Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fornit, some Fornus - writers on writing

[From my Forbes Life column]

The American author Stephen King is too prolific to be easily categorised, but most people who know of his work from a distance think of him as a “horror writer” – he has, after all, published bestsellers about a psychotic dog, a homicidal clown, a creepy hotel with a mind of its own, and a girl who wreaks vengeance on her tormentors through her gift of telekinesis. But one of the scariest King stories I have encountered is the novella “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet”, which is about a writer’s personal hell. The story is included in the collection Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, which, along with King’s On Writing, contains many valuable insights into his profession.

The framing device for the flexible-bullet story is a literary party where an aging editor recalls his association with a once-promising novelist named Reg Thorpe. Thorpe became convinced that his typewriter was inhabited by a “Fornit”, a tiny elf that sprinkled magic dust – Fornus – on the machine and was responsible for his creativity. Which sounds outlandish, but is it? As the editor’s account comes to its tragic conclusion and the party winds up, the wife of another young writer nervously asks “There are no Fornits in your typewriter, are there, Paul?” and we get this chilling sentence: And the writer, who had sometimes – often – wondered where the words DID come from, said bravely, “Absolutely not.”

Writers do wonder. Many of them don’t understand their processes – how the “muse” emerges, how quickly it can vanish, leaving no trace of the idea or the turn of phrase that had seemed so brilliant in the middle of the night – and some of them feel a painful disconnect between the thing they had in their minds and what finally emerged on the page. (Was the Fornit responsible for the bungled prose? Could the Fornit be a double agent?) Here is Ann Patchett in her memoir This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, on the conception and gestation of each new novel: “…the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty. […] When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it.” Patchett goes on to write movingly about the experience of seeing the dry husk of her beautiful friend on the writing table, “chipped, dismantled and poorly reassembled. Dead.”

All this can sound pretentious to those who think creative people romanticise their work needlessly rather than just “getting it done” – but nearly any serious writer has experienced these feelings, and their accounts often echo each other. Consider King’s little elf in the typewriter, and then look at Mishi Saran’s description of “the dwarf clamped to my shoulder – a mini-me – hissing into my ear”. This is from an essay in the fine new anthology Shaping the World: Women Writers on Themselves, edited by Manju Kapur. The book has many candid pieces by novelists such as Anita Nair, Moni Mohsin and Jaishree Misra, and while some of the points made are gender-neutral, they also touch on the specific difficulties of being a woman writer in a conservative society – many of the writers mention Virginia Woolf's famous essay “A Room of One’s Own”, about the financial independence and the emotional and physical space a woman needs in order to write.

Another of the most engrossing self-reflective books I have read in the past year is Vikam Chandra’s Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code, which tries to reconcile his two selves, the fiction writer and the software programmer. Chandra examines his trajectory as a reader and writer: for instance, he recounts how, as a youngster, he was divided between classical Indian forms of storytelling (with their episodic structures, logical discontinuities and narratives nestled within narratives) and the cool, minimalist “realism” of modern American writing (in creative-writing workshops in the US, the model to aspire to was the spare prose of Raymond Carver).

As Chandra knows, the writer as part of his own story – creating and participating at once – is a tradition that goes back a long way in Indian literature. Look at what happens early in the great epic the Mahabharata. A king has died heirless, his wives need children to carry the Kuru lineage forward, but no one with the right pedigree is able or willing to do this. At this point Vyasa himself, the poet and composer, enters the story and fathers the children who will in turn beget the epic’s protagonists the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Now the tale can continue. Did someone say deus ex machina?

Such a narrative arc is facilitated by stories that begin with oral recitations and gradually expand over time. (Picture a spoken story reaching a dead end, the audience impatiently asking “What happened next?” and the storyteller finding a way out by introducing himself as a character.) But some modern classics have also aimed for such an effect. Rabindranath Tagore’s Shey – translated from Bengali into English as He (Shey) by Aparna Chaudhuri – has for its protagonist a man who is made entirely of words. The book was written for Tagore’s granddaughter Pupe, and includes a number of unusual adventures and creatures; but as Chaudhuri points out in her introduction, storytelling is presented here as an interactive process – the tone changes with Tagore’s moods and Pupe’s demands, and also eventually reflects the difference in her personality as she grows from age nine (when the storytelling begins) to age 16 (when it ends).

Among more straightforward, linear fiction that has an author as a protagonist, a personal favourite is Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, in which a writer tries to uncover details about the life of another, deceased writer – in particular, to understand how the latter’s literary output changed with his personal circumstances, and what the contribution of his now-forgotten first wife Rosie was to his art. The result is one of Maugham’s most delicate books, an examination of the wheels behind the creative process and, importantly, a pretty good story in its own right.

Writers do sometimes stop navel-gazing for long enough to write about other, real-life writers. Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché is a fine collection of essays on the methods of old masters (Milton, Donne, Cervantes) as well as contemporary practitioners of popular forms (Thomas Harris). More recently, there is Jonathan
Franzen's collection Farther Away, my favourite essay in which – “What makes you so sure you’re not the evil one yourself?” – is a celebration of the great short-story writer Alice Munro. Franzen notes how Munro is sometimes not taken seriously enough because she writes in conversational prose about everyday things, rather than about self-consciously Big Subjects; through a brilliant discussion of a particular short story, he analyses her talent for uncovering layer after painful layer in human character and relationships. So much of writing is implicitly a tribute to other writing (because everyone has been influenced by someone or the other), but this essay is that rare thing, one accomplished writer trying to make acquaintance with another well-known writer’s Fornit.

[More soon on Stephen King's excellent On Writing. And some earlier Forbes Life thematic columns here: popular science, satire, true crime, translations, doubles, time travel]


  1. a very similar story in Joe Hill's (he is King's son) collection "Heart Shaped Box" about a dead man's typewriter that continues to type (to finish) the story the writer began.

    1. Oh cool. Sentient typewriters are problematic things - one also appears in this Clifford Simak story.

  2. Want to read 'On Writing' but its quite expensive at more than Rs 800 for a paperback after 26% discount! :)

  3. *ALERT - Minor spoilers to some of Kings stories - Ballad of flexible bullet, Secret window, dark half, Dreamcatcher. Don't read if you haven't read these novels

    Nice pick. Ballad of the flexible bullet was scary specially the way King builds up the unease gradually over time. This is distinct King style though where mild disbelief is gradually replaced with hanging unease. Examples - Secret Window he hints that it is not all schizophrenia, in Dreamcatcher he hints that it wasn't all Mr Grey and so on

    Some of Stephen kings other stories have similar themes as well (Not being aware of where all the stories are coming from).In "Dark Half", he believes that its another person dwelling within him, In dark tower he hints towards his own character being influenced by external forces to write the stories, Bag of bones.

  4. A few months ago, I read and totally enjoyed 'On Writing', which the hubby had gifted to me on my birthday. Was reminded of how much King has to offer in terms of imparting useful knowledge on writing. Thank you for mentioning other works from other writers here. I just want to tell you how much I appreciate coming away enriched after reading your easy-flowing and informative blog that is just the right balance between practical analysis and emotions. It helps me grow as a reader and a writer. Thank you so much!!