As the written word has lost some of its relevance in a sea of glowing screens and an exponential proliferation of Real Housewives that threatens to overrun the United States World War Z style within the next few years, it may be hard to remember that writers were once considered celebrities in their own right. Sure, a lot of people know who J.K. Rowling is, but I can’t help but pine for a time when wordsmiths had a higher profile. Stephen King even did a commercial for American Express!
Writers have an unlikely hero in the new host of The Late Show: Stephen Colbert. In an attempt to distinguish himself from the two Jimmies (Kimmel and Fallon), Mr. Colbert is taking a slightly more intellectual route with the program. Inviting an author onto the show instead of the fifth lead in the latest Michael Bay movie must drive the network crazy? After all, who wants to see an interview with some writer?
We do, of course. In the past couple months, Mr. Colbert has given network air time to writers such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders and Elizabeth Gilbert. George Saunders even read a short story to Mr. Colbert (and the audience). On national television! Look:
Why is it significant to see writers on Colbert instead of Charlie Rose? Why isn’t it good enough that Diane Rehm and Terry Gross interview their fair share of writers? Look, I love the Charlie Rose/NPR kind of interviews, too. The sad truth is that if we want to bring new readers into our circle, we need to seem like lots of fun. Terry Gross is brilliant and fascinating and must be one heck of a party guest, but Omarosa, a woman who breaks into tears when hit on the head with a gram of plaster, will always get more attention in our contemporary culture. Mr. Colbert’s Late Show is a bright carnival of music, humor and energy. When people see Jonathan Franzen participate in the carnival, viewers can see that reading is not necessarily homework and they might enjoy shifting some of their Candy Crush time over to reading.
Do tune in to the Late Show live, but here are some clips of Mr. Colbert interviewing some of our colleagues:
Bonuses:Here is Mr. Dickey’s New York Times obituary. Here is an interview Mr. Dickey gave to The Paris Review. What did the poet hope would happen when people read his work? Check out his answer:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Punctuation
This “long” and fun poem tells a real-life story: that of a stewardess who fell out of a commercial airplane, meeting an unfortunate end at the hands of physics and fate. The poem begins as the woman is rummaging for blankets and completing her commonplace duties. Without warning, she is sucked out of the plane and falls to the earth. The plot of the poem may be simple, but it packs a big wallop because of the way Mr. Dickey uses language to describe her actions and thoughts as she endures what she learns will be the last couple moments of her life. The free verse work is split into seven stanzas that increase in intensity, culminating in a chilling final line:
There’s SO MUCH to learn from this poem that I should just jump right in, but I can’t help but point out one reason I’m writing about “Falling.” We all love Stephen King, right? Well, he gave an interview to The Atlantic‘s Jessica Lahey in which he discusses his views on craft and teaching. During a discussion regarding which kind of work has the biggest impact on young readers, Mr. King says:
When it comes to literature, the best luck I ever had with high school students was teaching James Dickey’s long poem “Falling.” It’s about a stewardess who’s sucked out of a plane. They see at once that it’s an extended metaphor for life itself, from the cradle to the grave, and they like the rich language.
Mr. King, of course, is correct in his assertions and “Falling” is the kind of poem we should all have under our belts.
What do we notice first of all? Well, Mr. Dickey stole the idea of the poem from a real news article. This one, in fact. Unfortunately, Mr. Dickey is no longer with us, so we can’t ask him about his exact motivation. It’s safe to say, however, that Mr. Dickey was probably struck by the terror and freedom the young woman experienced during her descent. Why shouldn’t you do the same thing? The next time you read a news story that strikes you, why not jot down a few lines. After all, most of us are moved by news stories and anecdotes we hear and the like. We’re never at a loss for inspiration if we make use of the infinite number of stories that surround us. There are also infinite angles you can take when borrowing from the news. You can simply retell the story. Or you can set the events 500 years in the future. Or you can devote the narrative to an observer. Or you can do as Mr. Dickey did, delving deep into what he imagined the stewardess was thinking and doing as the surly bonds of Earth reclaimed her.
And now, it’s time to do a little counting. I know…I know…so many of us become writers because we don’t want to deal with a ton of numbers. Unfortunately, statistical analysis can help us understand what makes “Falling” so effective. You’ll notice that Mr. Dicket doesn’t cast his lines in a traditional manner. That’s just fine, of course; the fragmented run-on lines mimic the stewardess’s mental state. I’m betting that it’s pretty hard to form coherent sentences when you’re at terminal velocity without a parachute.
Mr. Dickey still had an obligation to help us figure out how we should split up the lines. And he also has the responsibility to let the reader take a breath. (We don’t want people to pass out at poetry readings, do we?) So how does he manipulate the prose to allow respiration and to communicate the feeling of disjointed thought? Well, you see all of those spaces in the fairly long lines. But you’ll notice that he also uses punctuation, albeit sparingly. Here’s a table that breaks down his use of punctuation in the poem:
Want to see the data in chart form?
Only 19 punctuation marks? In such a long poem? Crazy!
Well, not really. Mr. Dickey used the punctuation like spice, placing the marks only where they were utterly necessary. You’ll also notice that the end of the poem–the time when the character is most despondent, we might assume–only includes two marks, including the one at the very end. By that time, Mr. Dickey has taught us how to read the poem; he doesn’t need to provide the kind of guideposts that were much more of a necessity earlier in the poem. What’s the overall point? We must string together words in the manner appropriate to the work and mortar them together with the proper punctuation…even if that means omitting the marks altogether.
Another great thing about the poem is that Mr. Dickey actually gives the fictionalized protagonist things to do. Now, the unfortunate real-life stewardess may not have imagined she could save herself by diving into water. She may not have removed her jacket and shoes on purpose (or at all). It’s sad, but we have no way of knowing what she was thinking because she wasn’t around to tell us the next day. One of the big problems that a lot of people have when they fictionalize a real event is a lack of imagination. (At least, this failure is certainly a problem for me!)
When we are molding creative works, we shouldn’t forget that we can change anything we like about the characters and the plot. What a freeing notion, right? Like me, you may think of the perfect thing to say to someone…an hour after you should have said it. These restrictions are loosened in creative writing. By all means, if you are writing about your childhood, your best friend doesn’t have to live next door. Your first boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t have to break your heart and show up to school looking blissful the next day. It’s not entirely necessary that your parents got divorced. Why? The characters aren’t really your best friend, significant other or parents. It’s your world, friend. You get to decide what joys and pains your characters endure.
What Should We Steal?
Write your own version of a true story.What was going through the minds of American sailors during the attack on Pearl Harbor? What were the Japanese kamikaze pilots thinking?
Shape your lines and use punctuations according to your needs.If you are trying to craft breathless lines for a breathless character, you might not want to use a lot of periods. (Periods are also called “full stops.” Stopping certainly wouldn’t be a good idea for this kind of character.)
Feel empowered to fictionalize real-life situations. You are your characters’ puppet master. Pull the strings. But don’t take my word for it. Take the advice from Bela Lugosi:
Hey, want to go see Stephen King talk about writing in a fairly intimate setting? Oh…there’s no such event happening tonight. And even if there were, we would be kept out by the vagaries of distance and travel cost and of our other responsibilities.
Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, however, we can “attend” a master class that Mr. King gave at UMass Lowell on Friday, December 7th, 2012. The talk was moderated by another great writer, Andre Dubus III. (He teaches at the school.)
So let’s pull up a seat. Make sure you turn off your cell phone so you won’t disturb others. And go to the bathroom now so you don’t make everyone else in your row stand up to let you by.
What are some things we can steal from the panel discussion?
4:05: After a spirited introduction from Mr. Dubus, Mr. King relates how starstruck he was a young writer attending a masterclass given by Joseph Heller. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m breathing the same air as the guy who thought up Yossarian and Major Major and all of those things. I was in love with reading. I was in love with my girlfriend, but sometimes, you know, if I’d been given a choice, if they had said, ‘you can have your girlfriend or your books,’ I’d have to sit down and say, ‘let me think about that.'” Mr. King was flabbergasted and intimidated by Heller until the author spoke for a while and Mr. King realized that Heller was “just a guy.” Just like Mr. Dubus and just like himself. Mr. King reminds us that writers all begin in the same place and share a great deal, including humanity.We’re part of a vast fraternity and we share the same neuroses and responsibility to contribute to the success of the next generation. Do the “big boys” and “big girls” have the obligation to invite into their homes every aspiring writer they meet? Of course not. But we improve as writers if we relate to other writers. (Which is part of my motivation for doing this site in the first place!)
At around 7:00, Mr. King tells a fun story about how he came up with the idea for his next novel. He was in a hotel room somewhere in the Carolinas and saw a news story about a dispute in Cleveland. An aggrieved woman heard that her rival was applying for a job at a large cattle call at a McDonald’s and decided to get her revenge. The woman drove to McDonald’s and began a physical altercation. When the victim got away, the perpetrator got back into her car and plowed through a number of job seekers. Mr. King seems to be talking about this story: “Police: Four hit by car in McDonald’s parking lot, cell phone video shows incident.” (There’s a snippet from the local TV news broadcast, too.)
And this seems to be video of the encounter. (Careful; it’s pretty intense!)
Mr. King concludes the anecdote by saying: “And I thought to myself, ‘I want to write about this.’ I didn’t know why I wanted to write about it or what I wanted to write about it, but I knew I wanted to write about it.” Mr. King doesn’t believe notebooks are effective for the retention and fostering of ideas. A good idea, he says, is one that “sticks around, sticks around, sticks around.” I tend to agree with him. Isaac Asimov, I recall, mentioned that he would sometimes have a good idea before he went to bed. His wife would tell him to write it down, but Isaac would counter by saying that if the idea was any good, he wouldn’t forget it. Ideas need to percolate; the specifics that may be immortalized if we write the first flush of our inspiration may drown out the deeper truths of what attracted us to the idea in the first place.
Approximately halfway through the masterclass, Mr. King is asked about his preferences with respect to composition: pen and paper or a keyboard? Mr. King says that he prefers to write longhand, especially when jotting down notes. There’s no right answer to the question; it’s certainly a matter of personal preference. Speaking from my own experience, however, I believe that writing your first draft longhand allows you to really FEEL the words you’re putting down. According to the typing test I just took, I can type 83 words per minute. I certainly can’t write that many longhand. To my mind, composing prose longhand creates a bottleneck that forces a writer to devote a split second of additional thought to his or her choices, on both the micro and macro levels. No matter your inclination, I would certainly think that it’s worth experimenting with the other on occasion.
Don’t you love hearing smart writers talk about why certain bad books are bad? It’s also a lot of fun watching an incredibly successful writer ham it up like one of the guys. Isn’t it sad that the lecture is over? I hope you enjoyed seeing Stephen King’s talk with me. We should do this sort of thing again! Drinks are on me!
Cool and useful quotes:
“One of the worst things that I ever heard for me personally, was I did something with John Irving one time and he said when he’s starting a book, the first thing he does is write the last line. And I thought to myself, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s like eating the frosting off your cake!”
“I think a writer’s notebook is the best way in the world to immortalize bad ideas.”
“I’m gonna tell you this whether you’ve read it or not because that spoiler shit is for wusses.”
One of Mr. King’s comments seems so cool that I made it into a poem/Tumblr image thingy thing:
As you may be aware, Google employs powerful algorithms to determine what they THINK you might be searching for. The suggestions provided by Google Instant reflect the searches that other people have done. Millions of people have searched for celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, so when you do a search for “Ashton Kutcher is,” you get the following:
What does the aggregated wisdom reveal about some great writers? Sometimes wondering what a writer IS leads to biographical details and a hint of detail about their work:
It’s a real song, apparently. Picture a garage band from 1996 whose members were inspired by Silverchair mixed with a garage band from 1997 whose members were inspired by Everclear.
Title of Work and its Form:The Green Mile, novel Author:Stephen King Date of Work: The serialized parts were released monthly in 1996, with a collection published the following year. Where the Work Can Be Found: There are approximately eleven trillion copies of the book in print. Why not pick one up at your local secondhand bookstore?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Discussion: The Green Mile began life as a serial novel. Each month between March and August 1996, you could head to your local bookstore and pick up the next installment in the story of Paul Edgecombe, a former death row guard who is recounting his experiences decades later from a nursing home. Edgecombe has spent those years thinking about John Coffey, an inmate who was convicted of killing two little girls. Coffey has magic healing powers and doesn’t seem to be capable of incredible violence. Still, the law is the law, right? Coffey is executed. Edgecombe seems to have picked up some of the Coffey magic and is pain-free and incredibly healthy for a 104-year-old man.
Anyone who has read a Stephen King knows that he has a masterful command of plot and has few peers when it comes to great characterization. If you check out the Stephen King section in your local library, you’ll also realize how prolific the man is; he clearly loves the simple act of putting words on paper. With The Green Mile, however, Mr. King tried something new…that is also old. Believe it or not, many of the CLASSIC NOVELS that you’ve read—or resolved to read—were originally released serially. Today, you can simply pluck a Charles Dickens novel from the shelf and read away. A new section of Bleak House, for example, was released each month between March 1852 and September 1853. This method of releasing a story has a lot of advantages; Dickens’ readers were left on tenterhooks for weeks, wondering what would happen to the characters. The same effect can be seen today; how many of us would spend all week thinking about and debating the consequences of LOST? Do you remember the large crowds that would gather at bookstores upon the release of each new Harry Potter book?
Serial publishing can do you a lot of good. I remember reading the serial installments of the awesome Robert J. Sawyer novelRollback that were published in the awesome science fiction magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact several years ago. I simply couldn’t wait to get to the bookstore to buy the next issue; I needed to find out what happened in the story! If you’ve never considered splitting your work up in such a fashion, why not?
One of the things that struck me most about The Green Mile is the confidence with which Mr. King wrote the book. (Confidence that was deserved, of course.) Mr. King did not hand the publisher a great big Green Mile manuscript and tell them which chunks to release and when. No, Mr. King wrote the first part of the book and knew he had a pretty firm deadline for the next one. Can you imagine the pressure? Now, Mr. King doesn’t have much trouble getting himself to sit down and write, but he had hundreds of thousands of fans in the back of his mind, all of whom were demanding the next installment.
Writing a serial work can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, you may loosen quality control somewhat. After all, the material NEEDS TO GO OUT, so you might cut corners out of necessity. On the other hand, a lot of us overthink things a lot, don’t we? Having that big deadline hanging over your head may get your creative juices flowing.
What Should We Steal?
Release your work serially.Your work should have internal suspense, but why not consider adding some external suspense to your work? If you’re a poet who has completed a themed series of poems, you might try to publish one in subsequent issues of a literary journal or do so on your own web site.
Use a deadline to force you to write.Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What would you rather have on your list of publications? A pretty good novel of which you can be proud or nothing at all because the absolutely perfect version of your work can never exist?