Wednesday, June 19, 2013

If Stephen King Taught 7th Grade

As writer of 50 world-wide bestselling books, Stephen King has more “street cred” than I in the eyes of 7th graders, but that’s okay: He and I agree all the way down the line.  When I teach writing, he’s got my back!  

Until King decided that writing was a full-time job, he was an English teacher.    If he were to teach 7th grade now, he’d have to re-learn to clean up his language.  He agrees with his mother that “profanity and vulgarity is the language of the ignorant and the verbally challenged “ (187), but he makes exceptions for “color and vitality,” for characters who would talk that way, and for himself.

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He’d have students read a lot.  “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life,” keeping King occupied standing in lines, even at meals (148).  What a young writer reads does not matter.  “I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories.  [Yet every book] has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones” (145).  He does recommend hundreds of good writers, from whom to learn “style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling” (146), but he would not assign readings.  “If you don’t have time to read,”  he’d say, sternly, “you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that” (147).

He’d have students write all the time, and only fiction.  What he calls “informal essays” are “silly and insubstantial things” and “fluffery” that have no market in the “actual mall-and-filling-station world” (131).     That said, the postscript “On Living” is a gripping informal essay about the accident that nearly killed King halfway through writing this book, and about how writing helped him to recover.  

As for writing classes (231 ff.), he’d steer clear of students’ sharing their work, at least until the first drafts are complete.  He’d say to read more, write more, discuss less.

In his “toolbox” for writers, he places vocabulary first and grammar second; yet he would not teach either of these.  Reading and experience will do that (117).  “Use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful,” he advises (118).  As for grammar, he recognizes “one either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.  What Sophomore English does (or tries to do) is little more than naming of parts” (119).  But he does  offer these lessons:
  •  “Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence.  It never fails.  Rocks explode.  Jane transmits.  Mountains float.”   The grammar of simple sentences is “the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking” (121)
  • Fragments are okay, for effect.  But know the rule before you break it.
  • "Timid" writers use passive voice and adverbs: avoid both.  Examples to laugh at:  My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun, amended to My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I’ll never forget it (124).  and, from one of his own stories, “You can’t be serious,” Bill said unbelievingly.  (128)
  • “I hate and mistrust pronouns,” he writes, “every one of them as slippery as a fly-by-night-personal-injury lawyer” (214).  Knock out all pronouns with unclear antecedents, he advises.
  • The paragraph, not the sentence, should be considered the “basic unit of writing – the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words” (134).   Topic sentence followed by support and description can’t be beat for explaining ideas and experiences.   In fiction, the rules are relaxed, but how the paragraphs look on a page can have an effect on the reader’s experience (129).
  • He models how to teach a fifty-minute class on just one page of one story (132), pointing out techniques of dialogue attribution, phonetically rendered language (“dunno”), use of the comma, the choice not to use an apostrophe in “lookin” and the flow and rhythm of the paragraphs (133).
Theme is a favorite topic for teachers,  but for King, theme is just one more tool in the writer’s toolbox.   “Theme” is simply a word for any patterns that we find in writing.  After he finished Carrie, for example, he noticed that blood figured importantly at the three key scenes of the story.  That’s when he thought of other ways to highlight this theme of “blood” in his novel, adding in references to Christ’s blood that washes away sin, blood that symbolizes guilt, and blood ties to family (it’s in the blood).  Theme helped him to complete The Stand when he realized that the good guys and the bad guys were all beginning to resemble each other as they resorted to violence, and that gave his second draft a clearer shape.  He did not, however, preach a sermon against violence.  He doesn’t want to teach a lesson, he says, but
What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in [the reader’s] mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf.  I’m looking for ways to do that without spoon-feeding the reader or selling my birthright for a plot of message.  Take all those messages and those morals and stick em where the sun don’t shine, all right?  I want resonance.  (214)
He likes story; he doesn’t use plot.  Some writers “plot” out their stories in advance, but King starts with a situation, a question of “what if?” and he gradually learns about the characters as he writes.  He likes to be surprised by his own endings  (164-169).

He’d insist on a balanced approach to description.  “Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted.  Overdescription buries him or her in details and images” (174).  He scorns description when it’s a “shortcut to character,” as in the hero’s sharply intelligent blue eyes (175).  Straight description is good, but figurative description is “one of the chief delights” of reading and writing:   “When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does” (178).

Other portions of the book relate to his own life, to publishing, and to editing.   A note on a rejection slip helps him to this day:  “Second draft = 1st Draft – 10%” (222).  He enriches his lessons with stories from his own writing, and he spices the pages with frequent references to favorite writers (Raymond Chandler stands out) and some bad fiction (Bridges of Madison County comes up more than once).

I’ve got enough here to support me with my own 7th graders this year.  Thanks, Mr. King.

(Reflections on Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner paperback, 2010.  Originally published in 2000)

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