Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Little Chautauqua? - Dispatches from Maine

Poetry Reading at Monhegan Island Library
It seems only fair, since we spend our summer months in Maine, that I should read a little Stephen King while I am here.  He is, along with Henry Wordsworth Longfellow and Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of the state’s best known native writers, although I understand he spends a great deal of time Florida these days.  “I felt young when I got down there,” he writes.  He has also been told that Florida is “God’s waiting room, “ and the “home of the newlywed and the nearly dead.”  There is nothing wrong with that belief; I have spent quite a bit of time in the Sunshine State myself.  I was married in Florida and so I guess he has a point here.  I have not tested out the rest of that old saw.   

I will have to admit right up front that I am not a big fan of horror or science fiction or other boo-scare literature.  I will spot you that King is very good at what he does; everyone I know who likes those kind of stories and novels tells me so.  I have seen him on talk shows and he frequently appears pretty homey and self-deprecating.  “I lead a pretty boring life except when I write.  And when I write, man, I have wonderful adventures.”  He seems to be, at first blush anyway, a pretty witty fellow . . . someone you would enjoy hanging out with.

What I have read of King, and which I have enjoyed very much, is On Writing and Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, his wonderful exegesis on the art of writing which appeared over a decade ago. He certainly is a writer who thoroughly enjoys what he does while remaining true to and serious about his craft.  And, when he puts ink to paper, he is very good at explaining his process of writing.  He tells us that one never sets out to have an idea; it just happens.  But what to do with that idea?  That is what we must all consider; we can all learn from that.  Most of the past postings here on the  Looking Toward Portugal blogspot are dictated on that same proposition.

As good of a writer as he is, King freely admits that he’s not much on talking.  He was a high school teacher at one time and knows how to start talking when one bell rings, and how to stop when the bell rings again.  What happens and is said in between rings is what you get.  “I can’t really lecture - the idea makes me laugh,” he confessed to one audience.  “I can tell a few stories and then go home.  But that’s about it . . . we’re all having a fairly good time for people who are going to die someday.”  That is an interesting way to put it, I guess.  King is not comfortable speaking from prepared notes.  “About the most I can do is chautauqua, a fine old word that means you babble on for awhile about the thing that you do and then you sit down and let people get back to the serious drinking.”

I know what he is talking about.  Not long after our arrival here in Maine last summer I was invited to speak at one of the ubiquitous strawberry festivals occurring throughout the state at that time.  In fact, I quoted King in my introduction, comforting my audience with the knowledge that my comments, although fascinating and relevant to our gathering, would be brief so that everybody would get what they actually paid for . . . freshly made strawberry shortcake, chocolate dipped strawberries, and ice cream.  I was looking forward to this myself.

So OK, perhaps I am not going to read any more of Stephen King’s fiction, but perhaps I have learned something from him . . . how to chautauqua on a variety of topics that strike my fancy while I am here is Maine.  When I finish we can all agree to sit back with a glass of wine, or beverage of your choice, and ponder what I am sharing with you.  And unlike reading a Stephen King novel, hopefully these topics I have selected will not disturb your good night’s sleep with shivering night terrors.

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