Learning from Sensei

Stephen King Books

Stephen King Books (Photo credit: o5com)

Okay, I’ll just say it. I LOVE Stephen King! I know you’ve heard that before, but maybe not from someone who yearns to be a literary writer. So I’m going to tell you why.

I started reading his books when I was in Middle School, I think. I hated to read. I thought books were boring, they took a long time to finish, and they weren’t as cool as video games (sounds a lot like a conversation probably taking place in someone’s family room right now). Then, one day, my aunt gave me a copy of IT. She was a teacher, and determined to get me to love reading. It was an uphill battle, but she had heard that this guy, this Mr. King, wrote spooky stories that young people liked to read. So I started that thing – and it is a THING at over 800 pages in paperback – and was hooked from the opening scene. “It” gave me what I wanted – scary stuff that made me want to skip to the end of the page. But it also gave me something else that I didn’t really understand then, and am only beginning to understand now. It told me the story of myself.

Now I know what many of you are thinking. “Huh? Are you an idiot? He only writes trash.” “He says the “F” word too much.” “His stories are about monsters. I want to write books that have a deeper meaning!”

Tisk tisk. Book snob.

After devouring about 5 of his books, I wrote a paper in my junior year Advanced English class where I said, “Stephen King is the only writer to really understand the human condition.” My teacher gave me an “A” with this comment – “Be very careful when you say something like that. You sound foolish.” Looking back on it now, what I should have said was, “Stephen King was the writer who first made me enjoy reading, and made me realize that to write well, you have to describe the human condition, even if you are talking about monsters in sewers.”

I’ve probably read over 30 books by Mr. King (that’s why he’s so rich, I guess, because everybody has). In that same period, I’ve read hundreds of books by other authors. I can say, even now, 20 years later, that he is still one of my favorites. Right up there… pretty close to the top. Why? How can that be? Let me show you.

I just started reading “Cujo,” a novel he wrote in 1981, and one which he confesses in his book “On Writing” that he can’t remember writing because he was intoxicated through much of the process. Nonetheless, it is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. I haven’t seen the movie, and hadn’t read the book before. I passed on it the first time because I thought the notion of a scary dog wasn’t “scary” enough. Shame on me. Sure, this book is simply about a big dog that goes stark raving nuts, and attacks people. That’s apparently it. But man, oh man, is there so much more.

About 1/4 of the way through, we see two of the main characters confront an affair by the wife that has been brutally exposed. They face each other as the secret comes out, and in the process, Stephen King tells us everything we know about how we would react, and then more that we didn’t know about how we would actually react, and then about the conflicting feelings, and loyalties, and how men always look for an efficient way to explain problems, and how for women it is always so much deeper. How, for a man, the weight of the world and a mountain of stress can provoke bad behavior, but for a woman, sometimes all it takes is one gray hair that sparks an insurmountable fear, and the world comes crumbling down. And how the yearning inside to reconcile is so often overcome by the urge to hurt, to make things even, to destroy everything because some part of it is broken. I read those three or four pages over and over, swimming in his knowledge, and his graceful, yet deeply agonizing, way of telling me what these two people were feeling, how their lives were coming apart at the worst possible time. I saw the situation through the man’s eyes, and then through the woman’s eyes. I blamed them both, I hated them both, and I cared for them both, and wanted them to stop hurting.

This is a story about a mean dog, mind you.

And this is why he is one of my favorite writers, and why he is so damn prolific, and why writers love him or hate his guts. Because he does it so well, and then ends it with a chainsaw.

If you’ve seen “Shawshank Redemption,” or “The Green Mile,” or “Stand By Me,” you know how good he can be at grabbing your heart-strings. He is also a master of tension, of building something huge out of almost nothing. And reading this book, trapped away in a box in my attic for over a decade, has reminded me once again what my job as a writer is. My job is to tell you who you are, and I can’t be wrong.

I don’t know how Stephen King came to learn what he told me about women’s emotions, but from everything I know, he was 100% right. Maybe his wife helped him out. I know he was right about the guy’s reactions. And half of the stuff he told me, even though I instinctively knew was true, I’d never really known before.

That’s our job as writers. We are not telling stories to throw out of the car on the way down the road, hoping someone will find it,  pick it up and like it. We are telling bedtime stories to one person (or to thousands, hopefully millions, if we’re lucky) sitting in a quiet place. We are saying words to make them happy, make them sad, make them angry, make them brave. We want them to imagine a place they are comfortable in, somewhere that feels “real” to them. It doesn’t matter if the story is happening 200 years ago, or on a planet in a distant galaxy. They have to believe it. And in order for the reader – you and I – to believe it, we have to be told who we are, and agree.

Thank you again, Mr. King, for showing me how to do it right, and also telling me I still have a long ways to go. I’ll keep following, if that’s all right with you.


30 thoughts on “Learning from Sensei

  1. Great commentary on King’s writing. I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head re: his insights on the human condition. Literary snobs have ignored his work for far too long because, as you say, he writes about monsters. That’s true, but first and foremost, he writes about *people*.

    • Exactly. The scary parts are only scary because he has first gotten us so involved in his character’s lives, and invested in their personalities.
      Thanks for the comment! I hope you’ll keep reading and responding!

  2. Your story of how you started reading Stephen King is eerily similar to mine. IT was the first book of his that I read too, in middle school. On a side note, I guess I’ve gotta pick up Cujo now. I’m sold.

    • I think there are a lot of us that have similar stories. I think there was something really magical about the first 15 years or so. My favorite books are “IT” and earlier.

      Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the comment. I hope it’s not the last!

  3. Really interesting outlook. Everyone talks about ‘building the character of a character in a book’, but this puts it all in a convenient little nutshell. And gives a whole new understanding to ‘associating with the characters’ when reading and writing.

    • I’ve heard agents say that is the most important thing. But it’s so hard to get right. I guess that’s the secret, and if we can find the answer, our writing will show.

      Thanks for reading, and I hope to hear more from you!

  4. Anyone who can write THAT many books has my respect. I’ve always enjoyed his books. I think he’s a master storyteller. My kids read comics which have lots of great stories, too. I think the storytelling is what’s missing in schools, especially in the early grades, where they read practice books that have very little story. I wonder if that’s why you didn’t like reading before you were turned on to King.

    • I think you’re right. Many stories in school are focused on the mechanics, not on the story. It seems like between Dr. Seuss and Stephen King, there is a big gap. Perhaps Harry Potter filled some of it, but I’m sure they don’t read Harry Potter in school!

      Thanks for reading. Hope you’ll be back!

  5. I think the main reason why Stephen King’s books are so thrilling is because he doesn’t have to invent monsters to scare us, a simple childhood fear is enough. His understanding of human nature and what scares us is incredible. Have you read ‘Library policeman’? Gave me goosebumps!

    • I haven’t read that one – but thanks for the tip. You know, I don’t know why I never really hooked up on his short stories. I always wanted something longer, but now that I’m older (not wiser) I’m starting to read more short stories and novellas. And I think you’re right. He takes the fears that all of us had as a child, and makes them “real.”

  6. King is one of my favorite authors also and “On Writing” is one of the best books on writing I’ve read. What you say about the human condition is so true. “The Stand” is my favorite for exactly that reason. Randall Flagg isn’t what scares me – it’s the breakdown of society that I can all too easily imagine happening in that scenario or even lesser ones.

  7. i agree with every word in this article! Stephen King has this way of writing that really gets to you, deep down in your brain. The great thing about him is that he scares you by digging up these dark, primitive fears and his books are so much about the human condition because a lot of the time the human condition is fear and he has an uncanny ability to draw that out.

    • I just really wonder how he got to be so insightful at such a young age. From the interviews I’ve seen with him, he’s a pretty ordinary guy. There must be a secret…
      Thanks for the comment!

  8. Absolutely dead on! And surprisingly I have not read Cujo, I’ve only seen the movie, but I’m starting to pick him up again after a few year hiatus. The movie is fantastic but there is nothing in it about what you described, if I remember correctly. Love that cover of Wind River by the way! And it is now on my TO READ SOON list! ❤

  9. Even before I started reading King’s work for my blog I knew that this man had a good grasp of character. When a character does something in a Stephen King novel, you know why and it is completely believable. I can’t always say the same for some “literary” fiction. I’m looking forward to how his style develops beyond “Carrie”.

  10. Hi Daniel, very interesting and appropriate that you brought up Stephen King as a template of creativity and technical proficiency. I’ve been re-reading “On Writing” for a long time, and every time I find something new and relevant to something I’m working on at the moment.

    • I’ve read that book a few (dozen) times myself. I think it’s good to read it, and then read one of his books. I think I actually learn more from studying completed works rather than “How to” books. But of the “How to” books, his is, by far, the best.
      Thanks for the comment. Hope to see you around here again!

  11. I was always made to feel guilty because I put Stephen King ‘up there’ with all the great writers in history. I started reading him at 18 and was shocked into his insight of the human soul.

    • Most of the “great writers” write things I can’t stand to read. I love his books, and have stayed with him more loyally than any other author. So what defines “great” anyway?

  12. Pingback: Learning To Write The Boring Part « Vicki T. Lee

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