Thursday, July 5, 2007

Sage and the King

Last year at Silver Lake College I had the chance to teach both an introductory creative writing course and an advanced poetry workshop. For this post, I’d like to take a closer look at the texts I used for these courses.

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has an immediate appeal for the beginning writers. Half of his book is a charming memoir, filled with moments as surprising and vivid as anything King ever wrote in fiction. The other half is a primer on writing fiction, and the tone here is also charming and approachable. I first read On Writing while I was on my honeymoon and I found the book so inspiring that when I returned I went down into my basement and began the novel that would become The Night Birds.

The second text we’ll consider is Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual. Again this post seems to be taking a thesis/antithesis approach to books on writing. King made $400,000 for selling Carrie, an astronomical sum. Kooser, on the other hand, sold insurance for a living and has only made his reputation late in life. Kooser’s a craftsman, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, but I believe it's a mistake to dismiss King as just a writer of horror. You don't make a career as a novelist unless you understand a thing or two about how to tell a story.

Aside from these differences, both texts are simple, entertaining, and filled with wonderful examples of what makes a good story or poem. I’ll know I’ll be using them again in future classes and I highly recommend both. Can you be both a poet and a novelist, even though one deals in microcosms the other in the sprawling canvas of world creation? I believe so and many writers--from the classic example of Thomas Hardy to a contemporary John Updike or Louise Erdrich--prove that it's possible.

For this post, I’ll format it a little differently. Below, we have a fun quiz on King. Just looking at the questions will give you a great idea about the book and I challenge you to ferret out the correct answer. If you really want to know if you're right you’ll need to buy the book. How do you think you would do? After the quiz, I’ll discuss some of the highlights of Poetry Home Repair Manual, including how we used it in our workshop.

Quiz on King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
1. Stephen King says the following about where a writer gets ideas for stories:
A) “From out there…man!”
B) A secret place in the subconscious a writer can access by practicing deep breathing and twilight dreaming
C) Heavy use of chemicals, especially opiates and Budweiser
D) There is no such thing as an idea dump. You show up to work and recognize two unrelated ideas to make something new under the sun
E) All of the above

2. Eulah Buelah was:
A) A psychotic first grade teacher
B) A heavyset babysitter with digestive difficulties and a perverse sense of humor
C) A critic who worked for the Village Voice and wrote nasty things about King’s first novels

3. Stephen King’s first really great idea for a story came from:
A) The happy stamps he saw his mother licking
B) A 1950’s movie about zombies
C) His fascination with Tonto and the Lone Ranger
D) Comic books about deranged teenagers

4. Why does King throw away the first draft of Carrie? What connection did he need to realize in order to save the story?_________________________________

5. When it comes to write a story, you should write about:
A) ideas based on life experiences that have shaped you
B) formulas that will likely please your teacher
C) write what you know
D) anything you damn well want

6. Stephen King believes that stories are:
A) two parts wishes, one part terror
B) found things, like fossils in the ground
C) carefully outlined and plotted beforehand

7. Flannery O’Connor once said that stories are shaped by the “mystery of personality.” She believed that you should begin with a “real” character and go from there. Stephen King would:
A) agree 100%
B) believes that the situation comes first
C) emphasizes pure plot above all things

8. Describe how Stephen King discovered the idea for Misery: ___________
9. Take a look at this example passage of description below. What did King say was most important about description?

"After the hot clarity of Second Avenue, Palm Two was as dark as a cave. The backbar mirror picked up some of the street glare and glimmered in the gloom like a mirage. For a moment it was all Billy could see, and then his eyes began to adjust. There were a few solitary drinkers at the bar. Beyond them, the maitre d’, his tie undone and his shirt cuffs rolled up to show his hairy forearms, was talking with the bartender. There was still sawdust sprinkled on the floor, Billy noted, as if this were a twenties speakeasy instead of a millennium eatery where you couldn’t smoke, let alone spit a gob of tobacco between your feet…The air was redolent of steak and fried onions. All of it was the same as it ever was."
10. What’s wrong with this passage of dialogue from Hart’s War below? How might it be fixed?

Pryce grabbed Tommy once again. “Tommy,” he whispered, “this is not a coincidence! Nothing is what it seems! Dig deeper! Save him, lad, save him! for more than ever now, I believe Scott is innocent…You’re on your own now, boys. And remember, I’m counting on you to live through this! Survive! Whatever happens!”
He turned back to the Germans. “All right, Hauptmann,” he said with sudden, exceedingly calm determination. “I’m ready now. Do with me what you will.”

11. How does King show the goodness of Johnny, the protagonist of The Dead Zone? How does he show the evil of Stillson, the villain?

12. If one of your characters hit her hand with a hammer, you should have her say:
A) “Oops, I did it again.”
B) “Jeepers! That’s gonna leave a mark.”
C) A simple “ouch” will do the trick.
D) “@#$%*&@@!”

13. The reason you should have her say the above is:
A) To maintain FCC regulations
B) So that your mother can read it and not cringe
C) Because a writer must always tell the truth
14. In King style, invent one of your own “What If’s” that might make an interesting story... (What if a woman rented a hotel room and discovered a dead body in the bed…)

  • The Sage
    “While you’re writing your poem, there’s one less scoundrel in the world,” Kooser notes toward the beginning of The Poetry Home Repair Manual. “And I’d like a world, wouldn’t you in which people actually took the time to think about what they were saying?"

    I’m going to divide this into three sections. The first includes some highlights, favorite parts of the text. The second centers on activity we focused together on as a class. Just as Kooser advised, I sent my students out on Poetry Patrol. Many of my poets enjoyed it so much, they stayed “on patrol” long after the class ended. Lastly, I’ll conclude with a few more quotes courtesy of the text. These are only highlights and a small glimpse of what is an extraordinary book!

    “Poetry is communication and every word I’ve written here subscribes to that belief."

    “We serve each poem we write” (3).

    We say we loved the earth, but we could not stay” (5).

    “The aim of the poet and of poetry is to be of service” (6).

    “We teach ourselves to write the kind of poems we like to read” (9).

    “When you find a poem that is a terrible mess, think how it could have been made better” (12).

    “While you sit quietly scribbling into your notebook, memories and associations rise like bubbles out of the thick mud of your mind” (13).

    “A work of art defines itself into being, when we awaken into it and by it, when we are moved, altered, stirred. It feels as if we have done nothing, only given it a little time, a little space; some hairline crack opens in the self, and there it is” (13).

    “Revision, and I mean extensive revision, is the key to transforming a mediocre poem into a work that can touch and even alter a reader’s heart. It’s the biggest part of the poet’s job description” (16).

    “A poem is the invited guest of its reader” (18).

    Poetry Patrol

    Kooser tells us that “if we want to engage our listeners and readers we need to shake off generalizations and go for the specifics. It’s the details that make experiences unique and compelling” (93).

    How do we get more detail in our writing? We must practice and hone our skills of observation.

    Task One: For two days next week, take a close look at six things. Jot down your observations in a notebook. Turn one of these observations into a poem. (See page 94 for example.) I would suggest going to a favorite place or exploring somewhere new. For one of your ventures, try to focus on the people around you.

    · “Henry James advises writers, ‘Be one of those on whom nothing is lost.’ (qtd in Kooser 96)
    · “What about writing about things outside of ourselves? There’s no end to possibilities” (97).
    · “I’ve heard it said that God is in the details and the devil is in the details. Both aphorisms attest to the powers that details carry” (103).
    · Search for the “authenticating detail” recognizing that “the imagination makes a lousy realist”

Artist or entertainer? Which do you strive for in your writing? Perhaps the truth is a blend of each of these. Bestselling novelists can learn from the quiet craft of poetry, just as poets need to be reminded that this ancient craft began as entertainment--a skald telling stories of the impossible to an audience gathered around a fire.