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Living with Schizoaffective Disorder

What I Learned
from Stephen King Today

Don't be discouraged by setbacks: failure is absolutely certain if you give up.
Your hard work and persistence will ultimately be rewarded.

Michael David Crawford, Baritone,

April 19, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Michael D. Crawford. All Rights Reserved.

Today's reading comes from On Writing by Stephen King. The first part of the book is a short autobiography, followed by a longer section on how to write well.

In describing his wife as a sensible woman, King quotes another writer:

There's a place in A Raisin in the Sun where a character cries out: "I want to fly! I want to touch the sun!" to which his wife replies, "First eat your eggs."

And that reminded me a great deal of myself and Bonita. Let's just say that Bonita is the sensible one in our marriage.

I sat in a cafe reading On Writing this afternoon while waiting for her. Lately I have been feeling like crap. I get all these great ideas for how I can make our lives better than they are, and either they don't work out or it takes so much time and trouble to implement them that I get discouraged. I've been having a hard time even getting out of bed this last week.

I realized that King had some sensible advice for me in his book today.

Inside: What Stephen King had in common with Kilgore Trout.

On Writing front cover

On Writing
A Memoir of the Craft

by Stephen King

[ Buy]

I have many irons in the fire. There is my software consulting, the way I make my living now. There is my writing, I make some money with it already through advertising and hope to make more someday. As I said yesterday, I'm going to apply to graduate school in computer science. I hope later to go to music school. (Here are my MP3s.)

Sometimes, for (at first) no apparent reason, I get tired. Overwhelmingly tired. I get so tired I can hardly sit up in my chair and I have to go lie down. Eventually the feeling passes but until it does I have no choice but to rest.

Usually it turns out that I have become discouraged somehow, and feeling discouraged makes me tired. Bonita says to fight it. She says if I am ever to succeed in my struggle I must resist. "Fight it with what?" I protest. How am I to slay a dragon if I am too weak to hold my sword?

King's mother encouraged his writing from a very early age but told him to become a teacher so he would have something to fall back on. He got a teaching credential from the University of Maine but was unable to find a teaching position, so he worked in an industrial laundry. Sometimes the restaurant tablecloths and bloodsoaked hospital sheets he washed had been left to fester so long that they were covered with maggots.

Eventually King did get a job as a high school teacher. He had this to say about it:

... for the first time in my life, writing was hard. The problem was the teaching. I liked my coworkers and loved the kids - even the Beavis and Butt-Head types in Living with English could be interesting - but by most Friday afternoons I felt as if I'd spent the week with jumper cables clamped to my brain. If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then. I could see myself thirty years on, wearing the same shabby tweed coats with patches on the elbows, potbelly rolling over my Gap khakis from too much beer. I'd have a cigarette cough from too many packs of Pall Malls, thicker glasses, more dandruff, and in my desk drawer, six or seven unfinished manuscripts which I would take out and tinker with from time to time, usually when drunk. If asked what I did in my spare time, I'd tell people I was writing a book - what else does any self-respecting creative-writing teacher do with his or her spare time? And of course I'd lie to myself, telling myself there was still time, it wasn't too late, there were novelists who didn't get started until they were fifty, hell, even sixty. Probably plenty of them.

But write King did.

Venus on the Half Shell front cover

Venus on the Half Shell

by Kilgore Trout

[ Buy]

Here is where I come to Kilgore Trout. Kilgore Trout is a fictional character in several of Kurt Vonnegut's novels, a down-on-his-luck science fiction writer. Up until about the time King taught high school, in the early 70's, porn magazines had to have content of some literary value in them, or else the courts would decide that they had no redeeming social value and so judge them obscene. Kilgore Trout was such a poor writer that the only way he could get published, was to write such filler material for porn magazines.

That's what King did too. His work as a teacher, and his wife's work at Dunkin Donuts wasn't enough to enable them and their two young children to get by, so King wrote short stories for men's magazines. The most money he ever made as a writer before he got his big break came as a stroke of luck at a desperate time: he didn't have the money to take his sick daughter to the doctor, until he came home to find that the "purveyors of Cavalier and many other fine adult publications" had sent him a check for five hundred dollars for his story "Sometimes they Come Back".

It is not easy working as a software consultant. Often the clients are ungrateful and far more demanding than they would ever be of their own employees. If I'm working on a fixed-cost contract and I get stuck on a bug, sometimes I will go weeks without getting paid until I fix it. Sometimes because of such bugs we run out of food or heating oil, while the phone rings off the hook from all the bill collectors calling to demand money. Sometimes when I'm done with a contract I'm not able to find new work right away. Sometimes a contract goes bad suddenly and I'm left unemployed with no advance notice or job prospects.

Still, there are some advantages. I can live pretty much wherever I want and keep my own hours. When work isn't too busy I'm able to find time to pursue my writing and my music. Bonita just yesterday finished her first year of art school, that I'm putting her through, and next week she's flying to Spain with a bunch of other students from NSCAD. Even during the worst of times I know that I do have some hope, in that I have training and experience in a valuable job skill, a skill I worked hard for years to develop.

But sometimes I get discouraged. I'm able to get by this way, but it is never easy. If anyone had some easy software development they needed done, they wouldn't hire a consultant to do it, now would they? And so I try to find another way to get by.

I'm able to make some money with my writing, but not enough that I can quit consulting. If I could, I could just spend all my time writing, something I would dearly love to do, but I cannot. If I am ever to succeed with my writing, I must write more prose even while I write code, and write both well, but it is hard to do that when my work is so hectic. And sometimes I get discouraged, so discouraged that it feels as if all the blood has drained out of me and it is all I can do to stagger to my bed and lie down.

Carrie front cover


by Stephen King

[ Buy]

When King got the idea for Carrie, he intended to write a short story at first, for one of those men's magazines. Maybe he could even sell it to Playboy:

Playboy paid up to two thousand dollars for short fiction. Two thousand bucks would buy a new transmission for the Buick with plenty left over for groceries.

He typed up three pages and then, feeling it wasn't going anywhere, he threw his manuscript in the trash.

His wife later fished the manuscript out of the wastebasket, brushed the cigarette ash off it and suggested he work in it some more. King decided she was right.

Working on Carrie, despite feeling that it was pointless at first, gave King:

... the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.

King finished his manuscript, and sent it off to an acquaintance at Doubleday. A long time later, and I think after he'd given up much hope, a reply came to tell him that Carrie had been accepted for publication, and would a twenty-five hundred dollar advance be acceptable?

That's as far as I've read so far, but I know how it turns out in the end. On the cover of On Writing is says the book is an "acclaimed New York Times bestseller".

Sometimes - often - Bonita gets frustrated with me. Today we got a tour of the Dalhousie computer science department, shown around by grad student Chris Jordan. As we left, Bonita said "I'm just waiting to see what you'll want to be tomorrow. I bet tomorrow you're going to say you want to be a dancer."

I get many ideas, and they often seem like good ideas. Bonita says more of my ideas would pay off if I just picked one and stuck with it. Instead I'm always chasing butterflies.

And that's what I'm determined to do: stick with it. Things are actually better for the two of us now than they have been since before we left Maine. Not easy, no, but we have money in the bank, more on its way and I have two good clients, nice people even, who both have interesting projects.

I have a website whose homepage is PageRank 6, something I achieved by working at my website steadily, although somewhat randomly, for over seven years now. All of my programming tips are at least PageRank 4, some are PageRank 5. I shouldn't be complaining that I'm not yet able to retire from my AdSense earnings, I should be thanking my lucky stars anyone reads my writing at all: I could instead be writing website design tips for Hustler.

I have lots of ideas for articles to write, but typically of me I have several started but not yet finished. What I really need to do is just pick one and work on it until it is finished.

Sometimes I feel despair at how long its going to be until I can pass the music school audition. But the only way to ever have any hope of passing it is to practice, simply practice my piano, every day. Sometimes I despair at all the work it will require to learn to play well enough, but really the work required of me on any given day is pretty modest: practice for an hour, maybe two.

Spread the Word!

Please encourage others to read this essay by linking to it from your website, your weblog, or from message boards.

Writers today, not just me, have a tremendous advantage over the young Stephen King: we can self-publish on the web, and make money from advertising. If any particular article doesn't generate much revenue, well, that's OK, it's really cheap to serve a website full of static pages. King had to get his work accepted by editors, and his work published in magazines that were expensive to print and mail. Anyone who accepted one of young Stevie King's manuscripts was placing an expensive bet on his appeal as a writer, but for me there is very little risk of losing money on anything I publish.

The best part is that I get to keep the rights to anything I write. King's first contract with Doubleday wasn't very good.

You must wonder, sometimes I wonder too, why Bonita sticks with me. Things haven't been easy for her either. Sometimes things have been much harder for her than they would have been if it were not for some of the poor choices I have made. But Bonita said something to me today I found very gratifying. "I tell people that you're brilliant," she said. "I always tell them that."

Bonita is a sensible woman. I don't know what would have become of me if it weren't for her setting me straight when I needed it. Maybe she's not so sensible, in that she chooses to stay with a man devoted to the pursuit of butterflies, but then Bonita is an angel too, and for that I am very grateful.

Thank you for your attention.

-- Mike

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