Monday, March 8, 2010

Designated Dreamers - Writing with the King Part One

NOTE: Part one of a sort of live-blogging of the book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King.  Click Here here for the introduction/explanation.

Hyperthymesia is the technical name for people who remember an absurd amount of detail about their personal history.  Frequently as I read memoirs and autobiographies I am struck by the degree of detail that the authors allegedly remember about their lives when I can barely recall what I had for dinner yesterday.  I can only assume in all charity that these folks are compulsive diarists, giving themselves a lot of source material to work with.

Stephen King is not afflicted with this condition.
Mary Carr (author of The Liar's Club) presents her childhood in an almost unbroken panorama.  Mine is a fogged-out landscape from which occaisional memories appear like isolated trees . . . the kind that look as if they might like to grab and eat you.
                    -Stephen King On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I'm going to dispense with the first half of the book in a single post because this is a writing blog, not a Stephen King fansite.  I'm honestly not really a big fan of King's books. Some of them I like, some I don't.  I do wish he would write more books with young/old protagonists like It and the oft-maligned Dreamcatcher.  His dreamier stuff is superb as well and I don't really gravitate often to the end of the shelf where things go bump in the night.  I came to him through his short stories and essays.  His short stories are his best stuff, I think and I've posted links before to his essays and op/eds on the state of writing and especially censorship. 

King's memoir is refreshing for its self-effacing humor, candidness and because he allows it to carry the vague uncertainty that most of us feel when discussing our childhood.  And he certainly pulls no punches, though most of them are aimed at himself.

Self-pugilism aside, one is left with little doubt that the kid was destined to write the books he has written.  Something about his childhood and early adulthood made it inevitable.  I tend to think that while anyone really can (and often does) write, there are those who are born to tell the stories other people want to hear and among those few, some are selected to turn them into sculpture, paintings, photographs, movies, plays and books.  Society's designated dreamers.

Stephen King is one of these people and into his hands was pressed the darker sort of dreaming that we do.  Nevertheless, his childhood has that curious carefree quality that even kids in desperate circumstances seem to have the innate ability to eke out of their lives.  Normalcy is in the eye of the beholder, after all.  He and his kid-genius brother Dave seemed to make it work and create a good deal of good memories among the stops on the gypsy road that took them from Wisconsin to Maine in a series of hops from one family member to the next with a single mother trying to make it work in an America that was almost purpose-built to discourage single parenting.

In all honesty, I re-read this book periodically and I usually skip pages 1-100.  (The writing section begins on page 102, but on page 100 he talks about his desk and the place writing and art have in life which I think should never be overlooked.)  Though I don't recall seeing it on the most recent read-through, I seem to recall King telling the reader what page to skip to if they came to read about the writing and didn't care about his childhood.  Maybe an edition edit or my imagination, I don't know.  But I think that  at least the first time you read it, you should read the bio.

Young Stevie King, nor matter how foggy though his memory may be, is presented with the clarity of one of King's best young characters.  A life lived amid disruptions and viewed in retrospect with a wise and writerly eye.  And I think that the adventures and hardships, hopes and dreams of young Stephen King and even the addictions that almost claimed his older incarnation give us a compelling insight into the man and the process by which a sizeable chunk of almost four decades of American popular fiction came into being.

I may not be King's biggest fan, but his approach to the craft, his words, his deft use of language, especially in his short fiction, are a study in American letters.  His influence is undeniable and no matter what you think of what he wrote, I have to admire the way that he wrote most of it.  And though his so-called 'literary standing' is often met with an eye roll by critics, I think his attention to the language will  ultimately save him from the dustbin of history.

Whatever you think about him it's hard to deny that King is a man with things to say and the chops to say them in memorable ways.  What more could you ask for from your designated dreamer?

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).