What Stan Lee Taught Me About Writing
Five years ago, I got the chance see hear Stan Lee at a con, and what he had to say has stuck with me.
When I heard of his death, I remembered the simple but powerful lessons he shared that day. Below are some thoughts I wrote the experience back in 2013.
When I freed myself from the exhibit hall, where I saw cool things like the Hulk made out of balloons, a life-size Tardis, Sasquatch, and the most amazing cosplay, I found myself on a relatively free end of the hall. I’ll call this celebrity alley.
Along this area, various celebrities, largely famous for roles in science fiction or fantasy television shows and movies, had areas roped off. At the far end of each area were tables and chairs and a giant poster featuring the celebrity’s name and several photographs from their most famous roles.
The photos were particularly helpful. I didn’t always know the celebrities’ names, but you can be sure I know who Q is. Times were listed during which fans could line up to meet them and get photos and/or autographs (each of which cost a pretty penny) (I didn’t get one).
Among those I walked past: The aforementioned Q (John de Lancie), Henry Winkler (cool to see the Fonz, although I’m not entirely sure what he was doing at a SF/F con), and Kevin Sorbo (known as TV’s Hercules). I’m kicking myself for not writing down all the names, because there were many more. Cool stuff.
(Note: Q is getting old. I suppose time didn’t stop for him in 1994, which means it didn’t for me, either. Ahem.)
The highlights for me, though, were getting up-close seats to hear from William Shatner and then Stan Lee. Shatner was fun to listen to, but it was Stan Lee I’ll always remember.
He came onto the stage looking small and old, which I suppose he is. He had the signature glasses he always wears. I don’t think he stopped smiling or laughing the entire time. He cracked a lot of down-to-earth, funny jokes, some at his own expense, and I immediately liked him. He didn’t have the air of a celebrity gracing his fans with his presence.
Fans stood in two lines, one flanking each side of the stage, to ask him questions. A lot of them were things you’d expect: Who is your favorite Marvel superhero? Who is your favorite Marvel female character? If you were to actually admit to liking DC Comics, which of their superheroes is your favorite? Which was your favorite cameo in a Marvel movie?
Because I’m a writer, two of the questions jumped out at me.
The first was asked a few times in various ways, and it always got the same answer:
If superheroes X and Y fought, who would win?
Stan’s response each time: “Depends on who’s writing it.”
His answer brought me back to a conference I attended probably years ago, where a famous fantasy writer was the keynote and taught a couple of classes.
In one of his workshops, he led the attendees through an exercise during which we created an entire world and plot within 50 minutes.
He noted that in the past, he’d make sure that everyone agreed in advance not to use the story generated by the workshop, but he didn’t do that anymore, because he’d realized that every person in the room could go home and write about what we’d just invented, and there was a good chance that each story would stand totally on its own as original.
That’s because, contrary to what some people think about the mystic act of writing, writers get to pull the strings and make things happen. We decide on the character motivations, stakes, personalities, complications, and everything else.
Sure, sometimes we discover stuff that changes our original plan, but in a sense, we’re still the creators of our fictional universe. Because every writer is different, each writer’s work will be different too. It’s a beautiful thing, this power we hold.
(But with great power comes great responsibility; right, Stan?)
The other question, or, rather, Stan’s answer to it, struck me even harder, and I think I’ll remember it forever.
A fan asked, “What inspired you to create all of these great characters?”
Stan had a couple of responses. The first was sort of tongue in cheek, just one word: “Greed.”
Then he chuckled, his shoulders shaking. “Just kidding,” he said. “Sort of.”
He went on to explain how writing was his career. That if he hoped to feed his family and keep a roof over their heads, he had to keep writing and producing. It was his job. That meant coming up with new stories and new superheroes to populate the stories with. He couldn’t decide one day that he just wasn’t feeling it, or he’d have lost his job altogether.
He wasn’t rich and famous then. He hadn’t built the Stan Lee empire of Marvel Comics. Not yet. He was just doing what he did well to keep dinner on the table.
In other words, Stan Lee didn’t wait for the muse to strike before he sat down to write.
He was and is a professional, and that means BIC-HOK: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard (or, in his day, probably Hands on Typewriter). While he didn’t say so, I’d wager that the more often he sat down and did the work, the more often the muse showed up right on schedule.
The muse’s arrival behaves like a muscle; train it, and it’ll show up to work when you need it to.
The recipe sounds deceptively simple, but trust me — writing to deadlines and being as incredibly creative and prolific as Stan Lee became isn’t easy. I can guarantee there were many days he didn’t want to write another story about the Hulk, or he didn’t want to rack his brain for an original superpower to give to a new superhero. There were probably days he didn’t even like his characters.
I’m sure Stan Lee fought every creative battle out there. And he won, creating the Marvel empire that has influenced millions and even affected our culture.
I once heard an up-and-coming writer ask how to get herself edit her current project when she really wanted to draft a new one.
The fact that she was even asking the question made me suspect — rightly, I’m confident — that maybe she wasn’t quite ready for the answer.
Here’s how: You just do it, because that’s what professionals do.
Easy? Heck, no. But the writing life never was.
Awesome? Yes. Very much so at times.
But with the peaks come the valleys, and you can’t reach the next peak without working your way through the next valley.
Stan Lee was the ultimate pro. He knew how to work and be creative in ways that made him a legend.