AG: The Boys in the Basement
“When people ask me where I get my ideas, I laugh. How strange-- we're so busy looking out, to find ways and means, we forget to look in.” (Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing)
“There is never a moment when I am not involved in thinking about writing. I can't put it out of my mind entirely, even in the most trying of circumstances. You might as well as me to stop breathing; thinking about my writing is as much a function of my life.” (Terry Brooks, Sometimes the Magic Works)
“The boys in the basement are they guys who actually do my heavy lifting. They're the muses. And we have a picture of muses as being very ethereal creatures, but I think they are nonunion labor. They are hard working guys with Camels rolled up in the sleeves of their shirts.” (Lisa McRee, Kevin Newman, Stephen King's "Bag of Bones", ABC Good Morning America, 23 Sep 1998.)
My wife and I attended a movie the other day. Afterwards, we took seats in one of our favorite restaurants, a southern barbeque place called Lucille’s. Not only is the food good but they play blues music which I occasionally enjoy. We chatted about the movie. We made small talk. We waited for our food. It was a scene we played out before and I expected nothing new.
Then it happened.
Halfway through a B.B. King song everything disappeared and a series of illusions played on the movie screen of my mind. My eyes shifted their gaze to a dark mat on the floor but the mat held no interest for me. Things moved in my brain. I knew the feeling well and I welcomed it. The boys in the basement had broken free.
“Boys in the basement” has become a popular term in writing. Most attribute it to Steven King. He uses the phrase in interviews and I believe he tucked it somewhere in his book, On Writing. The boys in the basement is a euphemism for what writers used to call, The Muse. Except King, as only King can, brought the lofty term down to earth and portrayed the subconscious as grunting, hard-working, sweating laborers who do the heavy lifting in creativity.
That’s what they are to me.
You need some background to understand why this even mattered to me. A few weeks ago, I sent a proposal to my agent. She loved it. Wonderful idea, she said. I felt great. “Just a few things I want you to address….” When I hung up the phone I felt whipped. It wasn’t that bad. Her points are right on the money. Everything she said, I needed to hear. My problem: I didn’t want to hear it. She wants me to rework a few things. I immediately thought of a letter written to James Michener by his editor Joni Evans:
“What we have here is a marvelous adventure story—truly gripping at times—that is not quite cooked yet. It doesn’t feel developed or rich enough or rationalized enough in its present draft. The skeleton needs more flesh in the areas of character, scenery and fullness/motivation of story to capitalize on what is a stunning episode of history.”
Ouch. A marvelous adventure story that is undercooked, lacking development in all key areas?
My problem is similar and my agent told me so. That is why she is my agent.
But another problem arose. I returned to the proposal and came up blank. Nothing. Zilch. Zero. I fiddled. I poked and prodded. I threatened the stupid story, but like a cat it just ignored me.
“So it’s finally happed,” I said to myself. “I’ve lost it. Creativity has fled. I’m an empty walnut shell.” Thoughts of driving a truck for a living entered my mind. Then came dinner at Lucille’s.
The boys broke out of the basement and began to slap me around a little. Ideas dropped like fifty pound hail stones. “Of course…,” I muttered. “Sure, I should have thought of that before…. Maybe…. How about if I….”
My wife’s used to it.
Since then, the boys have been running rampant again, knocking over furniture, leaving the refrigerator door open, and making a nuisance of themselves.
I hope they hang around for awhile.
Alton Gansky lives and writes and entertains his boys in the basement from California. You can read more about his books at www.altongansky.com.