Tag Archives: Donald Rumsfeld

Writing someone else’s autobiography: The World Trade Center comparison

Unknown numbers of unknown unknowns

I was talking to someone last night about writing their autobiography. It will probably never happen, because the publishing industry is in decline, is running scared and does not really know what is happening with eBooks, self-publishing, print-on-demand and all the other new imponderables.

Back in December 2011, I wrote a blog about How to write someone else’s biography or your own autobiography 

That did not go into the mechanics of the thing.

Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said:

– There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know.

– There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know.

– But there are also unknown unknowns – There are things we do not know we don’t know

He got a tremendous amount of unfair criticism claiming this was gibberish when, in fact, it is entirely clear and entirely correct. Especially when you are writing a book about someone else’s life.

You do not know how much – let alone what – you do not know about the other person’s life. And, if you do not know what you do not know, you may not know the right questions to ask to find out what you do not know and what the other person has forgotten or does not realise is illuminating.

By-and-large, I think the best thing is to chat to and record the person talking about their life. This might take 30 hours – or much more.

With my non-typing skills, I take three times as long to transcribe a chat as the chat takes itself. You cannot get someone else to transcribe it, because they may miss something vital in the intonation or the syntax or in the umming and ahhing and meandering which everyone does in ordinary everyday speech.

So that means, in this case, 30 hours of chats would take 90 hours to transcribe – so a total of 120 hours. If you work a solid seven-hour day, that means just over 17 days. If you take weekends off, that means three weeks and two days in total, working solidly every weekday from 9.30am to 5.30pm with a single one-hour lunch break.

After all that, you are at ground zero. You have the material with which to write the book, but you have not yet started to write the book.

If you have conducted the chats well, you will have got the basics and managed to stop the person diverging too much onto sidetrack dead ends – although you have to allow a lot of genuinely irrelevant, pointless sidetracking because you are faced with unknown numbers of unknown unknowns – and one apparent sidetrack may lead to you striking pure gold.

Even if the person has excellent recall of details (which is rare) and has been able to tell their story in some rough form of chronological order (which is even rarer), what you have now is a meandering, waffly mess, from which you have to create some sort of structure with threads running through which will intrigue and ‘hook’ the reader.

What you exclude is arguably more important than what you include.

Telling a life story is not a matter of telling the reader everything that happened. Facts are not necessarily interesting. You have to find specific incidents which will illuminate and explain certain periods in the person’s life. No point describing in detail what happened as 153 events slowly developed in one six month period of a whole life; you have to find one key event which illuminates the period, develops a thread and cut it back so it becomes vivid and insightful.

Part of that you have to sort-out when you are chatting to the person. But a lot is in the later writing, which is like putting together a jigsaw wading through syrup in concrete boots while carrying an octopus on your back.

The important choice is what you do NOT include.

It is like telling the story of how one person died in the World Trade Center. Going through the ruins of both collapsed buildings with a sieve and a toothbrush will not help. There is too much information. Too much rubble.

People know too much about their own lives. A ghost writer has to find the key vivid facts, incidents, thoughts and feelings which condense decades of incidents into 90,000-120,000 words.

And, trust me, 90,000 words is less than superficial.

So pity the poor person trying to write someone else’s autobiography.

You don’t know what my life is like.

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Socialism? Religion? Self-help groups? They’re all the same…

“Some things we know we know… Some things we know we don’t know… Some things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Who said that?

No. Not ex-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

It was a 76 year-old American woman presenting a life-changing seminar last night. I am not sure if she stole the lines from him or if he went to one of these seminars and stole the lines from her; I fear it may be the latter.

“Life-change” was the object – “the freedom to be yourself” – You pay £375 for the basic course, £590 for the advanced course and, if you come into the “teens and young” category, you pay £390.

This was just an introductory talk to draw new punters in.

Provided I don’t have to pay, I am a sucker for these things.

On a rainy day in 1969, I went into the Scientology building in London’s Tottenham Court Road. They attached me to a box, asked me questions to which I had to give Yes/No answers but most of which did not have Yes/No answers and then they told me that I was adrift in life and confused but Scientology could sort me out.

I went to an American Christian preacher’s event at Earl’s Court during which he asked any people in the audience who were HIV Positive to come up on stage and he would ‘cure’ them. Some did. He touched them. He told them they no longer had HIV. He told people in the audience to donate to his organisation not what they could afford to pay but more than they could afford, because “God will provide”.

I spent around 25 years in TV promotions and marketing. I am interested in the techniques of persuasion.

I once got told I had definitely won a prize in a time-share company’s draw which I had not entered: anything from a golden carriage clock to a car and luxury holiday. I was interested to see how they could avoid giving me something so I went along to their Leicester Square office where, before you got the prize, you had to watch a promotional film and have a chat with a representative who put forward a surprisingly strong and persuasive argument as to why I would be foolish not to buy the time-share I did not need. Eventually, I got given the cheap carriage clock. I did not ‘invest’ in the time-share.

Last night’s seminar involved around 200 people, maybe 30 of whom were ‘guests’ like me. As soon as I arrived, the phrase “Happy Clappy” leapt into my mind.  I do find innocent American over-enthusiasm very tiring. Surely people must damage their facial muscles by smiling so widely for so long? All that optimism was profoundly un-British and lasted from 7.15pm-10.45pm. The real courses last all day – from ten in the morning until midnight.

The first words by the woman presenting the evening were “I missed you” and there was heavy usage in the first three minutes of phrases like “just amazing” and “such an honour”. I half expected the words “insanely great” to be used and to see the late Steve Jobs emerge with an unexpected new Apple product to enthusiastic applause.

And there really was a lot of applause – and the occasional Whoop! – over the next three-and-a-half hours. Happy Clappy it really was and I was clapped-out by the end of it.

I am not one of Life’s natural Whoopers.

I have nothing against Happy Clappy but it does feel un-British. I could never stomach The Price Is Right with Leslie Crowther, which last night’s enthusiasm faintly resembled, though without the light bulbs.

Instead of guessing the price of and winning prizes, you had to spot your real problems, spot or be helped to spot the immediate solutions and sign up there-and-then for the course.

Last night’s offering was really a pyramid scheme – current participants introduce friends whose lives can be changed – with the addition of a series of increasingly-expensive course levels.

It resembled many ‘self-help’ courses: they are basically substitute religions and are very big on “we are all your support team” language.

Someone said to me: “It’s a con,” but I am not sure I agree. There was some heavy selling going on. If anyone looked susceptible to joining then two, sometimes three people would try to convince them to sign-up for the course, with un-blinking eye-contact enthusiasm.

But I have seen that with born-again or new-born Christians. They have, they believe, found the answer to Life and have had their own lives transformed, so they want to share the joyful good news. I am even prepared to believe Scientology is not the evil world-devouring Behemoth it is sometimes portrayed as but just has lots of genuine believers blinkered by their belief in their own ‘Right’ness into doing occasionally suspect things.

Much like Tony Blair or Socialism. (I obviously do not link those two.)

In 1986, I talked to a girl in a bookshop in Pyongyang in North Korea. She had actually seen – in the flesh – not a photo – the real person – she had seen and been in the presence of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. Her eyes shone like exploding supernovas as she told me the story. It was as if she had seen Jesus.

Socialism, I have always thought, is more of a religion than a political philosophy. Because Socialism has the true answer to life and, if implemented, perfection and a people’s paradise will inevitably follow, as it has in North Korea. If someone of a Militant Tendency persuasion meets a Conservative voter, the Conservative voter is likely to think the left-winger is misguided. But the Militant Tendency person will think the Conservative voter is evil.

Last night, thank God, conversion not extermination was the idea.

I was approached by a very likeable, wide-eyed young man from Slovenia.

“I wanted to travel,” he told me, “but did not have the confidence to travel until I did the course.”

“Where did you do the course?” I asked.

“Here in London.” he replied. “I came here from Slovenia to do the course… And now I am a photographer. I always wanted to be a photographer. I am going to India to take photographs.”

“How do you support yourself?” I asked. “Do you sell the photographs?”

“I have a job working in Starbucks,” he told me.

In religion, people take comfort from the fact they ‘know’ that there are High Priests with a better – indeed, total – knowledge of how the world works and how you can reach that high, ultimate plateau of spiritual and philosophical attainment.

Last night was a religious ceremony with a teacher who was selling courses not a Church or a political party.

“You are already powerful, it just got covered over; you are already free, you just forgot,” was one line.

“You are powerful in the face of failure.”

“When you get balance, you’re able to walk.”

“Make a difference to everyone, including yourself… Everyone wins.”

As in some churches, people in the audience stood up to “share” and to give testimony:

“I realised that I have a very large family and it’s seven billion strong!”

“As soon as you start spending, money comes in!”

“I cured my asthma!”

As the woman leading the meeting said: “This is a miracle space… Your sharing tonight was breathtaking to me… Don’t forget, kick the ‘but’ out of your life and put your butt on the line.”

The basic message of the course is: “No action… No result.”

Fair enough.

And it is probably worth £360 for some people to have a support group to encourage them. There is an attraction in fluent speakers for insecure people adrift in their own lives. But it is not for me.

And I have a nasty feeling that, in order to re-build a stronger person, you have to break-down the insecure person who was previously there. Once you have a support group, how do you kick the habit?

It sounds a tad like training a dog. By the time the dog understands what he is supposed to do, he has become dependent on you.

Someone I met said his life had been totally changed in three days by the course.

But he also told me he started the course in 2006 and he is still doing it.

And I do find it unsettling that they have courses for 8-12 year olds.

I did once suggest to the comedian Simon Munnery that he and I should start a religion by reading lots of self-help books and cobbling all the ideas into a philosophy. It worked for L.Ron Hubbard.

Simon turned me down. I think he was wrong.

I am sure the idea still has mileage.

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