Thursday, October 5, 2006

Writing Advice From a Master

Although I haven't adored every word he's ever written, I've always liked Stephen King, and I've always thought it was a pity that his talent has never been acknowledged by the literati. Money and fame? Sure. But not acclaim. Yet, he has a kind of genius self-awareness that he calls on to create characters that resonate with the masses. His talent allows him to express his ordinariness in ways that we get. He gets us. We get him. And it works.

King has an article, "The Writing Life" in the Sunday Books section of last week's Washington Post that reminds me yet again of why his talent is noteworthy. In the piece, King more than just hints about why he hasn't received much acclaim, and also why he's such a bloody genius anyway. He "gets" it.

There's a mystery about creative writing, but it's a boring mystery unless you're interested in this one small animal, sometimes quite vicious, that makes its home in the bushes. It's a scruffy little thing with fleas and often smells of whatever nasty mess it's been rolling in. It can never be more than semi-domesticated and isn't exactly known for its loyalty. I'll speak more of this beast -- to which the Greeks gave the comically noble name musa, which means song -- later, but in the meantime, believe me when I say there's little mystery or tragic romance about the rest of it, which is why they never show the working part in movies about writers, only the drinking, carousing and heroic puking in the gutter by the dawn's early light.

Dig this: The so-called "writing life" is basically sitting on your ass.

Spoken like a master.

You have to have a place, but it can be anywhere, really. You have to have some time, but it can be anytime.

It's nice to have your own place, I will admit that. And it's nice to have your own time because you can keep people from calling you on the phone and breaking your concentration. Of course, what they're really doing by breaking your concentration is scaring that scruffy little fleabag back into the bushes.

The place one calls one's study or writing room is really no more than a clearing in the woods where one trains the beast (insofar as it can be trained) to come. One doesn't call it; that doesn't work. One just goes there and picks up the handiest writing implement (or turns it on) and then waits. It usually comes...

But there's no shortcut to getting there. You can build yourself the world's most wonderful writer's studio, load it up with state-of-the-art computer equipment, and nothing will happen unless you've put in your time in that clearing...

And then, King nails it. Revealing, with brutal honesty, why he rarely receives acclaim from the literati.

I'm often asked if writing classes are any help, and my immediate and enthusiastic answer is always, Yes! Writing classes are wonderful for the writers who teach them and can't make ends meet without that supplementary income. They are also good places for unattached people to meet, talk about books and movies, have a few drinks and possibly hook up. But teach you to write? No. A writing class will not teach you to write. The only things that can teach writing are reading, writing and the semi-domestication of one's muse. These are all activities one must pursue alone.

Aspiring writers are told these things over and over again and constantly push them aside. They want something quicker. A magic bullet at Breadloaf. A secret passageway at Iowa. They are desperate for someone to tell them it's not what you do but who you know. And when I tell aspiring writers I didn't know anybody, I see the light go out of their eyes.

With writing, the important dues are not paid at Iowa. They are the dues you pay to your chair. Sitting on your ass.

Stephen King gets it.

You can read the whole article here (registration required).


Jane Henry said...

Hear, hear. Couldn't agree more.

I love Stephen King and think him one of our greatest living writers. In fact I am convinced he is the Dickens de nos jours. He has the same popular appeal but so often goes right to the heart of what makes people tick. I suspect his literary genius will get noticed after his death...

My feeling is that had his chosen genre not been horror his literary genius would have been noticed more. He is so versatile he could have done the literary stuff had he chosen. But I think the world's a better place for the stories he has written - so stuff the literary establishment I say.

(In the same vein I think the satirical genius of Terry Pratchett gets ignored because he writes comic fantasy.)

(a huge SK fan since stumbling across Carrie aged 13!)

Tess said...

Thanks for the quotes, Tamara - you're right, he really nails it!!