s manifest from 1931; a newspaper blurb from 1930 about her recovery from a “serious” surgery.
  • FRUSTRATIONS: Her children are largely enigmas.
  • CURRENTLY READING: The Lyceumite & Talent issues from 1910.

“I get intrigued by a puzzle, and writing a book is the best way to solve it.”–Anthony Storr

**

Until next time!