How Stephen King taught me to write


No writer has influenced me more than Stephen King. In seventh grade I read my first King novel, Pet Sematary, and chased it with Salem’s LotThe ShiningCarrie and Christine. King was my segue from children’s and young adult fiction into adult fiction and, more than even the J School, King taught me how to write.

Vox recently published a story on Stephen King’s extensive cultural influence – after all, without him we wouldn’t fear Pennywise the Dancing Clown living in our sewers or ironically name our shih tzus Cujo. Much of this article discusses King’s writing style – namely, his exceptional ability to make the reader empathize with characters.

As the article’s author Aja Romano writes, “every characterization, even a minor one, is rich with detail; even if you just met a new character, you can bet that by the time he or she meets a grisly ending a few pages later, you’ll have a deep understanding of who that character is.” King is a master of writing in rich detail, building worlds and understanding people – key elements I work to emulate in my own writing, both in fiction and in journalism.

I’m a features writer and have always tended to steer clear of hard news. I became a writer because I want to meet people and learn about them. My favorite stories to work on are ones where I’ve attempted to capture a person’s essence to make the reader understand them as I have come to.

Take, for example, a story I did in October 2015 about Mark Chambers, a Rocky Horror Picture Show super fan and emcee. I conducted multiple interviews and spent a lot of time texting, calling and just hanging out with Mark as he worked on his show. I had to understand the love this man had for this movie and make sure readers understood him as well.

With each story I work on, I try to exercise my ability to build scenes and create characters. It’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to write a long form feature such as the one on Mark, but even with shorter articles I take every opportunity I can to make it more rich with detail, such as in a Q&A with a baker in Columbia, Missouri, and a Missouri music icon. My focus on detail comes from King, much to the chagrin of my former journalism professors who would cringe when I couldn’t name one long form journalist I admired, but raved about the horror author.

Though King is my favorite author and I’ve read many of his novels, I have barely put a dent in his expansive list of works. I’m ashamed to say some of his most famous stories, such as The Stand and Misery, are still resting, unread, on my bookshelf. But here are some characters who have stuck with me because of the great care King put into them.

The Losers’ Club in It


It, my favorite King novel, lacks a central character in exchange for a core cast of six – The Losers. It begins with extensive delves into each character’s life as adults before returning to their childhoods, and jumps back and forth in time throughout the 1,100+ pages. As you see them in childhood and adulthood, cross-cut together, you develop a deep understanding of who they are and what motivates them, making It’s threat all the more terrifying.

Dolores Claiborne


Stephen King is the reason I will be thinking of nothing but Kathy Bates and husbands pushed down wells during the Aug. 21 eclipse. Dolores Claiborne is interesting to me because the novel is told entirely through Dolores’ confession to the police about her involvement in a murder. On the surface, Dolores and Vera Donovan, an old woman Dolores is employed by, are cold, hard and in some cases cruel. But King masterfully peels back the layers of their complicated relationship through the conflict between Dolores and her abusive husband Joe. He writes Dolores in such a powerful way as she reclaims power and ends her years of living under domestic abuse, though through her own act of violence. King, to me, is Shakespearean in his understanding of women.

Big Jim in Under the Dome

big jim.jpg

It might be strange to say that Big Jim is one of my favorite King villains. After all, he is just a used car salesman and King has written vampires, killer clowns and whatever the hell the Langoliers are. But Jim being human is what makes him so terrifying as he rises to power when Chester’s Mill is cut off from the outside world by an unseen force. One line that still sticks with me, four years after reading the novel, is from Big Jim himself: “Murder is like potato chips; you can’t stop with just one.”

World Poetry Day: four of my favorites

I admit I’ve never been the biggest fan of poetry. I suppose I blame this on years and years of English teachers making me annotate every little word and phrase of Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney until the “one definite meaning” is discovered, which turned me off to the medium. Poetry is something I’ve always felt can be interpreted differently depending on the reader. Like any other form of art, there isn’t a definite right or wrong interpretation. But lately I’ve been trying to read more poems, and in honor of World Poetry Day, here are some of my favorites and what they mean to me:

“(love song, with two goldfish)” by Grace Chua

I complain about the poetry units I was put through in high school (if I had to read one more Seamus Heaney poem about a bog I was going to scream), but I actually have IB English to thank for this discovery. I first read “(love song, with two goldfish)” senior year in IB English class. We were given a poem we had never seen before at the beginning of class and had the whole hour to annotate and write a paper about it — practice for the big scary IB test at the end of the year.

I loved this poem immediately. Those who know me know I’m a sucker for love, and the male’s devotion to the female is just so adorable — “He would take her to the ocean, they could count the waves. There, in the submarine silence, they would share their deepest secrets. Dive for pearls like stars.”

I could say so much about this poem. The use of parentheses as a metaphor for a fishbowl. The humor in the fish references and water imagery. The whimsy (even though I personally find the ending really sad, it’s still cutesy and fun overall).

The main thing I can relate to is the idea of wanting more out of life — “a life beyond the (bowl).”

Charlie’s poem for Patrick in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky

I know I’ve written about this poem in another blog post before, but it’s just so devastating and I love it. The first time I read it I cried. The poem ends in the author’s suicide, and, to me, it’s about the loss of innocence that comes with growing up.

Each stanza is different stage in life, from childhood to around high school or college. In the first stanza everything is simple and happy — his parents kissed a lot, the girl around the corner sent him a Valentine with x’s (and, being a little kid, he had to ask his dad what the x’s meant), and his father always tucked him into bed at night.

By the end of the poem, his mother and father “never kissed/or even talked,” the girl around the corner wore too much makeup but he kissed her anyway “because that was the thing to do,” and at 3 a.m. he tucked himself into bed.

I’m still not sure how to put into words why I love this poem. I just find it, while dark and terribly depressing, truthful. To me, it captures the confusion of growing up and the world not being as simple as it was in previous years. As you grow up and learn more and become more observant about the world around you, it’s hard not to become critical and feel alone and wonder what it’s all about: “he tried another poem/And he called it “Absolutely Nothing”/Because that’s what it was really all about…”

“Elegies 2.15: Love song for Cynthia” by Propertius

Okay, so I admit I just read this poem for the first time two days ago for my Age of Augustus class, but I love it. (I also apologize for the absence of a link. I couldn’t find the same translation from my textbook online in my brief Google search).

The poem is, as you could probably guess from the title, a love song to Propertius’s elegiac puella (aka his strong/bossy/sometimes mean girlfriend, who doesn’t fit the norms expected of a typical classical Roman woman). Their love is often described as a “maddening enslavement,” and is full of turmoil and high emotions, with Cynthia almost always hurting Propertius.

However, this particular poem is one of the happier ones, of Propertius worshipping Cynthia — the opening line is “I’m the luckiest man alive! It was a night lit up with ecstasy.”

The whole poem focuses on an erotic night Cynthia. Again, I’m a sucker for love (even though Propertius and Cynthia’s affair is far from healthy), and this particular poem is filled with lines that get me right in the feels. “There is no pleasure if you close your eyes when making love, and blindly/Thrash around; did you not know, it is the eyes that lead the way to love.” “Her’s I shall be in life, in death I shall remain her love.” “My Cynthia, while yet bright are the lights of life, do not desert life’s joys/If every kiss you have you give to me, yet will it not suffice.” And my personal favorite line: “The man has lost his wits who seeks an end to love’s insanity.”

I’m really digging Propertius. He has whole books of Elegies filled with poems dedicated to his love for Cynthia. We were discussing him in class the other day and the whole idea behind his poems is that, because Mars and Venus are the gods Rome is said to be descended from, love is just as vital to Roman life as war, if not more so.

I also find it amazing that something written in the 1st century BCE can still be so relatable in the present-day.

“To Build a Home” by The Cinematic Orchestra 

Is this cheating? This is technically a song, but, really, I’ve always thought about songs as a form of poetry. I love listening to songs and reading the lyrics. To me, lyrics are the most important thing about a song, more so than the music. Some of my favorite lyrics come from Lorde, The Head and The Heart (don’t even get me started on their song “Gone,” it’s utterly perfect), and Florence + the Machine (her new song “What Kind of Man” understands everything about my life).

But, as I’ve said before, “To Build a Home” holds a special place in my heart. Largely because it was introduced to me by my then-new, now best friend during a tumultuous time in my life. I just think it’s a really beautiful song with gorgeous lyrics, and it always makes me think of my friends and I stargazing, night swimming, making s’mores, having bonfires, etc.

“I climbed the tree to see the world/When the gusts came around to blow me down/Held on as tightly as you held onto me.” Seriously, I need a tattoo of those lyrics. You can listen to the song here.

Finding the Courage to Speak

I wrote Why #YesAllWomen is the Most Powerful Hashtag I’ve Ever Seen on my iPhone.

I came across the trending hashtag Sunday evening and spent over an hour scrolling through the thousands of tweets from women all over the world. These brave women were tweeting about their personal experiences with harassment, gender relations, abuse, rape, and living in fear.

Reading through these tweets, I began thinking of the sexism I’ve witnessed firsthand. The cat-calling, the objectification, the sexist jokes, the unwanted groping and grinding frat parties. The more I thought about all the times my friends and I were randomly grabbed at parties and yelled to from cars as we walked down the street, the more frustrated I became. I wrote down these experiences and submitted it to Thought Catalog, where, hours later, it was published.

I was surprised, excited, and completely flattered. Somebody at Thought Catalog actually thought my little article was good enough to publish. I was thrilled. Every positive emotion you could think of was running through me (I may or may not have been dancing around my living room).

I was elated. That is, until I read the first comment.

My article hadn’t even been published for fifteen whole minutes before men began leaving anonymous comments, ripping not only into the article, but into me. Fifteen minutes and I was already being ridiculed for “blaming men for everything” and “stereotyping” and “man hating” and I was being called a “joke.” And it wasn’t just my article — men were responding to other women’s tweets, telling them that it’s their fault that they feel victimized, telling them that “you should be flattered that men give you attention” when women would talk about being groped and cat-called, telling them that they are being “too sensitive” and shaming them for turning the shooting massacre at Santa Barbara.

I got pissed.

The #YesAllWomen movement may have begun as a response to Elliot Rodger and those men who defended his actions, but it became something so much more. It was about raising awareness and creating a discussion about the reality women face every day, and how dare these men try to tear these women down over the internet.

I was fuming. Ultimately, these men who were belittling me so relentlessly on Thought Catalog motivated me to do something that terrified me — put the post on Facebook.

I am not a brave person. I second guess a lot of the things I do, especially when it comes to my writing (“what if people think it’s stupid or annoying or what if I have typos that I’m just not seeing oh my god I’m so stupid what have I done this is the worst thing ever and now it’s all over the internet and people are going to laugh at me ugh I’ve made a huge mistake”). But I typed up a status, copied and pasted the link, and had a lengthy internal debate (“ugh should I post this that means people I know will read it oh my god my super conservative family is going to see this I don’t want my dad to know some guy told me to bend over ugh I don’t know about this what should I do”). Finally, my finger clicked “post.”

Over the course of the day, I had friends “liking” and sharing and tweeting the link. I was grateful and flattered and, I must admit, completely embarrassed (“oh my god this is stupid that point about being romantically frustrated is the absolute most humiliating thing why did I include it”).

But despite the positive feedback I was receiving from friends, the anonymous attacks kept coming and before I knew it, I had over 100 comments of heated debating at the bottom of my article. People were making death threats to each other and debating issues I didn’t even mention in the article, like mental illness and gun control and female genital mutilation (really, where did that even come from?). When I read something I don’t agree with, I shrug, close the tab, and move on. But these people were throwing themselves into the debate, armed with sarcasm, foul language, and threats. 24 hours later, I had long stopped reading the comments and I just wanted to move on and forget it even happened.

But then there were those who read my article and saw it for what it is — simply a list of truths from the life of one person, similar to the tweets women were posting on Twitter. The things I mention are things that happen regularly, which is exactly why the #YesAllWomen movement is so important. Rob Fee was kind enough to mention me in his own article on the subject. As of now, my article has been shared 1.1k times on Facebook, received 1.2k “likes,” and has been tweeted nearly 200 times.

I am incredibly humbled that there were so many people who related to my article. I wrote it for myself, to vent my frustrations with what I’ve experienced, and the fact that so many women were retweeting it with kind words like “THIS!” and “In a nutshell!” is incredible.

I’ve come a long way this past year. If #YesAllWomen had happened a year ago, I would never have had the courage to even write the article, let alone post it on Facebook for everyone to see. I’m very proud of myself. I wrote about a difficult topic. I sparked a conversation. I contributed to a powerful Twitter campaign that means so much to so many. I’m proud that I was brave enough to do so. Having the courage to speak out and be heard is important, no matter how much opposition you face.

In the words of Kevin Gnapoor, “Don’t let the haters stop you from doin’ your thang.”

Today, I love journalism

I love days like today. Days where it’s 40 degrees outside but after the sub-zero temperatures of the past month it feels like spring. Days when you find a clothing sale happening in the Mizzou Store and grab a MIZ SEC T-shirt for a mere $5. Days when you’re in a super positive mood for no reason. Days when all of your favorite sans-“Frozen” songs play on the Disney Pandora station as you procrastinate from studying for your geology test next week. Days when you have a hoard of the new cookie dough Oreo cookies stocked in your dorm. Days when you’re finally recovering from a cold that has been plaguing your immune system for the past week and a half. Days when you don’t care that you’re once again going to be single on Valentine’s Day because you have friends you can watch “The Princess Bride” and stuff your face with. Days when you find yourself walking down Rollins street with a spring in your step, inspired.

Today is a good day. Today I am absolutely inspired by journalism.

Lately I’ve been constantly busy with my duties at The Maneater. Between my beat, my column, and picking up the occasional pitch for MOVE, I’ve been feeling incredibly overwhelmed with the workload. Often I’ve found myself sitting in my lounge, working on a story, and venting my frustrations aloud to the people who are unfortunate enough to be in my vicinity.

“I hate journalism. I’m so sick of it. Only crazy people want to do this as a career,” I’d say. Or maybe something more along the lines of, “Everybody here is so obsessed with journalism. Their lives revolve around it and I don’t want my life to revolve around my career. I don’t want journalism to be my life.” Then I’d proceed to begin my writing ritual: complain how the story I’ve been assigned is boring, procrastinate on calling sources, freak out about interviews, bang my head against my desk (sometimes literally), stay up late writing a story I’m convinced is complete shit, and grimace as I email it to my editor.

But through all the complaining, through all the stress, through all the time consumption, there is nothing I want to do more in this world than journalism.

I want to write. I want to tell stories. There’s nothing like pouring your heart and soul out into a piece and seeing it in print. It’s an incredible rush, there’s no better feeling than knowing that you were the one who created it.

Today I went to journalism class. J1100: Principles of American Journalism, a class taught by my favorite professor I’ve had since beginning college. She’s worked as a reporter and editor at the St. Petersburg Times, The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. This woman is an inspiration. She has so many stories from her time in the field about giving a voice to the voiceless, telling the stories of people whose stories would never be told otherwise, serving the public good. Even her simple motto of “Don’t Panic!” inspires- it’s exactly what I need to hear every week as I’m continuously hit by waves of work.

Today, we were told to know the definition of journalism: “Journalism is a set of transparent, independent procedures aimed at gathering, verifying and reporting truthful information of consequence to citizens in a democracy.” (Write it, memorize it, do it!) She showed us a video of Bob Woodward giving advice on reporting and offered a bit of advice herself (“If you remember nothing else from this class, make it this: get your ass out of the chair and check it out!“) After sitting through her lectures, I leave feeling motivated to write and create.

Today’s lecture only reinforced the journalism high I’ve been riding since yesterday when I interviewed Frank Pavich, the director of a documentary called “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” for a MOVE story. “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is one of the films coming to the True/False Film Festival in a few weeks. True/False is a film festival that is based out of Columbia, where some of the year’s best documentaries are shown, there are panels held with the creators, and there are secret screenings.

I could practically feel the excitement and passion radiating off of Pavich during our Skype interview. He was nothing short of giddy when he spoke about this film he had invested three years of his life into making and how “totally incredible” it was for it to be included in True/False. It was the best interview I’ve had in a long time. I loved speaking with this man. I loved writing about him and the success he’s been having with “Jodorowsky’s Dune.”

There’s nothing like the rush you get from a great interview and a quality story. The feature I wrote for “Jodorowsky’s Dune” rejuvenated the passion I’ve had for journalism since I was a sophomore in high school taking the Introduction to Newspaper class. I’m a storyteller, it’s what I was born to do. I am in love with journalism.

And no matter how much I might mutter “I hate journalism” under my breath as sources don’t call me back or when I have to somehow cut 300 words from my story, seeing my name bolded in that byline every Wednesday is worth it.

Be brave and write

What have I done?

When I created this blog in November I saw it as merely a means to practice writing, something to fill my time when I was bored, somewhere to vent my problems that nobody really cares about. I saw it as a space just for me that nobody else would see, but yesterday that all changed.

It all started when I woke up and saw that my dear friend and fellow aspiring journalist had written a post on her own blog titled “What They Don’t Tell You About College Romance.” I read it all, taking in every word, and was almost late to film class because of it. All day I couldn’t stop thinking of it, and I wasn’t the only one. By the end of the day, this one post had received nearly 1,000 views, nearly 150 likes on Facebook, and Tinder even linked it to their website. Congrats, Crystal- you are practically internet famous.

So I decided to write yesterday’s post, “3 a.m. Pep Talk,” as a sort of response to Crystal’s original post. I told her about it, she read it, one thing led to another and we ended up having a blog party in the lounge with Mikala and Steve for a couple of hours.

Then the idea pops into my mind: What if I put this blog somewhere people would actually see it? And in a moment of stupid, blind bravery, I synced the link to my Twitter account and tweeted it out for the world to see.

What have I done?

I’ve always been a relatively private person. I don’t often share my thoughts or opinions or feelings with just anybody. What if people I know read this and think badly of me? What if I inadvertently upset someone? What if people think I sound like a rambling idiot? What if people mock me?

These thoughts have been whirling around my head since last night. Granted, I could always take this off of my Twitter, avoid posting it to Facebook (not that I plan to put this on my profile anyway, at least not in the near future), delete some of my more angst-riddled posts. But the damage has been done. People have read this. It’s public. There’s no going back now.

And that is absolutely terrifying.

The only thing stopping me from freaking out, deleting this blog altogether, and crawling into a hole (I may be overreacting, but I’m absolutely serious) is because of a promise I made to myself recently.

Claudia, you need to have more self-confidence.

Put yourself out there. Be brave. Stop being completely petrified about what other people think of you. Stop always assuming what they’re thinking is negative. Share your thoughts, your opinions, your views, your ideologies, your feelings. Break down the wall you’ve built around you.

Claudia, relax. It’s not a big deal. You over think everything. Chill out. Nothing cataclysmal is going to happen over a blog post. Don’t feel guilty for what you write. Don’t feel bad for what you think.

Write. Write your heart out. Write everything that goes through your head. Words are powerful. Something bothering you? Write about it.

This is me, trying to be brave, writing.