Tag Archives: Stephen King

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.

Advertisements

Voice and Doubt – A Tale of Attempted Artistic Suicide – Part 3

Part 3 of this meandering walkabout is below, discussing briefly my greatest hero…Part 4 will be along Sunday, and will hopefully be accompanied by some new microfiction as well.

Read: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5


Part 3 – Wherein the author continues to dally, but in a mostly-entertaining fashion

In November of 1985—and again in January of 1986—Stephen King was in a unique place, one never reached before (it has since been duplicated by J.K. Rowling, as the end of the Harry Potter series went to print and all the previous titles were re-released):  he had 5 different books simultaneously on the New York Times Bestseller lists:

–          The Bachman Books, in hardback, an omnibus collection of the four books King published under the Bachman pseudonym (Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man), released shortly after Bachman’s true identity was publicly revealed.

–          Skeleton Crew, in hardback, his latest collection of short stories

–          The Talisman, in paperback, an epic fantasy tale and his first collaboration with Peter Straub

–          The Bachman Books, in trade paperback, and

–          Thinner, the final Bachman book, now listed under King’s name (in many cases with a sticker on the front cover

This was followed a few months later by the publication of IT, a 1,138-page opus that stands as one of the crowning achievements of his long career.

While his fans will prefer wildly different eras and aspects of his work—some preferring the no-frills, headlong pace of his early pure horror, some preferring the more measured and lyrical later work, some enjoying his high fantasy, or his short stories, or some combination in between—from 1985 to 1987, he was at the absolute peak of his success and popularity.

And to be honest, for about a decade there, from the early 80’s to the early 90’s, he was one of the 2 or 3 most successful, most popular, most influential artists in America, across all mediums.  Right up there with Michael Jackson, Spielberg and…well, I’m not sure anyone else approached those rarified airs.

Odds are, if you bought at least two books in that decade, one of them was by Stephen King.  Something like a billion copies of his books have been printed and sold worldwide…the only thing that’s sold more—over the course of a career—is the Bible.

Pretty heady space to live in.  And if the crisis he survived through was typical for the times, the way he survived, and thrived, is anything but.

Let’s start with the more obvious challenges he faced.  He was a hard partier, drinking and smoking at a volume that only poor English Lit majors from the Northeast can approach.  He was on a liberal university campus at the end of the 1960’s, so add in all the requisite psychedelics that come part and parcel with room and board at that time.  And once he started having success, Hollywood came calling.  So add in unlimited nose candy and the expected small bottles of various pills to the nutritional listings on the side of his box.

That’s not a particularly good mental state to be in, not after a couple of years pursuing it non-stop with no financial barriers to indulgence.  And especially not when your day job is writing—meaning tuning out the real world and zeroing in on that small inner voice whose only job is to speak dirty, unfiltered truth to you—stories about the absolute worst imaginable acts and situations that people could try to survive through (and often failed).

So, yeah, it might’ve been fun to spend Halloween or New Year’s hanging out with King, but I’m not sure I can imagine a darker spot to be than inside his head at 3AM, stuck in the purgatory between drunk/high/stoned, hungover and withdrawls, as he tries to work his way through an unfolding scene where one of his “heroes” has to commit some abominable act just to have a chance at surviving the events of the next few pages.

And then comes the follow-up punch.

I’m not sure any human being alive is as well read as Stephen King.  There are stories from the people he knows, who love him, from his earliest days when he was first learning to read, of him walking around with his nose in a book, a second book in his back pocket, and stacks more waiting around every corner.  I would bet an expensive dinner that, if you and he were to walk into any supersized bookstore, went to the fiction section, and took a book off the shelves at random, not only could he tell you what the book was about, and what he did and didn’t like about it, but could also tell you which of the author’s other works were worth checking out (if any), and 3 or 4 other authors of a similar style and intent that you’d also enjoy.

Some of it is obvious in the work he’s done throughout his career—and this is the point I’m slowly but surely getting to—but some of it is not.  Yes, he’s read his Lovecraft, and Bradbury, and Matheson, and Poe, and probably several hundred paperback-only noir and genre fiction attempts a year, every year, since the 1950’s.  But he’s also read his Joyce, and Dostoyevsky, and Proust, and Sartre, and Mailer, and Steinbeck, and Hemmingway…

During the peak of his popularity, there was no one, King most especially, who would have thought it proper, or even particularly sane, to use the word “literature” when describing one of King’s books…unless it was in the binary-negative, as in, “I know literature, and if King’s latest is anything, it’s not literature.”  King was actually very upfront about it, calling himself the “Big Mac and Fries” of American letters, and speaking at length in interviews and essays about how he wasn’t trying to write literature, his goal was pure storytelling, increased adrenaline and heart rates, so it was no wonder that the literati didn’t find much to like in his books.

And you know, I think he almost believed it himself, but not entirely.  Looking back, it sounds too much like the geek making fun of himself first, if only to head off the more biting comments from the popular kids and steal their thunder, hoping that when people laugh at him, because he was the one who said it, they’ll also be laughing a little bit with him.

It’s not like he didn’t know what “great literature” looked like; he did, and he loved it (and presumably still does).  But as his success grew and grew, that delta between literature and his books had to be staring him in the face.  Even the mentally-strongest amongst us, with all the financial and social trappings of success to bolster us, would have several late nights wondering if they would ever be able to trade in a spot on Entertainment Tonight for one on a stage in Oslo.

And as noted, King was hardly in the strongest state of mind then.

And then that other curse, the machinery of fame, began to chew away at him.  A critic, in one of the typically-dismissive reviews of one of his books (by the mid 80’s, even the literati had to acknowledge that a new King book came out, no matter how much they ended up trashing it…that’s how big a deal each release was) said something along the lines of, “It’s likely that, were King to publish his grocery list, his adoring fans would still buy millions of copies.”  And the phrase stuck.

Over the next several years, King was faced with the question that every artist whose success has gone from substantial to phenomenon has to answer:  is it the work?  Or am I just a brand name now, and it doesn’t matter what’s inside the covers as long as that four-letter word is on the front?

Can you imagine all of that, swirling about like some perfect mental storm:  doubts about whether the work he’s doing—the work that consumes him and drives him every waking moment—matters to the people who buy it anymore…if not wishing, then at least wondering if something he writes will ever be celebrated by everyone, including the best and brightest amongst us, and not just by the borderline functionally illiterate in between their soap operas and fast food…and all of this without having been actually clean and sober for years?

So he started to break down a bit, and to try to fight through it in the only way he knew how:  writing even more.  His biggest push was to create a pseudonym, Richard Bachman, under whose name he could publish some of his less-mainstream work.  And, more importantly, get his work out there, without the big four-letter word on the front, and see if people still responded to it.  And after 4 mid-list paperback releases under the Bachman name, it appeared that it was the work after all:  the hardback edition of Thinner, the last Bachman book, had sold 28,000 copies before its true author was unveiled; of course, after the reveal, there were over 3 millions copies in print, and the book spent 41 weeks on the bestseller lists.

His work also started to drift into new areas.  During the early part of the 80’s, most of his work focused on parents and their children, and the magic and belief system that children live with every day, and that atrophies and dies when we become adults, and how, when that magic—particularly the dark side of it—suddenly appears in our every day adult lives, the only way to survive is to recapture some of that belief in magic that we had when we where children.  It all culminated in IT, in which the main characters serve as both their own children and parents, depending on which timeline the story weaves through, and how we might be able to defeat the ultimate monster-under-the-bed.

But after IT, King’s work takes a noticeable turn into other areas.  Misery, about a writer confronting his demons…and one very specific demon.  The Tommyknockers, about two writers confronting their demons, both internal and external.  The Dark Half, about, you guessed it, a writer confronting his internal demons, as they become external, and threaten not just him but his entire family…

It was around this time that the people who loved him intervened, and he began to seek treatment for his addictions.  It was also around this time that he began to tie off loose ends—Needful Things, published in 1991, was the last “Castle Rock” novel, a phrase used to refer to a town, characters and continuity that had threaded through most of his work in the 80’s—and finally get to work on new things that would hopefully confirm his career as something more than a lucky literary pop-star, and answer those nagging questions that plagued him as his career reached its peak.

He rereleased The Stand, with almost 400 pages restored that had been cut from the original (due to printing costs, not editorial decisions)…one of the two biggest markers in his writing career was now complete, and presented in its full glory.  He also wrote and published The Dark Tower III – The Waste Lands, the third installment of his Dark Tower saga, and the point at which the offbeat experimentation of the first two installments morphed into a real, long-form epic that might eventually have an ending in sight.

And his work began to be accepted as possibly more than fictional fast food.  Instead of publishing new short stories in MF&SF or some similar genre magazine (though he never abandoned those markets completely), Playboy, Esquire and The New Yorker—the last bastions of hope in a world that seems determined to completely wipe out the short story—started to call, just to let him know that, hey, if you have something for us, great, if not, no worries, just let us know when and we’ll clear the pages for you.

He began to win awards that weren’t a result of fans calling a 1-800 number, culminating in the O. Henry award, given to the best short story of the year—decidedly not a genre award—in 1996 for The Man in the Black Suit.

And so the crisis seemed to have passed.  His popularity had dimmed, but not entirely faded…his books were still events, and still sold exceptionally well, but there was little doubt anymore that people were buying them for what was inside the covers (for the most part, at least).  “Serious” literary types were taking him, well, seriously…even the movie adaptations of his works—notably The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile—weren’t just low-budget horror movies, but serious works of art, adapted faithfully, that were being nominated for multiple awards.  The scare was still there in his stories, but there was also a relaxed, confident maturity, evident in works like Hearts in Atlantis and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, two books that serve as a creative entryway into his recent work.

He was even starting to think that the lessons he had learned over the years might be worth sharing.  Some of it may have been penny-dreadful, some of it may have aspired much higher, but whatever it was, he enjoyed writing it, people enjoyed reading it, and it was lasting longer than anyone probably expected it to.  So maybe it was time to sit down and write about the writing that he’d done.

And so came about On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  There’s an interesting story behind that one, and a few more chapters in King’s life so far—including the introduction of a particularly careless van, and the conclusion of a saga that took 30 years to write—but it’s at this point that we’re going to jump off the external timelines and finally get to the core of the matter, the reason that we’ve been taking this trip from the start:  the story of your humble author, and how I’ve come from copying Encyclopedia Brown stories down word-for-word to writing this particular long-form essay.


Coming Sunday:

Part 4 – Wherein the author finally gets down to brass tacks, and tries to describe what it’s like to step on your grandmother’s throat while reaching for the brass ring…and then missing it.

Voice and Doubt – A Tale of Attempted Artistic Suicide – Part 1

What follows is the first part of a rather long, non-fiction, semi-autobiographical essay that is, in part, an attempt to explain why I write what I do and how I got to where I am right now.

I do have more real fiction on the way; there’s one piece in particular that’s shaping up nicely, but I’m enjoying working on it so much that I don’t want to rush it.  I’ll post it in full here when it’s done, but in the meantime, here’s the first few lines:

Smoke, curling and coating.  Ashes of mourning, dawning embers, and smoke, enfolding loss and birth.

And now, to today’s main event…

Read:  Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


Part 1 – Wherein the author explains why the story is as important to him as the Story

I’ve mentioned this to most of my friends, and it’s something that becomes abundantly clear after spending a few minutes touring my library or music collection:  I’m more interested in creative depth than breadth.  While I have hundreds of books in my library (a number that would be in the thousands were it not for fiscal and spatial limitations), and hundreds of GBs of music on my computer, the actual number of writers/musicians is fairly small:  a few dozen on the shelves, and a few hundred on the disc.

What I tend to do when I’m looking for something new is to cast my net very wide, and when I find something that catches my attention, I dive deep on it.  And if what I’m exploring continues to hold my interest—something that’s usually apparent fairly soon—then I become a completist, and try to find everything I can about the artist:  not just their entire body of work, but where they came from, what they did, and how that became the work I enjoy.

I don’t think it’s necessary to know all the biographical details about an artist to enjoy their work.  And sometimes, it can even be a detriment…in order to enjoy Wagner, for example, I have to somewhat consciously block out thoughts of the type of people who were likely sitting in the audience, paying him money, for most of his premieres.

But what that background information can do is provide some incredible depth.  Because great works do not come from boring people…their lives may be simple, or uncontroversial, but rarely are they mundane.

Take for example the U2 song “One”.  You don’t need to know its genesis to appreciate it as an amazing song about (among other things) people who are very different from each other, to the extent of outright conflict and dislike, having a brief, grace-filled moment of clarity where they realize that they are more alike than not, and that the strongest, most powerful bonds between people come not from chatting about things they agree on, but from stretching across incredibly vast divides and attempting to connect anyway, not just in spite of but because of those divides.

But here’s the story of where the song came from:

[I should note that most of the narrative details of this period—and the direct quote below—are not taken from my personal experience…obviously…but from the book U2: At the End of the World, by Bill Flanagan, a masterful work by a masterful writer.]

U2 were in a major creative crisis.  They had taken a short time off after finishing the last leg of the Joshua Tree tour (the Lovetown stretch in Australia and other nearby locations), and had regrouped in East Germany on the night the Berlin Wall fell to try to create some new music for this new world they were seeing unfold before them.

Aside from the book-jacket-worthy creative aspirations, they were also hoping that the change in location would be able to reinvigorate them.  After the years-long tour for The Joshua Tree, their meteoric success over that stretch, and tail-end critical backlash against Rattle and Hum, they were burnt out creatively and emotionally.  Larry Mullen at one point said that he felt like the world’s most expensive jukebox:  just go out and play U2’s greatest hits.  One night on the Lovetown tour they were so jaded by their experiences that they went out and played their entire setlist completely backwards, just to see if anyone noticed:  no one did.

They needed to prove to themselves that their success wasn’t just a fluke, that there was substance behind the celebrity, and that whatever it was they had done to generate these insane levels of sales and popularity, they could do it again.

The question staring at them…were they famous and successful because of their work, or could they (to borrow an analogy that I’ll expand on later) publish their shopping list and have it sell millions of copies?

(This is, incidentally, a pretty critical theme to what I’m talking about here; time to get out your highlighters.)

And within a few weeks, it was obvious that nothing was working.  They were fighting with each other, in complete disagreement as to what “new” meant.  Camps were being formed, sides chosen…on one hand, there was lofty discussion about “sound” and “vibe” and the like, and on the other hand there were no actual songs to work on, regardless of the soundbites.  Things were getting desperate, with a few measures of melody going through dozens of wildly different incarnations, everyone hoping and praying that something would finally stick…and fearing that it wouldn’t.

They had all, at one point or another, thrown around a few lines during interviews, meant totally in the abstract and theoretical, that what made the band special was that they were friends, and liked doing this music thing with each other, and it didn’t matter what was happening with the music itself, if those bonds, those bits of common ground ever weren’t there, they’d quit, it wouldn’t be worth going on.

And now, no longer abstract or theoretical, those lines started surfacing between them…as in, “This isn’t working, we’re at each others’ throats…why are we bothering with this anymore?”

And then, one day, the Edge was working on a new section for yet another song that appeared to be going nowhere, trying to decide between two possible guitar pieces that might work…

“He comes back into the control booth, picks up an acoustic guitar, and plays both of them for Lanois and Bono to see which they prefer.  They say that those both sound pretty good—what would it be like if you put them together?

Edge goes back out into the studio and starts playing the two sections together, one into the other.  Larry and Adam fall in behind him on the drums and bass.  Bono feels the muse knocking on his head…[he] goes out to the microphone and begins improvising words and a melody:  ‘We’re one, but we’re not the same—we get to carry each other, carry each other.’

By the next morning they have recorded ‘One,’ as strong a song as U2 has ever written.  It came to them all together and it came easily, as a gift.”

Now take that story—the initial conditions of disagreement and strife, the underlying fear that they’re no good and about to be found out, the growing dislike for their closest friends, and that grace-filled afternoon when this song was “written”—and go listen to “One” again.

Bit different, isn’t it?

In some cases, stories like these can provide just enough garnish around a specific work to give it some added flavor…like I said, “One” is a pretty damn good song, whether you know how it was written or not.

But in other cases, the story of serious, long-term creative crisis can entirely change your perception of a work, drawing all of the themes and events into a whole different focus.


Coming Shortly:

Part 2 – Wherein the author really gets down to business, and continues talking about people other than himself

Circular irony

In a fun bit of circular irony, this post was intended for Facebook, to explain why the most anyone will see of me there is likely to be links to posts I make elsewhere (namely here).  But due to the exact nature of what I wanted to post there, I can’t do it, and so am posting it here and linking to it.

To whit:

I want to talk formatting, and Magic, and words, and telepathy, and the specific versus the careless.

Writing is Magic.  Not in a Disney sense, not as in a synonym for “dreamy” or “amazing”…though what it can do is pretty amazing.  Writing is Magic specifically in that it can do things that would appear to defy our understanding of How Things Work, no matter how much we take this phenomenon for granted.

In On Writing, Steve King gives a lengthy example—which I’m going to paraphrase here, with apologies and thanks to the master—giving specific proof of what Writing can do.  He calls it telepathy; I imagine a neuro-psychologist would love to coin some suitably-eloquent and indecipherable wording to explain it; a Catholic priest would call it the God-breathed Word.  And here’s what it does.

You and I are not in the same room right now.  We are not talking, we are not looking at the same thing.  I’m at my desk, typing away, my wife and daughter napping on the couch nearby.  You are…somewhere else.  And now I am going to think of something, forming the image in my mind.  And now I am going to type out a Word:

Table.

And now, you have an image of a table in your mind.  Without a word being spoken, without being in the same place, looking at the same thing, I have just taken an idea in my mind and placed it in your mind.  Sounds like Magic/telepathy to me.

We may have different tables in our minds; the more Words I add, the more closely the table in my mind will resemble the one in yours.  I can say that the table is about thigh-high, intended for children.  It’s wood, a light blonde color, with a circular top and 4 legs.  There are some scattered papers on it, and along a section of one edge are some Dora the Explorer stickers.

And there:  not only have I transferred a thought from my mind to yours, but I have maintained that thought in your mind, and modified it.

Writing is potent stuff.

It is Magic, it is telepathy, it is ritual.  And as any priest/witch/psychologist will tell you, intent affects results.  The more specifically-focused the intent, the more specific the results.  There’s a reason they put on the dress for Mass, and go through the whole rigmarole, rather than just sitting on a couch eating saltines and drinking some two-buck Chuck.  Ultimately, it’s the same actions…but it’s the placement, the specificity of intent, that influences the results.

And so—especially in what I’m doing, abandoning the meta arc and zeroing in on each word, each shape, each possible moment—it’s not just the words that matter, it’s their use, their placement, their shape.

Tell me if you really think that these two examples, when read for the first time, will have a similar impact on the reader:

When I went there, I didn’t know what she was thinking, but I was hoping, praying, that it would go better than the last time.

versus

When I went there

I didn’t know

What she was thinking

But I was hoping

Praying

That it would go better

than the last time

This isn’t about prose versus poetry; we’re talking about many of the elements that inform that discussion, but ultimately, questions of word choice and placement can be explored without having to settle into just one categorical mode or another.  We’re talking about Writing, and Words, and when you spend the time to assess and implement placement, and formatting, with specific intent…that’s when actions become ritual, when a whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

When writing becomes Writing, and the Word become Flesh.

And at that point, I can do more than just put a table in your head:  I can make it dance, and sing, and if I’m good enough, make you cry in sorrow and heartache when it leaves.

So fuck off Facebook, and anyone else who plays so casually and shallowly with something so potent.

A few things…

Before I get started, a few things to know:

1) I hate blogging.  I hate schedules.  I hate deadlines.  I hate posting things at regular intervals.  I may drop in and post several things in one day, and then go radio silent for days or weeks.  These are the rules of engagement.

2) I hate People.  Not specific people–there are a lot of people I really like, many I love–just People, in the aggregate, abstract sense.  I’m a hermit.  I will probably say things to offend, and most of the time it will be intentional.  Don’t take it personally…if I know you, you’re not People, and that thing I just said that made you shift uncomfortably in your chair, it wasn’t about you, it was about Them.

3) I hate social networking.  I even hate that phrase, “social networking”.  I don’t really need to know that you’re going to the store, thanks, fuck off.  Unfortunately, there’s a legitimate fear that too much ignoring of this whole bullshit could lead to luddititis.  And in order to think, I need to grok, and I need to know what’s there.  And it appears–if nothing else, just in the massive size of a data set–that there might be something there.  I imagine single-celled organisms were pretty fucking boring and trite back in the day too.  They evolved to something more interesting; I’m praying this will too.

And now a word about the title of this thing:

Pretentiously-eloquent microfiction is a pretentiously-eloquent way of saying, briefly, that I like writing, and think I’m good at it.  I like words, and the shapes they make, here and there.  I like stories, and am pretty good at telling them.

The problem I’ve run into is the first rule of storytelling:  show, don’t tell.  Which means it’s either a really stupid fucking first rule, or a really stupid fucking name.  It should be storyshowing.  And I’m horrible at storyshowing.  Great at storytelling, but no one (including myself) is going to want to read just one more page of what I do before going to bed.  They may love it, but someone reading it (including myself) is more likely to put it down, walk away, and chew on it for awhile to see if they can sort out exactly what just hit them than they are to keep reading to find out what happens next.

And so, “pretentiously” (with apologies to Warren Ellis…eh, fuck it, he said it better than I can, so here it is verbatim):

“We’re deathly afraid of that stabbing word “pretentious,” the word that students use to curse each other’s ambition.  It’s a young person’s word, a shortcut-to-thinking word. I’m a big fan of pretension.  It means “an aspiration or intention that may or may not reach fulfillment.”  It doesn’t mean failing upward.  It means trying to exceed your grasp.  Which is how things grow.”

And so, “eloquent”:

I like words.  A lot.  And not just all willy-nilly–it’s not a fetish–it’s just something I grok, and always have, and when you find something you grok, you love it, and hold on to it.  I doubt I’d ever win a comparison of vocabulary sizes…but it’s not the size that matters, it’s how you use it.  [Insert obligitory “lightning bug vs. lightning” Mark Twain quote here, followed by slightly-less-known but far-more-accurate Stephen King quote about the difference between the right word and almost right word being the difference between seeing lighting strike a hill off in the distance and sitting right there when that motherfucker comes on down.]

And so, “microfiction”:

Ignoring the conventional rules of storytelling like a 14 year-old me at a high school dance and taking a few lines, or paragraphs, or even pages, and chewing them up, savoring and allowing them to do what they do.   Using a food metaphor, this shit isn’t appetizers:  those are supposed to be noshed on in passing, getting you ready for the real meal to come later.  This shit isn’t a full meal either…thus the “micro” bit in there.  It’s like a tasting menu:  small moments of specific, intentional experience.

And so…on with the show.