What King Said

Status report: Today, I revised the introduction. Well, most of it. I still have the footnotes to revise, but by the time I go to sleep tonight, they will be done. Then, I’ll read it over again tomorrow and sent it to my readers. I don’t have any more footnotes to write: I finished writing the last of the footnotes today. So as of today, there’s nothing, literally nothing, left to write on the dissertation. It’s all revisions. And to be honest, at this point I’m revising sentences for clarity. That’s it.

It feels very good to be in this position. (Although my back aches and I can’t seem to focus on anything. At all. By the end of this process, I will have been reduced to a wretched specimen of homo academicus. But the dissertation will be done.) I haven’t yet received comments on the chapters, but those should come early next week. And once I’ve revised those, well, that will be it. The whole thing will be put together and in my committee’s boxes on the 6th. And then I will collapse.

I did take a short break today to go to the bookstore. I bought Jorge Luis Borges’ On Writing and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. I don’t know why all I can focus on now are books on writing. Perhaps it’s because I can’t actually write, and they keep me going. They give me something without taking effort or a great deal of concentration to read.

But I promised that I would talk about some of the things I liked in Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I’ll just include four quotations here:

“At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style . . . but as we move along, you’ll do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.”

I like the idea of the toolbox, of my writing tools. That’s how I feel approaching a story, as though I’m using my tools to create something. And yet, I know at the same time that what flows through me, what I have been trained to channel, is a sort of magic. Something that is only partly mine, that flows through me but is also from outside me. That I am a sort of highly trained conduit.  And I always hope I have the training, the ability, to get that magic on the page.  (Sometimes I don’t.)

“There are no bad dogs, according to the title of a popular training manual, but don’t tell that to the parent of a child mauled by a pit bull or a rottweiler; he or she is apt to bust your beak for you. And no matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.”

A little later, he says, “Writers form themselves into the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent and human creativity.” For King, that pyramid consists of the bad writers, the competent writers, the good writers (which is where I think he places himself). “Above them – above almost all of us – are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys. They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain.”

What do I think of this? After all, I’m a professional teacher of writing, so this is within my area of expertise. I think there are bad writers, but they can be trained to be competent. And competent writers can be trained to be good writers. It’s a bit like training a musician: you have to train the musician in technique, but you also have to train the ear, the instinct. I don’t think you can train great writers. Greatness is something else, something it’s probably better for all of us not to think about too much. It’s something we should aim for in a sort of oblique way, never looking at it straight. Realizing it’s there, but also realizing that if it comes, in a particular story, it’s always a gift. It’s a gift you prepare for by training, but not something that training will achieve. The great writers he describes are the ones who were gifted in that way on a regular basis. But they also aimed for it, worked on it, while perhaps focusing primarily on other things, like filling the Globe theater and not angering James I. Writing is not like singing: there are no natural, untrained great writers.

“But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on. There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair.”

First of all, my muse looks very different from King’s! (Imagine North Wind from At the Back of the North Wind. That’s what she looks like.) But one thing I admire about King, in this book, is his dedication to his craft. Despite the fact that he hasn’t been taken all that seriously as a writer – something he’s very aware of – he takes himself and his craft seriously. I want to be like that too. I think I am like that, or at least I try to be. Because I believe that creating art is one of the reasons we’re here, as human beings. To the extent we’re doing it, and trying to do it as well as we can, we’re doing something noble and worthwhile.

I have more quotations I want to discuss, but they’ll have to wait until tomorrow. This blog post is already long enough.

But it’s good to think about writing while I’m not able to do it regularly, while I’m so absorbed in finishing the dissertation. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the past year. Sometimes it seems to me as though it’s been a year of stasis, a year in which things didn’t happen. But I think what actually happened was internal: I’m a different person now than I was a year ago. I still feel the same way, still want the same things. But now I have the strength and ability to make them happen. So this is going to be the year in which things happen. Just watch!

Oh, and did you want to see what my muse looks like? Here you go:

(This is an illustration for At the Back of the North Wind by Jessie Wilcox Smith.)

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2 Responses to What King Said

  1. Alice says:

    It’s funny. I don’t think of a muse–either King’s boys in the basement or your more ethereal one. Though sometimes when I write–very rarely–I feel a kind of current. That’s not the right word, but as close as I can get. Like I’m channeling something.

  2. Yes, that’s the sense I get too sometimes, that I’m channeling something. As though the images and ideas are coming from outside me. And I know that I’m responsible for shaping them, using the right words in the right order. But it’s as though the writing is a collaboration between me and something external to me, or perhaps a part of myself that I don’t usually have access to. That experience has shaped my idea of what writing is, that it’s not something completely conscious or over which I have total control. There’s a lot in it that has to do with chance, with fate perhaps. And I approach the writing of other people that way: I don’t assume that what they consciously intended is necessarily what the text is about. Because I know that’s not true for me. Stuff gets in there that I never intended, and once I look at it again, later, I often see deeper levels (or someone else writes about my story and shows them to me).

    Maybe that current is our connection to parts of our own mind, or to the universe itself . . . 🙂

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