Stephen King’s On Writing is a great source for any literary aspirant. It’s gruesome in King’s usual way, sometimes involving anonymous teeth in an industrial laundry or cotton swabs damming up the nasal bloodlines of a drug-addled creative – did you know he doesn’t remember writing Cujo? It’s a joy to read. I teach from it sometimes, though, naturally, he can’ t be right about everything. Two things in particular spring to mind:
- No one ever asks about the language. It’s only about story.
- Great writers are born not made.
No one asks King about the language because he has the rhythm of a flat tire. That’s not to say he’s not awesome – he is! A storyteller 20 years at the top of the New York Times best-seller list, but not one of those books with the vibratory, rattle-your-bones rhythm of Poe or the seductive uncoiling vine-lines of Woolf. His error is not entirely his fault. Writers are trained to make bold, unequivocal statements of truth from the first moment they hear the word thesis. A journalist seeks to be objective, removed, while a writer must jump into the arms of a viewpoint and elope with it. This type of reckless romanticism is exciting. You are Puss-n-Boots, sword drawn: I tell you the truth! Now pet me.
Showing your bias can be endearing – you are exposed, awaiting reproach, and this can be interesting to a reader. I have my own bias in regard to language and story, and that’s because I’m not yet a very good storyteller. When I began focusing on writing 17 years ago, my main concern was language. I loved language, the power, the rhythm, the beauty, the structure. I wanted to be able to string words together like Shakespeare. In the early days I didn’t even care if the words made sense together. I paired them up to see how they danced. I put them into sordid threesomes. I took them apart, reassembled them or bunched them up until I found a word like blabbersprawl (Felling, 2011) or a phrase like “the Isthmus of Thisness or something else untongueable” (Ousia, 2011).
Well, those examples are fairly recent, but I still consider these days “the early days.” There’s nothing necessarily special about the process, just a big kid playing and tinkering with the sacred language because it’s fun for him.
I’m not saying that’s any good – very often I have no idea – but if I have any skill with language it’s because I’m always out to have a good time with it. We know from childhood or having children how playtime can get out of hand. Too much invention can lead one to perform a kind of language circus of daring and fatiguing stunts. I’m the worst offender when it comes to putting on a top hat and tap shoes and youngfrankensteining my way across a stuffy literary boardroom. But that’s who I am as a writer, really, perpetually anachronistic, out of context, contrary. Oh, you’re looking for something funny? Let me tell you a story about my dead puppy. It’s not because I don’t know better. It’s because I absolutely detest doing what everyone else in the room is doing. This is as much benefit as flaw. It keeps things original. It also keeps people from knowing what to do with it. My story, “Now,” a.k.a., “Now or Something Very Similar,” is a good example, begrudgingly rejected by a dozen publishers because they can’t get it to fit in with their aesthetic though they tell me they liked it very much. In a sense, my avoidance of pigeonholes keeps me on the fringe – and that’s okay for now, at least until I master the story.
Regardless, my stance is that language matters. If you’ve had the unfortunate experience of reading the Celestine Prophecy, then you know that there’s more to it than plotting out some action and dialog. The success of that excruciating book shows there are enough readers who don’t care about the finer details; this would seem to prove King’s point. Then again, we live in a world where velvet paintings of Elvis and Grilled Cheese Jesuses become popular. Anyone, perhaps anything, can tell a story, but not everyone can write one.
I tend to get a bit mystical about it. My critical essay on “Quantum Fiction” got itself involved in a Wikipedia debate about a new genre that may actually exist. In it, I talk about the energy transference of rhythm, about how the vibrations beneath the words mirror the guitar-string vibrations underlying the fabric of the universe. If the rhythm is off, your invented reality is off.
Not long after the essay was published, I read articles about computer reproduction of art, about how bots with the right algorithms can pump out any kind of art and it can be technically correct. A computer can produce a novel just by pumping out all possible combinations of words. A bot can paint a picture for you. A machine can play the piano. I worried a moment that robots would take even the jobs of artists.
But what the machine can’t do is experience. What the machine can’t do is transfer energy via art, human to human. I’m not just blowing smoke. In a blind experiment where people listened to different renditions of piano music – one played by a computer and the other played by a human musician—the people physiologically responded to the human player even though there was, very technically, no difference in the notes being played. They somehow knew the difference, and the difference is the soul riding those notes.
Cynics, I am aware the Jonas Brothers are still popular. Some other boy band – which is it now, New Directions or something? – will be popular for the next cycle of teenage girls. Manufactured soul has a shelf-life. True artistry is with us forever.
Language is sacred. It is magic. I don’t know why people aren’t asking about the language. It’s the first thing I notice. It’s the first method I use to judge a writer. Story isn’t the only reason Shakespeare is still with us. Story isn’t the only reason the King James’ version of Luke’s Christmas story is still the best version, the one we (I) still want read aloud at the Christmas Eve service even if I generally avoid the KJV every other day of the year.
If King’s right about this, what happened? I blame Hemingway and Carver, who remind me of 1960s office furniture, but I’m sure whatever happened is much bigger than they. Likely the aversion to finely crafted verse is due to technological shifts and fractured attention spans. Maybe when we get to a point the robots can do everything except art – you know, mow the lawn, fix the gutters, pick up the kids, balance the checkbook, whatever – art consumers will again have the time and patience to appreciate the rhythm and flow of words. As important, they may have time again TO TEACH that appreciation.
In Part 2, I'll address King's assertion that great writers are born.