I drove by Stephen King’s house today to take a picture of his frog. It’s about three feet tall and a blue-green color. The sculpture, in the corner of King’s front lawn near a cluster of small shrubs and manicured flower beds, is my favorite part of his landscaping. King’s house in Bangor, Maine attracts lots of tourists and I doubt many of them see the frog in the corner. Every time I drive by there are a few cars with out-of-state plates snapping pictures of the big red house and metal gate. The house probably looks spooky to visitors but if you’ve spent any time up here and paid attention to Bangor’s “eclectic” architecture you’d realize that if it were two streets over King’s house would be carved up into fifteen apartments and rented out to Husson and UMaine undergraduates. The house is surrounded by a metal fence with a beautiful gate that serves as a backdrop to hundreds of tourist snapshots. The gate is, I imagine, what visitors expect to see when they drive by King’s house. It’s about five feet high, arched and tastefully decorated with gargoyles and spider webs. I doubt Stephen King’s green frog makes it into most of the tourist snapshots yet it is well worth checking out as it will surely bring a smile to your face.
King has been on mind this past week as I just finished his fabulous book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I haven’t read that many of King’s novels. I can think of three: Carrie, The Eyes of the Dragon and half of The Shining and that was way back in high school. I assign a King short story, “The Reach,” in my Introduction to Maine Studies course (one of my student’s favorite assignments) but beyond that King doesn’t cross my radar that often. When he does it’s usually because of his philanthropic work and generosity to the local area. On Writing isn’t a typical King novel. In fact it isn’t a novel at all. It’s a very personal and highly instructive meditation on writing. The book is as much autobiography as it is writing manual and that’s where the appeal lies for me. King’s immense body of work has wide appeal but this book, like the green frog, tends to get lost between the metal fence and the red house.
Maybe it’s just that this early in the summer I’m still under the illusion that I’ll get some great amount of writing done before the semester starts back up or maybe I’m doing some subconscious fall syllabus planning already. Either way, this book is resonating with me right now and I have pulled out a few important pieces that are, I think, worth pondering. These points are applicable to everyone who puts finger to key in an attempt to communicate with others and I think the rhythm and style of this book make it accessible to everyone from first-year students to seasoned writers. Although King is writing about fiction his points are universal and nonfiction writers could learn a lot from On Writing.
Kings’s book is full of ideas worth spending some time on but I will mention five that I wrote in my notes:
1. “If you write. . . someone will try to make you feel lousy about it.” And it will probably be more than one person. There is, I think, an overabundance of pointless criticism especially in academia. I’m not talking about legitimate critique here or rigorous analysis of argument and evidence; both are of great value and very instructive. I’m talking about the criticism that boils down to: “Why didn’t you write this book/article instead of the one you wrote” and the implied end to that sentence “if I wrote that book/article it would be so much better than yours.” We spend so much time ripping things apart that we forget how to put them together (just ask any ABD mired in year seven). This is a problem. It’s easy to miss value when our default position is to devalue. I worry that we model this behavior for students and suck the joy out of their lives. Teaching critical analysis is important but don’t be a joy sucking academic; stop mistaking critique with intellectual insecurity. I think it makes students (and colleagues) tentative in their own writing.
2. “When you write a story [or monograph or journal article], you’re telling yourself the story. . . When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” This one seems self-evident but we are all guilty of it. It’s hard to let go of a great footnote or colorful story. It helps if you have an editor and a strict word count but it’s still hard to let go. The ability to let go is a learned skill, especially important for grad students trying to finish a thesis of dissertation. If you can’t let go of the extra stuff you will never finish. Stick to the story!
3. “[P]ut your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” I’m wondering how many of you reading have your desk in the middle of the room? I don’t even have a writing desk. I wrote the beginning of this post at Giacomo’s in Bangor sitting at the only available table and I am finishing it in bed. For me writing is a job, not a passion. Like doing laundry and picking up the dog shit in the back yard it has to be done. It isn’t my life and it isn’t my love and it isn’t my baby (that would be my dog Piper). For others writing is the very essence of life and they think my mechanical approach is sacrilege . Writing propels many people I know and they anguish over every word, sentence and paragraph. Writer’s block might as well be physical paralysis. As graduate students we learn a very skewed and demoralizing set of things about writing: (1) I should be writing all the time (2) when I am not writing I am proving that I am nothing more than an impostor (3) my value as a human being directly correlates to the number of words I write each day. It’s hard to move out the number-of-words-equals-my-value model but I don’t think it’s possible to write anything of value if you don’t. Even if you like having your desk in the middle of the room give King’s point some thought. You may find it liberating.
4. Writing is telepathy. King takes all of four and a half pages to explain what writing is and really, he is just expanding on the point that it is a telepathic experience. “We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room. . . except we are together. We’re close. We’re having a meeting of the minds.” I think what resonated with me here is that this is really a statement about the importance of conceptualizing audience. For most of us the audience for our written work is five other people (plus our moms). More people read my blog posts than will likely read all of my academic work combined. I think academics would do well to spend time thinking about readers and potential audiences. We certainly don’t spend enough time writing for broad audiences. Thinking about writing as a meeting of the minds not bound by time and space is powerful.
5. “Writing fiction [or a monograph or journal article], especially a long work of fiction [or nonfiction], can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self doubt.” Fear controls so much of our actions especially when it comes to writing. It makes us turn to the thesaurus for a $10 word because we doubt our vocabulary (King discourages this) and causes us to trot out reams of adverbs to temper every claim we make (King will come to your house and scare the crap out of you if you don’t lay off the adverb usage). We show our drafts to others begrudgingly and always couch our submission in apologies that the format isn’t perfect or the narrative isn’t polished or the conclusions are still tentative. Being tentative, like being scared, or suffering from imposer syndrome is exhausting. Be realistic and brave.
And next time you are in Bangor, Maine go take a picture of yourself in front of Stephen King’s green frog.