Hello, my darling strangers!
On Writing has left me feeling excited, yet calm, blown away, yet strangely tranquil, as a person who’d just received some good news which they’d already anticipated. Something along those lines, not really sure how to put it to words. I read this book for three reasons:
1. I love Stephen King’s style
2. I wanted to learn more about his life, his childhood, his thoughts, beliefs and lifestyle
3. I wanted to pick up as many tricks of the trade as it was possible
I won’t go into many details concerning his writing style. Naturally, it differs from the one he uses when writing fiction, though not considerably. Simple, consistent and unassuming, yet packed with great vocab. It felt a bit like going back to a childhood favourite, rereading it and enjoying as that familiar warm sensation grabs at you all over again.
His life was an interesting one, spectacular at times, mundane at others. He writes clearly and truthfully about the more trying moments of his life, such as his addiction and his accident. At times, he seems almost like your average Joe, but then he writes something which makes you remember that he’s one of the great literary minds of our time. All in all, he seems like the perfect conversationalist, one you could sit down or take a walk with, spending numerous enjoyable hours talking with on a sundry of different topics. I’d like to meet him one day and get to have that conversation, although I’m not sure what I would say or if I could in fact avoid the Annie-Wilkes-scenario and just blurt out “I’m your number one fan!”
Now, as far as all the tips and pieces of advice go, I’m still not certain what to make of them. I agree with most of them and have already spotted the ones that represent my weaker points. The road to Hell is paved with adverbs, indeed. Yet, adverbs were created for a reason. They serve a purpose and sometimes you can’t avoid them. More than that, you don’t feel like avoiding them at all. You crave them. Perhaps that’s just my beginner writer mindset talking and perhaps adverbs really do represent crutches for desperate, unsure writers, but I simply don’t feel like parting ways with them. At least, not yet.
I have been writing for as long as I can remember. And, for as long as I can remember, my writing has primarily been in English and not my mother tongue. I couldn’t elaborate on that. It simply is the way it is. I’m in my early twenties, attending Uni (an English major, go figure, very original), volunteering, making sure I visit my Gran as often as possible, fighting my cat’s urinary infection, travelling, trying to spend decent amounts of time with my family and friends. It’s fair to say that, although reading takes up a decent chunk of my time and is an activity I could never give up, writing is somewhat neglected. The semesters are chaotic little three-month units packed with exams, tests, essays, presentations, classes, seminars and so forth. For fast learners, that presents no problem. I know people who pass all exams with flying colours, all while maintaining a healthy social life, cooking their own meals, going to the gym, volunteering, travelling and what not, the kind of people who learn 90% of what needs to be learned in class. Try as I might, I am not, nor will I ever be one of those people. My studies frequently leave me awake till the wee hours of the morning, studying till my eyes begin to bleed with a sort of stubborn determination one can only find in slow learners. I’m not trying to make excuses for neglecting writing, I’m just telling it as it is. Ok, I may be trying to make excuses just a little bit…
Where was I going with this again? Not sure. Anyway, I’ve accumulated gobs of work in the past twenty years or so. My mum recently found a poem which I had written back when I eleven or twelve, consisting entirely of the word ‘kill’ repeated over and over again across three pages of her old recipe book. What can I say, mum, you raised a sociopath. Or maybe that’s just the mindset of any prepubescent girl? My work has never been published, since it’s almost exclusively in English, though a few stories of mine have found themselves on several writing sites. So far, my work has mostly been preparatory. Probably none of it is any good, but it’s been preparing me for what’s to come and has served its purpose in honing my skills. Some say your real good writing begins in your twenties, other say thirties, others still forties. Whatever the case, I feel like I’m ready to slowly put an end to the work I’ve been writing so far, finish everything that’s left to finish and tie all the loose ends before moving on to my ‘real writing’. It’s going to take some time, since I have several unfinished projects I can seldom afford to work on, but I predict it’s all going to be done and dusted before I graduate.
Anyway, another aspect I’m having a lot of trouble with is ‘show, don’t tell’. I’ve never believed in astrology and the behavioural patterns lurking behind horoscope signs, simply because I never behaved the way my sign is supposed to behave. When you think of a Virgo, what’s more – a female Virgo, your mind is probably already predestined to conjure up an image of a dainty creature, as perfect and as polished as an idealised anime girl, her organisational skills bar none, all neat and tidy and a bit too prim and proper. Being a self-proclaimed bull in a china shop, my room messy, my car messy, my hair dishevelled and afraid of the brush, my clothes ripped or smeared with yesterday’s meal, I’m the furthest thing away from a Virgo. Yet, as I grow older, I’m beginning to notice a few patterns that invariably remind me of the textbook example of a Virgo. My flat and car may be messy, the dishes in my sink may be reaching seven-dwarfs heights and I may not pay much attention to my clothes being all wrinkly even when I go out, but my mind is very much Virgo. I don’t make lists, yet my head is full of them. I have an analytical mind that’s always in the fifth gear. I’m the kind of person that likes explaining things thoroughly and that appreciates things being thoroughly explained to me. I suspect that’s why I’m having trouble with ‘show, don’t tell’. I show, but I do a Hell of a lot of telling as well. Just look at this paragraph and how much it has taken me to convey that simple fact. There’s another issue there – I like my style. I like it a lot. I suspect it suits the analytical, introverted, navel-gazing brats such as myself a lot. Others, not so much.
For instance, I experienced a lovely moment with a fascinating young man a couple of weeks ago. He hugged me. I know it doesn’t sound very spectacular, but it was his child-like innocence, refreshing idealism, a positive outlook, the conversation leading up to it and his overt interest in me that had made that moment memorable, even magical. It had taken me roughly two and a half hours to retell that scene to my friend later on. I kept digressing into minor details, the weather conditions of that particular day, his views on equestrian sports, the skirt that I had been wearing and so forth. And while I’m certainly not in love, not even infatuated with him, and have already placed him firmly in the friendzone (sorry, H.), I definitely found that moment very adorable and lovely and felt like telling it. Only, it didn’t feel as if I was retelling a scene from my own life to my friend. It may have seemed like that to her, but what I was actually doing was narrating. I was telling a story, kind of detached from it, as if it had happened to one of my characters and not to me. I kept digressing so much that she could barely keep up with me. I could barely keep up with my own thoughts and frequently made brief pauses in order to remind myself of what it was that I was actually trying to say. You can spot that clearly in one of the paragraphs above. I had a point, I just know I had a point I was trying to get across in that passage, yet I kept digressing so much that, in the end, I lost it.
And therein lies the greatest problem when it comes to my writing. I’ll digress again. 🙂 A couple of weeks ago, we were asked to write a short story for our grammar class. I decided to take a different approach and experiment with a minimalist style, not only for the sake of experimenting and challenging myself to write in a way I wasn’t accustomed to, but also because we had a thousand word limit to work within. Our grammar professor graded the stories based on grammar, tenses, conjunction and vocabulary and our literature professor graded it based on the stories’ literary quality. Sounds reasonable. They later got together and agreed upon a final grade. I got a ten. Both professors lauded my story in front of the entire class, simultaneously making me blush and making me vaunt (internally). Yet, beneath the smiling veneer, I felt somewhat uneasy. I wondered how my story would have been graded and how much it would’ve been praised, had I decided not to experiment with minimalism and kept to my usual style.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like my story. I like the end result. I like reading minimalistic works. But, that style… It’s just not my cup of tea when it comes to writing. I had to work against myself a lot to finish it and submit it the way it was. I would never opt for minimalism if given a choice. And that brings me to the final and most torturous issue that reading On Writing has raised for me. What if my work will only get to enjoy success and appreciation of the readers if I write against myself? If I follow the well-established rules and ignore my innate desire for over-description and digressing? Should I follow the rules which will supposedly help me grow as an author or follow my heart and my instincts, even though that may lead to my work being considered bad or of lesser quality? And, mind you, these are not just Stephen King’s rules; ‘show, don’t tell’ is an age-old rule which writers have been advocating since forever. Maybe I am capable of producing better-quality work, but simply don’t enjoy all the rules that come with that. That is certainly one of the topics I’ll discuss with Mr. King if I ever get to meet him and somehow persuade him to take a stroll with me.
I feel like I may have focused entirely too much on the craft part of this book, while largely downplaying the importance of its first part, the so-called C.V. in which King weaves the tale of his life. Perhaps because the craft part is the freshest in my mind. As I’ve already mentioned, parts of his life were spectacular, while other parts were mundane. But, none of them were ever boring, at least not to me as a reader. I especially enjoyed that phase before the breakthrough success of Carrie, while Stephen and Tabitha were juggling kids and jobs and struggling financially. Though I’m sure they didn’t enjoy living through such trying times half as much as I enjoyed reading about them. There’s something about success after a period of struggling that I’ve always appreciated. Call it ‘the underdog syndrome’ or a ‘rags to riches’ story. It’s not even about money and the financial aspect of the story, but about your hard work being appreciated and rewarded.
I just remembered another aspect I’d like to discuss, regarding showing and not telling. Some people have called my characters too self-aware. I know they are and I’m proud of them for being that way. Has it ever happened to you that you’re watching a movie or reading a book in which a character says something along the lines of “I don’t understand what’s happening to me?”, all the while showing classic signs and symptoms of something? I don’t want my characters to be that daft and when I see other people’s characters acting that way, I invariably ask myself – have these people ever heard of Stockholm syndrome? Depression? Survivor’s guilt? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Menopause? Mid-life crisis? Quarter-life crisis? Well, my characters have. They’re well-read, or at least informed enough about this world to figure out what’s happening to them without a doctor’s note specifying it. For example, I hate depression. Not the state (although there’s lots to hate about it), but the word ‘depression’ itself. I feel like it is being thrown around way too lightly. There are real people out there suffering from real depression, so, no – you do not get to use that word just because you’re on your period, or your team loses a match or, God forbid, your favourite literary character dies. But, there are times when your characters truly are depressed. Hey, it happens, nothing you can do about it. I will not be telling you that they’re depressed. They are going to tell you themselves. I don’t consider this a transgression of the sacred ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. I simply believe in my characters enough to trust that they can figure out what’s happening to them and read all the signs and symptoms for themselves. In today’s world, you don’t have to be a genius to know what’s going on. You just need access to the internet. Or, at the very least, a well-stocked medical library.
What about you? Are you a fledgling writer yourself? What’s your best quality as an author? What’s your worst? Any heartbreaking rejections or criticisms of your work? Go on, share, embarrass yourself in the comments section, it builds character.
Keep writing, my dear strangers 🙂