What Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining Taught Me About Being a Writer

This week I watched The Shining for the second time. I was reminded of how valuable it is to watch (or read) something more than once. (I also read the book, a long time ago). This time around I noticed certain details. The long opening scene – the seemingly endless drive up the highway – feels like exposition at the beginning of a novel. Even if you knew nothing about the story, you’d get a sense of isolation, monotony, and a journey towards a destination. Two of the film’s motifs are the isolation of one mind from another – and how thoughts eventually manifest as actions; and the idea that certain encounters with people (or hotels, in this case) are predestined, meant-to be.

 

But, unlike most books and movies, The Shining does not give us a good sense of the main character’s condition before the events in the story. There is no “before and after” with Jack Torrance. Even before he and his family arrive at the hotel, there is no sense that Jack has any love or respect for his wife and son. He shows no affection toward Wendy; and Danny is afraid of him. Maybe he had to marry her because she got pregnant, and that’s why he treats her the way he does? Is that why he tells her she ruined his life? Who knows.

 

But there is no indication that Jack was ever happy, normal, kind, or even sane. So, his “descent” into madness really isn’t a descent at all; it’s more like the culmination of a journey he had already been on for years. Or, depending on how you interpret the ending, perhaps this is his inheritance or legacy – evil, or madness, handed down to him from a previous generation. Or perhaps he has “always” been a part of the hotel, like Mr. Grady.

 

There is a lot of creepy foreshadowing that adds to the fear factor. Foreshadowing, when done well, slowly draws out the emotions and feelings that will manifest later in full. In that sense, foreshadowing is kind of like forePLAY. The little actions leading up to the main action set the tone. They march us towards the emotional intensity of subsequent events in a teasing way. The movie is patient; it plays with us until it is ready to unleash its horror in full.

 

For example: Early on, we learn of the prior caretaker’s brutal murder of his wife and daughters. Mr. Hallorann, the cook, warns Danny to stay away from room 237, but insists he’s not afraid of it. Jack, alone, bores a dazed and predatory stare into a model of the hotel’s garden maze, then the scene cuts to Wendy and Danny walking in the real maze outside. We hear a television news report of a wife who went “missing” after being out on a hunting trip with her husband. These examples are all dark droplets of sinister information, telling us that these “loved ones” are somehow to become each other’s enemies. By the time we find Jack asleep at his typewriter having a violent nightmare – after which he goes back to drinking and takes complete leave of his senses – the fearful transformation is complete. Jack’s mind has gone off on its own way.

 

Danny’s mind, special as it is, is trapped in the body of a child.  Jack’s mind is demented and liquor-soaked. But both Jack’s and Danny’s minds are dependent; they each need outside help. Danny needs his mother’s help; Jack needs the help of Grady, his predecessor. Wendy, weak as she seems in the beginning, is us – or how we would be if everyone around us had gone mad at the same time. She tries to convince herself, for as long as she can, that everything is okay. In effect, she wants to ignore the mind altogether and focus on the external world. At the center of the horror is not some external force, though. The epicenter of the horror is the weak, impressionable, violent mind of a frustrated writer.

 

As a writer, Jack is eager to expel the demons inside of him and drop them onto the page, but he blames the fact that he can’t on his wife, on noise, on the environment, etc. The following exchange is telling, as we can see the tension between Jack the writer, and his non-writer wife. Her ignorance of what he’s going through as a writer, and his barely-contained contempt and resentment of that ignorance, is just beneath the surface. She starts in on him, innocently trying to help:

“Any ideas yet?”

“Lots of ideas; no good ones.”

“Well, something will come. “It’s just a matter of settling back into the habit of writing every day.”

(sarcastically) “Yep, that’s all it is!”

 

Most artists, especially writers, have had to deal with people’s ignorant or condescending remarks toward their art. People tend to think that writing is easy. Everyone thinks they can write a book, though precious few people do it well. Everyone thinks, like Wendy, “Eh, that’s all there is to it.” In that sense, I feel Jack’s pain.

 

On the other hand, as writers, it is easy to do that – blame others. It is easy to think that, with the perfect environment, with the perfect support, with the perfect circumstances, we would be the next Ernest Hemingway. Some even embrace the “crazy artist” stereotype and convince themselves that they need to hold onto their demons and vices in order to make great work. However, sobriety and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Jack eventually gives up on both sobriety and creativity.

 

Not only does he destroy himself and his family, he fails to create great work. In surrendering to his inner demons, he is exposed as a hack. All he has written is “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over and over again, for pages and pages and pages. Not only is this “work” mind-numbingly repetitive, it’s not even clever or original. Instead of transferring his madness to the page, he has become one with it. In doing so, he abandons his role as story-teller and becomes the story – just another man gone mad at The Overlook Hotel. Something for the townspeople to gossip about. He becomes a writer’s worst nightmare – a cliché.

 

As someone who considers herself a writer, I pay attention to protagonists who are writers. So, although I doubt that this was either Stephen King’s or Stanley Kubrick’s main reason for making their respective works called The Shining, here’s my take-away:

  • If you can’t write, it’s your fault, not your family’s, not your friends’
  • You don’t need to be isolated in order to write
  • You don’t need to drink, or abstain from drinking, in order to write
  • If you’re crazy, that doesn’t make you an artist
  • If you’re an artist, you don’t need to be crazy
  • If you stay in a room labeled 237 (or 217), terrible things will happen to you

 

Have a great weekend full of creativity and fun. And if you happen to stay in any hotels, remember – some of them “shine,” just like some people do.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “What Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining Taught Me About Being a Writer

  1. Great information to those of us who can’t write or never understood the art of writing. I enjoy reading, but never understood the art or mind of those who have the talent. So, thanks for the insight into the mind of a writter. Love you. 😊😊

    Liked by 1 person

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