Stephen King ruined my writing. To be fair, he was only trying to help. He wrote an excellent memoir/instruction manual entitled On Writing in 2000. It was a fantastic read, an inspiration really. Unlike so many books on the craft of writing, King didn't spend much, if any, time on the mystical, mysterious aspects of writing. I still read the pages about the passive voice and often share them with students. King gives great advice about grammar, dialogue and adverbs, especially adverbs. The best part, however, is his directive to have a goal in mind for each day of writing. King's advice is 2000 words a day. If memory serves he cuts that to 1000 for someone just starting out. Even so, some kind of goal is a key to writing. For me it generally has been pages, at least when it comes to something of length; seven hand written pages for my master's thesis, five pages a day when I wrote a screenplay and so on. The type of project and means of production affect what the limit will be.
So how did King ruin me? In that same book, he admonished the idea of plotting stories out. Nope, just take a situation and start writing. (Vampires take over a small town in Maine; A car becomes possessed; the world faces a great a plague.) He was adamant that he doesn't know what is going to happen, it just unfolds. I tried, I really did. I'd come up with situations in my head and...nothing. Well, not quite nothing but not really something either. I figured I wasn't really cut out to be a writer, a fiction writer anyway.
I still liked to write and shortly after trying to write a story or two, I got back into academia and was writing on a regular basis. I enjoy writing academic pieces, but I've always had an itch to write other things as well. Academic writing feels comfortable, but not nearly as challenging as other things. It has it's conventions, tricks, styles and expectations that after years (and years and years) of doing it, I managed to do it with little effort. I was resigned to being a writer that outlined (Stephen King hates those), planned and plotted, but I never could write a story.
I held on to that notion for years until I got permission to write the way I'm built to write. It came from two different sources. One was George RR Martin. He has this great quote:
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they're going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there's going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don't know how many branches it's going to have, they find out as it grows. And I'm much more a gardener than an architect.”
I get the sense that Martin thinks being a gardener is the right approach to writing, but I like architecture. I saw myself in that description of the writer as architect. Maybe it made for shitty fiction, but something in that quote set wheels in motion for me. Unfortunately, when I came across that quote I was in the middle of a pretty big project so I couldn't really test it out. Of course if I could have seen the forest among the trees, I would have realized that I was architecting the hell out of my dissertation. When it was finished, I had built something pretty solid, something pretty satisfying. Still, that Martin quote stuck with me, especially when thinking about what to do next.
That next big project took a little while to germinate. I wasn't really equipped for the work either (I'm still not.) Vaguely at first, I knew I wanted to write a screenplay. While in graduate school the idea that would become my screenplay came to me. It got put on hold for a while, again that dissertation really took up some time, but eventually I got to the point where I didn't just want to write it, but I had to. Unfortunately, I didn't have the faintest idea how to do it. So I picked up some books on the topic, but it was one in particular that made writing click.
Screenplay by Syd Field is a practical, usable guide to writing a screenplay, kind of like On Writing, but for screenplays. What really flipped my head though, was Field's recommended approach. Syd was all about structure, all about the outline, the diagram, the architecture. He was the antithesis of of the King style. It was more than just a lightbulb going off, it was like the voice of God telling me, "Go and do likewise."
And I did. No, you can't find the screenplay anywhere. I'd like to get back to it some day, but revising and editing were never my strong suits. It was more than just an exercise, but it was more about the journey, about finally, wholeheartedly embracing the style of writing that made me most comfortable. But I wasn't quite finished with learning about myself as a writer.
Last week I went to a presentation by the author George Saunders. I've read Tenth of December and plan on reading Lincoln in the Bardo very soon. Even though the day was dedicated to Saunders, with panels discussing his work around the theme of radical humanism, Saunders started the day talking about writing, his process and his writing, but writing in general. I don't remember what I expected, but I got further permission from Saunders to write.
In so much of my writing, I've felt like I was holding back, not really going for it. Turns out, Saunders felt the same way. He said that when he was starting out, and even after, that he was denying his true self. That while he was trying to work his way into the Hemingway lineage of writers, he was denying essential parts of who he was. It wasn't until he realized, that it was ok, to embrace those parts of himself. In his case it was being a fan of popular culture, being a fast-talker, using humor in his writing. Saunders realized it was ok to entertain (his words.)
It really is a different way of saying, "write what you know." Sometimes it takes a different turn of phrase to make the message stick. I'm not exactly sure what it means for me, but I've got some ideas, much clearer now. I like to write all kinds of stuff. Some of it comes from that Ph. D. world, intellectual, thoughtful. In short, I'm smart. I have a really hard time accepting that, but it's about time I did. I mean, I have a fucking Ph. D. for god's sake.
Which is a good segue to other aspects of me. I can be a bit crude and weird. I think I'm funny, but I'm not sure how well that comes across in writing, but it's about time I give it a try. Trying is about all I can really control and that's ok. One last thing that I got from Saunders, just keep at it. One of the stories in Tenth of December took fourteen years to finish. FOURTEEN YEARS! On a short story!! Kind of puts that year and a half on a screenplay and six years on a dissertation in a bit of perspective.