Two Great Writers

Just a quick post today to say how very fortunate I’m feeling. Last November I got the opportunity to see Stephen King in Wichita. This week I traveled to Tulsa to hear Neil Gaiman talk about the craft of writing, and other various impromptu things, at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

Living in Kansas, the opportunities to see such well-known authors are rare, and while the theater was mostly filled for Stephen King, I was awed by the massive numbers of people who showed up in Tulsa to hear Mr. Gaiman.

I think what I took away from the evening that I treasure the most is Neil Gaiman’s passion for the arts and how, while we are a society that is increasingly turning to the practical, the arts are what make life worth living.

What would our lives be without music, dance, visual arts, and literature? What is the purpose of life if not to feel the swell in our chests when we witness the beautiful, amazing things that humans are capable of?

The world and history is filled with reminders of the other side of humanity — the destructive side instead of the creative side. Thank God for the artists who create and inspire and feed our souls. Who illuminate the dark halves of ourselves so that there is hope and purpose and a glimpse of something more than just work and bills and all things mundane.

Six hours in a car was well worth it to be reminded that there are individuals out there who are brilliant, talented, humble and above all, creative.

That terrifying moment when you have time to write!

The deadline is looming. You drive to work yearning to turn around, go home, and get to work on the job you really want to do, which is writing. But you have responsibilities. You need that pay check. So you drive down raining streets, dry streets, snowy streets, seeing your characters in your mind. Engaging them in conversations and coming up with new plot twists.

The ache is real and intense. You NEED to work. And you will. Just a few more weeks in the semester or before that next brief break and you’ll hit it like a sailor on leave hitting a …….well, you get the picture.

The time comes. For me, that means finals are finished and semester grades are turned in. Finally, I can focus on what I really want and need to. SO WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT!

I recently tried to find the original writer who compared writing to slicing open a vein. To my surprise, there have been many such analogies by many writers throughout history. Is that why it’s so hard? Because writing is like tearing open an artery to your soul and letting it pour out on to the page?

Maybe it’s fear. If I were trying to create a masterpiece out of marble, I might work hundreds of hours only to leave it unfinished for fear that carving just a little bit more might leave my Venus de Milo without a nose or my David without his big toe. In other words, fear of screwing up!

What if what I write next isn’t as good as what I’ve already written? Or worse yet, what if I finish it, send it out into the world and no one likes it? Yikes!

The truth is writers are human. We screw up and that’s why we have a delete button and why the great Stephen King told us to “kill our darlings.” We’re going to make mistakes, and not everyone is going to love everything that we write. But that yearning is there. That desire to create. So we suck up our insecurities and we get to work

Besides all of the sayings comparing writing to self mutilation (of the highest form I might add!), there is the saying that if writing was easy, everyone would do it. It’s not easy, but if we silence our fears and jump off the proverbial cliff, well…the view is pretty damned amazing. So time to stop procrastinating and get to work.

Happy writing everyone!

Writing for Your Reader

This week I was discussing a short story assignment with a student. She’d shared her story with a writing group and found that they took issue to her not telling whether or not a character was male or female. She stated that it was her goal to keep this hidden from readers so there would be surprise at the end when the readers realized the sex of the character.

The whole discussion led me to how Stephen King opened his lecture at Wichita State University last week. He started with a “dumb joke” only we never got to hear the punch line because when reading the joke online, he’d gotten stuck. The joke starts, “Two jumper cables walk into a bar”. How does one visualize this? How exactly do jumper cables “walk into a bar”?  I thought of this because when reading my student’s story, I was stuck in trying to visual a character that was not described in any sense or ever referred to using “he” or “she”. (And we all know how annoying it can be to constantly read a character’s name over and over again instead of the usual substituting of a pronoun.)

My advice to her was that as readers, we need to visualize what we’re reading. We need to see the characters, or in Stephen King’s case, the jumper cables. If hiding the character’s gender is really important to the story, she has to find another way to help the reader see that character, to know that character.

As with all advice, we have to be able to take it ourselves. Last week I got an email from my agent discussing how a character in my new YA novel needs to be fleshed out more. In my mind, I had intentionally made this character somewhat vague because the main protagonist doesn’t want to know her. Told in the first person, the protagonist has lost everyone she loves, so she guards herself against getting to know or love this new person.

But then there are the readers– the people we write for.  What if they want to know the character more? What if they want to fall in love with her?  What if they want more than superficial descriptions? What if they want to know everything about her?

Then to my horror, I realized that I don’t know everything about her. I had grown so close to my protagonist, I had refused to get to know this character as well.

As a writer, I had to ask myself why it was that I’d kept my character at arms length and most importantly, I had to knock it off!

Every writer has their own way of dealing with character development. For me, it’s sitting down at the keyboard and basically conducting an interview. I plan on doing just that this afternoon. Since I used to be a therapist, I might even imagine my character sitting on a sofa in my old office as I try to delve deep into what makes her tick, what her fears are, and her aspirations. And then at some point, I might need to stretch out on the sofa myself, and ponder what it is about this character that makes me hesitant to know her too well.

Stephen King said that it’s impossible to keep ourselves completely out of our stories.  I think Sigmund Freud would agree. If there’s something that keeps us from revealing our characters to our readers, or to ourselves, we might want to do a little self reflection.

In the end, we owe it to our readers to know our characters, and in getting to know our characters, we might just get to know ourselves a little bit better.

Writing Idols — We all need them

We all know that writing is a lonely job. And with no audience to applaud (or maybe boo) our narrative choices, it’s also a job that comes with a lot of self-doubt. Instead of the typical ‘angel’ ‘demon’ most people have on their shoulders, writers have a critic and, if they’re lucky, a miniature version of their literary hero, or heroes, reminding them that success is possible.

Last night I got the opportunity to hear Stephen King speak on the campus of Wichita State University. I’ve always been a fan, but to be honest, it was when Stephen King wrote his book On Writing, that I became more than a fan. He gave me permission to write. Okay. He gave permission for all of us to write, or to do whatever it is we love to do because hey, isn’t that what life is supposed to be about. We’re supposed to do what we love, with or without a guarantee that we’ll ever make it onto the shelves of a bookstore.

I’ve made reading his book a summer ritual and since I have the audio version, I get to hear his voice reading his words about the craft of writing. It’s a must read for any writer!

Okay, I’ll try to stop being a Stephen King cheerleader for a moment and get to my point. Because writing is something we do alone, because writers, published or not, are filled with self-doubt and insecurities, we need idols. Early on, mine was Flannery O’Connor. I loved and still love the way her hand can reach out through the page and literally slap the reader across the face. I have other idols as well. Cormac McCarthy is one. And then of course, there’s Mr. King.

Our writing idols do more than inspire us. They push us to be our best, to find an even better word than the one we just agonized over for thirty minutes. They refuse to let us settle for mediocre, and most importantly, at least for me, they let us see what’s possible.

I love Olympic figuring skating. I can’t skate. I doubt I could even walk with skates on, but watching them glide across the ice, then spin at dizzying speeds after doing some triple, double, cow thing in the air is amazing. Did I ever aspire to do that? No way! I’d break my neck and probably the part of my body I happen to be sitting on right now. But I love watching them because they remind me of what humans are capable of. Do I believe I will ever be able to craft words the likes of O’Connor or McCarthy or King? No. But the great writers show us what humans are capable of. And while I know that there are elephants who can paint pictures, last I heard all writers are humans.

We can be capable of greatness, our own form of greatness. I like my miniature version of Stephen King sitting on my shoulder, telling me that what I just wrote needs to be highlighted and deleted ASAP! IT SUCKS!  But I also like the little voice that sometimes say, “Hey, not bad kid. I think you might really have something here.”

Be inspired. Study your idols, and instead of reading a line and saying to yourself, “Holy crap, I’ll never write like that!”, remember that even the greats started somewhere. And as much as we may love the voices of our writing idols, the world doesn’t need another Connor or McCarthy or even, yes it pains me to say this, another King. The writing world needs a choir of voices. Let them inspire yours.