Friday, September 18, 2009

Writing on Writers who are Writing

I've been reading the chosen selection.

That doesn't sound like a good beginning, does it? It's funny how much sentiment may or may not be conveyed through lines on paper. Or a screen. Oh communication. But isn't that what writing is all about?

I am enjoying it.

But. Yes, there is a but. First I should clarify that I have never read one of Mr. King's books. Never. I know, that makes me a terrible person, or a lousy book-club member or humanitarian, or whatever. Even I, given my natural propensity to things dark and twisted, view it as an oddity. And perhaps I shall pick one up and read it (suggestions? What is the best, or most important fictional work of Little Stevie King?).

Until then, I have only this nonfiction piece to go on - which is, no doubt, different than a writer's fictional work - and thus I wonder about your comment, Jennie, that Lisa was correct about the author's nonfiction writing. Please explain, if you don't mind.

Back to the but. But, I find I like his accounts of the actual writing experience best. Perhaps that's what I'm most interested in, given it is a book by a writer about writing. Some of the early accounts of his childhood experiences seem a little... derived.

I mean yes, children certainly do stupid things. Everyone has tales of their ridiculous childhood (at least most boys do, I'm not sure about the female population). But some of the moments were predictable and contrived to me. The poison ivy, for example. Every boy scout has a tale of someone they knew doing some such, true or not. It's a childhood urban legend, and I saw it coming a mile off. Perhaps these moments are completely true, but I also have to guess at the nature of a writer, who is by definition, a liar. Writers might like to pretend that they're achieving truth through recombination of experience, of art, of ideas - and in a metaphysical sort of manner, yeah that may be accurate. But life doesn't make for great art, great story arcs, or encapsulated themes. That's why it requires recombination by someone with a sense of the desperation innate in humankind to search for meaning in the chaos. And so, writers lie. It works better on paper. And the best of them stab something close to truth, and others... don't.

My point here is, I really like his moments about his ideas, his writing, his creation because to me, those bits feel real. Some of the others that emerge from his foggy childhood read a bit like stories one tells at dinner parties to provoke a reaction, and nobody really cares whether the details are intact since everyone's had a bit too much to drink anyhow.

There. That said, I am enjoying the book. Comments?


Jennie said...

Interesting. I also saw the poison ivy thing from a mile off, and I agree that most of the childhood stories were a bit hokey. Still, even assuming he exaggerates and fabricates the facts for the sake of the stories (a safe assumption, I might add), isn't that what writers are supposed to do? And isn't that what most people do when telling stories on a regular basis?

For example, there's a rather fantastic story in the Peterson family of Paul's father's conversion to the LDS church (it involves a terrible car crash and miraculous recovery). I'll never know just how exaggerated the story is, but I'm sure it is, at least in part. (This is mostly due to the fact that his father was unconscious after the accident and they rely on the account of three children who witnessed the accident to fill in the details.) Still, the story serves it's purpose (very well, I might add!), and will most likely be passed down through the generations of our family.

I guess this is why I find the study of folklore fascinating. The reasons behind the exaggerations can be more telling than the exaggerations themselves.

Anyway, yes, his stories can be considered rather self-indulgent.

How important is absolute truth in storytelling, though? It's hard to say. If too many facts of a "true story" are changed, I feel deceived. But the embellishing and changing of some details (through the simple fact that our memories are imperfect) is inevitable.

I'm not sure I agree with your statement that life doesn't make for great art. I think that it can, in rare cases (maybe in rare moments?), but sure most of everyday life is dull. I think that's why King picked out certain memories rather than telling a complete chronological autobiography.

Hmm...I think I'm babbling. Oops.

Jennie said...

Oh, and about Steven King as a nonfiction writer. I must confess, I also haven't read any of his fiction, and really, I'm not even tempted to. It's not the kind of stuff I'm interested in.

On the other hand, I have read quite a few columns and other nonfiction pieces that he has written, and I always find them well-written, witty, comical, and thought-provoking.

So yeah, it's just an opinion (based on my very limited experience), but I prefer Steven King as a nonfiction writer. Lisa had mentioned something along a similar vein, so that's why I said I thought she was right.

Lisa said...

Firestarter is good . . . and Carrie is highly traditional. The Stand is fun because part of it takes place in Boulder. It is flat out terrifying.

I think part of why I don't like his fiction is because his characters are very middle-of-the-road, not-that-bright sorts of folks. Aka, normal people. No me gusta normal.

Anyway . . . I take the point regarding some of his childhood reflections feeling contrived. But for me, I think they feel less contrived than distilled - all the boring and unhelpful bits cut away to reveal something else. It's true that life doesn't always have a good plot arc, but it's also true that humans naturally learn and comprehend through narrative. We're addicted to stories and use them to, as Peter so aptly put it, sort through the chaos and come up with something meaningful.

I've always figured this is why religious texts primarily take the form of stories and parables rather than to-do lists. It sticks better.

So, I don't mind that he took the most interesting/traumatic bits of his childhood and told those with an eye to humor and impact. After all, he did turn out to be a horror writer, and we don't really want to hear the story of a childhood spent chasing butterflies through meadows of sunflowers on the ancestral estate.

And I think the poison ivy story is so ubiquitous because kids keep on doing it. Ha.

Amanda said...

Okay, yes, writers lie to a certain extent. But I don't think that's what Stevie King was doing while telling his childhood stories. I think part of what make a personal anecdote enjoyable is not just the telling of events and facts, but also the telling of the participant's thoughts and emotions as the events are unfolding. And if those are embellished a little, so what?

And yeah, the poison ivy story was very predictable. And possibly the most exaggerated case I've ever heard. But hey, maybe that's how his kid mind remembers the event.

Amanda said...

Oh, and I haven't read any of King's novels either. I don't know how well I would hold up with horror stories, but I know I do better with suspenseful books than I do with suspenseful movies.