by Jerry Waxler
This is part two of an interview with Dee Dee Phelps, singer in the sixties duo, Dick and Dee Dee and author of the memoir Vinyl Highway, Singing with Dick and Dee Dee. To see my earlier post, click here. I also posted a two part book review that starts here. For more information about Dee Dee’s history, book, and appearances, visit her website.
Jerry: You had a variety of picturesque experiences on stage and with other 60’s celebrities. How did you decide what to keep in the book and what to leave out?
Dee Dee: From the memoir classes and my own reading of literally hundreds of memoirs, I discovered that, for me, the most interesting ones were written like fiction, in other words, narrative non-fiction. I learned the principals of how to do this in the memoir classes. So I had to pull memories that would move the story along. I had no idea what length was required and before the book was complete, I’d written 130,000 words. I was told by an editor that I had to cut the word count down to 100,000, or the book would be too thick and the paper to print it so expensive, the book would be priced at $45.00 for a paperback!
In shock, I appeared incapable to choose what 30,000 words to cut. Fortunately, a script editor for Warner Brothers took the project on and eliminated a number of entire chapters, as well as references to anything that went on in those chapters. It worked. I refined it and found we were just under 100,000 words. When I started a recent blog, I was able to stick in a few of the eliminated stories, like the brief story of Roy Orbison.
Jerry: Was it obvious to you when you first thought about writing the book where you would start the story and where you would stop it, or did you have to go through soul searching to find the book’s structure?
Dee Dee: It was obvious to me to start the story at the beginning of the Sixties when Dick and I recorded our first record and to continue until the act broke up, at the decades end. What was interesting to me was to discover that what I thought was a linear process (start at the beginning and write on through to the end) turned out to be a collage. I often thought of incidents and scenes I wanted to include and just inserted them into the middle of things. The story had a rough structure, but I kept adding to it at random.
Jerry: When delving back into your memories, what sort of emotional stuff did you churn up?
Dee Dee: Since singing with Dick occurred when I was a teenager and continued into my early twenties, and I’m now middle aged, I can look at that time with a certain emotional detachment. Although some of it was difficult, none of it was traumatic. Now I look back and see how funny much of it was. I tried to write the book to relay the humor of it all, to make people happy and to bring some fond memories back. We have enough bad news in the press and world at large. In the Sixties we knew how to have a good time (as the Beach Boys said, “Fun, Fun, Fun.”). I tried to remember what those times were really like and to offer a portrait for the reader.
Jerry: Were there things too hot to handle that you felt in the end weren’t appropriate for the book?
Dee Dee: I remembered that “perception equals reality.” In other words, what is true for one person may not be true for the person standing next to them. We had a great discussion in one of the memoir classes about how much trouble we could get into (lawsuits, or anger) by using the real names of people. Basically, we were encouraged to tell what happened from our hearts, and not worry about the response from some people who might not like the way they are portrayed. I worried about this, as I was not always portraying my singing partner, Dick, in a positive light. But I was truthful with what really happened. Knowing Dick’s nature, I feared what the consequences might be for me in writing this book. But strangely enough, Dick passed away in the middle of the process, so he never had a chance to read it.
I have a sense of honor about the reputations of others and left out a number of negative incidents about certain entertainers that they wouldn’t want revealed. Since I had no agenda, I just wanted to tell the amazing story of what it was like to travel the country on rock and roll tours in the Sixties, a time of racial segregation, before computers and cell phones. Nowhere does it say that you have to drag every negative thing you witnessed about another person onto the written page. I feel a book is a reflection of the writer’s consciousness and each person will chose what to include and what to leave out according to their own dictates and conscience.
Jerry: One of my favorite things about memoirs is that writers often report that writing about the past helps them understand it better than when they lived through it. What was your experience? Were there insights that helped you understand more about who you are as a person?
Dee Dee: Through writing out all the various incidents and noting which ones I chose to write about and which to leave out, I saw a pattern emerging. My “ah-ha” moment came when I realized how powerless I felt at the time, how I allowed Dick St. John to convince me that he had all the talent and I was lucky to be along for the ride. I realized, with great joy, that all the happy and sad experiences in life are just a learning curve. Now I’m a powerful woman who speaks up when I feel that something isn’t right. But I had to learn that over time.
Jerry: When the book went public, were there any surprises about people’s reactions, or surprising feelings about raising those old images?
Dee Dee: When the book went public, I got several phone calls from singers I’d performed with as Dick and Dee Dee. They were glad I set the record straight. Releasing the book has brought wonderful experiences into my life. I’ve learned and grown as both a writer and book promoter (you have to be both) and have traveled to promote the book to Washington, DC and New York City. I’m now doing book readings and getting out to meet the public. It brings me the greatest joy to try to help others who are struggling with writing their own books.
So many new people have helped me, both in providing vintage videos and photos of the act, to helping promote the book. I am so grateful and aware of how much the internet has played a part in this wonderful experience, creating a huge network of new friends and renewing old acquaintances. We are, indeed, a world community.
Jerry: What advice would you offer anyone who wants to write about their life story?
Dee Dee: If anyone wants to write their life story I’d only say, “Go for It.” It’s such a tremendous experience to be “in the flow,” creating something from nothing. I remember advice from Aram Saroyan, one of my memoir teachers. He said, “Mind is shapely.” In other words, if you just show up (90% of writing is showing up and 10% is hard work and talent) your mind will create story from all the various images it holds. Trust the process.
The other thing he used to say was, “First thought, best thought.” We tend to edit what we write immediately after writing it, which is the left brain critic trying to decide if we can do better, or write the story in another way. Forget analyzing. Write, just write. The time for true editing will come later.
Plan the same time every day and make a firm commitment to write for whatever time you decide, anywhere from half an hour to four hours. Then keep that commitment. You will find that during the rest of the day, when many duties take your attention, the subconscious mind is working on the writing process and the next day you know exactly what to write next. If you stay in the flow with consistent effort, it’s very difficult to get “writers block.”
Jerry: What’s next?
Dee Dee: I have a second memoir in mind, the story of the Seventies which I spent going back to the land in Big Sur. Some amazing experiences took place there. I’d also like to write a book about the process of writing a memoir and also about prosperity groups. Please visit my blog: http://blog.dickanddeedee.com to continue a relationship with me. Also, the website (www.dickanddeedee.com) is great fun. We keep posting new videos as they come up and tell what is going on with book promotion.
I think memoirs are becoming more and more popular because they are about real people and real events, just as reality TV is taking over from scripted shows. Thank you for your wonderful website and the chance to chat with other potential memoir writers.