Stephen and me

I have long been a fan of Stephen King. I love The Stand, a classic novel of good and evil, with a ripping plot and dynamic characters. It and The Shining both scare me silly, but they stick in my mind for their stark depiction of creatures who wish no good to humans.

When I worked at a very conservative Christian high school, a mom whose two sons I had taught gave me King's book, On Writing. I was a little suspicious that she was trapping me into admitting I liked King, who was reviled (as was J. K. Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter novels) as demonic. Hmmph. Time showed that this mom was not of such a rigid mindset and that she wished me well as a writer.

Now I am rereading On Writing, half memoir and half writing manual. I'm in the writing part and eating up his advice, as it agrees with how I compose. King says that to be a good writer--a good writer being a few steps above a competent writer but not a great writer, like Steinbeck or Joyce, who need no advice--you must have two qualities. They are joy and honesty.

Piglet joy
"If there's no joy in it, it's just no good," King says. He gives examples of people who do something artistic because they have enough talent and skill to become competent. But they take no great pleasure in what they do; they don't get lost in their art, so enthralled that time passes like the blink of an eye. Good artists forget to eat, become dehydrated, get stiff and sore from sitting too long and are mad as can be when someone interrupts them when they are creating. This is joy, the deep joy of expressing through art some vital and hidden aspect of being a person in the universe.

an honest wheelbarrow at work
The other necessity is honesty. King's take on writing a novel is that it is a found thing, a fossil that must be dug up with delicacy and respect. The author is not a conquering hero who wrings the life into or out of his characters, but an acolyte who serves in the ceremonies of artistic creation. So the author, King insists, needs to listen to the characters he's bringing to life in his book and record their words and thoughts as honestly as possible.

It's easy to want to edit your characters when they say or do something outrageous, so as not to offend anyone. But King will have none of this kind of timidity. He urges writers to be faithful scribes in the employ of the book, especially to the characters who are narrating it.

I know what he means about joy and losing yourself in the high blue skies of writing. When I am writing at my best, I don't have a care in the world. The joy takes over and my fingers do its bidding.

As for honesty, I've been far too honest all my life. Words like "blunt" and "too trusting" have routinely been applied to my nature. So King's accolades on honesty are music to my ears.

Not all of King's books are as good as his best ones, but his best ones are really something. He has sold millions of books all over the world, and I think I am not alone in enjoying his writing. He is not great; his books are not high literature. He is good.

Likewise, I am not aiming at greatness or a place in the pantheon of timeless authors. I want to entertain my readers and throw in a few challenging questions here and there. That's my joy and my honest contribution to the soothing of Schopenhauer' "restless Will," which keeps people anxious and unsatisfied with their lives. If I can give people a few hours of interesting thinking and insight into the common plight of humanity, I am happy. I am a good writer.


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