A Date That’s Hard to Forget

Our cultural memory is built around a series of events that resound in our collective memory.  Some of these are good like the date man first walked on the moon, but many are terrible to recall.  Yet we recall them when each anniversary comes around and remember where we were when “it” happened. For my Dad, his first “It” date was December 7, 1941.  His childhood memories were divided by the day he went fishing and came home to a country at war.   For me and a lot of other Baby Boomers, our first “It” day is today.  November 22, 1963.  President Kennedy’s assassination threw such a big rock in our river of memory that the ripples hit our personal lives.  
Those ripples are one of the big themes in the King novel titled with that date.  In a way, it’s a normal time-travel tale: a man goes back in time to prevent something bad and finds out success can breed a bigger failure.  In another way, it’s much more than that; it’s a tour of history and a trip through a human heart.
King’s research in story tale showed me I don’t know very much about the event I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life.  Yes, I remember my mother crying uncontrollably when the president was shot and how so many grown-ups around me hated, just hated he’d been killed in our state, Texas.  But I didn’t know the assassination probably wasn’t Oswald’s first attempt; seven months earlier, a retired army general had been shot at in his home and evidence indicates Oswald pulled the trigger. That information suggests something in Oswald’s motive to me: he was killed people for fame, not politics.  The segregationist/arch-conservative views of the general were the opposite of Kennedy’s liberal ideals.  Oswald wouldn’t have targeted both men because of their deeds; they were political opposites.  What the victims had in common was their celebrity status which makes Oswald like Mark David Chapman: someone so determined to be remembered, they’ll kill to get into history.
11/22/63 also looks at how America has changed in fifty plus years and how we’ve stayed the same. Our wage rates and prices may change but our attitudes towards these don’t.  There are still good people and bad ones and a lot of souls caught in between.  We all know we live in a global economy but we tend to look at the world through home-town glasses.  We still root for the hero and cry when he loses.  We still get up again after we fall. And, like every generation before or since, there are dates we will never forget.

Elegy for an Honest Marriage

It’s October, one of my favorite months for stories, even though most October stories have a tie to the supernatural.   So it only seems right to start off with a story by one of the writers most associated with scary stories: Stephen King.

At its essence, marriage is a closed corporation.  It’s a private entity with its own personality and the principals own all the stock.  Sure, often children are born to a marriage and spouses share parts of their lives with others but these people are beneficiaries, not stockholders; if children leave and friends fall away, the corporation continues unless death or divorce intervene, keeping secrets known only to the principals. At least that’s the premise of Lisey’s Story.  And those untold secrets are what makes a marriage powerful, even when one of the principals dies.
Lisey Landon is still learning about the strength of her marriage years after her husband, Scott, died. Scott was a successful novelist and the public face of their marriage.  His passing left her with a sizable amount of cash, a barn full of books, and some very insensitive academic types that believe their knowledge of Scott Landon’s work gives them superior rights to and understanding of Scott, the man.  Only Lisey knows how wrong they are.
Scott’s commitment to his wife is a suggestion why some marriages go the distance, even when one of the principals is famous.  Landon treats his fans with kindness and respect but recognizes their view of him is grounded in their response to his stories.  In his words, Lisey sees him as himself, a person of both weakness and strength, that is totally separate from his work. Before the world fell in love with Scott’s creations, Lisey fell in love with Scott, not his work, making her one of the few trustworthy souls in his world.  And trust her he does with his deepest secrets, the ones where King’s imagination runs dark.

If parents and siblings knew us when we were children, then spouses see how we live with the effects of that childhood . Lisey’s learns of her husband’s fearful background and the genuine affection that can thread through knots of abuse.  She also discovers the genetic dynamite her husband carries and the extraordinary abilities and terrors he keeps private.  In exchange, Scott gains access to Lisey’s quiet, incredible sense and strength and insight into her long-term dance in a gaggle of sisters. To the public, Scott and Lisey Landon look like an uneven couple but they are a strong, symbiotic team, unaffected by fame or money. The marriage is based on mutual trust they’ve learned to rely on, knowing each will not only keep the other’s secrets but the secrets they hide from themselves.  

King fans will find the humor and gruesome scenes in Lisey’s Story that fill many of their favorite author’s books and literary fans will be enchanted by the pool at Boo’ya Moon, the place Scott says all storytellers drink from to find the words and ideas that keep them writing and us reading.  But make no mistake, Lisey’s Story is primarily a love song, a hymn for a long, loving marriage.  Listen well because songs are all outsiders are allowed to hear.  The best of any good marriage remains a privileged secret.

Taking a Walk

It’s no secret that I love stories: reading, writing, or telling them.  Reading stories is easiest for me to do; all I need are the words and my glasses. Once I find the narrator’s voice, we’re off and all I have to look for is when to take a breath. Telling a story is scary and a whole lot of fun, especially if there’s an appreciative audience. When I’m telling stories, the hardest thing for me to know is when to shut up.  (I’ll admit it, I’m a natural-born ham.)  Writing stories is a different cat altogether; in fact, writing is a cat with claws. As soon as my fingers hit the keys and letters show up on the screen, my inner critic emerges and starts pointing out the obvious flaws. At that point, the tale that was bubbling and aching to get out locks itself behind a gate in my brain. So, what do I do? I’ve learned to take a walk.
Taking a walk is something Stephen King mentioned in his wonderful book, On Writing.  (Seriously, I’ve read a stack-load of books on the craft of putting down prose and this one makes me believe I can do that.  That means it’s either a great book for unlocking the would-be writer or Mr. King is a terrific snake-oil salesman.  Your choice.)  When he’s unable to see the way to move his plot forward, the man takes long walks. Of course, it was during one of these walks that he got hit by a van but, so far, that hasn’t happened to me.  When I walk, two things happen.
First, I get away from the problem.  I know this sounds a little like run-away-Leslie but when the screen is white and the words aren’t coming, away is where I need to be.  Once my mind is focused on something else, the pressure is off.  And when that happens the words come back.  Maybe an idea, a scene,  or just a sentence or two, but enough to move the tale a bit further.  Do that often enough and you can walk your way out of trouble.  Or you’ll start losing weight.  All it takes is getting away from the page.  Well, it takes one other thing.
Hit the Trail!
My sister once told me of an early exercise she saw that helped a small boy with autism. A counselor sat the kid in a swing and tried to interact with him.  No dice. Kid seemed like he had turned to stone sitting there on the seat.  The counselor started pushing the swing so the kid’s form was in motion.  The little boy began to talk, laugh, and react.  It took the motion of the swing to unlock the kid’s communication center.  I think that’s what happens when people walk.  The legs get moving, the arms start swinging, and the frozen communication center cracks open. All you have to do is remember what the unblocked brain released and stay away from the traffic.
Does that mean the secret to great writing is a treadmill desks? Perish the thought.  Creating is just the first part of the task; honing and revising sentences until the paragraphs begin to sing requires long-term focused, not creative thought.  But if you need to write something and it feels like your brain’s  in concrete, don’t panic.  Just grab your walking stick, your sneakers and music and hit the trail.  It’s amazing what you’ll see during a walk.

Love & Death in a New England Summer

There are stories that pass through your brain and leave, unnoticed and unmissed.  Others are  like summer romances that hold you until there’s a change in the weather.  And there are stories you find by chance that stay with you forever.  I’ve been rereading Bag of Bones for fifteen years now and I believe I’ve fallen in love to stay.  That’s good because love is a driving force in this book, along with death and in a New England summer.

Stephen King turned into a writer sometime while my back was turned.  A first, he was a commercial success and a critic’s nightmare come true.  I couldn’t stand his early prose, so I ignored him.  Then one August day I was combing the shelves, craving a good ghost story.  (Ghost stories and haunted houses are DOCs of mine.)  This book was on the shelf and I was desperate enough to try anything, even a book by Stephen King.  It hit like a tidal wave.

Mike and Joanna Noonan have the marriage we lesser mortals crave.  They like and understand each other and she knows when to deflate his ego.  Not that Mike needs much deflating.  He’s one of King’s Everymen, a decent, sensible guy who happens to write for a living.  These two likeable people should have given each other decades of joy and a couple of kids.  Bag of Bones could have been called, “Lives that Should have been.”

Because Joanna Noonan is dead on page one and Mike is left alone.  His ability to write packs up and leaves shortly after her funeral.  Now, Stephen King published thirty-three novels in the quarter century before Bag of Bones but somewhere along the way he learned about writer’s block.  It’s real and it’s hell and he captures that pain on the pages of this book. Without his wife or the ability to work, our hero is a man without focus.

Luckily, he still has a few things left to love, like his summer home “on the TR” and reading.  If anything, Bag of Bones is a book-lovers book.  It cites authors from Melville to McDonald and is tied, through multiple references to Rebecca (one of my all-time, hands-down, favorites)  After four years of grief, Mike returns to the summer home he and his wife loved so well.  That’s when the bad stuff really starts.

One issue pertains to the nice girl down the road and her toddler daughter, Kyra.  Mike gets caught in the cross-fire of a custody battle between the girl and  her terrible father-in-law.  That’s bad but Mike’s bigger problem are the people in his house.  You could say Mike’s not living alone, except he’s the only one in the house that’s alive.  These problems and others keep him on the place and in the bulls-eye of unending curse.  To survive and save someone he loves, Mike must unearth the secrets that holds the TR in its grip and he’ll find out which forces really survive death.

Lyrical in places and perfectly paced, Bag of Bones turned me into a fan.   If you pick it up now, you’ll read it at the height of the summer, the perfect time for this story.  Read it in the woods, or by the lake but don’t read it when you’re alone.  It’s too easy to believe in ghosts when you’re book-deep in a summer’s night.

When Fans Go Bad: Finders Keepers

Fans are the double-edged sword to creative people, everyone knows that.  Actors, artists and poets makes a living (occasionally a good one) because the fans like and purchase their work, which is great.  Develop a big enough fan base and an artist will encounter those who want to thank him or her personally.  A smaller group than that will mistake their enthusiasm as the basis of a personal relationship.  Gain enough popularity and the artist will face fans that expect to control his/her life and work.  Take this to the extreme and the artist will certainly die. 
Stephen King covered this in his novel, Misery but he gave Annie Wilkes a few bits of leavening humor.  What other professed lover of words would cut herself off from expressions of anger, so her profanity is limited to words like “cock-a-dooty”?  As destructive and strange as Annie is, at times she’s also comical.  That endearing shade of grey is missing from King’s newest novel about toxic fans, Finders Keepers.  It suggests admiration may be the most dangerous response in the world.

At odds are two readers of a twentieth-century novelist.  Both readers are young males when they find their author’s most-lauded works, a series of novels reminiscent of John Updike’s “Rabbit” series. The younger man loves the structure of the books, the style, and the weave of fiction and autobiography that pulls each individual tale.  The elder identifies with the series protagonist in the way Mark David Chapman glommed onto Holden Caulfield and judges the world by his internalized champion’s standards.  Two young men from damaged backgrounds, years apart and unknown to each other, but both obsessed with a writer’s unpublished stories but with a difference:  the elder man wants to keep the stories for himself; the younger man would share them with the world.   The world is safe when the first fan hides the manuscripts until the younger man inadvertently finds them. 
This problem falls into the hands of Bill Hodges, King’s retired detective of Mr. Mercedes.  It falls to Bill and his friends to piece together the disjointed story, find the manuscripts, and rescue their custodian before the murdering maniac can tear them all limb from limb.  If King has improved one aspect of his writing over the years it is pacing and Finders Keepers is a genuine page-turner.
So look out for the book, if you are interested.  And you are especially moved by someone’s work, politely tell them, and then move on.  Don’t expect them to be pals or your Jedi Master.  They are artists with their own lives and work and besides, they’ve learned to be careful of fans.  Among the adoring who just want to shake some creator’s hand, stands the maniac armed with a gun.