Thursday, September 25, 2014

"Kill Your Darlings," says Stephen King

I began last week’s post with a reference to King’s nonfiction book about writing: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In it, King offers his own take on Arthur Quiller-Couch’s advice:

"Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings." (Stephen King)

Photo by Al Griffin

King applied his murderous advice to flowery prose passages, to self-conscious applications of rhetorical devices. He meant that writers should not deploy tropes for the sake of appearing gifted. Writers should write in patterns and with language that jars the imagination, appeals to the ear as much as the mind, and sometimes is quite plain and as common as conversation.

In his latest novel, Mr. Mercedes (2014), King kills one of my darlings, an adorable character, a love interest, and the possibility of a future less burdensome. Like Annie Wilkes, I’d like a word with the author.

But I get it. Ideals are ethereal. Love is rarely easy or kind. Heartache is the more natural state and a powerful inspiration when one has some terrible work to finish.

So kill your darlings may also apply to beloved characters. After all, nothing gold can stay, can it?

Reading Challenge:

Read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and Mr. Mercedes.

Writing Challenge:

Re-read an essay or piece of fiction authored by you. Be ruthless. Execute your darlings, your phrases and felicitous expression much beloved. Now how does the passage read?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Many writing teachers and online mentors have recommended Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I am one of them, and I’ve written about several of King’s novels over the years, in part because King has a sentimental place in my heart. My husband and I enjoyed talking about The Stand while sharing a picnic on a grassy knoll somewhere between wide, open wheat country and urban America. We’d spent several hours riding his BMW motorcycle from the city where we worked to a tiny place barely there. The contrasts between such places wound around to the contrasts in King’s book, and we talked and talked and talked until we had to use the headlight to see the road and hurry homeward.

We married later in the Fall, before Winter pushed the motorcycle into a garage, and we kept talking. Our lives took root, grew complicated, and King was present. His publishing dates aligned with our celebrations: Father’s Day, our birthdays in the Fall, Christmas. A new release often matched our gift-giving so we’ve acquired quite a King library for sentimental reasons.

Mirror Images in a Ford Super Deluxe 8
Al Griffin by Al Griffin Photography 

I just finished reading King's latest, Mr. Mercedes (2014), and I must recommend it, first because it fits into a niche of which I’m fond: police procedurals featuring a rumpled, case-weary detective who’s smarter than the average cop or criminal. Bill Hodges, the protagonist, is retired, and like many, isn’t sure what to do with his time. He eats too much, drinks now and then, watches more TV than anyone should, and contemplates ending it all out of sheer boredom more than deep despair.

A deranged killer rescues Hodges from his own mess by pricking both his conscience and his complacency. The killer from one of Hodges’ few unsolved cases writes a letter and lays down a challenge Hodges can’t refuse. The detective finds new life by renewing his purpose to find the man who drove a Mercedes through a crowd of people lined up for a job fair.

King delivers a sidekick in the form of Jordan, a high school boy bound for an Ivy League education. High-performing geek when he needs to be, Jordan is also a Regular Joe, full of humor and humility. He’s a man of action and daring in spite of his youth, and he’s a good son, thoughtful brother, and loyal friend to Hodges. He has all the qualities of a likable character and hero.

Eccentric, clever women are also a necessity in many crime-solving formulas, and King delivers her, too. Battered by bullying and broken signals to her brain, poor Holly proves to be invaluable in solving crimes and fighting evil. She becomes more whole by overcoming some of her own fears and protecting others more vulnerable than herself. And she completes the triumverate so often seen in books and movies where a few save the world for the rest of us. Luke, Hans, and Leia; Harry, Hermione, and Ron; Rooster Cogburn, LaBoeuf, and Mattie; even Bella, Edward, and Jacob team up to stop evil from taking root and more lives just as Hodges, Jordan and Holly do.

Although there be monsters that haunt the mind, predators that stunt the future for some, and killers that stalk those least able to defend themselves, there is little of the supernatural in this novel, and I like that. Intuition, instinct, and investigation are the powers that transform these characters.

But King must be King so he gives us a classic horror genre ending. Evil rises again and speaks. Just like in real life.

Reading Challenge:

Read Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King.

Writing Challenge:

When you’re taken to the woodshed, the best thing you can do is wait out the whipping and shut up (King 432).

Write your own advice, using the same word order as the sentence above.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Longmire's Cliff-Hanger Ending

I love movies and television! I watch great movies and mediocre programs; I watch documentaries dry and crackling, Westerns, action-packed Yippee Ki Yay films, celluloid noir, rom-com, dramedies, tragedies, high-brow, and slip-on-a-banana-peel low.

My mother is to blame. When we were young, she gave us twenty-five cents to spend almost the entire day every Saturday at the movies. Mid-morning, the cartoons and serials started. Feature films followed. Then it was time to wait for Mom who’d finished cleaning and buffing the house until it met her exhausting standards.

Watching the season finale of A & E’s Longmire, Summer 2014, reminded me of those serials and of Westerns in general. The program also caused me to reflect upon why I like the series so much and to add Craig Johnson’s Longmire series to my reading list.

Even though A & E has lost its way, in my opinion, by relying upon a series of reality shows featuring odd people, many of them exaggerated stereotypes, more scripted than real, I have enjoyed the rare and original programming that requires a narrative and art. The Glades, for example, canceled on a cliff-hanger, featured an ensemble cast that seemed to click, to like each other; that was its charm. Longmire, on the other hand, may be a fictional world populated by actors who despise each other at the end of the work day, but none of us would guess. These actors seem to have become the roles they portray; it’s easy to forget that they wear masks for the show.

Besides great performances, especially by Robert Taylor in the title role, the series relies upon good stories about flawed people stumbling and staggering through grief, misunderstanding, and crimes both venal and mortal. They speak words that sound natural and occasionally poetic. The thread holding them together, the one that is taut and admirable, is a moral one. Each character strives to live up to a standard and holds himself accountable.

Except for three consistent and stone-hearted villains, characters both minor and major confess in order to free their souls from wrongs committed by accident or with malice, and each acts to be different, better, and excellent. Thus, the story is a classic and one of my favorites: sin and redemption. Longmire sets sinners on the road to redemption through justice even as he struggles to find that road for himself.

Photo by Al Griffin
Aren’t most Westerns moral tales wherein a character longs to stand for something greater than himself? Perhaps this is his nature because he experiences that something in long stretches of prairie, plain, and peak, under “majestical skies fretted with golden fire” (Hamlet 2. 2.). He knows that he must somehow measure up to the grandeur that surrounds him.

As this season closed, however, Longmire stands at a crossroads. How he will proceed is the cliff-hanger. If he turns left, he will forsake the moral ideal; if he does not turn, he must close the door on a personal quest to right a wrong. Longmire's troubled deputy, Branch, also stands at a crossroads: bitter sorrow and the truth straight ahead or a soulless future to his left. Both men, however, seem able to fight demons from within and dangers without because both, above all else, strive for that something greater than themselves.

Reading Challenge:

 “Read” Longmire in Craig Johnson’s books or by streaming A & E’s Longmire.

Writing Challenge:

Defend the cliff-hangers used to bring in audiences. It worked for the film version of the final book in both the Twilight and Harry Potter series. It worked all those years ago to keep movie-goers coming back each week for the next installment. It’s how this season’s The Walking Dead ended and how Longmire closed its recent season. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

My Music

I love the music of the second decade of this twenty-first century almost as much as I love the music of my twenty-somethings well on into my thirty-somethings and beyond. My inner dancer comes alive with the beat, and she can move. She spins moves from R & B, from line dancing, Bollywood, and Britney as her inner demons find release as they always have, as she becomes another, the one she was then.

Country Joe and the Fish lobbing that fine old Anglo-Saxon word for plowing transports me. I shout back that oh, so common, multi-purpose F-word. I feel frayed denim under my heel, pressing between huararches and flesh. Beads bounce against unrestrained breasts, and my hair falls almost to my waist. I feel wasted and cynical and a child in the garden with Joni Mitchell’s friends singing of Woodstock (1970). I wait with the crowd in the Village for Joni to appear at Fillmore East or Albert King uptown at Columbia, and I sway in jubilation when Neil Armstrong walks on the moon.

In the next decade, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive (1979) and Donna Summer’s She Works Hard for the Money (1983) inspire a strut within me. I feel my step lengthen, my chin lift. I’m proud to be rising from oppression, standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow feminists, our new choices and guaranteed freedoms before me.  Some of that freedom is the freedom to rock, and I grow antic, even frenzied when the 90s dawn in Thunderstruck. So animal, so primal. My hands adopt the posture of a poised cobra, my legs powerful and loose at the same time. I shake my locks and turn my face to the sun.
Music stitches the fabric of our stories.
What music tells your story?
Photo by AlGriffin
Loom on display at Camden County Museum,
Camden County, Missouri 2014

As the 90s grow older, so do I, and my listening library now includes Raffi’s Baby Beluga and Tom Chapin’s sweet lyrics to wish someone a happy birthday. But my daughter grows quickly into a fan of Matchbox 20. Together we attend a Matchbox 20 and LifeHouse concert in St. Louis. Later, listening to Rob Thomas sing with Santana, I add a Latin rhythm to my inner dancer, remembering the cha-cha at The Pink Barn and Skilly’s, two must-have experiences for budding teenagers in early 1960s Tulsa, OK where we learned to dance the Fox Trot, waltz, cha-cha, and swing; we also learned to hold sweaty hands and overcome our dread of the opposite gender.

When my daughter asked for the first and new CD by SmashMouth, I hesitated, wondering if the lyrics of Walkin' on the Sun and music video would prove too provocative. I tried to convince myself that images from Britney Spears’s sexualized, pigtailed school girl in a short-skirt over knee-high black boots singing Baby One More Time would not burn themselves into her psyche, but, of course, they did. Britney’s dance moves surely play within her when she hears that song from her past. How could she resist being transported back to that time, that place, that song as I am transported into different selves when music from my past plays?

I suspect that each of us rests inside Russian dolls of music. The largest doll is this decade, and the smallest is the early music that seemed to tell our stories, the ones that evoked angst and sorrow, the music that made it impossible to keep our feet and heads still.

Reading and Writing Challenge:

Peel back your musical layers as you listen to music from your past, and as you do, try to describe the dance you dance.  Or “read” You Can't Always Get What You Want. Write a poem revealing the images and emotions that the song evokes. Then "read" Kelly Clarkson's What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger. Write a second poem revealing the images and emotions evoked by this theme song.