Monday, May 7, 2012

Read: On Writing by Stephen King

Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.
Drink and be filled up.
-Stephen King, On Writing

There are lists out there: must-reads for writers interested in improving their craft. Stephen King’s memoir on writing is one I’ve seen on quite a few of those lists. I was skeptical at first, mostly because I associate King with a few scary scenes of It that I’d seen on tv growing up (I am forever afraid of clowns) and with mass market fiction books (yes, I have my prejudices). I’m glad I gave it a try — while On Writing doesn’t make my personal list of favorites, I enjoyed it. A solid read.

I expected King to jump right into writing. Instead, he started at the beginning, meaning his childhood, to show “how one writer was formed.” I was tempted to rush through or even skip this part (do I really care about Stephen King’s childhood?). But it turned out to be delightful, an easy read with fun details about his formation as a person and a writer. In fact, I was sad when it was over.

The section that actually focuses specifically on writing covered most basics that are found elsewhere. What I liked about King’s book was his tone: he kept it honest and light. He was serious about writing without taking writing (or himself) too Seriously. At the end, he expressed that his goal was to give writers permission, and I felt that his tone helped him accomplish this. Or, I felt like I’d been loosened up from some of the Big Ideas about writing that stifle me.

Some lessons I’m taking away from On Writing:
  • Closed door, open door writing. King suggests writing the first draft with a closed door, figuratively and perhaps literally, too, if it helps. During this phase, there is no audience. You’re just trying to get everything down. During the second round, open the door, imagine the audience and clean it up. The simple imagery is helpful for me, since I often try to get it right (ie open door writing) the first time through. 
  • There is a muse. He lives in the ground. In one passage, King erases our nicely penciled pictures of fairy-dust muses and instead imagines him as a cigar-smoking guy sitting in the basement, waiting around for the writer to do all the work. He assures us that he does have a bag of magic, we just have to make him feel at home before we see it. In other words, writing is hard work. Do it regularly, take it seriously, and the magic will eventually happen.
  • Ideally, your partner (or community) will challenge and inspire you in your craft. King credits his marriage with helping him be a better writer and a better person. I like the way he writes about his wife — as if he’s admiring an ancient work of art that he’s studied for years yet still is in wonder over — and I imagine that nurturing that sort of admiration for one’s spouse is at least part of what helps a marriage last. (Their relationship reminds me of Julia Child’s with Paul in My Life in France, for those of you who’ve read that.) 
  • Writing should be fun. I liked that King clearly enjoyed what he wrote about, and that’s why he wrote it. He wasn’t trying to be a certain kind of writer or write certain kinds of novels. He wrote about what interested him (and it turns out that made him very successful).

What are you reading?

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