Put the Cat Out

Siamese cat, Grant

Shut out again. (photo: author)

Steven King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft focuses on how he became a writer and the process of becoming and many of his observations about being a writer ring true to me. Like most people who dispense advice to the novice, he emphasizes the virtue of “ass-in-the-chair”—writing every day, which is a groove serious writers finally work their way into, despite the distractions of kids, jobs, and grocery-shopping. Right now, for example, my lawn is shaggy as a pony’s winter coat.

He says if he doesn’t write daily, “the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people . . . the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade.” Like many other writers, I hit the keyboard early in the morning, and the excitement King talks about is what gets me out of bed at five to grab a cup of coffee and dive into the work.

He also insists that you shut the office door, “your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.” Certainly, I shut mine, mostly to keep out Grant, a Siamese cat who thinks sitting in my lap and watching the cursor move across the screen has limited entertainment value and is something to complain about. (I created a monster when I played YouTube cat videos for him.) Eliminate distractions—phones, beeping email alerts, insistent cats—anything that takes you away from the page.

King tries to write 10 pages a day—about 2000 words. That’s his goal, and he thinks every writer should have one, every day. I’m a fan of getting a draft on paper, powering through and getting the story down and fixing all the inevitable issues and lapses and problems in rewrite. After that, I revise, a chapter a day.

Room, door (and the determination to shut it), goal. Adhering to these basics, he believes, makes writing easier over time. The more you do it, the easier it gets. “Don’t wait for the muse to come,” he says, and it’s astonishing how many would-be writers talk to me about their lack of or need for “inspiration,” as if it sprinkles down from the clouds rather than up from the mind’s carefully plowed field. King says, “Your job is make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day.”

Everyone who aspires to write has likely read a lot, too. We’ve listened to lots of TV and movie scripts. Lots of other people’s words, many not very good, have passed into our brains, and our subconscious is filled with the stuff. It’s in there. It wants out. When a phrase or scene comes too easily, almost unconsciously, I’ve learned there’s a problem. It’s canned, it’s derivative, it’s not a genuine product.

So now King gets to the hard part. You have to tell the truth. Your story’s truth. The writer cannot just be a pass-through for others’ words, ideas, conversations. “The job of fiction,” he says, “is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies.” Even when we love the characters in a book and we really, really don’t want it to end, if the book has told the truth, we can feel satisfied when we turn that last page. If not, a squeaky voice starts up somewhere in our brain, Madeline’s Miss Clavel saying, “Something is not right.” As stunning as most of Gone Girl was—a web of lies if ever there was one—I thought the ending fell unexpectedly flat, and King has put his finger on the reason. In working out her denouement, author Gillian Flynn somehow strayed from the truth of her characters.

By contrast, truth-telling pervades the Pinckney Benedict stories I reviewed this week (on the home page for now; eventually the review will end up in “Reading . . .”). One of the best quotes describing the struggle to find the truth nugget is a favorite of my writing coach, Lauren Davis, and it’s from sports columnist Red Smith, who once said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

While that’s true, King also says that even the worst three hours he ever spent writing “were still pretty damned good.”