Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Open Door

The other day I asked my wife why she puts up with me.  She told me (jokingly I'm almost certain) that she keeps me around for the Howard Carter stories.

Stephen King is quite adamant that a writer should write the first draft of every book with the door firmly closed.  Keep the world out and be alone with the text at least for that first dance with your characters.  Then, and only then, he advises that you open the door for a select few to share the second draft.

I understand and appreciate what I assume is King's thought process.  There's a certain mystique to writing like that -- a writer alone, nailing the story to the page with the hammerstrikes of the keys as the world waits outside, wonder what magic is happening on the other side of the door.

We like to think that someone's outside waiting to read the story. 

In reality?  Not so much.  Well, maybe for Mr. King, but for most of us the only person outside that door is our spouse, perhaps a roommate or two or if you're young enough it's your mother wondering when you're going to come down to dinner since she called you twenty minutes ago!.

Due respect to all the people I just mentioned, but I've written reams of pages like that, shut behind a door to be alone with my thoughts, telling stories to the inkwell as I kept them at arm's length.

So it came to pass that when I opened the door recently and put the first draft of my current work-in-progress out there for anyone to read and react to or ignore as they saw fit, it was a learning experience for all of us.  (Well, I can't really speak for my old roomies, but they periodically check in on Facebook, so maybe them too, who knows?)  .

Honestly, I didn't expect much to happen.

But something odd happened... it changed the way I was writing it.  And something even stranger happened... people started reading it.  Not a lot, but a few.  Many of them dear friends, but some of them complete strangers. 

The strangest thing was when I realized that some of them were finally beginning to understand why I rush to the keyboard every morning to see what happens next.  Because despite this blog and all the writing I do about writing, I think that it's only now that even my wife really gets why I do that, or really understand that even though I'm using an outline, sometimes the twists and turns are as much a surprise to me as they are to my readers.

All art is ultimately made for the artist.  I still believe that.  As an artist, it's encoded in my DNA.  And King's closed-door policy is predicated upon that notion -- that first you have to please yourself and then open the door to see if it pleases anyone else.  And I respect that as I do any artistic tradition.  Inviting your audience in too early is a dangerous proposition and I didn't have any idea what it would do to the story as I was telling it.

I never really thought of writing as a performance art before, and I'm not entirely certain I recommend it, because it's a lot of additional pressure.  It's so very much easier to hide on a desert island and complete the whole manuscript.

But Howard Carter is a story I'm telling to my wife, to my family, to my friends, and because this is the Internet, To Whom It May Concern.  It's going out piecemeal rather than as a complete thing, a series of letters/chapters that I've rolled up and stuffed in bottles and dropped into the vast and chaotic seas of the web in hopes that that wash ashore in some sort of logical order.

Don't worry, I numbered them to be helpful.

And I hope you too decide to keep me around because of Howard Carter.  There's really not much more a writer can ask for than that.

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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).