A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Book Review: Stephen King's On Writing

I was expecting more demons.  Seriously, it's mildly disappointing to discover that the Master of Horror wasn't raised by wolves and doesn't have to perform Lovecraftian rituals in order to write.  I like my artists tortured.  There's something suspicious about well-adjusted genius.  We don't just want to read a story, we want the whole package, including the writer, to Be a story.

The Tortured Artist is a theme King discusses in detail in On Writing and is, ironically, the point that the writer's I know obsess over.  But I'll come back to that in a minute.  Might as well back up and start at the beginning.

I like Stephen King.  He's not my favorite and I wouldn't call myself a fan, but what work of his I've read (The Shining, The Gunslinger, various short stories) I enjoyed.  In fact, there are several of his books I'd like to read when I get the chance (It, The Stand, Salem's Lot).  Having surrounded myself with literary types, my not-loathing King has been met with Judgment.  It's hard liking popular stuff.

Which is more or less where King starts.  "They ask the DeLillos and the Updikes and the Styrons, but they don't ask the popular novelists."  Everyone, fans and critics, just assume that the people who sell a few million copies don't have anything worthwhile to say.  Regardless of how you may feel about King and his writing, On Writing is one of the Triumvirate that all writing teachers recommend: On Writing, Ann Lamont's Bird by Bird, and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.  I have found it ironic that people who despise King's books usually agree that this meditation on the craft is Pretty Good.

Nevertheless, while reading the book, I often found myself thinking, "You arrogant prick.  Who are you to say who's good an who's shit?  Who can be taught and who can't?"  Then I would realize that I was being ridiculous.   Why is my knee-jerk reaction to assume this man has to justify himself?  Humility is admirable, but to demand that someone else act apologetically for daring to talk about his profession is nonsense.

Having established that he does indeed have something worthwhile to contribute, King spends the first half of the book on vignettes describing influential moments in his life.  If you're a fan of his work, this section explains a lot about his aesthetic.  Otherwise, you get to the far end and wonder why you read it.  It's not bad, but I didn't find it particularly useful.  Though, King does say this isn't a textbook -- it's a "Memoir of the Craft" -- so saying it "isn't useful" is an unfair critique.  Suffice to say, I didn't find this part interesting.

The second half of the book is divided into 21 mini-chapters, each discussing a particular topic in the craft and life of a writer.  The subjects range from vocabulary and grammar to reflections on prolificity and theme.  The chapters are not titled and I assume he did this so that the book itself is not easily navigable, further differentiating it from a textbook. This is a little strange, however, since he often addresses the reader with the assumption that he or she is an aspiring writer, which seems a little unfair.  Critics and devoted fans interested in King's method would also find this book interesting.  The only reason I bring this up is that King seems to have mild contempt for the Aspiring Writer.

About halfway through the book, King offers up the two theses of the book.  First, "Good writing consists of mastering the fundamental tools."  Second, "... it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one."  The latter sounds like an excuse.  I think King believes if you want to be a writer then you've failed part of the test in buying this book.  It's hard to blame him for feeling this way.  The man worked Hard to get where is is and he writes because he is compelled to do so, not because he wants to be a writer.  The superiority complex is a little grating, however, especially when he discusses writing and education.

One brief chapter is devoted to writing workshops, but he revisits the story and the archetypes he creates several times throughout On Writing.  He only took one writing workshop and though that's where he met his wife (with whom he is madly in love) the experience scarred him for life.  Evidently the class was filled with hipsters who believed in inspiration not craft and whose most valuable contributions to discussion were, "I really liked the slave-blue-collar-working-man theme."  He then writes off workshops and writing education programs as a waste of time.  This is, at best, unfair and at worst an act of proud ignorance.  So he had a bad experience in an introductory writing workshop (who doesn't?).  He should know better than to dismiss an entire discipline.

I had other little disagreements with Mr. King, but for the most part I found his thoughts, if not helpful, at least interesting.  The one point he makes that everyone seems to bring up when they talk about On Writing is his essay on the Tortured Writer.  King was an alcoholic, chain smoking drug addict.  Most of his early books were written under the influence of one or a cocktail of drugs.  In an episode that he barely mentions, he went clean and began his second life.  For a while he was afraid that he would not be able to produce the same quality of work without the aid of drugs, but discovered, to his relief, that his ability to write was not related to his addiction.

His hates the stereotype.  There is an expectation that writers must have sold their souls to the devil or are on their way to an early grave because talent should be paid for in blood.  Essentially, King argues that the Hemingways and the Thomases were great writers who happened to also be alcoholics and the two aspects are not codependent.

Like I said, that point comes up a lot when writers discuss this book and I think On Writing is valuable for that reason.  The young writers I know sometimes are individuals with Problems and so their writing becomes a means of escape and coping with their demons.  The idiots, like myself, confuse the medicine with the poison.  To some extent, unfortunately, this may be true.  Wretched life experiences are good source material because there's a cultural fetish for catastrophe.  Point being, people should accept who and what they are and all of us, as consumers, should try to avoid encouraging our beloveds to indulge in self-destruction.

King's unstated thesis here is that art shouldn't, or at the very least, doesn't have to be an act of exorcism.  Most of what he says about writing is not particularly inspired, but I love that he advocates writing at a dead run.  Write what you Love.  Write what you can't help not writing.  This is supposed to be a passionate act, so why be coy about it?

A few days ago, I went to a panel discussion on humor in writing for the 75th Anniversary of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. One of the panelists, Kate Christensen, said that after she got her MFA she tried to start her career as a writer and went through a full year of writer's block until she finally sat down and "Wrote the stuff I hadn't written since I was thirteen.  The kind of stuff that was the reason I started writing in the first place, but you're supposed to put aside when you're a serious writer."  She finished a book, got it published and has been writing the Fun Stuff ever since.

So often, particularly in workshops, writers have this idea that if it's pleasurable then it's bad.  A lot could be said about puritanical American culture here, but lets stick to the topic at hand.  There is an element of embarrassment that goes along with the dirty-secret writing that has nothing to do with the quality of the work.  If it's fun then it's not work.  But I'm a Writer, goddamnit!  This is my profession.  But if it's not fun then what's the point?  There are easier ways to be poor and provide a steady paycheck.

King's point is that a writer can love what she does and still put effort into and be proud of the material.  In fact, that's the way it should be.  The writing world is filled with catch phrases like "Kill your darlings" and philosophies like "The story's done when you sit down for the nth time to revise it and either start to cry or throw the manuscript out the window."

Others have said it before, and more eloquently, but I think that the point is worth reiterating constantly: personal happiness and fulfillment are noble enough ends in themselves.  I think the whole "Work has to be pain" philosophy is a result of bad or lazy pedagogy.  Teachers assume that beginners won't understand that doing good work requires empathy for the consumer so it's easier just to cut the well being of the producer out of the thought process entirely.

I'm not going to cover every point King makes, but I did want to say something about his thoughts on plot.  One of the chapters is devoted to how much King hates the idea of "plot," which probably would be better described as premeditation.  Writing cold and writing from an outline are two different methods that depend on personal preference.  I have friends who need to sketch things out before they can dive into the draft.  Some works necessitate an outline, either because of the complexity of the project or because it's easier to figure out what the hell your writing about before you've cranked out a hundred pages of recycling.  I tend to write plays using outlines because they rely heavily on structure and timing.  King's distrust of premeditated and intellectualized writing detracts from his real point: writing is an act of passion.

There is much more to say about this book, but I fear this review is getting a little long.  I found his meditations on theme and symbolism convoluted but fascinating since it was from a nuts and bolts perspective rather than an analytical one.  These and others I will probably write about in later posts because they are worth talking about at length.

This book was not what I expected it to be, but that is neither good nor bad.  I'm glad I read it, but I'm not exactly sure why everyone says it is one of the finest books on writing.  Maybe I just need to read more.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Whenever someone asks me how I'm doing lately, my standard reply is "Surviving."  Yes, it's a pretty gloomy outlook, but it puts an intrepid twist on my daily activities.  Going to the coffee shop to mix up iced mochas for late-night caffeine addicts begins to feel bit like an Indiana Jones feat with the right descriptors.  Usually, though, it's like everything else: living.

When I can, I avoid doubles.  Sometimes, by fluke or out of wrath and spite from the scheduling managers, I have to work at the bookstore and the coffeeshop back to back.  It's never pleasant, but I get a masochistic hit out of it.

One day I was working at customer service at the bookstore when my former Resident Assistant walked in with his girlfriend and her family.  "I didn't know you worked here," former RA said.  His arm was around his girlfriend's shoulders.  Her parents hovered nearby, waiting for some further cues as to Who exactly I Was and what I had to to do with anything.

"I work here, yes.  What can I do for you?" I asked.  Talking to people I know at work has always been a battle for me.  There is this simultaneous, wrenching pull to remain professional and to engage on a personal level.  The conversation begins with "How are you?" and ends with a "You should buy this because..."

It turned out that they didn't need my help because they'd already found what they were looking for.  We ended up having a pleasant little chat and then going our separate ways.  The rest of the day was spent in the usual manner: helping people find Heaven Is for Real and reshelving everything people are two lazy to put back themselves.

Afterwards I got on the bus and read The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore until I arrived downtown five minutes before my next shift.  That book is heavy when you're running.  Out of breath and a little sweaty, I got up to the cash register, put on my barista hat, and proceeded to take money and pour coffee.

Anyone who's ever worked in customer service knows that zombie-zen mode you slip into after a long day.  All the customers begin to look the same and saying "How can I help you" is like a prayer that you really hope won't be answered by the Cruel God standing in front of you with Money and Wanting Things.  You're dead on your feat.  This is how most of humanity spends their working lives.  I don't know if it's fortunate or just says something truly sad about humanity that no one's figured out how to make a robot that can do this.

This was the object of my meditation when I blurted out, "Hello.  How can I help you?" and was met with the very peculiar response of, "Haven't I seen you before?"

After a double-take, I realized that I was speaking to the former RA's girlfriend's mother.  Her husband stood next to her.  They looked baffled and mildly amused.

"You were at the bookstore an hour ago, weren't you?" she asked.

"Yes, I was.  I take customer service very seriously, ma'am," I said, suddenly feeling my managers speaking through me much the same way the Narrator must have felt when Tyler Durdan spoke through him.  "I said, 'Have a nice day' and I intend to make good on it."

She laughed.  Former RA and his girlfriend walked through the door and stared at me.  The mother said, "We're going to the Motley Cow after this."

"How convenient.  I can take your drink and dinner orders all at once and have it ready for you when you arrive."

"That would be lovely," she said, looking at the menu.  "Do you fix computers."

"Of course.  I can fix your car, too.  What will it be?"

"A strawberry banana smoothie."

The whole family ordered.  As I prepared the drinks it occurred to me that I had briefly personified one of the weirder, shared American dreams: to have a minimum wage butler-friend-expert wherever you go.  Having multiple service jobs has bestowed on me a certain empathy with people suffering from multiple personality disorder.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Let the Devil Come. Let 'im Come. I'll be waiting for him at the end of the line.

I like stories about the Devil, or at least ones that feature him as a character.  Not the epic apocalypse pieces like 1999 and The Exorcist where the Devil is out doing his usual business of possessing and bringing about the End of all Things.  It's old and trite.  That's what the Devil does, right?  Go around fucking up Everyone's shit.

No, what I love are the semi-classic pact-with-the-devil stories.  You know, like Crossroads -- a riff on the Robert Johnson legend where a musician sells his or her soul to the devil -- or The Ninth Gate -- an individual meets the Devil on his own terms and discovers they have a lot in common.  The title of this post comes from one of my particular favorites from this genre (archetype? aesthetic?), the Murder by Death album Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them -- a tragically unimaginative title for a fantastic CD.  It's the only rock opera I appreciate for both the music and the story.

The Devil walks into a small town one evening and starts drinking at the bar, cussing and being a cocky bastard until dawn when he turns to leave.  As the Devil passes through the threshold, a man at the bar shoots him in the back.  The story that follows is twofold.  First, the Devil comes back and goes to war with the town to take out his Vengeance on the whole populace, which is, predictably, unimaginably horrible.  The second story is about the man who shot the Devil and his quest to Finish the Job.  It is a miraculous album ringing with a Southwestern clang and a classic rock, ballsy poetry that I adore.  The ending lyrics still send shivers down my spine every time I hear them.

What really gets me about the album, though, is the Devil as a character taking a personal and terrible interest in someone.  This, and other stories like it, intrigue and terrify me.  I like the idea of individuals meeting personified malevolence not as victims, but as People who went in too deep but are fully prepared to deal with the consequences.  It's a very compelling trope which can be boiled down to the old "Man Against Nature" theme.  This is the ultimate test, isn't it?  An individual faced with an unknowable force that is purely, inexplicably bent on his/her destruction.

... And here I was going to segue into some crack pipe story about my personal encounters and dealings with the Devil, but you were expecting that, weren't you?  Well, too bad.  I don't have any personal anecdotes and I hope that I will never have any.  There are people I have met whom I think the Devil would get along with famously, but I am not one of them.

Worrying about the Devil, however, seems absurd in the everyday context.  Magical, wondrous, and awful things happen everyday and just because they are in the realm of possibility does not make them any more or less fantastic.  The problem of human evil and the incidence of tragedy are no less horrifying because they are not caused by a Source of All Evil.

Shooting the Devil in the back seems to come up a lot in art.  I could read into this one, but I won't because there are elements to the paradigm that are obvious and others that are ineffable.  Still, I'd like to think that I'd challenge the Devil to a fair fight (possibly a drinking contest), but I'd probably wait until he's swaying at the threshold, just like Murder by Death's protagonist.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tribute to Miranda July

Everyday for a month last spring I cursed myself for giving up the piano in second grade.  It was too hard, I told myself.  I could be outside playing instead of sitting in front of this ridiculous loud, cumbersome chunk of wood and cat gut contraption for a half hour every day.  They made the strings from cat gut, so I'd heard, and I told my parents this, appealing to their animal rights sympathies which I was sure they had.  They said the strings were metal, not cat gut.  But I persisted until they finally gave up.  What a stupid little kid.

Most people forgive their younger selves for these little things, and I usually do, too.  But I won't forgive myself for giving up the piano.  Never.  I should've known that Tamara was a musician.  How could I not have known that Tamara was a musician even before I met her?  It seems so obvious now.

We started working together at Earl May a year ago.  She's the manager, but she said once she just does it to get by until she can find a label.  That's how I learned she was a musician.  That explained everything, really.  The way she sang Florence and the Machine while she watered the plants and beat out a weird rhythm on her desk when she did the books every night.  Flowers took a backseat to music.  And she did love flowers.  She confessed, when she hired me in the spring, that she's never happier than in the spring.  I'm a spring child, she said.

After I started working at Earl May I tried to relearn the piano.  That's when I started to realize that my life had been ruined, no sabotaged, by my eight year-old self.  He didn't want me to win Tamara over.  He wanted to be a little boy forever and to have fun, like the little Peter Pan Syndrome freak he is.  Or he just knew about corporate policies prohibiting relationships.  In a way, he might've been helping me, though not in the way I wanted.

I'd been relearning the piano for months and it was winter so the store was full of Christmas trees.  Tamara sat us all down for a morning meeting about sales, new promotions and policies and ended it by saying, I'm doing a concert tonight.  You all should come.  She said it like a joke and laughed a little, but we all promised to be there.

Only Rachel and I showed up, though.

I didn't have anything better to do, Rachel said, sipping her beer.

Nothing better to do? I asked.

No.  Nothing.


What about you?

I felt it was a test of some kind, so I said I had nothing better to do either.  I guess I passed because she nodded and went back to sipping her beer and waiting.  It was secret message of some kind.  A very chill secret message.

Before the show, Tamara sat down next to us.

Thanks for coming, Tamara said.

We had nothing better to do, I said.

That was the wrong thing to say because they both stared at me for a moment.  I said something else that seemed to appease them but I didn't hear it myself, which would've been useful because I might've needed to say it again later.

Where's your boy? Rachel asked.

Oh, he's bartending tonight.  You can wave at him.

We all turned and waved at the bartender.  He was a big guy with a beard and Buddy Holly glasses.  He waved and smiled back at us, even at me, before going back to another customer.

He's your boyfriend? I asked.


Is he a musician too?

No, Tamara said, laughing.  I never date musicians.  They all complain too much.  He's a bartender.

Yeah, all musicians are high maintenance, Rachel said and looked off into the corner as if she were looking at a high maintenance musician with whom she was formerly involved.  Someone in the corner waved.  I waved back, but Rachel didn't.

Tamara went up on stage.  I didn't hear her play or even see what instrument she was playing.  I was too focused on catching the eye of various audience memebers.  Every time I did, I looked at them as if I knew them, smiled broadly, and waved at them.  Some waved back.  Others didn't.

Eventually I went to the bar and waved at Tamara's boyfriend.

You're one of Tamara's coworkers?


You get one on the house.  What will it be?

A Coke.



He brought me a Coke.  I thanked him and said, You know, as a kid I never wanted to be a musician.

He stared at me for a moment, as surprised as I was that I'd said it.  Me neither, he said.

We smiled and laughed together.  Me and Tamara's boyfriend, the non-high-maintenance bartender.  I decided I should be happy for him and I laughed longer and harder until someone sitting next to me said to be quiet so that he could hear the music.  So I laughed quietly for as long as I could.


A few years ago I watched Me, You and Everyone We Know at the Bijou Cinema and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I just finished reading No One Belongs Here More Than You (seriously, check out the website.  It's fantastic.) and my watching the movie informed my reading of the book and vice versa.  There is a cinematic quality to her writing and a deeper, more complicated element of storytelling to her movies that you just can't get from being exposed to one or the other.

One of my English profs once said he believes Miranda July will be one of those writers Remembered from our Time.  I'm not sure I agree with that, but I will say I think she writes Longing and Loneliness better than any writer I've ever read.  It's tough stuff made palatable by a dark, rich sense of humor.  Her characters are the Weird Ones, people who try very, very hard..  They are all delicate people who Survive, like pieces of glassware that inexplicably don't shatter no matter how many times they hit the floor.  The infinite regression of self-awareness is almost post-modern, but I think could be categorized as something post-postmodern (or... expostmodern...? I'd like to talk about this article sometime) precisely because it takes a step back and acquiesces to the absurdity of the self-analysis.

One final note on the Language.  July is a master of metaphor and simile, though she primarily uses it to a comic effect.  She uses no dialogue markers, a technique that I've seen used by Cormac McCarthy, but for a different end.  While the absence of quotation marks in McCarthy's work always seemed to me to imply a lazy, "fuck it" attitude toward life, July's use of this technique screams "Everything is important!"  That, I think, sums up her style quite well.  Carver said that Great Writers' styles are instantly recognizable.  If I picked up an unattributed short story, I'm sure I could say whether or not July wrote it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On Wiscon, 2011

It was a weekend, mostly sleepless.  There were Panels, Drinks, very involved discussions about Failure (more on that in a moment), a Viking, Poets, Editors, Writers, Fans, and Activists.  Too much to tell, really.  Being unable to encapsulate it all, or even give a fair sum-up, I'll deliver the Highlights.

The Viking
One of my friends from traveling through Germany happens to live in Madison.  Whenever I am in the area I try to let him know and we usually end up going out for drinks.  This round was a fairly unusual experience since I was more or less in my element, surrounded by people involved in the production of speculative fiction.  The Viking, though aptly named (a bear of a man with long, blond hair and an affinity to all things Norse) and a biology geek, seemed to struggle surrounded by that much Weird.

All the same, there was beer and hard-science geeks, so after a few he was fine.  We drifted from party to party asking a few polite questions here and there in order to make our way to the food and drinks tables and then drifted back out into the hall again where we repeated the process.  Evidently this is very typical of cons.

I finally saw Buffy episode "Once More, With Feeling."  I was in an appropriate setting: a room filled with several dozen fans singing along.

Recent political turmoil is still a hot topic in Madison, which was really no surprise.  I also was not shocked to find that the majority of the political people at Wiscon had no love for Governor Walker.  It was interesting to see that the Wrath I had witnessed on the news had since transformed into Calculated Warfare.

For many years I've heard the word "Fail" tossed around to describe Appalling Mistakes made that offended minority identities.  The one that immediately springs to mind is a writing teacher telling a student of color that she couldn't write about rich people because she had "no experience with them."  I had not realized until this weekend, though, that it has become a proper term.

Wiscon – and I guess cons in general – is deeply concerned with Failure.  There was a panel on it, which I did not attend.  Failure still crept into basically every conversation I had while in Madison.  This troubled me for reasons I am not yet able to articulate.

Maybe more on this one later, when I've had a chance to mull.

My favorite panel was easily Susan Marie Groppi's (of Strange Horizons) brainchild, "Science Fiction in the Classroom," even though I was not, strictly speaking, invited.  It was essentially a couple dozen educators sitting around talking shop.  They went over such topics as: Ursula K Le Guin and philosophy; how the Icarus in Sunshine can be used to teach and avoid bad engineering; utilizing advance design techniques to create monsters; and so much more.  I had a wonderful time sitting and listening.

My not-so-secret, self-serving aspiration is to pester the Wiscon administration into making an online forum so that educators can continue the discussion and I can keep eavesdropping.  Ostensibly, I justify this by saying that I aspire to be an educator.  Really, I just get a rush off of listening to teachers talk.  Yes, I've been too thoroughly indoctrinated.

Very little to say here except that I did not realize how many poets there are.  A had a smashing time meeting various editors and being able to geek out Peculiar Things like rhyme and meter.

Daily Science Fiction
I found out some months ago that the fantastic editors of Daily Science Fiction wished to publish my short story, "Apology," but for a while I wasn't really sure when.  The first day of the con I got a letter telling me that it will be sent out to subscribers this Friday and then posted on DSF's website a week later.  Check it out.

That's all.  'Til then.