Tag Archives: Stephen King

Four Writing Lessons I Learned from Listening to Stephen King

Stephen King Reads from Doctor Sleep

Stephen King taking questions. (Thanks to my boyfriend for taking this pic from his spot in line.)

A week ago today I was lucky enough to see Stephen King read, thanks to the fact that my boyfriend snapped up tickets for the two of us and his brother as soon as they went on sale. King’s appearance was part of a very limited promo tour for the release of Doctor Sleep, King’s new book, which is also a sequel to his beloved classic The Shining. One thousand tickets went on sale, and each included a copy of the book, of which 250 were signed by King and distributed randomly (two of them to us!). As you can imagine the event sold out very quickly.

I cannot explain how special the night was. My boyfriend has been a lifelong fan of King but has never seen him read solo, so that was really great. Moreover, the reading was held at Memorial Church at Harvard Yard, a beautiful and expansive white church with high ceilings that was also slightly eerie thanks to the dimmed lights, a candelabra and a poster-size setup of the book’s cover on the stage.

Any preconception that King might be the introverted/retiring-writer type was trounced immediately: He was funnier than most comedians (until he passed his hand over his face and, with a deep voice said, “Okay, now it’s time for me to be a serious writer type”), super sharp, and utterly charming. Even his sprinkling of “blue language” only served to further endear him to the audience. And best of all—if you live around these parts anyway—he came the podium making sure to point out the most important piece of his ensemble: a Red Sox 2013 AL East Champs shirt. (You know you’re at a Boston-area reading when, before the Q&A portion of the appearance, one of the event organizers makes sure to update everyone on the Sox score.)

In case you couldn’t be there, here are four (of the many) pieces of wisdom King imparted to us. (Note: Quotes are meant to give a feeling of immediacy, rather than indicate complete accuracy. Plus, in the spirit of the first bullet, King has looked over this post himself and approved of all content herewith.)

Master the art of the lie.

“For many years, I had a big black beard,” King told us. “Of course, now it would be pure white,” he said, pointing to his hair. But early in his career—he’d been at this writing thing about four years or so—he was sitting at the counter at the Original Nathan’s Famous on Coney Island, eating his meal, a book open in front of him as usual. Soon, he became aware that the cook was staring at him from his spot in the kitchen, his brow wrinkled. After a bit, the cook ambled over to King and said, “Hey aren’t you…,” King pauses here and affects a hokey voice, “someone?”

I’m getting recognized, King thinks, and with that his pride puffs and his posture straightens. “‘Why, yes, I am,'” he tells the cook.

“I mean like someone…famous?” the cook says. He studies King and then recognition hits. The cook snaps his fingers. “I got it—you’re Francis Ford Coppola.”

King pauses here, and looks around at the audience, a sly smile playing on his lips. “Why, yes,” he says, his voice deepening, “Why yes, I am.”

“Writers,” he said, “we’re all liars. Don’t believe anything we say.” He paused. “Except that story—that was true.”

Use your neuroses and fears to make money—not give it away.  

Stephen-King-stageMuch of King’s work has prompted speculation as to its creator’s emotional well-being. So it wasn’t surprising that one of the questions he cleared up prior to the Q&A portion of the evening—his “front-loaded” questions and answers—was “What happened to you to mess you up so badly that you can write about the things you do?” His answer, “Well, nothing.” Actually, he said, “I was a normal kid. Now I’m probably the most well-adjusted guy in this room.” As the audience erupted in laughter at the latter statement, he jerked his head toward some guy to his left in one of the front pews, “Nah, that guy thinks he’s the most well-adjusted person in the room,” he said.

“But seriously….” King told us that getting all that dark matter onto the page is cathartic. In contrast to all those people who pay so much money to therapists, King says he’s found no need for such a service: He funnels all his “material,” the inner turmoil and so on that a person might bring to said therapist, to the page.

A second part to that inquiry, King told us, tends to center around whether he gives himself nightmares with what he writes. With rare exceptions (one would be The Shining‘s Mrs. Massey in 217), King’s sleep tends to be not only nightmare-free, but virtually dream-free altogether. “I hardly dream,” he said. “Writing is dreaming.”

Cherish your lack of celebrity.

line-for-stephen-king-doctor-sleep-readingKing told us he’s often asked what it’s like to be famous. “Well, it’s weird,” he said. “Boston’s not soooo bad,” he said. “In the Boston area people mostly leave me alone.” As illustration, King transforms into a Boston guy passing the writer by on the street. King jerks his chin up once in a guy greeting, “Hey Steve, how ’bout those f%#kin’ Red Sox,” then continues on his way.

Still, King said that even in Boston, where the attention to fame is low-key, being a celebrity author can be strange. One of the reasons: “Being a writer is like being a secret agent,” King said. “We should be watching you, not the other way around.”

Combat writer’s block with exercise.

During the Q&A section, King was asked if he ever gets writer’s block. Perhaps surprisingly, coming from one of modern literature’s most prolific authors, King has occasionally struggled with this condition. But, he told us, “You usually see the wall coming ahead of time.” As illustration, King gave us some background on his writing style. He relayed that he was horrified when his friend John Irving told him that he writes the last sentence early on so he knows the direction he’s heading with the novel he’s writing. In contrast, King said that he himself is a “fairly intuitive writer,” feeling his way along the thread that guides him along the story’s journey. Sometimes it’s easy to find that thread. Sometimes—not so much.

In the first category: “Annie Wilkes of Misery just came forward,” King said. “I was at a writing conference, when a woman came up to me, hugged me close, and whispered into my ear”—here King affects syrupy midwestern lady voice—”‘Oh, I wish I could just take you home,’ she said. ‘I have a story I want you to write.'”

stephen-king-golden-podiumBut sometimes things aren’t so easy. “Following the thread,” said King, “sometimes it’s hard to see; sometimes it breaks.” Such was the case when he was writing The Stand. He said that his plan was to start by focusing on one character in one chapter, then for the next chapter add another character, who he would then focus on, and so on until the story expanded to about 30 characters. Then the process would reverse, as The Stand‘s characters would be eliminated. Only it didn’t work out that way.

“I had all these characters, and I didn’t know what to do about it them,” he said. They were having political meetings and nobody would want to read that,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is boring as sh#t.'”

Luckily, he had an epiphany. He was taking one of his walks (which he talks about in On Writing, and he had an epiphany. “A bomb! It will kill lots of characters off,” he said. Which didn’t make everyone happy, of course, he told us, but that’s a different story….and lesson.

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How to Tell If You Really Want to Be a Writer

Detail from inside Bukowski Tavern in Boston

Detail from inside Bukowski Tavern in Boston

Wondering if you’re a “real” writer? A few authors have thoughts on the subject.

Yesterday I came across the Salon article “Better yet, DON’T write that novel,” in which Laura Miller lamented the commerce surrounding the be-a-writer industry generally and NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, specifically. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a contest of sorts in which writers work to achieve the goal of writing 50,000 words or more during the month of November.

I was struck by a number of points the article brought up. Here’s one: “Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say.”

It’s not a new idea of course. That idea underpins so many notions about writers (especially the starving artist kind) and shows up in books about writing, such as the example set by Stephen King throughout On Writing. (I find it absolutely astonishing what he accomplished under the influence of alcohol and drugs but that’s a post for another day…). King encapsulates so much of his motivation when he writes, “I’ve written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”

In another part of the book he says, “For me, not writing is the real work. When I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good.”

Those are powerful words. When writing, he feels most at home. Not to say there isn’t effort. But there is a sense of alignment.

Or to put it another way: If you have to try that hard, maybe writing is not for you.

I will leave the elaboration of that point to Mr. Bukowski, the patron saint of indefatigable writers (and other lost causes) everywhere.

so you want to be a writer

by Charles Bukowski

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
else,
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

From Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way: New Poems

Counterargument

Then there’s the opposite view, represented by this Steven Pressfield quote from The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles: “If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”

What do you think?

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