Monday, July 22, 2013

Five Writing Lessons From Jack Torrance

Happy Shining Week! I really have no reason to declare this Shining Week, except that I watched The Shining recently and then reread the book and I felt like blogging about it.

Today's post looks at the lessons we can take from the work of up and coming author Jack Torrance, who has published several notable short stories and was last hard at work on a play. Unfortunately Mr. Torrance is no longer available for an interview following the tragic events at the Overlook Hotel, but we have gleaned what we can from the documentary work of Mr. Stephen King, whose book provides us with some insight into Jack's writing habits.

1. Write from life

From Mr. King's documentary, it appears that Jack found his employment at Stovington Prep somewhat stifling to his creativity. If he took the common advice to "write from your life" literally, he might have written a play about a brilliant young author who takes a teaching job and bemoans the strictures placed upon him by his daily employment. And, most likely, it would have been horrible stuff.

What Jack did instead was write a play about a talented young student's conflict with his cruel headmaster. The work still allows Jack to deal with the frustrations of his day job, but in a format that has two characters in conflict, rather than a maudlin monologue about life.

Don't take "write from life" to mean "write an autobiography". But do use your emotions, your passions and frustrations, to fuel your work. Put your heart on the page.

2. But not too close to life

Following on from the above, Mr. King notes that Jack's attitude toward his play began to sour after a violent altercation with a student at Stovington. The incident cost Jack his job and had a severely damaging impact on his psyche.

More importantly for our purposes, the incident mirrored in many ways the conclusion of Jack's play, in which the headmaster murders the hero in the belief that he has been cheating at his studies. Whether by intention or no, Jack's work was dangerously close to events in his own life. He would have exposed himself to no small amount of legal trouble if he'd managed to publish the play.

If you intend to use incidents from your own life in your work, only take small snippets here and there, and make sure you disguise anyone else who participated in them. (That absolutely means more than changing names.) If you take events from real life directly, you will inevitably offend someone and may find yourself in court fighting off a libel suit.

3. Finish what you start

Jack starts off his time at the Overlook on a high note, making significant progress towards completing his play. But, as Jack nears the end, he begins to realize that his work his hopelessly broken. His initial attitude towards the characters has changed: where once he sympathized with his young protagonist, he comes to identify with the villain in the final acts of the play, and writes accordingly. The result is a disjointed piece that Jack despairs of ever repairing.

To his credit, Jack does not give up at this point. He recognizes the play's flaws, but he decides to finish the project anyway, regardless of whether he'll be able to sell it or not. He promises himself that he'll work on a few short stories once he's done, work he's confident he can complete and that he'll enjoy doing.

No matter how snarled up your manuscript gets, you are much better off finishing the job rather than giving it up as hopeless. You can go back and try to fix a broken story; it's much harder to try to finish an uncompleted one after the fact. And you'll at least get some more writing practice in.

4. Seriously, finish what you start

As noted, Jack initially does very well working on his play, making significant progress over his first few weeks at the Overlook. It is when he comes across a set of documents detailing the hotel's history that he starts to run into trouble, both in his writing and, according to King, his mental health.

Jack becomes fascinated with the Overlook's past, seeing in it the possibility of another book, possibly a tell-all. He continues to work on his play, but only desultorily, finding himself more interested in the potential book as he realizes his play is going off the rails. He finally ends up abandoning the play entirely as his obsession with the Overlook takes hold.

Trying to start a new project before you've finished your current manuscript is a recipe for disaster. You will never finish the manuscript you started with, and when the going inevitably gets tough on the shiny new project you'll just find yourself looking for something else to do that feels easier or sexier or just different. Finish what you start.

5. Take care of your health

King spends an inordinate amount of time detailing the deterioration of Jack's mental state. Jack was, regrettably, an alcoholic, and his isolation at the Overlook seemed to bring out the worst traits of his addiction over time. His writing suffers, he estranges himself from his family, and finally becomes violent, even murderous.

Part of writing well is being able to think well, and that depends on having a healthy mind and a healthy body. Eat well, get some exercise, and get enough sleep. Take time to socialize, to get out of the house, and to pursue a hobby other than writing. You have to take care of yourself if you're going to be at your best.

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