Stephen King (and Tobias Wolff) to Receive National Medal of Arts!

Stephen King, the Man His Own Self, is receiving — according the Wikipedia entry on “National Medal of Arts” — the highest honor bestowed upon artists from the people. (As if all of us throwing our money at King in unison isn’t enough!)
Stephen King and Tobias Wolff 

Quite frankly, I didn’t even know this award existed to be won. But I’m super-happy that King is being recognized so prestigiously. Previous (writing) winners include: John Updike, Phillip Roth, Maya Angelou, Rudolfo Anaya, and Harper Lee.

Nothing Sets My Teeth On Edge Like Pretentious Writing Essays

There are two books that I go to pretty regularly when I’m struggling with writing. I head straight to On Writing by Stephen King when I’m thinking my Life As A Writer is useless and when I think I Should Never Dream of Writing Again. His biography is similar enough to my background to make me think that I can do this thing and the fact that he gives permission to write means a lot more to me than he probably ever intended for a random stranger.

If I’m in editing mode, I grab The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. She has unbelievably amazing advice on gaining distance and practical guidelines for getting to the heart of your story and telling said story in a cohesive way. While she uses The Great Gatsby as her go-to example, I can forgive that because of the practicality of her advice.

Now, two books cannot be all things all the time. So, when I’m hunting up inspiration or whatever, sometimes I’ll dig through my own pile of writing how-to books or I’ll check out books on writing from the library.

One such book I grabbed was Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction. It’s filled with essays from authors like Norman Mailer and Terry McMillan and Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Gilbert. So I snagged it thinking, like I do, that these authors know what the heck they’re talking about and I could do worse than listen to experts in the field.

I get the book home. I sit down to read. I read the first essay — it’s Norman Mailer’s so it’s kind of arrogant but nothing untoward.

I read the title of the second essay: “Uncanny the Singing That Comes from Certain Husks.”

Like a record scratching to a halt, my brain goes: “Wha–?”

The writer of this essay is Joy Williams. I’ll tell you up front that I haven’t read any of her other work and she’s been nominated for a Pulitzer and is quite prolific. So, she’s a good writer, no doubt. I am not saying in any way that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about or that what she has to say has no merit.

This essay just hit my buttons, bro.

In spite of my “Wha–?” reaction to the title I figured, “What the hell?” And gave it a shot anyway.

The essay is everything that irritates me about college writing classes. Throughout the essay there are these sweeping, declarative sentences about writing and writers.

Example A: “The writer must not really know what he is knowing, what he is learning to know when he writes, which is more than the knowing of it.

(I don’t even know what this sentence means.)

Example B: “The significant story is always greater than the writer writing it. This is the absurdity, the disorienting truth, the question that is not even a question, this is the koan of writing.

(I had to look up ‘koan.’ It means, according to Merriam-Webster: “a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.” Sooooo, wow. That’s a heavy way of looking at writing.)

Example C: “The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct of advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb. He cherishes the mystery, he cares for it like a fugitive in his cabin, his cave. He doesn’t want to talk it into giving itself up.

(I’ve never heard any writer I know speak of writing like this. I feel kinda icky even thinking of stories in this way. Are all stories designed to ‘transmute’ and ‘disturb’? This kind of overarching declaration bothers the crap out of me. It brooks no disapproval and makes me think of a teacher wagging a finger at a questioning student.)

Example D: “The writer is never nourished by his own work, it is never satisfying to him.” AND “I am too wary about writing to enjoy it. It has never fulfilled me (nor have I fulfilled it). Writing has never done anyone or anything any good at all.

OKAY. This is the part that REALLY REALLY irritates me because, on one hand, it makes the writer look kinda humble because “Oh, gee, the writing itself is what’s important” but it also declares the writer of said sentences super important because “Oh, gee, I’m doing this in spite of the fact that writing has done nothing good for me. Look how awesomely self-sacrificing I am.” 

Also, don’t say writing has never done anyone any good. You don’t know that. 

Look, writing and the chance to write and tell stories is a blessing. One that shouldn’t be over-thought or over-analyzed. The idea that someone is doing it and not enjoying it, not getting ‘anything good’ out of it, or thinking they are not being ‘nourished’ by it can freakin’ stop right now. There are plenty of us will to jump in and be nourished. Plenty of us willing to ‘drink and be filled up’ as Stephen King says. 

I realize, again, that Joy Williams is an accomplished author and writer of fiction. And she does come to a conclusion about why she writes for herself. I just really wish the whole essay had been about her motivations and not the ephemeral presentation of why all writers write. 

However, if the question posed to the writer is “Why do you write?” then please, please, please don’t presume to answer for the rest of us — which is what happens when broad declarations, rhetorical questions, and generalities are presented.  

It makes my teeth hurt. 

Childhood Flashbacks, Stephen King, and Visceral Toy Stories of Terror!

I grew up loving Barbie. My closet was filled with Barbies and Skippers and Kens. These toys had dream houses and cars and closets with more clothes than any human being I’ve ever met, before or since. My parents spent hundreds — if not thousands? — of dollars on these dolls and all their accessories. 
I cannot emphasize enough how much I loved these toys. Hours and hours were spent making up adventures for them to go through. Proms. Murder mysteries. Fashion shows. Rock concerts. (Jem and Holograms was also popular at this point in time and I even had a cassette of the music.)
Needless to say, if the Barbie animated movies had been out at this time, I would’ve been all over those too. 

Then, in third grade, I had a friend — Dionne — who was a terrorist of a storyteller. 

We were at the park. (I remember this distinctly. It was the park we referred to as The Wooden Park because all of the equipment was, you guessed it, made of wood.) We were sitting on the swings, just talking, like kids actually do. We’d been playing some kind of Pretend, which I’m sure involved pretending to be Barbie. 
And then Dionne decided to tell me about her cousin, who lived in Puerto Rico. I’m not sure why this detail is important, but I think it’s because it made the whole story seem magical enough to be real. I’ve never forgotten it.  
(Before I continue, I should let you know that I was a very gullible, shy, generally frightened child. I freakin’ cried when teachers would call my name during attendance. You’ll be happy to know that I’m now a gullible, more outgoing, generally cautiously nervous adult.)
Anyway, Dionne’s cousin had a birthday party where she’d received this Barbie. I want to say that Dionne was detail oriented enough that it was a Peaches and Cream Barbie, but I could have filled that in with my own detail-oriented imagination. All well and good so far?
That night, the night of her birthday after all the presents have been opened, the cousin is woken up by something crawling on her chest. She looks down and sees Barbie (the Peaches and Cream Barbie in my imagination, remember). 
Devil in a Peach Dress
Then Barbie tells Dionne’s cousin, “Get me some coffee.”
Dionne’s cousin, scared to death, obeys and gets Barbie her coffee. (I should’ve probably questioned the veracity of Dionne’s story here. As a seven year old, I had no idea how to make coffee and Dionne’s cousin was supposedly our age. But, different seven year olds have different skill sets I guess.) Everything’s fine. 
The next night, the same thing happens. And, again Dionne’s cousin gets the coffee.
On the third night — man, Dionne does have a good grasp of storytelling…setting up the pattern and then breaking it…gotta admire it — Dionne’s cousin refuses to get the coffee. 
In the morning Dionne’s aunt goes to wake the kid up and finds her child dead on the bed. Carved into the cousin’s chest — as if carved with a small, sharp, plastic ninja hand from hell (see picture above!) — was “You should have got me my coffee!”
Ummmm. Yeah. I totally freaked out. And the girl — me — who loved Barbie, worshipped Barbie, owned miles and miles of Barbies with accessories, and had survived endless nights sharing a room with dozens of Barbies, REFUSED to have anything to do with them again. I locked those bitches in a closet and refused to play with them. Eventually, we donated them to my mom’s first grade classroom.

My mom still hasn’t quite forgiven me. 
I’m bringing this up now because I just finished reading Stephen King’s short story “Chattery Teeth,” which you can find in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. This is the second story by King that I’ve read involving toys. The other one is “Battleground,” involving those plastic army soldiers we all had and promptly lost when we were little, which you can find in Night Shift.
As I was reading “Chattery Teeth” I was disturbed, but not really frightened. It takes a lot to scare me in a story nowadays. But, being disturbed, I wondered why? I remembered being equally disturbed by “Battleground.” 
Seriously, when you stop to think about it, these are not the stories that should be disturbing you as a reader. 
Then it occurred to me that I was disturbed because of the details King used in those stories. The wind-up element of the Chattery Teeth. The way the teeth clamp down. Even the stupid little orange feet with spats that move inevitably forward. The weapons used by the tiny soldiers in “Battleground.” The helicopters that fire missiles. 
Like the carving plastic hands in Dionne’s story, there’s something visceral and real about those details. We’ve all touched the novelty toys and we know how those plastic bits feel. King does a really good job of bringing those elements into those two particular stories — which, honestly, otherwise feel like they’re novelties in and of themselves. That’s what I was responding to.
And those details may have caused flashbacks to my own childhood fears. 
Did you get terrorized by a similar story when you were little? What author brings that kind of disturbing detail to life for you?

The Year In Reading 2014 and Onward to 2015

According to Goodreads — my only real authority on anything reading-wise — I read 64 books in 2014. My first thought upon seeing that was, “Bummer. I didn’t read the 100 I set out to read.”

My second thought was “Whoa! 64!”

I also made a pretty good dent in what I dub my Complete Works Of Project. Basically, I said I’d work my way through William Shakespeare, Stephen King, and Jane Austen. And work I did. I haven’t hit the end of Will and Steve, but I did read all of Jane’s Completed Works. (I still have to read her juvenalia and some of her incomplete works to say I’ve read everything…but that’s a project for a different time.)

Surely, having read so much last year, I must have an opinion on some things, yes?

Why yes I do.

Jane Austen
The woman is, of course, a bad ass. My faves are Northanger Abbey, Emma, and the quintessential
Pride and Prejudice. I also really enjoyed Persuasion, which is kind of like a baby P&P. Sense and Sensibility gets an ‘okay’ as far as I’m concerned.

I have to tell you, five outta six ain’t bad.

Jane’s Mistake Park

But, man Mansfield Park can go suck it. What a preachy load of preachiness. Everyone’s a jerk. When you’re cheering for the rival, there’s a problem.

Stephen King
I’ve read almost 40 King books at this point — including his two newest ones Revival and Mr. Mercedes. (See? Say you’re gonna read a living writer and they come out with multiple books in a year, just to make sure you can’t quite catch up…ever.)

Revival — what a dark bummer of a book. A great bildingsroman, but dark. Damn. Not even horrific. Just DARK.

Mr. Mercedes — more of a mystery/thriller kind of romp. Easily on par with J.K. Rowling’s new nom-de-plume Richard Galbraith stuff. So, not bad. Not great. But not bad.

William Shakespeare
All I’ll say is that I’m reading his early comedies right now and I’m trying not to hate him as a misogynistic butthead. And this is after coming off early histories….

Faves of 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir (badass survival on Mars)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (surprisingly funnier than I anticipated)
The Secret Place by Tana French (the ultimate frenemy book)
What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions  by Randall Munroe (non-fiction, crazy shit)

Not so Faves of 2014
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (sorry, Jane, this one’s a stinker)
Writing with the Master by Tony Vanderwarker (the story of how John Grisham didn’t actually help a dude write a novel)

Now that 2014 is over and in the books (ha!) time for my goals for 2015.
1. Continue to plug away at William Shakespeare and Stephen King.
2. I’ve added in Virginia Woolf.
3. 56 books total for 2015 — not necessarily all Complete Works Of Project.

Better Read Millennials, Stephen King’s Ancestors, and a Piece of Writing You’ll Never See

Here’s a round-up of cool reading/writing news that I’ve come across recently and thought you’d enjoy too!

According to a new Pew Research Center Study, as Slate reports, Millennials are better read than previous generations. 

No real surprise that James Patterson is the top-earning writer — coming in at $94 million this past year — according to Forbes’ list of top earning writers. And, of course, my super-hero Stephen King is also on the list.

Speaking of Stephen King…

He’ll be on “Finding Your Roots,” hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on September 23. Check your local listings!

And King has also done a recent interview in The Atlantic where he talks about teaching English…with great sympathy for teachers.

Onto another hero: Margaret Atwood. Unfortunately, you’ll have to live another 100 years before you get to read her new work. She’s agreed to write a piece for a time capsule-ish art project.

Books We Love Blogfest: Saturday Pages

This is the first Blogfest I’ve ever participated in – thanks to Rebecca Kiel for putting it together. And in Honor of Valentine’s Day, this blogfest is all about books we love…therefore your Saturday Page assignment is to tell us what books you love in the comments section. How easy-peasy is that?

Jenny’s Favorite Books and Why – In No Particular Order: (I feel like I’m writing a high school essay)

1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
Like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, this was Margaret Mitchell’s sole contribution to the world of literature and what a contribution! This book is sweeping. It’ll take you more than one day to read (and somehow I like that about my books). One of the greatest literary creations, Scarlett O’Hara, is found within its pages. And there’s so many issues that come with it: race relations, gender relations, war, poverty, and the loss/rebuilding of a whole society. Even if you hate this book, it is a conversation starter every time.

When you add in the movie, there’s the addition of Vivien Leigh (I kind of worship her), Clark Gable, Olivia deHavilland (who I also kind of worship), Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel (first African American to win an Oscar), and Butterfly McQueen.

2. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
While you can read any of these books in one day, you can’t read the whole series in one day.

Again, this is a sweeping story – a bildingsroman if you wanna get all technical – about the growth and development of Harry. I also love the epic themes of courage, friendship, good vs. evil, and self sacrifice (which is what all the big epics are really about, right? Even Gone With the Wind is about whether or not Scarlett will ever be self-sacrificial…and one could actually argue one way or another about that).

3. The Stand by Stephen King
I know what you’re thinking: ‘Jenny, you really like the blockbuster bestsellers. Everyone likes these books.’

To that I say, ‘Well, yeah, but these are blockbusters for very similar reasons.’

Once more, The Stand is a sweeping novel. Again, it’s about the fight between good and evil, the stakes are the entire world. This book doesn’t have the strength of the characters of Scarlett, Rhett, Harry, Hermione, or Ron – you can tell because if I say Stu, Larry, and Fran at random it doesn’t have the same impact as any of the Mitchell/Rowling names. But King does Darkness really really really well. And the heart of the book, again, is self-sacrifice and friendship.

Books like these don’t come along too often. 1930s for GWTW, 1970’s for The Stand, late 1990s for Harry Potter. (One could certainly make a convincing argument for Lord of the Rings to slot into the 1950s section…but I find the histories of that series more monotonous than these three books.) I think that makes them more special.

Well, that’s my list – what’s yours?

Mostly National Book Award Linkage for Your Friday!

Okay, so first, the National Book Awards were announced. Congrats to everyone who made the cut. Unfortunately, in a bungling bungle to beat all bungles, they informed super-duper Young Adult writer Lauren Myracle that she was shortlisted…and then she was asked to withdraw:

Her [Myracle’s] book “Shine” was among the first five finalists announced live before an audience and radio broadcast in Oregon on Oct. 12; later that day, a sixth book, “Chime” by Franny Billingsley, was added to the list.

In explaining the addition of “Chime,” National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum said, “We made a mistake, there was a miscommunication.” That “Chime” and “Shine” sound similar was not explicitly stated but may have been a factor.”~The Los Angeles Times, 17 October 2011

(Note the apologetic note at the top of the announcements. $5,000 dollars is being donated in Myracle’s name to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. And if you’d like to donate as well, I would urge you to do so.)

As you can imagine, that irritated not a small amount of people. Here is Lauren Myracle’s own reaction via Vanity Fair (it’s beautiful, if you click no other link here, click that one). Libba Bray rushed to a passionate defense of Lauren Myracle’s dignity. Super Agent Janet Reid makes a very compelling argument for how we should show our support for Myracle: buy her book.

But that’s not all for the National Book Awards. Laura Miller over at Salon asks: Are they even relevent? And NPR asks What does the National Book Award really mean?

Plus, just because I love Stephen King – here’s his acceptance 2003 acceptance speech for National Book Foundation’s Medal for his Distiguished Contribution to American Letters Award.

Contest, Alexie, and Others

First off, a big ole congrats to Julia — the Boudreau Birthday Bash Contest winner. It’s kind of crushing to know that I was so close to her word count and bathroom construction took over that last day. (I’m sorry, I love writing, but I love my bathroom too…and you don’t know what you have until you can’t use it anymore, right?)

Next off, I went to hear Sherman Alexie speak as part of the All Pueblo Reads program. And I have a huge author crush on the Mentor. I’m going to go see him again, because he’s making one last presentation at the college before heading off to home (or where ever else he may be needed), and I’ll give you the overall impression in a little while.

But, before I go off to presentation-land, the question of questions came up as I was hanging out with John, Ali, and Ali’s +1 after the Alexie reading. Namely: if you could ask your favorite author one question, what would it be? And, conversely, as an author, what quesiton would you most like to be asked?

Time to Pay Up

It’s that day:

The day that I must pay up on bet conditions. Since Ali beat me (smoked me! creamed me! made me sit in the corner and cry for three days!) I must now take her to dinner with Deb.

Here is also where I must tell you that Ali, while demonish, is no where near as diabolical as I am. Had I won, I had plans for The Pepper Tree–a very hoity toity kinda restaurant in town with the bestest steaks ever! Also very expensive. Also on my list was Petite Maison because Deb has always said how good that place is. Another alternative in my brain was a trip to Denver and a high quality restaurant that none of us had been to, but that would require a tie and jacket.

Luckily, Ali chose the Texas Roadhouse in Pueblo. It’s far more in a struggling writer’s price range.

Ali should be thanking her lucky, hard-working stars that she kicked my tail…because otherwise tonight would’ve set her back a ways….

And on a related note as far as word count goes:

I was reading in an advanced magazine at work about Stephen King’s new book Under the Dome. Apparently it should be called Under the Tome. The thing weighs in at 4 pounds, over 1,000 pages, and has over 100 characters. See Ali? Just when you think you’ve outdone yourself, someone goes and shows us that we have soooo many more words to write.

Mentor for the Month: Stephen King, Part 3: Revision Time

“Now let’s say you’ve finished your first draft….You’ve done a lot of work and you need a period of time (how much or little depends on the individual writer) to rest. Your mind and imagination—two things which are related, but not really the same—have to recycle themselves, at least in regard to this one particular work.” Stephen King, On Writing

Space. Distance. Time.

Now that I’m approaching the end of FJR’s rough draft I’m having flashbacks to the first novel I finished (in rough draft form). Intimidation? You betcha. That monster is about 600 pages long and it needs to be about half that size.

Deb recently asked about what to do when you want to throw your book across the room, out the window, down the street, and into the harbor…okay I added the last couple bits with some help from Finding Nemo.

My answer: wait, grasshopper—is greatly inspired by my first novel experience. I wrote that book definitely thinking it was my “big break.” There would be advances and accolades. Life would be good. I had no idea how much work it would be to revise that whole damn thing. When I began the initial revising (without waiting, yes, initially I blew off the mentor’s advice…) I hated the stupid story, the stupid characters, the stupid stupidity of the whole mess. So I boxed the dumb thing, went to college so that I had to read and write a ton of stuff that had nothing to do with the novel. Wrote a bunch of short stories and poems. After two years, years (!), I looked at it again.

It was less scary. There were scenes that definitely needed to be there to tell the story. The rest was (I should say is because I haven’t really revised it yet either) just extra stuff that needs to be cut out. I made a list of important scenes and, one day, if I decide that it’s worth revising and not just a ‘practice novel’, I’ll have a great place to start.

Things I learned from that sorta-revising process? How to streamline scenes. The novel I’m about to finish is much shorter…maybe I’ve overcompensated? We’ll see. And I learned that I need time.

When the first draft is finished, I plan to hand it out to my first reader gang, but I refuse to talk about it, or read their actual critiques, until at least March. That’s more than King’s recommended six weeks but I’m not as experienced as him. It’s just fact. I need a little more distance so that when the time comes, I’ll be ready to fix what needs to be fixed in a creative, good kinda way.