Posts Tagged ‘Stephen King’

A Lesson Plan on Strong Verbs

September 15, 2012

Which statement is more likely to infuriate Dad?

Sorry Dad, but I wrecked your car.

or

Sorry Dad, but I demolished your car.

Which declaration evinces greater passion?

I enjoy fish tacos.

or

I crave fish tacos.

Which complaint expresses stronger indignation?

That slimy salesman confused me.

or

That slimy salesman bamboozled me.

In each of the above the examples, of course, the second sentence contains the stronger verb. But why?

Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous observation about pornography, I don’t have a concise definition for what constitutes a strong verb, but I know one when I see it. Strong verbs can contain one or more syllable. Strong verbs can be Latin, Greek, Germanic, French, etc. in origin. There is no particular phonology for strong verbs—they can sound rugged or mellifluous.

An imprecise working definition of strong verbs is words that arouse a vivid image and/or a visceral emotional response.

A note on word choice

Effective writing is largely a matter of choosing cogent nouns and verbs. It is important to remember that adjectives and adverbs are weak instruments, not suitable for heavy lifting. Or, to switch metaphors, think of adjectives and adverbs respectively as spice and garnish added to improve flavor and presentation rather than to provide essential nourishment.

When you select ideal nouns, you can sprinkle on adjectives as necessary. (This rule does not apply to William Faulkner.)

Adverbs should be allocated even less frequently than adjectives. Strong verbs obviate the extensive utilization of adverbs. Stephen King admonishes: “The adverb is not your friend” because adverbs “seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind” (On Writing 124).

An exercise for recognizing strong verbs

1. Present the three examples of sentences with strong and weak verbs from this blog post to students.
2. Discuss the importance of strong verbs and the distinction between strong and weak verbs with the entire class.
3. Group students in threes.
4. Provide each group with a different nonfiction article between 500 and 750 words long.
5. Instruct each group to:
a) List all the verbs from the essay. (There should be at least one in     every sentence.)
b) Select by consensus the ten strongest verbs from the essay.
6. Each group shares their list of ten strong verbs with the whole class.

by Richard W. Bray

The Hemingway Defense

July 7, 2012

William Faulkner

According to William Faulkner, it is permissible for an artist to engage in all manner of malfeasance and loutish behavior because “An artist is a creature driven by demons.”

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. (h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates)

It is common for supermacho bibulous writers such as Faulkner, Kingsley Amis, Ernest Hemingway and Christopher Hitchens to confuse self-avoiding cowardice and self-destruction with courage and an intrepid dedication to art. Amis, for example, wrote entire books celebrating the wonders of alcohol. Hitchens thought that crawling into a bottle every day was something to boast about and he was dismissive of people who lack the requisite foolishness to become nicotine addicts. In the sick, sad world of Christopher Hitchens, teetotaling joggers are the real losers.

Stephen King, a man who knows a thing or two about both writing and substance abuse, has a name for the hyper-masculine variety of denial celebrated by various dipsomaniacal American authors: The Hemingway Defense.

as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give into their sensitivities. Only SISSY-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.*

King explicitly rejects all such poppycock. He argues that “[t]he idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.”

Unlike writers such as Faulkner who lack the necessary self-awareness to confront their “demons,” when given the choice, Stephen King wisely selected his health and his family over the bottle. Thus he has no use in mythologizing the inebriated scribbler.

Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers—common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.

Faulkner asserts that it is perfectly natural and wholly acceptable for a writer to be a scoundrel because a true artist “is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.”

Sadly, people who think like Faulkner have gotten existence precisely backwards. As King notes, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

William Faulkner notwithstanding, no art is essential to humanity, and no poem, not even one as lovely as “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” is worth the well-being of a single old lady. Humanity will grope along with or without any particular work of art, and Earth will continue to abide long after we’re gone no matter what we do. It is expressly because everything we do is ephemeral that the artist’s humanity is of far greater value than anything he could possibly create.

Perhaps it is a longing for a false sense of immortality that leads people to engage in such diseased thinking. But it’s important to remember that although Hamlet will continue to live on for as long as humanity is extant, William Shakespeare is just as dead as the fellow buried next to him. As Groucho Marx pithily noted: “What has posterity ever done for me.”

Only love conquers death.

*All Stephen King quotations are from his marvelous memoir On Writing

by Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on On Writing

August 30, 2010

Tabitha and Stephen King

Some Thoughts on On Writing

I was built with a love of the night and the unquiet coffin, that’s all. If you disapprove, I only shrug my shoulders. It’s what I have.

Stephen King (158)

Kurt Vonnegut joked that critics often mistake the Science Fiction genre for a urinal. But Science Fiction is certainly several notches above Horror in the Hierarchy of Serious Literature. Science Fiction writers such as H. G. Wells, Ursula Le Guin and Ray Bradbury are taken seriously by Serious Literary Types. With the notable exception of Edgar Alan Poe, however, Horror writers rarely receive such literary love.

Stephen King is the undisputed master of a genre which barely elicits as much respect as Romance Novels in the Academy and among Serious Critics. Although we wouldn’t expect someone who has enough money to buy up and pulp every edition of every negative review he has ever received to worry about such things, Stephen King is obviously irked by critics who look down their noses at a particular type of literature. (King is also irked by inelegant adverbs, and he would probably deem that “obviously” superfluous.)

King’s passionate defense of Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled mysteries tells us a lot about how he sees his own detractors:

a good deal of literary criticism serves only to reinforce a caste system which is as old as the intellectual snobbery which nurtured it. Raymond Chandler may be recognized now as an important figure in twentieth-century American literature, an early voice describing the anomie of urban life in the years after World War II, but there are plenty of critics who will reject such a judgement out of hand. He’s a hack! they cry indignantly. A hack with pretensions! The worst kind! The kind who thinks he can pass for one of us (143).

When King was in eighth grade, he wrote, published and sold his first bestseller, a novelization of the Roger Corman movie The Pit and the Pendulum. King made the mistake of selling his work at school. The book was confiscated and Stephen was brought before the authorities, his principal Miss Hisler, who accused the young writer of wasting his talent by writing “junk.” This left a wound which took years to heal, if it ever really did:

I was ashamed. I have spent a good many years since–too many, I think–being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it (50).

Knowing how much Americans love a good Horatio Alger Story, King is quick to point out his humble origins. He explains how he and his brother

lived an odd, herky-jerky childhood, raised by a single parent who moved around a lot in my earliest years….Perhaps she was only chasing our father, who piled up all sorts of bills and then did a runout when I was two and my brother David was four (17).

On Writing is a testament to the virtues of hard work. Before achieving astounding success with his first published novel Carrie, King worked various demanding manual labor jobs, including a stint at an industrial laundry where “maggots would try to crawl up your arms as you loaded the washers” (68). King’s commitment to the American Work Ethic was already evident in his teenage years:

During my final weeks at Lisbon High, my schedule looked like this: up at seven, off to school at seven thirty, last bell at two o’clock, punch in on the third floor at Worumbo at 2:58, bag loose fabric for eight hours, punch out at 11:02, get home around at quarter to twelve, eat a bowl of cereal, fall into bed, get up the next morning, do it all again (59).

King suggests that the good work habits he developed in order to surmount his humble origins have served him well as a writer because

while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one (142).

Above all, On Writing is a Love Story. When asked how he was able to achieve such a remarkable output–forty-nine novels, including such tomes as IT, which is suitable for bench pressing–King says that the two keys were staying healthy (up until he had an accident which actually occrred while he was writing this memoir) and maintaining “a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible”(155).

Steven King met his wife Tabitha when they were undergraduates at the University of Maine. As King sees it

“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough”(74).

In addition to being his life partner and “ideal reader,” Tabitha was also responsible for the major break of King’s career when she rescued the first draft of the novel Carrie from a wastebasket and convinced him to finish the story:

Tabby had the pages. She’d spied them while emptying my wastebasket, had shaken the cigarette ashes off the crumpled balls of paper, smoothed them out, and sat down to read them. She wanted me to go on with it, she said. She wanted to know the rest of the story” (77).

The rest, as they say, is publishing History.

Love literally saved King’s life when his wife and children decided they could no longer tolerate his ferocious addictions. So they staged an intervention wherein Tabby unloaded:

a trashbag full of stuff from my office out on the rug: beercans, cigarette butts, cocaine in gram bottles and cocaine in plastic Baggies, coke spoons caked with snot and blood, Valium, Xanax, bottles of Robitussin cough syrup and NyQuil cold medicine, even bottles of mouthwash (97).

King’s stubbornly succumbed only when the mother of his children laid down the law: “Tabby said I had my choice: I could get help at the rehab or I could get the hell out of the house” (97).

The bottle (and other addictions) has done damage to an extremely high percentage of American writers. But King recognizes that “Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around” (101). King wisely (another superfluous adverb) refutiates what he calls the Hemingway Defense, which some employ in order to justify the ways if the dipsomaniacal scrivener:

I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give into their sensitivities. Only sissy-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can (94).

(As usual, I left out so much. Particularly the author’s witty and clever musings on the craft of writing which alone are worth the price of admission.)

I’ll leave the last word to Mr. King, describing his feelings for Tabitha:

Our marriage has outlasted all of the world’s leaders except Castro, and if we keep talking, arguing, making love, and dancing to the Romones–gabba-gabba-hey–it’ll probably keep working (61).

by Richard W. Bray

Writers on Writing

February 24, 2010

Adrienne Rich

Robert Pinsky

Javier Marias

Lajos Egri

Writers on Writing

(Editor’s Note: This post is the result of a conversation I had in the comments section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog. Until quite recently I would have scoffed at the very notion that such a thing as an online community could possibly exist)

W. H. Auden The Dyer’s Hand

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such a display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off. (11)

Richard Wilbur Responses, Prose Pieces

Emily Dickinson elected the economy of desire, and called her privation good, rendering it positive by renunciation. And so she came to live in a huge world of delectable distances….And not only are the objects of her desire distant; they are also very often moving away, their sweetness increasing in proportion to their remoteness. “To disappear enhances,” one of the poems begins, and another closes with these lines:

The Mountain–at a given distance–
In Amber–lies–
Approached–the Amber flits–a little–
And That’s–the Skies

(11-12)

Adrienne Rich On Secrets, Lies and Silence

I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat…But she carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time. (160)

The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller

So long as modern man conceives of himself as valuable only because he fits into some niche in the machine-tending pattern, he will never know anything more than a pathetic doom. (60)

Ira Gershwin Lyrics on Several Occasions

When I was on jury service in New York many years ago there was a case found for the defendant. Afterwards, in the corridor, I saw the lawyer for the plaintiff approaching and thought I was going to be lectured. But no. Greetings over, all he wanted to know was whether the words or the music came first. (41)

Theodore Roethke On Poetry & Craft

The writer who maintains that he works without regard for the opinion of others is either a jackass or a pathological liar. (48)

Norman Mailer The Spooky Art

Kurt Vonnegut and I are friendly with one another but wary. There was a period when we used to go out together fairly often because our wives liked each other, and Kurt and I would sit there like bookends. We would be terribly careful with one another; we both knew the huge cost of a literary feud, so we certainly didn’t want to argue. On the other hand, neither of us would be caught dead saying to the other, “Gee, I liked your last book,” and then be met with silence because the party of the second part could not reciprocate. (288)

Robert Pinsky The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

There are no rules.
However, principles may be discerned in actual practice: for example, in the way people actually speak, or in the lines poets have written. If a good line contradicts a principle one has formulated, then the principle, by which I mean a kind of working idea, should be discarded or amended.
(7)

Javier Marias Written Lives (on Rainer Maria Rilke)

The fact that such a sensitive person, so much given to communing, should have turned out to be the greatest poet of the twentieth century (of this there is little doubt) has had disastrous consequences for most of the lyrical poets who have come after, those who continue communicating indiscriminately with whatever comes their way, with, however, far less remarkable results and, it has to be said, to the serious detriment of their personalities. (83-84)

Gore Vidal United States

Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels, and sex certainly gives no meaning in life to anything but itself. I have often thought that much of D. H. Lawrence’s self-lacerating hysteria toward the end of his life must have come out of some “blood knowledge” that the cruel priapic god was mad, bad and dangerous to know, and, finally, not even a palliative to the universal strangeness. (37)

George H.W. Rylands Words and Poetry

When a generation labels everything as “superb” or “divine,” when a man says “damn” or “hell,” the actual meaning of the word is secondary to its emotional value; the word becomes a symbol of pleasure or disgust. The use of language in poetry is extraordinarily similar.” (72)

Stephen Fry The Ode Less Travelled

I HAVE A DARK AND DREADFUL SECRET. I write poetry. This is an embarrassing confession for an adult to make. In their idle hours Winston Churchill and Noel Coward painted. For fun and relaxation Albert Einstein played the violin. Hemingway hunted, Agatha Christie gardened, James Joyce sang arias and Nabokov chased butterflies. But Poety? (xi)

Percy Lubbock The Craft of Fiction

…when we think of the storyteller as opposed to the dramatist, it is obvious that in the full sense of the word there is no such thing as drama in a novel. The novelist may give the very words that were spoken by his characters, the dialogue, but of course he must interpose on his own account to let us know how the people appeared and where they were, and what they were doing. (111)

Stephen King On Writing

The dictum in writing class used to be “write what you know.” Which sounds good, but what if you want to write about starships exploring other planets or a man who murders his wife and then tries to dispose of her body with a wood-chipper? (158)

Lajos Egri The Art of Dramatic Writing

It is imperative that your story starts in the middle, and not under any circumstances, at the beginning. (200)

by Richard W. Bray