notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
“Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Steven King’s book impressed me beyond my expectations: he’s hilarious, inspiring, and a fantastic teacher. Sure, he’s made millions with books like Carrie, Misery, and It, but despite his popularity I’ve never been interested in reading a single book of King’s until now. (Actually, according to the book jacket, King has written “fifty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers.” Incredible!) I’m not a science fiction fan, and I don’t particularly enjoy creepy, scary stories. What I didn’t know is that King writes much more than haunting books about psychotic nurses and clowns and tortured teenagers. Even though he’s known for his popular paperback fiction, King has quite a lot to say about the craft of writing that’s worth listening to, especially if you’re a new writer just flexing your muscles.
The book begins with a chapter entitled “C.V.”; King uses his “curricula vitae” to explain his writerly beginnings, from childhood through high school. What’s interesting about this section is that King actually got me writing right away; he offers his first memory as a scaffold to his writing career (“My earliest memory is of imagining I was someone else,” he writes) and once I read this anecdote, I felt compelled to write down my first memory, which, to my surprise and delight, fit seamlessly with the memoir I’m working on. (Thanks, Stephen King!)
His simple, straightforward advice works well for new writers especially. I’m going to share this gem with my freshman composition students while they peer review and revise their essays next week: “‘When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,'” [my editor] said. “‘When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.'” He’s absolutely correct: no matter if you’re composing an essay, a poem, a humanities paper or the next great American novel, “writing is seduction.”
King makes a strong case for the inextricable link between being a successful writer and a voracious reader: “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. . . . Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. . . . The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing . . . It offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.”
King is extremely forthcoming in this book; he openly discusses his alcohol and drug addiction, and admits that he doesn’t even remember writing some of his books, Cujo especially. I enjoyed reading about his marriage to Tabitha, his wife of thirty years, who supported him as a writer even when they had two young children and lived in a “pit.” (It was actually Tabitha whom King credits with his first success; she dug out the crumpled first chapter of Carrie, which she found in the trash covered in cigarette ash, and gave the pages back to Steve to work on. The rest is history.)
There are some aspects of King’s memoir that I find a bit silly, or just plain untrue. I agree that if you don’t have a solid, strong grasp on grammar (or, in my opinion, understand flow and organization) by a certain age–early college, perhaps–then you might never really “get it.” It’s something acquired, an “ear” for it, and no matter how many stylistic rules you memorize, that might not necessarily help you become a better writer. His “toolbox” metaphor–every writer has a toolbox, in drawer one is vocabulary, in drawer two is grammar–not only bored me, but seemed oversimplified and somewhat childish. And I just can’t agree that, as he says, good writers will never become great writers. It’s a bit of a fallacy, considering the first half of the book is about his failed attempts at getting published and how he worked the kinks out of his mediocre, novice pieces, and then went on to become one of the most popular fiction writers in the world. Isn’t that a perfect example of a good writer becoming great?
The last pages of King’s book contain a couple hundred recommended books. It’s an interesting and diverse list; Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Karr, Graham Greene, Don DeLillo, Roberto Bolano; even Jodi Picoult’s on there. When I teach a creative writing course in the future, I’ll certainly be recommending this small book to my students. If you’re looking for a little inspiration, or just want to hear a few hilarious and touching anecdotes from one of the richest, most well-known authors of our time, read On Writing.