Stephen King on Reading

As a child, I devoured hundreds of books. I can honestly say that without that escape, I might not have made it through middle school alive. I remember how the cruel world of reality would fall away as I lost myself in the words of Chaim Potok or Toni Morrison. I believe that what writing skill I do have comes from all those books.

I would bring a book with me everywhere I went. I truly hate the constant chorus of Luddites whining about how cell phones are ruining our lives, but I will admit that having a smartphone has caused me to read a lot less, and I need to change that.

Although Stephen King writes from a time before books became so cumbersome, his exhortation about the importance of reading has reminded me what I’m missing out on:

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books—of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution. . . Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.

He goes on to explain how these habits can transform your writing.

Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing—of being flattened, in fact—is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

Stephen King: On Writing

As many times as my good friend has encouraged me to read Stephen King’s novels, I could never make it past the first few pages. The stories are too full of the voices of his repressed childhood trauma screaming for attention for me to enjoy them. That’s why when TK Coleman and several other people I respect recommended that I read his book On Writing, I was skeptical.

After reading over half the book in the past 24 hours, I’m pleasantly surprised. Although the writing style does not pierce my heart like Anne Lamott’s and I still don’t think I’d like him in person, Stephen King’s writing is highly entertaining and has even made me laugh out loud a few times. In the first section about his history as a writer, he tells captivating stories from his childhood and his struggles with addiction that make it clear that the monsters in his novels are indeed coming from inside of him. But just because he has not resolved his childhood trauma doesn’t mean he hasn’t mastered the art of writing.

In the second section of the book, King delves into practical advice about how to progress from a competent writer to a good writer. He says that bad writers can never become competent or good writers; if you don’t start off as at least competent, then there’s no hope for you. I’m desperately hoping I fall into the latter category.

Here’s one piece of advice that struck me:

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.

More quotes to come.

Fear

bridge

Fear is that which destroys us from a distance and empowers us up close. – TK Coleman

Most of the personal development work I have done in the past few years has largely been a matter of overcoming my fears, or as Seth Godin says, learning to “dance with fear.” Fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of criticism—all these fears, and more, used to cripple me and prevent me from accomplishing anything.

This is because I was viewing my fears from a distance. When the sun is low and you stand far enough away from anyone, their shadow will loom menacingly. When you go up close and scrutinize that same fear, perhaps even giving it a hug or trying to talk to it, everything changes. You realize that it’s just trying to protect you, not ruin your life. You can negotiate with it and let it take you for the thrilling ride of stepping out of your comfort zone. Once you cultivate this relationship, you can live life so much more freely. The hard part is getting to that point.

I believe that we are all born with this kind of relationship towards our fears. But because of the way we’re raised, we’ve become estranged and lost the connection with our inner selves. Restoring the relationship is more so a matter of cutting away at the brambles that have overgrown the abandoned path than using dynamite to blast a tunnel through a mountain of solid rock, although it feels that way at times.

I spent the past couple days with a child who is growing up in the most peaceful, healthy, natural way I’ve ever seen. He spends his days frolicking in the woods, imitating his parents, and playing with other children. No one needs to push him to learn—his parents have simply removed the barriers and let him follow his natural curiosity to explore and understand the world around him. The result is an exuberant, independent child.

At almost 2 years old, he has more confidence and courage than most people I’ve met. Everything he does fascinates me, as he seems to be so free from the woes and disconnection of modern life. What struck me most was the way he treated fear.

Down the hill behind his house runs a mountain stream. The water is icy cold this time of year, and it was higher than normal due to recent rains. The only way to cross the stream is via a rudimentary bridge built by his father from thin logs. Even for me, crossing feels treacherous as I see the water rushing along the rocks beneath me and I know that one misplaced foot would take me tumbling into the stream.

Nearly any parent I know who saw their toddler going near this structure would swoop in without a second thought and whisk him away to a safer activity like sitting in front of the TV. They would imagine all the horrific possibilities: his foot could fall between the logs and get him stuck, he could slip and crack his head open on the rocks, he could drown under the icy water.

Little Aaru, however, is left to make these decisions for himself. As I started crossing the bridge ahead of him, I could see the fear in his eyes. He didn’t need an adult to tell him it was dangerous—he could see that for himself. He asked for help, and I readily gave him my hand.

Later when we crossed back, he took a different approach. Although I could see that he felt the same fear, he mustered a strong determination to overcome it. He refused my offer to help and started to cross on his own, slowly and carefully, using his hands and feet like a little monkey. He looked down at the icy water rushing beneath him periodically, clearly aware of the danger, placing his hands and feet with great care. When he made it across, he didn’t turn around and look at me for my approval, like many children who are used to external validation. He simply ran forward joyfully to meet another challenge.

Aaru’s relationship with fear is the healthy one we were all born with. For most of us, it was squelched out by overbearing parents who didn’t trust our ability to assert our own needs. It’s the one we need to restore if we want to self-actualize and achieve greatness.

Despite what you’ve been taught, fear is not a feeling that you should avoid at all costs. Instead of running away from it, you should examine it and weigh the risks and benefits. When you reawaken your natural drive to learn and overcome challenges, it will pull you through all but the most perilous situations. Then when you make it across the bridge, the internal feeling of accomplishment should be enough to propel you forward to bigger streams.

This isn’t easy when we’re trying to undo decades of conditioning. But it’s helpful to remember that it’s not something that has to be forced, it’s just about rediscovering and unlocking the knowledge that has always been inside you.

 

Better Than Coffee

I’ve heard a lot of people say that when you’re feeling unproductive and down in a slump, all you need to do is finish something, however small, and you’ll feel better. Even if it’s making your bed or emptying your Inbox.

I had that nagging feeling all day. When your job requires you to answer customer service emails that pile up in the hundreds, it’s hard to ever get to that lovely zero. But I did it, several times. Yet the feeling persisted, gnawing away at my gut.

Finally, I had to take a break from the endless emails to schedule tomorrow’s Social Media posts–an image with an inspirational quote. I had been pushing it off because it’s hard to find the perfect quote and a picture to match it perfectly. I had to play around with a bunch of free stock photos and text placements before I got anything to look decent. But when I finally finished and scheduled the post for tomorrow, I suddenly felt the flood of relief I had been waiting for.

At least for me, it’s not the act of completing a task that soothes the ache. It’s the act of creating. When I’m answering emails, I stay in response mode. I’m like a tennis ball being hit around from task to task with no control over my trajectory. But even when I’m doing something as simple as designing a quote for Instagram, it puts me back in the driver’s seat and lets me return to myself so I can express what’s in there.

These feelings are pretty new to me. I think that since I’ve started writing, my insides have seen the light and they don’t want to be shut up again in darkness. They’ve tasted the freedom that comes through self-expression, and now they refuse to be caged. When they are, they will torture me until I open the door.

This is why I need to write in the morning, every morning. I need to finish something and post it, no matter how bad it is. Better than coffee for starting my day.

Carpe Diem

2015-11-15 06.51.56Playtime doesn’t need to end when you become an adult. I spent my weekend in Charleston with some of the most accomplished people I know and got a nice reminder that I need to make sure I’m not growing old as I grow up.

“Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.” -Tom Robbins

Robert Penn Warren

“There was the cold grip way down in the stomach as though somebody had laid hold of something in there, in the dark which is you, with a cold hand in a cold rubber glove. It was like the second when you come home late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you lean and pick it up, but don’t open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel there’s an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddled up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little fetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what’s in the envelope, and it is watching you to see you when you open it and know, too. But the clammy, sad little fetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn’t want to know what is in that envelope. It wants to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not-knowing.” – Robert Penn Warren

My Revolution

Anne Lamott encapsulates so perfectly all of my aspirations for being a writer:

Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.

Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done.

If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.

Nature

Today, I took a break from civilization. I went on a hike through the mountains around Asheville, NC, built a roaring fire, and laid on the ground looking for shooting stars on the backdrop of the Milky Way. I listened to the leaves crunching under my feet and let the gurgling of the mountain streams speak to me. I felt the mud squish between my toes as a wild little boy led me through the woods.

I feel refreshed and connected to the earth. It’s remarkably fulfilling. It’s like when you don’t realize how thirsty you’ve been until you swallow that sip of cool water and feel your parched throat rejoice. I get so caught up in the bustle of cars and concrete and computers that I don’t even notice my thirst for nature.

It might sound like a load of horseshit, but I believe we are meant to be one with nature. I believe that many of the vanities we seek in life are an attempt to fill the void created by this disconnect with nature.

For millions of years, our genes adapted to a life that was intertwined with the natural world. When we lose that connection, we lose a part of ourselves.

Other People’s Thoughts

I’ll be honest: I’ve been feeling a little guilty about publishing quotes from other people all the time. After I got in the habit of writing my own posts every day, copying and pasting someone else’s words seems like a cop-out.

But today, my mentor, TK Coleman, reminded me that being able to identify and share profound insights from other writers is a skill of its own, especially when it’s accompanied by commentary that adds context. I realized that on one of my favorite blogs, Brainpickings, nearly all the posts are filled with lengthy quotes from other sources.

That said, I still need to do some work on my own material. But for now, here’s another gem from my hero Lamott:

Toni Morrison said, ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else,’ and if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else. Not everyone will be glad that you did. Members of your family and other critics may wish that you had kept your secrets. Oh, well, what are you going to do? Get it all down. Let it pour out of you onto the page.

Monsters

Some day, I want to be able to write like Anne Lamott:

He told me about his monster. His sounded just like mine without quite so much mascara. When people shine a little light on their monster, we find out how similar most of our monsters are. The secrecy, the obfuscation, the fact that these monsters can only be hinted at, gives us the sense that they must be very bad indeed. But when people let their monsters out for a little onstage interview, it turns out that we’ve all done or thought the same things, that this is our lot, our condition. We don’t end up with a brand on our forehead. Instead, we compare notes.

We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.