On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King seemed to show up wherever I looked when I first started to connect with other writers through social media. I ignored it at first. After all, I am no horror fan and I had never read Stephen King. But quotes from his book popped up consistently enough that I started to notice.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.”
Despite the somewhat misleading interpretation of one writer I connected with - “read it if you’re a fan of his work; if not, it may not be worth your while” - I decided to take the plunge. And boy, am I glad I did.
From King’s reminisces of his childhood to his articulate and concise reflections on the craft of writing itself, I found On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft utterly compelling. Its most valuable offering is that the teaching it provides is almost instantly applicable. It also served to dispel several false notions I had developed about the aims of a writer and the methods one uses to become one.
Do you need someone to make a paper badge with the word WRITER on it before you can believe you are one?
On Writing essentially consists of two sections. The first section is where we see the classification of memoir most evident. King recounts his life and early years with a succinct and humorous style. At least twice I found myself laughing aloud at his childhood memories of one scrape or another. We also see the very prominent role writing played in his life even from an early age. His highschool writerly escapades nearly earned him a suspension (in the end, he got two weeks of detention) but we can’t help but laugh at his antics. We get to see the unfolding (and cultivating) of his creativity and genius for the written word through the life experiences that shaped him and his talent.
One of my favorite chapters of this book is where he describes his first writing job working as a sports reporter at Lisbon’s Weekly Enterprise. The editor of said newspaper was a man named John Gould. King recounts his first experience submitting his work to Gould. He even provides a mock sample of his work after the editor had gone through it with a black pen.
This is where the value of On Writing first became apparent to me. The lessons King learned through that experience are lessons for us as well.
“When you write, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
The example he provides shows what would have been Mr. Gould’s markups. Sentences have been crossed out. Redundant verbiage is cut down. The result is succinct and concise.
“I only cut out the bad parts, you know,” Gould tells King.
This same type of learn-by-example is demonstrated at the very end of the book where King first shows us a piece of writing he created, and then the markups and editing he would employ to perfect it. For those of us who appreciate the breakdowns of a rule, King gives us a clear and concise example of what to do. And what not to do.
The second section of King’s book focuses almost exclusively on the craft itself.
Here were some personal notes I took:
Cut out the bad parts.
Say what you mean. Don’t use a bigger word just because.
Grammar is a tool. Remember that a sentence needs a verb and a noun. Avoid passive verbs.
Adverbs are not your friend. Use adverbs in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions.
This is only the tip of the iceberg though. King delves deep into the building blocks of the craft and the life of a writer in a way that is both affirming and revelatory. He assures us that you don’t need X, Y, or Z in order to call yourself a writer. You just need to write. (And read. Read a lot.) But you also need your tools. King discusses such things as grammar, storyline, plot, characters, description, editing, prose, and more. He dispels common misconceptions like you have to take a writing class in order to be a good writer. He admits there are some benefits to classes and workshops and all the rest (in those environments writing is taken very seriously, which could be of great help to new or aspiring writers) but also puts forth that writing classes, workshops, and groups all demand that you "write with the door open." Writing with the door open means to write with an audience in mind. To write with all their opinions and dialogues about what you can and can't do. One of the most popular quotes of his that you'll see circulating the writer sphere is: "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open." King stresses how important it is to tell yourself the story before you tell anyone else. This is just one of the few gems you'll find in On Writing.
My appreciation for this book knows no bounds. I cannot stress enough how powerful and helpful of a tool it can be to you. If you are serious about writing and about improving your craft, you need to read this book. You don’t even need to be a fan of Stephen King in order to benefit from it. It’s genius lies in the offering it presents for practitioners of the craft and those who seek to improve in it.
In the words of King himself: “The rest of it - and perhaps the best of it - is a permission slip: You can, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will.”
About Ruth Elias
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