the orangest of prose writing | 2019.03.26

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess | Review

Burgess, Anthony_A Clockwork Orange

Publication: New York : HarperAudio, 2007

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 7 hours 45 minutes

Formats: Audiobook

Source: MCL

After finding myself nestled within several book groups these last six months, I’ve decided I need a better vocabulary to explain more distinctly why I fancy some books more than others. What do I mean when I proclaim loudly that this or that book was “awful” or that it was “one of the best things I’ve ever read in my life,” and what am I using to measure such distaste or praise? In an attempt to give a more specific voice to my all-too tumultuous rating of books, I started thinking about the four primary elements that make up any piece of literature, or that at least bubble to the surface for me. Now I understand fully these so-called qualifiers might shift, fading or waxing in importance depending on the reader, but here’s what has risen to the surface in my own readerish mind.

I’d like to very briefly lay out each qualifier and then show how they perhaps mix and match to allow a piece of literature (and I’ll use Burgess’s novel as the primary example here) to rise or fall within the totality of these probably very crude measuring sticks.

First, there’s the plot. Does it grab the reader? Does it demand a continued turning of the pages? Are you, the reader, fully invested in finding out what happens next? If a work of literature meets this qualifier, but only this qualifier, then I give it a hard-D rating (harsh, I know, but stick with me).

Second, we have character development. Is the reader convinced these are real people? Do their reactions make sense according to our real-life expectations and everyday interactions? Does their dialogue sound true to life? Having this qualifier in addition to the plot element moves the piece of prose, in my mind, into the C-range.

Next, there’s the eloquence of the prose being used. Do the words, not to mention their organization, inspire ecstasy, a sense of flying on the wings of other-worldliness? I’d like to argue that this takes a specific mixture of literary competency and poetic bravery. Are the words being used beautifully and artfully composed while retaining comprehensibility? If “yes,” this type of accomplishment, then, elevates the piece to the B-category.

And finally, there’s the lasting philosophical aspect. Is it timeless in its criticism of societal norms? Does it look simultaneously backwards and forwards in its portrayals of where we as a species have been and what we might be hurtling toward? Did you, the reader, learn something you can take with you through life? Was the reading of this piece of prose a “life-changing” experience in some way or other? And with this element stacked on top of those aforementioned, now we’ve really got a grade-A, fully-fledged, 100-percent gorgeous piece of literature.

Okay. Let’s take a breath after all that. This scale is my own very personal basic-to-ethereal plumb line, for sure. But, how do these weighty judgments all mesh? Well, since this is a book review website, and this post is currently focused on Burgess’s “Clockwork of Oranges,” let’s dive right in.

The plot of this book is the standard hero’s journey, complete with a baseline from which our humble narrator flies, falls, and at last ultimately finds a reason to embrace change. I should warn that I’m going to talk about the full version of this book, without its American editorial exclusion of the final chapter, which the author himself argued strips the story of its true intent.

To preface any arguments for or against Clockwork’s much debated last chapter, please know, this very starry reader read this book for a British literature class (so the last chapter was included on that read-through) while I was still trapped within the Christian bubble of a very conservative Christian university/universe. I remember clearly the moment of truth, when I had to decide whether to discard or continue with all that real horrorshow viddying of the true nature of the world. Well, my melanky droogs (not to be too familiar like), I’m so glad I gritted my teeth very hard and continued on. Even in the height of all those religious convictions, I was not satisfied (so sorry to you, Mr. Burgess) with that last little chapter and all its rejection of the wiles of youth, traded neatly in for the domesticities of grown-up-like perspectives of responsibility and procreation.

To tie this back into commenting on the plot element of this book specifically, yes, perhaps the story becomes more of a cautionary fable than a full-circle hero’s journey when the 21st chapter is removed. However, I personally didn’t feel any loss at ending the story with Alex’s 20th-chapter-day-dream smashing unabashedly the government’s forced reformation project. Perhaps stemming from my bursting-at-the-seams annoyance at the stifling atmosphere of my religious upbringing, I perceived Alex’s ecstasy in the closing scene of Burgess’s 20th chapter’s as a throwing off of all that hinders true free will.

On the other hand, the 21st chapter (leaning more toward the author’s intent here) certainly didn’t ruin the book for me by any means, as it is what, arguably, gives the book’s title its full gut-punch perhaps. In his 1986 introduction called “A Clockwork Orange Resucked,” Burgess discusses the importance of free moral choice as the ultimate way the human spirit can avoid being reduced to a mechanical clockwork. For the freedom of choice, Burgess seems to be arguing, is what allows a person to become “an organism lovely with colour and juice.” Certainly, the primary elements of the plot, all wrapped up in Alex’s journey, are so engrossing that to not read the last chapter would have felt like a betrayal of the humble narrator’s final decisions within the very narrative in and of itself.

This leads to the second qualifier noted above, that of character development. I’d like to argue that Burgess does this so exquisitely well that he actually tricks the reader into rooting for little Alex to, at the very least, be okay at the end of the novel, notwithstanding probably every readers’ simultaneous hope that Alex will develop some sense of remorse for all the raping and pillaging he accomplishes throughout the first half of the book. Burgess somehow makes us care about his anti-protagonist (yes, there’s another word for that, which I’d like to argue doesn’t quite fit in this book’s narrative), and perhaps that level of caring manifests differently for different readers, absolutely. But through it all, Burgess never gives the reader cause to doubt the reality of Alex’s existence, even if only in a fabled-like mirroring of the worst of human nature. We all know Alex-type characters, and we all love to hate them if we’re being completely honest.

Yet this genius of character development within A Clockwork Orange goes beyond the story’s narrator, as Burgess’s descriptions of the old ladies at the milk-bar and the lonely writer in his warm “Home,” not to mention the bookworm gentleman at the library, are all very recognizable characters in their own rights. And it is perhaps the repeated meeting of these sidelined characters that lulls the reader into convinced acceptance. Sure, they’re all caricatures of the people we meet, and sometimes avoid at all costs for safety’s sake. But it is the recognition of their outlines that convinces our acceptance. There’s no awkwardness of indecipherableness.

Alright, then, let’s move right along to what might be deemed the most exciting aspect of A Clockwork Orange, that being of course the author’s use of language. Great big sloppy shoutout to Tom Hollander for his voiced rendition of the book on this point, as his reading of all that Nadsat lingo left no need for any peeking at a glossary of the adapted Russian slang that Burgess so artfully incorporated into the text. Was it beautiful? One hundred percent. Was it comprehensible? Absolutely, but only if the reader allows the fury of the plot to carry him, her, or them past any hesitation that might otherwise masquerade in the guise of confusion. We know precisely what Alex means in the connotations of his narrative if not particularly in the exact translation of each specific word used to describe every scene.

So, for myself, this book checks the third qualification’s box. Not only is the language beautiful, but it is also crazily creative. And the latter without the former can’t stand up to the scrutiny of comprehensibility, so Burgess really has something here, especially as he accomplishes both with the seeming ease of breathing (the prose presents itself that naturally to the reader). Now, I know, I know! I’m probably more tolerant than some in my reading of prose writing that is categorically less accessible, so I understand I should be careful in adding this perhaps odd prejudice into my qualifiers of praise for “great” literature. To that end, I’ll readily admit that I sway more toward prose that demands attention and perhaps a little more work than the traditional straight-up and straight-forward writing. But this leads me to the last measurement I’ve mentioned above.

Does the piece of literature transcend into the philosophically metaphysical? “What’s philosophy got to bloody-well do with language?” You might be asking. As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, language has never (so many absolutes, I know) been fully able to describe beyond the physical world, except when words are used to convey instead of to absolutely describe. Using literature to give its readers a sense of the world, in all its indescribability, is the real trick of transcendence for an author. By using literary tricks of conveyance, instead of just providing what are all to often over-simplified, outright descriptions of the known world, a writer can invite readers into the realm of philosophical ideas. So Burgess has the music of his book’s language working for him in this way, as mentioned above.

Yet, I’m also looking for timelessness (as opposed to an exclusive exploration of the metaphysical) when I think of the philosophical element in a piece of writing. A Clockwork captures simultaneously the evils of an on-the-verge fascist government, the unbridled violence of youth, the desperate grasping for normalcy (whatever that means), and a place to be safe amongst all of these. To say these themes have not repeated themselves through history is to have glued on the blinders of complacency, I’d like to argue. So for me, this book meets my humble standard of being philosophically relevant through time.

And there you have it! A hands-down amazing book is that terrifically terrifying A Clockwork Orange. To give credit where it’s due, Burgess explains in the 2007 audiobook edition’s introduction (read by the author no less) that of all his endeavors in the world of literature this is the one he really didn’t want his name ultimately associated with. Sobering to think about, for all aspiring writers really. But, oh, but what’re ya gonna do?

grokking a wrongness in micro aggressions | 2019.01.19

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein | Review

Heinlein, Robert A_Stranger in a Strange Land

Publication:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1961

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 408 (New York : Ace Books, ©2003 publication has 525 pages, introducing the original manuscript) | 16 hours 17 minutes

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

This book excited me in its initial stages. Jo Walton’s main character recommends this writer in Walton’s Among Others, so I ran as fast as I could to the local library to check out Heinlein’s work (late to the party, I know, but what’re ya gonna do). After reading through multiple other reviews, I think I may have picked up a poor example of Heinlein’s literary prowess. (And it seems, from her review on Tor.com, Walton agrees.)

While basking in ideas of grokking the mysteries of the universe and the serenity of the main character’s alien view of human interactions, the following line from this book’s otherwise main feminist character (for her time, maybe . . . not without room for growth in that area) sucked all the air out of my personal safe space: “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault.”

Looking for solace, I found the GoodReads discussion about this quote runs the full gamut of possible responses. Just to be clear, I don’t believe in banning or editing works of art (I’m throwing literature in the art category here), and I understand fully this book might be quite simply a product of its 1960s time. Free love was on the rise as a natural backlash to a country steeped in conservative straining, for sure. But I think the discomfort that other (largely female) readers had with this, granted, very small piece of the book also shouldn’t be pushed to the sidelines.

Over the last month, the term “micro aggressions” keeps cropping up in my mind, especially when exploring anything written or created by cis white (Western mostly) male artists, be they old or new. Micro aggressions, as I’m coming to understand them, refer to any subtly accepted social norms that actually perpetuate disrespect (a.k.a. aggression) toward a specific group of people or ideas. So, to brush over such a quote as the one I’m honing in on for this review seems an agreement in perpetuating such mentalities, however subtly they may be presented.

Who’s to blame for this type of blatant disregard of every other perspective, meaning every perspective other than the perspective of the cis white male? Probably not Heinlein in and of himself; but I strongly believe that the aggregate of literary (and artistic in general) endeavors that push out (again, however subtly, since the devil truly is in the details) this type of mentality to their audiences has assisted in the formation of societal views on topics of rape and the general disrespect of women in the grander practice of even our current daily lives. And that impact of what we allow as the acceptable norm, acceptable even if it’s “a product of its time,” should still be held to some level of accountability, I feel.

Okay, so, Heinlein bit the dust with regard to that one sentence in this book. I’m not convinced the book doesn’t have maybe other important social commentary to offer (“grokking a wrongness in the poor in-betweeners” may really take the goddamn cake, however . . . not a fan of that one either, for the same reasons noted above), but I also don’t think these types of quotes don’t bear a ton of discussion either. Another great review of the book exists at The Outline, if you’re interested.

magical memory carpets | 2019.01.07

Among Others by Jo Walton | Review

walton, jo_among others

Publication: New York : Tor, 2011, ©2010

Genre: Fantasy

Pages: 302

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Hardcover

Source: MCL

This is going to be long and obnoxious, however . . .

“It makes me melancholy to remember, but a little bit of the security and excitement comes through from the way I was feeling in the memory. Memories are like a big pile of carpets, I keep them piled up in one big pile in my head and don’t pay much attention to them separately, but if I want to, I can get back in and walk on them and remember. I’m not really there, not like an elf might be, of course. It’s just that if I remember being sad or angry or chagrined, a little of that feeling comes back. And the same goes for happy, of course, though I can easily wear out the happy memories by thinking about them too much. If I do, when I’m old all the bad memories will still be sharp, because of pushing them away, but all the good ones will be worn out.”

As my dearest friend and I met last weekend to muddle through drafts of our memoiristic essay collection that we hope will manifest itself into something someday worth sharing, I asked for her thoughts on this quote. We’re writing our book together to wear out the less pleasant memories, she agreed with another cheers of our glasses. Of course, there’s always melancholy when it comes to memories, and the writing seems to encapsulate the cringing in a type of sainthood sometimes. I love Orwell’s caution to fellow writers in his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” where he states simply that “whoever writes about his [or her] childhood must beware of exaggeration and self-pity.” Because memories are slippery, and if we try to rush to the climax, we’ll miss the ecstasy of orgasm that often mirrors revelation.

If this book had been available when I was fifteen, I think my life might have turned out different, but that’s what we say, I’d wager, whenever we find a text (or any type of artist endeavor really) that resonates. I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower before the repressed memories of my abuse-filled childhood came back, and it didn’t jar those memories loose or change the forefront (a.k.a. consciousness) of how I saw the world at that time. But the change was probably there, brewing just beneath the surface. Maybe it’s not that a life’s course can necessarily change in its subsequent curves between this or that circumstance, but that a person’s perspective of those twisting paths might be turned ever so slightly aside to better perceive the options inherent to living in and of itself. Perhaps this is the magic of books particularly, in that they provide a kaleidoscope through which the reader (and sometimes the writer) can view and, hopefully, understand better the intricacies of not only the lives of others but of himself or herself. Any book or piece of art that accomplishes this depth of wondering introspection possesses the magic of time travel, which rings of both science fiction and fantasy together (I think we’ve found your magic carpets, Walton, huzzah!).

Yet such a journey is not to be rushed, I’ve become convinced (as I’ve stated above with probably too much boldness). Among Others took me just over six months to finish. I savored each fictionalized journal entry, not wanting the music of Walton’s reflective prose to end. While some reviewers expressed being overwhelmed by the endless stream-of-consciousness references to all the science fiction and fantasy books a mind could possibly hold, I’m excited to have Walton’s book on my shelf as a kind of experiential reading list. Not only does she give recommendations of authors and titles (some recommendations more flattering than others . . . Le Guin, Heinlein, Delany, and Zelazny seem to be among her favorites), but as I worked through Morwenna’s lists of her and Walton’s choice literary pieces while taking intermittent breaks from Among Others, I found the storyline of Walton’s book grew in depth and richness. Because reading is an experience that the reader can hold in his or her mind for eternity if the right notes are struck. Sharing those experiences through the sharing of great, or even just memorable (some might say you can’t have one without the other) books and writing and art in general can calm the anxiety of loneliness.

And loneliness is what Walton’s book is all about. This theme comes up again and again. The main character even chides herself for wishing (to the point of magic) for a group of likeminded friends, fearing that comrades gotten by selfish wish-making might negate the authenticity of such meetings of kindred spirits. So I found the book to be more than a collection of the author’s favorite sci-fi and fantasy recommendations. It’s immovably rife also with coming-of-age motifs, including the finding of the self in the face of mother-daughter relations, rumors among classmates, the desperation of trying to capture fresh memories before they go stale, and magic . . . always the magic of youth and what it means to hold onto that while the years gather.

ulysses’s evil twin | 2018.12.22

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany | Review

delany, samuel r._dhalgren

Publication: Bantam Books 1975

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 801

Formats: Paperback, eBook

Source: MCL

Last summer, a lowly, long-distance sci-fi book group picked this one out their usual scramble for fodder to inspire great, or at least amusing, literary and scientifically-charged discussion. At the book’s half-way point by late October, two out of the three members were ready to throw in the towel. This is not an uncommon response, it seems. A good number of the book reviews I found online that tackle Delany’s masterpiece (I’m just going to boldly put that out there) focus, much like my book group in our initial stages, on the difficulty of this book.

Yes, it’s 800 goddamn pages. Yes, the writing tends toward the experimental both in style and format. Yes, the sex is explicit and detailed without the familiarity of superfluous erotica expectations, and, yes, the plot is as shadowy as Bellona’s cityscape, which Delany describes with the repetition of a rower’s oar trying to surge its owner’s escape through a haze of on-the-verge-of-continuously violent friendships that seem to offer little to no edification. (That last one was a terrible attempt at emulation, by the way. More practice needed.)

By mid-December, my book group agreed (or perhaps we agreed to disagree after we’d quit towel-tossing and got back to the business of intellectual debate) that to ask, “What happened?” in the midst of this book’s circular-reasoning mire of philosophical quandaries was to miss the point of the book completely.

Instead, we found this is the type of book that pulled out all the stops, tackling race, sexual expectations, social norms, the sham of economics, the impenetrable fortress of humanistic religion (is there any other kind . . . really?), identity, gender, ageism, literary form, and every other stereotype imaginable. Perhaps there is a way to scale this type of philosophical mountain other than with experimental prose and plot structure, but in reading Dhalgren, I came back to my old prejudices about this topic. Clockwork Orange couldn’t have the same gut-punching impact if it used the language of the average Joe Schmo. It is in the poetry of language that the soul, or whatever you want to call the intangible element of sentient beings, finds its true voice–to be too clear is to put the potential of interpretation in a straitjacket.

Let’s not forget also that Delany was writing Dhalgren on the heels of multiple cultural revolutions that drastically changed the face of the United States, or at least that’s the story we tell ourselves over and over again. Reading Delany’s giant, which has been called “Ulysses’ evil twin,” made me wonder if the author had left the 1960s with bittersweet regard.

To say this book is a metaphor for the mayhem of American culture, with all its self-absorption, inescapably demoralizing money-grubbing, overly-concerned religious frittering, and endless identity crises, seems a bit on the nose. But to hell with it: I’m pretty sure this book is a fucking metaphor. If you’re not into metaphors or allegories or lyrically gorgeous philosophical wonderings, well, there’s always Rocky Flintstone.

exquisitely orchestrated prose | 2018.11.04

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje | Review

Ondaatje, Michael_Anil's Ghost

Publication: New York : Vintage International, 2001, ©2000

Genre: Psychological Fiction, Mystery Fiction, Historical Fiction

Pages: 311 | Audio Length: 7 hours, 53 minutes

Formats: Paperback, Audiobook, eBook, Hardcover

Source: MCL

Some books should be read for the author’s mastery of plot, while others win their stripes of lasting worth due to how well they play in the realm of language. I find myself usually attracted to the latter, although I can also understand the appeal of the former. But to me, reading a piece of exquisitely orchestrated prose can be like letting the music of Rachmaninoff, Mendelssohn, or Tchaikovsky (just to name a few) wash over the soul. And this is what I’m looking for in the act of reading most days. Call it a preoccupation, maybe.

While listening to the audiobook version of Ondaatje’s novel, I bookmarked a dozen or so quotes not because I wanted reminders of what actions this or that character was engaged in, or of the major building blocks leading to the story’s climax. Instead, I was collecting the sparkling gems of Ondaatje’s wordsmith talents. Some of my favourites are listed below for your reading enjoyment.

As I was re-listening to these particular quotes for this review, I also noticed that a good majority of them carry the driving force behind what I took to be the book’s message. Namely, that history is a cultural creation. As much as we’d like to say we can objectively report on historical discoveries or that history is a collection of revelations about past events, as long as humanity has greed and drives for immediate survival (evolution just doing its job, I suppose), history will always be subject to these more biased goals.

In Anil’s Ghost, the reader wanders through the multiple, and often disparate, perspectives of its characters as they try each one to hold the sands of history in some semblance of a meaningful shape against the flood waters of time. I’m also a huge fan of somewhat ambiguous endings (which I mention not to give anything away, but to give you a fair heads-up if you’re not into that sort of thing), so I found a lot to admire in this novel.

Favorite lines of the most beautiful and thought-provoking prose from Anil’s Ghost to brighten your holiday season . . .

“Information was made public with diversions and subtexts, as if the truth would not be of interest when given directly, without waltzing backwards.”

“She used to believe that meaning allowed a person a door to escape grief and fear, but she saw that those who were slammed and stained by violence lost the power of language and logic. It was the way to abandon emotion–a last protection for the self.”

“Even reading, she’d gotten entangled sleepily in the arms of paragraphs that wouldn’t let her go.”

“Farther away there were wars of terror, the gunmen in love with the sound of their shells, for the main purpose of war had become war.”

“Most of the time in our world, truth is just opinion.”

“Even if you are a monk [. . .] passion or slaughter will meet you someday. For you cannot survive as a monk if society does not exist. You renounce society, but to do so you must first be a part of it and learn your decision from it. This is the paradox of retreat.”

“He supposed he had always trusted her, in spite of her fury and rejection of the world. He weaved into her presence his conversations about wars and medieval slokas and Pali texts and language, and he spoke about how history faded too, as much as battle did, and how it could exist only with remembrance–for even slokas on papyrus and bound ola leaves would be eaten by moths and silverfish, dissolved by rainstorms–how only stone and rock could hold one person’s losses and another’s beauty forever.”

“A good archaeologist can read a bucket of soil as if it were a complex historical novel.”

“When we are young, he thought, the first necessary rule is to stop invasions of ourselves. We know this as children. There is always that murmuring conviction of family, like the sea around an island. So youth hides in the shape of something as lean as a spear or something as antisocial as a bark. And we become therefore more comfortable and intimate with strangers.”

“He’s going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That’s enough reality for the West. It’s probably the history of the last two-hundred years of western political writing: Go home, write a book, hit the circuit.”

“And now with human sight he was seeing all the fibres of natural history around him. He could witness the smallest approach of a bird, every flick of its wing, or a hundred-mile storm coming down off the mountains near Gonagola and skirting to the planes. He could feel each current of wind, every lattice-like green shadow created by cloud.”

Please take a bow, Ondaatje; for such beauty is hard to find.

books on writing | 2018.07.24

Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin | Review

Le Guin, Ursula K_Steering the Craft

Publication: Boston ; New York : Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015

Genre: Authorship, Narrative Writing

Pages: 141

Formats: Paperback, eBook

Source: MCL

Let’s talk about writing exercises. Le Guin packs this modest-sized book full of lunges, squats, and sometimes gut-wrenching sit-ups all the way through. As a result, you’ll want your favourite writing tools nearby while diving into this one. But it’s not exercising because it’s the fashionable thing to do or because you don’t have any of your own writing topics to play with.

Le Guin states in the book’s opening lines that she composed this “handbook for storytellers — writers of narrative prose.” She further explains in her introduction that the book is for those who know how to write at least competently, and perhaps even rather well, but who also want to hone their talents around the more technical waters that can often throw even a great writer somewhat off course. When we write, we want to be heard, and to be heard is to be understood. Writing is our medium toward spiritual (the term being used generally, rather than with religious specificity) connection. To connect with another sentient being is to strive towards clarity, and not even clarity in the puritanical sense, but simply as a meeting of all the elusive mind-and-emotive-stuff we couldn’t otherwise hope to express.

It’s no pun that Le Guin uses the word craft in her book’s title, because writing is just that. Because just like the products of a master musician or painter, we’d expect the finished pièce de résistance to be the result of years of practice. And who knows? Maybe you’ll get a few usable story-gems out of the writing exercises she gives at the end of each chapter. But please don’t be surprised if many revisions prove needed after each painstaking draft. As mentioned, this is a book to help aspiring writers stretch and practice the artistry that is prose writing. Failing at any endeavor is part of the comparable success story in the end.

If you’re truly going to approach your writing with the concentration of a master, Steering the Craft is a wizard-of-word’s spell book detailing the “practice in control” of bending “the pleasure of writing, of playing the real, great word games” toward usable production. Understanding how to use point of view, verb tenses, short and terse versus long and wandering sentences, as well as the benefits of extricating all those pesky adjectives is how the game is played. (Yes, I’m wringing my hands that “pesky” snuck into that last sentence.) This book provides a sandbox for aspiring writers to root around safely, the only ramifications being to gain a more objective view of their world-building efforts.

Le Guin left such a legacy of word-spun anthro-fiction in her much-missed wake for many of us, and we still have much to learn from her generous advice on the art form she knew best.

Just a quick note: I love that the original version of this book, published in 1998, had the subtitle of “Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Mariner and the Mutinous Crew.” Lots to pull out of that one.


On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King | Review

King, Stephen_On Writing

Publication: New York: Scribner, 2000 | Republished in 2010, 10th Anniversary Edition

Genre: Authorship, Narrative Writing, Memoir

Pages: 288

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

I can’t spout enough praise for this one. King gives not only the most humorous advice about the tireless (and more often exhausting) work each writer puts him or herself through, he also offers a memoiristic curriculum vitae to inspire (or perhaps frighten) other writer-wannabes. After the first section of his book opens the blinds of his youth, filled with farting babysitters and countless rejection letters that he pins to his teenage bedroom wall with pride, King gets down to the business of explaining the business of writing.

While we may all want to skip straight to the last section of the book, which details his surviving a van that misplaced its heaving mass into his person while he was walking on the roadside in 2000 (no, the experience wasn’t his inspiration for Misery, which he actually wrote back in 1987, closer to the beginning of his now well-publicized career), the bits of the book I found most inspiring were those focused on his honest assessment of what being a writer takes in the long run.

The surprising answer to this enduring question we who are just beginning the writer’s journey can’t seem to get out of our heads is that the secret to becoming a writer is, quite simply, to write.

King is maybe somewhat harsh in his estimation that bad writers will never improve, and that great writers are born and not made, yet he seems to have a fondness for helping competent writers blossom into good writers. So, there’s hope! Maybe. But who is ever going to tell a bad writer that they’re prose stinks? I’ve never had a composition teacher dare utter such a judgement, but maybe that’s just due to our overly sensitive and politically-steroided culture. I’ve had writing teachers beg me to be on the school newspaper staff or to take up positions as a writing mentor, but the former scared the shit out of me because talking face-to-face with strangers sounds like torture, although I endured with some ecstasy the latter for a couple years in college.

What’s the line between bad and competency when we’re talking about writers? Incompetent writing (to me this equates to bad writing, and maybe King would agree) seems to imply you just don’t understand how to effectively expose your thoughts to an absentee audience, grammar eludes you, and organization is certainly not your forte; but mostly the first of these three. As if you need the crutch of hand gestures and facial expressions to help your actual words get your point across the chasm of understanding. Writing doesn’t allow for visual crutches, as we know all too well from the magical chaos that can destroy relationships and even governments in our world of text messages, email, and Twitter (America has a prime example of this last one at the moment, and if that statement baffles you, well god bless ya for having successfully hidden your head in the sand for the last 24 months). A good writer, according to what I’ve gleaned from King’s book, seems to be someone who is both competent at the composition of written communication and an artistic weaver of tales.

King’s book deals exclusively with writing fiction, but if we’re going to expand his assessment of writing skills to formats such as essays, memoirs, and historical investigative journalism, then I’d say the story weaving criteria still holds true. An essay is a story that follows the meandering yet formulaic thoughts of the writer, thinking specifically of Virginia Wolf’s expanded book-sized essay A Room of One’s Own or Ursula K. Le Guin’s collection Words Are My Matter. As far as historical investigative journalism goes, while The Lost City of Z made for an okay movie version of the historical events it recounted, I’d argue for skipping the televised rendition and just plunging straight into the pages to consume the (here it is again) story just as it was originally laid out by the book’s author. And then we have memoirs like Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors and Kate Chirstensen’s Blue Plate Special, which are themed glimpses into the writers’ lives where the chorus of events are carefully orchestrated until the scenes virtually sing in the readers’ minds.

King also spends time waxing philosophical in his advice to ambitious writers to also read read read. How can you know what’s good, or bad, if you’re locked in a vacuum? Maybe you too wanna write a memoir about all the crazy terrifying things you’ve faced in your short life (even if you’re 107, it’s still relatively short in the grand scheme of our universe’s history, mind you). The best place to start is in front of the autobiography section of your local library or bookstore, baby. As Jo Walton has pointed out, “We all remake our genre every time we write it. But we’re building on what’s gone before.” (https://www.tor.com/2018/01/24/bright-the-hawks-flight-in-the-empty-sky-ursula-k-le-guin/#more-331580) Even the greats of the writing world had influences. And, as a result, even the most individualistic writer’s voice is the product of a literary stew.

The takeaways from King’s book on writing? Write and read like your life depends on it. Guard time for both as you would a scrap of driftwood in a storm-torn sea.

A friendly note to the reader who prefers listening: The audiobook for King’s book does not include the postscript that gives a visual example of what should happen to a first draft after it’s rendered subject to the writer’s critical pen of edits and, hopefully, improvements. Just thought you should know. Nor does it include the two additional postscripts (the second was tacked on in the 2010 republication edition) listing what King was reading while writing On Writing. Just a friendly heads-up. If you’re serious about your writing, get the print version and keep it handy next time you’re sweating over that manuscript that’s been kicking your ass.

Note: Yes, I know some of the words above are made-up. Agatha asks that you kindly engage your sense of humor and imagination. It’s more fun that way.