Sunday, November 27, 2011

you must not come lightly to the blank page

I have begun work on what I hope, in a couple of years, will be a book. Right now, my job is convincing someone to offer me a contract. As that process crawls on, I've been thinking about writing - and taking some books off my shelf that discuss the writer's mindset, and the many traps to expect and avoid.

The best book I have ever read in this regard is, hands down, Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (And Rewards) Of Artmaking (1993), by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It was recommended to me years ago by someone I knew in New York. He said A&F got him through many battles with self-doubt, and waves of excessive and unwarranted self-criticism of both his work and artistic processes. The first half of the book is absolutely indispensable.

Other books I will be revisiting are Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life (1994), George V. Higgins's On Writing: Advice For Those Who Write To Publish (Or Would Like To) (1990), and William Zinsser's On Writing Well: An Informal Guide To Writing Non-Fiction (1976).

The book I am blogging about today is one I recently read: Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (2000). Roger Ebert said it "had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White's The Elements of Style". I also heard it compared favourably to Bird By Bird, so I figured I'd check it out (literally: from the library!).

Plus, I have been on some sort of sideways King kick lately. A month or two ago, I grabbed a couple of paperbacks from the communal book area at work. One was Desperation and one was The Long Walk (which King wrote in one week and published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym). I have not read them, but I've read some literary essays on his work and themes. And my life-long attraction to 1,000+-page books has meant wanting to read either It or The Stand (which King republished in full some years ago, adding hundreds of additional pages) off and on for years.

I read a number of King's books in the early '80s: The Shining, Cujo, Christine, Pet Sematary, and the Night Shift and Different Seasons collections. I have skimmed some of his later work but much of it seems thinly-styled and hokey. I read The Green Mile in 1996, because I thought publishing a novel serially was a fascinating project. But it felt like a first or second draft, as though King needed more time to either tighten things up or fill out his narrative. In some corners of the internet, TGM is cited as one of his best works.

King says On Writing is a guide for how "a competent writer can become a good one". Obviously, he focuses on fiction, which I do not write, but I still enjoyed his uncomplicated love and serious respect for the written word:
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut. ...

Reading is the creative center of a writer's life. I take a book with me everywhere I go ... the trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. ... [If you watch a lot of TV], it's time to question how serious you really are about becoming a writer. ... Reading takes time ...

[W]hen you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic.
The act of writing, of recording your thoughts, recollections, and opinions, of making them more permanent, fixes them in your mind more concretely than merely thinking about them. Most people have a need to express themselves creatively - writing, painting, cooking, acting, teaching, having a trade, etc. (And I often wonder what works of art we have been deprived of because millions of people have more pressing concerns, like simply living day-to-day.) There is also a concurrent need to be read, heard, acknowledged. But when you write, while you may hope for an audience, you are, at the root, doing it for yourself. Being alone during the creative act - having it play out inside your head - adds to that, I think. And there can be great satisfaction, as King notes, in performing for yourself.

But writing in the hopes of publication can also be shitty. It can resurrect - and/or reinforce - your worst feelings about yourself. It can take serious effort to push those voices aside, and carry on. To show up every day - to exercise what talent you have like a muscle. When writing for yourself, or without a deadline, however, it can be hard to keep showing up. No one is waiting for your work. No one will miss it. There is no punishment if you take the day (or week, or month) off. Even thinking that you have to write in order to be a complete person does not make you immune to these other, seemingly contradictory, feelings.

King talks a lot about his own beginning as a writer, though I would not call it a mini-autobiography. He is quite blunt when it comes to addressing his years of drug and alcohol addiction. The most fascinating (and, honestly, hard to believe) statements is when he mentions four books - 'Salem's Lot, Desperation, Dolores Claiborne, and Cujo - and says, "In no case were they plotted, not even to the extent of a single note jotted on a single piece of scrap paper ..."

A first draft - King calls it "the All-Story Draft"; David Foster Wallace labelled his "Zero Draft" (so raw, it comes before the 1st draft) - is banged out as fast as you can, with as little conscious thought as necessary. Otherwise, there's opportunity for self-doubt or self-censorship.

King strives for 2,000 words a day - roughly six double-spaced pages (this post is 1,428 words). Do that seven days a week and you'll have 180,000 words in three months, about the time King says it should take to get a first draft down on paper. King is a rare specimen in that regard. Or maybe that's about right if you've got a clear idea what you want to do and the sailing is untroubled. If you simply want to write an entertaining story, nothing fancy - which is what King does - maybe that's about right. I have no idea. Outside of game stories of athletic events, I have not written anything for publication in that manner. And those rarely topped 750 words. Usually, there are interview transcripts, or microfilm printouts, or internet searches to conduct. I gather a lot of little parts and then try to connect them in a coherent, pleasing order.

Sudden Thought: In many ways, King is like Woody Allen. He's always working, with another book/movie in the pipeline every year or so. This current one may be good, or great, or bad, or boring, but by the time you are reading/watching it, he's already working on the next one. Just wait a bit and see what comes next, maybe it'll be more to your liking.

Three other King quotes from On Writing:
What Writing Is
Telepathy, of course. ... All the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but I believe writing offers the purest distillation.

[I]f 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.

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair - the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
Bird By Bird is next.


laura k said...

King is a rare specimen in that regard. Or maybe that's about right if you've got a clear idea what you want to do and the sailing is untroubled.

I think the creative act is too individualistic to make generalizations. Philip Roth said a good day is five good sentences - which is amazing, considering he's been writing quality fiction for five decades.


Bird by Bird was so helpful for me, I've recommended it to so many people, so I'm interested in reading your thoughts.

I've also given or recommended Art & Fear to many people. After reading it, a friend of ours said, "I don't take my work seriously enough. I deserve better."

johngoldfine said...

My experience teaching writing is that up to a point, quantity trumps quality. I hate to see colleagues force students spend a half-semester rewriting a piece of shit--because the result is ever only going to be a somewhat better piece of shit.

I like to assign lots of pieces, nothing much riding on any one, so that people have a chance to find out afresh each day what they might be thinking. They can hit the serendipity jackpot! Or not--but tomorrow, who knows?

Like King, but not quite with his success, while writing fiction I never use notes, outlines, or have much of an idea where I'm going when I start.