Monday, July 30, 2007

Why I Am Not Stephen King

I've always known my writing doesn't bear much resemblance to Stephen King's--especially in the sales department. I've started listening to his memoir On Writing, which is sort of a cross between an autobiography and a writing guide, and now I have a better idea why that is.

King and I do have some things in common. We both started writing stories shortly after we could write words. Our first stories both contained plagiarized characters we admired. His were from a comic book series, mine were from Lost in Space. We both were influenced (I wanted to say greatly influenced, but I just finished his lecture on adverbs) by movies and books that weren't exactly high art. He adored horror movies, of course, while I went in for sitcoms and Westerns. We both started receiving rejection slips while still in our teens.

Then I started noticing the differences. First of all, King actually finished the stories he started. Lots of them. He considered writing stories a joy and an escape, and they were often influenced by the movies he'd just seen or books he had read. My stories were, too. But I started a whole lot of them and finished very few.

Even when he was a teenager, King seemed to have a good grasp of who he was writing for. While he was dashing out a story, he would be thinking where it would be a good fit. So he understood what he was writing and why. I still struggle with figuring out where exactly my writing fits into the big scheme of things.

He had good editorial criticism early, from an editor at a newspaper where he held a part time job. (This was while he was still in high school.) He changed his writing style a great deal due to this input. During high school and college, my teachers and classmates tended to gush over everything I wrote. This was extremely pleasant at the time, but it didn't teach me much. And boy did I have a shock when I started graduate writing courses at USC.

This next part, I think, is the most important difference between King's journey and mine. King's ability to create memorable characters of all ages and lifestyles always amazes me. How could he have created an entire town full of three-dimensional characters the way he did in Salem's Lot, including the middle-aged and elderly, when he was so young? It turns out Stephen King not only had a wide range of what I would call "life experience" early on, but he had his eyes wide open during those experiences. Raised by a struggling single mother, he worked a variety of blue-collar jobs and rubbed shoulders with all kinds of people. He talked to them, listened to the way they spoke, learned about their lives.

My upbringing was a lot more safe and insular, but more importantly, I wasted the opportunities I had. I went through my early life with my head in a book, frankly trying to avoid contact with most people. I think of the time I spent riding the MARTA trains in Atlanta and commuting downtown. On my lunch hours, I saw the homeless. I worked as a fund-raising consultant, so I held meetings and dinners where I rubbed shoulders with Atlanta's elite. And I learned almost nothing about any of them. I was impatient to get back to my books and my movies. Consequently, for years my writing reflected what I found in other people's stories. Not what I should have been discovering in real life.

I am pleased to say that I have learned from my mistakes. Now I tend to finish what I start, and I'm trying to be more observant. I'm studying my writing and the books I read and enjoy to figure out just what it is I'm trying to accomplish and where my writing fits. But I now see a little more clearly one of the reasons my writing journey has been so long.

One final note. King was still in his twenties when Carrie was accepted for publication. Soon after, he received word that his publisher had sold the paperback rights for $400,000. But at the same time, King's mother was dying of cancer. When I was the same age, I was already experiencing bouts of depression that I would never publish, never be a successful writer. But my family was healthy and happy. I wouldn't trade those early experiences with King, not even for the kind of success he's had. I wish I had realized how blessed I was and not wasted my time fretting over my lack of success.

Now for the tricky part. Can I remember these lessons tomorrow?