by Jerry Waxler
Dee Dee Phelps was a singing celebrity in the 60’s. Just out of high school, she joined Dick St. John to form the duo Dick and Dee Dee, had some chart-topping singles, and went on to national television, international tours, and singing with a few big name stars, and a lot of smaller ones. Forty plus years later, Dee Dee Phelps wrote a memoir about those times, “Vinyl Highway, Singing with Dick and Dee Dee.”
While the book contains many celebrity scenes, on stage and hobnobbing with stars, she also shows me her life as a real person: what it was like for her as a young girl, surrounded by the hassles of the record business and how it felt working with her distant, at times emotionally abusive relationship with her singing partner Dick St. John who was intense and ambitious, and who thought of himself as both the brains and the talent of the duo. He treated her as an instrument of his own success. And she shares her long-term love with her emotionally unavailable manager Bill Lee.
Aspiring memoir writers wonder, as we dig back into our memories, how we could ever convincingly portray the dreams, the fears, or the passion of our past. It’s a daunting challenge. Dee Dee succeeded at this task. In her memoir Vinyl Highway I feel like I am back there with her, feeling her mix of awe at being involved with world famous people, exhaustion at being herded along from show to show, frustration with her business and singing partner, and so on.
She succeeds her task, not by telling me what she felt but showing me the scenes that made her feel that way. She crafts each scene to show the actions of the people around her, neither glamorizing nor complaining about them. While she describes her world, she understates her own emotions, allowing me to draw my own conclusions. This writing style is powerful, and follows a tradition developed by such masters of literary non-fiction as Tracy Kidder, Tobias Wolff, and Alice Sebold. In their memoirs they report emotionally complex situations, without beating me over the head with their emotional reactions. They make the reader do the emotional work. To learn how to write about emotions from your own life, take a closer look at how Dee Dee Phelps achieves this effect in Vinyl Highway.
[To explain more about Dee Dee’s writing style I will be interviewing her in a future blog.]
As I admired Dee Dee’s page-turning style of storytelling, something bothered me. It wasn’t just her writing style that was sparse. She kept her feelings so under control it puzzled me. When her partner Dick was rude, I was thinking, “How can she put up with it?” And when her manager, with whom she was in love, sent her mixed signals, instead of asking for clarification, she kept silent. I felt like something must be burning under the surface, something almost tragic, as if she was a passenger in her own life.
Finally it dawned on me. She was staying silent because she was accurately reporting the true feelings of a “good girl” at a time when good girls were trained to be unassertive. Dee Dee was honestly portraying her state of mind, just watching the world without a sense of being able to change it much. It’s an interesting psychological study of a pre-feminist mentality. And I think Dee Dee’s insistence on an authentic style brings this out by letting me see it, rather than her telling me about it.
The way she portrayed her state of mind offers another lesson for memoir writers. To portray the most authentic picture of what life was like for you, stick as close as possible to reporting the thoughts and emotions you had during the original scene. Resist the temptation to retrofit your childhood experience with your adult understanding. Of course, you can see the situation more clearly now, through your adult eyes. But by inserting too much of today’s insight, you take the reader out of the scene, and into the present. This breaks their connection with the actual experience, and creates more distance between the reader and the book. To keep readers engaged, let them get into the scene the way it happened. You can report how you grew up in your next memoir.
Dee Dee’s memoir pulled me along with her. It was a different time, and she showed me a glimpse of what those times were like for her, which is exactly what memoirs are supposed to do. It was a wild ride, and you can share it in Dee Dee’s memoir, Vinyl Highway.
[In the second part of this review of Vinyl Highway, Singing with Dick and Dee, I will talk more about the overall structure, and Dee Dee’s character arc through her journey, how she developed and grew.]