Stephen King’s come to our house to stay. He showed up in my basement about four years ago. I listened to his book On Writing while I walked on my treadmill. I knew about Stephen, but I have not read any of his books. (I don’t equate listening with reading.) I love On Writing and laughed so hard I increased my cardio workout and I was inspired to begin writing two creepy, albeit unfinished, novels.
I haven’t read Stephen’s books because I think his work is too scary. I believe it hovers on the dark side. I associate Carrie, The Shining, and Kuzo with things that keep me wide-eyed throughout the night, covers pulled to my cheekbones, just in case there is something out there. I am delighted that Stephen’s books and movies have made him rich and happy, because that success entitled him to write about writing.
I have watched Stephen’s movies. I was stunned when I read his name as author when the credits rolled for The Shawshank Redemption, which runs a close second to my favorite book and movie, The Color Purple. I again was surprised to see Stephen’s name as the author of The Green Mile, one of the few movies I have watched a second time, along with Shawshank and Purple.
I admit I was quite the snob concerning Stephen—“Oh, I don’t read those kinds of books,” I would say, as I chose a Steinbeck or Austen from the library shelf. However, on reflection, Grapes of Wrath is indeed frightful, more so because it’s based on fact.
Ah, but I digress, a writing error that would make Stephen frown.
Stephen was only a visitor during my treadmill listening and movie viewing. He now is a permanent fixture, and has been since my daughter Chelsea took a composition class during her sophomore year in high school. On Writing was the course textbook and because of it, the way I speak to my children and even write notes to them has forever changed.
I’m not allowed to use adverbs when I communicate with Chelsea. I learned to loathe adverbs when I listened to On Writing. I work on expunging them from my personal writing, and now I must edit them from my speech and any notes I write to my kids. I cringe every time I read or hear “importantly” or “additionally.” It must be important for folks to stress the importance of what they say or write—and in addition to add to whatever they say or write. It’s important that such linguistic additions are no longer tolerated in my home.
I also said goodbye to the passive voice. I’m not perfect at it, but I am aware of my passive communications. When I slip, Chelsea (16) and Paul (13) remind and reprimand me. I no longer may say, “Chelsea the living room needs to be vacuumed.” Instead, I must say, “Chelsea, please vacuum the living room.” On Thursday evenings, rather than, “Tomorrow the garbage men come, so the garbage cans have to be taken to the street,” I say, “Chelsea and Paul, take the garbage cans and recycling to the street.”
My son pegged my passive-parent voice years ago. I would say something like, “Paul, you left your dirty socks on the sofa.” He called such statements “hint, hint.” It made both of us crazy because I wanted him to pick up his socks; him, because he would think to himself, “Yeah, my socks are on the sofa,” and continue doing whatever he was doing. Later, I might say, “Paul, your dirty socks need to be put in the hamper.” He would think to himself, “Yeah, they need to go in the hamper” and continue doing whatever he was doing. He didn’t understand my rage when I returned an hour later and screamed at him for not putting his dirty socks in the hamper “like I already told” him to do. It was “hint, hint.” I never came right out and said, “Put your dirty socks in the hamper.” I do now.
It’s sometimes tough to be clear. I often think I must explain myself, justify my words, prepare for a debate, and talk, talk, talk, yet not communicate much of anything. I am still guilty of “hint, hint,” but I fight it. I try to get to the point: “Paul do your homework.” “Paul, please take out the garbage.”
Even the family messages we write on a whiteboard are not spared passive voice correction. A few months ago, Chelsea was quite ill with a high fever and an undetermined skin infection. She named the red, oozing mass spreading across her neck “The Matrix.” She was afraid that the infection, like the matrix of movie renown, was taking over her body, starting with her neck. During those Matrix days, I wrote the following message on the whiteboard: “The evil Matrix must be destroyed.” In spite of Chelsea’s fever and pain, she scrawled “passive voice” across my whiteboard note.
At that time, we also used soap crayons to write notes on the shower walls. I made certain my next Matrix note was not passive. My blue-crayoned note read: “Vanquish the Matrix!” Chelsea’s reply: “Beware! The Matrix lives… on Chelsea’s washcloth!”
Chelsea and Paul have read and continue to read Stephen King’s books, and their speech is more concise because of that reading. Their writing is, too.
Paul is writing a book. The content is grim: The dark side is taking over the world. Demons have thus far killed every character I like. I know a huge battle between good and evil looms and it scares me. Paul begs me to read his book, and like Stephen King’s novels, I avoid it. However, Paul is my son, so sometimes I have no choice, although I will not read his book after dark. Paul assures me good will triumph, but it’s tough reading until that happens. I read a chapter last week. The story continues to be bleak, but the prose is sparse, clean, clear. The writing is tight. The voice is active. There are no adverbs. Stephen would be proud.
Written August 7, 2006, 7:41 p.m.
Note: While cleaning my closet at 5:30 this morning, I happened upon this essay. It’s been five years since I wrote it, but the presence of Stephen King always makes for an interesting life.