Thursday, September 28, 2023

Reasons why Stephen King is (over)qualified to tell us all how to write

I guess I need to admit it. Stephen King is my favorite writer. He’s not Shakespeare or Fitzgerald or Faulkner. But he’s never written anything I didn’t like. And I’m not sure anyone’s ever written as much. Simply put, you'll rarely go wrong with King. 

Now I’m reading his book On Writing, and who knows, maybe it will inspire me to complete my first novel. Meanwhile, here’s some of his advice from the long introductory section that he titles “C.V.,” which I think is his way of telling us that these are his qualifications for being a writer:

  • Read The Elements of Style, one of the only writer’s self-help books that’s not full of shit.
  • Read everything you can get your hands on and write a lot. (The back of the book has a great list of King’s favorite reads of the past 10 years or so. Not only how does he write so much, but how does he read so much?!)
  • He was not formed as a writer and doesn’t remember much of his childhood, much like me. We both remember certain things, like the painful ones such as when I biked into a picnic table corner, my multiple other bike wrecks, getting stung by wasps while trimming hedges, and at least one of my parents’ blow-out arguments prior to their divorce.
  • Blow up your TV. King learned to read and write before his family had a TV. Having one might not make a difference in your hopes of writing the great American novel, but it might. I suppose your phone might even be a bigger problem in terms of time sucking.
  • As a kid, he loved movies he termed as "Poepictures," and after seeing The Pit and the Pendulum, he wrote a "novelized" eight-page version of it, made copies, and sold them at school. Edgar Allan Poe is in my upper echelon of heroes, so I can relate.
  • King learned a revelation about drafting copy from his high-school editor: “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, you’re taking out all the things that are not the story.” This makes sense to me because I think tangents may be a good and interesting thing when in conversation (not everyone agrees with me on that) but they can be a real bummer in a book you're reading.
  • Graveyard Shift, which was turned into a silly and entertaining horror movie, was one of his first short stories, based on the stories by his coworkers at a clothing mill about rats as big as dogs underneath the place.
  • King could have easily given in to despair in those early years. It was very difficult for him to write when he worked at a laundry and later when he was a creative-writing teacher. But he credits his wife Tabitha with always encouraging him and never telling him any of his writing was a waste of time.
  • King, who was an alcoholic in his early years of writing and even based much of The Shining on himself, would use the “Hemingway Defense” that he could be a sensitive man in his writing but had to otherwise be tough (drunk equated to tough). He was drinking a case of 16-ounce Miller Lites a night at one point and doesn’t even remember writing Cujo. He, lucky for all of us, writes that now he realizes “the idea that creative endeavor is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time” and that Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Dylan Thomas are largely responsible for it.
  • At one point early on, he bought a gargantuan desk and put it in the middle of a room. But he realized it made him miserable. He eventually replaced it with a living-room suite and soon the family was joining him there and keeping him happy. “Put your desk in the corner. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Dude is wise. I can’t wait to read the rest of On Writing.

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