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A la King

Updated: Apr 15

In my 20’s, I was cooking for the first time, and one of my favorite dishes was Chicken a la King. I had memories of it from my childhood and, at the time, I still remembered how my mother made it. She opened a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and threw it in a pot, adding a handful or two of frozen peas. This morning, unfortunately, that’s all I remember. No recollection of adding any water, as if she were making cream of mushroom soup. And no idea what either I or my mother did for chicken. Still, I love the idea of chicken a la king.

These days, Stephen King is my main writing guru. I’m not quite sure how that happened. I think part of his magic for me lies in the specificity of his advice. “Write 2,000 words a day.” “When you finish a draft, put it in the drawer for 6 weeks.” It probably doesn’t matter what numbers King had chosen. It helps that 2,000 is a round number, but I don’t think that’s it. I’m thinking of Bernie’s mala instruction: 18 beads, each bead valued at $108. Crazy numbers. Where did they come from? I remember Bernie saying that in Buddhism or Zen, there were 108 gates to enlightenment. The 18? Was there a Zen reference? Did Bernie say that the word for “18” in Hebrew is also the word for “peace”? As far as I was concerned, he could have chosen any number.

I’m apparently not the only one affected by the specificity. I was surprised when I did my first mala that everyone gave exactly $108. If I’d asked for $100, I’m sure that people would have given whatever they felt like, $10, $50, maybe $100. The specific odd number was apparently compelling.

King’s advice works for me like monastic rules. “2,000 words a day.” I get up in the morning, and I don’t have to have a discussion with myself about how many words I’m going to write today. I can just get to work. I’ve been doing this practice for over 30 weeks now, and I don’t think I’ve ever written exactly 2,000 words. Some days, I haven’t managed my 2,000. More often, I’ve gone beyond. That’s not important. What’s most important is that my energy is going into writing, not into how much I’ll write or whether I should write at all.

The put-the-book-or-the-story-in-the-drawer rule works the same way. I don’t have to spend time debating if today is the day to begin to rewrite. And some days I’m chafing at the bit. Sometimes, I find myself wondering when I can begin the rewrite. I’ve logged the date when I finished the draft, and I’ve calculated the 6-week date for opening the metaphorical drawer. I check the log. Maybe I’m surprised. There’s still three weeks to go.

King’s rules bring the simplicity of monastic life — when this bell rings, you meditate; when that bell rings, you eat; on and on through the day, day after day — into my writing practice. It’s a structure which creates freedom.

I just wrote my first detective story, a la King, a chapter every morning — that’s how I’ve been beginning my writing day — and my second and I’m on my third while my first novel is in the drawer waiting for a rewrite and I’ve been working on the rewrite of my Zen memoir. I enjoy first drafts much more than rewriting, it turns out. Starting the day with my detectives energized me for the sometimes tedious work of rewrite.

Another of King’s rules is fueling the detectives.  King is an advocate of putting interesting characters in challenging situations and allowing them to work their way out of it. Thinking you know where you’re going can get in the way of creativity. Plotting, King feels, can ruin the story. 

I’ve been writing my detective stories a la King. I invented my detectives. For years, I had devoured detective stories and novels, even sliding occasionally into police procedurals. It was the character of the detective which had lured me in. I even taught an English Lit course in our first high school as we were building our charter network, a course I called, “American Detective Fiction,” although it turned out I meant English-language detective fiction, since we ended up reading Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap

I haven't read many detective books in the last few years, but I have a storehouse of memories. I had a hell of a good time writing the first chapter of my first story as my detectives, Sam and Molly Diamond, invented themselves and the next day, although I worried how this would happen, they found their first case. A la King, I left them to solve it.  I had no idea how long it was going to take them to solve their case, no idea if their tale would turn out to be a short story or a novel or something in between. I went along for the ride. By the third story, I was wondering if the Diamonds would ever get a real murder case. I left the wondering to them. At the beginning of the third story, their doorbell rang. They had their murder.

By late morning, my 2,000 words are in the bank. Afternoons, I’m energized to get into the rewriting work. I’m having so much fun, I’ve been writing 7 days a week.  Some mornings when I sit down, I have no idea what my detectives will do today. They sit down with their morning coffee. We find out together. Before I found my detectives, I was figuring it would take me three days to get through the rewrite of each memoir chapter, getting the memoir ready for my first readers. With my Diamond energy, I’ve gotten through some chapters in a day. 

I don’t know how many people will ever get to meet the Diamonds. Will their stories find a publisher? Will four or five Diamond stories make a little book which will find its way into the world?

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James Breslin
James Breslin
4월 15일

Wonderful. Loved what you wrote here.

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