I love Stephen King. And I hate getting into one of his novels.
You see, whenever I start one of King’s novels, I stop writing my own. I recently (finally) got to 11/22/63 and it was essential. I tried audio book for the first time, filling my commute time, and rushed to my car each day to keep going. If you’ve read/listened to the book, you’ll understand: like always with him, the story draws you in so you’re freakishly eager to turn the page (or, in my case, keep listening).
But for the month it took to finish the book (a 30-hour audio), I only wrote a few thousand words. My mind would race with ideas after each listen, but when it came to put down my own writing, the ideas became a jumble. Characters who had become old friends were suddenly unfamiliar, cold; scenes I had outlined drifted into nebulous dream-states. It was writing as if in a nightmare: you wander a labyrinth-like house, searching for your writing room, and all you feel is terror and confusion.
The month following I wrote on a tear: 5,000 words a day, the sentences flowing with ease. I think back now and know that my psyche needed time to recover, to absorb. It is as if each book I read of his becomes a master class in how to write, a reminder of techniques I’ve culled from him.
No other writer does this to me. Maybe it’s because I started reading his novels when I was 8 years old and would hide under my covers at night with a flashlight. First Carrie, then The Shining, then The Stand. More followed as I got older. As I began to write myself as a teenager, I modeled my writing (or have tried) after his brand of storytelling: page turning is key; deep establishment of character; heavy anxiety as the story arc progresses.
Maybe it is simply a way to get distracted. It’s not like I can switch off being engrossed in his story and then give mine its due focus. I don’t know about you, but when I am working on a book, I am nearly obsessed with it. My wife will ask me something, but I am in another zone thinking about how Sterling will escape the trap set for him, or why he even went back knowing it was a trap. What does Sophia really think about abandoning Anlon after she learns the truth? Of course my wife has no idea about any of this, and simply sees me staring off, and not answering her question. It most often irritates her. Sigh.
We all know, as writers, that distraction is all too easy. It does not take much. Hell, I am spending time writing this post rather than working on my new novel. But I am wondering if some of these distractions are somehow essential themselves. I think of the time after I finished 11/22/63, and my mind was a streaking meteor. For me, my obsession is so consuming when I work on a novel that a temporary escape is required. In King’s case, that escape is to visit the oracle and learn.
Now if only all my distractions were this fruitful. At least there is King and his Library of Alexandria, where I can rest, read, and nourish myself again and again.