Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dear Uncle Stevie: An Epistolary, Intensely Personal Book Review

Dear Uncle Stevie,

I just finished reading your book, On Writing, and I feel like I owe you an apology. I'll get to that.

First of all I want to tell you thank you. Just thank you. There are a number of reasons that I have put off reading this particular book, not the least of which is that a lot of other books and essays that I have read by prolific authors have taken the sort of tone that says: "Of course, I can tell you how I did this, but you never will because you are not a famous author like I am." That might be my imagination projecting my insecurities on the authors, but I don't think so. Your book, in its openness and concision and wit was more like talking to a friend. (Please know that I am fully cognizant of the fact that you are not my friend, nor will you probably ever be. I'm not creepy, I'm just using that image to describe the tone.)

I appreciated the nuts and bolts kind of information that you shared about the process of sitting down to write and of getting published. I think sometimes we non-famous writer folk tend to think of the publication process as what you are doing now with the big publishing house contracts with movie options and instant best-sellers and stuff. Then we look at what we're doing and think "I'll never get there." To see that you got there by starting here - writing because you couldn't help but write and sending it to whomever would take it - is encouraging, to say the least. I appreciate your transparency in that. I actually cried during the section where you tell about getting the phone call about the Carrie paperback option. I was so happy for you, and I was so happy for the possibility of it all.

Your section on editing was completely priceless to me. I have a hard time editing. I have a tendency to self-edit as I go along and I think that hinders me to a certain extent. I write best when I'm in the flow of it, when I'm barely thinking - almost in a trance-like state - and I had often wondered if this was just the stuff of coffee house poets and nut jobs. Perhaps it is, but it works for me, and I was pleased to have some external validation for this. I almost danced when I read that for you ideas seemed to leap out of nowhere and that you would sit to write them and discover them as you wrote. This struck a very deep and resonant chord with me. I had been taught at some point that sort of thing was lazy writing - that I needed the plot wheel and the character notes and the outlines and that to do otherwise was just amateurish. Of course, I found all of those tools suffocating. I much prefer your tools: vocabulary, good grammar, active voice, easy on the adverbs, etc.

Most meaningful of all, to me, was the concept of "writing the first draft with the door closed". Sometimes I bungle myself up with being conscious of an audience and then it all comes out stilted and awkward. Kind of like this letter. Because I imagine you reading it and picking out all of the passive verbs and adverbs and rolling your eyes. But that's why that concept was so meaningful to me. I can just tell you to go take a hike because you are not my Ideal Reader, and then I can look at it all later when I've forgotten about it and get rid of my own adverbs. This is a freedom that I think will serve me nicely. (See what I did there?) I am going to write out "I am convinced fear is the root of most bad writing" and put it someplace prominent in my writing space. Of all the sentences in the book, that was one of the most resonant. So, thank you.

Now about these apologies. I read your 'Salem's Lot when I was about 12 or 13 because my friends said there were dirty parts in it. I wasn't that thrilled with it. I'm sorry. My tastes at that age tended toward Agatha Christie and Douglas Adams and I just couldn't get into the grittiness of it. My friends went on to read Pet Sematary and Carrie and the like and I tried to watch the movie version of Carrie at a sleepover, but it was just too gross. I did read The Running Man, though. It was gross, but it had good dirty parts and I was captivated by how gross it was. What can I say? It was the mid-80s, I was young and I listened to my mother who said your books were "just trash." It's a review I'm sure you've heard before.

For years I have associated your books with gross movies, with the New York Times Bestseller List, and with massive amounts of bizarre verbal abuse from bookstore customers who were desperate for your first Dark Tower to drop. I am definitely not your Ideal Reader. I just don't like the suspense/horror genre. It's nothing personal and obviously millions of readers worldwide don't share my opinion.

Something has changed for me in the last several years, though. My husband, who is also an avid reader and has pretty good taste in books (well, except for those "man-mances" - you know, the pulpy sci-fi stuff) has sworn by a few of your books. It and The Stand, especially. He tells me: "Think what you will about the genre, the guy can write."  I started reading your column in Entertainment Weekly and I fell in love. Not with you personally, that would be creepy; with the voice of your non-fiction, with your take on pop culture and especially with your taste in books. I read Mischa Berlinski's Fieldwork on your recommendation and it was one of my favorite books that year. I judged you by your stories and dismissed you and your work out of snobbery and I'm sorry. I know it hasn't hurt your sales or anything, but it's just an uncool thing to do to another writer, or even just another human.

I dragged my feet about reading On Writing, but pulled the trigger this past week because I've had enough. Enough of the fear, enough of the wondering if I can make it, enough of feeling the need to justify writing. Also because it was recommended to me by two writers I like. (M-Half and Masked Mom. Do you know them? If not, you will.) So it is with gratitude and with honest-to-goodness tears that I write and say thank you. Thank you for pushing through the pain of your accident and the discomfort of non-fiction writing for you and publishing that book, so that I and countless other writers out there could, if nothing else, read this last few sentences: "The rest of it - and perhaps the best of it - is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up."

Thank you for understanding that, for whatever reason, some of us need that permission slip.

Wishing you all the best (and honestly, I probably still won't read your other books but you probably won't read mine either, given your distaste for the personal essay),

Tangled Up In Lou


Note: I grew weary of all of the links to the specifically referenced Stephen King books and movies, so let it suffice to click here. It's his official website where you can find all of that information and more and possibly purchase a hat.

15 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. Wow, TangledLou, I write about 1/100th of what you do on my blog, and I feel like I could really benefit from this book. Writing the first draft with the door closed is great advice.

    My mother idolized SK for so long, she dabbled in writing her own stories when I was in high school and gave HIM her autograph at a reading somewhere in NH or ME. But over the last ten years, anytime she's picked up a Stephen King book to read, someone in our family has died or been hurt, or something else bad happens while she's reading it. I'm not kidding! Isn't that wild (and creepy)?

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    1. That is creepy!
      I think if you write at all, you could benefit from the book. Besides that, it's just an interesting read.

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  3. I loved Firestarter and hated everything else I read by him, but then I hate almost all mysteries, crime and horror books. If he can teach me how to get published, I too will write a personal letter of apology to Stephen King. I tend to pretend I am writing for whomever I think enjoys my writing the most at that moment. Sometimes, though, they start judging me for my poor editing and over-use of italics. Periodically, I need to remind myself that there is no one in my head but me, so I am the one thinking that. Good. I have just outed myself as a schizophrenic. Anyhow, thanks for sharing the review. I will have to get this book.

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    1. Who judges you for your poor editing and overuse of italics? I use far too many italics.
      Read the book and you'll want to write him an apology as well.

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  4. Now I know what I'll be reading next! I'm not a huge fan of SK's books, tho I also read Running Man in high school. I'm sure it was also for the dirty parts. I love knowing he shares how he got where he is and isn't snobbby about it.
    Don't judge me because I read all the Twilight books, but I read a lot of what Stefanie Meyer said about getting published and it was like, "I just wrote this thing, I didn't even know it was a book. I sent out some letters, got a few rejections, got an agent and bam! 2 weeks later had a publisher. Six months, start to finish." That isn't going to happen to anyone else. And doesn't give much hope to those of us struggling.
    We need the kind of mentoring that it sounds like Stephen King delivers.

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    1. I read all of the Twilight books too, unfortunately. I think Stephanie Meyer was there at the right time with an idea that was currently captivating audiences. She had a good idea, but I think she needed a better editor. That said, there is a movie franchise and a pile of money that seems to disagree with me.
      Sadly, I don't think I'd ever be able to write a Twilight.

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  5. So this has to be the 3rd time the book as been suggested. I love you're writing, it's funny how hard we are on ourselves. Keep going, I promise you'll exceed all that you imagine!

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    1. Thank you, Sabrina. You are always just a ray of light when you comment.

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  6. I haven't read "On Writing", but I do love love Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird".

    You are a writer, dear Tangled Up In Lou. Embrace it.

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    1. I think "Bird by Bird" is going to be next for me. I have to stop reading about writing for a while, though, because when I think about writing too much I freeze.
      Thank you for your encouragement. It really means a lot.

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  7. One of the most passionate and motivating book reviews I have ever read, and it does NOT hurt that it is about writing! LOL Wow, I have been hearing tons about this book and will be buying it asap. Thanks lady!!!

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  8. Thanks for the ever-so-sweet shout-out. I love this book--I originally read it from the library, but eventually bought it because I checked it back out a few too many times. I put it right up there with Lamott's Bird by Bird and Goldberg's Writing Down The Bones in terms of advice and inspiration, etc.

    As to King's other work, I read some stuff in high school, but have been very selective as to what I've even attempted since then--mostly stayed away from any of the straight horror ones. I loved Gerald's Game and The Dark Half because they were more about internal monsters than external ones. I enjoyed The Stand as well, and I think the movie version of It was probably one of the biggest abominations of adaptation ever. Most of the movies are pretty horrible--though I think Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me, based on his short stories, are notable exceptions. (Dolores Claiborne and Misery, both starring Kathy Bates are also decent, I think.)

    Genre-writing is his bread-and-butter, but what I've always loved about him is that his passion for writing, and for improving his own craft, has always been evident. All that, and he seems like such a regular dude.

    (PS--I have left this window open for a ridiculous amount of time debating whether or not to share this little tidbit, but I guess, in the end, I can't help myself: Twelve years ago, I had a piece published in The Writer magazine's "Off the Cuff" column. My piece ended on page 6 (left-hand side) and on page 7 (right-hand side) began a piece by Stephen King. So, the man himself will likely never have any idea who I am, but my words and his will live smushed together for as long as the paper of even one copy of the magazine holds up--and there's nothing he can do about it! Now, that's creepy!)

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    1. Not creepy at all! It's awesome! Thanks for sharing that tidbit with me! It's like you almost made out with him! Ew.
      I agree with you about the non-horror movies. Some of them I loved and didn't even know they were based on his short stories. I think I will have to revisit some of those in print.

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