I’m currently reading ON WRITING by Stephen King (yes, I know it’s not on my summer reading list (yes, I’ve given up on that venture (more on that later))). I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, ever since I first spied it on my library’s bookshelf. Then it was recommended by somebody on some blog that really meant something to me on that particular day and I just wanted to read it even more.
But I also felt like I owed it to my mother to read what King has to say about writing. In order to better explain this, I’m going to have to direct your attention to my childhood.
In ON WRITING, King describes his childhood memories as trees shrouded by fog and that these are the kind of trees that look like they want to reach out and grab you. I can relate. I don’t have a very coherent set of childhood memories, just flashes of pictures and feelings: a ruby-throated hummingbird drinking from an azalea, eating cherry tomatoes in the garden and hoping I don’t get caught, the look of a meadow bathed in honeyed summer sunlight.
I also remember Mom’s bookcase in our second home. Dad built the shelves for her (why go to Wal-Mart to buy cheap crap when you can build something decent for yourself was Dad’s philosophy) and she stuffed them full of her novels. A good chunk of her library was made up with Stephen King, both under his real name and his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. And they were all hardcover first editions. Mr. King may never know this, but my mother was a diehard fan ever since CARRIE came out in 1974. She used to say that if he died before finishing the Dark Tower series, she was going to bring him back to life just so she could kill him.
She should have been more worried about herself. Mom passed away in 2010 before she had a chance to buy and read THE DOME. I inherited Mom’s book collection, and though we’ve gotten rid of some of it, we’ve kept her King library. It resides in our walk-in closet, something my husband did without my knowledge, and when I discovered what he had done, I didn’t want to change it. In my memory of that bookcase in our second home, King’s books seemed to loom as volumes of darkness and bitter humor, like a monster lurking in shadows. Closets are plenty shadowy, so it seemed so perfect, I didn’t want to move them in with the rest of the books in our airy, light-filled spare room.
My Dad always encouraged my writing, but it was my mother who taught me to love reading. When she wasn’t gardening, cooking, or cleaning, she was reading. She read while she ate. She read in bed. She read in an armchair with her feet curled up under herself. When her glasses became too weak for her increasingly bad sight, and we didn’t have the money to replace them, she pulled them up to rest on top of her head and just held the books closer to her face. As King says, you can’t be a writer if you don’t read. Mom wasn’t a writer by trade but she had the soul of a writer.
Most of all, I remember her reading Stephen King, over and over again. I saw the affect one writer can have on someone’s life. It made me realize that a book is never really finished until someone reads it. It’s like singing to yourself. When it’s just you, you’re passing the time. But when there’s someone there to listen, then something magical happens. A connection is formed. Emotions are moved. Something deep and beautiful and extraordinarily human is born, which makes it both resilient and fragile.
Because Mom taught me how to love reading, she had a deep impact on my writing. You can’t write well if you never read. It’s not so much about learning the mechanics. It’s like trying to learn how to swim if you’ve never seen anyone do it. You’ll make an utter mess of it for a good while and even then you’ll probably never get it right. And you’ll never be truly comfortable in the water. The same goes for writing. You need to see how other writers do it. If words never move you to tears or make you laugh or cause you to want to find an adventure of your own, how can you possibly hope to inspire those same feelings in others?
All of this I learned because of my mom. And because Mom loved King, and King wrote a book on writing, I felt like I owed it to her to hear the man out, to see what he has to say. I’ll never know the true extent of King’s impact on Mom’s life. That’s something we never discussed because, to be quite honest, though I’ve looked at the books often enough, I’ve only ever read one: THE EYES OF THE DRAGON. And that was only because Mom told me it was a fantasy novel and that I would like it. That was years ago, and I remember Mom’s hopeful look, that this would inspire me into the same love she had, that we would have something we could share. But though I liked the story well enough, I didn’t try any of the other novels.
All I know is that he and his words meant something profound to her. They moved her. They gave her a world to escape into when she needed it (which was often because we didn’t have easy lives). I stood from the outside and thought, “I want to inspire that.”
So, a couple of days ago, I thought, “Well, Mom, lets see what the man has to say, because he obviously has something to teach me.” And, so far, he’s taught me plenty, making me wonder what I’ve missed out by not reading more of his novels.
So you know what? After I get done with this and read a couple of other books waiting on my Kindle, I think I may go into that shadowy closet, flick on the light, and pick up that first book, bought 38 years ago, and see what Mom’s love was all about. Wherever she is, she’ll probably roll her eyes and say, “Took you long enough.”