Voice and Doubt – A Tale of Attempted Artistic Suicide – Part 4

I am realizing that this bit of my story is going on a bit long, longer than I had planned.  So there will be a Part 5, hopefully later today, but broken out as its own bit to spare your browser’s loading times.

Read:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5


Part 4 – Wherein the author almost manages to get down to brass tacks, and tries to describe what it’s like to have your Hero, the myth that forms the greatest part of your life’s foundation, step forward and anoint you as worthy.

A year before On Writing was published, I was working for one of the most prominent business-to-business public relations firms in Los Angeles.  The people there were great, the job was interesting—I was able to avoid the worst of what PR usually has to offer…we represented businesses, not celebrities, and our client list was filled with generally good people trying to do good business…we weren’t representing the tobacco companies or anything—and the pay was well more than a kid who dropped out of college after two years had any right to expect, especially when those two years were spent pursuing the highly-marketable fields of English Lit and Theatre.

But, ultimately, it wasn’t a passion, just a decently-interesting way to make money, so in 1999, I quit, in order to focus full time on my writing.  I took a part-time job at ye olde generic chain coffee shop, and started taking some classes at the nearby community college.  The idea was to earn some easy credits, so if my writing career took a while to really get rolling—and at that point, it wasn’t a question of if but when, it was a flat-out certainty that I would eventually publish books, option movie deals, and live the kind of life that I wished to become accustomed to—I could eventually get a degree, maybe pursue a masters…and if things were really taking their time, set up shop as the kindly literature professor somewhere, buy some tweed jackets with patches on the elbows, and pray for at least one or two co-eds a semester who really knew how to fill out a sweater.

Seemed like a good plan at the time.  Ultimately, the plan changed, rather dramatically, in particular after I met the woman who would become (and still is) my wife…but that’s not what this story is about.

The day On Writing came out…I remember it very clearly.  I had two classes that day with a two hour break in between, and no work that night.  It was late summer, a beautiful warm day, the campus was near enough the ocean that there was a decent breeze, taking the edge off the ninety-plus degree temperatures…I had the book, brand spanking new, in my bag.  I decided to just hang out on campus and start reading it in between classes.

And it’s a good book.  There are parts of it that are great, including one bit demonstrating the literal powers of writing that I’ve already paraphrased in an earlier post here.  But one part in particular caught my attention.  He sets out to give an example of the kind of writing exercise that he would give his writing students, back in the day.  (After his first few books were published, but before he moved from “published and semi-successful author” to “global entertainment phenomenon”, he taught classes at the University of Maine, including creative writing.)

He sets up a fairly cliché situation:  young woman, loves her man, even though he has a tendency towards violence…she figures that each time he says “I’m sorry, I love you, I’ll never do it again,” well, this time he means it, and there’s no ill that the love of a good woman can’t cure.

Ultimately, after a few years of increasingly unhappy and violent marriage (and, possibly, a child), she’s had enough, and divorces him.  He doesn’t like that, and acts on his dislike, which leads to a restraining order.  Finally, after some horrible violent act, either on her or someone else, he is arrested and goes to jail.  The exact details don’t matter—at least, they matter nothing to the basic setup, and everything in the telling—what matters is that he’s locked up and blames her for it.

I’m just going to go ahead and quote the next bit verbatim here; it’s pages 171 and 172 in my hardback edition of On Writing; your version and page-age may vary:

“One day shortly after Dick’s incarceration in the city jail, Jane picks up Little Nell at the daycare center and ferries her to a friend’s house for a birthday party.  Jane then takes herself home, looking forward to two or three hours’ unaccustomed peace and quiet.  Perhaps, she thinks, I’ll take a nap.  It’s a house she’s going to, even though she’s a young working woman—the situation sort of demands it.  How she came by this house and why she has the afternoon off are things the story will tell you and which will look neatly plotted if you come up with good reasons (perhaps the house belongs to her parents; perhaps she’s house-sitting; perhaps another thing entirely).

“Something pings at her, just below the level of consciousness, as she lets herself in, something that makes her uneasy.  She can’t isolate it and tells herself it’s just nerves, a little fallout from her five years of hell with Mr. Congeniality.  What else could it be?  Dick is under lock and key, after all.

“Before taking her nap, Jane decides to have a cup of herbal tea and watch the news.  (Can you use that pot of boiling water on the stove later on?  Perhaps, perhaps.)  The lead item on Action News at Three is a shocker:  that morning, three men escaped from the city jail, killing a guard in the process.  Two of the three bad guys were recaptured almost at once, but the third is still at large.  None of the prisoners are identified by name (not in this newscast, at least), but Jane, sitting in her empty house (which you will now have plausibly explained), knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that one of them was Dick.  She knows because she has finally identified that ping of unease she felt in the foyer.  It was the smell, faint and fading, of Vitalis hair-tonic.  Dick’s hair-tonic.  Jane sits in her chair, her muscles lax with fright, unable to get up.  And as she hears Dick’s footfalls begin to descend the stairs, she thinks:  Only Dick would make sure he had hair-tonic, even in jail.  She must get up, must run, but she can’t move…

“It’s a pretty good story, yes?  I think so, but not exactly unique.  As I’ve already pointed out, ESTRANGED HUBBY BEATS UP (OR MURDERS) EX-WIFE makes the paper every other week, sad but true.  What I want you to do in this exercise is change the sexes of the antagonist and protagonist before beginning to work out the situation in your narrative—make the ex-wife the stalker, in other words (perhaps it’s a mental institution she’s escaped from instead of the city jail), the husband the victim.”

Pretty sweet setup, yes?  Exactly the sort of thing a really good writing teacher will do:  give you something to think about, something to chew on…most importantly, something with some seriously building momentum…getting your mind in gear, and ready to move…and then throwing some major wrench into the engine, forcing you to take all of that creative juice that’s hopefully flowing and think about something in a way you hadn’t before.

(I had a great writing teacher in High School who, on one occasion, sat silent at his desk as we came in to class, the lights off, and once we were all there, without a word, he played Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” for us…and when it was over, he challenged us to write anything, whatever we wanted, whether it was story or dialogue or anything…as long as it had nothing to do with the reason that she was singing.)

So King describes all that in the book, and then does something I was not expecting; he says:

“When you finish your exercise, drop me a line at www.stephenking.com and tell me how it worked for you.”

[Note:  I believe all future printings of the book have removed/edited this section, as submissions are closed and have been closed for several years now; so don’t head on over to his site, look around for the submission form, fail, and send his people a nasty email about it…that’s just not kosher.]

I had to read it several times before I was convinced that, yes, he really was saying what I thought he was saying.  Without any official announcement, or stated deadlines, or rules and conditions or prizes, King was holding a contest, inviting anyone who had read this part of his book and had a working internet connection to write the rest of the story and send it to him.  No idea what would happen next.  But one thing was clear:  he was going to read them.

That’s a much bigger deal than it first appears.  A person in King’s position—especially by this point in his career—has set up some pretty formidable and entrenched walls around various things to protect him and his family.  He, like most writers, has a blanket policy:  do not send him any original creative work that is not already under contract to be published.  It won’t get read, it will get caught by his secretaries and destroyed before he even knows it exists.

As harsh as it sounds—and as much as it must have hurt King to cut off such a large portion of his audience (hopeful writers), given how much he’s tried to communicate with his audience over the years, through his first-person essays, and reading tours, and the fact that, as mentioned, even though he didn’t financially need to do so, he still taught lit and writing classes for as long as he could—there’s a really good reason for it.  King, like most successful creators of art (meaning writers and songwriters, as opposed to actors or directors or entertainers, who perform interpretations of someone else’s original creation), walk around with a huge bull’s-eye on them.  There’s always a crackpot who is willing and eager to file a lawsuit when the wind changes, alleging that King’s Best Seller X is exactly the same as Crackpot’s Unpublished Great American Novel Y, and thus Crackpot is due millions and millions of dollars in damages and compensation.

Doesn’t matter how easily it can be proven on the artist’s side that the creation is an original work—or the rarer but still legitimate parallel creation, where the resemblance is great but neither was inspired by or even aware of the other—what follows is a PR nightmare (“Best Seller Accused of Stealing Hopeful Author’s Work”…America loves an underdog, after all), and at minimum thousands of dollars in legal fees and days and weeks wasted, just to get someone official to rule that there was no plagiarism, everyone go back to what they were doing.

The only way to stop this is to have a blanket policy that nothing that isn’t under contract will be seen and read; should someone try to file a claim, even the shadiest of lawyers is going to look at that blanket policy and tell Crackpot that the case doesn’t stand a chance, go back to finding stores with slippery steps to “accidentally” fall down.

But here was King, soliciting original, unpublished, uncontracted work from millions of readers.  He had managed to figure out the legalities reasonably well—by so clearly laying out what the story should be about, all he had to do was avoid writing that series of events himself in the future; and it turned out that he hired an assistant to filter all the stories before they got to him, to make sure that they fit within the fences he’d propped up—and so opened up the front door and invited the lot of us in.

I believe I skipped my afternoon class that day, went home, and after a bit of pondering (and a lot of cigarettes), sat down and wrote the first draft of “The Shroud” in something like an hour.

And ultimately, that first draft was pretty close to final…which is (he said quite humbly) more the rule than the exception for me.  There’s a lot of stuff I can’t do as a writer, and I try to be honest about it with myself and others…but there’s some stuff that I can do really, really well, and I try to be honest about that stuff too.  And one of those things:  when I’m well and truly At Work, and have fully and completely fallen through the whole in the page, and am suspended in that blissful state of actual, pure Writing…what comes out the other side is near exactly what it wanted to be when it first settled inside my head and provoked me to get writing.

I do plenty of re-writes, often sitting on a story for days or weeks before considering it “done”, just to make sure that adding some distance has given me a chance to really assess each word choice, and make sure it rings true and completely honest.  And it doesn’t always work out this way:  I believe I re-wrote “The Messy Divorce of Faith and Belief”, the title story of my published collection, something like 8 times, and by “re-write” I mean “threw away everything I did before and start at Word One with an empty piece of paper”…and I did that at least eight times.  And if we’re being really honest here, we can take a look at the People’s Exhibit #1, my novel, which we’ll come to in more detail a bit later.

But sometimes it works out exactly the way the manual says it’s supposed to, and it was that way with “The Shroud”:  an hour to write it, an hour to sit and do something else and try not to think about it, thirty minutes for another quick wording pass and to decide to change the title of the story to “The Maid”…and that was it.  I waited until my then-girlfriend (now-wife) came home to take a read through it to make sure I hadn’t made any glaring plot or continuity errors, and then I was off to www.stephenking.com to see what was what.

There was a link to the “contest” on the front page, and once followed, there was a simple html form where you could paste your story (after much fretting over all the damn MS Word formatting, like dashes and italics, that would be lost when it was converted to plain .txt formatting) and your contact info…and I think that was it.  Maybe some sort of checkbox confirming that any work you submitted was your own original creation, but my memory of the actual process is a bit hazy…and really, the haziness started just a few minutes after I had hit the Submit button.

“Me, submit a story I wrote to a contest Stephen King is running, meaning there’s a chance he’ll actually read my work—my HERO, the person who more than any other has inspired me to write in the first place, might actually read MY work?  That’s just silly.  Must’ve been a nice daydream, time to get back to the real world.”

Which, actually, I pretty much did.  There was no response from him or his website that my story had actually been received, no mention of the “contest” anywhere in popular media (that I could find, at least)…and I had a couple of classes that I was hoping not to fuck up as badly as most of the ones I had taken at the university (about half the grades I received there were E.N.W.S., which stands for Enrolled No Work Submitted…meaning that not only was I too lazy/stoned to attend class, I was too lazy/stoned to even drop the class before the deadline).  I also had a girlfriend who was quickly becoming a whole lot more than that.  And I was writing, however much it was in fits and starts, and was focusing on finishing stories, and sending them out to magazines, and querying agents for my novel…

A few months later, I did notice that there’d been a change on his site, something along the lines of “submissions are now closed, Steve is reading through all the entries, but there are thousands to go through, so we hope the winners will be announced in a couple of months.”  It was non-specific, except for the whole “contest” and “winners” word choices…but again, no mention of what exactly a “winner” would win, nor anything else that would set up some of the normal parameters of what a “contest” usually is.  So I had a good couple of hours of daydreaming about a limo showing up suddenly outside my door, sent by King himself, as the first part of my reward for having won the contest, followed by a chartered flight to New York, a meeting with his agent and editor to discuss my own multi-book deal, and then discussions with the man himself about our upcoming collaboration while sitting behind first base at the Red Sox vs. Yankee game that night…but nothing really beyond that.  It was back to work.

I suppose this might be a good time to mention that “The Maid” was an unusual story for me…as in, it bears almost no resemblance to any of the work I’d done previously or have done since.  This is a key point, and where we finally start to put aside all the foreplay and begin to get down to the heart of the whole fucking matter.

See, while the work I’m doing lately is coming out of a different place than anything else I’ve done in my life, and is certainly pushing the outer limits of the possibilities of writing that I’ve been considering my whole life…it’s not really all that different in intent nor result than most of the writing I’ve done so far in the last 32 years.

I’ve always been fascinated more by word choice than plot.  I’ve always cared more about quiet moments where the entire foundation of the characters’ worlds shifts without a word being said or finger being moved than about a taut, well-constructed bit of plot development.  If you look at the “descriptions” of my best work, it doesn’t come across as anything that anyone would really want to write about:  a specific moment where an older brother’s flaws are highlighted to his younger brother, who chooses to ignore them and continue his hero worship; a man and a woman, at a party, old friends, he just a friend to her, she the one true love he’s always held a torch for, sharing a brief moment where the intensity (and variance) of their bond is laid bare, before she heads off to flirt with and take home someone else, again; an unidentified narrator in a restaurant, looking at an empty table, not yet cleared, a children’s placemat and crayons still there, used and abandoned, wondering if it has anything to do with the woman he saw leaving the place in tears as he was walking in…

I once described my short stories to a friend who asked as, “Okay, take the standard character arc of any story, short or long.  Imagine it, graphed out, a horizontal line, slowly rising, then climbing more and more, until it finally reaches its peak and then coasts elegantly to its conclusion.  Now, take a tiny chunk out of the most interesting part, right when the slope is undergoing its most drastic change.  That’s what I write about.”

And “The Maid” was the complete and absolute opposite of that.  It was pure narrative, tension building towards a dramatic climax.  It had some flowery bits, but for the most part, was as straightforward a Story as anything I’ve ever written.

Don’t get me wrong, I still, to this day, think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.  I wouldn’t change a word of it.  But it stands out like a sore thumb when laid alongside all of my other work.  And, more importantly—and this is the point I’m ultimately working towards making here—it was exactly the sort of story that I thought King would like to read.  The sort of story that he would have written, had he taken his own assignment on himself and written it out to its conclusion.

And so, more months went by.  Girlfriend became fiancé, living arrangements changed to fit, life plans were subtly altered by these new developments.  I continued to write new stories, and send them out, and receive the by-now expected rejection letters.  I sent out more and more queries to agents for my novel, and received the by-now expected rejection letters, or even worse, the horrid scam that goes something like, “We really like your sample, but think it could use some additional work before sending to publishers, please send $350 to this editing service that is of course in no way associated with us, and there’s no way we’re taking a kickback for sending all of the writers we think are gullible to them, and we’ll be willing to take another look afterwards.”

And then, one morning, I got an email from Marcia DeSilva, King’s primary secretary.  I don’t remember the exact wording, the email itself was lost in one system crash or another in the years since, but it said essentially, ‘Congratulations, your story “The Maid’ has been chosen as one of the winners of Stephen King’s On Writing contest!”

There was some other stuff, about King’s plan to publish all of the winning stories on his website, and possibly to publish them as an appendix to the paperback edition of On Writing (which ultimately didn’t happen, due to timing and legal concerns over rights and whatnot), but while that bit was exciting, it wasn’t what turned my life upside-down.

In short, what happened is that my greatest hero, Stephen King, the man whose work had in many ways, profound and subtle, shaped my life, and who had inspired me to the great passion of my life, had read thousands upon thousands of stories, and out of all of them, he had read mine, and decided that mine was Worthy, mine was head and shoulders above the rest…my story was what he thought of when he thought of Writing, and should be called out as such and shared with the world.

To which there’s only one possible response:  Holy Fucking Fuck.

Seriously, for all the profound things that have happened in my life, from my wedding day, to the birth of each of my two daughters, to the day that a SWAT team busted into the house I was living in and arrested me as a suspected drug kingpin (which is a “fun” story I may someday tell you all)…amongst all the major milestones which serve as a shorthand to the story of my life, that day stands out as something unique, never to be repeated, incomparable.

And thus began my descent into attempted artistic suicide.


Coming soon (hopefully sooner rather than later):

Part 5 – Wherein the author does everything possible to sell out, and discovers it’s not as easy as people think.

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