Writing Is A Lonely Job

Having tasted some modest success as a columnist last year for The Huntsville Times, my goals for 2009 are to sniff out some more freelance writing opportunities and to become a better practitioner of the craft.

To that end, I plan to continue to write at least one column-quality post per week here (along with whatever other mundane slices of life that strike my fancy), read good quality fiction and nonfiction works and “go back to school” by reading books on writing, most of them the main texts from various writers’ workshops for which I currently have neither the time nor the money.

But thanks to Amazon, I was able to reinvest my last two paychecks from THT into the latter and pick up about a dozen or so of the better ones. I’m currently working my way through the first: Steven King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

This one came highly recommended and now I can see why. In the first part of the book, King traces his evolution as a writer from his childhood, filled with B-grade horror movies and ill-fated, haywire science projects with older brother Dave, through his early years as a struggling novelist and schoolteacher, married with two young children and living from paycheck to paycheck, to his shooting star success which was nearly undone by his struggles with alcoholism and drug addictions. In the second half, King deals with the nuts and bolts of writing, but in his hands, even Sophomore English, similes and subordinate clauses begin to take on new luster and wonder.

And who would have thought that America’s Master of the Macabre could be so uproariously funny? Oh, but he is. Many an evening this past week has been spent passed recently with me sitting on the couch, wheezing and laughing, reading selected passages aloud to Eyegal, who is sitting on the other end (her own book in hand, of course), with Amazing Gracie the Wonderdog stretched out between us with some part of her body touching both of us (yes, she is horribly spoiled and sheds like a banshee, but she is our only daughter, and we love her).

A few passages caught my eye and are worth sharing. First this:

Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky; two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.

Isn’t this a problem for all of us? “Oh, I would write something if I could find a story to tell.” That was my case. It wasn’t until I realized that stories are occurring all around us–heck, our lives are stories–that I began to write more earnestly and regularly. The stories and ideas will come–if we can still ourselves long enough and open our eyes to see them as they parade before us.

And then this on the novel that launched King’s success, Carrie:

I couldn’t see myself wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell. So I threw it away.

The next night, when I came home from school, Tabby (his wife) had the pages. She’d spied them while emptying my wastebasket, had shaken the cigarette ashes off the crumpled balls of paper, smoothed them out, and sat down to read them. She wanted me to go on with it, she said. She wanted to know the rest of the story. I told her I didn’t know jack-s**t about high school girls. She said she’d help me with that part. She had her chin tilted down and was smiling in that severely cute way of hers. “I think you’ve got something here, ” she said. “I really think you do.”

I never got to like Carrie White and I never trusted Sue Snell’s motives in sending her boyfriend to the prom with her, but I did have something there. Like a whole career. Tabby somehow knew it, and by the time I had pile up fifty single-spaced pages, I knew it too.

Check your own wastebasket lately? And finally this:

My wife made a crucial difference in those two years I spent teaching Hampden (and washing sheets at New Franklin Laundry during the summer vacation). If she had suggested that the time I spent writing stories on the front porch of our rental house on Pond Street or in the laundry room of our rented trailer on Klatt Road in Herman was wasted time, I think a lot of the heart would have gone out of me. Tabby never voiced a single doubt, however. Her support was a constant, one of the few good things I could take as a given. And whenever I see a first novel dedicated to a wife (or a husband), I smile and think, There’s someone who knows. Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.

Writing is a lonely job. Which leads me to ask: How many great books remain unwritten because we don’t have the eyes to see? How many worthwhile ideas and thoughts lay crumpled and cast away in the wastebasket of our lives? How many of us, if we only had someone who believed, would find our voice and sound our songs for all the world to hear?

  1. kristiS

    I’ve thought for a long time that someone who was really interested in becoming a writer could learn a lot from Stephen King. His books terrify me and I’m generally fairly levelheaded.

    That being said, I think it’s sad that you feel you have to supply reasoning for why your dog is allowed on the couch. She’s allowed on the couch because she’s a member of the family and no one should question that. If I were to restrict my cat to the floor, my dad would probably stop paying my cell phone bill or something. Yeah yeah, I’m 25 and my dad still pays one of my bills. I’m in grad school. Hush everyone.

  2. spiritualoasis

    Great post, Michael. Although I’m not a big fan of his works, there is no disputing the fact that Stephen King (and his wife) knows good writing.

    God bless,

  3. Jeff Slater

    Good stuff, Mike. You’ve inspired me to do some more writing (beyond crafting weekly sermons and bulletin articles).

    Oh, and I agree with Kristi about the dog.

  4. Amazing Gracie the Wonderdog


  5. Mike the Eyeguy

    Begone passive voice! (see above strike through)

  6. JRB

    Did I recommend King’s book to you? If not, I meant to. A published-writer friend of mine, R. Scott Brunner, gave it to me when I was swimming in the dreams of fiction writing, and it has been helpful even in my academic writing.

    One of my missions in life is to hunt down and kill the passive voice wherever it lurks. Law students often require a beating to have done with it, and poorly writing judges don’t help at all.

    One thing King says in the book which belies his humble disclaimer of pure talent in favor of craft is his tendency to eschew plot at the beginning of a story. He essentially says that he starts with a particular situation, like an old car in a barn, then just lets the stories and the characters do what they will as he records it. That’s a special genius. As for me, I still live and die by outline and plot points, which is probably while I’ll only ever be in law reviews, not the NYT bestseller list.


  7. Mike the Eyeguy

    You may very well have. I do know that the book came out near the top of every “Books on Writing” list that I checked. It’s a gem and would definitely help any writer, fiction or nonfiction. I wish I had read it before I wrote all those academic papers in my 20s and 30s.

    I agree about King and his special genius. But I’m more than happy to gobble up the crumbs from his table like the beggar-bard I am. They should go a long way toward helping me write better, whether I ever write a word of fiction or not.

    And besides, there’s more to books (and life) than “untrue” stories, especially when they’re perfectly good real ones lying around just waiting to be told, right?

    Glad you reminded me about your friend R. Scott Brunner. If I can ever get Fannie Flagg, Pat Conroy and Rick Bragg to speak as nicely about my work as they do his, then I will have truly arrived.

    May have to shorten my pen name a bit, though–how ’bout M.I. Guy?

  8. Laurie

    I’ve always considered “The Stand” to be one of…oh, maybe not the BEST book I’ve ever read, but one I can’t stop thinking about. I read it for the first time in 1980 and keep going back to it every four or five years. I must have read it seven or eight times by now, and I still wonder what happened to the characters.

    I’m not much on books on writing, but one I would recommend is
    “Write Away” by Elizabeth George. She’s an amazing writer — writes very in-depth, character-driven police procedurals set in England. What’s fun about her writing book is that it’s not so much about her writing as about the writing of others that she’s found noteworthy. You might enjoy it.

  9. Mike the Eyeguy

    Yes, The Stand is my favorite, too (of King’s novels)! In fact, he talks at length about that one in this book (I haven’t got to that part yet, but I was skimming ahead. Shame!), and apparently it was one of his favorites as well.

    Great minds, addled as they are by a few too many headers on the pitch, think alike.

    I’ll give your Elizabeth George a look.

  10. mmlace

    Glad to hear that you’re getting a lot out of it already!

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy working on polishing your writing skills even more!

    You’re already so enjoyable to read!

  11. Stoogelover

    Good stuff. I would love to have our psycho-pup in the house with me but the Wife will have none of it. She thinks Chipper not only stinks, but sheds like crazy. Year ’round.

  12. Mike the Eyeguy

    Stoogey–take control of your house, man!

  13. Brady

    In my translation classes, the French prof made us take all the passives and put them into actives. He said that passives were one of the major distinctions between French and English. And I realized how passive I’d been…

    I think all those who read Stephen King throughout their high school and college years should repent. I wasted numerous hours on bricks like THE STAND. It brought my grade point average down and kept me out of law school.

    However, I very much enjoyed his novel: The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon. But haven’t read anything recently.

    I enjoy your stuff. Don’t know how good you really are, but I enjoy your stuff. So hang in there.

  14. Mike the Eyeguy

    Thanks. Yeah, I don’t either. But I know I need to get better. So I will.

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