The 13th Post: Stephen King’s On Writing, and an Excuse for Genres Everywhere

January 11, 2012 § 6 Comments

A milestone in the young life of my blog is reached: the 13th post. Superstition tells me not to make it a long or arduous one, because as soon as I have it all written, wordpress will find a way to destroy it. That, or turn it into some kind of hidden, haunted gem, findable only by the most specific and evil search terms.

What better to write about in a 13th post than Stephen King?

I’ve just finished the Master of the Macabre’s On Writing, which I got as a Christmas gift from my parents. It was a fitting gift–before traveling up to Maine to visit said parents for the holiday, I had been reading King’s Bag of Bones. The goal was to finish it before the miniseries premiered so I could write here on the blog about the adaptation (you know  just love picking apart adaptations) But the miniseries came and went (to little acclaim, I hear), and I resolved to save the book instead for December, and to start a tradition of reading a Stephen King novel every Christmas.

Here’s why: my parents live on an unassuming street in Bangor, Maine. If you walk out their front door, you’ll see a neat little park where two roads come together in a triangle. You’re walking your dog, say. The dog pulls you across your parents’ street into that little park to do her business. From there, at the meeting point of those two intersecting roads, you can look up one block and see a gas station, a row of plain but cozy 19th century houses (one of which is where my parents live), and a florist’s shop. It’s a pretty busy street. If you look up the other road, though, which is a tad more stately, you’ll see at its end a huge red Victorian with white-painted trim and a black iron gate.

Yep, just  an odd triangular block away from my parents’ front door is where Stephen and Tabitha King live.

You can see the broken gate where some drive-by tourist caused a woman to crash. Haha, tourist, that lady got to meet Tabby King and you didn’t.

Spending Christmas in the shadow of Stephen King is something I haven’t quite gotten over yet–my parents only moved up there a couple of years ago, but my aunt and uncle have been living nearby for as long as I’ve been alive. When I was younger, and we’d visit them, I never quite made the connection between the mountains of King paperbacks on my aunt’s shelves and the fact that he lived in town, about ten miles away from them. But now that my folks live in town too, the stereotypical spectre of the wacky neighbor has taken on a new meaning.

That’s not to say that my family runs into him (forgive my unfortunate choice of words, there) every day–in fact, I don’t think they’ve seen him at all, though my aunt might be holding out on a story or two. The Kings’ presence in town is more monetary than social as far as I know, especially since the accident in 1999 that made Mr. King’s long walks along the Maine highways a thing of the past–they paid for an entire wing of the local library and built a baseball field in the public park just behind their property, for starters. They’re Bangor’s philanthropists, the local do-gooder millionaires whom I never seem to see.

Stephen King’s idyllic baseball field, from the sledding hill.

Not to say I haven’t tried. That dog I mentioned? She needed plenty of walks around the block this Christmas. No luck, though my boyfriend and I think we might (might) have seen him out driving. Of course, I knowingly sneer anytime I see cars parked on the street out front, snapping pictures (please ignore picture snapped above…). How uncouth. Tourists.

Anyway, to heighten the thrill of staying a mere block away from a living legend, I’ve resolved to read a King novel every Christmas. I’m off to a rocky start already, since as soon as I ripped the paper off On Writing, Bag of Bones was relegated to the bottom of the holiday reading pile. But non-fiction counts, right? Right. Especially since On Writing turned out to be as engrossing a read as, say, Carrie. Less bloodshed, more humor, and enough good advice and inspiration to fuel a whole single-spaced page of New Year’s Writing Resolutions.

On Writing is part memoir and part craft book, and each is compelling. As a down-on-her-luck post-grad writer, I found page after page of younger Stephen’s approaches to the craft inspiring and familiar, and not just because he experienced his early writing life in my parents’ town, though that was a fun bonus. In the memoir section, titled “CV”, you won’t find as many straightforward writing dos and don’ts as you will later in the book, when King goes off about adverbs, but watching King recount his days working at a textile mill while writing gore-mag short stories on the side makes for a different kind of nourishment. My writer’s soul felt fed.

Now, despite the fact that I’ve read King’s novels before, with zeal (my aunt’s pile of King paperbacks? I remember sitting on her porch and reading The Shining cover to cover one summer, and being shocked by what Kubrick left out), and On Writing lit a fire under my butt like you wouldn’t believe (1 new story every month! 2 ten-minute plays! 2 blog posts a week! 4-6 hours of writing a day! Forward!), my official MFA Doubt, that pesky gnome, kept chiming in as I read (I think my particular gnome, the one assigned to me upon receipt of my diploma, is named Thisshitsucks).

Thisshitsucks: Okay, Cate, resolutions are all well and good, but remember that this is Stephen King. Okay? Genre.

Cate: The man edited a Best American!

Thisshitsucks: He also wrote Christine.

Cate: It’s postmodern!

Thisshitsucks: That’s just a term grad schoolies use when they know something is genre, and won’t admit it.

Cate: What’s wrong with genre anyway?

Thisshitsucks: It’s GENRE.

Cate: …I…I don’t know how to argue with that.

That’s the thing about MFA gnomes, they like to drill a point home without really explaining it. I mean, I know that there’s a big difference between Yates’s Revolutionary Road and Christopher Pike’s Chain Letter 2: The Ancient Evil. I know that genres exist, and that some are more satisfying to read, on a craft level, than others (on a sex and gore level, though? Hmm). But when a man who has made millions of dollars with his writing, only to use large sums of it building libraries, is giving you solid, sincere advice about adverbs and persistence, why let that voice, the annoying Thisshitsucks, win? Even if you can’t, in all good faith, say that genre doesn’t matter at all?

Genre does matter–especially to those who claim to be writing in a more intelligent one. Believe me, as someone interested in folk tales and the writing thereof, I’ve gotten my fair share of raised eyebrows, despite the plethora of contemporary literary writers working in that vein. But King’s advice transcends genre. He’s not explaining how to write a horror novel, just how to be a writer. How to sit down for 4-6 hours a day and not lose heart.

Since graduating more than half a year ago, I’ve had to wrestle with my MFA gnome quite a bit. Why write? I mean, why write instead of look for a job? Or rather, why write instead of sleep after a long day of looking for a job? You already know that your writing isn’t going to go very many places. Your MFA taught you many useful things, but unfortunately, it also taught you that your particular kind of writing isn’t what the crowds are raving for. So why do it?

In the final section of On Writing, King describes the chance meeting with a blue van that left him with a leg broken in 9 places, a couple broken ribs, and a low chance of walking again anytime soon. Pardon my French, but the man got fucked up. He talks about how writing became “a way back to life.” Inspiring stuff, to be sure, and I bet I could go off on a pretty convincing I’m-unemployed-and-downtrodden-that’s-just-the-shit-I-need-to-hear speech. But actually, when King talks earlier in the book about writing as just being fun, I can relate even more. Maybe writing the next Revolutionary Road is a way back to life for some, and that’s fantastic. For me, I like to think about my own preferred genre to read and write, the fairy tale (either folk or literary) and just how damn fun it is. I want to edit the next collection of fairy tale-inspired short stories, a la Kate Bernheimer. I want to pick apart every fairy tale film adaptation foolish enough to cross my path, for the sheer fun of stretching my knowledge. I want to write the next Peter Pan, the fairy story with more adult longing than childhood innocence (because we all know that doesn’t really exist, right?). I want to write Jack Zipes a love letter.  I want to finish my trilogy of short plays about Baba Yaga, the Russian witch. I demand talking bears.

Thisshitsucks thinks that shit sucks. I don’t really care. It’s fun.

I suppose you could also say it’s postmodern.

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§ 6 Responses to The 13th Post: Stephen King’s On Writing, and an Excuse for Genres Everywhere

  • Aine says:

    Hi Cate,

    I’m glad I found your blog, nobody reads NaNo mail after Nov!

    If you are still looking for a writing group, a space has opened up in ours. Friend me on Facebook and I can give you the details.


  • How cool to live on the same street as Stephen King! I also read his books at Christmas and just finished 11/22/1963. Hope you get to meet him someday!

  • “On Writing” was transformational to me. I wrote to flee my demons (or gnomes). Now I’m at that next stage of facing manuscripts down, not sure what to do next. Have Stephen King nearby wouldn’t help that.

  • I’ll admit that someday I’ll be one of those annoying photo-taking tourists. I’ve always wanted to visit Maine, and one of my stops will be Bangor – partly I’ve been reading about it in King’s work for years, and partly because I want a real-live look at where the stories came to be. I’m an unabashed fangirl. Not Misery-level, though, no no no.

    I loved “On Writing.” Excellent advice, plus King’s writing style. I need to do a re-read of that, one of these days, now that I’ve started writing again.

  • thenotwriter says:

    Im an aspiring (aka: unpublished) writer and “On Writing” is one of my favorite writing books. As a life long resident of New England, Ive been a Stephen King fan pretty much since birth, altho Ive yet to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Bangor.

  • jwhittz says:

    Just finished this (picked it up after reading this post)–what a great read. I don’t pretend to be a writer but as you say, King’s advice transcends. “Get up, get well and get over. Get happy, okay?”, paraphrased from page 269, is pretty damn good advice for anyone, I think.
    So thanks for the rec, Cate.

    Also, “Chain Letter 2: The Ancient Evil”?? That took me right back to 6th grade, my friend.

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