Day Eight: The damn books

UnknownHere’s Day Eight of the 30-day writing challenge Deana is forcing me to do.

Day Eight: A book you love and one you didn’t

It’s tough to narrow it down to one book I love. I have several, and each of them made me slam them shut and say, “Damn! I want to DO this.”

Writers like to say they write for themselves and no one else–that they’re letting out their feelings and personal truth, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

We’re lying when we say that. It sounds deep and nice and all, but it’s not the least bit true. And Stephen King was the first writer I read who admitted that it was a lie. I’m paraphrasing, but, in his one of his many non-fiction pieces where he discussed his writing, he said: You write to have an impact on an audience. You want to control them and make them feel things. You want to dazzle them with your craft, overwhelm them with emotion, cross them over with a plot twist, but through it all, you want to impose your will on an audience.

I had a drama teacher in college who said something similar about acting. She talked about playing the Rat Queen in the school’s production of the Nutcracker each year, and how, for weekday matinees, they’d bring local elementary schoolchildren in on field trips. She said that, right before her scene, she would peek out from the side of the stage. “I want to see them all sitting there, with their little legs dangling off the seats,” she said, “and think, ‘I’m gonna scare the SHIT out of them.’ ”

I know the feeling, and Stephen King was the first writer to make me feel it. It wasn’t the scary scenes of his books that had the biggest impact, it was simple phrases and words. The first sentence of his that made me slam the book shut and say “Damn!” was in Pet Sematary.

Midway through the book, King wrote a scene about a father taking his toddler (named Gage) to the park to fly kites. He closed the chapter with, “And Gage, who now had less than two months to live, laughed shrilly and joyously.”

Bam! Just an open-handed slap to the face of the audience.

You can knock someone out with a jab, if you time it and place it perfectly, and that’s what King does here. We’ve gotten to know this young family, and that’s how he breaks the news that the kid is going to die.

He did it in The Shining and The Stand too–just grabbed ahold of his audience and took them where he wanted them to go, using whatever it took–jabs, body blows, wild left hooks. It’s just mind-boggling. How can you NOT want to do that?

Then there was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. That was the book that explained to me what writing was. I read it early in high school, and up until then, I had spent my time learning the rules of writing–how a story needed to be structured, what you were supposed to do, how it was all supposed to work. And then Heller broke every rule.

Catch-22 is a glorious mess of a book. The characters talk in circles and the timeline is a muddled mess, and through all of that chaos, an organized, coherent narrative, with strong opinions on everything from war to bureaucracy to capitalism emerges.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”

It doesn’t make a bit of sense … and yet it’s utterly brilliant. The rules are great, but writing really takes off when you break them for a reason.

More recently, Michael Lewis has been the writer that makes me slam the book shut. When I speak at schools, I always open with this (abbreviated) scene from The Blind Side, where Lawrence Taylor breaks Joe Theismann’s leg.

From the snap of the ball to the snap of the bone is closer to four seconds than to five. One Mississippi … Two Mississippi … Three Mississippi … Four Mississippi: Taylor is coming. From the snap of the ball Theismann has lost sight of him. He doesn’t see Taylor carving a wide circle behind his back; he doesn’t see Taylor outrun his blocker upfield and then turn back down; and he doesn’t see the blocker diving, frantically, at Taylor’s ankles. He doesn’t see Taylor leap, both arms over his head, and fill the sky behind him. Theismann prides himself on his ability to stand in the pocket and disregard his fear. He thinks this quality is a prerequisite in a successful NFL quarterback. “When a quarterback looks at the rush,” he says, “his career is over.” Theismann has played in 163 straight games, a record for the Washington Redskins. He’s led his team to two Super Bowls, and won one. He’s thirty-six years old. He’s certain he still has a few good years left in him. He’s wrong. He has less than half a second.

At that point, I close the book, look at the class, and say, “Damn! … Damn!” Dude is writing about sports and can do it like that. How can you not want to do that?

As for the second half of the writing prompt, about books I don’t love … there are plenty, but damn … I can’t think of them right now.


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