Hey, guys, it's Mike Rowe, and this is episode number one, 91 of the way I heard it. This was called Ghostwriters in the Sky, Ghost Writers in the Sky.
Not to be confused with Ghost Riders in the Sky, the tune made famous by Johnny Cash.
Once upon a time, you know the one right and old cowpoke went riding out one dark and windy day.
The original version of this was actually done by a guy named Stan Jones, a partridge.
He rested as he went along his way.
Stan recorded it back in 1948 or early 49. I think when all that once a mighty herd of red eyed cows he saw after that, Burl Ives did it. And then I think Bing Crosby did it. Lawrence Welk record it finally got its way to Johnny Cash.
And that's when I heard it plowing through the ragged sky and up a cloudy drawl.
Great tune has absolutely nothing to do with this podcast.
However, we won't be talking about ghost writers today, but rather talking with a ghost writer, a very accomplished ghost writer who you've probably never heard of, because that's how ghost writers roll their anonymity is their stock in trade.
But this one happens to be a friend of mine. His name is Alex Abramovich. And aside from working on books for people like James Patterson and Courtney Love and Nikki Sixx and dozens of other famous people, I don't think I'm allowed to mention he was also kind enough to collaborate with me a couple of years ago as I attempted to organize the book you've been listening to into a series of semi cogent chapters. Now, to be clear, I did write every word of this book myself, including Chapter 13, which you're about to hear right now, a chapter that was deliberately overwritten for reasons I hope you'll find self-evident when you listen to it.
Anyway, I invited Alex onto the podcast for a couple of reasons. First of all, I miss the guy. He's been sequestered in Brooklyn for the last year. And like a lot of New Yorkers, he is no doubt climbing the walls. But he's also a really great resource for anybody who has ever wondered what it's like to write a book. If you think maybe it's something you'd like to try, you should listen to our conversation. He provides some really terrific advice for anybody who has ever imagined what it might be like to sit down and try and put your thoughts onto a piece of paper.
Invaluable advice from a ghost writer in the sky.
And it all starts right now. And by right now, I mean right after I suggest to you that posting a job on Zipp recruiter Dotcom Lázaro is a bit like hiring a really good ghostwriter. Why? Well, because when you post a job for free, it's hypocritic dotcoms, Lázaro, they do the work for you. Your posting is immediately sent to over 100 different job sites. And ZIP recruiter then sends you only those responses that are a good fit.
They do all the work for you. Then after you decide which of those candidates you might want to interview, Zipp recruiter will invite them to apply for your position with a personal email from you, an email that you don't even have to write, an email that distinguishes you from the competition. And believe me, there is a lot of competition out there right now for talent. The result, four out of five employers who post a job for free.
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This is the way I heard Chapter 13. Call it what you will. Peter stood dumbstruck in the doorway of his bathroom, searching for just the right word, Gastly came to mind, followed in no particular order by gruesome, grisly and graphic. There on the bathroom floor, sitting in a puddle of his own blood was Peter's uncle, Sir Samuel Romilly. Moments earlier, the two men had been in the study going over the treasure house Peter had been working on.
Then Sir Samuel had risen from the couch, walked into the bathroom, picked up a straight razor and dragged the blade across his throat. Dear God, cried Peter as he ran to Sir, Samuel sighed. What have you done? The answer was self-evident. Samuel Romilly had severed his carotid artery along with his windpipe, heartbroken by the death of his beloved wife, which had occurred three days earlier, the poor man had entered a state of bottomless grief.
Or was it something more than grief, despair, perhaps? Devastation, despondency? Call it what you will, the mental anguish had been more than Sir Samuel had been able to bear, and Peter could only watch as his uncle tried to scribble his final thoughts onto a piece of bloody stationery.
My dear, he wrote, I wish. He couldn't find the right words, he sat there instead staring at the blank page, bleeding all over the bathroom floor. Moments later, he died in his nephew's arms. Peter was no longer dumbstruck, he'd moved on to traumatized, nonplussed, astonished, gobsmacked. He did what he always did when the chaos of an unpredictable world threatened to overwhelm him. He walked back to his study, opened his treasure house and started writing.
Two years later, sitting alone in the gloom of his parlor, Peter was once again searching for just the right word. Was he depressed? Probably with a schizophrenic grandmother, a paranoid mother, a bipolar sister, an overly anxious daughter, and, of course, a suicidal uncle. Peter knew that Melancholia ran in the family, but to what degree was he afflicted? Was he disheartened or merely down in the dumps? Was he disenchanted, dismayed or demoralized?
Would he succumb to the same darkness that had claimed his uncle? Call it what you will, but as Peter pondered the precise nature of his malaise, his ennui, his languor, and lugubriously, he couldn't help but notice that the wheels on the carriages passing by his window appeared to be breaking the laws of physics.
At least that's how they looked through the slats of his partially opened shutters.
Interesting. After much observation and careful thought, he concluded that his eyes were retaining an image of the spokes for a fraction of a second after the slats and the shutters had interrupted the rotation of the wheel, thereby creating the illusion that the spokes were moving backward.
Hmm. That wasn't just interesting. That was intriguing, titillating, maybe even beguiling.
Call it what you will. Peter was definitely onto something. So once again, he reached for his treasure house, which was considerably thicker than it had been two years earlier.
He began to write a detailed analysis of what he had just observed. He called it explanation of an optical deception in the appearance of the spokes of a wheel seen through vertical apertures.
Not exactly the title of a best seller, but then Peter wasn't writing one, he was just trying to make sense of the chaos in an unpredictable world. The result, hundreds of scholarly papers on countless natural phenomena, in this case, a detailed explanation of the defect in the human retina that came to be known as persistence, a vision, a principle that explains the illusion of motion, a principle that led Peter to fabricate a prototype, a prototype with a shutter similar to the shutter that hung in Peter's parlor and an aperture similar to the window from which his shutter hung.
Now, I suppose I could just say that's the way I heard it.
And direct your attention to Tinseltown, where the name of the man most responsible for creating the motion picture camera is honored today with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I could, but I won't, because ironically or perhaps paradoxically or better yet unjustly, Peter's name isn't there. Nor is it in the halls of NASA, even though Peter invented the slide rule, a mathematical breakthrough that enabled us to get a man on the moon, nor is it on the aquifer's of London, even though Peter did find a way to purify England's drinking water.
Nor is it on the facades of hospitals, even though Peter was primarily responsible for the development of general anesthesia. Peter's name isn't on the cover of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, though hundreds of scholarly papers he wrote on countless natural phenomena can be found there in no fewer than 300000 words written by Peter, words that help explain the chaos of an unpredictable world. The point is, we don't remember this prodigy, this polymath, this pans out for his incredible list of accomplishments.
We remember him for his incredible list of words, specifically the list of words he compulsively compiled to combat the depression that perpetually plagued him, words whose early assemblage began as a unique form of therapy, but whose ultimate congregation went on to become an eponymous compilation of rhetorical replacements that went on to sell no less than 40 million copies over the next two centuries.
I refer, of course, to the indispensable directory of dialectical determination that was destined to dramatically increase the word count of every term paper that's ever been written, authored or penned, while helping millions of aspiring writers prove conclusively that alliteration almost always annoys.
I'm talking about an unparalleled linguistic lineup of syntactical substitutes, a crucial compendium of etymological options, a singular source of all things synonomous, conceived in serendipity and dedicated to the proposition that no crossword puzzle should ever go unfinished. Call it what you will, that tome on your bookshelf wouldn't be there today, but for the grief stricken uncle who died searching for the right words and the melancholy nephew who never stopped collecting them. A remarkable collection that Peter Rodge called his treasure house.
Or if you prefer Latin, his thesaurus. A while ago now on a flight to Baltimore, the same flight I'm on now, in fact, I stumbled across an Atlantic article about Roger. It was not what you would call complimentary. The article was written by Simon Winchester, who's worked on various documentaries for the History and Discovery Channel's I've Had the pleasure of narrating a few. Winchester wrote a terrific book, too, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Professor and the madman.
I'd recommend it. In fact, I just did. But I was surprised to find that putting it mildly or gently or reticent. Lee Winchester was not a fan of Roger's thesaurus. In Winchester's view, Roger did more to discourage good writing than encourage it, according to The Atlantic. Good writing has little to do with finding the right word and everything to do with the brave employment of the words that one already knows. Our literary powers are born, Winchester wrote, not out of banal and mediocre suggestion, not out of lexical shopping lists, but out of passion, thought and intensity of feeling.
His Winchester right beats me with or without Roach's help, I would know how to write novels. I wouldn't know where to begin, but I do write these stories and from time to time, I must confess, my search for Lemel just compels me to consult the innumerable and countless multitudinous and myriad infinite, incalculable and unnumbered possibilities that Roget's affords. In fact, I did when I wrote Roach's story, which begs the question, was the tail really diminished, lessened, minimized or small?
And in some way when I started to lean on that linguistic crutch, what about my captain up there in the cockpit?
Is he cheating me out of an honest flight by relying on the autopilot? By the same token that I cheat on my taxes this year by relying on the sucker in support of a little machine? I call the calculator, whatever the answers are. Good on you, Simon, for protecting the integrity, the probity and the sanctity of the writer's craft and profession. But let's hear it, too. For those who have pulled themselves up by their own intellectual bootstraps while conceding that sometimes it's OK just to ask for some help.
As I live and breathe, it is Alex Abramovitch, a writer, a ghost writer, a philosopher, a man covered with a lot of hair, blessed with an enormous brain, a wicked sense of humor and and a very difficult interview simply because, Alex, tell me if I'm wrong. But as a ghostwriter, you're really not allowed to talk about 90 percent of the stuff I'd like to ask about, Drew.
Yeah, but that leaves a juicy 10 percent. So we might not plumb the depths that Oprah Winfrey plumbed last night with her subjects.
But you'll get something out of me, I bet, when it came down to Oprah. Were you honestly, we flipped a coin. I mean, it was that close. But in the end, we just thought for the kind of interview that we want to bring to the listeners of this podcast, there's there's really only one way to go. And that's a Alex Abramovich. It is great to see you again. Are you OK? Everything good?
Yeah, everything's good. I make the same decision with you. I down to you and Oprah and I along with you.
We're muddling through. I'm not even sure how to talk to you about what I went through a couple of years ago, putting this book together. It was nothing like I imagined. I appreciate your help on it. I would have mentioned you more in it had I had my druthers and I would have started with the crazy, convoluted map that you put together that showed the connections between the stories I had written and the possibilities that could become this book. So was that part of the plan or were you just completely making stuff up as you went and beyond?
Just how how difficult am I to collaborate with you?
Well, that's a difficult question to answer, because the truth is that it was maybe the best professional experience I've had in your pure pleasure. But there's there's not much of an audience for that sort of thing. You are it's it's rare for, you know, usually when people work with with a ghostwriter, a book doctor, it's because they're full of ideas or they've got a long list of accomplishments, but they're not necessarily writers. And this was one of those weird situations in which, you know, I was teamed with a writer.
I don't know if you knew it at that time. I think you had your suspicions that maybe you were a writer and just didn't want to admit it to yourself. So in my experience, what ended up with us is it ended up looking much more like a writer's room than, you know, than some of the collaborations I'm used to. And that was tremendous, tremendous fun.
It was fun. You know, it was fun because I I don't fancy myself a writer. I love to write. And as I told you, I think on the day we met, my my biggest fear in trying to write a book was to screw up my hobby. And I didn't want that to happen. But I also didn't want to mail it in. And as we've discussed ad nauseum, shortcuts lead to long delays, you know, if you're going to hire a ghostwriter.
Logically, what you ought to do is let that person write your book, write talk with that person, collaborate, and then just go away and let that person do what they do. But I. I couldn't do that, but I still needed help.
Now, you sure you would not stay out of my way for a minute?
Well, but you know what I mean. We I'm glad now that some time has gone by, you look back at it and conclude that by and large it was not only fun, but rewarding in that way. It was very much like a microcosmic version of dirty jobs. Dirty jobs was hard work. And for a long time I didn't realize how much fun I was having. But enough time goes by. You look back and you realize, oh, it's not what I thought it was.
It's different and better and surprising.
And most every decent thing I've ever worked on has a component of that to it. I want to ask you what is more rewarding to sit down and write your own book as you have done, bullies, a friendship, terrific. Read or sit down with somebody like a I'll bleep this out if I'm not allowed to say it, but like a Courtney Love or a Nikki Sixx, where some of these other people you've worked with, is it more gratifying to help them get their vision on the page or your own?
It's a good question.
I mean, it's it's more gratifying in some ways to work with others. It's certainly more fun and less lonely. But also, you know, it takes it takes a lot of the pain away and it takes you're not sitting there like like you do with your own work, poring over all of the mistakes you made and all the things you'd have done differently.
I always think of, John, a lot of second guessing dude, the second guessing. Right? I mean, it either makes you better or it destroys you. What is it most likely to do in your opinion, given those two?
Well, I mean, in my limited experience of one, what it forces you to do at a certain point is learn how to let go. Otherwise, you you know, you lose your mind and you let the thing be what it is, which, depending on how you look at it, is either a broken, broken, pale version of what you hoped it would be or something that surprises you and hopefully, you know, delights you. And one thing that I'm pretty sure I know about writing is that if you have the capacity to surprise yourself while you're doing it, you might be able to surprise and delight the reader.
So to a point, you want to not know where you're going and you want to leave room for as much room as possible for for happy accidents.
And as long as you know that, Alex, forgive me, but that's but but I'm sorry if you're going to hit me with that level of wisdom and insight to wise.
Well, it's very wise, but no, no, look, I've been saying a version of that all of my life. The my favorite comedians are not the ones who try to make me laugh. They're the ones who amuse themselves, first and foremost, my my favorite writers.
Give me the sense maybe it's just imagined, but it's the sense that they're writing to please themselves.
Likewise, singers, any artist. Right. If if job one is to satisfy them, it makes it easier as somebody in the audience, I think, to go along for the ride maybe.
Yeah. I mean, I would hope so. But also to get to that point where you're you know, you're riffing at light speed and and and delighting yourself are doing what Eddie Van Halen could do with a guitar. I mean, what what audiences and seeing is that is that I mean, forget 10000 hours. It's it's hundreds of thousands of hours of intense concentration that it takes to be able to leave all that at the side of the stage and go out there and and perform.
One of the things that I like about writing is that it's it's super performative. That's all that it is, is a performance and an experience you try to give the reader. But the other side of that is you have a certain degree of control that you might not have if you were actually physically standing on stage.
Not a certain degree of control, total control, total control.
But as you were saying, only you're white because you're a total control up to the limits of your own capabilities, which are not infinite. Right. Of course, but in a relative world, if you're a writer, you know, you get all the credit and you get all the blame, it's you, you know, even if you bring in help. But it doesn't matter that that thing between the two covers, once you once you let it go, as you said earlier, it's not unlike the baseball that the pitcher releases.
It's gone. It's out there and it's going to stay out there for time in memoriam. And whether you got it right or whether you didn't, whether you said what you meant or whether you fell short, it's all there forever. And that awareness, I think for me anyway, and I bet a lot of other people, you know, knowing that can can paralyze you or it can get you off your ass and get you busy. It just depends on what kind of cards you were dealt and how you play them.
Well, I would agree with that.
And I would also say to answer your original question, that when you look back on it, writing for yourself or working with other people, one of the differences there for me has been when I look at my book, the piece that I've made with that is that's the best book that I was able to write, given what I had to work with and my abilities at the time. And I was being modest. I just that's what it is for, for better and worse.
And I'm happy with it. I like that book. I hope other people like it. But it's a lot easier for me to look at, you know, your book, which which I had my hands in that, too, and say, that's a good book. That's a great book. I'm really happy to give that to somebody for, you know, Christmas or Father's Day. It's easier for me to to accept that and live with it, partly because it's, you know, your face on the cover and not mine.
But it's easier to take pride in in a way, if that makes sense, it makes complete sense.
You know, one thing we can talk about, if you want that's a little bit to the side of your question is I only know one other person who does what I do. Damp and brain who you've spoken with yourself, who helped Prince? Well, I was going to write Princess memoir, Hell Prince write his memoir. And then three months into that process, Prince died and then ended up producing a very good book that wasn't a memoir, but, you know, was the closest will ever come to having Princess memoir.
So Dan and I get together sometimes and talk about this very weird work that we do. And none of us came up through the ranks of ghost writers. And I'm not sure that there are such ranks. But I know that one thing people negotiate for when they you know, when they when they get their agents and lawyers in the room is for writing credit on the cover. And that's something that I always try to avoid. So in theory, I would give up 10 percent of my fee so that you would stick my my name on the cover.
But I my sense is, if you're a ghostwriter, you should be a ghost who's writing. You shouldn't have your name anywhere on the cover or anywhere on the book. So with I'm writing I'm working with Nikki Sixx on a memoir now called The Nikki Sixx, of course, the famous drummer bassist for a monthly basis.
Yeah. And who you are about is not as famous as I thought.
Tommy, you know, Tommy Lee is Tommy Lee, equally equally famous.
But Nikki, whose birth name was Frank Virata, we're telling the first the story of the first 21 years of Mickey's life, which which carries him up to tell him changing his name to Nikki Sixx and and right before performing Motley Crue and 40 years ago. Now, part of that is the believe. And you know, that book, if all goes right, will be called The First 21 by Nikki Sixx and Frank Cerrado. And that makes me happy because it's funny, even if only a few people get the joke before they've gotten to the end of the book.
You know, Courtney Love sector credit for a segment, but back to credit, because that's too important to gloss over, too. And and it goes right to the heart of this.
You know, I always say in my industry that the only time people move faster in Hollywood than when they're trying to get away from the blame is when they're trying to go toward the credit. You know, I argued for years and really I don't I don't see myself as a particularly self-absorbed person. I am to a degree. But it was important to me to to see a created by credit on dirty jobs because it was my idea. You know, we're so I told myself in the end, I stole it from George Plimpton and Studs Terkel and, you know, a bunch of other guys.
There are no new ideas. But but in this community of ghost writers and I know there are many in this world where nobody's really allowed were encouraged to take credit, who's the best who's the best ghostwriter you know of? And can you even say who he or she is? Well, I mean, you are allowed there are plenty of books I can pull off my shelf that will say, you know, Aretha Franklin with David Ritz, there's a guy named David Ritz who lives in Texas who writes every other book by a musician, and he's a good writer.
I think the Gold Standard is Andre Agassi's memoir, The First Time that I ghostwrote anything ghostwriting some weird word for this. It wasn't quite ghostwriting, but the first time that I worked on a book that someone else had their name on it, I did a couple of bucks for a James Patterson, who had never done a true crime before. He had done his thrillers and that's brothers are great. But there were a couple of true crime books that I worked with with Patterson, and I didn't know how to do it.
And what I didn't know at the time was that there's really no way to do it. You just do it like so many things. So I went and I read Andre Agassi's memoir, which I will say is phenomenal, that he co-wrote with a sportswriter whose name actually is not on the cover for related reasons to mine. And I think I might have gotten the idea from there where I write in the acknowledgements, Andre Agassi said, I didn't write this book.
This other guy wrote the book and he didn't want his name on it. And I thought that was classy.
It's so close. And look, interesting sidebar. I got off the phone two weeks ago with Andre Agassi, who called regarding our foundation and wanted to get involved. And it was really interesting talking to him and hearing you now say that a guy as competitive as him. And as you certainly know in that world, you and I might think we're competitive. We have an understanding of what competition means. But at that level, I don't think it's anything the average person can relate to.
It's so important for an athlete at that level to give credit where it's due and to recognize it when he sees it. And so it must have been very strange for a guy like Andre to be told by somebody who's much more talented than he in that sense at that thing. Right.
Leave my name off Elmos, one of my favorite names of a production company, Elmina, leave my name off.
But I just think it's so interesting what you do. And also, Alex, the reason I wanted to talk to you and part of the reason I hired you was because I got the sense very, very early on you you are a tortured artist. And I say that with respect, but you're also a tradesman.
You say to me, you approach the craft of writing in a very similar way that my granddad approached building a house and that a lot of other trades people I know look at a job. You know, you're a workman.
And and I don't say that with any insult either. It's a it's a great combination of tortured artistry and and brute diligence. Your diligent man and you're a diligent writer. And I just think that a lot of people don't think of writing in terms of a craft or a trade. They see it as a talent. And if you have any thoughts on that, this would be a perfect moment to share.
The talent doesn't hurt. I mean, maybe until it does, it only takes you so far and then, you know, you need other stuff, I'm not sure how talented or creative I am. I think I have a natural advantage in that my father is an engineer and my mother was a musician. And to a certain extent, I have those things mixed up in me so I can play scales and make things sound pretty. And I'm also very interested in making sure that whatever I make is structurally sound and a weight bearing structure.
So I'm always, you know, stress testing my sentences and paragraphs in my chapters. And ah, there is every word carrying its own weight in these in this sentence. But I mean, I'm flattered by the craftsman comparison. I think if it's what I do is build good tables and good chairs, there's there's nothing more that I want. And and if anything, my ideal for those tables and chairs is going to be shaker furniture where it doesn't have and doesn't need too much ornamentation.
You know, it just. That's right. It is the thing that it does. You said you said something earlier.
You said a couple of quasi memorable things. And I actually jotted this one down because I thought I thought it was terrific. And it goes to the tradesmen beat. You said, like, when you're writing these stories, I can't tell you how to do it, but you'll know it when you do it, because when you write the last sentence, you'll hear something in your mind. Go. But you didn't flick your fingers. You said sneek s and I see.
Okay, it'll, it'll like the the sound the box makes that's perfectly made when you close it. It doesn't go clap. It doesn't go thud. It doesn't go funk. It goes Snik. And when the last sentence of a story does that it means you somehow landed the plane. And that made perfect sense to my brain. And I've been listening for that sound ever since.
Yeah. I mean, I heard it much, to be perfectly honest. I must have stolen that from Yates, who said he spoke about that at the click of a sentence snapping shot like a well-made box. Right. And that's that's right. That I always remember that. And I always remember the only piece of writing advice that I ever got that I held onto and remembered was my friend. Many years ago, my friend Alex Ross, the music critic, had also been reading Yeats and he had been reading Yates's essays.
And he said, look, here's a really interesting thing. You'll read two pages of the gates and he doesn't use a single adjective. And then on the third page, he'll use one, or maybe he'll use two and they go off like a bomb because you've been so starved for them and you didn't know you were missing them until you stumbled across them.
You know, my favorite moment with Yeats, believe it or not, happened in dirty jobs. I was sexing chickens with some Asian chicken sexers up in Iowa, and they didn't speak a lot of good English, but we had these coffee cans in front of us and we were squeezing the poop out of these little chicks, you know, and the air was full of dander and twittering and ambiguity, very much like a German porno, you know. And just when it couldn't get any weirder, I I looked at this 90 year old Asian man who probably couldn't understand what I was saying.
And I quoted a line from Crazy Jane talks to the bishop, which says, A woman can be proud and stiff, one on love intent. But love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement for nothing can be whole or soul that has not been rent. And again, that's me trying to amuse myself and pass the time while sexing chickens somewhere in the heartland.
Looking back at it years later, when it aired in the middle of the night, was a moment of extraordinary pride because it all it went sneek all of a sudden between a language I didn't quite understand the dander in the air, the tittering of the baby chicks, the coffee can filled with their excrement and yates'.
The world started to make a little bit more sense.
It's that beautiful when things come to come together like that. That reminds me of something. Larry Flynt, the late lamented Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler, who just died and grew up on a farm. You know what he said about growing up on a farm? Tell me. And he grows up on a farm and tells you they've never had sex with a chicken is lying.
You know, I'm pretty sure a few years earlier, Dr. Seuss wrote something similar in that unforgettable pop up.
Fair or foul, maybe.
But my adventures down on the farm, maybe there's a pop up book in our future as well.
You know what?
I would do a pop up. I would absolutely do a pop up with you.
I think we're going to live to see the the mighty return of the new Matcham opening, opening up a coffee table book in the mighty mouth pops up or the Verrazano right, the bridge.
How bout a pop up book of bridges? Wouldn't that be amazing?
It'd be unbelievable. That would be thick. But every time you turn a page, a miniature bridge appears. And under it is either an epic poem about engineering or building or just some straight up biographical information about the construction of the structure. That would be amazing.
That would be amazing. Bridges are sort of a three theme. And in your book, I think we've got the mighty Mac.
We have the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gates, and there is one golden gates in there as well. I'm I'm I can see I'm looking out my window right now. I can see the Brooklyn Bridge. And if I turn that way, I see a wall.
But behind the walls of Arizona, you know, there's a there's a podcast. It's not in the book. I don't know if you read it or not, but the writing of Bridge over Troubled Water. And Simon was in his apartment not far from where you are. And Garfunkel had left. And they're looking you know, he's looking out the window at at the bridge and basically sitting there on his bed with his guitar, plucking it out.
The etymology of a song, by the way, how's your music book coming? And hasn't it been 20 years since you started? And what is it going to take for you to complete that? Ahab?
It's been 20 years since I started that. Just about that book has been my third publisher because the editor has kept on making his way in the world on my long suffering editor, Sean McDonald.
And he's taken me along, dragged me along like a wet dog to every one of these publishers.
And it actually made excuse you, maybe you can speak this to somebody with a musical background. But I found all sorts of reasons to be stuck on this book over the years. And part of what it comes down to is. My same friend, Alex, the music critic, he and I taught a class together many, many years ago, over a decade ago now, and we are sitting with a room full of students and they are paying much more attention to Alex is much more accomplished than I am.
And at some point they looked at him and said, can you do what you do if you don't have a solid grounding in music theory? And Alex, knowing full well that I don't have a grounding in music theory, solid or otherwise, said, no, no, I don't. I don't think so. That can't be done. I actually brought this up last year with Alex and and he asked me the same question you're asking, how has the book going?
And the short answer is, I've spent the past three years taking lessons and studying music theory and scribbling all sorts of things on on on my musical manuscript paper. And I feel like I'm finally getting there. And even though most of the people I'm writing about probably didn't know theory and couldn't read music themselves, it helps me to have a solid technical understanding of what's happening in this Jimi Hendrix song or this Beatles song or whatever else.
And I'm still studying guitar, by the way. Still studying. Are you still playing? I'm studying guitar and I love my I'm still playing my music teacher Chris Christopher White is a guitarist, but he was a composition major when he went to school. So I sort of have the best of both worlds. I'm studying theory and I'm studying guitar. And when I told Alex the story, I said, well, I've been studying theory because you set this thing 10 years ago.
Schmock and Alex looked at me and he said, well, I only meant that for classical music. I didn't mean it for that.
So here's your problem and here's your problem. You care deeply about writing and you care deeply about music. So now you care deeply about two things. And because you're a tradesman, you feel the pressure not to churn out something that, as you said earlier, was as good as it could be for the time, for whatever reason, that's not working. Now, you've you've moved the goalposts. You've raised the bar, this book you've been working on for twenty years about music.
Has to be great, and because you become better with every passing month, you know that when you finish you will have delivered a product that's ultimately inferior to the person and the ability you will ultimately have. And so, therefore, you've you've paralyzed yourself.
Next question. Yeah, thanks. And a lot of confidence. Now, that's that's about right. Planted. But I still I still bash my head against that. I think this year I'm going to take six months and work on nothing but that book and we'll we'll see what happens. But I don't know if you had this experience and we are working on your book, but sometimes you get really stuck and and you just think you can't go on and you can't think of anything.
So you come up with a way to trick yourself. And I'm coming up with I keep trying to come up with ways to trick myself because my horizon line will always outstrip my abilities to get there. And I've made my peace.
How do you do it? What's the trick? Well, with that book, I don't know, because I haven't solved it yet.
Well, I'm I'm just thinking, like, for me, there are times when I'm desperately trying to remember something not a tangible thing, not necessarily a date or a person's name or anything that specific, but an idea that I had a notion. Right. And when you can't get your hands around the notion and you knew it was a good notion, you know, it's a hinge. Right. That's going to either hold a chapter together or it's important and it's out of your reach.
I find that trying specifically to focus on that is the absolute worst thing I can do. The only way notions that getaway ever come back is when you kind of creep around the edge and try and remember a thing that might have been happening contemporaneously when you had the idea or a person that might have been with you. And, you know, you just have to get close to it and then your brain will either find it for you or it won't.
But but there are a lot of tricks out there. I don't know many. I know a couple, but I'm sure you must have Forrest Gump your way. Like, for instance, if you were to pick up that guitar behind you right now and play a little bit as we talk. Would it enhance or detract from our conversation? Do you find that when you're doing two things at once, each one becomes less efficient or is or do they both become better?
Well, one thing that's nice about guitar and it's sort of my meditation, is that I'm really only doing one thing when I play guitar. When you're writing, you sort of are doing 10 things at once. So it's hard to you know, I like jumping between two writing projects. So you get stuck on one, you jump tracks and work on the other. But I guess my version of coming out a thing from the side, maybe a metaphor that that may or may not be useful is is shooting and target practice just shooting at a target with a rifle is you can aim it, but if you're still tense when you pull the trigger, you're going to go wide of the mark.
What you have to do is, is aim, breathe, go slack to a certain extent, and then and then fire all the prep work that goes into the aiming will inform your shot, but it's also the relaxation that will guide the bullet. And in writing, I also feel like there's all this this this tension that goes into it. But if that tension translates into what you're writing directly, it'll come out stilted and stillborn. So you have to find a way to relax, to trick yourself into into being is being loose, staying loose.
So it's a little bit like James Brown. You've got to be totally loose and totally tight at all times.
Right. So much of it is a dichotomy. It's like when you talk about technique, especially if you're a performer, a singer, you know, technique is everything. Technique is a thing you have to fall back on. And if you own your technique like Nikki Sixx, then you can forget it. And when you forget it, well, that's when the people in the audience become comfortable because nobody wants to see your technique. They want to see your artistry.
I think. And look, in my little weird world, that was certainly the case with dirty jobs and everything I've ever worked on. Nobody wants to see a host working too hard to host. Nobody wants to see an actor acting. They nobody wants to see a us a singer composing or, you know, it's it's hard to articulate it, but it's like you have to forget the technique, but not until you've mastered it. Mm hmm. And so.
I mean, what is your advice, there are people listening to this right now who think they can write. Some are wondering if they can write, some are certain they can. Some are sure they can't. How do you actually find out if you've if you've got that thing?
Well, I mean, something I tell my my students are I guess when when when people ask me is it's it's a it is a lot like show business in that way. It's a lot like standup where the most surefire way to find out is to try it out in front of other people. And, you know, if you're lucky at first, you'll bomb and people will be honest about it. And the way that you learn is by failing in public and and and being so embarrassed about it that you work hard enough, harder than you thought was capable so that maybe you don't bomb as badly the next time and you build and you build and you build from there.
But I find that a mistake many people make is that they feel they feel that writing has to be elevated somehow or arch in a way that that that it doesn't have to be. I mean, to play plain words, put in play in order, will will do the job just fine. It doesn't have to look like writing.
Who was the best at that, who took plain words and put them in a plane order. I mean, I think Hemingway maybe. Sure, I mean, but going back to Mark Twain, I would say maybe, yeah, Mark Twain was wonderful at a Hemingway, depending sort of on when you catch him. Sometimes he became better to sort of the older he got, the more he drank. I think you you can feel him. He starts writing, you know, not in a good way.
I mean, gosh, when I was, you know, starting out, there was a whole school of what was called American minimalism. And that was, you know, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff and people very influenced by Hemingway and and people who wrote these very bare, stripped down sentences. But when I look at those sentences now, even those sentences look to to written for me, I don't think there's any one one formula to it that says you have to strip your writing of all adjectives or you have to keep your sentences short or there's a famous there's that book, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White that a lot of writers drunk and wanted to start out with.
And, you know, that book is full of full of advice that that I've sort of tossed out the window, starting with the most famous piece of advice in that book is omit needless words. I'm sure you've read that at some point. But but I don't believe in admitting needless words. Some of the writers that I love the most, like Henry James, have all sorts of words in there. And in fact, when you look at the Faulkner, when you look at the sentence, omit needless words while you're going to omit needless and just omit words.
And that works even better. So, you know, you can you don't need words either, you know. Yeah. You don't need any of that stuff. Just omit. Oh. Just was just doing it. So I mean I think that that the real answer is is right in the way that's natural to your voice and natural to your rhythms. And, and the trick I think is when you're writing and you can be writing in a loud cafe or in a quiet room, but but in a sense, everything has to be very quiet inside yourself so that you can forget the world outside and forget the world inside.
And again, just listen to what the words coming on the page are are telling you. And sometimes just the sound of the sentence will carry you along. And if you're writing the sound of the sentence, you know you're onto something. So I have a friend named Sam Lipsyte who has a book that starts it's a book composed in the form of alumni notes to his high school newsletter. And the first sentence of that book is It's Confession Time, Catamount.
And I think that's a great opening sentence. And I'm a big believer in the fact that the right opening sentence will somehow contain the rest of the book. And but it's also a really interesting sentence because, you know, why is it Catamount? Why isn't it my high school team? Was the Trojans something? Someone else had some other high school team, but he had the Catamount. But why is it Catamount? It's Catamount because it's confession time, right?
There's there's no confession time.
Cut Mount's. You've got a little bit of alliteration. A nice syllabic juxtaposition. Yeah, but it's confession time. Catamount, right. That's good.
It's good. It's good. And that's and that's all it needs. It doesn't need anymore. And then you listen to the sound of that and you come up with a sentence that's not like that sentence and then you come up with another sentence that's not like that sentence. And before you knew it, you've you've built something. I always think of Dick Cavett, who wrote an amazing memoir. And I don't think he used the ghostwriter. And he has a he has a riff somewhere in that memoir that I'm going to misremember because I read it 20 years ago.
But he has an extended riff about comedy writing and just being on stage. And he says 12 chickens is funnier than 13 chickens. And he explains it for two pages. Why is 12 chickens funnier than thirteen chickens? Why are chickens even funny? No one knows. He doesn't have an answer. It just is because twelve is by way thirteen.
By the way, couldn't every single thing that's currently wrong with late night television be fixed by putting Dick Cavett reruns on? Yeah. Have you watched those DVDs that came out about a decade ago? Oh sure. Oh my God.
Oh, I think I think Dick Cavett, there were moments of of pure brilliance, many in it in that show now. It was of another time and people listening ought to go back. And just for grins, hop on You Tube and watch some of the great interviews that he did. This was not a man who was afraid of silence. He would sit there with his guests and there were holes that you could drive a truck through and he waited, he always waited and just a very different style of interviewing.
But the patience and the pacing and the weirdness and the quirkiness and the randomness and the and the surprising fun that came out of that show is just it's gone.
It's gone from late night. And he's one of the most underrated interviewers, I think, to do what I do anyway. And also, I think a great actually physical comedian, if you've seen him do some of those. He does an amazing monologue where they've just gotten a tape recording machine that lets them run, run a segment backwards. And he does a segment involving spinning plates and all sorts of acrobatic stuff. And he actually does it and he does it backwards live so that when they flip it, he's doing it forwards.
And, you know, the guy was a pommel horse champion. Yeah, right. Like, of course, he's actually is. Of course he's a gymnast.
Right. Why wouldn't he be? Have you seen his interview with Lester Maddox by any chance?
No, but Randy Newman, I should watch it because that's the interview that Randy Newman wrote about in his song Redneck's. That's right. Right. That's right.
Did you hear that on Gladwell s podcast, by any chance? No, I think I just know that. Listen to you look.
Studies show nobody gives a crap about anything. Said much after 45 minutes. So in the spirit of landing the plane, I want to ask you one more thing I did hear on Gladwell podcast. And and I thought of it not long after we met and you just reminded me of it. But the question is, are you a Picasso? Or a season and the framing of the question goes to Gladwell, his thesis that everybody is one or the other artistically, and he writes about Leonard Cohen writing the big hallelujah write.
The version, you know, is about the 500 version. He literally wrote roughly 500 versions of Hallelujah before he settled on that one. This, Gladwell says, is exactly what Sasanian says on obviously a brilliant painter who never, ever finished a single painting ever. He he just simply never stopped working on it. Undeniably great work. But his process forbade him from finishing. Picasso, on the other hand, undeniably great transformative work. Picasso worked very quickly and when he was done, he was done.
He sold it and he moved on.
He never went back. He never messed with it.
Two great artists, each with completely opposite approaches to their requisite greatness. Are you Picasso or Susan? Let me I'll give you two answers to that, of course you will, because everything's a multiple choice with you. You just can't answer a straight question, right.
The right answer to. But on the other hand, the right answer to an either or question is yes.
So it's the truth lies between those two things.
As long as it's not a that's an answer. I'm glad it'll be short.
I don't know. I don't know if Malcolm went into this or not. But, you know, without money or money, you would still get a Picasso. But without Cesan, you don't get a Picasso without says. I'm breaking the canvas into geometrical frames right around.
I mean, I would say, well, I am nothing like zazen and I am nothing like Picasso, but but given my druthers, my wiring, I'm probably a little I would want to be more like Picasso. And I ended up failing to be more like seasoned that that either way that I always think of along the same lines is Isaiah Berlin made a distinction between hedgehogs and foxes. You know about this one? No, he was he has an essay about Russian novelists and he says and he is he's riffing on on an old Greek fragment of poetry.
And all the great, Krugman says is the hedgehog. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one great thing.
Well, there you go. Are you a generalist or a specialist? So are you Picasso or are you?
So Berlin says that the staff was a hedgehog who thought he was a fox and Tolstoy was a fox that thought he was a hedgehog. So I always think of that and think about the ways we trick ourselves into answering these questions for for ourselves. Let me ask it in a slightly different way, and this will be my last query, you you walk into a Barnes and Noble in my example, I assume they still exist in real life. I have no idea.
But there you are. And you go to the the shelf and you find your book, your terrific book, Bullies a Friendship, and you pull it down and you start leafing through it and you read a paragraph or two is your first thought. I love another stab at that, why did I do it that way, or is it OK? That's as good as it could have been at the time. All is right with the world.
Yeah, that's I didn't write that book. Someone else somebody who looked like me and, you know, might have made a few pounds less wrote that book. Good luck to you. I wonder what happened to that guy. He's being interviewed on a podcast called The Way I Heard.
And that's what I mean by Oprah.
Hey, man, pick up one of those guitars for me and play a little Altro music while I thank everybody for listening and remind them that my book and its audio version can, in fact, be picked up wherever you listen to audio books.
It's called The Way I Heard It. And it exists in part because my friend Alex spent a few boozy evenings with me saying, hey, what about this?
Instead of that, what about that instead of this? Those are the questions a good collaborator will pose. And as I thank him for coming by, once again, I will remind you that life is short and weird.
And sometimes the only the only way to figure stuff out is to come at it from an odd angle, whether you're Picasso or Sezen or whether the soundtrack in your mind is a guitar or a harmonica.
There are many soundtracks out there, my friends, but there's only one. Alex Abramovitch. Good to see you, weirdo.
Good to see you next season. Thank you. Adios.