Last weekend, I happened to catch the new film version of IT at my local theater, at the suggestion of my daughter, who happens to be into horror more than a little bit. I have to say it was of a higher quality than the 1990 miniseries. After the movie, over dinner, we wound up having a lively discussion regarding why they moved the plot setting 30 years ahead of the original book (cheaper and more readily available 1980’s items than 1950’s items nowadays) and how the plot progressed fairly closely to the original text. I was surprised…
… that the filmmakers decided to split the story into two. But with that decision made, it made far more sense to me that they decided to focus on the Losers’ adventures as kids rather than going back and forth between teen and adult adventures. It made for a far more coherent plot line, all things considered.
As we watched the film, I kept thinking back to the prominence that King has had in my writing life. It is a place that has hardly diminished from my teen years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to come to terms with what it has meant to me.
My mother was – still is – never a horror fan. I was not going to be able to buy any of King’s books or watch his films in my parents’ house. I still had to respect that. But there were libraries, other opportunities to get involved with his work. And I did.
If there has ever been someone that I would count as a literary idol in my life, it would be Stephen King. I can’t remember the first King book I read, but I know that I read the vast majority of them from when I was a kid to now. I don’t think everything he wrote was great – not even he thinks that everything he wrote was great – but he has had way more hits than misses, and I firmly believe that the hits are keeping on coming even though he’s now in his seventh decade.
There were so many things about King that I dug so much. His plots… well, plot was never something that he was into, more interesting situations with interesting people. An outcast girl who has the telepathic powers of a demigod? Sign me up. Recasting the Dracula myth into an American ethos 20 years before Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I’m down. Writing two insanely long books that, in turn, aim to be the definitive apocalyptic thriller and the Great American Novel of childhood and growing up? Sign me up, brother.
As a kid, I was interested in the graphic nature of the material, but it was the psychological horror that really got me. There was plenty of guts in some of the books, but one scene that has stuck with me more than any of those was the one in Salem’s Lot where the father was so distraught at his son’s funeral that he jumped onto the coffin. (On a related note, Salem’s Lot probably had one of the most devastating endings I’ve ever read.)
Whenever I read King, I read someone who was in love with the art of storytelling. With King, I gained more insight into the people and country I lived in. I also managed to get a lot more insight than I ever anticipated about the culture of New England. (I still will argue that King should be classified just as much as a regional writer as he is a horror/scifi/fantasy author.)
Then I read his book On Writing when it came out. I still rank it as one of the best books on writing that I have ever read – so simple, such an easy read, a mix of his writer’s biography and whatever advice he gave to be a writer. I’ve used adverbs sparingly and watched out for the passive voice ever since – a lot of my students got the active verb/passive verb lesson from me at one point or the other.
More than the individual pieces of advice, it was a literal dare to me. As I read it, I realized, this was what it meant to be a writer. This is what it takes to really dedicate yourself to being a writer, never mind a successful writer, however that’s defined. Are you ready to take him up on the challenge?
Reader, for many years, I was not.
Why I was not ready to meet that challenge, after years of saying I wanted to be a fiction author, writing tons of journalism that some people read and others disregarded in places that were never hotbeds of news, and teaching more than a few people how to write better themselves?
Man, that is a massive question. In fact, it’s probably such a massive question that it will likely dominate Volume II of my writer’s biography, which I think will soon start. (Don’t worry, I’ll likely put out some more stuff about reading as a kid, AKA Volume I stuff).
But to start answering it, I have to mention about how I always compared myself to King. I saw in him someone who was inherently a writer, and I always pictured myself as lesser than him. I didn’t get started writing serious fiction until I was much older than he was when he got his first book published. He’s put out more fiction than entire towns of authors. I’ve come to accept I’m not going to write as many books as he will, much less James Patterson. (Yes, I know Patterson has help.)
I’ve accepted that, though. I’ve accepted not being a literary superstar because that’s not really the reason I’m writing anymore, even though I’m really interested in finally getting my fiction published somewhere, in some capacity. But it’s OK to have something to shoot far, even if you miss the target. I get why Joe Hill hid his name for a while, took some time to become his own person before his name got out in the world. He’s a damn good writer, too.
Now I just want to be me as a writer. With my recent work, with this blog, I might start to finally get there.