Cujo by Stephen King (building realistic, intelligent characters)

In his memoirs, Stephen King says that he was so drunk when he wrote Cujo that he doesn’t even remember writing it—which is a shame because he says he likes Cujo.

I have to say, this is absolutely astonishing that he was loaded when he wrote Cujo because it is a fantastic book.

The gist of the story is a mother and son are trapped in a car by a rabid Saint Bernard.

It’s scary. But it’s also a surprisingly complex family drama. There are two parallel stories of marriages under stress, and through those families, King manages to cover such weighty topics as domestic violence, fear of growing older, and adultery.

I’d like to quote a passage that totally blew me away in which husband and wife, Vic and Donna, are discussing Donna’s infidelity. Donna speaks first:

“You don’t know about emptiness, Vic. Don’t think you do. You’re a man and men grapple. Men grapple and women dust. You dust the empty rooms and you listen to the wind blowing outside sometimes. Only sometimes it seems like the wind’s inside, you know? So you put on a record, Bob Seger or J. J. Cale or someone and you can still hear the wind, and thoughts come to you, ideas, nothing good, but they come. So you clean both toilets and you do the sink and the little pottery knicknacks, and you think about how your mother had a shelf of knickknacks like that, and your aunts all had shelves of them, and your grandmother as well.”

He was looking at her closely, and his expression was so honestly perplexed that she felt a wave of her own despair.

“It’s feelings I’m talking about, not facts!”

“Yes, but why—”

“I’m telling you why! I’m telling you that I got so I was spending enough time in front of the mirror to see how my face was changing, how no one was ever going to mistake me for a teenager again or ask to see my driver’s license when I ordered a drink in a bar. I started to be afraid because I grew up after all. Tad’s going to preschool and that means he’s going to go to school, then high school—”

“Are you saying you took a lover because you felt old?

[…] She took his hands and spoke earnestly into his face, thinking—knowing—that she might never speak so earnesty (or honestly) to any man again. “It’s more. It’s knowing you can’t wait any longer to be a grownup, or wait any longer to make your peace with what you have. It’s knowing that your choices are being narrowed almost daily. For a woman—no, for me,—that’s a brutal thing to have to face. Wife, that’s fine. But you’re gone to work, even when you’re home you’re gone at work so much. Mother, that’s fine, too. But there’s a little less of it every year, because every year the world gets another slice of him. Men…they know what they are. They have an image of what they are. […] And what a woman does—what I did—was to run from becoming. I got scared of the way the house sounded when Tad was gone.”

Damn. That’s some amazing stuff!

Stephen King is a horror writer, a storyteller, but he really gets psychological nuance. He understands domestic despair. As someone once said about Updike, Stephen King has a very good spy in the female camp.

What I really loved about this book was how true to life King chose to play it. His characters are truly complex. In this intense marital crises, Vic and Donna still listen to each other and try to give each other the benefit of the doubt based on the years of love they had shared.

I don’t think a less skillful writer could have handled this scene with nearly as much delicacy and grace. When faced with domestic discord, a less skillful writer would probably have turned this into a hack-job of some melodramatic fight.

I think we can all take a lesson from this little scene and think about moments when we can go deeper into our characters. Think about moments when we can give them their due.

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Updike and dominant metaphors

Another interesting thing I’d like to mention about John Updike is his use of the central metaphor.

In Adam Begley’s biography, Updike, the young Updike is at Harvard taking lectures on Shakespeare from Harry Levin. And it’s at this early stage in Updike’s writing life that he learned about the idea of the “dominant metaphor.”

To Updike, Levin’s resolutely textual approach, orthodox New Criticism with the emphasis on explication, was a revelation: “That a literary work could have a double life, in its imagery as well as its plot and characters, had not occurred to me.” It’s a lesson he never forgot, and one he put to use even in his earliest fiction, where patterns of imagery and metaphor complement and complicate the narrative.

If you’re looking for an example of how dominant metaphor is used, check out Updike’s short story, “Gesturing,” in which the main character is a man who has moved to a bachelor pad in Boston during a brief stint between marriages. Across from his apartment, the main character sees the Hancock Tower, a building of beauty and light, but also of loneliness.

Another good example of dominant metaphor in Updike’s work is in “Pigeon Feathers,” where a young man contemplates his own mortality via the pigeons his family keeps.

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Updike, a biography by Adam Begley (writing about your life without ruining your relationships)

Adam Begley opens his biography of John Updike with one of my favorite anecdotes of the venerable and prolific author. In this story, a Time magazine reporter visits Updike’s home town seeking to write a profile of the place. He happens to bump into Updike’s mother, who says he ought to stop by later in the week because her famous son will be at her house hanging storm windows. The reporter shows up at her farm, and Updike is there as promised, if slightly irritated at his mother for springing an interview on him. Writer and reporter go for a drive, and Updike shows the reporter his childhood haunts. The reporter goes home, writes his story for Time. The story is published, and the reporter thinks that’s the end of that.

Imagine his surprise when, a few weeks later, he opens up a copy of the New Yorker and reads a version of his very story parroted back to him, except from John Updike’s perspective. In this New Yorker story, Updike poses as an actor player giving a reporter a tour of his home town.

[The actor] slips from wary impatience and annoyance into a bittersweet reverie that triggers a powerful romantic longing for a place and a time and a self forever gone. At the very end of the story, the spell broken (in part because the interviewer is plainly bored, blind to the “glory” of vivid private memories) […]

Updike took the incident, reshaped it slightly to accentuate the dramatic arc, and gave it the twist of the actor’s final petulant outburst. Retaining intact the details that suited his purpose, he adjusted others strategically—and so turned a day’s drive into a perfectly adequate New Yorker story, a slick comic vignette with a moment or two of poignant depth. That was his job, Updike might have said with a shrug, a profitable trick of alchemy.

Or digestion. In a story he wrote in 1960 about his maternal grandmother (a story closely based on the facts of Katherine Hoyer’s life), he described with a startling simile the writer’s creative process: “We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.”

That Updike wrote about his own life was undoubtedly a huge part of why he was so prolific—imagine the time you’d save by using your own experience as research.

But the reason I wanted to read about Updike is because I wondered what were the costs of writing about one’s own life? How much can you disclose without ruining your relationships? Who is in your inner circle—your family or an anonymous audience?

It’s a question I’ve often wondered as I watch stand-up comedians roast their spouses, their parents, and their spouses for a few laughs. Later you hear about these same comedians getting divorced, and somehow it’s not that surprising.

The conflict between public and private comes up instantly in Updike’s career, after publishing the short story “Snowing in Greenwich Village” in The New Yorker.

Rebecca was very obviously modeled on a friend of the Updikes, and though she accepted the story with polite good grace, saying only how “spooky” it was to be reading a New Yorker and find oneself in it, her on-again, off-again boyfriend berated Updike for his callous and thoughtless behavior. The boyfriend’s harangue was ferocious enough to sink both Mary and John into a weekend-long funk.

Feeling guilty and ashamed, Updike reconsidered two pet theories. The first was “that a writer of short stories has no duty other than writing good short stories”; the second, that “nothing in fiction rings quite as true as truth, slightly arranged.” He knew that the second theory was still valid, but now realized how harmful it could be. His remorse, though genuine, lasted no time at all; “the truth, slightly arranged” remained the foundation of his fiction.

“Snowing in Greenwich Village” is the first of the many Maple stories, which were lightly modeled on his marriage with his first wife. I knew that Updike’s first marriage had ended, but I didn’t know why. Was it the writing that did it, I wondered?

No. It turned out that his first marriage ended, not because of the writing, but because of the strain of the infidelities. Lots of other marriages end because of infidelity…but it happens more quietly because they aren’t writers.

As I read about Updike’s life, it was encouraging to discover that he took the consequences of his work on other people very seriously.

 

My fear was that he used his writing as an excuse for all sorts of bad behavior, the way some writers claim they drink because they write. Or like when comedians make cruel jokes about their wives on stage.

I was happy to discover that it doesn’t seem to be the case. To the contrary, the wish-fulfillment in his stories gave him a relatively harmless outlet for his fantasies.

 

 

Updike was this prolific golden boy. Top of his class, popular, prolific, and a champion of the middle class. Giving “mundanity it’s beautiful due.” I wonder if he did such a good job cateloguing the suburban life that no one else can ever cover that territory again.

Then his books, “Couples” and “Mary Me.”

The good things about puting your writing first is that you end up writing more. It is your top priority. The down side is that it alienates the real people in your life. Updike could not have been as prolific as he was if his writing didn’t take a higher priority than many other things in his life.

Writing from real life experience also helped make him prolific. He was able to access that wealth of experience. It’s like having a lifetime’s worth of research already done. All those physical memories, Ray Bradbury called it “feeding the muse.”

How was he able to write about his life without ruining his relationships?

For the spiciest stuff, he put it on a shelf to let the events in real life cool.

He used composit characters, so that no one (other than his immediate family—who had presumably already bought into his vision)

Something I learned from journalism is that people are often flattered…they want to see themselves in your writing, especially if the self you show is charming. People try to be a little more charming around you when they know you’re a journalist with your notebook out. It’s a chance at having their cleverest lines displayed.

Another way to write about people’s lives is by using it as a chance to be empathetic. Use it as an opportunity to practice empathy. Try writing from their point of view, with them as the hero.

 

In the final chapters, there is this surprising fact of a prolific writer that I hadn’t really considered: the downside of always being compared against your younger, more clever self.

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How to Read: Part 5 – John Updike’s 6 Rules for Constructive Criticism

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that it has created a democracy of the masses. Anyone with an Amazon or a GoodReads account can be a book reviewer with the ability to influence a huge audience. Opinions about literature are no longer held in the tight-fisted hands of a select few elite…and I think this is ultimately a good thing.

However, as we all know, some people are better reviewers than others, and the comments section can sometimes read like the unfiltered Id of the worst humanity has to offer.

In an effort to offer some guidance on how to review books with grace and precision, I’d like to re-post this wonderful article by Maria Popova in The Atlantic on John Updike’s 6 Rules for Constructive Criticism. Popova writes:

[…] what E. B. White once wisely pointed to as the role and social responsibility of the writer—”to lift people up, not lower them down”—I believe to be true of the role and social responsibility of the critic as well, for thoughtful criticism is itself an art and a creative act.

John Updike is a good model for how to be a good reviewer because he was both a thoughtful reviewer and one of Americas greatest and most prolific authors. For those of you reviewing books on Amazon, GoodReads, or anywhere else, here are some tips from John Updike on how to do it well:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

6. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never […] try to put the author ‘in his place,’ making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based on the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.


Works Cited:

Popova, Maria. “John Updike’s 6 Rules for Constructive Criticism.” The Atlantic. May 2, 2012.

Updike, John. Picked-Up Pieces: Essays. Random House. 1977.

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How to Read: Part 4 – The Rhetoric Stage

Rhetoric is the third part of the trivium, and it is basically the art of persuasion.

In his introduction Write Like the Masters, William Cane writes:

[Rhetoric is] much more than verbal volleyball and pontificating propagandism. Rhetoric also encompasses methods of being felicitous with words as well as techniques for mastering style. Rhetoric, among other things, teaches how to contrive an introduction that will seduce a reader, take him by the nose, and never let him go until he reaches the last paragraph. You want to do that don’t you? Of course you do!

Allow me, then, to introduce you to one aspect of rhetoric, one teensy-weensy aspect of it that can literally salvage your writing career, infuse your style with new vim and vigor, and give you a voice equal to the voices of the best and brightest who came before you. It’s all […] about the classical rhetorical technique of imitation.

Yes, you heard that right: imitation. Imitation is a right of passage that all writers and artists go through. It is the process of learning what came before, so that you can incorporate it in your own work.

I can hear the whiney protests already. Won’t imitation stunt my originality? Hell, no!

Think of all the hours classical musicians spend practicing songs by Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. Think of all the years the Beatles spent doing covers of Chuck Berry and Smokey Robinson. Think of Tony Hawk practicing half-pipe moves that had been introduced by the Zephyr skateboard team a generation earlier. Think of Picasso, as a child, painting still-lifes and portraits in the vein of the realists who came before him. While you’re at it, think of every great technological and scientific discovery dating back to the invention of the wheel.

Every great human accomplishment is built on the shoulders of those who come before. Why would writing be any different?

Imitation, in one’s writing, is both inspiration and participation in the great human conversation that transcends nationality and time. As Stephen King writes in his memoir, On Writing, “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.”

Here is how imitation can transform your writing and help you get to the next level.

Step 1: Pick a technique you want to practice.

This may be showing vs telling, characterization, cliff-hangers, transitions, psychic distance, or using more sensory and significant details. You probably have a good sense of what your weaknesses are. If you don’t, I recommend starting with one of the basic techniques I outline in the Logic blog post.

Note: It’s important to focus on only one technique at a time. Any more than one and you will probably get overloaded. For super newbie writers, just finishing a story might be hard enough.

Step 2: Find an author who uses that technique well: read, analyze.

At this point you will probably read over some of your craft essays or write a new one. (If you need some help, Write Like the Masters is basically a collection of William Cane’s craft essays about Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Hemingway, and many others.)

If you really want to get nerdy, you’ll also write some step-by-step instructions for how you can do the technique yourself.

If the technique is a short one, you might try practicing it by following those step-by-step instructions in a brief exercise, as I did in my blog post on August Rodin’s sculpture, The Danaide. I recommend using a character you are already familiar with, one you are currently writing about or one you intend to write.

After you’ve written that short exercise, check your work by reading your instructions and the original example you used for your craft essay. Did you accomplish what you set out to do? Better still, get an impartial opinion by having a buddy check your work.

Step 3: Put that technique into practice in your next story.

As John Gardner says in his wonderful book, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, “exercises should not be substituted for the writing of actual short stories, [essays], or novels.”

This is where the rubber meets the road. Get out there, tiger, and write, Write, WRITE!

Common concerns about imitation:

It will ruin my “voice.”

I knew a young woman who was resentful of her creative writing teachers giving her writing exercises she felt she had spent her high school years “carefully cultivating her voice.” This is like a grown person saying they weren’t interested in dating because they have carefully cultivated their virginity.

Why would you rob yourself of the experience and variety of seeing how other people do things?

When you are young and just starting out, you should drink in as much experience as you can. Have an exciting life. Read widely and deeply. Anyone who has been writing for less than ten years has not yet earned the right to claim they have “a voice.”

But I don’t want to be influenced.

Whenever I read writers I admire, I pray that some of their genius will rub off on me. However, it’s legitimate to be worried about accidentally lifting something that isn’t yours. Some writers are so worried about accidentally plagiarizing something they read that, while they are writing, they read in a different genre (or even in a different language) from the one they are working in.

For starters, it’s important to know what is and isn’t plagiarism. Plagiarism is a topic too large and complicated to be covered here, but here’s the gist: lifting a joke or a clever phrase from an author you’ve read—that is plagiarism; practicing a technique you’ve read using your own characters, dialogue, setting, plot events, and details—that’s writing.

When you are editing a story you’ve written, keep an eye out for any clever phrases that sound like something you’ve read or heard before. If it even smells like something you’ve read before, than it’s a clue that you haven’t been original enough. See this as an opportunity to go deeper into your rewrite. Don’t waste time with cliches or surface-level creativity. Try to capture who your characters really are.

If I don’t research the field, then I won’t be accused of copying.

This was another thing I once heard in workshop, where a writer was working on a novel set in a post-apocalyptic setting after a global pandemic killed most of the human population—a very popular genre that has already been covered by such titans as Stephen King’s The Stand and George R. Stewart’s The Earth Abides.

The novel chapters I read in workshop were really good and they showed a lot of promise; however, the writer didn’t want to read any other post-apocalyptic pandemic novels until she had finished hers.

While I understand wanting to restrict one’s reading until a first draft is done, I think this writer was trying to avoid one trap by falling into another one: the trap of wasting your time because you’re marching down well-trodden territory. I think that by knowing what came before you, it puts you in the powerful position of being able to add something new to the conversation.

But I want to be “original”.

Every story has already been told before. Uniqueness is in the execution, and in your vision.

Your morals, your thoughts, your sensibilities, your fears, your dreams, your visceral experiences—those are what will make your story unique.

But I’m a (freewriter, seat-of-the-pants writer, discovery-writer, etc.) I write from the gut. I write on instinct. Won’t focusing too much on craft ruin that?

For some of you, focusing too much on craft during your first draft might cause you to seize-up and freeze. If this sounds like you, just write your first draft and put that critical eye aside until your second draft.

It’s still important to learn these craft techniques because there may come a day when your “gut instinct” abandons you. When that day comes, you’ll have these craft tools to fall back on.

But won’t understanding how stories are put together ruin the “magic”?

The paradox in becoming a magician is that you realize “magic” is just an illusion that was accomplished after many hours of tedious practice. For writers (and magicians), your motivation must change from wanting to be passively entertained to wanting to entertain others, bring joy to others. You must make the shift from audience, to craftsman.

But, if you start feeling burnt out by all this craft stuff, I recommend taking a break. Read an author you love, or listen to audiobooks for a while. Try to remember the joy you felt in being totally sucked into a story.

Ask yourself if you really want to be a writer. I know a number of people who always thought they wanted to be writers, but once they got down to it, they realized they didn’t enjoy writing.

Life is too short to spend a significant portion of it doing something you hate.

There is no shame in realizing who you are and who you aren’t. If what you really love is reading, why not do that? I would argue that the world needs more well-informed readers—especially in the book industry. You may not be Don Quixote, but you might have the makings of one hell of a Sancho Panza.


Suggested reading:

  • The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer
  • Write Like the Masters by William Cane
  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
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