In Stephen King’s book On Writing he tells the story of how his first novel Carrie was almost scrapped. This was back when he was making sixty-four hundred dollars a year teaching high school English. Back when King and his wife Tabitha (a budding author in her own right) lived in a doublewide trailer. He would later dub the town they called home, “the asshole of the world.” He typed the first few pages from the laundry room. The churning washing machine set the mood. Uncertain of his concept or the likeability of his characters, King crumpled up the first draft. He chucked it in the waste basket with the cigarette butts and the beer cans.
That night he came home to find the pages set on the counter top. The cigarette ashes had been shaken off. The paper had been blown dry. The pages had been smoothed of their creases. Tabby had fished the manuscript from the trash, sat down and read it. She told him to keep on with the story, that he was cooking with gas, that she wanted to know what happened next. He protested. He said he didn’t know jack shit about high school girls. He couldn’t fathom why he’d ever thought to write about them.
She pressed him. “You’ve got something here.” She tilt her head with a coy smile, “I really think you do.”
Carrie went on to be the first novel that King saw fit to attach his real name to. The film made that name a household name. King may not be considered the most prolific author of his generation, but I’ll be damned if you’ve ever met anyone who hasn’t heard of him.
King was staring down the barrel of an uncertain future, full of tweed coats and leather patches. Days of pimple-ridden sociopaths and nights of parent teacher conferences. He imagined his beer gut cascading over his belt, down his pleated khakis. He imagined smoking his way to cancer. He saw himself desperately trying to tailor his work for Playboy or Penthouse or any nudie mag that would have him. He saw himself in his forties, swearing there were novelists who hadn’t gotten started until their fifties.
Tabitha spared King that fate. She reached into the wastebasket and fished him out. She didn’t just rescue a dime store horror story, or a novelist’s budding career, she rescued the man. At least that’s the way that I tell it.
I have romanticized this story to no end. I have sprinkled in details I couldn’t possibly know. So sue me.
King says that whenever he sees a first novel dedicated to a wife or a husband, he thinks, There’s someone who knows. Writing is a lonely job. The hours are erratic. The pay is a rain check from fate, and fate’s credit is shit. Having someone who believes in you might be enough. There’s a lot to be said for validation. Just a little bit goes a long way. Screw food and shelter, writers can sustain themselves on validation. Never forget that writing is telepathy. When someone tips your skull open and they like what they see, that’s a big deal. Sure, you need to take criticism. Your work needs to evolve. Valid feed back is important, but keep those smiling faces as close as you can. You’re going to need them. Their kind words will carry you through the next project.
I’ve chucked plenty a manuscript into that figurative waste basket. No one’s fished my ass out yet.
“Pity party, you’re table’s ready.” The waiter spins to reveal a pair of coat tails.
The writer waves the second chair away from the table, “Oh, no thank you. It’s just me this evening.”
Part of me wonders is it the writing that makes us lonely or were we always lonely and the writing was just a way to pass the time? Is writing something we do for the passion of it, or is it just a way to keep ourselves from picking at the scabs? Passing notes in high school, I’m certain it started as a way to put my thoughts anywhere but inside my head. I want to believe I’ve come to do it for the passion of it.
A writer’s determination teeters on the brink of self-delusion. I suspect they’re two sides of the same coin. We judge an author’s career on where that coin lands. Heads, they were determined. Tails, they were delusional. Maybe I’m just waiting on some publisher to call my career in the air, or maybe just one of those bright smiling faces.
God damn it, I have a novel I really ought to be getting back to… and now I’m just ranting…
…It’s okay. This happens every fall.