Three Ways I Owe Stephen King My Life—and My Sanity

The King is NOT dead. In fact it is his birthday today (21st September). He’s 69 years old. No joke (crude or otherwise).

king-on-nightstand

The (night)Stand. Dead center, wedged between anger and the unseen (Anne Carson poetry): King’s On Writing, sans dust jacket.

I’m not talking about Elvis, but the master fiction-writer Stephen King. Otherwise known as He of the eternal bestsellers list. Or maybe Scary Writer Guy.

If Mr. King hasn’t been on “The Simpsons” yet, please, somebody call Matt Groening. A scenario involving Itchy and Scratchy interviewing him, and perhaps literally being slaughtered by his words.

As for me . . . If given a few minutes with Mr. King, although there is much I would like to ask (including about language choices!), I should perhaps first offer him my hearty thanks.

In thinking about King the icon on his birthday, I am drawn to how many ways I owe someone I’ve never met, and am never likely to, my gratitude. Here are just a few. A tiny token. A kind of not-yet reliquary object; the moving finger, mid-writ. A curled, disintegrating pink sheet of paper, my treasure.

Three Ways I owe Stephen King . . .

1. It’s not about me. It’s about the bottle (if not the battle). Sometime last year, I read King’s (perhaps, although I hope not) conclusive novel in the saga of Dan(ny) “Doc” Torrance, Doctor Sleep. It makes so much more sense now. I can finally write it, nonfictionally, too: I am the child of an alcoholic. Curiously, it feels good to be truthful.

2. Have you read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft? Really, there are too many gems in this short, leanly titled book to carry away in armfuls. To write, you have to read. Dogged persistence is key. Hammer at the words until you’ve fashioned something new—accessing a big, green god of ecstasy perhaps. You will survive; he (and his brother) did, after all. (Including the farting babysitter.) This book has saved me missteps I did not even realize were steps.

3. The pink sheet of paper, you ask? Circa, oh, 1989. Rest assured, it’s in storage. Not lost. Never lost. Dragged to a bingo game for the umpteen and first time as a child, I had two choices to make, both appealing: read or write. Thanks to reading King (and not always understanding what was beyond my range to understand), I nevertheless started turning to writing. On pink bingo programs or any scrap I could find. And, lo and behold, I became better at it (at least marginally, no pun intended) the more I did it. It propelled me in ways that being a sort of invisible raggedy-child of a dysfunctional family did not. Death and suicide, I saw through the veil of prose, were a termination. Not a clean and strings-free release. I, too, persisted.

So, world, you have Stephen King to thank (or stone) for my finding my way to the present me.

Unbraiding the strands of self from the writer is difficult to impossible at this point. At least, in that, I am thinking King and I are on common ground.

Long live Stephen King, my writing hero!

 

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If You Were a Book . . . ?

arcimboldo-the librarian

“The Librarian,” by 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

If I were a book . . . Hmm.

I’m not talking about some macabre flesh-bound book, or the “art” of anthropodermic bibliopegy, but rather what works of literature have molded your world and mind.

A local bookstore got me thinking about this topic, by way of a novel called The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and a National Public Radio (NPR) piece on Gabrielle Zevin’s aforementioned book.

If a book were my “spittin’ image,” what would that book be? And, moreover, if I could stretch it out to three books, what books would make the list? Back in March 2014, NPR even called for a tweet-out on the three books that summarize or define you, with the hashtag #my3books.

I would love to hear your answers on #my3books. Like Zevin mentions in the interview, you have to resist the impulse to present a facade as yourself. Perhaps everyone wants to think that the perfect novel or even the “Great American novel” — whatever you perceive that fits into either category — epitomizes him/herself. So I tried my best to take off the mask. And keep it off.

Here’s my list. What’s on yours? (Yes, I’m trying to not do the Samuel L. Jackson “Capital One” impression here.)

  1. “The Scarlet Ibis,” a tragic short story about brothers and grit and regret, by North Carolina writer James Hurst. (There are some typos in this link, but it’s the best online copy I could find for you at this point.)
  2. I’m cheating here, but the next influential book is actually a nexus of horror books that sparked in me the desire to become a writer: Watchers by Dean R. Koontz, Night Shift and Skeleton Crew by Stephen King, and Book of the Dead (edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector).
  3. Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot.

Also relevant to my fellow writers is the introspection-invoking discussion at Ionia Martin’s Readful Things Blog, in the article “A question for the authors out there.” Do you read in your genre, outside of it only, both, or none? Please share your insights in the comments, here or there or anywhere (as Dr. Seuss might write)!

And remember: to read is to travel through time (thank you, astrophysicist Carl Sagan).

Atomic Words and the Authors Who Exploded My World

Bleeding Pen--ObjectsThe word I’d found in my grandmother’s book fascinated me down to the cellular level. P-tar-mi-gan. Ptar-mig-an. How do you even pronounce it?

Little did I know then, but words would collide, then cohere, to round out my “observable universe.”

mat·ter

noun \ˈma-tər\

2b :  material substance that occupies space, has mass, and is composed predominantly of atoms consisting of protons, neutrons, and electrons, that constitutes the observable universe, and that is interconvertible with energy

And as worlds go, I started small. A Dog Called Kitty was one of the first chapter books I read as a child. Fast forward to my “tween” years and I was reading everything from Brontë to Lovecraft to King. And when I turned over that pink scrap of paper and began to write my first horror—and horrible, I might add—short story, I certainly didn’t know what I was going to make of my life, but I hoped it might have something to do with language.

So it was with great interest that I discovered “Words Matter Week” (WMW) a few years ago, brought to you by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE). This year’s WMW features a question each day, and NAIWE is actively seeking bloggers’ and writers’ ruminations on the power and prominence of words in our lives. I encourage you to participate all week long, March 2-8, 2014.

Monday
Writers craft words into memorable phrases, stories, poems and plays.
What writers make your heart sing? Why?

Unfortunately, I am limited in that I can read in only two languages, so I haven’t had the opportunity to touch all corners of the globe with this informal “Authors I Love” list. Naturally, I am open to your suggestions and will enjoy reading meditations on how words matter to you.

To prevent eyestrain, I will only briefly explain why each author has exploded my consciousness, thus reshaping my world.

In no particular order, here are some writers worth getting to know:

  1. William Shakespeare: A shroe, a shroe, my dingkom for a shroe! But seriously, hands-down, the Maestro Wordsmith.
  2. Charles Dickens: Character-driven, highly descriptive, and conflict-laden. Simply put, the best character-namer in the business.
  3. Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn and the “damned human race.”
  4. Flannery O’Connor: Gothic, Southern, conflicted. One of the best short story writers in the English language.

    flannery-oconnor3

    Photograph from the Southern Literary Trail

  5. Stephen King: Abandon all hope, ye who attempt to write as well as the King of Horror (as I did in my callow youth).
  6. Anne Carson: Faces pointed at me like knives. The surgeon’s skilled touch, but with words.
  7. Jean Auel: Research meets a strong female heroine or two.
  8. J.R.R. Tolkien: Language, lore, elves, and more.
  9. Harlan Ellison: Angry candy, a paladin of the lost hour, screaming without a mouth.
  10. Ray Bradbury: The writer’s writer; Martians, book-burnings, and pricked thumbs.
  11. William Faulkner: Eating toothpaste, dirty drawers, Yoknapatawpha, “Barn Burning,” and the “human heart in conflict with itself.”
  12. Tennessee Williams: Streetcars, lobotomies, tragedies, menageries.
  13. Marianne Moore: Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.
  14. T.S. Eliot: A modernist metaphysical poet whose music resonates into my time-present, time-past, and time-future.FourQuartets-book cover
  15. Wallace Stephens: Things as they are were changed upon Stephens’ blue guitar.
  16. e.e. cummings: listen, i dont pity one bit this überabsurd, underappreciated helluva good universe-creator.
  17. Toni Morrison: Haunting, harrowing.
  18. Julie Otsuka: Incisive, like a scalpel.
  19. Samuel Beckett: We are all born astride the grave.
  20. Dean R. Koontz: Three words: Watchers (the book).
  21. F. Scott Fitzgerald: Gatsby‘s partial people.
  22. Sherman Alexie: His works are at once human(e) and humorous. Pathos and black humor at their finest, and all “absolutely true”!
  23. (Poet) Allison Funk: At the epicenter.
  24. Langston Hughes: Sadly, we all defer dreams sometimes.
  25. O. Henry: Hometown boy, short-storyist and master of the “twist” at the end.
  26. James Baldwin, whose writing reflects back to me constantly and is rather like “a great block of ice [that] got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long”
  27. Vladimir Nabokov: I ooze with disgust for and loathing of Humbert Humbert (well done, Mr. Nabokov), but the writing is unparalleled.
  28. Maryn McKenna (science writer): Infectious diseases, you gotta love ’em.
  29. Carl Zimmer (science writer): Parasite rex and more.
  30. Piers Anthony: Wordplay and swordplay; dub me a Fanthony, but there’s nary a Mundaneday with this guy around.

Who bears your cup of literary nectar? I’d love suggestions of other authors and works.

Daily Prompt: Isn’t Your Face Red

Embarrassment, I embrace you. Wilkommen! Image from http://drafthouse.com/movies/the_sound_of_music_mothers_day_brunch_feast/austin

Embarrassment, I embrace you. Wilkommen! Image from http://drafthouse.com/movies/the_sound_of_music_mothers_day_brunch_feast/austin (now go buy or rent the movie if you want some moving pictures)

Red is a lucky color in some cultures, you know. Not so much, however, when it commandeers your body.

Embarrassment—the skull-and-crossbones flagship of all things red—and I have a long and twisted history. Some say I was born, no, not blue-skinned, but bright, bawling red. (Ohmigod, I’m naked in front of all these strange people in white clothes! And why the heck is that huge one spanking me?)

Throughout life, any indignities or embarrassments channeled right to my elfin-sized ears. Sometimes it would even seep to my cheeks.

But that’s me; sheepishly entering the red room of embarrassment from time to time has not left me without some worldly treasures in the coffers, burgled as they were from the King. (Whose book on writing I highly recommend, incidentally.)

Inexplicably, I was in a singing mood while working this whole embarrassment equation out long-handedly and -windedly, so I cadged an existing tune and mashed up the lyrics a little.

And now for your reading Schadenfreude, here’s a quick cavalcade of the (now mostly humorous) face-flushing moments.

_____

My Mem’rable Slips

©Leigh Ward-Smith, 2014

Glasses on noses and mud-stains on cord jeans
Giant teenage face-pocks and bad-perm in my tweens
Peach sequined prom-dresses ruined by my trips
These are a few of my mem’rable slips

Small rounded green peas and big bullies’ harsh words
“Four-eyes” and “dork-face” and pill’ried as the nerd
“Cool” kids lack the wit, but still bring the whips
These are a few of my mem’rable slips

Mean boys in blue jeans with stoned acid washes
Hard falls in puddles, absent galoshes
Rainbow color Froot Loops burst forth from my lips
These are a few of my funniest slips

When that kid bullies
When this kid falls
When I’m feeling low
I simply recall my more mem’rable slips
And then I don’t feel, I grow.

Written in response to the Daily Prompt of 5 February 2014