Sometimes we are lucky enough to have people come into our lives who make us better. My friend Charles McInnis was such a person.
My favorite question from Charles was “What if?” He was always encouraging and helpful to everyone he met. He had a way of making you feel like you were the most talented person in the room, but we all knew that he was. His talents went far beyond writing, teaching and photography. He had that talent so few of us have — the talent to bring out the best in others. To point out possibilities. To make us believe in ourselves. To ask, What if?
I first meet Charles at a writer’s editing group. We hit it off immediately. We discovered that we had grown up a stone’s throw away from each other, in the same east Alabama county. I had taught at Horseshoe Bend, the setting for one of his stories. It was common ground for us. I knew where Frog Eye, Alabama was located. He knew my childhood doctor in Eufaula, Alabama. It seems that every time we got together, we would find out something new we had in common.
I had brought a little short story to the group for feedback. Within an hour of getting home, Charles emailed me with one of his “what ifs?” Throughout the rest of that year we would bounce ideas off one another, meeting when we could to discuss writing and writers. He always made time to give me feedback on my work. We both were similar in what we found funny, and I loved reading and commenting on whatever he was writing.
Charles was a wealth of information. He was a retired physics teacher. He could talk about the subject on a level that even a retired literature teacher could understand. (This is no easy feat!) We talked about our travels. He was always eager to hear about where I’d been and offer suggestions of where to go when I went to New York.
Even when an illness kept me at home for much of last year and I didn’t see him as often as I would have liked, he would send along a web address or an article for me to read.
One of the last emails we exchanged was a list of unusual Alabama towns. I told him that AL.com was working on an article about unusual Alabama town names, and he immediately started sending suggestions: Screamer (a town we both knew well), Frog Eye, Smuteye, Bug Tussle, Scratch Ankle, Buzzard Roost, Half Chance. He could have said that’s interesting, I’ll have to read it. But that wasn’t Charles. He took the time to look up towns and send them to me. He was one to always go the extra mile.
This song by Dave Van Rock makes me think of Charles.
I will miss our chats and collaborations. He was a driving force behind my first book. In fact, he did the cover for me. (Without being asked.) He just did it. That was Charles. He contacted me when it was published to say he had bought a copy. I had one for him, but he felt strongly about supporting indie authors, so he had already bought one. That was Charles. We were working on a project, and he had made a mock-up of a magazine cover which read: Tea Cakes and Whiskey, a new story of family dysfunction, by Kat Kennedy. I said, “Now, I have to write this story.” I was setting up my website at the time and asked him if I could use Tea Cakes and Whiskey for its title. I didn’t want to steal such a wonderful idea. And of course, he said, “It’s yours. It fits you.” That was Charles.
When I attended the memorial for Charles on Saturday, I felt blessed to be among his family and the people he called friends. I think he would have liked the tribute. It was simple and beautiful and moving. As we shared our stories about Charles and his impact on us and the community, I was reminded of how very generous and giving he was to everyone.
I was looking through some old emails and edits from Charles and ran across something he wrote in answer to the question: How do you find time to write?
I think the most valuable thing to do in fiction is to give the characters important things to do. Writing becomes easy then, and the characters perform. You must write in order to see what your characters are going to say and do. It is difficult to write about characters doing mundane things. Finding time to write when characters have clear objectives is easy.
Certainly, Charles didn’t write about mundane things. His stories are funny and creative. I think his words on ‘making time’ fit perfectly with how he lived. He made time. Time to help, to create, to travel, to learn, to teach, to care for others. He told me one day when we were planning a group picnic, “I’ll bring my never-used kayak. There are no stories for a never used kayak.”
I hope we all learn the truth of that simple phrase. Use your kayak! Live your life! Make a difference in any way you can! Charles made a difference.
I am eternally grateful for his encouragement and guidance. So I ask the question, “What if?” What if we all lived life to the fullest as Charles did? What if we gave our time and knowledge to others without expecting anything in return? What if we use our kayak?
I don’t know the answer to what happens when we die. Wherever his spirit is, I say, “Happy kayaking, my friend! Well done!”