Harvey Ovshinsky
Harvey Ovshinsky (left) and "Scratching the Surface: Adventures in Storytelling — A Memoir by Harvey Ovshinsky" cover (right).

Scratching the Surface: Adventures in Storytelling — A Memoir by Harvey Ovshinsky does a thoughtful and entertaining job of fitting the pieces together.

Harvey Ovshinsky has devoted 50-plus years to telling stories — through newspaper, radio, television and screenwriting. He is an award-winning journalist, director and producer — serving as the catalyst for others to open up and share their life experiences.

Now, at age 72, he decided it was time to “flip this, and connect my dots,” Ovshinsky says. “I’m a little bit of a puzzle — a mystery.”

Scratching the Surface: Adventures in Storytelling — A Memoir by Harvey Ovshinsky does a thoughtful and entertaining job of fitting the pieces together. Detroiters, especially those of Baby Boomer age and older, will enjoy his accounts of student life at Henry Ford and Mumford high schools in Northwest Detroit, and subsequent college years at Wayne State University. Others will focus on his ups and downs in print and broadcast journalism, especially during the heyday of local television documentaries. 

One of the threads holding it all together is his curiosity and determination to dig beneath the surface and, in this memoir, he doesn’t spare himself or his family from scrutiny. 

The level of detail about family dynamics is surprising and sometimes painful to read.

Ovshinsky was caught in the middle in several respects. His older brother, Ben, seemed to him to be smarter, better looking and closer to his father. His younger brother had serious communication and emotional difficulties — problems that were later diagnosed as autism.

His father, Stanford, originally a machinist and left-wing social activist, later pioneered development of nickel batteries for hybrid vehicles and solar-cell-producing machines. With only a high school education, he became an internationally known inventor and businessman, founding Energy Conversion Devices. The elder Ovshinsky had a grand vision for the way science and technology could improve civilization, but he was also temperamental and resistant to viewpoints different than his own. 

While Harvey was in elementary school, his father left the family to live with Iris Dibner, who became his second wife and business partner. Verbal warfare and turmoil resulted. 

Harvey was caught in the crossfire and felt “outnumbered and outgunned. I lost my voice.” He believes that this situation was probably the inspiration for creating stories — “rediscovering his voice during the 1960s and ’70s.” His love of monster movies led him to create Transylvanian Newsletter with a friend while they were in eighth grade. At Mumford, he started a magazine. 

Love of Writing

While Ovshinsky was caught in the middle of his parents’ disputes, they each in their own way supported his love of writing. His mother, Norma, gave him a diary to encourage his writing, and when Harvey was 17, Stanford and Iris loaned him money to start The Fifth Estate, Detroit’s first alternative newspaper. 

After his father died in 2012, Ovshinsky said he felt a sense of “relief and release and permission to tell my story,” he explains. “That first part of the book is letting the cat out of the bag. That’s central to the rest. That’s what brought me to the table.” 

Once past his rocky childhood, Ovshinsky covers the early days of The Fifth Estate, taking us through the counterculture era of antiwar protests and hippies, including poet and marijuana advocate John Sinclair and the Detroit Police Department’s Red Squad that compiled a thick file on Sinclair’s activities. 

Always looking for the next creative challenge, Ovshinsky became a host and then news director at WABX, Detroit’s progressive rock radio station, at a young age. 

He devotes considerable space to his television career — providing tips on finding and keeping a production job and most important, how to make stories relevant to viewers. 

“Nobody cares about your story unless your story feels like theirs,” he says. The chapters about his less successful efforts to sell several screenplays and television series are less compelling but perhaps useful to would-be screenwriters. 

“Detroit was an excellent muse,” he says, looking back on his career. “Nobel prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote that every writer needs an address. For me, living and working in a city like Detroit, so famous for its genetically encoded apocalypse-resistant survival gene, has been great practice for how to endure the tumultuous peaks and valleys and challenges that come from attempting to live a creative life,” he states in the book.

In later life, Ovshinsky and his wife, Catherine, moved to Ann Arbor where they continue to live. “Detroit was my mother planet, and it was time to be in another,” he says.

Education has been the favorite part of his career. Ovshinsky has taught writing and creativity to young people and adults in a variety of schools and settings. “Nothing compares to helping young people find their own voice.” He describes it as “helping people make good noise.” Now he does some speaking engagements and says, “This book is my teaching.” 

Ovshinsky’s book is available at Book Beat in Oak Park, Literati in Ann Arbor, through the Wayne State University Press website and elsewhere.

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