Writing Like A King

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No one will ever mistake me for Mr. Gift Idea during the Christmas season; I believe I heard the term "Scrooge" directed at me more than occasionally during my teaching career. The two weeks of vacation always seemed an interruption of both the teaching/learning process and the routine of after-school basketball practice and games were the burrs under my saddle, but a less obvious irritant was my concern over the gift-giving process.

I hit an occasional home run–an Andy Williams' Christmas album to Judy before we began dating comes to mind. When we had the girls, she was in charge of the gift department for them, and neither of us worried about what we gave to or received from the other as long as Dawn and Jenni were pleased with their presents. Except for those blessed years, I've always feared gifts I've chosen for others would be inappropriate and/or not appreciated.

Even so, I'm about to make a recommendation. If anyone on your gift list is a reader who is a fan of Stephen King or a writer who thinks about his/her craft, then I recommend a copy of King's book, On Writing. Although I've always been a reader, I haven't read much of King (I enjoy fiction written around a theme–Stienbeck's Grapes of Wrath comes to mind) and King writes for entertainment more than theme. I also read more non-fiction now than I had in my pre-retirement years. I don't write fiction; I have two short stories in my portfolio, but they were written for a creative writing class at Blackburn. A rambling essay form is my favorite mode of writing, but I didn't know that till "Ramblings" began in January of 1999 at the suggestion of Phil and Nancy Galer.

Fellow Sertomanian Dave Imler brought King's book to me this fall. Although King usually writes fiction, I wanted to know about his writing process. We have similarities; he too was an English teacher. For me that was my career–my calling; for him it was a stop-over until he could support his family by writing fiction. I too taught writing–journalism for a little while in high school, creative writing for over ten years, and essay writing in both high school and for Lincoln Land–and I wondered if he had a perspective about teaching writing that I had never discovered.

The book was informative in that vein. For example, he wrote that he told his students they needed tools if they were to write well, and among those tools are a good working vocabulary, a knowledge of grammar and a sense of structure, including sentence, paragraph, and the body of the work.

An extensive vocabulary comes from reading, and King stresses that good writing is an extension of reading a wide variety of material. I remember more than one teacher telling me to enjoy my career as a student because I was expected to read then, especially as a literature major. "Once you begin a career, have a family, and become a bill-payer, you won't have time to read," was a mantra I heard often but didn't appreciate enough until I was midstream of the career, family, bill-payer cycle. King writes that when a student would tell him, "I love to write but hate to read," he'd automatically place that person in his phony file. He and I share that thought.

Grammar was emphasized in our country's school system until about the mid '70s, when less traditional approaches to teaching English appeared. (I use less traditional as an adjective to be kind; privately I have harsher descriptions). At Hillsboro we hung on to the traditions of freshman grammar as a separate, semester-length class until we traditionalists were too old or too tired to fight the trends, but I'm convinced our students are less-prepared for life now because we don't teach nouns, verbs, gerunds, even diagramming any more. Briefly, grammar teaches/reinforces critical thinking–an element noticeably missing in most recent high school graduates I know. It also provides one of King's tools; How can one tell if his subject and verb agree in number, as in One of the boys was (not were) caught, if one doesn't know what a subject and a verb are?

I learned grammar in high school English and Latin classes (one has to be in a big high school to take Latin these days) in a small, rural high school. I think grammar basics are so important for mental development that I included it in all the Comp I classes I taught for LLCC, even though the heads of the Comp Department there didn't like it in the syllabus. The better students appreciated it, though, and it didn't hurt them to review what they needed to know as they pursued higher degrees.

A sense of structure has always been easy for me. When computers invaded the classroom in the mid-80s, Roger Reeves, one of the best teachers I've had the pleasure to know, graciously met with composition (English) teachers after school to teach us the fundamentals of word-processing on the Apple machines that we were to use. For students I liked the spell-check feature (those who submerge themselves by reading often are better spellers than non-readers, so 70 percent of my students needed spell-check), but Mr. Reeves had an exercise he thought I'd use, but I viewed it frivolous (he and I agreed to disagree on a few things; he thought sports were frivolous needs, for example, while I began teaching in hopes of coaching). For training purposes, he chopped a newspaper article into pieces to show how easily it could be placed in proper order by moving its elements around using the word processor. I told him I personally don't do that; when I write an article (even a "Ramblings"), I think about what I want to write and then begin its pen-point composition. I proof it and make minor changes once it's typed, but I don't remember making several drafts of anything since I had to turn in multiple copies of drafts way back in junior high. I remember faking those, thinking what a waste of my time it was.

That's another theory I share with King; every writer has his own individual process, and the most effective individual method is found by experience. What works for him (multiple drafts) would discourage me from writing. It doesn't come easily for anyone, but words do come relatively quickly for me.

My sentence structure tends to be long because one thought leads quickly to another. However, it's not as long as William Faulkner's, who can produce a paragraph long sentence. Ernest Hemingway was the master of the short sentence, but I don't find either objectionable.

There are differences, of course, between King and myself. The major difference, besides style and voice, is that he's famous and I'm not. I'm not envious of his fame, however. I have had a very fulfilling life, more so than anyone deserves.

He grew up in a single parent household and had a dissolute adolescence; I grew up in a poor but supportive family and was a straight-arrow teen. He once wiped his butt with poison ivy leaves; I never did that.

His wife, Tabitha, is his confidant and chief critic. Judy kept me in school when I wanted to wander off that track. He comes across as a loner; though I live alone now, I seek attention. In fact, he writes for money; I write to stay relevant in my community. He's been the victim of an accident (truck-pedestrian, and he was the walker); I've escaped that thus far.

At the end of the book, King includes a list of authors and titles that have influenced him; I haven't read them all, but I have read As I Lay Dying by Faulkner (it has short sentences), Joe Hill, and William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

I enjoyed King's book (though I would have titled it About Writing instead of On Writing), partially because not many writers tell about their process, and because it's well-written, though I could have done without the f-bombs he includes.

I found we are more alike than not, and there is comfort in that for me.

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