Saturday, February 11, 2012

On Writing

On Writing
By Stephen King

I owe a lot to Stephen King. 

I'm not sure if I have ever told this story on this blog before (and I'm far too lazy to go back and check). Fact: I developed my love for reading from my mother and, by extension, Stephen King. It is not a sordid tale that had my mother traveling to Maine ever fortnight. It's rather more simple than that. Allow me to explain.

For as far back as I can remember, my mother was a reader. When I was very young there was never a time when there wasn't a book sitting next to her purse on the kitchen counter (next to the dishwasher) when she got home from work at night. At the time, she was partial to those immense paperbacks of the supermarket variety. I'm not sure but I would hazard a guess that a lot were written by James Clavell, James Mitchner and Arthur Haley. I couldn't read at the time, but they were books of that size, dimension and paper quality. I was awed by the fact that my mom could read so many pages without any pictures.

Ironically, it was the lack of pictures that drew me in. Since I couldn't read, I used to obsess over the covers of the novels my mom brought home. Especially the horror books. They always seemed to be a bloodshot eye or a scary looking cat or an ominous looking building on a hill with a tree and maybe, maybe a.... ghost! I both dreaded and yearned for covers that had ghosts on them. Those where the ones that fascinated me and to this day I still enjoy perusing mass market paperback shelves in supermarkets and airports looking at the covers. They are always so jazzy.

This was during the late 70s and early 80s. At the time, novelty cut-out covers were all the rage. You still see them now and again, but at the time it seemed that every other book had an odd cut or that little window on the cover that opened to a bigger, scarier picture on the inside (or did they open to something more disappointing inside? I can't remember clearly. Probably a page of blurbs). To me, those covers represented the Lambourghini Countash of novels. Value added for illiterate 5-year olds (back in the days when it was normal for 5-year olds to be illiterate). I concocted whole stories from those pictures. Some of them were probably better than the novels themselves. I don't know. Never will.

For whatever reason, I was always obsessed with what my mom was reading and how far her bookmark had traveled through a book on any given day. I was always asking her how much longer it would take her to finish this particular novel. Two days? Three days? Do you already have a new one? Where is it? Can I see it? Where do you get your new books? There's a store for books? (I don't recall even knowing what a bookstore was until my town got it's first shopping mall and I discovered the Choose Your Own Adventure series, circa 1983).

Later, once I started to read, one of the first names I recall seeing on those covers was Stephen King. I recall Firestarter and Salem's Lot and Pet Semetary all passing through our house and spending time on the counter next to the dishwasher. When I asked about them, I was told that Stephen King wrote scary books and I wasn't old enough to read him yet.


Oh really?

Challenge accepted.

It took me a few years and a few false starts with The Shining (you'd think I'd pick a less daunting book) but I managed to make my way through Cujo at the age of 10 and by the end of high school I had added CarrieSkeleton Crew and (finally) The Shining to my list of Stephen King books read. He never became my all-time favorite novelist, but I was always happy to immerse myself into his world when I had a chance. And some of his stuff still keeps me up at night, specifically The Jaunt.

But of course, like so many children who defy and rebel against their elders, I went through a long period where I scoffed at the very notion of Stephen King. He was simply a mass market paperback hack. He wrote for the money. He wrote for the movie contracts. He was the literature version of a pop star. Shiny and cool on the outside but devoid of any meaningful artistic merit. Pfft. As you can well imagine, I went through this stage during university and my "idealistic" 20s. I think I even sported a soul patch for a good portion of that time to complete the pretentious dick persona... Yeah, i was that guy, probably pretending to read Ulysses.

But I (think) I have demurred with age and have come full circle on Stephen King. Okay, sure he's a wildly inconsistent writer, but who am I to judge, right? While I wouldn't consider myself the worst writer on the planet, I've not written so much as a short story since high school. I just like to read books and talk about them. Besides, for every Tommyknockers and Gerald's Game there is The StandNight Shift and The Shining. He's written some absolutely outstanding novels and short stories. Anyone who thinks that Stephen King hasn't left a lasting impression on the world of literature is kidding themselves. He exemplifies an era, like it or not.

King has redefined horror writing and, for the past thirty years, has single-handedly kept the short story genre from sliding into a literary black hole. His legacy is positively assured. Stephen King has absolutely nothing to prove to himself, the literary world or anyone. Wipe your hands, turn the lights out on your way out, there is no more need for discussion. 

So it was more than a shock to discover that he went ahead and wrote what is, in my opinion, best book I have ever read on the subject of writing: On Writing. Furthermore, it might just be the best thing he has ever written. I have not read extensively on the subject of writing, but I've read more than enough to know that, by and large, books on the subject of writing are dull, dreary and chock full of nonsense. Listening to a writer go on for 300-400 pages about the process of writing only to tell you that, no, he/she doesn't know why some people can write well and others can't, but if you keep at it even the worst writers can become Charles Dickens.

King cuts through that bullshit right quick. Bad writers will always be bad writers (d'you hear that, Cathy Lamb?). great writers will always be great. But with a lot of hard work and careful honing of your craft, good writers can become marginally better. Might as well take you down a few notches before doling out the good stuff. I like that brand of realism. King himself is not a great writer. But he is a very good one who has over the years, made himself just that much better and he's perfectly willing to tell you how he's done it. 

On Writing can be divided into three equally fascinating books. The first part discusses his childhood and how he developed his love of reading and writing. It chronicles his family life along with his early struggles to get published, first in short story (and pornographic) magazines and then novel form as well as his struggles with substance abuse. The second part of the book is nifty little toolbox of advice for would-be writers. From the mechanics (vocabulary, grammar and Strunk & White) to the {insert number here} habits of highly effective writers. I am humbled that King has the same opinion on adverbs as I do. The third section of the book is a clinical account King's accident (he was hit by a van while taking a walk) and recovery while writing On Writing

While all three parts intertwine into a nice little package it was the second part that interested me the most. Perhaps it's because the book is called On Writing and it was in the second part that I got what I paid for, advice on writing. It's short, to the point, filled with anecdotes about himself and other little factoids about idiosyncratic writers. More importantly, it strips out all the crap about what you should do and what you shouldn't do, rules and plotting and character studies and all such nonsense. King outlines how he approaches writing, discusses how others approach their writing and they offers habits that will serve to help. In the end it really boils down to: Always read. Always write.

Of course there's more to writing than that and I encourage anyone with an interest in writing to read this book (of course, if you have an interest in writing you have probably read this book before. Probably more than once). Beyond the "how to" section there is invaluable information on how to get your work published, what sorts of roadblocks and troubles you might expect along the way, how to get an agent, how to present a manuscript etc... All this information is an invaluable resource for would be authors looking to get their work published.

Stephen King has gotten a lot of unnecessary criticism from both the literary community and myself over the years, most of it undeserved. The truth is, Stephen King has done a lot for the world of books and literature and me. It's time he get the recognition he deserves for all hie has achieved. 

But if I may be so bold: On Writing is his greatest addition. There is so much in this book that I will use (and have already started to use) in my writing. I learned more about writing in five days than in all the years I have spent out of school. On Writing is a book that I will keep on-hand for a long time to come. I'm really excited to put his suggestions to task.

Thanks again, Mr. King.


Judaye said...

You write a pretty good review. Now there is another book I have to read. When I was a teenager I read most of Stephen King's books. The Shining is one my favorite books of all time. I don't understand why it isn't taught in colleges.

Ryan said...

Thank you, muchly. I agree wholeheartedly about The Shining but I'd also put in a word for The Stand.

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