Monday, March 2, 2015

RICHARD PRYOR: AMERICAN ID (Day 3)


True to prediction, today was tough. But if you’re lucky, the tough days are when you learn the most, and after a stretch of full-on what-the-fuck-am-I-doing-this-is-a-disaster panic in the early evening, I’m now feeling much better about the work I did today and where I’m at—thanks to a bit of late-night emergency surgery.

Let’s back up. First of all, there was an important fourth thing that I left off the rundown of how I can write this book this quickly, and it’s this: months of research. From the first book, I’ve balanced a breathless-sprint first-draft writing period with months and months of immersion in the subject matter, and reams and reams of notes. So, since I made the deal with the Critical Press in early fall, I’ve spent every second of free time I’ve had watching (or, in most cases, re-watching) every movie Richard made, listening to (or, in most cases, re-listening to) everything he ever recorded, and reading (or, in a couple of cases, re-reading) every book remotely related to him, and a few only vaguely related.

New to the process on this book: going all digital on the notes. On the first two, I had an intricate system of color-coded note cars—a holdover from my college days, truth be told, but when my retirement-age uncle (a notorious Luddite) got a look at this system and made fun of me for still working analog, I realized it might be time for an overhaul. There was also, as more and more of the books I was using for research became available as ebooks, a considerable amount of wasted labor involved; I realized that there were some notes I was highlighting in a Kindle book, then handwriting on a note card, and then retyping into my manuscript. Schmuck.

So this time, I took the whole process to Evernote, which has worked out well so far; I’ve got a “notebook” for each essay/chapter, and each note from each book or magazine article or movie or album is titled with a subtopic and tossed into the appropriate notebook. The only trouble with such an easy, streamlined note-taking process is that it makes it very easy to just take a shitload of notes and sort them out later. And that’s pretty much what I seem to have done, which I realized today.


These are my notebooks. Notice anything? Ah, yes, the “race” notebook, the one with like fifty more notes than the second-fullest one, yes, that’d be the problem, since that’s what I was trying to write today. Oh, it started well; Evernote has a neat feature where you can highlight all the notes in a notebook to create a hot-linked “table of contents,” which I then reorganized into an outline for the chapter. And oh, I made a few deletions at that point—I wasn’t going to need all of this, after all. But even then, as I looked over that outline, I started to realize that this was way, way, way too fuckin’ much to fit into anything remotely close to the 2500-word goal.

Yet I pressed on. When that work was done, the baby was taking her nap, and my brother-in-law/our babysitter arrived, I headed downtown. Over the weekend, it’d become clear that the kind of focus required to do this thing right wasn’t gonna happen at home, in spite of my beautiful bride’s best efforts; our daughter, though delightful, is in a bit of a scream-y phase. Nothing to be concerned about—it’s just how she expresses herself. Anyway, I’ve written a couple of important pieces at the midtown research library in the past, and it’s quiet and gorgeous and an atmosphere that I’ve found to be really conducive to writing well. So off I went. Here’s me there:


On the subway downtown, I did some-get-in-the-mood reading, but my mind kept wandering to what the hell I was going to do about the runaway train that was waiting for me there. As I trudged up the steps at 42nd Street, I got an idea for a radical reworking of the essay—and then I dismissed it. No, no, I’d have to leave way too much important information out. Better to just write it long and prune if I’d have to.

Suffice it to say, I would have to.

The four hours I spent at the library went by in a blur. Before I knew it, I was passing the 2500-word mark, and I’d barely hit the halfway point in the essay. I started throwing out entire topics. I tried summarizing important points. I was finally in the home stretch, the closing section that I was really excited about, when they shut off the WiFi and started dimming the lights. I couldn’t even finish the piece. Talk about rhetorical blue balls.

I took the train home, fed my daughter dinner, put her in her jammies, put her to bed, and ate my dinner, all the while feeling like a failure. I finally sat back down at my desk, picked it back up, and finished the essay. When I did, this is what I was looking at:

But before I’d even finished it, I knew. I knew I was gonna have to do the radical explosion-and-reassembly job I’d thought up on the way there, and should’ve had the good sense to just start with; I knew that there was no good reason for the piece to be what it was. And that was because I’d made the stupidest, amateur error: I got hung up on using all the research.

“I’ve got all this great stuff!” I kept thinking. “I can’t leave this out! It’s important!” And it is important stuff. But here’s the refrain that occurred to me tonight: “It’s already out there.”

On the way home, I re-read the first two pieces, along with the “Warning” I penned Saturday, and realized what a fuckin’ idiot I was being. The warning goes on and on about how this isn’t a biography, and then I went and spent my afternoon writing a chapter of a biography. I didn’t need to impress everyone with my firm grasp of the facts of Richard’s life; they could read Becoming Richard Pryor or Furious Cool for those. I’m writing a book of commentary, so the most important stuff is analysis, not fact—but in that first draft, I was letting the facts lead the commentary, rather than the other way around. I did it the right way in the first two essays. Why was I fucking up now?

So as soon as I finished that endless first pass, I saved it, I started a new document, and I took a deep breath. And then I scrolled down to the halfway point, to a completely different opening, selected through to the end, and copied and pasted that back half into the new document. And then I went back into the original, pulled out a few earlier paragraphs here and there, and sifted them in, until I’d pieced together a new version that made a lot more sense.

And so did this:



So there we are. I’m putting it to bed for now; tomorrow morning, I’ll open it back up and put a fresh eye on it, and hopefully it’s actually a good essay, and not just a shorter version of a bad essay. But I feel good about it, and about what I learned about the book today. And then I’ll outline the next chapter, and head out to the library, and we’ll start this whole house of horrors over again.

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