In a recent Q and A in Pittsburgh, Stephen King was asked how he managed to think of the horror plots he comes up with and still live a normal life.
Here’s his (paraphrased) answer:
There are three Stephen Kings. The first is the guy who goes out to his office in the barn every morning. That Stephen King thinks of the plots and writes the stories, but when the writing is done, he stays in the barn. The second Stephen King is the man at home, the guy who still takes out the garbage and whose wife tells him not to go out wearing that shirt. The third Stephen King is the one who goes on the road and does readings and answers questions. When my kids were little, they used to say “Dad’s leaving to be Stephen King again.”
I know exactly what he means.
Now, I can hear your question: “Wait a minute, Kenyon. Your popularity as a writer is as far away from Stephen King’s as earth is from a quasar, so how can you know what he’s talking about?”
The answer is this: Most writers are not going to be able to make their living purely from writing, so they have to find another way to earn money. Quite a few writers go into teaching. It’s a good choice. Why? For many reasons, but one of them is because teaching is a lot like a 15-week Q and A session. And to do it well, the writer has to develop a classroom persona which is akin to the persona a writer has when she goes out to face the reading public.
This persona is vital. If we are completely ourselves, meaning we are the same in front of the classroom audience as we are in our lives, we (and the audience) are in for a rough ride. Whether facing the reading public or the student public, you’re going to be asked the same questions, many times over, and you have to realize that while you may be talking about this book or this subject for the 30th time, the reader/student is hearing it for the first time.
I tend to be very out-going in the classroom. I get pumped up about my subjects, sometimes to the point where I have to rein myself in so I don’t overwhelm the students. I feel the same way when talking about my writing. But I remember one student who took to dropping by my office after class to chat about other topics. After the fourth visit, the student leaned back in the chair, eyed me a bit suspiciously and said, “In here, you’re nothing like you are in the classroom. You’re more laid-back. Less, you know, energetic.”
I couldn’t and didn’t argue. In everyday life, the Joseph Kenyon who takes out the garbage and whose wife tells him not to wear that shirt is passionate about what he writes and teaches, but he also is someone who likes his solitude. This is the entire premise behind my novel All The Living And The Dead: The brash and out-going student vs. the quiet and introspective professor. Which one am I? Both. And neither.
I don’t say that to be coy. Human beings are complex creatures, and if each of us is to be the most complete human being we can be, then we have to find a balance between the parts of ourselves. Each of us is the writer – our internal selves; the person – our friends and family selves; and the persona – our professional selves. Knowing which person to bring out in which situation is the key to keeping all three in balance or all three balls in the air. When one starts to bleed into the other – when we bring our personal lives into the professional, or our writer lives dominate the other two aspects – we get into trouble.
Still, in every encounter, every action, we offer pieces of ourselves to others. If you are a regular reader of my blog, then you see a piece of me that is as genuine and true as the piece of me my students see in the classroom or that my friends see at a party. The phrase “Getting to know” someone involves taking these pieces that another person gives us and fitting them into the puzzle. Each piece we add brings us closer to the total picture of that person. If we like what the big picture is becoming, we build a relationship and keep plugging in the pieces. If we don’t like what the picture is turning out to be, we stop.
But if we see a piece or two and assume we know the whole person, then we’re headed for either a great misunderstanding or great disappointment. Or both.