I have been blazing through the rest of the Dark Tower series by Stephen King these last couple of weeks. I took a long break after reading The Gunslinger earlier this year. I’m on book seven now, and I’m still trying to unpack everything from books two to six. There is something fantastic going on in King’s mind—how this series integrates with his psyche. He really lets you into the mind of a writer, more specifically him and his process, in a way that even On Writing wasn’t able to accomplish.
Song of Susannah (Book six), particularly, was genius in the way it blended his entire storytelling universe with this set of characters and even his life, taking a scalpel to reality in a way that his novels often hint at but never fully realize until now. The diary entries at the end—you can’t tell if they are real entries mixed with fiction (such as the newspaper clippings about the walk ins and his death) or whether they are entirely fictionalized—discuss how this story is the only one that matters, the one that feels real, the one that is important, and in a way that makes perfect sense. It doesn’t really matter if they are fictionalized, I suppose, since I believe that much contained in these entries was the truth for King. Anyway, if King’s creative faucet all comes from the same place, which it likely does, I think that is the truth for a lot of us writers. I know mine does. No matter what I’m writing about, I’m channeling something inside myself that isn’t always conscious. I don’t take such pride in not outlining the way he does (and reading about that continues to chafe me because I don’t think he’s a very tidy or even coherent story-ender very often), but I find that I can’t finish a novel if I outline too much of it, if I set too many strictures. There’s a certain amount of unknown every time I sit down in front of my computer, pick up my pen, or push that red button on my Freewrite.
I thought I should start writing this now while I’m thinking of it, unpacking it, reveling in the genius that may or may not continue to strike me as I get through the end of this series. I’m not expecting a happy ending (a. because this is Stephen King and b. because others who have read the series have expressed extremely mixed reviews on it with the one consistent statement that it is sad), so I want to appreciate the magic in his writing before it’s colored too much by the emotions associated with the loss of beloved friends that inevetivably happens when you spend thousands of pages with the same characters.
David Mitchell, like Stephen King, implies that all of his novels are set in the same world (or universe, multiverse, whatever), but I think King does a better job of integrating this concept to the mind of the writer. Mitchell’s references are subtle easter eggs, and there’s something quietly pleasant about that “ah ha” moment, but King takes us into his mind as he unifies his body of work (even On Writing) with his own creative force.
With a sly smile, he takes the lifelong literary criticism that he’s a hack and a genre writer and lacks substance and—using a genre he doesn’t even live in most of the time, but which he clearly believes rules his writing nonetheless—turns those criticisms on their ear. If you read through the Dark Tower series and you still say that King has no merit as a literary figure, you’re just not getting it. I know, we all have our own opinions, but like Atwood and Murakami and so many others that I admire, with this series, he uses the fantastical, gory, vulgar, and even ridiculous to open the box (black thirteen, maybe?) into the mind of the writer. The drive that we have to create doesn’t come from us, but through us. The symbolism (19–99–1999) is at once so personal (after all, was that not a year that changed King in more ways than one) and yet so relatable. Those coincidences—those things that speak to us.
This year, I’ve been toying with getting a tiny tattoo on my wrist. I’ve never had one, and I always thought I would be too fickle to ever commit or love a piece of body art enough to let it live with me for the rest of my life. This year, 2017, is my 1999—it’s the year that disaster has struck, and I have risen like a phoenix from the ashes of one life and into another. It’s melodramatic but also true. I ended two toxic relationships, twins of each other in a way that I will need to think about further. The lover who wants love but cannot commit to love. The friend who wants love but cannot even commit to friendship. I ended a relationship with a job that I had integrated so heavily into my identity that I felt unmoored when it was over. Was I still a lawyer without big law? I ended a marriage that was hanging out there, a book unclosed. It has been a year of endings, but more than that, a year of beginnings.
I began a relationship with myself from a new place of honesty and self-examination. I began again as a lawyer, keeping what of the profession gives me joy and tossing the rest of the bullshit. I began to follow my dreams in the various directions they led me. I began new friendships with people who will never know how important they are. So, maybe a tiny watercolor phoenix on my wrist will serve as a permanent reminder of my 1999. It won’t be a towering (see what I did there) saga of epic proportions and literary merit. I think I might have some more years to go before I reach my own Dark Tower and understand what holds my multiverse together (although I no doubt have one), but it will remind me that I faced many fears and challenges this year and they did not break me. They only made me fly higher.
And now I face the challenge of saying goodbye to the adventures of Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy, having expanded my complex and sometimes grudging admiration for Stephen King.
“Go then, there are other worlds than these.” – Jake Chambers (Stephen King, The Gunslinger)
Image: Taken at a gas station in Orlando on a random Wednesday in September, 2017. Orlando at sunset.