“On Writing” was my first read on Stephen King. I put three other books aside to blaze through it in a week. It was that good.
In a way, it’s similar to my first read by the fabulous Michael Crichton. I read “Travels”, Crichton’s brilliant memoirs, first then went on to reading several of his books and falling in love with his writing and himself as an author and personality.
And I think that’s important. If you want to learn from them, then you must at least like the people whose work inspire you, and Stephen King was easy to like. In fact, he was easy to freaking adore when it came to his pure raw honesty on what the craft of writing is all about. This post is my review of why “On Writing” is every bit as useful, resourceful, inspiring, and important to read as its claim to fame.
What I didn’t like about the book was over in the first 50 pages, and perhaps it is not an entirely fair thing to dislike after all. King tells us about his childhood, the poverty, the misery of making ends meet, the babysitters, the doctors, and the awful things that those very doctors do to him out of ignorance.
I was hoping to learn about writing and not about his longest hours stretched out on his bed as a young boy from various bouts with infections, but that was part of the story King chose to tell and well, I chose to read it because we can never escape the fact that to some extent, our childhood completes our story. That or we can never escape the desire to tell it to the world at every chance, and since I am guilty of the same, how can I possibly begrudge the King of fiction for it?
“I think we had a lot of happiness in those days but we were scared a lot too”
Even though poverty continues to loom large in King’s early adult years, his life brightens up a lot after he finds and marries the love of his life, Tabitha. I especially love that he attributes his success to the two conditions in his life – both of which he created – his long lasting and stable marriage and staying physically healthy (well, until the terrible van accident in 1999). Plus the fact that Tabitha was a constant pillar of support, and his Ideal Reader for everything he ever published, the first person to read his work after he “opened the door” to the world, and the only person whose opinion he would take terribly seriously. I don’t know about you but I find that awfully sweet! Who is your Ideal Reader?
“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”
The poverty, though, that was hard to read, harder still to believe and understand. My family suffered from a close brush to poverty after we immigrated from Iran and lost just about everything and I hated every minute of those difficulties, as it seems, so did King. There’s nothing glorious about being poor, and yet, it shapes us in a way that we end up being grateful for it.
It was heart-breaking to read how much King suffered from not having enough to make ends meet, and yet how hard he persisted on writing. “Where’s the magic”, one Amazon book reviewer was fussing about, and she missed it all apparently! The magic, dear reader, is in living through hell and yet never giving up on what you yearn to do. Everything else is detail.
“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
One thing I love about King is his pure raw honesty, his telling it as it is not to be harsh or to show off, far from it because a truly wise person knows how to be humble and still a teacher. I never for a moment felt that King believed himself to be in anyway superior to me the reader.
He connected with me on every level that matters to me as a reader. He told it as it was. He was funny and entertaining. He would call BS and swear when it fit the bill. He wrote in a clear language. He was encouraging and inspiring. He did not make you feel excluded from the game. And he made this book on writing a page-turner from start to finish.
When he’s had a chance to empty his childhood stories, we get into the craft of writing, and we learn that we need toolboxes just like a carpenter in order to do the job well. King talks about his vehemence for adverbs and the passive tense, his love of simplicity and clarity, his need for discipline and practice. He talks about fear being at the root of bad writing, fear of being rejected, ridiculed or resented by the readers.
King talks about the poor schmucks who go on copying the best-selling authors in style and how they come off as complete fakes, and he talks about the authors who rise to fortune and fame much to the surprise of the publishing world, and why that happens.
I absolutely loved every bit of these stories, and you know how I felt as I read these sections? I felt not half as well-read as I had hoped. Every paragraph, he references a half dozen books that he has read in order to share examples, and it brings me to one of the most critical points on becoming a good writer. King swears by it and so do I, even if I do it in a fraction of his volume. I was excited when he said he is a slow reader until he added that he gets through about 80 books a year!!! Some slow reader ;)!
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all other: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these 2 things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
If you don’t have time to read, King says, then you don’t have time to write, and it’s the simple and sharp advice that must get on some people’s nerves because they want the shortcuts, they want the path to fame and fortune on a super highway without any stops or long stretches of toiling away. On the contrary, the arrangement that Stephen King proposes is just fine by me. I grew up learning that hard work is the way to success – we won’t mention the decade where I was focused on the wrong hard work but hard work itself pays off in abundance!
The problem with wanting fast results is more fundamental than just lack of patience. King tells us that if you love it, you enjoy the process of creation, and you get lost in the work. You are happy, even ecstatic as a creator so much so that not working becomes real hard work because you cannot stay away from your craft. And if you realize that the joy is just not there, then you learn to move on to something else. Perhaps writing is not for you after all. How much more clarity could we ask for from the maestro himself? Thank you for spelling it out, Mr. King!
“You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself. These lessons almost always occur with the study door closed.”
His response on “how you write” from a radio show interview is so simple that it leaves the interviewer speechless: “One word at a time”, King says. In the end, it’s always that simple, he tells us and you need to mean business when you are alone with the door closed to the world. He puts a lot of emphasis on the concept of writing first with the door closed – just you and yourself and your unedited thoughts refined (partially anyway) into writing – and then with the door open, when you start letting people in starting with your Ideal Reader and then moving to a larger circle until you are fully exposed.
So next time you feel compelled to show the first 50 pages of your soon-to-be-best-seller novel to a close friend, remember, are you ready to share it yet or are you at a critical place where you need to finish the writing part before seeking outside opinion? And what – if anything – will you be doing with that outside opinion on your precious baby? For this and more, you just have to read the book, I simply cannot do it justice.
“Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all …. as long as you tell the truth.”
I enjoyed many parts of these book but the part where King tells us to tell the truth in our writing, now that gave me chills. The truth would be a good idea indeed. Every Single Time! Of course, you may wonder how to tell the truth when you are writing fiction, and he tells us it’s about being truthful to what you want to write about. Find the “truth inside the story’s web of lies” but don’t go hunting for the genre that will make money and write about that.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination but it should finish in the reader’s.”
Then he delves deep into the aspects of writing – the narrative, the dialogue, the description, the 3 components and building blocks of fiction. He shares examples, inspiration, and calls out the stuff that is flat out wrong, the stuff that gets you those pink rejection slips, although these days, we probably would get an email or something. And don’t ever forget to fall so in love with your own writing to forget to “tell the God damn story” especially if you hope for Stephen King to ever read your work.
“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely 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.”
Yeah, these are the sections that deserve a full read; first hand experience, baby! Grab a copy and start reading. They will make you fall in love with writing, and yet realize more than ever before that it is not an easy profession by any stretch of imagination, and you will respect your beloved authors even more passionately as a result.
“You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t even please some of the readers all of the time, but you really oughta try to please at least some of the readers some of the time.” King attributes this line to Shakespeare.
So be open to criticism, AFTER you open the door and share your work with the world. This proves that you have been telling the truth, and that you haven’t compromised just to please a publisher or what you think would make the best seller list. It’s not about the money and never has been for King. That doesn’t surprise us. We hear that all the time from the wildly successful people, even if a part of us continues to wonder about that.
No matter what, if you remove the pressure to write a best-seller and just write your very best, then you will please some of the readers some of the time so much so that your work will rise to the surface and speak for itself.
“Do you need someone to make you a paper badge with the word WRITER on it before you can believe you are one? God I hope not.”
You are a writer when you say you are one. I read this on Jeff Goins’s blog a while ago and it stuck with me, and when I read this line in Stephen King’s book, it came up again. The truth is that we do not need permission to become a writer. I would have no business writing if that were the case. English is my 3rd language, and I never took a writing class. Math, science, engineering, and computer networking classes, in abundance, but a class on writing? Are you kidding? In an Iranian culture, that would be the path to loser town!
“Do you do it for the money, honey?” The answer is no. Don’t now and never did….I have written because it fulfilled me.”
That must be my most favorite line in all of this book and I ran through a fresh highlighter so believe me, I had tons of favorites. In the last section of this book, King takes us to the summer of 1999 and describes his accident in full detail. That, I wanted to read. I wanted to know his every pain and suffering, especially because the accident happened during the writing of this very book. All I can say is how very fortunate for all of us that he lived through the accident, to tell the story and to keep writing.
“Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes, it can be a way back to life.”
In November of 2010, I wrote my own Writing Manifesto, the engineer-turned-writer perspective! Check it out only AFTER you have finished reading “On Writing”, the real masterpiece on the craft!
I must say that Jon Morrow’s post inspired me to pick up this book. His review covers a different angle on the book. Jen Gresham wrote about yet another angle – mainly hammering on the fact that we should not wait to write.
If you want even more Stephen King love, read this amazing interview on how Stephen King teaches writing.