Thank you, Mister King.

I’m a third of the way through Stephen King’s memoir, and I’m already a new person. I’ve read a lot of books on writing, especially lately, but this one is teaching me the most important lesson that exists for me. No rules, no tips, no advice on writing the perfect query (so far). He just tells his experience in a way that slams one relentless message into my brain.

Be vulnerable!

EEK!

I said not too long ago on Facebook that I’m afraid of opinions. Boy did I pick the right career, huh? And not just writing. I’m a photographer, a singer…I majored in theatre, for crying out loud! You would think that someone like me, practically a calculator, would have a career in accounting. It seemed obvious to my guidance counselor, but did I take her advice and change my major? Nope. Not me. I’m trying to get out of my safe zone, face my fears.

I was thinking as I devoured Mr. King’s book that what I was learning could be applied to any endeavor, not just writing, and a friend confirmed that thought today. If you truly want something, you have to be willing to work for it, and that means being willing to offer a part of yourself up to a world that may just eat you alive. This post, written by a peer of mine, illustrates just how cruel the world can be. And I want to subject myself to that? Yes. I do. But why?

I want to be more than I am. And then more again. I remember the exact day I first realized I wasn’t the person I wanted to be. I was in elementary school, and I had a problem.

I was so sheltered at home that I was rendered clueless about trends in music and pretty much everything else. I knew it, too, so I kept my head down as much as possible. One day I heard a song on the playground that I didn’t understand but knew instinctively was describing sex. A group of my schoolmates stood in a circle passing around a pair of headphones and singing along. They motioned me over and passed me the headphones. It was the perfect opportunity for me to show my ignorance, and I took it. It turned out not to be a difficult song to learn. Two words, over and over, and a bunch of breathy moaning. It was stupid, but I didn’t say so. I bobbed my head the way the other kids did, an unknown alien among them.

I had made a mistake before, and I had no intention of repeating it. On a day prior to this incident I had overheard a popular girl singing a song that I actually knew. My mother listened to it in our minivan. I was stunned to hear the pretty blond singing it. Before I could control myself I asked her if she had also heard another song similar to it. Picture me: the tiny, over-enthusiastic girl, latching onto anything that I thought I had in common with miss popular. I’ll never forget the look she gave me. It named me a bug that needed to be squashed.

“I don’t listen to oldies, Rachel,” she said. “This is the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.”

Pure horror. I had done the thing I had so expertly avoided for so long. I had shown the people I most wanted to impress that I was a dork. Not by choice, maybe, but a dork nonetheless. It felt like the biggest problem in the world, piled onto shoulders much too small to bear the weight. Sitting here almost thirty years later, I can still feel the nausea. From that day on, I never let anyone know what songs I listened to, even after I started getting to make the decision myself. A part of me died. I lost a battle on that day that would hinder me artistically for years to come.

Since then I have learned to be vulnerable, but probably not to the extent that true success requires. Every time I hesitate to write my true voice into my books, I run the risk of losing that battle. If I play it safe, I won’t shock anyone, right? And that, I think, is the problem. Mediocrity shocks no one, and it fails to sell itself.

Sam and Millie is the first book I’ve written with no regard for the whispered warnings of that scared little girl on the playground. No turning the music down on this one. No mediocrity.

Whatever your art is, do it all the way. Sing the way you sing when you’re alone. Does anyone besides you really know what you’re capable of? If not, show someone! Dance like no one can see you. Be fearless, and be who you are. Share that photograph you took that you’ve been hiding because you think no one else will get it. Compose the music that no one else can hear, and write your stories from the places that shock you the most. And when the world tries to eat you alive, stick in their throats.

Now to finish the memoir. I have  a feeling that the actual instruction part is coming. I considered finishing the book before I posted my thoughts on it, but I was afraid I would forget my initial reaction.

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~ by Rachel McMahon on March 22, 2011.

5 Responses to “Thank you, Mister King.”

  1. I’ve learned that unless I am willing to be vulnerable and ridiculous onstage I will never find the best choices and the truth of the characters. It’s one of the hardest things to impress upon my students, who are smack dab in the middle of wanting their peers’ approval…it’s so hard to get them to let go of that in class.
    This is good advice for any art form – thanks!

  2. Hi, Katheryn. Thanks for your input! I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to discover this book.

  3. Great advice baby, and great writing!

  4. Thanks for the link!

    Past embarrassments can be good motivation for writing. I heard a good piece of advice today: “A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him.”
    So never mind the trolls, let your voice through and dare to be excellent.

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