So far, I’ve written mostly about reading. So, to keep with the title of my blog, I’ll write a little about writing, even if I’m not sure I’m entirely qualified to do that. I mean, I’m only 14. I’m no Stephen King, who is famous enough that people will listen to him. But I do have one thing- a lot of experience with doubt. Every time I sit down to write, I doubt myself. I doubt if I’m good at writing, if anybody wants to hear what I want to say, if I even have anything to say. I even doubt whether I like writing. Which I do. I think. When I write from a place of doubt, I nitpick my writing and it spirals into a formula, I’m completing a formula, and when I’m done nothing I’ve written is any good. Plus I didn’t enjoy writing it. So here’s what I know: writing isn’t compatible with doubt. Art isn’t compatible with doubt. My best writing comes when I write without thinking. Then I’m writing for fun, and that’s the best. Every time I set a goal, every time I even daydream about publishing something, everytime I think about the future of what I’m writing, I doubt the future of it. The future is probably in a folder on my computer. I’ll probably look at it again in seven months and think, oh yeah, that thing. So I cannot think and write. I have to write, then think. Honestly, I rarely get to the part when I’m supposed to think. The thinking sneaks in when I’m supposed to be writing and destroys the writing before I even get a chance to really think about it. The best way to write is when you're not thinking about it. I should probably write right as my alarm goes off at 6am, and my brain is still half asleep. Maybe then I could do it without doubt.
I like to think of books as food. Sustenance. I couldn’t live without books, I would starve. Conversation from day to day, among normal, non-scholar beings isn’t enough. Books provide the nutrients you can’t get anywhere else -- opinion, thought, layers and layers of meaning. They are also pleasurable to consume (most of the time).
But books are like food in another way. Those who take the most pleasure in books take pleasure in combining flavors and intensities to create the perfect palate of reading material. Or at least I do. Usually when I am attempting to read something a bit denser (Cold Mountain, a biography of Abraham Lincoln) I try to complement it with something exciting but not necessarily as satisfyingly thick. That way I don’t become mired in the density of one book, or restless with the lightness of the other.
There are also ways to mix books that would seem completely counterintuitive but that give you the perfect amount of choice and variety and are just plain amusing. Right now I’m reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game as a companion to Pride and Prejudice. It’s the perfect marriage of all the propriety and Miss-Benneting and romance with a statement and a dark, more troubled character. I haven’t finished either book (though I know the ending of Pride and Prejudice from the BBC movie) but right now I can’t put either down. Of course I want Elizabeth to end up with Mr. Darcy, and of course I’m screaming at Jane to just go talk to Mr. Bingley already! But I also can’t wait to see what Ender does with his genius -- is he making the game, or playing into the teachers’ hands? At the same time as all this I’m writing my own story, and I’m sure it’s taking on the characteristics of both books, at least a little. What a strange breed of story that will be.
No one book is meant to be the only word on any subject. Books are meant to be combined, like cheese and crackers or pretzels and hummus. Each has its own emotion and its own idea. If you take your knowledge of the world from one book, you’re not thinking. If you read every book and come to your own conclusion, you have a well-rounded meal. And of course, what’s the fun of reading a book on its own? If I did that, I would stop having weird dreams about what would happen if The Hunger Games met Little Women. I’m sure Katniss and Jo could do some pretty awesome things together.
The most recent book I’ve read is The Shining, by Stephen King. If I include any spoilers in this it isn’t intentional, but if you plan on reading the book and hope to be surprised, proceed with caution.
My first Stephen King book was The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a novel about a girl lost in forest off the Appalachian Trail who has only her walkman, which she uses to listen to baseball games with her favorite pitcher, Tom Gordon. I went from there to The Dead Zone, It, and Carrie. I wasn’t extraordinarily impressed with King at that point. I mean he was good, that much was clear. I just got lost in everything. His books made sense, but they didn’t fit together like a puzzle, all the pieces slipping into place at the end. I like books like that, books like John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, which has no unimportant detail, nothing that can be overlooked, and the smallest things that you dismiss as character development come back in the explosive climax as imperative elements. Stephen King doesn’t do that.
A few weeks ago, I read On Writing, King’s "memoir of the craft". Suddenly it all made sense to me. I don’t know what clicked, but reading that book I felt like I was having a pleasant conversation with one of the most famous contemporary writers, a conversation about the thing I love above all things (writing, duh).
This book concisely stated ideas I had never been able to turn into solid thoughts. When it seemed to me that King’s writing was meandering a little beside the point, it was really adding depth and emotion to the story.
My writing began to echo his a little, of course. And I turned back to his fiction and picked up a yellow mass market paper back in a used bookstore that smelled like vanilla from the decomposing glue in its spine. The Shining. I loved it. What more can I say?
There is nothing particularly deep or philosophical about this horror novel, at least not obviously. I mean it’s about a hotel. That takes over the weak-minded Jack Torrance and turns him into a murderer with a roque mallet. It’s gory and violent and a bit frightening (of course). But there’s something else. About a man who craves the trust of his wife, a trust he squandered away in drunken fits of anger and violence. A woman who is jealous of her son’s bond with his father, and fiercely afraid that she is just like the mother she despises. A little boy caught in the middle, more perceptive than either of them know. Of course it is woven with telepathy and monsters and murderous rampages. But it means something.
To me that is the most important element of writing. Meaning something. A book that is filled with violence for the sake of violence, killing for the sake of killing, is nothing but empty blood. If it means something, though, if it adds to the story and brings out emotions -- fear, grief, love, hate -- then it becomes more than violence: it is a thread in the story as necessary as any other.
When I began to write this entry I had other things in mind to say. About Stephen King’s writing style, blah, blah, blah. But this is what I came to.
Meaning. When you write, you have to feel it. If you care about your character, or your story, then you have it in your power to make your reader care. If you write it well, that is.
Here is something for everyone who dismisses The Shining as a horror novel meant only for entertainment: at least it means something. The meaning is woven in with the story, so it doesn’t preach to you, with obvious morals and success stories. It’s called subtlety, folks. Meaning isn’t the kind of thing that just shows up in a story, but you also don’t have to consciously put it there. In fact, don’t consciously put it there. That will sound forced and stilted. Instead, follow the characters, follow the story. That will bring meaning.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
-Stephen King, On Writing, pg. 139
I am a writer but I’m also a reader. I’ve always thought these two things went hand in hand, and they do, for some people. But others think that writing would survive without reading, or vice versa. I hate to break it to you, but writing and reading are Siamese twins. And not the kind that can be separated, either. They are connected by a lung. Or a brain. Or a heart. Writers need readers and readers need writers and if you happen to be both, you fuel two fires that have the same heart. Or brain. Or lung.
Reading can do many things for writing. There are the obvious advantages of improved grammar, expanded vocabulary, and all the stuff you should have learned in English class when you weren’t paying attention. For example, I read so much that it is second nature to me to correctly format dialogue.
“This is how one speaks in a story,” she corrected sullenly. “really you don’t do this”? asked the student, and the narrator restrained herself from throttling him.
But the biggest advantage, in my opinion, that your writing gets from books is style. I mean, you can’t just write. You have to write with style. Some writers write in thick, swampy paragraphs that take some serious wading through, and some re-readings. Some write in rich chunks of prose. Others write the skeleton of the story with little embellishment and leave it there, a spare and under-furnished room. I personally don’t know my particular style. Every time a read a good book- and I mean good- it leaves an imprint on me for a week or so, and my writing begins to mimic that author a bit. It’s like the glimmer of color when you close your eyes after looking at a bright light. It lingers, and fades, but it gives you a brief burst of productivity in which you write and create. It doesn’t matter if you sound a little like J.K. Rowling or John Irving for a while, because eventually you will find that perfect blend of every author you have ever loved that is completely yours.
You also get something from reading that helps you live. You truly experience things you may never get to see, hear, smell, touch, taste in real life. My first love was undoubtedly in a book, I can’t exactly remember who. I’ve never known anyone who died...except for Dumbledore, Prim, Hassan, Westley (sort of), and countless others. Why do you think books have the power to make us cry? To make us doubt the world or trust someone? Because we live in them and learn from them.
Now enough with the introduction. I hate introductions to books, especially those that give away the ending in order to praise the author’s command of suspense in the final scene, or the way the last battle resembles a particular WWII battle. I have honestly read a book that contained an introduction, a forward, AND a preface. However, it did not have a prologue.
Anyway. I’m getting off track. What I meant to say is that if you don’t like reading, or love books, or have even read anything longer than Encyclopedia Brown, then this blog isn’t for you. Sorry. I’m a book nerd, and what follows is the gleeful account of exactly how much I think about words, books and stories.