Saturday, March 7, 2015


Done. Done done done. Done diggy done diggy done done done.

The first draft is done.

I headed out around 10:00 this morning; in need of a change of my change of scenery, I ended up at the Riverside Branch Library, and about two hours after powering up my computer, I wrote the last words of the last essay of Richard Pryor: American Id.

From what I understand, they discourage loud whooping in public libraries, so I refrained. But hitting that save button for the last time (and then closing and compressing and emailing everything to myself, because I’m no dummy) was one of the most satisfying moments of my life as a writer thus far—not just because I got it done, not just because I challenged myself and proved that it can be done, but because I’m so wildly, blissfully happy with where this book is at. Again, work will need to be done; I’m already finding passages that are poorly worded and quotes that don’t work as well as I thought they would, and so on. But I think the book is on its way to being dynamite, without question the best thing I’ve written. So, yes. Hurray.

After that, I closed up shop, walked a couple of blocks to a favorite pizza joint, ate a couple slices of pepperoni, and then went to the also-very-close Performing Arts branch of the library. There, I took another pass at the last essay (still not bad!), and then did a job so dopey and mindless and arduous that I figured I should do it while I was still in a good mood from finishing: plugging in my full references, as they’ll end up in the notes at the back of the book, into the sometimes slapdash footnotes I threw into the Word doc. It’s nearly as fun as it sounds, and way time-consuming. But it was bothering me that it wasn’t getting done—and I also realized (since I’m using footnotes for the first time in a book doc; my Voyageur books just used a blanket bibliography at the end) that the footnotes are included in the word count, duh, so I actually wasn’t running as long as I thought on some of these. Anyway, with footnotes, the final word count is 25,285 (plus 654 so far on the bibliography, which I went ahead and pasted up in the process, since it’s so many of the same citations). That will need to shave down some, presumably; I’ll be reaching out to my editor to find out how much.

From here, well, I’m gonna go home and have a nice celebratory dinner with the wife and little one. And then tomorrow afternoon, I’ll sit down and just read it straight though, doing only the quickest of fixes, to get a sense of how it reads and make sure I’m not repeating myself. This week, I’ll break off a couple of essays per night for more in-depth editing. By the end of the week, I’ll have a second draft, which I’ll then print out for my A Number 1 Editor, my wife, and also zip up and send out to a cabal of friends for feedback. They’ll read it while I’m in Austin at SXSW; I will not look at the book while I’m there, or hopefully even think about it. That space and time away from it will be vital to looking at it fresh when I get back, working in their notes and giving it however many passes it needs to be as good as possible when I send it to my editor at the end of the month.

So, that’s that. If you read along with me this week, I thank you for your indulgence, and for coming along on this little journey; hopefully you’ll pick up the book in the fall, and not think, “Yep, totally reads like he wrote it in a week.”

Friday, March 6, 2015


So close… and yet… so far.

For the first time this week, I didn’t finish the essay I started today. Well, let’s back up a sec. If you were to look at what I wrote today, you’d certainly think it could be a finished essay—it’s certainly effing long enough to be—and to some extent, it is. The initial plan for today was just to write the essay about Pryor’s decline in the ‘80s, specifically by comparing Blue Collar, a ‘70s movie about poor people, to The Toy, Superman III, and Brewster’s Millions, ‘80s movies about rich people (made when, ya know, Pryor had become a very rich man). Then we did the big reshuffle yesterday, and determined that the last essay was getting the boot… which means that the “oh by the way, end of the book time!” stuff that would end it would now go on the end of this one (where, as I mentioned, it’s a bit more of a natural fit).

So, yeah, I didn’t write that stuff just yet. I made it right up to it, and then my time had run out, and my computer’s battery had run out, and the jerkwad security guard for the one nice reading room at the NYPL who makes everyone unplug their power cords (even though all the other guards let you and you can charge them in several other rooms in the building, we had words today, don’t get me started) was there, so I figured to hell with it, I’m at a stopping point, let’s go home. So I did.

Which means that tomorrow is a little bit of a change-up, a day when I’ll try to pick something up and finish it rather than work all the way through. And I’ll also spend quite a bit of time reworking the stuff I wrote today, which I usually take at least one pass at, at the end of the day, but didn’t, for reasons previously explained.

Anyway, I’m somewhat OCD and being this close to finished without being finished is KIND OF MAKING ME INSANE, but we’ll deal with it. We will! And tomorrow, y’know, hopefully, first draft.

Thursday, March 5, 2015


Let it be known, here and all across the land, that today, Thursday, March 25, in the Year of Our Lord 2015, was the day that Richard Pryor: American Id became a seven-essay book, rather than a eight-er. (Is that a thing? Eight-er?)

We've been through this enough this week that I probably don't have to walk through it again, but here goes: after a fine morning of editing and outlining, I arrived at the good ol' NYPL in the midst of a real humdinger of a snow storm, sat down in the ornate reading room, and started writing today's essay. The topic was drugs, and specifically what Pryor's playing of five "junkie" characters (two on stage, two on film, one on television) tell us about his own struggles with addiction. A rich topic, as you can imagine, so it probably shouldn't come as a surprise--considering both the enormity of the subject and the writing habits that we've been reminded of this week--that when I came up for air a few hours later, the essay was 4036 words.

It was time to do some math. With two essays remaining in a book with a target length of 2000 words, I had written... 1900. Look, things go when you're editing, but that much wasn't gonna go, so I pulled the fire alarm. Earlier this week, I mentioned that I did have the option of dropping one of the essays--the last one in the book, which (for purposes of chronology, but perhaps accidentally savvily) I scheduled myself to write last. I think it has potential, but it's certainly the one (at this point, anwyay) with the least to say, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the book-wrap-up stuff made more sense within the penultimate essay (which I'm writing tomorrow). So I texted my wife, I texted my buddy Mike (who's kinda been my sounding board on this project), and I emailed my editor. All agreed that this is probably a good idea.

I can't tell you what a lift it was to make that call. The book is still gonna go over, to be sure--this last piece ain't gonna be 1000 words, I can tell you that much for certain--but not drastically. And with that settled, I was able to focus on the thing that's more interesting about today's essay than its length: its quality. I have to tell you, there's about a page of this thing, where I write about "Wino & Junkie" from That Nigger's Crazy, which is one of the best things I've ever written. There's a chunk of Monday's piece, about the "Bicentennial Nigger" monologue, which is also, I think, pretty fucking great. And a lot of the rest of it is, even at this first draft stage, pretty-pretty-pretty good. (Just so it doesn't sound like I'm waxing my own car here, there's also a lot of it that needs some serious goddamn work.)

So, that's where we're at. After I finished the draft of today's essay and took another pass at it, I returned to yesterday's again (still pretty happy with it), worked on the notes and bibliography a bit, and called it a day.

Tomorrow could be my last full day of writing, though I've got a feeling the combination of tomorrow's essay and the book wrap stuff that'll need to go on the end of it might carry it over into the weekend. We'll see. Point is, the book has been reconfigured, and for the better. Can't complain about that.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


The days tick by. Routines get set. Problems get solved… or they don’t.

As per usual, the writing day started with editing: a return to yesterday’s 4043-word monstrosity, which is still pretty good, and too long with no easy solutions. I did find a way to rework the opening paragraph into more of a grabber, which is good—but  if anything, I came away from this morning’s edit session with the realization that it’s a paragraph short,  that there’s a vital connection that I need to make to the overall theme of the book to keep it from being just a standalone “How about this, isn’t this interesting” sort of thing. So that’s a little time bomb that’ll just sit there ticking for the rest of the week, I suppose; I really should use this end-of-day time to figure that graf about, but I’m too afraid of that essay at this point, to be honest.

The better news is that today’s essay, about the character of Mudbone and the traditional of African-American oral storytelling, is not only fairly solid, but a totally manageable 2725 words. So, hurray for that, at least.

Looking back over this stuff, I realize that the word count obsession may seem a little OCD, or at the very least, disproportionate. But I just see it as a kind of mathematical indication of the material getting away from me, which was always my concern when it came to tackling such an immense subject in a short form.

Anyway. That’s the latest. With the two reworked essays and three new ones down, and three ones to go, I’m officially past the halfway point. The next two essays are ones I feel pretty good about, and think I should be able to keep under control. The last one, which I’m planning on writing Saturday, is a bit of a stickier wicket, particularly since I’ll need to figure out how it’ll answer the book’s Big Questions, which I sort of provocatively pose in the preface but haven’t entirely worked through yet. Guess we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Hi, I just wrote another 4000-word essay that needed to be around 2500, how’re you?

This struggle is not new; as I took a cooling off trip to the men’s room midway through the afternoon (and rest assured, whatever condition you might imagine the giant midtown library’s men’s room to be in, you’re probably underestimating it), I realized that I go through this every time I write one of these things. They always come out long. It is, as I’ve mentioned, the byproduct of over-research; this is just the result of the predicted disparity between the amount of time spent on research and amount of notes accumulated in said time (roughly the same as a 50-60K word volume) and the length of this one (20K). It is what it is. I’m worried, but not panicked.

The good news is I re-read the revision of yesterday’s piece and it wasn’t just a matter of fixing it to make it not as bad; I think it’s legit good, so that’s a comfort. That was the first thing I did when I got to work this morning, trying out the routine for the week. I start by putting fresh eyes on yesterday’s essay, giving it a couple of more reads, tweaking, revising, compressing, expanding. Once that’s done I sit down with the notes for that day’s essay, and work up the outline. By the time I’m done with that, it’s 11; I head out, eating my lunch on the train and reading on the way, arrive at the library around noon, and get to work.

Today’s essay is about vulnerability, on two tracks: how Richard handled bombing (and there’s more evidence of it than you might think, so that’s all pretty fascinating stuff), and how he brought his own vulnerability, specifically w/r/t sex, to his act. I started at noon, took a brief break in the middle to move to another research room because the jerk security guard said we couldn’t plug our computers into the outlets of the room that everyone was plugged into yesterday, and came to an end at 3:45 with a total of, sigh, 4134 words. I stayed away as long as I could (about 15 minutes) before returning to it for revision, hoping some giant key would appear that would unlock a way to yank out 1600 words, like yesterday.

The bad news is, there is no easy fix like that. When I finished my next pass, pulling out a few side thoughts and redundant phrases, I’d only managed to get it down to 4043. So what do I do from here?

For now, nothing. Out of sheer curiosity, I found a big section that I could pull out, which’d chop about 800 words without much strain, but simply put, I like that stuff too much, and I think it’s interesting. (And unlike the easy pulls from yesterday, it’s commentary/analysis, so it’s not “already out there”). That’s an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass section; I’ll remember that I can do that, and hope I don’t have to. Instead, I’ll leave it as is, and see how the rest of the week plays out. My editor has made it clear that the 20K word count is just a suggestion, though I’m not sure how loose he means (especially if the rest of the week goes as these two days have on the over-writing front). If I need to get drastic, I could drop one of the essays; the last one I’m writing is the one I’m least certain of, and the wrap-up elements of it could graft pretty easily into the second-to-last chapter, so that’s an option.

We’ll see. That’s where I’m at, at the end of day four. We’ll see.

Monday, March 2, 2015


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.