by Jerry Waxler
When I look back on the decades I’ve lived through, the 60’s stand out as being filled with energy and conflict. And one of the things that made the 60’s so powerful was the music of that decade. So I was intrigued to discover a memoir Vinyl Highway from a singer from the 60’s, Dee Dee Phelps.
Since the memoir was written recently, it can offer some insight to anyone who is trying to reach back through the decades to write about the 60’s. And since Dee Dee wrote the book recently, she can share tips about her experience writing it. Here is the first part of the two part interview.
Jerry: When did you first start thinking about writing a memoir? How long did it take, from the first draft to the completed book?
Dee Dee: I first started thinking about writing my memoir, “Vinyl Highway, Singing as Dick and Dee Dee” in early 2001. It took me three or four months of mental struggle to finally commit to making this happen. The total process, from page one to the final manuscript took four and a half years.
Jerry: What were your writing habits like?
Dee Dee: At first, I could only commit to writing one half hour a day. I was working part time in an attorney’s office, and managing four apartment buildings in Santa Monica full time. I set the alarm clock to rise a half hour earlier than usual and wrote before getting ready for work. I meditate first thing in the morning, so right after my meditation, I went to the computer. I soon made an interesting discovery. If I made writing a regular habit, even though I was unable to think about it throughout the day, when I sat at the computer the next morning, much had been worked out subconsciously and after simply reading back a few pages, I knew exactly how to proceed.
Jerry: What did you do about slumps?
Dee Dee: I only had two “slumps” in the entire process. When I had to go out of town, I took a week breather from writing. And although it was difficult getting back in the “flow,” once I did it was easy to stream forward with greater speed and efficiency. The second slump was when I took a left turn and wrote about my family for three months, thinking I would start the memoir with a story that took place before I was born. At the Maui Writer’s Retreat of 2003 I was told by the group of 12 writers that that whole section had to go. A memoir is about a specific period of time, in my case the Sixties. I was turning it into an autobiography and a family history and it didn’t work. After my initial shock, I dropped about 120 pages (three months of work) and focused on finishing the memoir the way I originally conceived it to be.
Jerry: I read that you went to school for creative writing. What was it like going back to school as an adult? What was your favorite part about it?
Dee Dee: I did go back to school during the process of writing Vinyl Highway. After I read the first seventy five pages I’d written, I realized that this was simply the worst thing I’d ever read. I saw nothing redeeming about it. It was then that I realized I needed to sharpen my skills so I enrolled in a memoir writing class at the University of California in Los Angeles. It was the first of three classes I took, in addition to the Maui Writer’s Retreat. My favorite part about memoir classes was hearing all the amazing stories coming from the most ordinary people. I realized that everyone has something special and unique that happened in their lives. And the classes kept me focused on the goal and kept me writing. It was a process of discovery, uncovering the layers of the proverbial “onion.”
Jerry: As I read your memoir, I find my emotional reaction often seems to be stronger than yours, like when I was getting upset with the behavior of your singing partner Dick St. John, but you simply told the story. How did you stick to just showing the events rather than trying to convey your own emotional tangle?
Dee Dee: I learned that technique from my memoir classes. If there was one theme that was repeated over and over it was “Show, don’t tell.” I imagined the scenes visually, as if watching a movie. I distanced myself from the memory for a moment and imagined I was writing a novel. When I imagined I was writing about someone else. That made it easier to describe thoughts and feelings effectively and still keep the story going. I love reading fiction writer T.C. Boyle. Although his stories are so over the top, he really conveys the characters emotions, not by saying that they were angry, sad, etc. but by showing how they reacted. He’s particularly able to show over the top rage, a very difficult thing to write about.
When I wrote about Dick pulling me away from the microphone by the back of my dress, remember that we were on a stage. I had to pretend nothing was going on, smile and keep singing. In writing that, I just tried to run the scene as it happened. Yes, in remembering the past we re-experience the good and bad feelings that went along with our experiences. But it’s a fine balance to write about what we feel and to continue the narrative.
There really is no right or wrong way to do this. It’s up to each person writing a memory. I can only say that after reading literally hundreds of memoirs, I discovered early on that the ones that told too many facts, such as “Then I did this, and that made me happy or sad” are the ones that I usually put down unread. People want “story.” If it isn’t a story, it isn’t interesting to people. It’s as simple as that. So…if you are going to work with describing feelings, you have to show how you felt, not tell it.
Jerry: What sort of research did you do for the book?
Dee Dee: Sadly, during a move in the late Sixties, my photo album with personal photos I’d taken of Sixties performers vanished. I also lost my book in which I had recorded our itineraries. Trying to pull together the various dates and places was difficult. I researched the internet, old newspapers, read all the memoirs from that period I could get my hands on, anything to discover facts I needed for the book.
Jerry: What was the remembering process like?
Dee Dee: I’m blessed with a good memory. My mother used to tell me I remembered incidents from when I was three years old (I also have a clear memory of dialogue that took place between people). The facts, such as the dates and times things took place, are harder for me to pinpoint.
Jerry: Was there any concern about needing to fill in things you didn’t remember precisely in order to turn it into a real scene?
Dee Dee: Everyone who writes a memoir has to fill in the blanks to keep the narrative going. Obviously, we don’t run around with a tape recorder, recording conversations our entire life. When we write a memoir, we are re-creating scenes as they happened to the best of our ability.
Jerry: In addition to writing the book, did you reach out to share your story in other venues (public speaking, 60’s nostalgia groups, or article or story writing)? If so how did that go?
Dee Dee: Eventually, after Vinyl Highway was released, I started doing book readings at book stores. I’ve also read at book festivals. I’ve talked on numerous radio shows and still do so, both am and fm and internet radio. It’s all a great experience.
To see part two of this interview, click here.
How intriguing that she is talking about minimizing emotion in memoir. I’ve read several memoirs lately in which the author does just that, sticks to showing without much personal interpretation. The consensus of the reading group I belong to is that these memoirs (i.e. “Glass Castle”) evoke a lot of personal reaction in readers who have had similar experiences, but the authors seem, well, detached, like they were writing about someone else, or perhaps even making things up. Or, perhaps that they don’t want to delve into things too deeply for their own reasons.
There must be some middle ground to report enough personal involvement to sound credible and grounded in the story without spilling too many guts.
Now I’m for sure going to have to read Dee Dee’s book.
Thank you for publishing this interview. It really helped me to think more about writing my memoir. I am 58 and have written non-fiction essays on health and wellness, poems and the closest I come to revealing any true feelings for the public is my chapter in a book in which my subject is authenticity.
The memoir is my next step. I am wondering if I need to take some classes or attend a writing retreat. I do go to a writing group every Monday morning, but when I share my deeper work (memoir notes) I get very few comments, like it is too deep, not funny enough or something. Then I shrink and go back to sharing the pieces where I am not the subject.
Just my thoughts-will continue to read the interview.
I checked out your blog. My goodness you have hurled yourself into the internet. Good work!! You have a lot to be proud of. If you feel pulled towards writing about your life, that in itself ought to be a sign that something is waiting there, some deeper insight and better method for sharing yourself. Memoir writing, like any creative project starts with the hankering. As for how to proceed, there are many steps, but yes, it does sound like a class or workshop would help. If your current writing group is not oriented around memoir writing, they are probably not geared up for such personal sharing. A memoir writing group is a wonderful thing – especially if you can find one that has an ethic about sticking to the writing. As you hear each others’ lives develop on the page, you’ll learn not only about your own life but about the life-writing process in general. Good luck with your writing.