Birthday number 100. Dad was pleased. Lots of people came to see him.
I thought, I’d better write down my life with him now—how it was. Before we forget.
Tyndale House Publishers bought what I wrote, and its editors made a book of my writing, a memoir. We needed a title. They found a good one. The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came to Dinner, and I Heard the Greatest Story Ever Told--eye catching. Everyone was happy.
We needed a cover design. I had no ideas. I’m a word guy, not a design guy. Left on my own, I would have put up a photo of Dad and written a perfunctory title across the top.
That book might flop.
That’s because my cover probably would not cause a shopper to pick the book up, to turn it over, and to read the back cover copy. The back cover copy, in its turn, is designed to make the customer open the book and to read the first two pages.
So the design we needed must be powerful enough, in sequence, to bring the shopper inside the book—to where the writing is. That is, to where the author is—to me.
As my editor and I emailed back and forth about title and cover suggestions, frequently she chided me for my stodgy ideas. “Dikkon,” she would say, “we’re creating a billboard, not a book report.”
The point is suggestiveness and mood. Look at the cover of my memoir. The cover does not tell the story—it’s not a book report—but it does convey a mood. And the mood is the first element of the billboard.
The front cover of my memoir provides suggestiveness and mood. There’s no story there. But all the elements of the front cover suggest that stories can be found inside—here’s what it says.
“Shoppers! You who like stories, pick this book up!”
Here are some of those elements. The typewriter typeface, that helps. The paper on which the title is written is faded and wrinkled, sepia colored (with some acid-based aging along the edges of the paper—showing that this manuscript and its stories are from an earlier time). And then there are the objects on the bureau.
The old typewriter. Where this manuscript was banged out. Stories are in here!
There’s the lamp—too close to the typewriter for writer convenience, but close enough to light the page as it rolls up on the platen. I suppose that the writer was so hot with his words he needed to pull the lamp over closer, so he could see the words.
And it’s hot of another kind where the author is banging out his story—thank goodness for the fan, rackety as it is. There’s the phone—imagine, with a dial!—in case he needs to call a friend to check a quick fact. The camera—snapshots, in black and white.
And what’s that other thing, farthest to the left? A Dictaphone? Perhaps the author once felt a spasm of eagerness to be modern, so he bought the thing because it’s what all the other writers were using, but he really didn’t know how to make the thing go, and, really, he didn’t care.
His life is the typewriter. The typewriter is the old standard of writing—always faithful. The typewriter is like his dog, never changing and always ready to be used. He trusts his typewriter. When he leaves off writing for the night, next morning his typewriter will be where he left it, and his last sentence will be right there, too.
What else is on my book’s cover? The tools sit on a bureau, not on a desk—its top surface is too shallow to be a desk. So perhaps this author stands up to write, the way Hemingway did, when he was hot in Key West or in Cuba. Typing as this guy Eberhart does, standing up, his face is only a foot or two from a blank wall—which is like his blank page. There’s no view before him, no window through which to watch the day’s stories out there in the world. His view is what is there in his memory.
This is a memoir, after all.
Hope it’s funny.
So—I’m the shopper—I turn the book over. Feels good in my hand. What does the back cover say at the top? “He was predestined for literary greatness, if only his father hadn’t used up all the words.”
Now, that’s funny!
I don’t know what the sentence means exactly, but I like the cheerfulness of it. I like a memoir when it has something funny—maybe some funny stories.
Lotta names here—poets. The heavy key strokes of the commas and periods—the stamps of the old typewriter font—they draw my eye to the names. Coupla names I’m not quite sure of, but I know Robert Frost and Allen Ginsberg. This author grew up with these people? That’s not every day. Wonder what that was like? I bet he has some interesting stories to tell.
And—yeah—I understand in the next paragraph, what is says about his needing to escape from his father’s shadow. I know a lot of men like that. You might even say it’s a basic experience of many young men, sons of successful fathers.
If this book’s any good, I can think of two men I could give it to. No, three! Four, really—well, maybe not, I’d need to think about him. So, three.
Wonder if the book’s any good. Can this guy tell a story?
Who is he anyway? Educated guy—a PhD! Hope he can tell a story despite that PhD, and the book’s not some dull thing. Married, children, grandchildren—he looks like a friendly guy in his picture. Maine. He lives in Maine. I’ve always wanted to go to Maine. And a deacon—so he must be a believer—and Special Olympics. Good people. Good people.
Here’s what I’ll do. What I’ll do is--
I’ll carry this book over to that comfortable chair and read two pages. If I read two pages, and if I like what I see, I’ll hang my hat on that coatrack, so to speak, and I’ll take this book home.
Wait! And his mother met Hitler?
What’s that all about?