A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 9: Movie Nights

A good portion of my life has been spent staring at screens that tell me stories. They remain a part of my experience now, and they are among some of my earliest memories of life. They also tended to have an influence on what type of person, and writer, I would turn out to be.

There are plenty of times that I went and watched movies, either in the theater or in the basement that became my sanctuary during the early years of my life. Kids, there was an era before remote controls, and I was part of the end of that era. As a result, I wound up sitting on the tartan-greenish carpet of my basement, perched just in front of the television set, wearing out the numbers on the controls located on our grand television.

Usually, I was situated right in front of the TV because I kept changing channels to watch as much as possible1. The other reason, admittedly, was that I wanted to be ready in case Mom and Dad peeked down the stairs to see me watching something that I shouldn’t have been watching. In the early 1980’s we had HBO at our house, and there were several movies that had the pre-teen me a bit too interested. (It also gave me the opportunity to watch Star Wars at least 20 times on that channel alone, helping me fall in love with science fiction even more than I had with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpses of the original Battlestar Galactica series and one or two errant episodes of Robotech. Back in the pre-Internet 1980’s, much of geek or sci-fi culture was as much rumor as fact. Nevertheless, it did make me open to reading science fiction classics like Dune and others that I took much inspiration from regarding the ideas of theme and worldbuilding. Later, after HBO was done at my house, there were other movies that were kind of chancy, especially regarding sex and violence. Pretty shortly after that, however, I discovered you could find a lot of that on other channels. Then there was my obsession with professional wrestling, which my dad never quite got and I decided not to flaunt it in front of my parents2.

As I was growing up, there were three times that I went to the movies that I had distinct memories of attending. The first show I remember attending was way back somewhere between 1978 and 1980. I have the clear memory of pulling into an honest-to-goodness drive-in theater in an open field at Mulberry and Cedar in Muscatine, Iowa, close to the high school I would attend years later. That same corner is now covered with office buildings, which is probably an improvement to the local economy but not to the aesthetics of the area3. It was a double-bill of The Blues Brothers and, I believe, Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie. I loved the anarchic humor and the great music of the first film. I get the feeling that my parents hoped that I might sleep through the second film; they were right.

Other than the multi-screen theater at the mall, during the 1980’s we would often attend the Muscatine Riviera theater right in downtown Muscatine. I included a picture of that place here on the blog. It was an old time movie-theater, converted from a live theater, complete with an old balcony, velvet drapes and curtains on the sides and front, and all of the old detailing that made you think for a second that you were actually in an old vaudeville house rather than a movie theater until you saw the white screen up front. That was where I was actually looking forward to watching Star Trek II because I knew they were going to kill off Spock after reading a novelization of the book beforehand in my local bookstore and I wanted to see what that would look like on the big screen. I never had a problem with spoiler alerts. Then I remember standing in a line around the block to watch Tim Burton’s Batman movie while wearing a black shirt with the Batman logo on it, jumping in anticipation. I remember leaving the theater excited that someone had finally gotten superhero movies right after so many hits and misses. Of course, more than three decades later it seems that’s all that Hollywood releases in the theaters now.

Obviously, so many things have changed in the years since then. The Riviera was bulldozed about 30 years ago, and the multiplex theater in Muscatine moved out of the now nearly-vacant mall to a bigger location on the highway bypass. I went there a few times before I moved away from the town. I have to say the snack selection was better and the new stuffed high-backed chairs were so comfortable that I often risked dozing off in them. However, going out to the movies has become more of an operation, and having to deal with rude movie viewers next to me and the cost usually convinces me not to go.

Some of the older people say we lost something when the communal experience of going to a theater started to die out. I’m an older person now, too, but I don’t necessarily see it that way. I love movies just as much now on a theater screen, a big screen television, my laptop, or even my mobile phone. It’s just like how it is for me with physical book reading or e-books. I take my inspiration and entertainment from wherever I can get it.


  1. I think it best to discuss my television habits later. I watched plenty of shows that had no redeeming value at all and I cannot defend my decision to watch them as youthful folly (lol).
  2. There’s probably at least one post that I could think of that might take a look at how professional wrestling influenced me or showed me something regarding storytelling.
  3. It’s been a bit of a surprise to see that drive-ins have not totally died out, but are hanging on in not that smaller numbers than a few years ago.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 6: Stephen is Still The King

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.