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It’s the Sixth Anniversary of my Father’s Death

June 1, 2010


JUNE 1, 2010 7:06AM

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Part 1: The Reason I’m Here on Open Salon

My father with JFK looking over his shoulder, 1964

(Image rights reserved John Manchester)

A month ago I started merrily blogging away here and never properly introduced myself.  I’m the son of the writer William Manchester. He became well-known when he got into a big fight with Jackie Kennedy over the publication of The Death of a President, a book she’d asked him to write about her husband’s assassination.

When my father died, 6 years ago this morning, I was still composing music for a living, which I’d been doing for 25 years. Within days of his death, even in my half-crazed state of grief, I felt the compulsion to take up my father’s craft, to write. The cause of that compulsion was something that desperately needed to come out of me: the story of my father and me. My compulsion felt the same as what had made me stop performing and start writing music in the 70’s, the same as what had me chasing the woman I wanted to marry. People had bought that music, and the marriage turned out very well. And, so I assumed, would this story.

SoI gave up writing music and started writing words. The first draft came out of me in a torrent, the process feeling surprisingly like making music. When I was done I sat to read and…. it was terrible. Illiterate, overwrought, incoherent. Embarrassingly bad. How could that be? Simple. I didn’t know the first thing about writing. When I started composing I had 15 years of guitar playing under my belt. I’d been to college, but it was Wesleyan in the late ‘60s, when grades, exams and class attendance were all optional. I majored in sex, drugs and rock and roll, too interested in exploring inner space to bother learning how to put a coherent sentence on paper.

After a week’s agitation, in which I seriously contemplated erasing the manuscript from my hard drive, I started a second draft. Now I started doing what I’d done years ago with guitar: practicing and practicing. I read books about writing. I wrote another draft, then another.  I learned from reader’s comments, hired a couple of editors,all the time honing my craft and distilling the story until it was less than half the length I’d started with. To date I’ve spent over 6000 hours working on it.

Why go to all that trouble? The work was dangerous. As I conjured up the past, I stumbled on many dark passages, corners ‘round which lurked demons with razor teeth, waiting to pounce on me. It was like Groundhog Day, only my whole life, lived over and over. With each draft I had to revisit the same treacherous corners. Some demons I slew. Others seemed invincible.

The work was also dangerous because of the fear that I would be ridiculed once I brought my story to light: Thinks he’s a writer like hisfather. Ha!  Many still considered him to be great. And what not-famous son of a famous man hasn’t suffered the fear that he’s less than his father?

As I wrote I began to know why I was doing it.  My father was a difficult, complicated man, and so was our relationship.  There was no way I could work it out while he was alive. But now I could, it seemed, by doing the thing he spent the most waking hours doing, and loved more than anything: writing. He believed it was a kind of magic, and so it was, the only thing that ever really made him feel good. And I found it to be magic too. Writing gradually untangled my relationship with him, and thus my relationship with myself.

My father particularly liked a piece of my music called “Hand in Hand.” He requested that I play it at his funeral.  It was ironic, because we so rarely touched, physically or emotionally. Yet after he was gone I felt our hands touching through that pen we now had in common, through the craft that had made him feel most alive.

Recently I’ve felt satisfied that I finally wrote the story I set out to tell. The manuscript is still crawling its way through the murky corridors ofthe publishing business.  It may or may not ever appear in traditional book form. But thanks to Open Salon I have the possibility that all writers really want – to be read. And here I see the potential for an invaluable feedback loop – like the one I knew in the early seventies, when I performed music. I’d fire off a lucky guitar lick, and watchsomeone shaking it for a moment on thedance floor, Oh yeah!  Or I’d fumble and watch a table get up to leave, and something inside me would die. Powerful motivational stuff.

Here I’ve completed a circle. My father started writing 63 years ago asa police reporter for the Baltimore Sun. It was where he met my mother. Their existence, and therefore mine, was dependent on his ability to catch readers with that lede, to keep them reading, just as when I was a composer and made hooks to catch my listeners.

Here’s hoping you’ve read this far.

(Image rights reserved John Manchester)




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Your father passed his gift on to you. Timing is important in these things and being a musician, you understand that. The Hand in Hand
reference … very nice.
Scarlett – thank you for kind words. To mangle Mark Twain, seems “rumours of your demise here at Open Salon have been greatly exaggerated.” Good thing, too!

I think I heard she was backing off … not logging off. Hey this is the first new post I’ve done in eleven days.

Once your “hooked” here, that sometimes seems like a long time a long time. Seems I’ve lost some of my audience too … Not you though. Glad to make your acquaintance.

Read and rated. I will be interested to hear more.
Luminous, a fascinating story and it is interesting to read how you began to write in earnest after your father’s passing. He was such a well known author and it is great to know that you have a book up for consideration in the publishing world!
As you father, I might tell you how proud I am of you for the time and effort that you are putting into writing. I would want to know from you that it is what you want and that it makes you feel good to do it. That being satisfied, I would enjoy it immensely and talk with you about it, writer to writer. I would do all this and then some. Since I am not your father, I can only say that I think he is smiling brightly wherever he is right now and that warmth is hitting your cheek and making you feel pretty fantastic right about now….R.
I’ve read your fathers work…you have the same tone as he. You should be proud of both of your bodies of work – music and words.
I moved from composing music to writing about eight years ago. And I did what you did—I practiced. I find it incredibly satisfying. You have a sterling lineage: my father felt your father’s book’s was brilliant; he (my father, who died six years ago as well) was roommates with Joe Kennedy at Harvard and retained an almost propriety view of the Kennedys and their place in history. I absolutely look forward to reading what you’re writing.

Many, many years ago, I purchased “The Last Lion” a biography of Churchill, the first of a trilogy. It was from the BOMC, and wrapped in plastic. This fact has significance, as it singled out the book on my shelves as unread. My wife kidded me about this unread book, and asked when I would ever read it. My answer was always, when I retire.

Retiring 4 years ago, it was the first book I read, a worthy payoff, I just loved this work, it was well worth the wait. Intended to be a trilogy, your dad just got one more written, which now sits on my shelf, waiting. I had never read you dad before, but became an absolute fan once we met on the written page.

I can’t say that your writing has captured me in the fashion that your dad’s did, but that would be silly to even consider. You are your own creative self, and I wish you well.

Thank you all for the kind comments. Sheila -what my father would think of my writing about him has worried me since I started. Despite his celebrity he remained a shy, private man. In trying to paint as accurate a picture of him as I can I do drag some skeletons from our quite roomy family closet (I don’t spare myself, either.) So I worry that he might be more horrified than proud.
Barbara – you are too kind, but I like too kind.
I’ve already been enjoying your writing. I want to hear more about your move from notes to words (and I plan on writing more about my own experience of it.)
Plantlover – No, perhaps I can never reach my father’s skill. Then again he had fifty years experience on me when he started the Last Lion.
AND BTW – the last volume of the Last Lion is completed by the writer Paul Reid, as we speak (or blog.) Hopefully will be out next year.
I look forward to reading more about your father.
Congrats on your EP. I’m happy for you. I’ve got one like this I’ve been working on for my Mum coming up. Five years gone …
Oh, thank you Scarlett. Must say it made my day. Had to think a moment what an EP was…wait, I’ve done CDs, even some LPs, but I don’t think I ever did an EP…

I found a mint copy of “American Caesar” in a used bookstore last year, bought it, and when I got the book home spent about three and a half days doing nothing but reading it. I’d had a copy in the late seventies when the book came out, but hadn’t been back to it.

Your father was one hell of a historian/biographer.

It’s the personal side of this story that really captured me – I also have a father who did great things, but without achieving public fame. I have been feeling guilty ever since for not doing more to deal with my emotions and and our relationship in writing. I am beginning to wonder if such a thing can even be done. You are showing me that it just might be possible.
I have a feeling your book will do just fine, but forget publication – you are my hero for getting through the actual writing of your story.
Trying to come out of the shadow of your father is indeed a gallant effort. He was a brilliant writer and I think you are on your way. Scarlett, my dear friend here, directed me to this post. I will return.
I had a strong father archetype as well. Congratulations on being your own self and doing such a creative job of it!
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