Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Gift For Writers

I'm not ready to come back yet. I'm better, but not quite there.

The insurance company totaled my Explorer. I purchased a new car yesterday--a Toyota. My hand and forearm are encased in a Kelly green cast. (If I have to wear the thing, by God, I'm going to flaunt it).

My biggest remaining obstacle is the nightmares. Every time I fall asleep, I see that 18-wheeler coming at me. The medications just make it worse.

So, I found my own solution. I'm re-reading my favorite horror stories just before bedtime, hoping to crowd the semi-trucks out with vampires, ghosts and goblins.

I started with Stephen King's Salem's Lot. It took three nights for the ghoulies to do their work. I welcomed them in my dreams because I recognized them as MINE.

By the third night, I could sleep for almost three hours before waking up screaming. Last night, I did three hours twice--separated by a two-hour reading break.

That's when I began Night Shift, the 1977 short story collection by King. The book contains a couple of my favorite King short stories ("The Mangler" and "One for the Road.")

I'd long since forgotten that the introduction to the book was written by John D. MacDonald, who was a grand master of the MWA. MacDonald's Travis McGee was one of my teenage heroes.

Here's a portion of his comments in the intro:

If you want to write, you write.

The only way to learn to write is by writing...

Stephen King always wanted to write and he writes...

Because that is the way it is done.

Because there is no other way to do it. Not one other way.

Compulsive diligence is almost enough. But not quite. You have to have a taste for words. Gluttony. You have to want to roll in them. You have to read millions of them written by other people.

You read everything with grinding envy or weary contempt. You save the most contempt for the people who conceal ineptitude with long words, Germanic sentence structure, obtrusive symbols, and no sense of story, pace or character.

Then you have to start knowing yourself so well that you begin to know other people. A piece of us is in every person we can ever meet.

Okay, then. Stupendous diligence, plus word-love, plus empathy, and out of that can come, painfully, some objectivity...

Having been around twice as long as Stephen King, I have a little more objectivity about my work than he has about his.

It comes so painfully and so slowly.

You send books out into the world and it is very hard to shuck them out of the spirit. They are tangled children, trying to make their way in spite of the handicaps you have imposed on them...

Diligence, word-lust, empathy equal growing objectivity and then what?

Story. Story. Dammit, story!

Story is something happening to someone you have been led to care about.

Without author intrusion.

Author intrusion is: 'My God, Mama, look how nice I'm writing!'

Another kind of intrusion is a grotesquerie. Here is one of my favorites...'His eyes slid down the front of her dress.'

Author intrusion is a phrase so inept the reader suddenly realizes he is reading, and he backs out of the story. He is shocked out of the story.

Another author intrusion is the mini-lecture embedded in the story. This is one of my most grievous failings.

...the main thing is the story.

One is led to care.

MacDonald will be dead twenty-one years next month. I mourned his passing.


Alex said...

I'm currently re-reading the McGee series (1/3 of the way into "The Quick Red Fox") and it's interesting to see how MacDonald gradually gets more and more out of the story's way with each book. He still does his "mini-lectures," but he gets better at grounding them in the moment as he goes.

Thanks for sharing this.

Laura Vivanco said...

I hope the nightmares stop soon, Maya, and I'm glad you've been able to find a scary silver lining to this particular cloud.

Maya Reynolds said...

Alex: I dearly loved that series which was based not far from my home in Florida.

I always thought Robert B. Parker's Spenser owed a lot to Travis McGee.

Maya Reynolds said...

Laura: While I have consciously come to terms with that frightening experience, I suspect my subconscious is still working its way through.

I'll be glad when it's behind me. This sitting awake and reading at 3:00 AM is for the birds.

The Anti-Wife said...

That piece is wonderfully written - a fine example of his power as a writer.

Hope you're feeling better. Turn the 18-wheeler into a cartoon character and make him come up with a sheepish look and apologize for hurting you. With the drugs you're on it should be easy :)!

Maya Reynolds said...

AW: Last night I slept five and a half hours, waking twice with nightmares but turning over and going back to sleep.

I'm enormously encouraged.

I've been off the drugs for over a week. They were making the sleeping problem worse.

Heather B. Moore said...

Sorry about the nightmares. I definitely relate to sleeping problems. My lovely Thanksgiving weekend included three sick kids. All sick on a different night.

Today while driving, I was listening to PINK--her 18-Wheeler song came on . . . and I thought of you :(

Hang in there!

Mary Witzl said...

Anti-wife was right: this is a great post.

I loved the part about grinding envy or weary contempt: there is a lot of truth in that. I've just finished reading the most overwritten piece of pretentious nonsense I've read in ages, and how I hope my writing never inspires that sort of reaction in anyone.

As a great fan of Robert B Parker's Spenser novels, I will have to look up Travis McGee. I'm ashamed to say I've never heard of him.

Maya Reynolds said...

Heather: Thanks for the encouragement. Hope everyone is better at your house. Being sick on a holiday sucks.

Maya Reynolds said...

Mary: MacDonald wrote 21 McGee novels over a 21-year period, starting with The Deep Blue Good-by in 1964. The books will probably seem a bit dated 40 years later, but if you like Spenser, I can almost guarantee you'll like McGee.

Try to read the series in order. MacDonald was a prolific writer, but you'll be able to distinguish the McGee books because there's a color in every title.

MacDonald wrote the book on which the film Cape Fear was based.

Church Lady said...

I haven't been to your blog for a while. Since I ordered your book at the end of the summer, I think. (My nine-year-old picked it up and go a good look at the cover and his eyes sort of bulged before I grabbed it away and hid it)

I'm so sorry for this horrible accident. I hope you will find night time peace soon.

Jesse said...


I hope it is a removable cast. Otherwise strange things happen with your muscles and skin. Mid sixties, broken ankle, fungus infection all the way to my knee. Smelled like I was rotting away. That cleared up quick enough once the cast was off, but my muscles were so weak that I sprained my already bad ankle quite often. But I'm rambling.

Now I forget why I responding. Getting old really sucks. Hmmm... Oh yes, now I remember. Some people write just because they have a story or two to tell. Even Mr. King agrees that the story is more important than the writing skill, but I suppose that's probably because he has editors to fix stuff. I'd rather read a great story poorly written than a poor story greatly written.

I'm going to bed now.


Marie Tuhart said...


Glad that you're being able to get some sleep. Nightmares are for the birds, never fun.

Reading at 3 am, I haven't done that in a long time.

My favorite story is reading 6 chapters of a book I hated when I was a teenager, because my parents took me to see Towering Inferno and I don't like fires. I couldn't sleep because I kept thinking the house was going to catch fire. The only book available was one I hated, but I read 6 chapters of it before my mind finally calmed down.

Hang in there. Keep good thoughts for you.


Maya Reynolds said...

Church Lady: Glad you stopped by. Thanks for the kind wishes.

Jesse: No, unfortunately, it's not a removable cast. I'm told I'll have weeks of therapy yet to go when it's removed.

Marie: As always, thank you.