The Apostrophe Blog
“Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.” —Stephen King
I confess: I’ve never read any fiction by Stephen King. I’ve seen at least one of his stories that was made into a movie—“Stand By Me”—and parts of “Carrie” way back when—I’m remembering the high school prom night scene in particular and Sissy Spacek not having the best of times.
I’m not coming clean about my Stephen King virginity as if it’s some badge of honor, as if I’m somehow superior because his bestselling novels never managed to make it to the top of my “to-read” pile. I’ve long admired and liked the guy—he’s always seemed to know himself and his niche, and to have just the right amount of self-deprecation laced with philanthropy to make him an outstanding American citizen in my book. I mean, his second son’s name is Joe Hillstrom King—a tribute to the I.W.W. (Wobblies) labor activist memorialized in many a folk song and Wallace Stegner’s biographical novel, Joe Hill. And what’s not to like about a successful author who, even after becoming a literary bazillionaire, has continued to live in his home state of Maine?
So I have genuine affection for the guy, our man Stephen King. I’d just never read him. Until I stumbled on his book about his life and his writing, that is: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
King began to write this very appealing mini-memoir a few years before his June 1999 brush with death thanks to a hit-and-run accident on a back road near his home in Bangor, Maine. He was struck by a drunk driver during the four-mile walk he takes nearly every afternoon when he’s finished writing for the day. On Writing is the story of King’s recovery as well as the story of the many road bumps on his personal journey of becoming a writer. Along the way, it also offers many chestnuts of wisdom Mr. Successful Writer Stephen King has gleaned from his years in the writing trenches working, day in and day out, with words.
King is refreshingly real and direct, believable and likeable, right from the book’s start. He clearly knows his place in the literary hierarchy (however subjective and, let’s face it, phony that might be) when he admits that, indeed, no one ever asks popular novelists about their language. But he also fights back.
“Yet many of us proles also care about the language, in our humble way, and care passionately about the art and craft of getting stories on paper. [On Writing] is an attempt to put down, briefly and simply, how I came to the craft, what I know about it now, and how it’s done. It’s about the day job; it’s about the language.” There is much practical advice to take away from this smart and heartening book even as King reminds us it is better to “do” the work rather than talk about doing it.
On Writing is a pep talk. It’s a toolbox. It’s a celebration of reading, the true cornerstone of any creative writer’s life. It’s an exemplar of writing-as-refined-thinking. It reminds us to hone our craft. In many spots, it chooses not to—and then doesn’t—mince words:
“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched, and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”
Stephen King is big on the importance of vocabulary—finding and using your own—and grammar—knowing it well. He believes you have to master the fundamentals and marry them to hard, disciplined work. He despises the overuse of the adverb and is a rah rah cheerleader for lively, active verbs. He’s a Strunk and White Elements of Style groupie. For King, words have weight, practice is invaluable, and honesty indispensable. His Prime Rule is simple: Write a lot and read a lot.
King is also willing to tell the truth even if it hurts feelings or seems politically incorrect. He divides the writers he has known into four levels of a pyramid. The bad writers are at the bottom; being at the bottom doesn’t mean, however, that a writer isn’t successful or well-paid. The next level up contains the competent writers, a large, welcoming group often with a strong local or regional following in King’s experience. Above the competent are the good writers. And above the good, at the pyramid’s apex, are the really great writers—the Shakespeares, Faulkners, and Bob Dylans—writers who are “geniuses and divine accidents gifted in a way that is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain…the intellectual version of runway models who just happen to be born with the right cheekbones and with breasts which fit the image of an age.”
And what does Stephen King truly believe? “…while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft tells the story of how one of the world’s most popular novelists went from being a merely competent writer to a really good one. It tells the story of how he healed from an accident that could have cost him not only his ability to walk but his life, that could have broken his spirit but set something generous and life-affirming loose inside him instead. I think that’s why, in so many sections, it sings as it inspires.
One more time, Stephen King’s Prime Rule: Write a lot. Read a lot. We should all be so fortunate to be able to heed his advice and follow in his footsteps.