"I'm Here at the Ryman, and I Don't Even Have My Guitar"
I've been to lots of places and seen things that inspired stories, places that I'll enjoy telling my kids about. I've stood on an active volcano in Hawaii; stood in the wings of the Grand Ole Opry beside Grandpa Jones, Porter Wagoner, and Skeeter Davis to watch my dad sing; studied old cemeteries in Prague. I saw the Hunley when it was newly discovered, and still soaking in National Geographic's temperature-controlled tank.
But seeing Stephen King-and seeing him at the Ryman Auditorium-ranks high on that list.
There are two reasons why. One is obvious: if you're a reader, and a writer, chances are great that you've encountered his work. Even if you're not drawn to the scary stuff, stories like "The Body" (titled Stand by Me in film); "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (which is simply Shawshank Redemption in film); or Eyes of the Dragon (one of two books he can recommend for kids) are likely to make you a fan.
If you're a writer, or a teacher of writing, his book about the subject, On Writing, is likely on your shelf. Part autobiography, part lessons on craft, it is arguably one of the best tutorials a writer can have.
I'll get to the second reason in a minute. (There are lots of lists in this post.)
I started reading King sometime around 7th or 8th grade. Now that I'm a mom, I asked my own mom if she worried at all about my young mind being corrupted by books about pandemics, vampires, rabid dogs, possessed cars, cats that come back to life. "I was just thrilled to see you reading," she said.
I saw Salem's Lot, the movie, long before I could read the book. And it still scares me to the point that I have to hide behind pillows.
When King took the stage at the Ryman (to a standing ovation before he'd even said a word), he opened with the two things he hears from his fans most often. "They'll say, 'You scare the sh*t out of me,'" King mused. "Then they'll say, 'Can I have a hug?'"
The second thing fans will say is that seeing him or getting his autograph is on their bucket list. "That so weird!" he exclaimed. "The whole bucket list thing. My mind is a little big strange, I admit it. But I can't imagine people with, like, twelve things on their bucket list, like see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, write a symphony...get an autograph from Stephen King."
He laughed. "The only thing on my bucket list is not kicking it tonight."
When we got to the Ryman, a full hour before he was to take the stage, we found the line wrapped all the way around the building, and down the alley between the building and Tootsie's bar, where some of the early Opry stars got their start.
I got my first glimpse of the Ryman onscreen in the film Coal Miner's Daughter with Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones. In that movie, which depicts Spacek as a young Loretta Lynn getting her start, it is immortalized as a holy place, particularly in the minds of musicians and mountain people who have grown up around the music that was made there.
I had time as the line crept forward to study the building, and while we've been here before, I'd never noticed what stood beside it...how it was nearly eclipsed in the sharp contrasts between old and new Nashville.
King said he was hooked on country music after hearing Marty Stuart singing "Hillbilly Rock" on the radio in the early 1990's. "Now I'm here at the Ryman, and I don't even have a guitar to hide behind," he chuckled. "I play guitar," he said. "No, not really. But kind of." He plays in a band with other writers called the Rock Bottom Remainders, which has included Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, and Barbara Kingsolver, among others.
Every time he mentioned the title of a book he'd written, the crowd erupted in applause.
"I feel like Lynyrd Skynrd," he quipped, "playing the opening rift to 'Free Bird.'"
He admitted that who we were seeing that night wasn't the real Stephen King. He described what he called the "three faces of Steve:"
- Home Steve: who takes out the trash, scoops dog poop, and goes to the market "when my wife tells me to;"
- Public Steve: who spends most of his time on "deflection" so we don't look for
- Scary Steve: who people want to hug. This Steve goes off to write three to four hours a day.
He was inspired to write, he says, by reading H.P. Lovecraft, which awoke something in him to write. "If you have a gift, at some point it wakes up and speaks to you," he said. "It says, 'This is what you're supposed to do.'"
But even Stephen King, author of more than fifty books, has his moments. "The worst days feel like I'm wearing gloves while I'm writing," he said. "Nothing has texture." He compared novel-writing to "crossing the Atlantic in a rowboat."
There are two things a writer must do when scaring people, King says. 1. You have to care about the people in your story. The difference between the Friday the 13th movies and Halloween is that the audience is directed to care more about Jamie Lee Curtis's character in Halloween.
2. Plant a seed, a capsule of "pure fear." He demonstrated by taking his audience through a scenario that began with "Statistically, twenty percent of you forgot to lock your car when you left it to walk to the Ryman," followed by tidbits of 'what-ifs'...the possibilities of what happens when you leave your car unlocked in a major city. Then, "Fifteen percent of you forgot to lock your front doors." But then, he went on, you'll go home, and your door will be locked, and you'll breathe a sigh of relief.
That doesn't matter, he chortled. "The intruder could have locked it from inside!" The audience roared.
Of all that he has written, what are his favorites? "I love them all! They're like my kids, man!" But if he had to choose, it would be It and Stand By Me, which started out as a story called "The Body."
What do you read when you're not writing? "I'll read matchbook covers if they're laying around. But on this trip, I brought with me Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, and The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham." He also recommended-several times-The Fireman, written by his son who writes under the name Joe Hill. "But buy my book first," King said. "He's younger and has time to write more of them."
Which of his books was hardest to write? 11.22.63 was hard work, he said, because he was "messing with reality." Unaccustomed to writing about people who actually existed, he read a lot of books about Lee Harvey Oswald.
He also had a tough time figuring out how his character would get out of a predicament in Misery. He asked his (then) young son for help, who agreed. So, he tied him up just like his character and asked him to try several ways to get free. Then, his wife walked in the room. "What the hell are you doing?" she yelled. "Research!" he said.
Has he ever scared himself? Writing the a scene in The Shining, when the little boy encounters the dead woman in the bathtub.
Which books would you recommend to someone who has never read your work? King insists it's not his job to recommend his books. "Readers have to come to the books they like." But when parents ask him what kids can read, he recommends Eyes of the Dragon or The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
"There's so much happening in Nashville tonight," he said. "But look at all of these people here, people who love books!"
As we filed out of the auditorium, several hundred books were given out, some of them with autographs inside. A man nearly sent us through the roof when he screamed (for joy) after opening his book.
I'd been a little depressed when all the Hatch show print posters for King's appearance were sold before I could get one. But then, a wonderful woman handed me a book, and I opened it. #bucketlist