July 28, 2011

When you don't stop thinking about it...

A few weeks ago, I read a story by Stephen King published in The Atlantic magazine.

It was called "Herman Wouk is Still Alive" and, to be honest, it took me about five sittings to read. It was heady stuff for Stephen King, full of despair and disaster, and since I knew from the outset that it was going to end badly for at least seven children, it was a tough read.

But I persevered because the writing was (as always) amazing, and the juxtaposition of two elderly poets relaxing in the sunshine while two poverty-stricken mothers and their seven children drive towards their end of life was...interesting. Unexpected. Confusing.

By the time the story ends, the mothers have committed joint suicide and murder, and at first I questioned....why the hell did Stephen King write such a sad story? Why should anyone care about this? What the hell? Do I really need to think about how terrible life could be for two unmarried mothers with dead-end jobs and no hope for their future? Or that of their many children? C'mon, Stephen King! Why do you want me to care?

But the thing is, I did care. I cared a lot. And I was upset over a short story.

How strange and frustrating. So I decided to stop thinking about it.

But then last night, weeks after the fact, the story came back to me. I was observing a Karate class in rural North Carolina, and some of the families there were probably of the same socio-economic class as the mothers described in King's story. And at first, I wondered if they were like those two characters: full of despair, hopeless. I felt like King's story spoke for them, and I was sad.

Yeah. And then I woke up and looked around and saw the pride in the faces of the parents as their children jumped and punched. I saw the delight in the children as they landed a good kick. There was no despair there. Only happiness in the moment.

And I thought, "You must be full of shit, Stephen King. What a jerk for writing that story."

But then this morning, it came to me. No matter what, weeks later that damn story was still in my head, coloring my thoughts and making me think. And THAT, to me, is the mark of a brilliant short story. It stays with you. You can't get it out of your head. It makes you FEEL.

That is what Stepen King can do, and that is what I hope to do. Someday. I may not be there yet, but I will be. You just watch.

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