I was an extremely good student, which in many ways is terrible for writing. I spent my entire time in grade school, and then high school, and college, learning how to read and analyze great writing, and, worse, learning how to follow rules– rules of punctuation, structure and rhetoric. Not surprisingly, my love of writing, which was strong in childhood, gradually faded away. Some time after college I read Silences, by Tillie Olsen, which is about all the ways that we (especially women, people of color and people without resources) lose our voices. I was working as a secretary at the time, and I would sit in the stairwell during my lunch hour reading Silences and crying. It had never occurred to me that writers are made, not born, or that anybody with the dream of writing had a right to pursue it. Having had that revelation, I started writing and was almost immediately paralyzed. My years of study had left me adept at identifying bad writing, intimidated by good writing and completely without strategies for invention. Many writers– writers with better imagination or more courage– develop habits of play instinctively. I had to start from scratch, teaching myself to brainstorm, to build and rebuild stories, to fail and to dream. Cultivating those habits has been time-consuming and often frustrating. Which begs the question– why do we go to school? How could I have spent so much time there and learned so little?
Stephen King uses a wonderful metaphor to describe the creative process: he shows up every day to write, but he lets the “boys in the basement” do the heavy creative lifting. The boys solve the hard problems—characters who won’t behave, endings that don’t resolve. He trusts those guys, doesn’t worry too much when he loses a story thread, confident that if he walks away, they will fix it. Meanwhile he’s making dinner, or playing the guitar, or sleeping. You can tell from the way he talks about writing that it’s true—his deep unconscious, the mysterious place where ideas spring up, is populated by sturdy guys with huge biceps who hammer away, all the time. They sit down together at the end of the day and drink beer, don’t get their feelings hurt and don’t hold grudges. I liked that idea so much I tried it on—I could really use a reliable team to help me with my writing. Possibly because I’m a woman, I discovered I couldn’t convince a work crew, or even a convivial poker game, to take up residence in my imagination. But it got me thinking. If I don’t have boys down there, hammering away at my stories, what do I have? Birds, maybe? At first that idea seemed disappointing—birds aren’t very strong. In fact, boys sometimes make slingshots and fire rocks at them, for sport. But they do build astonishing nests. They find things, too, stuff that you can’t imagine, and would never expect– an old gym sock, woven delicately into something that looks like a long-looped Dr. Seuss shopping bag. Maybe I do have birds. Fragile, flighty, skittish, slightly mysterious to me. I have to leave them crumbs, and be patient. Too much noise sends them scattering.
This Ray Bradbury quote, which I like well enough to put on my wall— “Sit down and write, son. It will take care of all those moods you are having.”
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.