I am SOO excited to present this article from a gem of a writer who I’ve just found. Thomas Gregory gives us a thought-provoking and entertaining “review” of Stephen King’s masterpiece on creative writing “On Writing”.
Image Credit: Photo by David Pennington on Unsplash
Uncommon Advice From “On Writing”
Ask a writer what you should read if you want to become an author. Nine times out of ten, the answer will be the same. On Writing, by Stephen King, is one of the most-quoted, most discussed books on writing that has ever been written.
Part autobiography, part philosophical musings, part practical advice, the book is written with the same solid prose found in all of King’s work. It begins with his childhood, as any good biography does, and moves through to his first novel, the extremely successful Carrie.
The second half is more practical, as King speaks directly to the budding writer, and offers insight into what he thinks makes a good writing process.
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No “writing advice” website fails to mention those easy-to-regurgitate lines found within the pages of On Writing: “Write for yourself”, “Read widely”, “Don’t use the passive voice”.
What is overlooked are far more complex lessons, often more important than practical concerns of grammar, often far more paradoxical than three-word proverbs. These are lessons found in his personal story, lessons that are important not just for those who write but also those who want to become experts in any field.
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Lesson One: Your First Work Will Not Be Your Best
Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was given paperback rights for the unheard-of amount four hundred thousand dollars. That was in the early seventies. Proof that your first work can be your best, right?
Except it wasn’t King’s first piece. It was far from it. Stephen’s first foray into writing was in the first grade.
“I would copy Combat Casey comics word for word in my Blue Horse tablet, sometimes adding my own descriptions where they seemed appropriate.”
Ignore the age for a moment (to me, in my mid-thirties, it’s kind of depressing. That’s when I remind myself that Raymond Chandler was 51 when he wrote “The Big Sleep”). Instead, pay attention to the content of his first works.
The man who insisted (at least according to most of the advice you see carefully curated from the book) that you should always be original started by copying, word for word, from other stories. King admits himself that the first short stories he submitted to magazines were ripped straight from the B-grade horror films he would go and see on weekends.
Carrie might have been the first published novel, but Stephen King developed his skills by emulating the stories he loved, and realising what he loved about them. He started his life writing what you could only call Fan Fiction, and it made him the genius he is today.
We shouldn’t be concerned about the first things we write, nor expect them to be gold. We shouldn’t be worried about being unoriginal, or using bad grammar.
We should write and know that the next thing we write will be even better.
Lesson Two: Be Proud Of Your Failures
“When I got the rejection slip from AHMM, I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor, wrote “Happy Stamps” on the rejection slip, and poked it onto the nail […]By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon iit. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begun to get rejection slips with handwritten notes a little more encouraging. The first of these hopeful notes was from Algis Budrys, then the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction, who read a story of mine called “The Night of the Tiger” (the inspiration was, I think, an episode of The Fugitive in which Dr. Richard Kimble worked as an attendant cleaning out cages in a zoo or a circus) and wrote: “This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.”
Stephen King – On Writing
A rejected manuscript wasn’t a sign that the young Stephen King was bad at writing. It was a sign that he had completed a piece that someone had read. And eventually, rejections came with encouragement from others. Finally, there was acceptance.
We should not see any rejection as failure. Just a sign that we are truly writers. Rejection doesn’t even mean our writing is bad, only not right for that publication. King actually continues the story to say that, as an adult, he polished and resold “The Night of the Tiger”, noting wryly that “when you’ve had a little success, magazines are a lot less apt to use that phrase, “Not for us.”
Lesson Three: Surround Yourself With Supportive People
I lied before.
Technically, Stephen found success in his first works as his mother paid him for his first short stories, believing he had a gift that should be rewarded. She told him to not sign up for the army because “You can’t write if you are dead.” and she shared his work with anyone who would read it. When he was eleven his mother, struggling to make ends meet to feed her family, bought him his first typewriter for Christmas. Stephen King’s mother was his first fan.
She wasn’t the only one.
Websites and articles never fail to repeat the story of him throwing away the first draft of Carrie only for it to be saved by his wife, Tabitha. They rarely mention the more important support she gave to his writing. The consistent encouragement to write. The willingness to give the little time they had after work to writing instead of his family. Those websites tell how she believed he had a good story in Carrie. They don’t mention how, when “I told her I didn’t know jackshit about high school girls. She said she’d help me with that part.“ Tabitha didn’t lie and say “It doesn’t matter”, or “Of course you do”. She said “I will help.”
I know I couldn’t write without my wife. When my self-esteem fails, she doesn’t let me give up. But you don’t need to be married, or even have support from close relations.
Support comes from many places, including writing groups, online friends or even a boss who lets you print off a bunch of copies on the company photocopier. What matters is that, when you lose belief in yourself, there is someone there to remind you that you have what it takes.
Lesson Four: “Write What You Know” But You Know More Than You Think
Stephen King was not 100% correct when he said: “I don’t know jackshit about high school girls”. Sure, he had never been one. But he had been around them, he had seen them be vulnerable and he had seen them be cruel. Some of the experiences of Carrie White came from real experiences he had witnessed. The Shining was written while King still refused to admit he had an alcohol problem, but he knew the pain of Jack Torrance, and wrote it into his story.
King points out in On Writing that his writings often follow the same thematic concerns:
“I have many interests, but only a few that are deep enough to power novels.
These deep interests (I won’t quite call them obsessions) include how difficult it is—perhaps impossible!—to close Pandora’s technobox once it’s open ; the question of why, if there is a God, such terrible things happen; the thin line between reality and fantasy; and most of all, the terrible attraction violence sometimes has for fundamentally good people. I’ve also written again and again about the fundamental differences between children and adults, and about the healing power of the human imagination.[…]
You undoubtedly have your own thoughts, interests, and concerns, and they have arisen, as mine have, from your experiences and adventures as a human being. Some are likely similar to those I’ve mentioned above and some are likely very different, but you have them, and you should use them in your work.”
All we create, even things not generally considered art, is informed by who we are and what we have experienced.
How likely would Einstein have determined the General Relativity if not for his obsession with Energy as a building-block of the universe? Would Viktor Frankl have successfully developed the psychology of Logotherapy without his time in a World War Two concentration camp? Would Facebook even exist if a young Mark Zuckerberg had not been so frustrated by his own social relationships?
We might not always consider HOW our lives and interests influence our work, but they do, and we should be confident that our experiences will enhance our writing rather than force ourselves to limit our imagination to what we think we “only know”.
People are right. Stephen King’s On Writing is full of gold to inspire and encourage us. The gold, however, isn’t just in those one-liners that are so easy to quote, but in the story of a man who worked hard, had people who believed in him, and let the life he lived inform the stories he wrote.
We should do the same.
Now go write. That’s what I’m going to do.
– Article by Thomas Gregory –
Grab Your Copy of “On Writing” Here:
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