November 10, 2007

John MacDonald on Writing

I am indebted to John MacDonald for his following introduction to Stephen King's collection of short stories entitled, Night Shift. As MacDonald himself writes of Stephen King, "I am entitled to hate him a little bit for this"; I wish I had written these words myself. Bless the man for finding words to many of writers' struggles and insecurities and frustrations when those battles are brushed off as being an easy way to make a living. Grrr.

"I am often given the big smiling handshake at parties (which I avoid attending whever possible) by someone who then, with an air of gleeful conspiracy, will say, 'You know, I've always wanted to write.'

I used to try to be polite.

These days I reply with the same jubilant excitement, 'You know, I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon.'

They look puzzled. It doesn't matter. There are a lot of puzzled people wandering around lately.

If you want to write, you write.

The only way to learn to write is by writing. And that would not be a useful approach to brain surgery.

Stephen King always wanted to write and he writes.

So he wrote Carrie and 'Salem's Lot and The Shining, and the good short stories you can read in this book, and a stupendous number of other stories and books and fragments and poems and essays and other unclassifiable things, most of them too wrteched to ever publish.

Because that is the way it is done.

Because there is no other way to do it. Not one other way.

Compulsive diligence is almost enough. But not quite. You have to have a taste for words. Gluttony. You have to want to roll in them. You have to read millions of them written by other people.

You read everything with grinding envy or a weary contempt.

You save the most contempt for the people who conceal ineptitude with long words, Germanic sentence structure, obtrusive symbols, and no sense of story, pace, or character.

Then you have to start knowing yourself so well that you begin to know other people. A piece of us is in every person we can ever meet.

Okay, then. Stupendous diligence, plus word-love, plus empathy, and out of that can come, painfully, some objectivity.

Never total objectivity.

At this frangible moment in time I am typing these words on my blue machine, seven lines down from the top of my page two of this introduction, knowing clearly the flavor and meaning I am hunting for, but not at all certain I am getting it.

Having been around twice as long as Stephen King, I have a little more objectivity about my work than he has about his.

It comes so painfully and so slowly.

You send books out into the world and it is very hard to shuck them out of the spirit. They are tangled children, trying to make their way in spite of the handicaps you have imposed on them. I would give a pretty to get them all back home and take one last good swing at every one of them. Page by page. Digging and cleaning, brushing and furbishing. Tidying up.

Stephen King is a far, far better writer at thirty than I was at thirty, or at forty.

I am entitled to hate him a little bit for this.

And I think I know of a dozen demons hiding in the bushes where his path leads, and even if I had a way to warn him, it would do no good. He whips them or they whip him.

It is exactly that simple.

Are we all together so far?

Diligence, word-lust, empathy equal growing objectivity and then what?

Story. Story. Dammit, story!

Story is something happening to someone you have been led to care about. It can happen in any dimension--physical, mental, spiritual--and in combinations of those dimensions.

Without author intrusion.

Author intrusion is: 'My God, Mama, look how nice I'm writing!'

Another kind of intrusion is grotesquerie. Here is one of my favorite, culled from a Big Best Seller of yesteryear: 'His eyes slid down the front of her dress.'

Author intrusion is a phrase so inept the reader suddenly realizes he is reading, and he back out of the story. He is shocked back out of the story.

Another author intrusion is a mini-lecture embedded in the story. This is one of my most grievous failing.

An image can be neatly done, be unexpected, and not break the spell. In a story in this book called 'Trucks,' Stephen King is writing about a tense scene of waiting in a truck stop, describing the people: 'He was a salesman and he kept his display bag close to him, like a pet dog that had gone to sleep.

I find that neat.

In another story he demonstrates his good ear, the ring of exactness and truth he can give dialogue. A man and his wife are on a long trip. They are traveling a back road. She says: 'Yes, Burt, I know we're in Nebraska, Burt. But where the hell are we?' He says: 'You've got the road atlas. Look it up. Or can't you read?'

Nice. It looks so simple. Just like brain surgery. The knife has an edge. You hold it so. And cut.

Now at risk of being an iconoclast I will say that I do not give a diddly-whoop what Stephen King chooses as an area in which to write. The fact that he presently enjoys writing in the field of spooks and spells and slitherings in the cellar is to me the least important and useful fact about the man anyone can relate.

There are a lot of slitherings in here, and there is a maddened pressing machine that haunts me, as it will you, and there are enough persuasively evil children to fill Disney World on any Sunday in February, but the main thing is story.

September 18, 2007

In Trouble from Reading

My reading, once again, got me into trouble this morning.

I took Nathan to a nearby town to run some errands, and we stopped at their library. Nathan loves this stop due to the children's room complete with train table, crayons, stuffed animals, computer games, etc. Usually I can just walk him through the front door and he heads for the children's room like a carrier pigeon.

There were only a few things I wanted to look for, but (wonder of wonders) I got side-tracked by a historical fiction book about Helen of Troy. I stood by the shelf for 15-20 minutes before I finally came to my senses and remembered I was a mom with a toddler on the loose.

Nathan, thankfully, was still in the children's room. Unhappily, there was evidence that he hadn't been in the children's room the whole time: a couple aisles in the children's book section had 20+ books pulled out of the stacks and spread on the floor.

When Nathan came to see what I was doing on the floor (revisiting my ability to alphabetize books by authors' last names), I told him to sit next to me. Bad idea #2 - he immediately started wailing without giving any thought to the pervasive silence around him.

The books did get re-shelved (I hope I shelved them close enough to where they were supposed to be), Nathan's crying quit, and we got back out to our vehicle in one piece and (miraculously) no further crying.

-Now I must go. I just heard a sound from my parents' front room that had the unmistakable sound of a bin full of matchbox cars being emptied onto carpet. Amazing how your ability to distinguish sounds improves when you become a parent...

September 06, 2007

Service with a Smile

As Trent said this evening, no one tells you that having a child will provide you with an indentured servant--Nathan happily (nay, proudly) set hot pads, bread and utensils on the table for me, put the phone back in its cradle, then helped clear the table after dinner--brought me the salt and pepper, then put the hot pads and pot holders away in their drawer and closed the drawer. (This was with requests on my part, but still...)

I made a quick run to Wal-Mart for some yarn, and he carried one skein of it up to the counter for me, pushed it onto the counter, and then carried the bag of purchases out to the car for me.

It's pretty darn stinkin' cute to see a 2-yr-old trying to hoist a bag up high enough to keep it off the ground, making his slow way across the parking lot with the aforementioned bag banging into his knees.

He was so pleased with himself and seems to love the concept of "helping."

I wonder if I could somehow get him to scrub the floors...

September 05, 2007


Ah, the joy of books... I was warned while pregnant that I should read as much as I could before the baby was born, because I wouldn't have time to read after that.


I have since come to believe that we find time for the things we want to do most. Is exercise your thing? You'll get up at 5 a.m. to go walking (and other people, myself among them, will consider you demented). Cooking? You'll somehow manage to juggle any insane schedule and still perform culinary experiments. For me, that priority is reading. I'm assisted in this pursuit by Nathan being relatively low maintenance. I can read in the living room and Nathan will play happily by himself for an hour or so. I can read when he naps (from 1:30/2 until 4:30 p.m.) and again after he goes to bed (7/7:30 p.m.).

Recent books I've been reading run the gamut from autobiography to fiction to mystery to spiritual growth stuff. I read Nicole Baart's first book that comes out in a few weeks and was happily surprised by quality fiction that happens to be written by a Christian; she's sacrificed no iota of craft for the sake of selling tripe. Since Nikki's a friend of mine, it was a huge relief to tell her honestly how much I loved the book and that I want to purchase a copy to have on my shelves for the quality of the writing all by itself. -Even better: I know how to get my hands on the sequel before it's released from the published, unlike having to wait another year as most of you commoners. Mua-ha-ha...

Next up - Ravi Zacharias' memoirs, Walking from East to West. I've seen this out for a while, just hadn't purchased it yet. I finally bought it and devoured it, journaling much, thinking even more, and feeling challenged on every page. Ravi's words, manner and very life present a call to me to be who God made me to be. Not a "better" Christian, a greater financial success, a "better" homemaker or any other area of my life; but fully surrendered in every area of my life. Highly, highly recommended.

Just for fun - Jasper Fforde's books--any of them. Literary references and light humor prevails, but for all the thought and original plot work in his fiction, every single one of them has been a treat to read from start to finish. Can't wait for the most recent Thursday Next book to come out in paperback so I can add it to my collection!

Aside from reading, I'll be honest--I've been battling. Shortly after Nathan was born, my mood did a fairly steep nosedive. I don't know if it was post-partum depression or not; doesn't that eventually go away? I went on anti-depressants during that first year, and I'm still on them. Anytime I go more than a few days without them, my thoughts spiral downward. It isn't that I have suicidal thoughts or anything like that; I just lack the energy to do anything--or even care that I'm not doing anything. My thoughts turn all circumstances into something that's my responsibility or my fault, and trying to turn off obsessive thought patterns exhausts me.

I hate being dependent on medication. My background is a can-do mentality, the whole "suck it up and get it done" attitude. If only I'd try harder, I could make myself get over this and not have to take meds. I mentioned this to my mom, and she responded, "That's right, and all those people with diabetes should just try a little harder and they wouldn't have insulin problems." Her point is valid. It's just that physical ailments seem so much more objective than a serotonin level deficit.

-For now, at least, I'm caught up on my meds and am able to function at normal levels. Hooray for the little things in life!

August 29, 2007

Night Owl

Here I am in the wee sma's, having succumbed to the temptation of web surfing, when I should be home sleeping. I need to be up and coherent enough to awaken, change, clothe and feed a toddler in order for his grandmother to pick him up at 8 a.m. Once he leaves, I get to assemble the four corners of the globe that comprise the Stanley household and pack it for a Labor Day trip to my in-laws' in Arkansas.

My anti-depressants have been out since Monday morning, and I'm starting to feel it, mood-wise. Emotional margins are getting worn thin--just seeing that a high school classmate's wife was the Iowa delegate for the Mrs. America pageant engendered the thought that I'll look extremely dumpy and Midwestern when our next class reunion rolls around.

Me. Home. Bed. Now.