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.