I’m working on a novel that’s a stretch for the me. The storyline is different, the subject will be controversial, and I’m experimenting with point of view. Plodding along and haunted by my own fears of failure, I decided to listen to On Writing by Stephen King, which anyone who’s read it has said is the best craft book out there. Hell, I figured, even if I don’t learn anything, I need the inspiration.
I’m listening to it on audio. King is a great narrator of his own work. His gravelly voice works well for moments when he’s wry and self-deprecating and for when he’s telling the rest of the world to fuck off. I’m entertained. I’ve chuckled. I’ve gotten ideas for the new project.
But King’s story has been niggling the back of my mind. He’s written stories since he was a kid, sending some off to horror magazines (collecting hundreds of rejections) and selling others to kids in his school. Ask authors around the country—no matter the genre—and most will tell you the same thing; they all have notebooks of stories collected from the moment they could grasp a pen to now, when they are holding copy of their most recent book in their hands.
Confession time: I don’t.
I was not a scribbler of stories as a kid. Nor as a teen. I didn’t take a single English class in college; the two literature classes I took were in modern Chinese literature and Chinese ghost stories. I didn’t start writing a story until I read a romance novel, thought, I can do better, and started the novel that would become Reservations for Two.
Of course, I have lots of starts and stops in between then and the publication of my first book. I have a Dropbox folder with nothing but half-finished (maybe better to say half-started) novels. But I wasn’t a person who always wrote.
Listening to On Writing isn’t the first time I’ve felt like I’m posing when I say I’m an author. Feeling like I’m faking it all the time is par for the course for me, and for most writers I know. But the fact that I’ve not been writing stories since I was knee high to a grasshopper has always been my particular bugaboo.
A couple weeks ago, that irksome knot shifted in my mind. The Viking had taken me to the ballet. At the close of one piece, the male dancers carried the female dancers off the stage. As we watched, I noticed that the last pair to leave were struggling. Not a lot, but the guy’s arms were shaking as he held his partner up. He was straining and she was balanced above him, dependent on his strength.
As they disappeared behind the curtains, I caught myself weaving a story in my head. In the couple seconds between the dancers being on stage and off stage, I had created a backstory for them (why the male dancer was so tired) and introduced a conflict (they argued as soon as they were out of sight of the audience).
In this moment, it occurred to me that I may not have always been writing, but I have always been telling myself stories. I do this at the library; a couple walks in and I make up a tale in my head about how long they’ve been together, where they met, etc. At 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning in a grocery store, if I see a man buying flowers, I tell myself a story about why. And when my neighbors put their house up for sale, I create little scenes in my head about them talking with their realtor, looking at new houses, and breaking the news to their kids.
Let me be clear: these are all made up stories. With the exception of my neighbors, I don’t know these people from Adam. And, especially in the case of library customers, I certainly don’t treat them as if the stories I’ve made up are true (if I create a story in which a library customer is a villain, I don’t treat her as if she is a villain).
Which brings us back to Stephen King and his book. On Writing is part-memoir, part-writing advice. While King has lots of writing advice, the one he returns to over and over is that good fiction is about stories and nothing—not plot, not character, not fancy writing—should get in the way of the story.
Which is fine advice by me. I may not have always been a writer, but I have always been a storyteller.