Memoir Interview with 60’s Celebrity Dee Dee Phelps

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.

Insights from Brooke Shields’ celebrity memoir

by Jerry Waxler

I have been avoiding celebrity memoirs, because they often play by a different set of rules than other memoirs. They are often driven by name dropping and voyeurism, rather than great story principles. I love the pleasure of a fabulously written book, and celebrity-written books are not known for their literary merit. But I also want to know more about the insides of all kinds of people, not just literary giants. I am willing to setting aside elitist expectations of literary excellence to expand my own horizons.

All these thoughts went through my mind as I read the cover of Brooke Shields memoir, “Down Came the Rain” deciding whether to buy it or shelve it. This moment of reckoning is a great opportunity to understand the purchasing decision people will make when they pick up your memoir.

The celebrity phenomenon is a huge issue in our public life. We talk about celebrities, follow their work and their private lives, and weirdly often feel like we know them. I’m dieing to understand what makes all this so important and what it’s like for the people on the other side of the camera, and there’s the chance a memoir will provide insights.

Another reason I was willing to read this particular book is that it tells of her post-partum depression, a serious condition that I want to understand from inside. And once I started reading, I discovered she was unable to have a natural pregnancy, and so she threw herself into in vitro fertilization. I’ve heard this is a grueling experience, and I was interested to read what it felt like. She not only tells me the details of her feelings, but also provides the technical information to keep me informed and to help pace the story.

I’m pleased with the tone of the book. She has an engaging way of showing me situations, sharing conversations, and telling me how she thinks and feels, that lets me get inside the situation and feel it myself. That’s what I want from a memoir, and she is accomplishing that.

Amidst her celebrity life, she’s also human, and I was able to find insights about how life works for her. For example, in the first scene in the book, while she is backstage waiting for her cue at a live performance, she gets a phone call that tells her the fetus she is carrying is dead. Here in real life was an example of the saying, “The show must go on.” She responded to her cue and went on stage moments later. It was a great glimpse into the emotional complexity of being a performer. And it was also a good example of the unthinkable interface between normalcy and tragedy. None of us can pick the most convenient time for tragedy, and often we learn something awful at the worst possible moment.

Another celebrity-oriented aspect of her story is about paparazzi and reporters. She avoids going to the hospital, because she doesn’t want to deal with the media exposure. When she’s leaving the hospital, she prepares herself to face the gauntlet of photographers. She breaks into tears, pulls herself together, pastes on a smile and walks out. The photographers lean close to her baby, and she feels a stab of fear, and then she gets into the car. She thinks, “at least none of them followed us home.” I’ve often thought this whole notion of being hounded by paparazzi is one of the most intrusive things any human being should be expected to endure. It would drive me completely nuts. And yet, performers are not supposed to complain, because it’s the attention of the media that fuels their financial success. So instead of complaining, Brooke Shields puts on a smile and keeps walking.

Such episodes may seem to apply only to celebrities. But there is a lesson here that could inform other memoirists. When the scene itself is so filled with tension, I don’t need to hear her complaint. I want to feel my own reactions, and I am perfectly capable of being sickened by this situation on my own. The fact is, complaints slow the momentum of the story. We generally want the protagonist to “deal with it” and move on.

This is the way literary memoirs work, too. Tobias Wolff, author of the superbly written “This Boy’s Life” lets the reader draw their own emotional conclusion. For example, when Wolff’s step-father steals the boy’s college savings, he asks his mother for more details about the disappearance of the money. “How could that happen?” But she doesn’t want to talk about it. She hates complaining, and changes the subject. Wolff, the protagonist is left to figure it out on his own. It’s a powerful scene, and not a bad model to follow for any memoirist looking for a tone that will carry the reader to the last page.

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Example of Character Arc in a Celebrity Memoir – Sydney Sheldon’s Other Side of Me

by Jerry Waxler

Celebrity memoirs, sometimes limited to name-dropping, can still offer lessons, especially if the author became famous because of his successful writing. After all, as memoir writers, this is close to our own goals. We want to write, and have other people read our writing. So reading a celebrity memoir of a writer might have particular value for aspiring memoir writers.

In fact, one famous writer actually did write a memoir that is a great teaching tool. Stephen King’s “On Writing” maintains his stunning connection with his audience, and gives a great read while telling about his life. Another celebrity memoir that I read recently, is more problematic: writer Sydney Sheldon’s “The Other Side of Me.” The first part of the book is a page turner, (actually I listened to the audio book), because he struggles against insurmountable odds, using his creative talent to escape the poverty of the Great Depression. And then, when he actually becomes a successful screen and stage writer, he settles into a rhythm, telling about his productions, what famous stars he meets, what famous producers and directors he works with. His milestones seem to keep coming in such a predictable, steady manner there is no more conflict, and as a reader, I wonder why I’m bothering. It’s yet another proof of that adage that a story needs to be going somewhere, gaining ground against some kind of odds.

The beginning of the book is a GREAT rags to riches coming of age story, and the last half is a sort of gossip column celebrity name dropping fest. By the end of the book, I was feeling cheated. Then afterword bailed it out. The professional book reader stopped narrating the audio book, and Sheldon himself explained the conclusion in his own voice. One of the most compelling lines in the book was “I kept striving so hard to ‘get there’ but every time I reached a new milestone, I couldn’t find ‘there.'”

I think he added the afterword precisely because he or someone sensed there was no closure.  In the afterword,  Sheldon said he had no more need to keep writing best sellers. And I felt that in a sense, he was finally able to put down the sword and relax. Thank God! After all the pressure, and all the drive, I felt a sense of relief that he had found a ‘there.’ I don’t know if this was the intended Character Arc, but I found this summation gave me the sense of closure I was seeking.