Leroy ‘Hog’ Cooper on Sax

© Susan Cross, 2009

The sun came up this morning and but the first cold front has moved into Central Florida and the cooler air felt good. It was a good day to write, work and edit. The editing is the most important thing at this point.

Transcribing hours of conversations and interviews into documents is a grueling process. If you think the work ends there, my friend, you are sadly mistaken. The project of writing a biography is similar to what happens in a forensics lab. Scientists find a burial site. Just under the surface of the dirt they discover piles of bones; lots of them. Carefully, they begin to recover these relics and return to the lab with each bone in tact.

At the lab comes the interesting part. It’s like solving a puzzle. Take this pile of bones and lay them out in the perfect order to recreate those of a human being or an animal, without knowing which. Of course, this theory assumes you are a scientist and have done this before.

Finding the skull is easy. You work your way down from there. Then you find another skull. Hmmm. How many bodies do these bones belong to?

Working with the transcription for a writer can feel the same as the forensics specialist. Starting at the beginning — wait a minute, which is the beginning? When the person was born? Do you start there? “I was born in South Dallas.” Boring.

“I joined the Ray Charles Band in 1957.” More interesting, but not really the beginning. Maybe it’s better to start in the middle and then move back to childhood when a connection is made.

Put another way, if you were writing the story of your life and hoping that someone would want to read past the first page, would you start out with when and where you were born? Do you think anyone would keep reading past the day your mother brought you home from the hospital?

Biographies don’t always work that way. All of the information, conversation, interview material should be compiled into an order that makes sense, holds the readers interest but follows some timeline. There are lots of stories that don’t fit into any particular category, chapter and have no information regarding the date of the anecdote. These are usually the precious, personal moments in time that give the reader a sense of the subject’s inner self. They give a glimpse into little things that person found interesting or amusing, unrelated to the implied theme that defines the totality of his life. A person he might have met once. A setting or scene that made an impression. A sentence spoken by someone, possibly a stranger or even a friend, that gives insight into a relationship or perceived emotion.

For those who think it’s a simple process of relating a person’s 80 years of life in an interesting manner, please be informed. Transcription may be grueling (or expensive — $100-125 per hour — if you pay someone else to do it) but editing (another very expensive services if done by a professional editor) the resulting documents into a biography is where the serious challenge comes in. Since I chose to do them myself, I’ve learned that lesson and have finally gotten into a frame of mind where the big picture is coming into sight.

The easier way of having a biography or memoir written without assembling the bones yourself is to hire a ghost writer. Unfortunately for the subject, ghost writers are paid large sums of money UP FRONT, before the project starts. This payment is intended  to compensate them for their work, time and lost income while working to bring the subject to life. They are paid extra for their expenses and any time spent doing research to elaborate on the details, make necessary contacts to find professional photographers and get permission to use old pictures to enhance the written word. In many, if not all cases, that money is not an advance to be returned as profits are realized. After all, the ghost writer gets no credit for their work, his or her name is not mentioned and the resulting book is presented as if the subject had written and edited the material himself.

In this case, I am not a ghost writer. During the last two years I have worn many hats, often changing them several times in one day. The process is almost complete and I look forward to taking all of those hats. I will need a large hat to hang them up and display them prominently in a place where I will be reminded daily that I have kept my promise.

Leroy Cooper, you will not be forgotten.

© Susan Cross, 2009

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