It’s wonderful how much we can learn from stories, particularly when well told. Stephen King spends the first part of his book, On Writing, by walking the reader through a series of ‘fogged-out’ memories. The book itself is about writing. But he sets the stage by doing what he does best, and tells the story of what made him what he is today.
I can’t say if it was intentional on his part, but in telling what he considers his “C.V.”, King demonstrates a series of important lessons that were critical in shaping him. Notice I said demonstrate. I think this is, perhaps, one of the first aspects he teaches us. His book is about writing, but instead of listing out a series of lessons, he shows us what he learned and how he learned it. It is a vehement adherence to the old adage of “show, don’t tell”. I’ve read too many books and articles on writing that do little more than list out rules or guidelines or maxims or adages or aphorisms or whatever word you want to use. But, in the end, they’re nothing more than a handful of words on a page that leave the reader with little more than a sense that there’s something to memorize. There’s no feeling in the lessons they impart, no connection to the reader. Just rules.
I also think that each person who reads his book will come away with different insights based on how they relate King’s stories to themselves. I’ll recount what I learned from this, but by no means is this an exhaustive list of lessons to be found. It’s one of those things that you simply must read for yourself in order to get at the real value.
Humor and Horror are very close cousins. As writers, we don’t necessarily need to avoid one in favor of the other. King emphasizes that having a sense of humor is important. Rather, we need to be aware of both and conscious of when we cross the line between the two. He learned this (sort of) early on from his experience with a baby sitter who would fart on his face. Boy could I relate - for me, it was my brother. He also tells the story of how he was cut off the list for being in Honor Society due to his sense of humor, and how he’s happy to have humor over prestige any day.
Good ideas don’t come from some common place that we must learn to tap. For him, they come from taking two unrelated things and putting them together. He demonstrates this by discussing how the ideas for several of his stories appeared. This is pretty common advice anymore, but I think he does a really good job of demonstrating it.
Even Stephen King felt shame about his writing. I just can’t imagine this guy ever being ashamed of his writing, but he lays it out. Early on, there were people in his life, authority figures, who thought that writing horror was a waste of his talent. That shame stuck with him for a while. There’s always going to be someone who will try to make you feel bad about your ability to create and how you choose to use it. Don’t let it keep you down. That’s a tough one to deal with. I know I’ve experienced shame, I even tried to set my desire to write aside, chalk it up to some sort of childish endeavor. But it caught up with me. There’s misery in letting other people manipulate you through shame.
The first draft of a story is you telling it to yourself. The second draft and beyond are you telling it to someone else. This is one I personally struggle with. The perfectionist in me wants to do it right the first time and be done with it. I have no idea why that’s part of my personality. I suppose, if I look at my parents, there’s something of a perfectionist in each of them. But it’s also not fair for me to attribute that to them at my age. I think part of it is also living in the 9 to 5 culture. When someone is paying you by the hour, they’re not inclined to just let you try until you get it right. I’ve also read that perfectionism is a form of fear, a way of delaying the end of something. Sounds weird, but okay, I guess it’s possible. Whatever the reason, the important thing is that I’m aware of it now, and I can work on giving myself permission to use the first draft to tell myself the story. Then I can go back and rewrite it for everyone else.
King gets into this idea of work ethic, which is not something I’ve every really heard directly associated with writing (or any creative endeavor). It’s more than just perseverance. He talks about a poem his wife wrote when they were still in school. Part of what made the poem so appealing to him was that, in a time when people were just writing crap out of thin air (my words, not his), she constructed a poem with intent and full understanding of what she was trying to accomplish. I can really relate to this. My undergraduate work involved several poetry writing classes. I saw my fair share of words thrown together with disregard to craft. I did my fair share, as well. In the long run, it’s unsatisfying for everyone involved.
During a rough period in his life, when he was working hard and felt like he was just repeating his mother’s life, King finds himself thinking that that isn’t what his life was supposed to be. I suppose at one time or another we may all think this, and he admits as much. The difference, and this isn’t anything unique to writing, is that King did something about it. Even when the writing was hard, when it came infrequently, and the day-to-day drained his life away, he never gave up. This is a quality most successful people share, and I think it also relates to work ethic. Never give up.
Even from the start, King had emotional support. His mother encouraged him, and later on, his wife encouraged him. This isn’t advice for the writer, but for those around him or her. King sums it up: “Just believing is usually enough.”
King gives background on the story of Carrie. He drafted three single-spaced pages of the novel, and then threw them away. His wife recovered them later, and encouraged him to work on it (there’s the support), but what I found really interesting is why he threw those pages away in the first place. He gives four reasons, and provides them in order from least important to most important:
- It didn’t move him emotionally.
- He didn’t like the lead character.
- He wasn’t comfortable with the setting or the all-female cast of characters.
- The story wouldn’t pay off unless it was pretty long - longer than what the men’s magazine market supported at the time. He didn’t think he could sell it.
Look at that list again - it speaks volumes about King’s work ethic and his sense of writing as a business. The least important thing on his list was that it didn’t move him emotionally. The most important was whether or not he could sell it. It turns out that he was wrong about #4, but the point is, it was at the forefront of his mind when writing. He treated it as a career, it was a source of income for him and his family, not some esoteric activity he did on the side. I suppose some might think these priorities aren’t in the right order, but I think they are. In order to be an author, one must recognize and engage in writing as a business as well as a creative endeavor. Writing a book is easy. Sit down and bang away at a keyboard until you’ve produced somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 words. That doesn’t make you an author, although it’s good practice and a necessary part. Sit down and do the same thing with all the awareness and intent of one doing business, producing something that has market value, and now you’re an author. It doesn’t have to be a big market, but in the end, authorship comes through sales. Okay, so I guess the first time through is for yourself, as discussed above. But, it must be refined into marketable material.
King wraps up his C.V. with the story of his battle with drugs and alcohol. Through it all, he kept writing. In retrospect, it’s clear that many of the works he produced were related to this battle. Some are more direct than others. Part of writing fiction is developing metaphors for life, revealing truths through lies. But in discussing his drug abuse and how his works relate to it, King gives a spectacular demonstration of fiction as a metaphor. More importantly, though, is that King shows us that his fiction contains metaphors for his life. That, I think, is key. It’s a combination of the idea of metaphor and the idea of writing what you know. Your work will likely contain metaphors for your own life, and getting in touch with those personal metaphors can help develop both your work and you.
There’s a little section after his C.V. called “What Writing Is”. Kings spends just a few pages on the subject, but they provided an immense amount of clarity to me. One of my problems is getting caught up in details. I think it must be related to the perfectionist in me, but at times I think it’s also a form of procrastination. Somewhere I read that writing is about the half-described gesture, and King says as much. King describes writing as a form of telepathy, and that what’s important is the message, not the details. Trust the receiver / reader to know what you’re talking about, that a cage need only be described as a cage if it’s not the core of the message. He closes the section with some noteworthy advice:
Come to [the page] any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
…If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.
I’m here to take it seriously.