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.

I have been getting better at letting there be silence in my day. At waiting, when I can’t think of what to say, or I can’t muster the will to do it. I haven’t ever really learned how to moodle, how to just sit there until some silverfish of an idea flickers by, get still enough that all the silverfish come out, and hold my breath, and watch them, and see what shapes they make. My unhelpful voice says what if no fish ever come out? Isn’t that lazy? Isn’t that an incredible waste of time? You need to prove your commitment to writing by making words. But maybe, something that I haven’t really thought of before, maybe writing is both an effort and a not effort. Maybe there is waiting, and poking around, and wondering, and then working really fast, and hard, for a concentrated time.

John Updike observes that everybody, even the most prolific poet he knows, considers being blocked as a regular part of the cycle of writing. Somebody else said they can only write for two or three hours when they are incubating ideas. Even Stephen King said he always has two stories going– one of them his real project, which he does in the morning, and the other one his “toy train”, which he fiddles with in the afternoon, trying to see if it will ever become something he wants to commit to.
More recently I try not to hurry myself, to let myself be patient, to cultivate the silence out of which some idea might slip, silver fish, and hover long enough for me to notice it.