Postcards From the Margins: “On Writing” by Stephen King

Vincent Van Gogh's "Still Life:  Vase with Oleanders and Books;" Arles, 1888
Vincent Van Gogh’s “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders and Books;” Arles, 1888

I’ve never read a Stephen King novel, although I’ve recently bought The Stand and it’s next up (after I finish the darkly hilarious Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt). Re: Stephen King, I’m not much of a horror-lover, generally being able to supply all the horror I will ever need with my own ruminative worry. So I was surprised how much I liked On Writing; I would recommend it to anyone interested in writing fiction.

Part of my admiration for the book is clearly admiration for Stephen King. The book is at least as much memoir as it is writing instruction. Stephen King is a decade older than me but there are similarities in our childhoods–notably that we remember when our families got their first TV’s, how we may not have been poor but we certainly weren’t rich, how we were often left to our own devices and don’t seem to have suffered much for any of it.

Of course, most of the similarities stop there; Mr. King has written over 50 bestsellers and me…not so much. Yet. I like to think there’s one more thing Stephen King and I have in common, and that is a familiarity with work. He’s done many kinds of work (in a laundry, as a janitor, as a teacher, e.g.) other than write, and on top of that he’s written, more obsessively and productively than just about anyone else in the field. I think this is what lends On Writing its approachability: writing is work, on no higher plane than any other. If you practice it enough, King says, you might go from competent to good. Although chances are, he says, no amount of practice will get you from good to great.

I’ve had many different jobs in my life.  As a result, and bolstered by great instruction by another hard-working, sometimes horror-writing novelist, Ben Percy, I like my characters to be engaged in some kind of work. It can be work that I’m familiar with (often tending toward the medical, as I have been employed as a physical therapist and my husband is a physician) or toward the non-paid, as I have been a primary caretaker of children, or toward all the things I’ll probably never do well enough to get paid to do: paint, for example.

It’s this respect for work, I think, that makes On Writing a success, and maybe Stephen King, too. This is particularly liberating in that it allows me to believe that work could make me a successful writer as well. “Life isn’t a support system for art,” Mr. King writes.  “It’s the other way around.” So if I watch my adjectives and adverbs, make “said” my favorite dialog tag, cut all unnecessary words, say what I mean, keep it simple, get my ass in the chair every day…well, maybe the door is open to me to succeed as a writer. Even as a late starter.

I love a lot of things about Stephen King’s On Writing, but none more than the chapter on What Writing Is. It starts: “Telepathy, of course,” and then goes on to describe the magic of one person writing in a certain place and time, and another person reading in different place and time–and the otherworldly thought conveyance that occurs as a result of that pairing.  “We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room…except we are together…We’re having a meeting of the minds.”

To paraphrase Mr. King, we need have nothing up our sleeves. Our lips need not move. But the magic happens, even so.

How I love creating that magic. I shoot for “good” and dream about “great.”

But most of all I work on it, every day.

Oh, and–by the way–even late starters can learn to put just one space after a period (see sidebar, “Space Invaders”).







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