Finished “On Writing.” Finally came to the conclusion that Stephen King is a congenial enough guy, but also a bit of a bully. Dispensing homey, kitchen wisdom that seduces with its lack of syllables and art— “cat got your tongue?” “wouldn’t shake a stick at–” The language is so friendly you might be tempted to think he’s your friend. But what he’s really doing, the subtext, is drawing a careful line in the sand, a circle around real writers, the ones who get it, or have it, and keeping everybody else outside.
What I have been doing: chewing compulsively through writer blogs— writers talking to each other, talking about writing, talking about their books, writers giving helpful advice. Most of them make me want to quit. Stephen King writes a nearly perfect book about writing and after reading it I’m ready to hang it up for good. Everything he says makes him seem so much smarter than I could ever hope to be, intimidatingly smart, his homey, small town dialect notwithstanding. And then he writes, if you aren’t enjoying yourself, don’t write.
My chest caves in with despair and lack of air. Some writers enjoy doing this. (Why? Because they were well-liked as children? Because they aren’t perfectionists? Because they have such huge egos they actually believe perfection can be attained, or has been attained, by them? Because they have practiced long enough? Because they have Aspberger’s?) However it happened, writing is so much fun for them that when they aren’t writing they share helpful tips, starting with, writing should be fun.
I am blessed to have a peaceful marriage, to a person that I really, truly, love. Steady, daily love, the good stuff, a person I am glad to see every morning after more than thirty years. I don’t have the same juju with writing, which turns out to be the great, unrequited love of my life. Every day has felt stolen, wrestled, cajoled, torn, cobbled. Every day I ask myself, should I have been a therapist? A teacher? A lawyer? I keep trying to change, but in the end, that’s the writer I turned out to be. Stephen King writes because he can’t not write, because he enjoys writing too much to stop. I fight to write, every day, against relentless doubts and fears. I write like somebody leaning into strong headwinds, trying to make it home without a coat or a compass. I write lost, and frostbitten, and terrified— when I am not hiding under my covers, taking a nap, planning alternate careers. I am not brimming with stories. I am a slow drip. I answer no to every “You are a writer if…” question on every internet quiz I have ever taken.
But still. There are all these years. I’m still here. Could we count those years for something?
I want to say, to myself, to all those other writers who might be out there, tormented and tongue-tied, not having fun, dreams buried under too many obligations and distractions and negative self talk: don’t give up. You’re still here.
Yesterday I was thinking about Stephen King, who had a car accident that crushed all the bones in his body, and when he was convalescing got his wife to prop him up in a tiny alcove by his hospital bed so that he could start writing again, even though he was in excruciating pain. I wondered. Was it something that he loved that much?
Telling stories is hard for me, hard enough that I avoid it when I can, doing other things instead, like cleaning the kitchen, or cooking, or breaking my computer so I can fix it. Which is why it seemed fitting, not even ironic, when my computer helpfully broke itself so that I wouldn’t have to start this morning.
Yesterday Jesse and I watched 1408, a horror flick based on a Stephen King short story. It was really good. So good I looked it up, wondering why it hadn’t gotten better reviews. It turns out it got pretty good reviews from critics, but not audiences. I concluded that the audiences wanted to see “Saw” or “Tales from the Crypt” and got an Edgar Allen Poe story, which disappointed. I, on the other hand, after seeing many movies based on Stephen King short stories, am beginning to think he’s a genius. All of his stories are seeds, not ordinary seeds, but seeds that yield strong, flourishing, complex, nuanced plots. Like a person who sniffs coffee beans, I feel like I can tell the difference, between the commonplace, over-used idea and the dark, layered kernels he comes up with. And yet he, like Spielberg, gets little credit for what he has done. Even I am inclined to dismiss it, “just horror,” until I watch the movie and see all its layers.
Jesse and I paused the movie in the middle to look up Dante’s Inferno, coming to understand that this story is based on his nine circles of hell, each level characterized by a different and increasingly personal torment. The evil room sends guests not into a world of impersonal demons, but into the world of demons that belongs uniquely to them, saving the most vicious, difficult demon for last. Hell, which seems at first random, located outside of the self, turns out to have roots in the deepest secrets of your own private suffering. And so the story morphed from one of spooks and things that go bump in the night into one of a man forced to confront, and finally overcome, his greatest loss, the moment when he gave up on God and his own life.
The whole second act pushes the protagonist to confront that moment. He is given a choice, right before the beginning of the final act: a noose. Express Checkout. And that’s when he gets his resolve: no, I am not going to give up. I’m going to fight back. I’m going to fight until it’s over. His decision: it’s better to fight, even if it kills you, than to let despair win.
It’s a beautiful, deliberate structure, a beautiful performance, a beautiful, sad story, and one that went largely unnoticed, some critics allowing that it was a very good movie, but a big chunk of the audience not liking it very much.
People like to be scared. They also like their demons to be simple and external, not painful and private. They like happy endings. They like to be shocked. They like to think, but not too much. These are the entertainments we seek, the way we are drawn to MacDonald’s hamburgers, things that go down easy, fast and cheap.
What’s my point? Realizing, I guess, that some strong, worthy stories don’t succeed, not because they don’t deserve it, but because of their genre, or the tolerance of the audience for the material, or the message. Because of bad luck, or bad timing. In the end, it’s not just how well you tell your story, but also what kind of story people want. All we can do, really, is keep our head down and do the work.