Let’s talk about your literary history. What books make up the foundation of your writing?
This is one of my favorite exercises from my studies in writing. It makes us look back so we can move forward. (Philosophical, huh?)
My literary history starts with Dr. Seuss and Stephen King. These are the stories I remember from my childhood.
I have the fondest memories of Dr. Seuss books. The art is simple enough that, as a kid, I thought I could draw like that. The stories were short, holding my young attention span. The words are like an amusement park for my mouth. They are the first stories that I remember having fun listening to and reading. I’ve taken them with me my entire life, even into my education and writing. It was my education, learning to look at stories critically, that opened my eyes on just how deep Dr. Seuss stories are. Despite the easy art style and the ridiculous rhyming, the Seuss stories are mainly theme based, and quite hefty themes at that. Who can forget his story based on discrimination and racial equality? The Sneetches. What about the one about personal responsibility? The Cat in the Hat. And the one about fear of the unknown? There’s a Wocket in my Pocket (my favorite). Dr. Seuss taught me that it’s fun to read, and that stories are a powerful medium for communicating.
This next part is not a joke. My mother read Stephen King to me and my sister as bedtime stories. I was ten or twelve, my sister seven or nine. We would snuggle up close to mom in bed, dad would be out plowing the roads on midnight-turn, and she would read Thinner and The Tommyknockers to us. My sister would be asleep within a page or two, but I would listen to mom’s voice until she would inevitably drift off with the book in her hands. These are some of the best memories I have of my mother. When I started reading novels myself I started with Stephen King; I think to have something to talk about with her. However, Stephen King has stuck with me, and I still read his work today. One of the take-aways, the biggest I think, I got from Stephen King is that protagonists don’t have to be “good guys.” In Thinner the protagonist is a victim of a gypsy curse, and through the book we sympathize with him, but he’s hardly a good guy. He was driving the car that killed the gypsy’s wife, and when he gets the cure for the curse he feeds it to his wife. This is all without mentioning he’s a lawyer. In Tommyknockers the protagonist is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He doesn’t even really care about the town, he just cares that his best friend has been taken over by aliens. In The Dark Tower Series Roland the gunslinger is the protagonist, but he’s hardly a moral compass. True, he’s better than the Man in Black, or the Red King, but he lets a kid fall to his death rather than save him, and his backstory shows numerous times he’s sacrificed friends for his quest (which even he doesn’t know what it truly is). I know this doesn’t come off as shocking or revelatory in the age of the anti-hero, but when I came across this in my teens it had an impact.
The last thing that makes up the foundation of my literary history is a quote from an interview. (And yes, I can’t remember who said it. I even spent an hour Googling derivations of the quote and several authors, but I couldn’t find it.) The gist of the quote is this: no one wants to read a story where everything goes right; it’s not interesting. The quote is a response to a question about why the author puts his characters through so much trouble and pain. For anyone who has read the work I have out there you’ll know that I beat the crap out of my characters both physically and emotionally. When I sit down with a story, one of the first things I do is figure out if a character is going to live at the end. If the answer is yes then I figure out how much damage I can inflict on them and still have it believable that they’re alive on the last page. Again, for those of you who have read my work, you’ll know that making it to the last page alive takes its own toll on the characters.
So, that’s my foundation. This is my foundation, because despite what else may change about my writing, or my views on story, I can’t seem to shake these three things. 1) Above all stories should be fun to read, with a deeper meaning if you’re so inclined to look. 2) Protagonist doesn’t mean good guy. 3) Things are not going to be easy.
The point of the exercise is to look at your writing and figure out what’s consistently there and why it is. Once you’ve identified the consistencies and where they come from, once you’re aware of you, you can start actively using these things in your stories. The things shift from happenstance to tools.
Until next time: Be yourself, be well. Write yourself, write well.