Monday, August 8, 2010
Admittedly, my interest in Stephen King did not come from extensive reading of his voluminous work. It was sparked by an interview (with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross) about his life and his devotion to books.
Check out the Stephen King booklist. The descriptors prolific and prodigious will come to mind. He and I are the same age (he was born a few months before me) and while I can claim weekly blog essays for twelve years running, King has published forty-nine novels; most of them lengthy novels. He produces so much text that his publishers feared he might suffer over-exposure. So back in the eighties, seven of those books were published under a pen name: Richard Bachman. An astute reader noticed similarities in style and reported to the Library of Congress that he believed King wrote the Bachman’s books. The story found its way into the press. King and his publishers were forced to admit the marketing strategy. Shortly afterwards, they announced Bachman’s demise citing “cancer of the pseudonym” as the cause of death.
The King book that captured my attention has been around for nearly a decade, but works like this do not go out of date. Writing is writing. So when I heard him speak to Terry Gross about his “Writing – A Memoir of the Craft,” I downloaded my free sample from Amazon Kindle and in just a few page turns, I was hooked. I clicked BUY NOW.
I don’t know why it should be a curiosity to me that Stephen King is still married to his first wife, Tabitha (Tabby), and that the fabulous estate created by signing bonuses, a royalty stream the size of the Mississippi River and the sale of a string of movie rights has not changed his life-style or work-habit all that much since he taught high school English and wrote Carrie on his off hours, but it was. He’s a regular guy from upstate Maine who is, simply stated, a writing machine. He talks about Tabby as though she really is his best friend. “Whenever I see a book dedicated to a spouse, I understand,” he confesses.
Oh, I know he tapped into the comic book horror genre early on. And I certainly do not know all of the scenes he created in print, but the man can tell a story. His insights and observations, his pace and his style, have attracted a monster, loyal audience.
The short book is a great read for any writer. He shares his odyssey; the drug and alcohol years that nearly destroyed him. He talks about the amazing phenomena of the craft – how a writer can engage a reader in a hauntingly mystical sense. His fascination with science fiction introduced him to the concept of telepathy – transferring thoughts and ideas from one mind to the other without the use of the five senses; one magically reading the mind of another. He understood that the writing process is just that kind of telepathy. By placing thoughts in the linear progression of words, ideas are magically transferred from the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader. Heady stuff. I sit in my chair transferring my thoughts via this means, and at some other time and place you will absorb those same thoughts. From my mind to yours. It’s magic indeed. It hooked King. And me.
There are style insights. For example, he despises the adverb. And the passive voice. Most amateur writers overwrite. Overwrite needlessly. See, there it is. Not only is that phrase redundant (if you overwrite it is, by definition, needless). But it is tedious and a failed attempt at sophistication. Adverbs too often appear in dialogue attribution and they ought to be edited out. “Go away!” she said harshly. The “Go away!” is harsh enough. No need to tell us. That’s the stuff you think about when you write.
The passive voice, common in conversation, is evidence of a writer’s inexperience. “The author has been excoriated by a contemptible critic” (passive voice) ought to be revised to the active: “A contemptible critic excoriated the author.” It took the grammar check built into my word processor to introduce me to the hideous passive voice. I’m not sure I always catch it. All too often, I have been torpedoed by that passive voice. Oops. There I go again. All too often, that passive voice torpedoed me.
Another surprise. King discounts the value of plot. In the creative process, story emerges in the writing, not because of a clever outline. The writer does not know where the story will go until he writes it. The muse comes to call as the words flow. King is singing my song. That is my experience, too.
Most of all, King underscores the simple but unmistakable power of reading and writing. Writers write. Hemingway wrote just three hundred words per day. King hammers out two thousand. Every day. He starts early in the morning and usually finishes by lunch. He says a serious writer ought to produce at least a thousand words a day. Does that mean Hemingway wasn’t serious? Hardly. King calls him a, well, “friggin’ genius.”
Writers also read. According to King, if you want to write, there are the two primary activities. The twin disciplines. The basics. The fundamentals. Read. Write. Read. Write.
It reminded me of my mentor’s adage. “Leaders are readers,” he repeated often.
So are writers.
– 893 words. Just short of a thousand.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010