Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Between King and Keyes

Shortly after writing this post on the complete ridiculousness of attempting to emulate Stephen King's literary output, I read, in rapid succession, two books by Ralph Keyes: The Courage to Write and The Writer's Book of Hope. I received these books for Christmas and was a tad put off by the self-helpy titles. It's true that Keyes is something of a phrase-maker in this vein. (Do you suffer from AFD, or Authorial Fear Disorder? Here are ten WHPs, or Writer's Hope Patches, that you can apply today, so that you can proceed with CCC--Courage, Confidence, and Conviction!*) However, I managed to get past these occasional gestures toward uplift-by-numbers (or letters), and ended up finding the books extremely helpful.

First, they answered the interesting question of why I, and apparently zillions of others, consume books on writing craft like so many Ruffles with onion dip. According to Keyes, we're less interested in specific information on technique than in finding reasons to keep going. Surely there's a way, we think, to make the writing life more pleasant. These books reassure us that even famous, successful writers wrestle with doubt and anxiety every day. Of course, we may also be disappointed to find out that these struggles never go away. I, for one, would like to think that once one reaches a certain plateau--say, having one's first novel published and therefore one's cred established on all fronts for all times--that writing becomes pure bliss and ease. Yes, we may become annoyed by our temporary inability to find just the right mot for something or other; but our annoyance is quelled by remembering that we are officially wonderful at this (and also rich), and we type on, barely able to suppress our delighted giggles. Not so, apparently.

According to Keyes, fear is a necessary part of writing. If you're not afraid, basically, you're doing it wrong--because fear means something is at stake. It's also the flip side of excitement, knowing that you're on to something. The point is to find ways to work in the presence of that fear, by managing and / or harnessing it. The "harnessing" part remains a little hazy to me; but managing comes through various coping strategies--rituals, for instance. The one I've found most helpful so far is tricking myself into believing that "this time" I'm not writing seriously. In other words, I say to myself, I don't feel that good today, I'm tired and my writing's going to suck, so I'll just write "anything." This isn't the real stuff; I'll save that for another time when I feel better. And then, lo and behold, I've reached my 1000-word goal for the day, and some percentage of it doesn't suck.

The daily word count is another strategy Keyes suggests, and I've been ambivalent about it in the past. Better 10 good words than 1000 lousy ones, right? But combining the count with this method for taking the pressure off seems to work for me. Now, King's 2000 words per day still seems a bit beyond me--but within the realm of possibility. I seem to have realized that fighting the fear is a losing battle, so instead of doing that, I'm writing.

*I exaggerate, but not without some basis.

1 comment:

arlee bird said...

I wonder how many of those writer's self help books Stephen King read? I buy them, and even read them sometimes or at least try to. But I wonder--am I just trying to find a shortcut? A magic elixir in words? Or I am just trying to find an excuse to avoid writing? I like what Stephen King is saying. He treats it like a job and sets a daily goal. He is in a writing habit just like clocking in on the job and doing the job that needs to be done. Although judging from King's output I almost have to wonder if maybe he's not doing more than 2000 words per day. Or maybe since he is such a wealthy and known writer that he has a staff of writers assisting him. The guy writes incessantly on a epic scale.