Thursday, May 6, 2010

Writing With the King: His, Mine & Ours

NOTE: This is the long-awaited wrapup for my unintentionally-lengthy look at Stephen King's writing book-cum-memoir "On Writing: A memoir of the Craft".   At the end of which you will find a free short story written at the prompting and in the style of Stephen King.

His, Mine and Ours 
I've spent this entire series alternating between arguing with King and praising his writing.  And honestly, I'm not sure I entirely agree with him on what writing is, where it comes from or whether or not it's something anyone can do.  I'm also split on my feelings as to whether or not there's a ceiling to our potential as writers beyond which it's impossible to improve.  King obviously feels that there is, but I'm not so sure.  I think it is possible to learn to do this and what "natural" writers are born with is an innate love for it.  Whether or not that love is the catalyst needed to go from adequate to great is a philosophical question beyond the purview of this blog or this book.

Which begs the question: "Why are you so enthusiastic about a writing book that you don't entirely agree with, written by a writer whose books you're not especially a fan of?"

Arguing with King in absentia is part of the charm of his book.  If I entirely agreed with King I probably would not have given his memoir a second reading.  I have piles of books about writing in my home library that may or may not ever get a second look, most of them written by writers I whole-heartedly love and agree with.

The three books I most often loan-out are the three with which I maintain an active dialogue.  Telling Lies for Fun & Profit and Bird By Bird spend more time being loaned out than they do on my shelf and I can wholeheartedly endorse both of them for writers seeking guidance... but that doesn't mean I rubberstamp the opinions of Mr. Block of Ms. Lamott any more than I can with Mr. King.  Though I admit to arguing much more with King, but it's a friendly sort of one-sided tussle for my part.

On Writing challenged a lot of the closely-held assumptions I'd made about writing, among them the idea that I didn't need and didn't have time for writing prompts.

When King first published this book of writing advice and memories, it included a challenge to his readers.  He posed a writing problem and asked us to send him our results.

Now, when a major author asks to see something you've written, if you have any literary aspirations at all you don't hesitate.  You send them your writing sample.  Most writers refuse - on advice of counsel - to read unpublished and unagented works as an act of self-protection against future lawsuits of the "You stole my idea..." variety.  Lawsuits still happen, as JK Rowling can tell you, but I'm sure they're much less frequent because of this policy.

Because he'd never accepted writing samples from un-agented writers before, I think this was a bit of an eye-opener for Mr. King.  According to a post on his website shortly after the book came out, the request resulted in an avalanche of stories from the writers and fans eager to garner that kind of attention.  I'm as sure that many of them had dreams of landing a book deal as I am that none of them did... at least not from Mr, King's recomendation based on these writing samples.

In subsequent printings of the book, this request was removed and a notice on his website notes that submissions are closed.

All the same, it's a good 'story problem'  and one of the few I've seen that actually inspired me to sit down and put hands on keys.  I'm notoriously averse to someone giving me something to write about beyond the most general guidelines.  "Write about math" is a good prompt for me.  "Write a story about characters in this specific situation, hitting the following specific points..." is significantly less likely to get a response from my creative faculty.

Have I mentioned yet how much I hated writing for school?

Suffice to say that I like to write my own ideas and if I didn't I probably would still be a journalist.  I have enough ideas and writing prompts of my own to last me a lifetime and any time spent writing someone else's ideas feels like fingernails on the chalkboard.  No matter who the idea came from, I feel caged by these things and the urge to wander off their map is overwhelming.

For some reason King's story didn't do that to me.  For one thing, I don't usually write horror, so I was stepping into unknown territory and knowing that Stephen King had drawn the map in my quavering mitts was oddly comforting.  For another, it wasn't a ghost story it was a story of love gone awry and the chain of events leading to confrontation.

Of course I wandered off the path anyway, but I did so knowing what direction the path lay when I wanted to get back to it.  Dick & Jane are in a bad marriage.  Spousal abuse compounded by all the bad add-ons a horror writer of King's caliber can dream up.  But the roles are reversed and Jane is the abuser and Dick the abused.  Events lead to separation and, eventually, Jane's arrest.  One day, Dick drops their child off at a friend's and comes home to find Jane waiting for him...  chaos ensues.

And for whatever reasons, my fingers flew across the keyboard.  On some level I was playing out my arguments with King's assumptions about storytelling and "The Craft".  But the story became a meditation on the benevolence of the Creator, on fatherhood, vengeance and the proprietary feelings we all feel toward our loved ones and what happens when that's taken to an unhealthy level.

It was a strange feeling to have my storytelling so guided by someone else.

My story was longer than the word count he later imposed (out of a sense of wise self-preservation, I'm sure) so I never sent it to him or tried to get it published (it wasn't my idea, after all) and throughout the writing of this series, I've been vacillating on whether or not to just post it here and be done with it.  I've decided to do so as a way to encourage you to do the same, if not here then in your own webspace.

Without further ado I invite you to read: "Mine" A macabre little story about Dick & Jane (Opens as a .PDF "GoogleDoc")

Read the previous posts in this series:
Writing With the King: An introduction and summary about why I care and why you should too.

Part I - Designated Dreamers: The truth of memory and the place of writers as society's shepards of the subconscious.

Part II - Bedside Tables: The importance of the mundane as a foil for the fantastic (or the horrifying).

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).