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Ingrid Michaelson -Lights Out

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This post is an experiment. I normally never listen to music when I write. Like many musicians music can never really serve as background for me. I can’t help listening to it, and it’s distracting to my words. Right now I’m listening to Ingrid Michaelson’s new album Lights Out.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with my nineteen-month-old grandson. He has a limited vocabulary – “wa-wa” when he wants a drink, “whee-whee” when he hears a siren, “dig-dig” when he sees a bulldozer, apparently the most fascinating thing in the world. When he sees anything or anyone else he likes he yells, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” and I can’t help but think he’s inadvertently quoting The Beatles’ “She Loves You,” number one exactly fifty years ago.

The world blasts into my grandson’s unjaded consciousness unfiltered, and his reactions blast out, unsullied by second-guessing or consideration of what anybody might think of him. It was the same when I first heard The Beatles. My musical ears were fresh as J.J.’s and I responded with my own unembarrassed “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” I joined a Beatles imitation band and in a few years gave up the dreams of parents and grandparents for me and dedicated my life to music.

Fifty years later I’m done with making music and happy to finally be able to listen for sheer pleasure, without studying what I’m hearing. The problem recently is that I’ve got nothing to listen to. My ears have gotten jaded. Nothing’s been doing it for me – not Jimi Hendrix, Nerina Pallot, not even J. S. Bach, my ultimate fallback. Even the most sublime music gets tired when you hear it too often.

The obvious thing is to find new great music. I’ve been looking. And looking.

Today it found me. I was messing around on itunes when in its wisdom it flashed a banner for the new Ingrid Michaelson album, Lights Out, a wisdom informed by my previous purchases of Ingrid’s previous efforts, Everybody and Human Again.

The song that first sold me on Ingrid Michaelson was “Ghost.” It’s one of the all time great pop torch songs. I’m always a sucker for strings, and it’s got plenty, woven into a masterful and dramatic arrangement. I’m an even bigger sucker for a big hook melody, and it’s got that too. Ingrid’s voice whispers, weeps and wails its way through a downright harrowing tale of someone reduced by bad love to a wraith, desperately clinging to the melody like the lover she’s lost.

Like all great pop records I’m swept up in the sound, and only listen to the lyrics later. To find that they’re as impeccably crafted as every other aspect of her productions.

As I moved on from “Ghost” I was surprised to find that Ingrid’s “Ghost” voice was only one of several. Like the great Dusty Springfield she can reinvent her pipes when the song requires it.

And many of them do, especially on Lights Out. Here her songwriting ranges from exuberant pop (“Girls Chase Boys”) to “Ghost”-like haunted (Open Hands) to spooky and experimental (Handsome Hands), blue eyed soul (“Warpath”) to the exquisite and transcendent (“Wonderful Unknown.” ) This last song is about marriage, a sweet memento mori in which love and impermanence are perfectly balanced. The ostensible hook, (“Here we go…”) is a feint that disguises the real hook, which snuck up and eventually knocked me right on my ass. She sings it with husband Greg Laswell, in what I can only hope is a testament to an extraordinary marriage: “In the best way, you’ll be the death of me.” Lurking around the back of the arrangement are the Mellotron flutes from The Beatles “Fool on the Hill.” Almost enough to make me think she knows I’m listening…

I had a bad moment with that hook, afraid I’d just been infected with an earworm. Then came the next song, and the next with hook after hook and they somehow miraculously canceled each other out, conferring a kind of immunity. For now.

For all of the stylistic variations, Ingrid Michaelson never forgets her main mission –distilling emotion to a luscious 190-proof, as seductive and potent as the finest Absinthe, then serving it up with spoonfuls of caramelized sound that remove any hints of wormwood. Because make no mistake, this woman’s feelings run deep and sometimes dark.

There’s an ingenuousness in her voice that confers trust – the trust that she won’t lie about those feelings. It’s a quality that’s sorely lacking in so many female pop singers of recent decades, who emote and caterwaul and perform melismatic acrobatics, but whose real message is “buy my record.” (I’m not naming names – last time I did I got the Pomplamouse minions after me. It was bad.)

Many of Ingrid’s early songs, like “The Way I Am,” display a naiveté and tendency to repetition such that they could almost be mistaken for children’s songs. But the simplicity of her recent work is that of mature art, which comes from paring away all unnecessary ideas and attitude.

It’s a testament to the fallen state of the music business that this artist, who fifty years ago would have been on a major label and world famous, languishes on her own label, and is far from a household word.

Except that as of yesterday Lights Out was No. 3 in all music on Amazon. And right next to Linda Ronstadt, another woman who knows a thing or two about expressing emotion with her voice. (Sadly silenced.)

And so just in time for Easter and Passover and pagan Rites of Spring, music is reborn, at least for me.

So what’s the result of my experiment? It’s got me feeling a bit like my grandson. When it comes to Ingrid Michaelson right now, I’m all “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Nothing wakes the inner child like music and art. Except maybe the outer child.

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A Writer’s Dilemma

Until a few years ago if you wanted your book published you had two options: find an agent to take it to publishers, or hire a vanity publisher. The first option was uncertain, and took a long time. The second was expensive, and (after your mom and best friends dutifully bought) saddled you with a basement of moldering books. And perhaps worse, the scorn of published authors, who considered vanity publishing the last resort of a failed writer, somewhere between shoplifting and child molestation.

In 2010 a third publishing option appeared: self-publishing, via outlets like Amazon. The avatar for this new option was Amanda Hocking, a 26-year old unpublished writer of paranormal books for Young Adults. That April she was broke and wanted $300 to travel to Chicago for a muppets convention. She uploaded one of her books to Amazon. A year later she was a self-published millionaire.

Others followed on her heels, and writers took notice. I was among them. I’m lucky to have an agent. One of my novels has been making the rounds of publishers since last spring. But I’ve been writing for ten years now, and I’m not young. So I’ve been looking into self-publishing.

Thanks to the Internet there’s a blizzard of information on the subject. I take it with a grain of salt, because outside of the occasional newspaper article, most of it comes from people involved in self-publishing. Many of them are authors who have taken to heart the advice all writers (including those traditionally published) are given today: create a social medium platform. Self-published writers blog and tweet about…self-publishing. Advising other writers to blog about self-publishing.

It’s not just writers. As in the California gold rush, people have figured out that there’s more money in hawking picks and shovels than there is in prospecting. So cottage industries have sprouted up offering tools to the DIY author: editing, cover art, manuscript critiques, and endless marketing advice.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned. If I decide to self-publish I can have a book up on Amazon in a matter of hours, and begin collecting royalties immediately, at the rate of 70%. If I wait (and wait) for a traditional publisher I’ll get less than that rate – Amazon takes 30% from all comers, and a publisher needs to make money. On the other hand, a publisher will pay me an advance. And my books will appear in bookstores, and might get reviewed by traditional media, things which won’t happen if I self-publish. As much as ebook sales have increased, they are still only 20% of the market.

The arguments of some of the most vehement advocates of self-publishing, like J A Konrath are rooted in the belief that there’s simply more money for the author in self-publishing, and they are persuasive (at least when you’re reading Konrath. He’s a very persuasive guy.)

But mercenary as we writers can be, there’s more than money involved. There’s art. And there’s prestige. I can’t help but think that the intensity of many of the arguments in favor of DIY publishing stems from a chip on the shoulder, the sense that “real” writers are somewhere out there dissing them as “failed writers.” And it’s true.

The real imponderable for me is – who reads self-published books? I’ve read a few in my genre, mystery/thrillers. They’re not terrible, but they lack nuance and complexity, attributes I hope my books display.

On the other hand (and this is an area where there always seems to be another hand) I’ve read about how the traditional publishers have been abandoning mid list authors as they chase the next blockbuster. Some of those mid list authors are very good, and where will they go? To Amazon. Will their readers follow?

For now, I’m waiting. But I don’t have forever.

This post was originally published on Cognoscenti, wbur.org’s ideas and opinion page.

Pete Seeger 1919-2014

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Sometime in the early sixties my father took me to see Pete Seeger at the local High School. It was my first concert, and the first time I’d seen a banjo. What I remember most of that night is my father’s loud baritone as he sang along with Pete, “Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking with the union…until the day I die.” My father had real trouble expressing his emotions. It’s the thing that made him such a good writer. He wasn’t a great singer, but singing was another way he was able to express what he felt. We didn’t watch much TV in our house, but even if we wanted we couldn’t have seen him – he was still being blacklisted.

A couple of years later, a month and a day before JFK’s assassination my father took me to see Martin Luther King preach at Wesleyan University. I remember his booming voice – I’m sorry to say, clearer than Pete’s voice – but again what most brings back that night is the sound of my father singing along next to me – “We shall overcome some day.” I didn’t know that night that Pete Seeger was the reason we sang that song, the reason it became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

Later as the 60s went crazy and tore a rift between my father and me, I’d forget that the man who railed against long hair and loud music (and for a while anyway, the anti-war movement) had once stood up for the unions, and blacks, when it wasn’t easy. That he’d covered the Army-McCarthy hearings for the Baltimore Sun and stood up to the Senator from Illinois.

Pete was there at Newport when Dylan went electric, and though he never threatened to cut the wires with an ax, that apocryphal story lives on because it so neatly captures the rift among lefties wrought by another kind of ax – the electric guitar. My dad hated them, and I don’t think Pete ever liked them much.

A year or two after seeing Pete play that banjo I saw one next door at the house of the chairman of the Wesleyan music department. I pestered my mom to buy me a banjo, and she finally relented and got me an acoustic guitar, saying “Banjos are too weird.”

I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and got an electric guitar and played in a Beatle imitiation band, launching a career as a musician. I didn’t think to thank Pete, but he’s right there in the chain of events that led to my becoming a composer.

At a left wing camp in 1967, the Summer of Love, we proto-hippies sang “Where have all the flowers gone.” Just as “We Shall Overcome” symbolized Civil Rights, this song found its way into my heart as the best shorthand for my connection with the Peace Movement. Again, I didn’t know to thank Pete Seeger.

The closest I ever got to the Bible in my agnostic upbringing was my dad reading Luke on Christmas eve. When I heard the Byrds chiming Pete’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” over the radio, I fell in love with three-part harmony, and considering the source of the song, thought for the first time that maybe there was something to the Bible after all.

Pete Seeger “stuck with the union” until yesterday. He never gave up on the causes dear to him – peace, and cleaning up the Hudson River. He stood in the rain and snow and protested wars well into his nineties. I still don’t understand why they never gave him the Nobel Peace Prize.

FIFTY YEAR AGO TODAY

by John Manchester

Most Fridays in the fall of 1963 my father was working at American Education Publications, publishers of “My Weekly Reader.” I was in my eighth grade class.

But that Friday, November 22nd, my father picked me up early from school in his green Austin-Healey Sprite. My father loved that car. He’d grin and say, “Let’s go for a spin,” crank the top down and we’d go flying out over the hills of Middletown, Connecticut. The Sprite gave him license to become a different person from the tightly wound writer who worked all day as an editor, then wrote late into every night. He was always writing. Even at dinner you could see the phrases playing on his lips, almost hear the whirr of his brain.

The air rushing past loosened his tongue, and he told me stories. were another form of writing – its purest. He told those stories well. He’d aspired to acting before writing, and it showed in the dramatic pauses he inserted to set up the sotto voce hiss of a villain, or a single word sentence for effect, so clear you could hear the period. My memory of those tales is sweet and warm, although they were anything but.  His stories were inevitably dark, from the bizarre to outright screaming horror.

We headed to my soccer game, the only sports event of mine he ever attended. Which was fine by me – I was as hopeless at team sports as he’d been as a kid. He was clumsy as an adult, and never overcame the shame of being the last to be chosen when he was young. That Friday I was strangely hopeful what had been missing all along in my game was my dad’s presence. That wasn’t the case. With him there I was bad as ever.

And then the world stopped. Someone stalked onto the field and announced, “The president has been shot.

The world started again. Now I made no pretence of trying to connect with the ball, because I was blinded by tears. How could we still be playing this foolish game.

Finally, the game ended. My father didn’t say anything about our loss, or about the news. He just got in his car with a strangely apologetic expression, gave a little wave and drove off without me. I rode home sardined into the back of some mom’s station wagon, an extra passenger. In that era before seatbelts, we usually took that opportunity to horse around. Not today. We didn’t make a sound, didn’t move. There was just that voice on the radio, and the faintest candle of hope. Sometime during that ride the voice snuffed it out:  

“President John F. Kennedy died at approximately 1 p.m. Central Standard Time today, here in Dallas.”

The car dropped me at a friend’s, where I stayed for the next four days. I didn’t see my father again until I got home. We never discussed it, but I can only think it was because he couldn’t bear for me to see him do what his father had forbade him to do: cry.

That March, Jackie Kennedy asked him to write the definitive account of her husband’s murder. He’d met John Kennedy on the Boston Common shortly after World War Two, and counted him as a friend.

In the fall of 1964 my mother and sisters and I followed my father down to Washington where he was busy interviewing 1000 people for his book. We lived in a fine Victorian House a few blocks from the Washington Cathedral. My father was pleased as punch that the great journalist Walter Lipmann lived at the end of our block, and Kennedy friend and humorist Art Buchwald lived around the corner. We watched LBJ’s inauguration that January from the window of my dad’s office in the National Archives.

Johnson was the only person with whom my father never got an interview, though not for lack of trying. He told me how he’d go to the White House at dawn and camp out until dusk waiting to nail the president. When they finally met there was still no interview – only the offer of a “bourbon and branch water and the dirtiest joke I’ve ever heard.” (He never told me what it was.)

That spring my father took me to meet Bobby Kennedy, then a New York senator. The senator spent 10 long minutes with a pimply kid who didn’t know the first thing about politics or history. He recounted his recent climbing of Mount Kennedy in Alaska. I was surprised that he was so short. He was the first of a few important men I’ve met who had that knack of locking eyes with you and making you feel like you’re just as important as they were.

My father had an inhuman capacity for work. A colleague from back in the 1950’s accurately tagged him: “Bill Manchester is a writing machine.” By fall of 1965 he’d completed his 1000 interviews and returned to Middletown Connecticut to write about the assassination. When he later wrote that he was working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, he was not exaggerating.

The work was emotionally grueling. He watched the Zapruder film of the assassination 75 times.

I was away from home for the first time that fall at boarding school, but returned Thanksgiving. I stood numb in the front hall as men in white coats wrestled my father down the stairs and out into a waiting ambulance.  He spent three weeks in Elmcrest Hospital across the river. “Resting” my mother told me.

In the spring of 1966 my father finished writing his account of the assassination, put well over a thousand manuscript pages in a large suitcase, hauled it to New York and delivered it to Bobby Kennedy’s people. He was also happiest writing, and immersed himself in the project the Kennedy book had interrupted – his account of the German munitions dynasty. 

He was unaware that his writing was about to be interrupted, and that life as he’d known it up to then was about to be over.

Neither Bobby nor Jackie Kennedy read the manuscript, instead handing it to various minions.  The initial reports they gave my father were positive, but soon he began hearing complaints that the book was unflattering to President Johnson. Johnson feared – with good reason – that Bobby would challenge him for the nomination in 1968, and Bobby’s people were all hungry for jobs in a new Kennedy administration. It would not do to anger the President.

And so my father was dragged into presidential politics. Bobby’s people started picking at the manuscript, and it went on for months. My father would make the requested changes, but there were always more.

 By the end of July my dad thought he was finally in the clear: He had a telegram from Bobby, which he saw as a green light for publication.

And he was suddenly, unexpectedly rich.

Most of the proceeds from The Death of a President would eventually go towards the creation of the Kennedy Library (over a million 1967 dollars.)  All that he retained aside from the advance that he’d long since depleted was the magazine rights.  But, T they became the subject of a bidding war. Look won for the then record amount of $665,000.

My father took the family up to Belgrade Lakes in Maine for a very well-earned month long vacation. I always looked forward to our vacations, because they were a time when he finally set down his pen, relaxed and spent time with me.

 It was not to be.

 The phone was already ringing in a the tiny cabin next to the water when we arrived.

 The call was from Homer Bigart at the Times. Jackie viewed the Look magazine sale differently than my father. It was the beginning of a very public battle over the publication of the book.

 I’d walk past and hear him his voice raised in anger and incredulity. I barely saw him, so I had only the faintest idea of what this battle entailed. But I could feel something huge going on.

I only remember seeing him once that August. He emerged from that cabin, pale, blinking in the sun. He was grinning. “I just spoke to Henry Luce, who was on his boat. He said, ‘What will it be, Manchester?’ I said two words, FUCK YOU, and hung up on him!” 

I was shocked.  Like every other boy at my school fuck was a mainstay of my vocabulary. But I’d never heard him say it. 

 I said, “Who’s Henry Luce?”

 My father, exasperated – as if I should know this- said, “The publisher of Life magazine. The most feared man in my business.  He’s the William Randolph Hearst of our time.”

What my father told me couldn’t have been true exactly. First, Look won the magazine rights before we got to Maine, so any phone call would have taken place back in Middletown.  Second, it was Life’s managing editor, George P. Hunt, not Henry Luce, who was on a boat at the time, and who was representing Life in its bid, and was therefore the man to whom my father would have delivered his answer. But Hunt didn’t have a phone on his boat – that fact was the very reason Life had dropped out of the bidding with Look.  During the crucial hours of the auction Hunt had been at sea, incommunicado.

Perhaps he moved around the details for effect, maybe I misremember. At the time I honestly had no idea what he was trying to tell me. Now I do. He was saying that he was now playing with the big boys. Playing, and winning.

Jackie Kennedy, like Bobby, didn’t read the manuscript. Instead she assigned the job to her secretary, who joined Bobby’s people in demanding changes from my father.

 It was a David and Goliath story – my father and his agent against some of the most powerful men, and the most admired woman, in the world.

My father flew from Maine to Hyannis, and had a bizarre meeting with Jackie. He saw Bobby in Washington. They continued to demand changes to the book.  They escalated. Bobby decided the book should not be published at all. The lawyers stepped in.

Jackie sued my father to stop publication.

They gravelly misjudged their opponent. My father was the most stubborn man I have ever known. He’d been given extraordinary access, done what he considered an extraordinary job, at great cost to himself. And he owed publication of this work to History.

They duked it out on the front page of the New York Times, on Network TV. My father escaped to London on the Queen Mary. The night before he sailed he heard the former Attorney General of the United States pounding on the door, demanding admission.

They followed him the England. My father got a bad case of the flu. He told his agent, Don Congdon, “I have reached the point where, if the integrity of my manuscript is violated, I have no wish to go on living. It sounds vainglorious, I know, but I am ready to die for this book.” 

That fall my father was becoming world famous. I was in my second year at boarding school. My father told me he was afraid I’d get kidnapped, like the Lindberg baby. I laughed.  I was sure kidnappers had nothing on the resident bullies.

The one perk of my dad’s fame was that I now longer had to correct people when they called me “Mansfield.” Mike Mansfield was the majority leader of the Senate, but he wasn’t on the front page of the Times every day.

My father returned from England and the circus came to Middletown, Connecticut.

Our gray colonial house had a bright red door. Growing up my father bragged, “It’s the only one in town.” It made me feel like we must be somehow special.

Apparently I was right.

I came home for Christmas to find the house surrounded by TV trucks, reporters crawling in the bushes.  My father was literally hiding in his study in the back of the house above the kitchen. My mother hated his fame from day one. When the knocks on the door came she said to me, “It’s good you came home. You answer it.”

 I was happy to. I stood there grinning, babbling, pleased to have somebody’s attention. But all they wanted to know was, “Where’s your father?”

The day after Christmas his flu turned to pneumonia and he went into intensive care at Middlesex hospital. The TV trucks followed him.  One Kennedy person said, “Christ, I thought we’d killed him.”

On January 16th, 1967, my father and Jackie signed a document releasing the book for publication. The Death of a President became an instant bestseller. All of his books that followed were bestsellers.

His fame was a mixed blessing. It allowed him to pursue his passion – writing – fulltime. But he was intensely shy, and though he enjoyed praise, he also squirmed in the spotlight.

One of the great ironies of my father and I is that in 1968 we were together on the campus of Wesleyan University. He was a distinguished scholar in the office the university had given him high in the columned Olin Library overlooking the campus.

I was a freshman living in a small, cinderblock room.

But the contrast between our stations only begins there. Wesleyan was at the forefront of the liberation movements of the 60s. My father embraced the first wave, Civil Rights, taking me to hear Martin Luther King preach at Wesleyan just a month before Kennedy’s assassination. But as women and gays started clamoring for rights and as the anti-war demonstrations became louder and more frequent, this ex-Marine dug in his heels and said – enough. He clung to Victorian values, and retreated into writing history.

My first class was  English 101.

The professor introduced himself, and said, “We will start with a book by a great American author…” His words brushed against my face, slightly annoying, like sand on a beach breeze.  “…a great American author, William Manchester, a man whom I am privileged to call a friend.  ‘THE DEATH OF A PRESIDENT.’ I sat up straight in my chair, my heart racing.

The professor continued,  “Bill’s a personal hero of mine, and I am pleased to have his son in our class!” He pointed at me. I blushed and slunk behind my desk. I didn’t hear another word he said, and when the bell rang I fled and never came back.

People occasionally asked me, “”What’s it like having a famous father?”

And I’d answer quite truthfully – “I never think about it.” The effect that his fame might have on me was too enormous. It was years before I finally faced it.

At the end of that semester I crept to the office of that English Professor. We were both frankly in a bind. If I flunked English I was likely to end up in Vietnam. The professor had another problem. How was he going to explain to his good buddy Bill Manchester that he’d failed his son in English, of all subjects?

His proposed solution was that I read that damned book and write a long paper of it. With only hours left in the semester I read the book in one shot – all 750 pages, wrote the paper, and escaped by the skin of my teeth.  What started as an onerous task ended with my honest conclusion that it was a great book.

In the months after my mother died in 1998, a picture of Jackie Kennedy appeared on the antique cabinet behind my father’s place at the head of the dining room table in his house in Middletown.

I never gave it more than a cursory glance until after his death in 2004. Now I did. She appears statuesque, like some ideal of feminine beauty, more lovely than any flesh and blood woman could be in any real moment. Her luminous eyes stare out at someone other than me, no mere man, but some Prince. Her image is as otherworldly, as idealized as some portrait from the height of French Romantic painting. 

Why she should have been banished from our house while my mother lived was no mystery: my mother hated her. And not without reason. It wasn’t just that during the mad fall of the Controversy he’d slipped on occasion and addressed my mother as Jackie.

My mother saw Jackie as a rival for my father’s affection.

In flesh and blood, he stayed married to my mother for all her life, through thick and paper thin. But he spent much of his time in a parallel world of mythology – where the heroes and devils of his books fought their great wars, where people appeared as archetypes, where sons still wear crew cuts and daughter dutifully marry. In that world Jackie Kennedy was the epitome of womanhood, and the unrequited love of his life. How could my mother ever compete with that?

 After he met Jackie at the beginning of their ill-fated project, he wrote, “ She’s incredible.  She’s all woman. You’ve got to spend time with her, to see her in the full spectrum.  When she looks at you with those big eyes…’” It’s clear he was smitten.

 Later as feminism took strong root at Wesleyan, my old school father clung even tighter to his notions of how women should be. And Jackie came to represent all that he believed was being lost. He wrote.

 “If she met your plane at the Hyannis airport, she automatically handed you the keys to her convertible. Men drive, women are driven: that was the logic of things to her, and it is impossible the think of her burning a bra or denouncing romantic love as counterrevolutionary.”

My father’s unusual capacity for loyalty is no better seen than in his actions of early 1968. It was barely a year after he and Bobby Kennedy butted heads. Bobby and Jackie had by all accounts “treated him shabbily,” as one player in the Controversy put it.

Yet here he was campaigning for Bobby for president, writing op-eds, speaking at a rally at Madison Square Garden.

In the terrible days after Bobby’s assassination, Jackie wrote him letter to thank him. He attached a copy to the back side of that picture of her. It’s inscribed:

“For Bill – with my best wishes always – Jacqueline Kennedy,” in her fine finishing school hand, and reads in part:

    “I thank you with all my deepest heart – for President Kennedy – For Bobby               

   – For me – For everyone who will ever know or hear of what you did —-          

    because they will be made better by it – far into hundreds of years from now.

     And you must always know – in these last months of such pain and toil for him – you gave him something so fine – You gave him

     just what he was pleading for others – a wiping off of the blackboard of the past – a faith in now – and a generosity of such

     magnitude and sacrifice -

     Thank you dear Bill – with all my heart – those two pathetic inadequate words – but I mean them so much – with my deepest        

      gratitude – and always, affectionately

      -Jackie”

 

Reading the letter I felt myself temporarily under her famous spell, understood how he could have fallen for her. He hadn’t just cooked up her myth by himself. She’d colluded.

The picture at the head of his table confirmed that though once banished, he’d been invited back, would always have a place at the table of Camelot.

When she refers to “what you did” lasting into the future she doesn’t mean supporting Bobby – though that’s the ostensible purpose of the letter, but the writing of The Death of a President.

Ironically, thanks to the terms of the settlement she signed with my father in 1967, the book was long out of print I am pleased that The Death of a President is finally available in a new paperback edition, and as an e-book, which I’m hoping will attract younger readers.

My father gave his all in the writing of The Death of a President, investing part of himself that he and my family never completely retrieved. That’s what lends the book such passion, and what makes it indispensable to understanding the wound that dark day in Dallas wrought on America.

For those interested in another take on the Controversy between my father and the Kennedies, there’s a good piece in Vanity Fair and his detailed account in Controversy.

 

     

            

 

       

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

      

      

 

      

      

 

 

 

Murder Your Metaphors

(Part of an occasional series on writing)
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The process of learning to write comes in distinct stages, like peeling the layers of an onion. Each new layer first appears smooth and shiny. But over time the surface dulls and spiders with wrinkles. Somehow the layer that once appeared as an achievement has morphed into an obstacle to overcome.

Each Eureka! moment is followed by Aw, shit.

Layer 1: You can write! It’s easy to put words on the page.

Ah, snap! They are terrible. People will read them and know: You are a fool.

Layer 2: Ah, but you can hide behind your words! Embellish and embroider, lay on adjectives, adverbs, diversionary phrases and fancy words, so thick that no one will notice.

Nuh uh. Not fooling anybody. You’re naked under all that armor, and it’s not a pretty sight.

Layer 3: Big buzz! If you feel what you’re writing about, the reader will feel it, and it must be good. So you SHOUT, in all caps, italicize. Gush, turning every sentence up to 11.

Sorry, it’s “Not on the Page.” The feeling. Just a bunch of annoying tics.

Layer 4: You’re finally growing up. Learning to understate. Putting your prose on a diet.

It’s dead, mired in generalities. Because you forgot “Show don’t tell.”

Layer 5: The power of Description! The color of her skirt and the smell of her hair, shape of the clouds and every minute detail…

Way too much. Boring.

Layer 6: Now you’ve got it. Editing. To paraphrase the late, great Elmore Leonard – “Cut out the boring parts.”

And so on down through the layers. There are brief moments when you stand back from your work, the remaining layers miraculously become transparent, and you glimpse your goal at the center of the onion:

THE STORY

And you see there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with adjectives, description, style ,spare or florid. The value of these things is all in relationship to the question: How do they advance the story?

The next layer requires special attention.

Layer 7: THE METAPHOR.

From the first one you birth you’re head over heels, narcissus in love with his own creation. And why not? In metaphors dull words take flight from the quotidian into the realm of the supernatural. And you’ve always been a sucker for magic.

Oh, you love your metaphors. They smile so sweetly, bat their eyes and you’re lost.

But then you notice this odor about them. The smell of darlings.

The darlings that the same cats who exhort you to “show don’t tell” are always saying that you must kill.

“Kill your darlings.” Why? You’re not a violent man. Who aside from Hannibal Lecter goes about that kind of bloody business?

A good writer, that’s who. The danger with metaphors is the same as with the other layers: they can distract from THE STORY.

And metaphors are more dangerous than superfluous adjectives and defensive writing and all the rest, because while that stuff can slow the story down, an over-ripened metaphor can grab your tale by its ears and run it off down the street and right out of town, as your readers eyes glaze over, and prepare to fling the book across the room (Not my iPad, please, Dear! ) Because you’ve lost the thread of the story, and betrayed the reader’s trust.

Which is a cardinal sin in this business.

The potential to highjack the story is intrinsic to the metaphor, because its whole raison d’etre is to diverge from the logical, the factual.

So you vow to cut back on the symbolic language, to stick to a diet of lean similes and near beer allusions, occasionally indulging in a glass or two of organic allegory.

Though perhaps you’re merely in denial. Because what is this suspicious odor of onions, not to speak of these metaphors running down the street.

A meta-metaphor. Sheesh.

—————-

Speaking of the street: just now one of those darlings, those femme fatales comes sashaying down your street, making eyes at you, crooking her finger, Come here big boy!

But, you remember, you’re just getting started on that new novel. Novel writing is serious business – no fling. If you’re lucky, true love. But in any case, it’s a marriage.. Once you get going it will not do for this floozy to come barging in, wrecking the story.

But hey. You’re barely engaged. And who will ever know?

No one, because soon as she’s done you’re going to do with her like what’s his name with Sheherazade, kill your little darling, and no one will be the wiser…

She sits by the bed, lights a cigarette, and gets her metaphor on:

Think of your new novel as this rectangular object you want to move from your house

down to the bookstore at the end of the street. A rectangular object, i.e. a book. Except right now it’s more like a dumpster. You toss in ideas, characters, settings, maybe even a theme of two if they fit. Like all dumpsters, this one is plain and ugly and a dull prosaic shape.

And it’s heavy, too heavy to move. So you get a few trusted friends to help push. You brainstorm with them, and you get it to budge an inch or two. But at this rate you’ll all be dead before you get out of the driveway.

Aha! Wheels. You look around the yard and see some rusty spokes and a spare tire with a big hole in it. You cobble together some wheels, mount them on the dumpster. Grease them up.

You shout for your buddies, they come out and with their help you get the thing down the driveway and out on the street. But now they have better things to do. “See ya. Let me know when it gets published.” After all, this is your trip.

What to do?

Odd thing, while you were busy pushing, somebody’s been spiffing this thing up. Painted it nice bright colors, the way you like. And its shape is somehow more svelte.

But the son of a gun is still heavy.

Bingo. You forgot the engine. The lifeblood of the book, the deep emotional currents of love and hate, fear and betrayal. All hooked up the heart of every good story, conflict.

You get the engine in there, tune it up just so until its humming, and what do you know? That darned old dumpster is cruising down the street, by itself. You hop on. Now you’re just along for the ride.

Will you crash into that old Dodge Dart before you get to the bookstore? Will Amazon have shuttered the thing by the time you get there?

Who cares. Because this is the good part. The reason you write.

P.S.

Funny, for some reason I forgot to mention Layer 8:

See how well I write! Having penetrating the preceding layers I’m ready to impress you with my talent and skill as a writer.

Oops. You forgot your audience. They want to hear a good story. You’re like that guitar player who runs up and down the neck showing you how fast he can play. It’s boring.

Listen to some Mozart. He makes composing sound effortless. Now try to do it yourself.

Didn’t think so.

The Death of a President

My father William Manchester’s account of JFK’s assassination, The Death of a President, is finally back in print after many years. Jill Abramson of the Times wrote an interesting overview of all the books on the subject, concluding with this about my father’s: “The good news, maybe the best, of the 50th anniversary is that Little, Brown has now reissued paperback and e-book editions.

It’s good news because, remarkably, and against all odds, Manchester (who died in 2004) wrote an extraordinary book.”

  No one writing about the assassination has had as many sources as my father – including extensive interviews with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy. And no book captures the dark emotions still surrounding that time.

 You can order the new paperback, ebook, and also audiobook at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

 If you read it, or re-read it, you may want to give it a review, at Amazon or Goodreads.

You Can’t Write About Me!

Dylan-at-Ginsbergs-Typewriter
(Dylan at Ginsburg’s typewriter)

A few days ago I got an email confirming that something I suggested to someone a few months ago had resulted in a cool thing. Nothing scandalous, but it made a fun story.

Something. Someone. Thing. Nothing. No, this is not an exercise in bad (i.e., purposely vague) writing. Please read on.

So I thought -why not blog about it? I asked the source of the email and they said, “No! Under no circumstances! You can’t write about it!” As I value my relationship with this person, I agreed. So I can’t tell you who or what or when or anything.

“You can’t write.” Not the first time I’ve heard that.

Right about now if you, the reader, are anything like me, or anything like anybody else, you’re getting irritated. Tell me! Come on, just a hint. Promise, I won’t tell anyone. (Sure you won’t.) But my word is good. I ain’t tellin.

Here’s the thing. You’re not the only one feeling frustrated here. There’s nothing quite like being a writer and stumbling on a good story, only to have someone tell you you can’t tell it. It’s almost physically painful.

You Can’t Write About Me is the title of my first novel. It begins with a guy who’s writing a memoir and calls up an old girlfriend. She’s happy to hear from him until she finds out what he’s doing. She commands, “You can’t write about me,” and hangs up.

He sits there skewered on the horns of a terrible dilemma. Yeah, when they were together it was her life, and she deserves her privacy. But that time was also a piece of his life, and he deserves to write about it. Being a fictional writer, with no lawyers or burly husbands or actual propriety to worry about, he writes about her. Then he writes about other people who don’t want him to. Before you know it he’s wishing he hadn’t. (No spoilers, but suffice it to say he has more than his guilt and a pissed off ex after him.)
Les_vampires (1)
Janet Malcolm of the New Yorker once wrote, “Writers are vampires.” She was talking about Joe McGinniss’s book about Jeffery MacDonald, the “green beret killer,” how the writer had befriended the killer, then betrayed him by writing a scathing (and bestselling) expose of him.

We’re all vampires, all of us writers. I’m not proud of it, but I’ll admit to honing my long incisors before venturing out in public. Never know when you’ll get hungry.

Nobody’s safe. An old, old friend got in touch after 40 years. It was great to talk to him. It was great seeing the PBS piece he sent celebrating a long illustrious career fighting injustice. But by the time I was done watching I’d ripped off his beard, hair and high school sport and grafted them onto a character in my latest book.

Nobody who eats in the same restaurant with me is safe. Don’t talk too loud or I’ll mine you for dialog. And don’t even think of fighting. I love that stuff! Your hipster fedora, your girlfriend’s vocal creak, the exact microbrew you’re right now quaffing are all slotted away awaiting reincarnation in a scene I’ll write.

I spent a long time working on a memoir about my father and me and the 1960s. My deepest motivation was a desire to tell the truth. I’d never had the courage to tell my father the truth when he was alive, nor he the courage to tell me his. All the members of my family, including me, had our lips somehow magically sealed so that we could never tell each other what we wanted, what we felt. We all shoved everything that mattered into a great closet filled with clattering skeletons, whispered desires and unspoken sorrows.

I found that telling my truth in a memoir was much harder than I thought it would be. There were living people whose secrets I could not betray. And there were things even the dead did not want revealed. Hardest was finding a way to craft my truth into words that someone would want to read. My biggest problem was that I was too close to the material. I couldn’t achieve the essential quality of narrative distance. And without it I couldn’t tell what was good story, and what was just stuff that carried a potent emotion charge for me, but would just bore a reader. After seven drafts, and seven years –like something in a fairy tale – I let it rest.

And started writing fiction. I didn’t do it because I’d always dreamed of being a novelist. On the contrary, I consider novelists an impoverished, whiny, catty, miserable lot, somewhere in the nether ranks of society between musicians and psychokillers.

It was not ambition that brought me to fiction, but the solution to the problem of “You can’t write about me.” No, I can’t write about you, but I can write about my fictional character Ray, and everyone he knows.

Writing fiction also solved the thorny problem of getting the right narrative distance. I was surprised to discover that my made up stories (which the reader might suspect had quite a bit of real life woven in) were actually truer than my memoir. Yes, the “facts” were made up. But the emotional truth was there. Working at the canvas of a novel I found it easy to step back, see what my brushstrokes had evoked, see the whole, because it was not my life. Not my life, but my truth.

So I’m very sorry, for you, and for me, that I can’t tell you this neat story I heard this week. But if you hang around my work, I will tell it in one form or another. I promise.

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