Perhaps while researching a deceased rock and roll pioneer, you run across the remarkable story of the pioneer’s nephew, haunted by his famous uncle even as he himself becomes a pro musician and faces incredible personal challenges.
Or maybe a mutual acquaintance tells you the tale of an American kid studying photography at a London art school who befriends a fellow student named Pete Townshend, turns Pete on to pot and American blues, and thereby effectively launches one of the one of the most influential rock groups in the world, the Who. The two remain friends, even as the American kid gets deported for pot possession, roams the world, travels in rock’s inner circles, and documents the whole thing with a half million photos he keeps in footlockers in his broken-down van.
Or perhaps you’re listening to a CD of obscure ‘60s garage rock bands and notice that, unbelievably, one of the tracks was recorded in Vietnam at the height of the war by a group of young Army MPs. All great stories waiting to be told. But, chances are, the subjects of the stories don’t realize the potency of their tales. Or, if they do, they lack the skills, time, or motivation to sit down and write the stories themselves.
What do you do? You write the memoirs with them. You co-write.
All of the examples above are true. The rock pioneer was Eddie “Summertime Blues” Cochran, killed in a 1961 car crash at the age of 21. His nephew Bobby Cochran and I explored Eddie’s influence on Bobby’s life in Three Steps To Heaven: The Eddie Cochran Story (Hal Leonard, 2003). The rock photographer is Tom Wright, who’s taken the most amazing photos you’ve never seen, now finally compiled in Roadwork: Rock And Roll From The Inside Out (Hal Leonard, 2007), which he and I co-authored. And the ‘60s garage rocker is Dean Kohler; together Dean and I wrote of his experience as an aspiring rock star drafted and sent to Vietnam in Flak Jacket Rock (HarperCollins), slated for publication in late 2008.
There’s nothing more satisfying than helping someone share his or her intriguing, amazing or inspirational story. If co-writing a memoir is something you’d like to try, here are some tips to help you along the way.
1. Choose your subject
Always be on the lookout for a terrific story. Think of friends and relatives – do you know of someone who’s beaten the odds, overcome obstacles, faced unusual challenges? Scan newspapers and magazines for story ideas.
2. Secure your subject
Once you’ve determined whose story you’d like to co-write, track that person down. Do as much preliminary research as you can to get familiar with your subject, then call, e-mail, write or visit that person. Tell them how fascinating you find their experience, that you think it would make an outstanding book, and that you’d like to co-write it with them. To prove you’re capable, put together some clips of your published work, or, if you’re not yet published, offer to write a sample chapter.
So your subject has agreed to the co-writing project. Now what? Interviews. And more interviews. You can do them in person, over the phone, via e-mail. I like to tape mine, and often transcribe them into text. Do your best to get your subject to open up. Be gentle, but always hunt for details, the key to vivid, engaging writing. Ask your subject to try to recall in a sensory way – what did things look, sound, taste, smell, feel like? And be prepared for tangents. Often one memory will trigger many more.
4. Know when to take the lead
It’s time to begin writing. How will you share the responsibility? First, determine how comfortable your subject is doing his or her own writing. Many people will freely admit that they are not writers and have no interest in writing. There’s your cue to take the words and run with them. Others may think they’re not writers, but, as they warm up to you, as they see what you’ve written, they pitch in as well. Be true to your subject’s voice, and share what you’ve written as you go, asking for corrections, additions, revisions. This is, after all, your subject’s story.
5. Know when to stay out of the way
On the other hand, some folks are perfectly comfortable writing, and write beautifully. As we embarked on the Roadwork project, Tom Wright mailed me a large cardboard box. Inside was 30 years worth of writing, snippets and vignettes from various moments in his life he’d pecked out on a typewriter or scribbled on scraps of paper. His writing was just like his photos – gritty, realistic, often hilarious, at times heartbreaking. I’d be crazy to fiddle with it. So my job became organization, editing for clarity, poking and prodding and wringing a bunch more gorgeous prose out of him. Sometimes the best thing a co-writer can do is simply keep out of the way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan VanHecke, author of books for adults and young people. Learn more at http://www.susanvanhecke.com