Cut Me If You Can! An Open Letter To A Friend, Surgeon

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My friend, you told me the father was generous and abrasive. You’re wrong. The father was nice, the son was abrasive.

I, who have been writing for 32 years at least on many a subject technical and popular, got a lecture on popular writing this noon, 2007 August 31, at the Blue Danube at Blues Street in Blue Hills, Queasy City (all names changed). In so many words, the son (The Lawyer) was telling me he was a damn good writer. He told me he felt he would be the best person to do those things, meaning interview his father (The Surgeon) and write his book, his father’s autobiography. He volunteered that he was trying to cut cost. He was getting his points across; I was getting red in the face across the table.

You can say this story started with the book Cutting Remarks (Insights And Recollections Of A Surgeon) by Sidney M Schwab (2006, North Atlantic Books, 227 pages). The Surgeon, American. The Surgeon, Filipino, that is, the father just happened to have similar experiences with Dr Schwab – such as working in a university hospital, being Chief Resident, being mentored by a SOAK (son-of-a-knife) great and small. The book Cutting Remarks is a soaky, witty, nutty, scalpel-sharp telling of how one becomes a surgeon and becomes, if one is not careful, either a green-eyed monster or a surgeon with a heart.

I’m not a doctor, but as a writer I’m crazy enough to love that book. This Filipino doctor, this father liked the book so much he was excited to write his autobiography, with a little help from his friends. That’s how I came into the surgery room, I mean picture.

Before that Blue Danube luncheon date, I had previously talked to the father about working things out so that his autobiography will come out in his own words, say 95% his, but I, the writer, would be the one to organize the materials into a book even he would like to read, even I would like to read. I had prepared a one-page proposal, in Word 2003, in Table Contemporary format, good-looking (try it sometime), and I had explained to him what it was all about. In essence I would be interviewing him for much of the content of the book. (That explains why the son was saying he thought he would be the best person to interview his father. It’s easy to interview: have a list of questions, ask them one by one. He didn’t realize that I wasn’t talking about interviewing, really).

We had agreed on the professional fee and the project plan, including milestones: outputs and deadlines. And then the son made the father change his mind. From the texts (SMS messages) and the cellphone calls, I understood that we were back to Square One. That’s why we were meeting over lunch. Okay, I came with zero expectations and an empty stomach.

Over lunch (oxtail and swamp morning glory or kangkong in Filipino, both well-done), the son said as the writer, he would first put in the content, make sure everything would be in there, in the order that he thought best, and then he would work on such content. His content would reflect his father’s life story.

That’s when he got a lecture from me. I said, ‘You’re a lawyer and you’re using your critical faculties. That’s good. But I’m sorry, that’s not the way to write. You are using critical thinking. That’s not creative thinking. Sorry.’

Friend, the son asked what program I would be using, ‘Adobe?’ He knew something, but not quite enough: the name is Adobe PageMaker. Just say PageMaker. I said, ‘I’m going to use Microsoft Word.’ He said, ‘Only Word?’ I said, ‘Word 2003.’ He didn’t say anything. (Early today, when I emailed him a copy of my proposal to his Dad, I mentioned that Word 2003 is a high-end word processor. If you know what I mean.)

At two different points in the 3-hour long meeting of minds, the son used the analogy that it’s like I’m (Frank A Hilario) the architect and the son is trying to make sure the building fits his father’s persona (my word). The second time around, he added that once the building is finished, you may be the best architect but you cannot change it anymore.

At that point, I said, ‘I’m sorry, but the analogy is wrong. No, you cannot change the building. (I should have said you cannot deconstruct.) But with the computer, you can revise 100 times, 200 times; I can revise even the day before we go to press. I don’t mind. Word 2003 has the outline-organize feature that I love. (I forgot to mention Word 2003’s template and my Writer’s Bloke Consulting.) That’s why I enjoy using Word 2003!’ He noticed my emphasis on the word enjoy. The son smiled. I liked that smile.

I also said in interviewing, you have to put the one being interviewed at ease. That’s why the first time I saw The Surgeon, I laid me down on his couch. I wanted him to relax. And: You just don’t shoot the questions; you have to be able to ask questions without being noticed. That’s why I don’t like interviews – too formal. I prefer conversations. I will converse with you, listen, and my next questions will come from what you said. No formal list of questions to ask.

To The Surgeon, I said, the last time, remember, the moment I sat down in front of your doctor’s desk, I opened my yellow ruled pad and began reading. (I didn’t tell him it was from Schwab’s book). And what did you do? You began telling your own story. That’s how I would do it, not interview.

The Lawyer mentioned that he will plan it so that that book will tell the life story of The Surgeon. I told the son the book is not meant to be the life story of his father. That’s not what the model, Cutting Remarks, is all about. That’s not the idea of The Surgeon. (I didn’t say it, but it would be an intellectual biography, sort of – a legacy, no less.)

Friend, I should have told them, father and son, that the way to write is the way you wrote your own book – stream-of-consciousness, where you just jot down what comes to mind when it comes to mind. And then you edit – or ask some damn good editor, the best you can afford, to edit!

I said if he (The Lawyer) thinks he should be the writer, it’s fine with me, go ahead and do it. I said, I don’t know you; you might turn out to be a good writer after all. But don’t get me as a consultant, because then we will have two writers with two different styles – and we’ll just quarrel. (He did not concede the truth of that immediately, but in about half an hour, he did. He said, ‘No, it’s not a good idea to have two authors of one book.’) You mean two headstrong writers.

I also said: ‘If you get me as your consultant, you will be under me, and I will be very strict. I will demand the best that I think is the best. I have very high standards.’ ‘Of course,’ The Surgeon said.

I said why not the son as Project Manager and he will be my boss? I will be the writer, editor, publisher. The son didn’t say yes to that, but when I told him later that I thought he didn’t like the idea, he said that’s still under consideration, case (not yet) dismissed. Lawyer’s talk.

The Lawyer asked what was my plan for the book, and I told him I gave a complete proposal to his father the last time we met. Now, now, a good lawyer would study the case thoroughly prior to going to court! He would then know if there be any corroborating, or incriminating evidence, depending on which side he was. The plan? In 17 weeks you have a book. At least 3 drafts, then the final, camera-ready copy, the one to go to the press, the one that goes straight to the Camera Department (hence ‘camera-ready’).

I told them the amount I was asking as professional fee was an all-inclusive fee and that I will not charge them for anything else, not transportation, not taxi, not food. The Surgeon asked what was my minimum, and I said I had already given my offer, it was time for them to make a counter offer. The son said they will discuss over the weekend and decide.

I made it very clear to them that I was a one-man band: writer, editor, publisher. On seeing the different look on The Lawyer’s face, I explained that there are two kinds of publisher. One is the one handling the desktop publishing program. The other is the one who pays for the printing.

I said if they get me as a writer, I will write a book I myself will be proud of, not the least The Surgeon. The Lawyer said he didn’t think Schwab’s book was well-organized, and I agreed. He said the book didn’t have a common thread running through it. (A river doesn’t run through it.) That tells me the son is a damn good critic of a book. It doesn’t tell me he’s a damn good writer.

Friend, I said the way I would write would be like that of Dr Schwab, but better. And with the difference that I would strive to put in a fillip in each anecdote. A fillip, I told father and son, is an insight you put either in the beginning of a story or in the end. A fillip is not literal; you don’t say, ‘The moral of the story is …’

After the 3-hour discussion without cerebral concussion, to his credit, The Surgeon asked me where I was going next, and when I said Robinson’s Galleria, he took me there. Along the way, I said, ‘I think your son thinks I’m just trying to impress you with words’ (binobola). ‘No,’ The Surgeon said, ‘he’s just trying to protect me.’

The Surgeon also said, ‘Actually, there’s another guy being considered, but he doesn’t like him. I don’t know him either, but I know you,’ referring to me. That’s a left-handed compliment that must have its origin from you. He feels he knows me already because he knows who knows me already.

Friend, in any case, if I get the job, prayer answered.

If I don’t get the job that was already mine? Prayer answered! You see, I have a new book contract already – to write science stories to fill a book in time for the November anniversary of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). ICRISAT is based in India and its Director General is a Filipino, William Dar. ICRISAT is a multi-awarded agency as Dar is a multi-awarded scientist – he was the PRC Professional of the Year Awardee for Agriculture this year where you were the Awardee in Medicine. It would be my pleasure to write that book!

Frank

PS

Thanks to the traffic, the car trip from Blue Danube to Robinson Galleria was long enough for good conversation. At one point, I told The Surgeon:

Your joke goes like this, doesn’t it?
‘I’m not very rich (pause) – I’m stinking rich!’
Mine is like this:
‘I’m not a very good writer (pause, then in a low voice) –
I’m the best!’

I also told our friend, The Surgeon, ‘Your son knows that Schwab’s book reads well, but at the end you’re left hanging. (I don’t like that myself.) It’s all foreplay, no entry, no orgasm. In your book, in every chapter, we’ll have a beginning, middle and end. In every chapter, we’ll have an orgasm.’ The Surgeon smiled. I liked that smile.

Copyright 2007 September 01 by Frank A Hilario.
Also published by
American Chronicle in a slightly different version.
Researched for, organized-reorganized, formatted & hyperlinked via Microsoft Word 2003.

 

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