On Reading “On Writing”

I just finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and I have thoughts.

 

I’m trying to read more books on writing this year. I think I’m finally comfortable enough with my writing that I can read what other people think about writing. I’m not sure exactly when that happened–when I stopped thinking of myself as a beginning/novice writer and more of a professional writer, or when I transitioned from thinking of myself as a mediocre writer to a good writer. I always used to use the 10,000-hours rule (which may not be that great after all), but I passed that mark long ago, and it’s only been in the last… two years, maybe? that I started to consider myself someone other people should read. I think a large part of that new confidence came because of commercial writing. When clients repeatedly compliment your work, it starts to break through the self-doubt. They could hire someone else, after all. (Also why I may never entirely give up commercial work, even if my fiction takes off…)

In any case, back to On Writing… This book is such a classic of the craft that I really wish my thoughts were more coherent, but they sort of jump all over the place in no particular order. Here you go:

Stephen King is a masterful storyteller.

The first third of the book is his bio, basically, and explains so much about how he became the writer he is now. And honestly, I’m really glad that he included the story of his near-death experience at the end of the book, because that’s such a pivotal moment in his life that it had to shape how he wrote this book. But one would expect biographical info to be story. The thing that I find amazing is that somehow he managed to turn the process of writing into a story of its own. Even when he’s talking about grammar and mechanics and structure, he apparently can’t resist the Muse.

King’s approach to plot is a breath of fresh air.

All of my fiction-writing life, I have struggled with plot. I have never considered myself very “good” at plotting, and I have always been envious of those authors who can create detailed outlines and meticulous plot maps before they write a single word of story. I am constitutionally incapable of that detail. I would much rather just put two characters on a page and see what they do and what happens to them. So imagine my sense of validation when I read this:

I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

And then there was this beautiful concept:

Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.

For King, plot is a big tool–“the writer’s jackhammer,” he calls it. You can excavate a fossil with a jackhammer, but you’re going to break a lot of it. Better to use smaller, more delicate, precision tools.

It’s okay that it’s hard sometimes.

Carrie was King’s breakthrough novel–the one that started the ball rolling. But King almost didn’t write Carrie; in fact, he threw away his first three single-spaced pages in disgust. His wife fished them out of the trash, dusted them off, and told him to try again, that he really had something there. King says,

[S]topping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.

So it’s hard. So what? So are a lot of good and important things. You pick it up, set a timer, and plod along.

King’s reading habits reassure me.

I’ve mentioned before that setting an expectation that we’ll all read as much as Warren Buffet is foolish, because we aren’t all nonagenarian billionaires with staff. I think reading 50 books a year is a good goal for me, given that I’m still doing client work, motherhood is never a done deal, and I like to read very long books. I am behind on my Goodreads challenge this year, of course, because I always am. I have actually read more non-fiction so far than fiction, in part because I’m participating in a monthly virtual book club this year. We’re reading one “business” (or business-adjacent) book each month, and that’s been really helpful for me in a ton of ways. I may have to blog about that separately.

In any case, King says that he is a “slow reader,” meaning that he reads 70 or 80 books a year, mostly fiction. I would love to read that much, and I think it’s far more doable than the “read 80% of your time” guideline associated with Warren Buffet. Considering that Stephen King was at a point in his career by the time he wrote On Writing where all he did was work on fiction, I would say 70-80 books a year is reasonable. And he includes audiobooks, which I tend to not do because a) I prefer reading paper books, and b) I prefer podcasts, because I tend to listen to things when I’m exercising or cleaning, and I struggle with paying attention to complex plot and narration when I’m doing other things.

Somehow, King still loves writing.

Or at least he did at the time he wrote this book. On Writing is full of sentences about how much his work means to him–not because he’s become a very wealthy man by scaring the hell out of millions of people, but because he simply loves the work. “Life isn’t a support system for art,” he says. “It’s the other way around.” And this: “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.” I confess–I have not been in love with writing this way in a very, very long time. I intend to invite the Muse back in and try to find that joy once more.

I loved that quote so much that I had to put it on my quote board.

I wish I had read this sooner… but also, I don’t.

Here’s the funny thing about this book. Most of the way through it, I was thinking about how much I wished I had read it earlier in my writing life. In some sense, this book is a permission slip to write, and I wish I’d had that permission slip much earlier. BUT… on the other hand… If I had read this book early in my writing life, I might have gotten bogged down in the actual advice. And King does give a lot of advice–grammar, mechanics, description, dialogue, and on and on. When I was a less secure writer, I might have read all of that advice and taken copious notes and tried to apply all of it. But now? Well, I’m pretty good on the basics, I think, so I was able to mostly just enjoy the memoir aspect of the book and soak up the story of writing. For me, for right now, that was exactly what I needed.

There is a lot more I could say about this book, but I think I’ve hit the highlights, and this is running long… I am still plodding away at Unquickened, and there will be announcements shortly. In the meantime, do go subscribe on Substack, and please pass along that page to anyone you think would be interested in reading my work.

Until next time, happy spring!

 

 

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