Monthly Archives: November 2007

On Writing by Stephen King

onwriting.jpgI’ve never read a Stephen King story, having little interest in the genre that he typically caters to. But I must say that this book has some excellent tips and inspiration for anyone interested in writing. And why just that? It’s a good read in itself – part memoir and part instructional, it manages to draw attention and hold it throughout its moderate length through a direct, hard hitting, no nonsense stance.

King classifies writers into four categories: bad, competent, good, great. He tends to believe that it’s possible to transform a good writer into a competent one, and that is the only jump possible among the various strata. I do agree that writing requires some propensity towards the skill, something one is born with. But I also think it is possible, for someone who is terrible, to improve, with sufficient training and determination, to levels close to competency. Greatness again, is a different matter, but Thomas Edison said: Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. So apparently, there could be some perceived misconception in King’s thesis.

 

King focuses on fundamentals probably most good writing teachers would emphasize: characters over plot, story over theme, active voice over passive, and so on. He doesn’t mention anything on conflict: the basic premise of any story. But he does strongly prescribe sticking to the truth, on verisimilitude.

King is pissed off with literary snobs who distinguish between high and low brow writers, and that’s understandable. But it’s also understandable why someone writing horror stories and bizarre tales would be hard pressed to find admirers among seekers of truth in reality. No matter how deep the characters and their apparent conflict, there’s the supernatural element which is hard to imagine and dismissed as bogus by many, including myself. He also has a strange notion that a writer, regardless of the quality of the work, needs to be prolific, and is somewhat bemused by the fact that the likes of Joyce merely produced a handful. I find this idea rather naive. What has volume got to do with quality? Some are prolific and yet produce brilliant stuff, some continuously pour out rubbish like a leaking faucet, while still others create well crafted fiction but in large gaps (maybe they need the time or they may simply be disinclined to write in such profusion). Where’s the issue?

 

 

But regardless of Kings biases and limitations as a writer, the book is a worthy addition to an apprentice’s shelf, simply because most of what is told is worthwhile and comes straight from his heart. No BS there.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcuts.”

 

King heavily emphasizes reading, calling it “the creative center of a writer’s life.” I agree. It does help one grow as a writer, put ones work in perspective, discover unexplored means of expression. And this happens automatically – no conscious effort is needed besides the process of enjoying the book.

 

There are two appendix sort of sections at the end of the book. The first is an example of revising a story (leading to the second draft), which is very useful to analyze and understand. The second is a suggested reading list, but I’d make my own list based on my interests.

 

Above all, King believes it is most important to enjoy reading and writing, not let it feel like work, the element of play being vital to the mysterious creative process which every successful writer must invoke.

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”

Well put Mr. King, well put indeed.

East West by Salman Rushdie

eastwest East West is a short story collection. The nine tales are grouped in three, by the flavour of their origins, the third being the mixed one of book’s title. That also happened to be the one I liked the most, with “The Courter” beating the rest by far.

This was a second read of “The Courter”, after Storywallah and undoubtedly more enjoyable. There’s humour, love and sadness mixed in the story, but none (not at least in a high dose) of the Rushdiesque satire. Its also easily the most personal of the stories, with Rushdie drawing seemingly from his own experience as an immigrant, growing up in London.

Humour opens the story, with Certainly-Mary and her queer English and is sprinkled throughout. The narrator’s regard for Certainly-Mary, the family ayah who accompanies them to England, is poignant, as is the chess playing, Flintstone watching, tea drinking romance between Certainly-Mary and Mixed-Up Mecir, the tenement porter mangled befittingly to “courter” by the ayah’s eccentric accent.

The narrator reminisces growing up in the sixties with his sisters, in popular songs, school and teenage infatuation with the opposite sex. His veneration for Certainly-Mary is not merely because “she did as much as their mother to raise the kids”, but also since Mary’s presence brought sanity to a dysfunctional family. When Mary is unwell after Mecir is stabbed in a heroic attempt to rescue the ladies from local goons, the family comes together to cheer her up, or at least “play acts” to raise her spirits.

 

Mecir is a chess grandmaster, before a stroke paralysed his career. He teaches Mary the game, and it draws them closer.

“Chess had become their private language”

The game of chess is also used metaphorically, when the narrator recalls an account of a classic game between Mecir and an opponent in a 1950 championship. Mecir the master strategist of the past is driven to helplessness in the real life threats he has to face in fending off vindictive troublemakers.

The narrator’s family also faces racial abuse, with the goons threatening mother and ayah, assuming them to be linked to another Indian they were looking for:

“Fucking wogs…You fucking come over here, you don’t fucking know how to fucking behave…”

 

There’s a chord of nostalgia binding the piece, ending in a similar note, with the dispersal of Mary and Mecir from the narrator’s life.

 

The book is worth buying just for this story alone. The others aren’t lacklustre either, and I was hoping to span some of those in this post. But it is night and tomorrow is Monday. So I can see a part II coming, if I’m up to it later.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway The book is a close examination of Mrs. Dalloway, a wealthy London socialite widely admired for her grace and finesse in social circles, and Peter Walsh, her unrequited lover who has just returned from his lacklustre stint in India. Parallely, the book also portrays Septimus Warren Smith, a young war hero (First World War), his dementia and his ultimate suicide. There is no connection between Clarissa Dalloway and SWS, except at the end, when she hears of his death (without knowing his name or whereabouts) rather casually from the doctor treating SWS.

 

Clarissa Dalloway is the archetype socialite, of exquisite manners and elevated connexions, the latter largely due to her influential husband Richard. Richard and their daughter Elizabeth are not fond of her parties and societal bonhomies, finding them rather tedious. This is also true of Peter Walsh, who pooh poohs such courtesies, but harbours a love for Mrs. Dalloway, after so many years and failed relationships. He finds Clarissa cold, as he had before. Nonetheless, he attends her party, which is the crux of the book.

SWS, quite the antithesis of Clarissa Dalloway, has returned a war hero, but is in fact a victim of its cruelties, having witnessed his friend’s demise. His Italian wife, Lucrezia (Rezia, for short), takes care of him during his mental illness, during which his speech is alternately wise and incoherent to her. SWS has talked of killing himself, but Rezia is heedless of the physician’s advice of isolation to diminish such tendencies in SWS. Eventually, SWS jumps out of his upstairs window.

 

The book is extremely long winded and very dense, perhaps the effect of what has been termed in literary jargon as Stream of Consciousness writing. The two hundred odd pages felt like three times its size. Sentences are frequently wound up in several stages with multiple punctuations, hurting fluidity and pace. But now and then, absolutely brilliant passages and descriptions keep coming up, a reason why I managed to finish the book. Here’s a piece:

 

Through all ages – when the pavement was grass, when it was swamp, through the age of tusk and mammoth, through the age of silent sunrise, the battered woman – for she wore a skirt – with her right hand exposed, her left clutching at her side, stood singing of love – love which has lasted a million years, she sang, love which prevails, and millions of years ago, her lover, who had been dead these centuries, had walked, she crooned, with her in May; but in the course of ages, long as summer days, and flaming, she remembered, with nothing but red asters, he had gone; death’s enormous sickle had swept those tremendous hills, and when at last she laid her hoary and immensely aged head on the earth, now become a mere cinder of ice, she implored the Gods to lay by her side a bunch of purple heather, there on her high burial place which the last rays of the last sun caressed; for then the pageant of the universe would be over.

 

Intensely beautiful at times, immensely tedious for the rest – is how I would sum up my experience.