I was trying to write about Stand By Me by writing about Stephen King’s novella The Body . I was trying to write about The Body by writing about my life. Or maybe vice versa. I was trying to write about my life by way of Stand By Me , by way of The Body , all so I could try to write a book about male friendship.
A few months ago, I was out with a couple of (writer) friends and one asked the other two of us what our writer fascinations were. What is the singular topic (or two) we write about most frequently, what do we come back to again and again? What do we find sneaking its way into our writing whether we intend it to or not, sometimes whether we even realize it or not? “Male friendship,” I answered, without having to think about it. Because I’d just spent a year writing about Stand By Me . Because, before that, I’d spent at least a couple of years writing a novel about two guys on a road trip together. Because, while working on that novel, I’d had a collection of stories come out, in which a good number of the stories are about guys hanging out—two guys go to a driving range together; a group of teenage boys skateboard together; a group of thirty-something guys reconvene, for one of their weddings, and set off fireworks together.
For the last few years, I’ve mostly taught Intro English at one university and Intro to Creative Writing at another. One of my biggest goals across both jobs is to shake up some of my students’ expectations for writing. Many of my English students have been taught to think about audience, but haven’t really ever thought of their audience as anyone other than their teacher. The essays they write are only “homework,” not in any way connected to anything they read. In Creative Writing, they think of poems as one certain kind of thing, the same for short stories. They almost all think you either are a good writer or you aren’t; they don’t think of it as a skill, as something to work on, to train, to exercise, to get better at. Then, once we start thinking of writing as a process rather than just the result, we work on trying to allow something not just to get better, but to change, to maybe become something different than what we’d originally intended.
I teach two similar but different Intro English classes: “regular” sections and “literature-based”; “Writing and Academic Inquiry” and “Writing in Literature.” As a graduate student, I only taught Intro to Fiction and Business and Technical Writing, so although comp is the most common English class to teach, I wasn’t sure what to prepare for. I asked friends for sample syllabi, asked for suggestions, recommendations, advice. One such friend gave me a handful of ideas for themes he knew various teachers had used in the past; he told me he’d once themed his lit-based class around “coming of age.” He’d used Goodbye, Columbus and something more contemporary, and they’d watched The Squid and the Whale . As soon as he said “coming of age,” I knew that would be my theme; and as soon as he said he’d included a movie as one of his texts, I knew we’d watch Stand By Me and read the novella it was based on, Stephen King’s The Body . I hadn’t read The Body since I was maybe thirteen, give or take, but I remembered liking it, and Stand By Me was one of my favorite movies. Maybe it was also the favorite movie of some of my students, or maybe, as it belonged to my generation and not theirs, none of them had yet even seen it. Either option seemed to present opportunity, as did whether or not the novella held up to classroom discussion. Though I hadn’t taught this class before, I had learned that more of teaching is making it up as you go than I would have thought.
One of the very first poems we read in my CW classes is Terrance Hayes’s “The Rose Has Teeth.” The poem is musical in content—it name-checks a number of specific songs, it mentions guitars, pianos—but also in form. There is a repetition that is hypnotic, it sweeps you up and carries you through the poem before you’ve even realized it. “I was trying to play the twelve-bar blues with two bars,” the poem opens. “I was trying to fill the room with a shocked and awkward color.” By the third line, it is almost singing on the page, “I was trying to limber your shuffle, the muscle wired to muscle.”
Where I teach Intro to Creative Writing counts as a Gen Ed requirement, so while a few students have some interest in writing, many are in the class “just because.” Because it fit their schedule, or because it “seemed like the least awful Gen Ed possible,” or because . . . they’re not even sure why, but there they are, ready to make it through the semester. Many don’t really like poetry, or they think they don’t, or they think it isn’t for them, it’s boring, maybe they aren’t smart enough, they don’t get it . I shared this opinion until the point where I found myself teaching poetry. What changed my own mind was, first, exposure to poems I did like. Poems that weren’t afraid to name-check pop culture, poems that quoted hip hop lyrics. The second thing that helped me was teaching poetry. I tell my students that I like poetry more with each new semester of teaching it, that we are going to try to read a wide enough variety that hopefully everyone will connect, in perhaps a surprising way, with at least one of the poems.
I teach “The Rose Has Teeth” by way of happy accident. The first semester I taught creative writing, I had it in my mind that I didn’t want to use a textbook. I stumbled into the idea to use the most recent editions of Best American Short Stories and Best American Poetry . That year, two stories from Hobart had been anthologized, so using BASS meant I got to teach two stories I’d accepted and edited and published, all under the guise of teaching the “best” stories of the previous year; and then pairing that with BAP gave me a readymade companion of poems. I’d never taught poetry before, hadn’t actually read much poetry and had no other ideas for anthologies to go to, but someone had deemed these the best of the year. As a class, I figured, we could work together to try to figure out why these specific poems had been chosen; we could agree or disagree, but we would have to try to explain why ; we could figure it out together. “The Rose Has Teeth” was in that year’s Best American Poetry , and not only did I like the poem, but it taught well—my on-the-fly lesson plan built around the poem was one of our better class discussions of the semester, and so I’ve used it every semester since.
I got an email from a friend. Someone he knew was going to be series editor for a publisher that was starting a new series—“short books about a famous book . . . more of a personal reflection rather than any lit crit”—and he was talking to some people, seeing who might be interested. I thought it sounded cool, but nothing jumped to mind. Or, a few books jumped to mind, but none that I actually wanted to write thirty to forty thousand words about. I kept thinking about the idea. If I were writing a book about a movie, it would be Stand By Me , I thought, and then realized it was not only based on a novella, but one I’d spent the last couple of years teaching. I could not only use my teaching as research for the book, but the book could become about how I try to share with my students what I’ve learned from writing, and how teaching itself has affected my own writing. I emailed my friend, pitched the idea.
I shared the news with my “Writing in Literature” classes. “I’m going to write a book about The Body !”
“A whole book?” they asked. They’d just written essays about the book themselves, many having struggled to stretch their arguments to eight pages, about two thousand words.
“Gonna try!” I made a funny face, like I wasn’t sure how either. “You all wrote eight pages about one little piece of the book, right? I’ll just write a lot of mini essays about a lot of little pieces of the book, braid them together.”
That was my idea. I’d started making a list. Nostalgia. Deer scene. First time I saw the movie. Differences between movie and novella. Teaching. Coming of age. Friendship.
I had a theory that each of the four boys central to the story—Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern—was a character type representative of a larger whole. Everyone would most identify with one of the four, and in any group of four friends, there would be one of each. Like a “Which Beatle are you?” quiz. I assumed I could write a chapter about the theory, maybe a chapter about each character—as reminder for those familiar, as primer for those who weren’t—and try to apply each character type to my friends, myself. (Maybe I’d keep pulling that thread: Which Beatle is Gordie?, etc.)
Stand By Me ends with Richard Dreyfuss, as adult Gordon Lachance, protagonist and narrator of the story, typing at his computer. He’s writing the very story of the movie we just watched. The camera shows only the computer screen, as he types. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone.” That’s essentially the heart of what I love about the movie. It’s about friendship; I often find myself writing about friendship. I would write a book about The Body , which would mean writing a book about friendship, which would mean writing a book about my friends.
I teach my students to ask questions, an obvious enough teaching and argumentative device, though one I wasn’t really aware of before teaching. In my Intro English classes we build our essays around driving questions, rather than theses, and I knew from the outset that while there would be plentiful micro questions embedded around the book, at the heart of my project would essentially be, Why do I so love Stand By Me and The Body ? Why do they ‘work’?
As soon as I posed myself the questions, I starting brainstorming answers. The story works because it is built on nostalgia, an undeniably powerful emotion. Or it works because it is a coming of age story, perhaps the most popular kind of narrative. Or it works because, at the heart of the story, it is about friendship.
The anthologized poems in Best American Poetry 2012 became our reading list, and the “Contributors’ Notes and Comments” in the back of the book became our textbook.
In her note for “Receipt: Midway Entertainment Presents,” Karen Leona Anderson said, “A few years ago, I started using my cash register receipts as occasions for poems . . . This poem in particular was based on a ticket stub from the county fair in St. Mary’s County.”
Reginald Dwayne Betts’s note argued, “Composition, in my experience, is play, is riffing, is taking an image (in this case the man working with the cadaver) and working it over and beyond the idea until I land at a place that I didn’t expect.”
Stephanie Brown wrote, “I’m always looking for ways to make myself write. The first draft is the hardest. One year I placed a random list of A-Z words in my Outlook reminder box at work, to have a daily prompt pop up for twenty-six workdays.”
We take these notes from the authors and talk about inspiration, about where to get ideas for poems, about how to let yourself play but also work, about how to use the world around us as material to write about.
By the ninth line of Hayes’s poem, the narrator “was trying to play / the sound of applause by trying to play the sound of rain.” Which is a strong metaphor, it’s pretty, evocative, it feels poetic , and maybe playing the sound of rain resulted in something beautiful, but I can’t help but to think that it would be a failure at trying to play the sound of applause.
I was trying to write a book about friendship, but every chapter about friendship was more boring than the last. It felt uninspired, uninteresting, a bunch of inside jokes and references. Telling stories about your friends felt a little like stories about weddings and dreams, insofar as they’re usually only interesting if they were yours.
Jane Hirshfield, in her note for her poem “In a Kitchen Where Mushrooms Were Washed,” said, “This poem began in outer facts, events, and observations, but its doorknob is to be found in the third stanza.” As a class, we discussed that idea. What does it mean that the third stanza is the poem’s doorknob? If a doorknob is used to open a door, what does that stanza open up in the poem? What are other poems’ doorknobs? If we look back at our own poems, could a word or line or stanza or moment be pointed to as its doorknob? If not, does the poem need one?
I knew I would try to analyze that pair of sentences Stand By Me ends on. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone.” And I did write about them, though not much. I spend more time repeating and dissecting the opening line of the movie, “I was twelve going on thirteen the first time I saw a dead human being.” But the line I kept coming back to was one not in the movie. “The most important things are the hardest things to say.” It is the first sentence of the novella and then is repeated twice more, at the ends of chapters twenty and twenty-one. I’m not sure I’d recognized the repetition before; I don’t remember noticing it in my own reading, don’t recall spending any time talking about the line or idea in any of my classes. Why had King repeated the same sentence three different times? What might be my own most important things, my hardest things to say? Were they indeed one in the same?
In his note about “The Rose Has Teeth,” Terrance Hayes says, “My poem found its bones after I read Matthew Zapruder’s marvelous poem ‘Never to Return,’ in the 2009 edition of The Best American Poetry .” I tracked down Zapruder’s poem, added it to our reading list. In class we talked about what we recognized from Hayes’s poem in Zapruder’s, what bones “The Rose Has Teeth” found there. What are the advantages of borrowing or using another poem’s bones? How could we echo that borrowing ourselves? Might it be possible to use another’s poem’s bones as a doorknob in our poems currently without entrance or exit?
I usually have my students read “The Rose Has Teeth” before our second class, and they seem to like it enough, it’s fine, whatever. Then we watch a video of Hayes himself reading the poem, and they start to respond to it a little more. Hayes is a great reader, in general, and I love his performance of this poem, in particular. He stresses certain lines that seem to fill them with more meaning than we recognized on the page. The way he reads it starts to make it make a little more sense, we start to get it . Or, for even those of us who don’t, he at least reads it lyrically enough that it sounds pleasurable.
We talk about what stood out from Hayes’ reading. We talk about what we liked. We start to struggle toward examining why. Why, only a few minutes post-reading now, do we remember that word, that line, that metaphor, that question. Almost everyone in class remembers the “I was trying,” repeated throughout, because repetition is memorable. But also because there’s a recognition in that trying. We’ve all tried to do one thing, but failed. Or kept trying and trying and trying, until we got it right. Or tried to do one thing but it became another.
I spent a year writing a book about The Body , a year that coincided with perhaps the most difficult of my marriage. I spent the year thinking and hoping the book would be good for me—it would keep me busy, distracted, I could redirect my energy from moping or sulking into being productive. I wrote a lot. I planned a trip to Oregon for Stand By Me Day, in part as research for the very book I was working on, but also as an excuse to get out of town for a few days, a change of scenery, a chance to hang out with friends. And there it was, the thesis for my book. Friendship. But, at the same time, there was that line again. “The most important things are the hardest things to say.” In Oregon, I confessed to my friends the struggles my wife and I had been having, the struggles I’d hinted at in texts or emails, anywhere I could hint at them without actually having to say them aloud, the specifics of which I hadn’t yet told anyone. They’d been too hard to say.
After that first time teaching a multi-genre creative writing class, I abandoned the Best American pairing experiment, in lieu of a textbook, Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing . It’s an intro class, I reminded myself, and a textbook gives us a little more structure, a little more of a foundation.
In the first chapter of the book, Burroway writes, “The British critic F. R. Leavis used to observe that a poem is not a frog. In order to understand the way a frog works you must kill it, then splay out the various respiratory, digestive, muscular systems, and so forth. But when you ‘take apart’ a piece of literature to discover how it is made, and then put it back together by reading it again, it is more alive than before. It will resonate with all you have learned, and you as a writer will know a little better how to reproduce such vitality.”
As soon as I read that passage, I liked it. I knew I would repeat the sentiment in class, I would build a discussion around it . . . but I wasn’t sure how much I believed it. In the first chapter of my book, I say, “At least a small part of me fears what might happen when applying analysis to something held so close to the heart.” I was afraid writing Stephen King’s The Body might temper my love for the novella, might affect, even if only slightly, my feelings about the movie. Of course, by the end of the project, I now love both even more. By the end of our class discussion about “The Rose Has Teeth,” after having read it on our own, then watching Hayes read it, then finally discussing it amongst ourselves, I ask who likes the poem more now than they did at the beginning of class, and nearly everyone raises their hand.
Anaphora , I now know it is called—the poetic term for repetition of an opening word or phrase—because I am a teacher of poetry and because that is what the textbook I’ve used in every class since that first Best American experiment calls it and because students, weeks later, when we get to that chapter in the textbook, ask, “Like that ‘Rose Has Teeth’ poem we read the first week?”
I was trying to write about Stand By Me and The Body , but if there’s one worry I have, it’s that a reader, who loves the novella and/or movie as much as I do, will pick up my book, expecting it to be about the movie and novella, and will be disappointed. I was trying to write a book about male friendship, and it is, and I was trying to write a book about growing up and teaching and nostalgia, and it is about those, too, but I was also trying not to write about marriage, because I didn’t want to, because it wasn’t relevant, because it felt too personal, because it has nothing to do with Stand By Me or The Body , but I was also trying to write the best book I could, and so when it ended up being different than I’d hoped or intended, I tried not to fight it, I tried to let it become the best version of itself.
Hayes’s poem ends, “Before you, Piano, I was just a rap of knuckles on the sill. I am filled / with the sound of her breathing and only you can bring it out of me.” It is both a stretch, and not, to say writing Stephen King’s The Body brought out of me what only it could. I was trying to write about friendship, but the book kept opening up into all these other rooms, and it felt disingenuous to open those doors but not enter the rooms. In the end, I think (I certainly hope ) those rooms ended up being not just as interesting as where I’d started, but even more so.
“I was trying to play ‘California Dreaming’ with Jose Feliciano’s / warble,” Hayes says near the end of “The Rose Has Teeth,” returning to his “I was trying” anaphora. “I was trying to play it the way George Benson played it / on the guitar his daddy made him at the end of the war.” You can try to play it like George Benson, but you end up only able to play it the way you can play it.