Author Stephen King provided wise words for a writing prompt in the regular 10 minute exercise at the start of our Creative Writing group meet up recently.
In his celebrated book, On Writing, King gives a long rap on his interpretation of the adage, ‘Write what you know’.
‘Which sounds good,’ he says, ‘but what if you want to write about starships exploring other planets …?’
His answer: ‘Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do. If you’re a plumber who enjoys science fiction, you might well consider a novel about a plumber aboard a starship or on an alien planet.’
So we set a writing task to transfer what you know from your work into a piece of fiction.
‘Writing of the Week’ went to Maria Issaris for her knowledge of working in the corporate world, and in journalism asking some political questions:
The corporate world
I knocked on the door, but he did not hear me. His low-backed reclined office chair (the fancier more managerial ones with the ability to tilt and hold large asses) was turned towards the large window overlooking the botanical gardens and that brilliant view of sea, sky and wriggling coastline crusted with buildings that is Sydney.
I walked in, nervous maybe but not, maybe just pretending to be nervous because somehow it works to put people who think they are important at ease. He had my report on his desk, flicked open to page 40, and had rested a pen on it – a red pen, nib slightly moist, having just scrawled some writing in the columns. I walked further on the carpet masking my footsteps, but he heard me and swiftly turned his chair, a phone clutched to his ear, his head sideways, giving it leverage so he could keep his hands free – in this instance his fingers arched together as if forming a span of a bridge, maybe the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which ironically was leaping grey and steady, impossibly hopeful yet solid, a promise of a thing that somehow every day says, I kept my promise, I am here, I will not fail.
For a moment I too looked outside but he waved his hands around indicating that I should sit and wait, imperious for sure, but not too rude, and then he swiveled his chair around towards the view. Great. This gave me time to read what he had written. Several years in this corporation had provided me with multiple skills, many of them rare and of tremendous value, including the ability to read upside down. Corporations are full of mystery and mystique, rituals and covens. It was like working for a religious organisation, and the spells and incantations were important. And here I could read what he had written in the columns – which was ‘Jesus!’, ‘Who does she think she is?’, ‘in another section bloody hell’, and further down on the page, ‘Should we fire her or promote her?’
A journalist in the world of politics
The politician, well, his name was Steve. He was after all a person underneath the ‘Politician’. Steve. Steve Canston. He looked seriously at the pen I was using as I scrawled. I had asked him a question and he was obviously struggling and wanting to look wise and thoughtful to give honour to this situation, which, to the observer was this: a woman sitting at a desk perching a pad on knee, pen perched in hand.
‘So repeat that question,’ he said.
I thought: he is giving himself time to think.
‘What I was wanting to know, Steve,’ I started, naming him and etching some relationship between us of familiarity. It helped to ease people when you interviewed them this way, made them feel at once intimate and important, and we knew what we knew, that I was writing, recording what he was saying, and what I wrote would turn into an article and that article would reach thousands of eyes and what he said was therefore important – but what I wrote about what he said was even more important.
So this meant I needed to inject some humility and niceness into the question.
Difficult. Because, after all, what I wanted to ask was, ‘What the fuck are you doing to our waterways with this sewer plan that will inject treated sewage into the nature table?’
But I didn’t.
What I did ask – with whatever measure of niceness and warmth I could inject that day – with elements of ‘and I am cute and how can you resist showing off your knowledge’ messages – was this:
‘Steve, what parts of the sewage plan are you pleased with, did you have input to, that has your mark on them?’
Oh, God, did he relapse! What a trap of a question that was! Did he realise I had just given him a noose to slip his head into?
He peered up from beneath his brow, not lifting his head, and gave me a look – yep, he knew. I like him all the more for it – meaning, he was not stupid. And he liked me all the more for being this cunning.
‘Well, Charlotte,’ he said, ‘the plan was the product of many minds and I believe in collaborative work and not highlighting my own efforts in the process. There are parts of it that I really like and others that I don’t so much, but that is part of teamwork, don’t you think?’
I sighed – this was why he was a politician.
‘But there must be something that is yours, just yours, Steve. Tell me about …’
Story exercises by Maria Issaris.
Excerpt from Stephen King, ‘On Writing A Memoir of the Craft’ (Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton, 2000, ) pp. 181, 185.
Photo credits: www.ssoa.com.facebook/OfficialStephenKing/; keyboard & pen: www.pexels.com; Sydney harbour: rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au