Last week I finished 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and at a friend’s recommendation (thanks, Angelique!) I started and finished King’s memoir and guidebook, On Writing.
I found On Writing to be exciting in both senses of the word. King’s thesis for writing fiction is that an author has a story they want to tell—a handful of characters in a situation—and that they should begin by writing the raw story, transcribing the events and emotions as they come. His recommended method is a hearty sprint: write daily and have the story completely written in three months or less; the author should give themselves little or no time to dwell on the written work’s deficiencies. The story is there and the author needs to capture it straight away before it scampers off into the brush. Then, he says, comes the first rewrite. That’s when the author can begin to tell what the story is really about. The author wrote the story of, say, a prince, his mother, his uncle, and a ghost, but over the course of rereading it and editing for style they are likely to discover the story is about deception, performance, life and death, action and inaction, and tragedy. They should then harness the moment of the rewrite to change the story’s structure and prose as necessary to better suit its newfound character (themes, in other words).
So, exciting in two ways. First, I found myself resonating with this approach, practically to the point of vibrating. My old method for writing tabletop stories was usually to find a moment of great… moment and then to construct a before and an after and then to hope that the players enjoyed it as much as I did. They often didn’t, it seemed; the moment never felt very momentous when it arrived, and I began to write it off as a poor method for storytelling. But probably it was just poorly adapted to the tabletop format (i.e. live collaborative storytelling taking place adjacent to a whirring random number generator), or the moments were all aimed at the wrong audience, or my execution fell short. The method works for Stephen King, doesn’t it? Sure, I’m not Stephen King, but the method works and I bet it’s not just because he’s a world-class talent.
And then in the second sense of the word: to excite action. I wanted to try it out right away.
That’s when I began brooding.
Those of you who know me know my penchant for brooding. I’m proud of it, as you might have sensed. I tell myself that my capacity for introspection and my humility are important to any and all successes I’ve notched in my life thus far. That’s probably an overstatement. My little collection of talents and my gift for symbolic thinking can carry me and have carried me through some things. So have the wonderful people around me. But the overstatement contains a critical truth: my eagerness to submit myself to learning processes, which all start with the basic assumption that I’m an ignorant novice and need to take my lumps and learn, is powerful, probably more powerful than the talent. So where would I be if I were less willing to reflect and self-criticize?
Well, the self-criticism, as welcome and powerful as it is, can get me mired in some powerfully bleak beliefs and foul moods.
This particular strain of brooding has been a companion to me for the last five or so years. As I have alluded to before, having children and the intimidating time obligations thereof have long weighed on my self-image and my self-reflection. As Kelsey and I prepared to have kids, I knew my free time was becoming short, and I began to obsess over the worthiness of how I spent that time. To what ends did I do the things I did? When I had fun (which, to my credit, I did admit was acceptable), was I having enough fun, or would something else be more fun? Even now that I do have a child and I’m experiencing those demands on my time, the story is similar. I have a few hours a day, after the kid goes to bed, to do things that aren’t directly supporting the necessities of the family’s existence. I need to make the most of them, damnit!
Drafting a novel-length piece of fiction in three months within those time constraints would be possible, but it would require sacrifice. Was I willing to make the sacrifices? Would it be a worthy way to spend my time? To answer that, I would have to know what I’m trying to get out of it, right?
Hence the brooding.
The other night, while getting together with some friends to shoot the breeze, I shared a portion of this to Angelique. I talked about how much I enjoyed On Writing and that I was eager to implement some of the strategies, but that I was discouraged by King’s recommended regimen—four to six hours of reading and writing daily. That was straight up impossible for me. Even a lesser regimen, probably two hours a night to get down 1000 words (to keep the novel-in-three-months pace), would require me to sacrifice basically all of my other hobbies. I didn’t think I was willing. Where did that leave me?
Angelique reminded me that not only is Stephen King a professional with a full workday at his disposal for this (and whose recommendations are tailored toward similar aspirants), but he is, professionally, a bookseller as well as an author. So much of his advice is in service of practicing a craft for accessible (which is also to say, marketable) writing to the best of an author’s abilities and to do so prolifically, because volume is useful to the author-bookseller in many ways. This is not meant to be a cynical; King takes a lot of genuine pride in writing as an art, craft, and profession. But it’s a statement of plain fact that his process engages directly with the particular demands of being an author-by-trade as well as being an author-qua-artist.
My brooding mind took the hint and turned the corner. I don’t have any intention, currently, of being an author-by-trade. Unless I were to hit quite the moonshot, software pays better and more reliably.
To go a step further, I know in a strategic, abstract sense that I don’t want to seek external validation in my hobbies. External validation is perilous; it puts us at the mercy of the people doing the validation, and so we sometimes struggle uphill against factors outside our control. There’s a place for it, of course, but I’ve decided to be very careful where and how I seek validation from other people. I’d like my wife to continue telling me that she loves me. I’d like for my friends and family to continue to want to hang out with me. I’d like to not get fired for incompetence at work. That’s about it. And even then, there’s a signal-and-noise quality to these sources. Things can happen and they may be a cause for some broo… self-reflection but they’re not incontrovertible signs that I’ve failed as a person. In light of that, something like publish a book with a big boy publisher and have it sell well is not a reasonable source of validation for me. Maybe it’d be a worthy goal if I were to dedicate three years of a full-time grind to it or something. But it’s just obviously, patently silly for me to measure my success or failure by an external goal like that, given my current set of circumstances and desires.
So what is writing if I don’t care to be published? What is writing if I go the distance on this external validation line of thinking and declare that I don’t even really care if anyone else reads it?
Well, I would like for someone to read it. But I want to be proud of it first. I want to write stuff I’m proud of (internal validation!), and I want to show it off. And show it off is just the right phrase here: it’s sharing entirely for my pleasure. There’d be disappointment if nobody cared (or everyone did care and furthermore hated it), but just that: disappointment. It’s external validation, but extremely narrow in scope. It wouldn’t be a failure for me to live up to my aspirations or to achieve my goal to Make The World Better or something. It’d just be showing off.
That helps me fit this hobby of mine, writing, into its proper place within my jealously stewarded post-bedtime hours, spent mostly at my desk in my cozy basement. If I want to show off someday, I’ll keep myself reading and writing. I don’t need to do six hours of it a day; showing off isn’t that urgent, it doesn’t require that much practice, and I’m not competing with legions of author-candidates for the attention of agents and publishers. I probably don’t even need to do one hour of it a day. I think it’s fair to predict that I could, someday, possibly soon, write something that I’m really proud of without sacrificing my other hobbies. I can play some BattleTech and watch some Twitch and not lose any sleep over it.
Back in March, right when I started bringing some life back to this website, I got with another group of friends to do some goal-setting. Since then, we’ve been keeping each other apprised of our progress on our personal projects, and in return, keeping each other accountable. My goal was humble: publish (here) something, anything, once a week. So far, so good; I don’t think I’ve missed a week since March. The driving principle is still, given all this, a worthy one: I don’t need a high bar; I just want to keep in practice, strive to improve, and try produce something to be proud of. But On Writing has some specific advice I want to consider about the nature of writing and rewriting. I might alter the publishing schedule somewhat or I might do some reconsideration of my in-flight projects (The Thief and Death of a Wizard). We’ll see! I have some broo… contemplation to do on the matter.