Stan Lee: Lessons on Writing

Back in 2013, I got lucky enough to attend the first-ever Comic Con in Salt Lake City, and even get a front-row spot to see Stan Lee.

The costumes and displays were amazing, but the highlight for me was my up-close seat to hear from Stan Lee, something I’ll always remember.

He came onto the stage looking small and old, with his signature glasses. 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 lined up to ask questions, and many 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 other questions jumped out at me.

TTOF - Stan Lee

The first was asked a few times in various ways: 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 about twenty years ago, where, in one workshop, the teacher led attendees through creating an entire world, magic system, and plot in less than an hour.

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 chance were that each story could stand on its own as different and original.

That’s because, contrary to what some people think about the mystic act of writing, writers pull the strings to 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 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:

“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.”

The Real Answer

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.

Writing 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 didn’t get paid. He wasn’t rich and famous. He hadn’t built the Stan Lee empire of Marvel Comics. 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 BIC-HOT; 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. It’s like a muscle; train it, and it’ll work when you need it to.

He did the work because it needed to be done, and because that’s what professionals do. All writers can take a lesson from that.

The recipe sounds deceptively simple, but trust mewriting to deadlines and being as incredibly creative and prolific as Stan Lee isn’t easy. I can guarantee he had countless days when he didn’t want to write another story about the Hulk, or he didn’t want to rack his brain for yet one more superpower to give a new superhero.

Heck, 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.

Recently I heard an up-and-coming writer ask how to “get” herself to edit her current WIP when she really wanted to draft a new one. The fact that she was even asking the question makes me think that maybe she’s not 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.

Easy? Not even close.

head-shot-annette-lyon-croppedAnnette Lyon is a USA Today bestselling author, Whitney Award winner and League of Utah Writers winner of several publication awards, including the Silver Quill. She has won Utah’s Best of State medal for fiction five times. When she’s not writing, knitting, mothering, or eating chocolate, you can probably find her watching Gilmore Girls. She has four kids and a Siamese flame-tipped cat with an attitude. She (Annette, not the cat) is represented by Heather Karpas at ICM Partners. Check out her newest book, SONG BREAKER, a retelling of a Nordic fairy tale.