Yesterday I read an essay by a woman who got divorced after only fifteen months of marriage and kept her husband’s name. I thought the essay might teach me something about life, or loss, or identity, but it turned out to be more like watching somebody pick their nose on a subway platform. Still, I kept reading, hungry for details– who was the affair with? Somebody he knew from childhood? What needy, clingy character traits of hers finally drove him away? By the end, I felt a little bit creepy, like a rubbernecker, slowing down to watch a car accident on the side of the road. I was embarrassed for the writer, who mistook self-revelation for art, and ashamed of myself for not looking away. I am left with this idea: I will read almost anything, because I’m voraciously curious about the human experience. But the best writing transcends that experience, and helps me become more humane.
Save the Cat seemed like an incredibly fresh approach to story development when I first started reading it. Blake Snyder describes a writing sequence close to the one I practice and teach: idea to premise to character to beats. But somewhere in the discussion of premise and character he slipped into a discussion of genre, and started saying things like: it doesn’t matter how old you are, make every story about a teenager, because that’s the only movie that can make money. The advice, possibly true, incensed me. I refuse to be converted. If all we’re doing is pitching ad copy to restless teenagers, why bother writing at all? And how to explain “Still Alice” or “Love is Strange”? Blake Snyder cares passionately about commercial success, but it’s not the only victory, or the best victory, and it may not be the victory we mean to seek. In addition to developing our craft, we need to develop our intention: understand why we are writing and then commit fearlessly to that goal. The world may not reward us financially, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be rewarded, or that the story doesn’t matter.
Last night I bumped into the part of On Writing where King pronounces plot the last refuge of scoundrels and fools. He calls plot a jack-hammer, the bad writer’s last (or first) resort. He then goes on to say he relies on situation and character instead, putting a character in a situation and letting them work their way to resolution, using his intuition to help them out along the way. He claims that jotting down a single note about what happens breaks the flow, as if the story plays itself like a symphony, and taking notes is like opening a big crumply distracting bag of potato chips right in the middle. Later he contradicts himself: he wrote notes about Misery on a plane to London. And before he started writing, he had expanded the premise into a short outline, if not on paper then in his head: the rabid fan keeps the writer prisoner until he writes the next installment of her favorite series; in the end, the novel is published, there are awards on her wall, and the writer is a lampshade on her desk. He has, in spite of his admonishments, set up a few plot points before starting, including both a beginning and an end, and a couple of sharp twists that hold up the middle. Every story needs plot. Understanding that helps you write better. What King objects to when he objects to plotting is formula, the writer who spins a wheel and says “insert car chase here,” or “girlfriend leaves him,” without regard for truth.
I have been reading On Writing (again), and I am dumbfounded by Stephen King’s craft. He describes the girl he used as a model for Carrie, bringing her vividly to life: a homely girl who came to school one September with completely new clothes, looking pretty for the first time. Instead of welcoming her into the fold, the other kids started tormenting her more aggressively than they ever did before. He summarizes the situation with a metaphor so succinct it stopped me short: she made a break for the fence, and the group took her down, that’s all; once the social order was restored they left her alone. He writes with the grace of Michael Jordon, making the shot look effortless. What you don’t think about is how many years of practice he put in. He has been writing every day since he was ten, continuing without a break for his entire life.