Ruminations on Writing Parts 1 & 2

These are a pair of resurrected posts from before it was hacked. Part 1 was originally posted on December 30, 2012. Part 2 was posted on January 8, 2013.

I am republishing them because both continue to be relevant to writing and creativity, and they introduce ideas that I continue to reference when discussing the challenges of writing with other writers (or with seventh-graders who, in general, are completely uninterested in anything I have to say).

Part 1

Back in August, a writing friend contacted me with the admission that over the last few months he had been suffering from creative paralysis. He explained, “I was mired in self-pity by lack of response and under-appreciation of what I was doing by the populous. I put the brakes on everything and climbed into the ditch.”

To me, the most telling part of this statement was the prepositional phrase, “by the populous.” My friend didn’t hate his most recent project. He wasn’t frustrated that his work wasn’t turning out the way he had originally envisioned it. It wasn’t criticism that sent him into a creative tailspin. Instead, it was the ] feeling that despite all of the energy he had poured into his writing, giving his writing to the world was tantamount to shouting as loudly as he could to a room full of people who ignored him.

On this blog in the past I have facetiously referred to this phenomenon when I addressed my readers as “both of you.” The inference is that my words, pounded on plastic and visible on pixels, will reach a net audience of two. (Note the dual meanings of net…just another example of why I deserve to have more than two readers.)

Writers write from an implicit assumption that there will be at least one reader. The author writes, and the reader reads. Otherwise writing is the tree of the proverbial forest: if you write but no one reads it, do your words make a sound?

The construction of a poem or a story or a book requires an investment of time. For Raceboy and Super Qwok Adventures, I spent as much time in the post-writing process of editing and layout as I spent on the composition process: it was truly like working a third job. I realized that even if I were to add up the total amount of time my readers spend reading my words, the sum of their time will still not be likely to exceed the amount of time I personally invested in bringing that work to life. There is not a word or term in English to identify the point where the invested time of the reader exceeds the invested time of the content creator, but it is likely that a great many works do not ever break even.

When my friend faced this unarticulated realization about his total invested time versus the total time his readers had invested reading his work, he recognized that he had worked hard for a very small — maybe even negligible — return on his investment. And that sent him into a depression.

For most of my life, I imagined a writer’s words to be chiseled in the stones of time, etched for eternity to be read, pondered, appreciated, like constellations in the sky. It’s only been over the last six years as I’ve worked at the library that I’ve realized the impermanence of a writer’s words. The books that fill the library shelves live only while they have readers. I faced an entire shelf of Frank Slaughter’s books, none of which had been checked out in the last thirty years, and finally purged them to free shelf space. Slaughter sold millions of books over his career, but that career ranged from the 1940s to the 1980s. By 2010, they were ignored, possibly irrelevant, and essentially dead.

In the January 2013 issue of Wired, Steven Levy interviewed Tim O’Reilly. When Levy asked, “What is the future of books?” O’Reilly explained, “…I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit. And they’re relatively recent. The most popular author in the 1850s in the US wasn’t Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, you know, or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing The House of Seven Gables. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writing long narrative poems that were meant to be read aloud. So the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.”

O’Reilly doesn’t use the p-word, but he’s referring to our paradigms about novels when he answers the question. We expect that our assumptions about novels are eternal and unchanging much like those constellations.

But the thing is, even the constellations won’t last forever. It’s a theme that came out in a different article in the same issue of Wired on an entirely different topic. Andrew Zolli explained, “The sustainability movement has been around for four decades. I think it may have outlived its usefulness. When they tell you they want to conserve the rain forest, save the pandas, and so forth, the message is always the same: They want to maintain a beautiful little picture of stasis. But we need to recognize that stasis isn’t realistic” (pg. 22).

We are trapped in a chronological progression like beads of a pearl necklace, a progression of experienced present moments, and our expectations from one pearl to the next pearl are that the pearls are the same, have always been the same, and will always be the same. Because each pearl has been round and white, we assume that every pearl is round and white, that every necklace is made from pearls. But what is a pearl? The form of the writing may evolve, the shape of the pearl may change, could become a bead, a chain, a rope, but it will always need to have a reader.

I write for the reader who I hope someday will read my words, invest his or her time to ponder what I’ve written; I write for the someday when the sum total of the time that my readers spend reading my words adds to a greater total than the time I’ve spent writing them. I write for the possible future that I hope exists despite the likely obscurity of oblivion that is inevitable, even for the stars. In the face of entropy, I write for those moments when a reader will read my words, when a connection will take place. Andy Warhol explained, “In the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” I write for that fifteen minutes, though it may already have happened, or it may never happen. I write for the unknown, unknowable listeners who hear the tree of my writing in the forest, who hear my shouts in a cacophonous room, who see my words glowing in a shape in the night-time sky.

Part 2

I noted the following in my original 2013 introduction to this post:
Since publishing Ruminations on Writing Part 1, I have torn my file cabinets apart. I was looking for a specific journal entry that I remembered writing. I could not find it in my laptop, in my external hard drive, in my various half-filled composition books that date back to 1995. Finally, after nearly a week, I found loose steno pages in a hanging folder titled “Essays/Thoughts.” I don’t have the exact date this would have been composed, but Roland Smith visited Bradley Central somewhere around my fourth year teaching, which would have been around eight years ago. Without digging through school yearbooks (which I don’t have access to at home), I would estimate this entry as having been written in November 2004.

Each book I read inevitably brings me to the same conclusion: “I couldn’t have written that — it’s too good.” This disheartening sentiment serves as a real downer when trying to buoy myself into believing my writings are equal to the task of publication. While listening to young adult author Roland Smith discuss his writing process at an assembly yesterday, I had a realization. A novel (actually, most writing from short story to epic) is written not in an instant, but over an extended period of time. I am, at every instant, a newly realized being who is completely unique from the self of a moment ago. At times I have access to stores of words which will later fall behind the boxes in my mind to be come covered with slimy growth. Perhaps an image from a discussion I listened to on Extension 720 is rioting between my ears and later the same image is deflated and pallid. Simply through life I change moment by moment, and it is this dynamic aggregate of me who is the true author of my writings. Not just the self who exists in this moment, but the accumulation of selves working to construct the words which finally take form. Thus a novel is, in a sense, able to be greater than the man who writes it because that man experiences so much more than a single man’s experiences through the building of the novel. When I am feeling inadequate as I compare myself against a novel, I am actually looking at myself in this moment and comparing me against the aggregate author who is the sum of all his parts and thus vastly wiser than I am.

Some Thoughts on “IT” by Stephen King

The following notes were recorded in my journal over the month of March, 2018. While there are no spoilers per se, there are details from King’s novel that are better encountered as King narrates them, rather than through my descriptions.

I’m on page 891 of IT, by Stephen King. Some thoughts:

Given its heft, it’s unsurprising to note some weaknesses in IT. First, King’s specificity and attention to detail — which sets him apart as a writer — is incongruous with his accounts of memories. For example, as Mike Hanlon recounts the Silver Dollar massacre in “Derry: The Fourth Interlude” (pgs. 879-894), he does so while drunk late at night in the library. This isn’t problematic, but his accounting of the remembrances of a 93-year-old former “campaigner” (I presume lumberjack) go to such detail that Mike explains the conversations at the bar while Claude Heroux murdered men at a poker table: “At the bar, conversation had turned to what sort of winter lay ahead. Vernon Stanchfield, a farmer from Palmyra, claimed it would be a mild one — fall rain uses up winter snow was his scripture…” (pg. 889). Mike includes the opinion of Alfie Naugler, another farmer, plus two more opinions expressed at a bar over “beer and bowls of hard-cooked eggs” (pg. 890).

In this part of the novel, Mike Hanlon relates the account of Egbert Thoroughgood from an interview about an event that took place seventy-five years before. Mike’s story to his friends reads like a Stephen King novel, and of course, that’s exactly what it is. But what it isn’t is believable in its specificity and detail. So does this matter? This isn’t a structural problem, per se, because a story event connecting violent and disturbing past events with Pennywise makes structural sense. Instead, I think it’s a conscious decision of King’s to commit to telling the story: he is so immersed and we the readers are so immersed that the unrealistic details of this memory-episode fail to register for many readers (except for pedants like me).

I know from personal experience that were I to relate an episode that took place in my past, only the broadest of brush strokes would be present in my memory: possibly the location, who was involved (but not secondary characters), the gist of the conversations. Very few exact conversations have etched themselves in my memory; most of these are short nuggets or pearls that lend themselves to memory as pithy or “truths.”

King does justify the level of detail his main characters are able to remember as being a symptom of the act of remembering. He explains that all of the kids forgot about It until Mike Hanlon’s call came in, and then the memories began to come back, slowly at first, then in greater details, and this process was much more thorough than real memories would have been. So King knows and is able to justify some of his memory episodes with this narrative explanation.

Another aspect of IT that is problematic to me is the characters as children. They are fully-formed by the youthful age of 11, with a density and worldliness that seems unbelievable for their years. They interact with one another in ways that belong to adults trying to imagine how fifth graders interact with one another. Just last night, at a scholastic bowl match, a former Bradley Central student who is now an 11th grader looked at the middle schoolers bouncing chaotically and said, “If I ever acted like that, I’m sorry.” Her mom and I both said, “This is every middle schooler.”

I think King wanted to get it right, but too many years had passed since his own fifth grade days. When he wrote these characters as fifth graders, he couldn’t help but be unaware of the differences in maturity that take place during those teenage years. It’s like presentism: judging past events through the lens of now. As an adult writing about children, he crafts adult characters inhabiting children’s bodies.

It could be argued that the convergence of these specific characters as exceptions to the norm is precisely the point of IT, that these kids were assembled like the Justice League to take on the primordial monster beneath Derry, so TAKE THAT, ANDY! It was ON PURPOSE! Maybe, but to me, anyway, this is one note that came across flat.

Neither of these issues detract from the strengths of King’s book, most especially the way it is woven together from past to future, an exquisite quilt of then and now. He creates a juxtaposition of the same characters from two timelines that march step by step toward paired climaxes.

As I write this, I’m in “Part 5: The Ritual of Chud,” and the action increases in intensity as the paired storylines approach the final breaking point. King has consistently moved between events with transitions that connect the children’s storyline with the adult’s storyline, but now that we are at the climax, he moves between scenes by crossing over with words, phrases, and dialogue.

“‘…Hello” ends Chapter 3 on page 925–without even an end quotation mark (Yes, it’s hard to quote that and capture the full effect when enclosing the quotation inside quotation marks…), and chapter four begins: “…there,’ Henry Bowers said.” King provided italicized notes for context like the headings on a letter (“Kansas Street/12:20 P.M.”), but leaves the flow uninterrupted by breaks.

Another thing King does well is to drop hints about the future. Not often, but with an awareness that he has the scope of the narrative in mind and knows those future events. So, for example, on page 929, he writes, “…things might have taken a different course: the five of them might not have been fugitives from the Derry police when that day’s light finally broke.” At that point in the narrative, King reveals an alternate timeline that didn’t happen, a safe path that the characters don’t get to experience. This builds the tension. He doesn’t do this often… just frequently enough to keep his readers on the hook.


King, Stephen. IT. Viking, 1986.

Limitations of Fiction: Connections

This journal entry was originally written March 27, 2018.

I was thinking this morning about the limitations of fiction. These aren’t limitations imposed on fiction, but limitations present in the human brain that is the creator of fiction, and thus implicit in the very bones of fiction.

Characters aren’t connected enough in fiction to reflect my experiences in life. This is true of both short fiction as well as longer works (and, as you will see in a moment, it is true in other mediums, especially movies). Very few people in life exist in a vacuum like the one that surrounds characters in fiction. A map of the relationships in my life would be a densely interconnected mesh of people, from friends to family to friends of family and family of friends. Adding complexity to the mesh is the evolution over time as it builds and decays, making new connections and eroding old connections into memories.

Fiction can’t represent this labyrinth of connections except symbolically through representative samples. In Avatar, the movie by James Cameron, Jake Sully travels to another planet because his single connection, a twin brother, is killed, opening an opportunity for Jake’s DNA match to be used to control his brother’s specially grown avatar. Sully has zero connections in his life beyond his murdered brother.

In IT, by Stephen King, Eddie has an coddling, oppressive wife. I can’t remember now what other connections King included — father, aunts, but even when King does better than most at populating the connections of his world, it remains infinitesimally small in comparison to the connections present in the lives of most people.

But fiction can’t, you argue, populate every connection because no one would want to wade through such detritus of information. I accept that this is true as a reader, but I further argue that it isn’t just true from the reading side of the equation; it is true on the writing side of the equation. It doesn’t matter that the reader wouldn’t read it because the constructor can’t build it, the author can’t imagine it — such connections are simply beyond the scope of human imagination.

Now you’re thinking, “Who cares? If the human mind can’t imagine it, and the human mind isn’t interested in reading about it anyway, who really cares?” And you would be correct — if a reader doesn’t notice. But when a reader (or viewer, in the case of a movie) is able to perceive the artificiality of the connections presented in the story, then the writer should care. King is able to cover up his shortcomings with the density of his distracting connections. He gives Eddie an entire pharmacy as an example of his hypochondria, and through this sleight of hand, the reader doesn’t notice that Eddie’s life is absent of contemporary friends, those people who will miss him when he fails to show up at Thanksgiving. Not all of us have King’s ability to find the idiosyncratic as decoys. So it is up to us, as writers, to recognize that we are not able to adequately imagine the connections a character should have in the world — if that character was in fact alive — and write in such a way to minimize the distraction of this truth from affecting our reader’s ability to enjoy the narrative.

With short fiction, there is the advantage of brevity, like a photo that capture s a moment while the viewer postulates a world that must exist beyond the borders of the print and which doesn’t matter for conveying the content of the print. But even short fiction runs the risk of being too streamlined, too elegant, too perfect. Life is never perfect, and while a brilliantly elegant story may be perfect, it is also only a caricature of life, a false representation, hardly more than a fable. Fables have their place: they are didactic and essential (I think I am mostly only capable of writing fables), but they aren’t capturing life, unless it is the job of the writer to share these moments from life that are contained lessons or instructions.