For the past several days I have been reading Stephen King’s book “On writing: a memoir of the craft“. It was like reading a eulogy – his eulogy – or at the very least his c.v. (a disturbing insight into the hollow vanity that seemingly plagues every writer). It was anything but an instruction manual as I had expected it to be. I admit that the first part of the book – his autobiography – was entertaining (though frankly in a bar room drunk-talk sort of way).
This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do— not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.
But the central part of the book – about how to write – was tedious. It’s so-called revelations were hardly new – avoid being loquacious, avoid adverbs, avoid clichés, be honest. In the end he gave no hint of what it is to be a good writer other than retailing the popular affection for vulgarity. Neither did it help that the thrust of the book was about writing fiction, something I’ve never been inclined to do (partly I suppose because I view a good deal of my own life as approaching fiction or better than make-believe). The last part of the book (the other bookend) was mildly relieving though it did little more than project the human inclination for vengeance (he positively hated the bastard who hit him while walking on the side of the road – as well he should – but the account did nothing to heighten my opinion of him or to enlarge upon his talent for writing). The appendix to the book was a reading list. From that I derived reassurance because it spotlighted those whom I consider have real talent – Conrad, Dickens, Golding, Maughan, Waugh and the like.
The problem is that he nearly succeeded to suck me into thinking that I might want to follow his example. Which upon reflection I do not. He and I were born about the same time (1947 for him, 1948 for me) so we share certain background experiences, the general noise of popular news, music and world events. But I noted with no inconsiderable disdain that he spoke dismissively about Jane Austen, my literary hero. That did it! Up to that point I had merely had my suspicions. But as soon as he looked down upon Jane Austen as “grand” and suggested she was “out of date” I knew he and I were not communicating. At all!
If I were a Henry James or Jane Austen sort of guy, writing only about toffs or smart college folks, I’d hardly ever have to use a dirty word or a profane phrase; I might never have had a book banned from America’s school libraries or gotten a letter from some helpful fundamentalist fellow who wants me to know that I’m going to burn in hell, where all my millions of dollars won’t buy me so much as a single drink of water. I did not, however, grow up among folks of that sort. I grew up as apart of America’s lower middleclass, and they’re the people I can write about with the most honesty and knowledge. It means that they say shit more often than sugar when they bang their thumbs, but I’ve made my peace with that. Was never much at war with it in the first place, as a matter of fact.
What he’s saying is that he and I are not the same. And we’re not. Besides which he grossly underestimated the flair of Austin’s “toffs” for profanity, frankly a common misstatement. My autobiography does not in the least resemble his. So it hardly makes sense for me to imagine that we are alike much less for me to attempt to emulate him by extension. There is no reason we should be the same nor that I should follow his lead. I frequently get mixed up when I have been through an experience which touches me – as his book did (the first and last parts anyway). It is my constant failing to drift into an alternate universe when I suppose I can suddenly turn off all my bad habits and change into something as dynamic as what I just read or saw. It’s the stuff of movies and teenage heart throbs! You would think I’d be reluctant to confess such lapses of judgement but I rather take pride that I can be swept away by music and art of any description. When however I have been carried down the river long enough by a flood of emotion I eventually get thrown back onto terra firma and regain my senses. As fond as I am of Mr. King’s writing, there is little that he told me about the process. Nor do his “millions of dollars” assist.
People without knowledge or experience can profit from the wisdom of others, certainly. The signposts mark the way in what is otherwise just a blur. But when someone is as old as I am there is no expectation of landing in a different meadow. And I have enough of my own vanity and conviction to believe that I’ll find my way out. There’s a reason I never worked in large offices – I am not a team player. If anything I was a humble servant to the rich. But at least I knew how to handle their affairs. In fact, that observation nicely illustrates my point – that different people know how to handle different situations, especially as I agree that upbringing has a great deal to do with it. It’s almost instinctive, maybe even genetic. Or what perilously some might call breeding. In short it is nonsense to think a person with my life-experience would come anywhere near being able to recount the tales of a Stephen King.
My training is in philosophy (which subsequently graduated into the clinical expression of law). Both disciplines are founded on logic, one being unfathomable, the other interpretable. If you believe as I do that there is a discoverable explanation for everything then fiction is about the furthest you’ll ever be from what I think and perceive. And honestly, when it comes to transcribing my own sentiments I refuse to rely upon street jargon. There is naturally a resistance by some to constrained talk but I find it goes exceedingly well with a frozen vodka martini and a well-stoked fireplace. Call me old fashioned but Noël Coward is my idea of funny.
If writing is truly a passion then it qualifies as a means of self-expression (which doesn’t necessarily include a lapse into the vernacular). I need music and writing to make myself plain. I would like to have the talent of a great pianist or a great author but until that day I am quite content to keep banging on either keyboard. In the end no one will give a damn. And even those who currently enjoy fame do so in my opinion at some considerable risk since I don’t think it ultimately matters. There are just too many sad stories about the rich and the famous to imagine that it counts. I won’t even dignify the hypothesis by considering any piffle about having money and power and position – that only strengthens the paradox. It’s even worse if you “knew them before”. Fame is just someone else’s capital, a talking point at best and usually no more than a way to make a living (by talking about famous people). The bottom line is that no amount of alignment with fame will go far to explain a talent which is best summarized as, “You’ve got it or you don’t”.
Oh, this sounds so disillusioned! Really, I am sorry! All I wanted to say is that the reason Stephen King took so long to write his book about writing is that he still doesn’t know how to do it! Anymore than a rose knows how to be what it is. All his efforts to implode – the booze and the drugs (and nearly being run over) – still didn’t destroy that fragile seed. Likely he had nothing to do with it in the first place. Glad I didn’t make that mistake. I’ll just go back to banging on my computer and my keyboard. Whew! That was close!