BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A writing class with Mr. King ...

As I nearly exclusively read non-fiction books, I rarely have that experience (which appears to be fairly common among novel readers) of hitting a book that “I couldn't put down”, but this one has been about as close to that in at least my most recent several years of reading, with my having blown through it in only a day or so. This is also “an outlier” in that I have no idea how it got into my hands. I have no recall or ordering it, or buying it in any store … it was just there one day, and I was asking my daughters if it was something they'd be assigned (one could hope) from school. No clue.

So, I approached Steven King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft with a touch of trepidation (moderated by looking it up on Amazon and seeing massive numbers of 5-star ratings for it). While I'm certainly familiar with Stephen King, I don't believe I've actually read anything by him (given the whole "no fiction" thing, plus my only being minimally tolerant of horror/suspense), while having seen parts (I don't do movies much either) of a few films based on his books.

This book is a bit of an “odd duck”, the first third of it is pretty much an autobiographical essay in 38 parts, from his birth in 1947, up till 1981, which is pretty coldly honest about how much his life had “gone off the tracks” into substance abuse. Being a recovering alcoholic myself, I found the following having a certain resonance:
The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. The four twentieth-century writers whose work is most responsible for it are probably Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and the poet Dylan Thomas. They are the writers who largely formed our vision of an existential English-speaking wasteland where people have been cut off from one another and live in an atmosphere of emotional strangulation and despair. These concepts are very familiar to most alcoholics; the common reaction to them is amusement. … Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn't drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it's what alkies are wired up to do. Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we're puking in the gutter.
King notes that he never stopped writing, but regrets not being able to recall the creative process of books like Cujo, about which he says: “I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.”

The middle half of the book is the “meat” of it (at least in terms of it being a book about writing), broken into three sections: a very brief piece called “What Writing Is”, a somewhat larger section called “Toolbox”, and then the “On Writing” part. In the first of these, he argues that writing is telepathy, and he suggests that the reader has an ideal “receiving place”, as he has his preferred “transmitting place”, and notes that neither time nor distance are problems, as we can still read the thoughts of Dickens, Shakespeare, and even Herodotus when we pick up their books. King suggests a scenario with a red table cloth on which is a cage, in which is a rabbit, on which, in blue ink, is marked the numeral 8 (which I immediately was wondering if it were actually an infinity symbol – but King doesn't address that). He notes that everybody will see this in their mind slightly differently, the nature of the table, the color and material of the cloth, the type of cage, etc. He adds:
This is what we're looking at, and we all see it. I didn't tell you, you didn't ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We're not even in the same year together, let alone the same room … except we are together. We're close.
We're having a meeting of the minds.
… We've engaged in an act of telepathy.
So, there you know, that's what writing is (at least to Mr. Stephen King).

The “toolbox” section starts off with just that, a toolbox that had belonged to his carpenter grandfather, and had been hand-made by him. The story involves the author helping his uncle do some repairs, involving said toolbox. He spins this into an analogy:
I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle to carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.
… You'll find you have most of the tools you need already, but I advise you to look at each one again as you load it into your box. Try to see each one new, remind yourself of its function, and if some are rusty (as they may be if you haven't done this seriously in awhile), clean them off.
He lists various things that should go into the different parts of the toolbox (he's envisioning a multi-level box with lots of drawers, etc.). He puts vocabulary and grammar on the top shelf (and even suggests a resource for the latter, Warriner's English Grammar and Composition - something I've added to my Amazon wishlist), before getting into details. He talks about active and passive verbs (try to minimize the latter), and warns against adverbs. He says “I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.” and that without the fear you “can safely energize your prose with active verbs” and using basic “he/she said” attributes for dialog.

The next layer down in the toolbox is all that stuff in Strunk & White's Elements of Style (you do already have a copy of that sitting on the shelf somewhere, right?), plus an awareness of sentence and paragraph usage. King suggests: “In expository prose, paragraphs can (and should) be neat and utilitarian. … In fiction, the paragraph is less structured – it's the beat instead of the actual melody.” and “{The paragraph} is a marvelous and flexible instrument … You must learn to use it well if you are to write well. What this means is lots of practice; you have to learn the beat.”. This brings me to one slight quibble about the book … it really is about writing fiction. Of course, this is the author's niche, it's what he's done all his life … but there were points where I sort of glazed over as I really don't have that much interest in fiction, and he delves deep down a bunch of rabbit holes in pursuit of what seemed to me to be minutia about that side of things.

This brings us to the actual “On Writing” section. In one paragraph the author pretty much lays out what his intents for the project are:
      I am approaching the heart of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.
King starts the first part of this with another declaration:
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.
One of the “technical” questions he addresses is what is “a lot” for writing … he visits a story about James Joyce sometimes only managing seven words in a day, and notes others who spewed out reams of copy. As most of my reviews these days are clocking in at this level, I was very pleased to read that King's own output is pretty manageable: “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That's 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book ...”, now, I have no idea how he's measuring pages but 2,000 words in my wordprocessor runs to just 4 pages (the review I wrote just before this one was about 2,200 words), so I'm guessing he's doing editorial mark-up friendly (and magazine submission compliant) multi-line spacing, and there's no accounting for margins (as any highschool student who's submitted a paper with 1.5-2” margins will attest). Anyway, King writes in the morning, up to, and sometimes through, lunch. He has some definite ideas about writing environment as well … “most of us do our best in a place of our own. … it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut.” … he goes on quite a bit about “closed door” and public spaces for writing.

He launches into a lot of pages with examples of writing from his catalog, from other famous writers, and some less-famous, and gives opinions, suggestions, and dictates based on these, from writing whatever you want “as long as you tell the truth” to dissuading you from plotting (which brought to mind a counter-example of the stories of Frank Herbert's environment in which he penned the Dune books, which had everything graphically laid out exactly as he was going to write them). King equates books to fossils: “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer's job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.” and says, in relation to characters, that his job is “to watch what happens and then write it down”. Sort of re-visiting the “telepathy” idea, he adds: “Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's.”, and suggests a self-hypnosis like approach to putting oneself into an environment (his example is the Palm Too restaurant in NYC), and experiencing that in all one's senses – impressions that can then be translated to the page.

He spends a good chunk of the section talking about dialog, again in both his and others' works … which is probably where I tuned out a bit … but then ends up discussing symbolism. He notes: “It's that ability to summarize and encapsulate that makes symbolism so interesting, useful, and – when used well – arresting.”, but suggests that it's not something one should go into the writing with, but an element that can be polished in subsequent work-overs. He also sort of dismissed “theme”, saying that the writer spends all his time with the trees, and it's frequently left to others to go on about the forest, although he notes that it's another element that can productively influence one's second draft.

Speaking of which, he says that his books typically have “two drafts and a polish”, with the polish in the wordprocessor era coming to be closer to a third draft. He does point out that this is just his method, and compares that to Kurt Vonnegut's who “rewrote each page of his novels until he got them exactly the way he wanted them”, and when he was done with the book, it was ready for print. He also suggests when that first “door closed” draft is done, one should “let your book rest”, which he thinks should be a minimum of six weeks. Once that period of time is over, you can pick it up with fresh eyes, making the editorial re-working much easier. Once that set of edits is over, you can move to the “open door” part, where you're sharing the manuscript with significant others, trusted friends, and associates whose opinions of your writing you trust. Getting this sort of feedback can be a godsend, as frequently these others have whole libraries of more in-depth information on topics that you were writing about, and whose feedback can save you from deeply embarrassing factual gaffes (examples of which from his writing are of an appealingly voyeuristic interest).

He also offers up some “industry” stuff, like “Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%” … a note he'd been given on a rejection slip when he was in highschool, that he still uses as a guide today. He goes into research, how to effectively craft and inject “backstory”, and some war stories about the business, with publishers, agents, and the coming and going of magazines.

The book follows with a second autobiographical piece, which follows his near-fatal accident in 1999, which happened to be right in the midst of his writing the first version of this book. He was off on his daily walk up in the backwoods of Maine, when, on the section of his usual route that took him along an actual road, he got hit by a van, and was very badly injured (one of his lower legs was “broken in at least nine places” and the report of the accident indicated that he was very lucky to have survived – a bit to the left or right and he'd probably not made it). This section is only peripherally about writing, except in how it helped his recovery:
I didn't want to get back to work. … Yet at the same time I felt I'd reached one of those crossroads moments when you're all out of choices. And I had been in terrible situations before which the writing had helped me get over – had helped me forget myself for at least a little while.
This section is followed by a couple of “Furthermore” parts, the first being quite interesting from a writer's perspective, as it's “showing us his work”, where he reproduces the first draft of a part of a story (4+ pages worth), and then displays his editorial mark-up on a double-spaced copy of the same text (he evidently works from paper with pen for making these changes), and then walks the reader through the “why” of all the edits … fascinating. The next two sections are lists of books that he's found appealing and/or useful, one that was in the original On Writing in 2000, and an additional (covering stuff he'd read between the two versions) list put together for the “Tenth Anniversary Editon”, featuring nearly two hundred titles between them (of which I've read only about half a dozen, and those mainly due to having been an English major back in the day).

My snarking about this being fiction-centric aside, it is quite an excellent book, and should certainly be “in the toolbox” of any writer. It's approachable both as a biographical work, a historical work (as far as the trade of fiction author goes, at least), and a workshop on writing with one of the most successful writers of our time. This is still very much in print (in hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, audio book, e-book, heck, it might be in braille for all I know), so should be reasonably easy to find it in the surviving brick-and-mortar book stores, but you can score a “very good” copy of the mass-market paperback for as little as a penny (plus shipping) through the new/used guys, so it's definitely something you should go get if you have any interest in the craft of writing.

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Tags: book review

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