I had never read a Stephen King book until I picked up his “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” which Eldest had borrowed from a friend and left on the dining room table. I can tell why the man has sold millions of books. “On Writing” is part memoir, part writing advice, and I couldn’t put it down! I can only imagine how his actual thrillers must read.
I had never read anything by King because I have always had this vague impression that he’s the horror guy, and I really cannot either read or watch horror; if I do, I can’t sleep for days; I am like a total baby. I saw the movie Carrie at some point and I am sure a few others of his (like the show Under the Dome), which only solidified this preconception that his writing would be too creepy for me. Plus, in the interest of full disclosure, I have heard from several people close to me that his books are shallow. I think I will have to re-evaluate both my own snobbery and that of the advice givers.
King grew up lower middle class, but both he and his brother were apparently highly intelligent and finished college. He was raised by a single mother and knew nothing about the father. While they struggled financially and King worked a number of pretty grueling, low-wage jobs starting in high school and well past college, into his family-building years, he always had the support for his craft at home, since an early age, which is indicative of his mother having been an open-minded and educated person.
It’s interesting why he wrote this book. The answer comes from a conversation with his friend and novelist Amy Tan, who said that popular writers like them were never asked “about the language,” i.e., about their craft. As if penning a story that sells is orthogonal to good writing; as if being able to connect with millions of people, book after book, is not an extraordinary gift worth understanding.
It turns out King is very passionate and very serious about his craft, and has a lot to say about it. He insists on lots and lots of writing and lots and lots of reading, and himself writes daily with a 2,000-word quota. He subscribes to the Strunk and White “adverbs are evil” mantra and has strong feelings about grammar and vocabulary. He connects writing a story to unearthing a fossil. I was amazed to read that he doesn’t plot; the throws the characters together and sees what they do. (I found this liberating, because the biggest obstacle I have in venturing into writing fiction is doubting that I can come up with a clever enough plot. Maybe I should just get over myself and let the plot develop organically.) King also says he doesn’t believe in a traditional muse; his muse is a grouchy middle-aged guy with a beer gut, whom you need to teach that he has a job to show up to daily, during your regularly scheduled writing time, and eventually he will. King insists that a lot of damage has been done by people insisting that substance abuse is inextricably connected with creative work — he posits that that maybe there is a higher incidence of abuse among the creative types, but that it doesn’t matter, as everyone looks equally disgusting puking their guts out. He had a period of near-constant drunkenness and drug abuse, which ended shortly after an intervention by his wife and friends. By the way, through the book, his love and admiration for his wife, writer Tabitha King, shines clearly and brightly; it is quite sweet and was thus unexpected (to me), considering his propensity for the grim and the gruesome.
Let me wrap up with a few insights that are pertinent to a life in academic science:
- Once on a project, he doesn’t stop unless he has to; otherwise the characters go stale in his mind. I can totally relate to this, but it seems this is not an option for us academic writers at all, or anyone who’s not self-employed. There are many situations in which I wish I could go on writing papers or proposals, but other work and family obligations require I drop it. Ah, the gift of large blocks of time.
- “If there is any one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it’s that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects.” Need I say more?
- He recommends writing the first draft with closed doors and quickly, fueled by enthusiasm and fast enough to outrun any self-doubt. When the first draft is done, have your Ideal Reader read it. Then leave it for at least 6 weeks and go work on something else. And then read, edit, and only then send to a larger pool of no more than a dozen friends and colleagues. This is excellent advice for paper writing but especially for grant proposals. If I could write a proposal and then have it sit for 6 weeks before it’s time to submit and if I could routinely count on friends to read proposals and give me feedback (instead of never, now that I am a grownup scientist), I bet that would be amazing.
- Perhaps the best insight from the text has to do with King’s desk. For years he had this massive desk in the middle of his study and was drunk and stoned behind it. After he had gotten clean, he got rid of the desk, purchased a smaller one and put it in the corner. The rest of the room was then furnished as a family area, where his kids would come to hang out with him. The desk size and placement are a methaphor: Life is not a support system for art (or science). It’s exactly the other way around.