On Writing mixes the memoirs of Stephen King with his thoughts on best writing practices. He shares his personal writing code, rather than the 10 commandments of writing. This book is for you if you enjoy his second foreword to On Writing:
“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do- not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less of the bullshit.
One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White.
There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book. (Of course, it’s short; at eighty five pages it’s much shorter than this one.) I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. Rule 17 in the chapter titled “Principles of Composition” is “Omit Needless Words.” I will try to do that here.1
Strunk and White are not present in their Elements of Style. They present sound abstract rules rather than themselves. But you can’t separate King from the rules of On Writing.
When I see the writer and the life behind the words; their suggested rules feel more like a friend’s gentle criticism than a textbook’s stern admonition. On Writing is not a general text book on how to write, it is a memoir from King on he how writes.
King argues that bad writing is often the result of fear rather than inexperience.
King thinks that fear scares writers out of bold and simple sentences. Fear causes writers to abuse equivocations, adverbs, and the passive voice while dancing around their subjects and verbs with needless words.
If good writing is like seduction, as King says, then bad writing is like pick up lines delivered in place of honest conversation.
King’s seductive advice is practical, humble, and direct; learn by reading:
Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.2
Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing -of being flattened in fact- is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you. 3
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.4
In general, I found the rest of King’s writing advice sound with one notable exception; on page one King says that there are certain fixed tiers of writers. In King’s taxonomy there are; bad writers, competent writers, good writers and great writers.
A bad writer will always be bad, and competent writer may become good with supreme diligence, but no good writer ever becomes great.
King’s On Writing is pitched at competent and good writers, not the bad or great, because King sees that neither the bad nor great can learn to write properly speaking; their writing skills are fixed, innate, and immutable. I have two questions for King. One, why are bad writers always bad? And second, why can no one become great?
In On Writing, I couldn’t find any place where King answers my first question, he just takes the existence of immutably bad writers for granted. But, thankfully, he does see the need to at least try to explain why he sees that some are immutably great…
No one can become great because, great writers, Shakespeare is an example, are:
geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain. Shit, most geniuses aren’t able to understand themselves, and many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks, the intellectual version of runway models who just happen to be born with the right cheekbones and with breasts which fit the image of an age.5
Either I don’t understand King, or he is being incoherent. In this preceding quote I see two overlapping but incompatible ideas about what makes a writer great. Look closely at this quote and you’ll see it yourself.
Both ideas say that great writers can’t be taught; they are magical geniuses, but they diverge on what exactly the nature of creative genius is. For the sake of clarity, here are the two ideas spelled out explicitly:
Idea 1. Geniuses are naturally gifted and skilled people. They are ‘beyond our ability to understand’ or ‘attain.’
Idea 2. Geniuses are lucky people. They are ‘fortunate freaks’ who fit ‘the image of an age.’
Since King mentions Shakespeare as a great genius, lets see how his career was received to test these two ideas and see which one is closer to the truth.
King isn’t the only one to see Shakespeare as an obvious example of genius, many people do. Which is why it’s interesting to know that Shakespeare wasn’t universally recognized and immortalized as a great genius in his own era, or for quite some time afterwards.6
Idea 1 is in hot water, Shakespeare was more like a ‘fortunate freak’ than someone ‘beyond our ability to understand.’ Shakespeare’s example strongly suggests that we make up who the ‘geniuses’ are by collective consensus, whether or not they do have actual skill. So, Idea 2 (luck) is looking like a better explanation for what makes a ‘genius’ than innate, immutable, and obvious talent.
Skill, practice, and a much larger serving of luck is all you need to explain the successful career of any writer, including the great Shakespeare.
Any writer can improve their craft, however flawed they start, given enough dedicated time, practice, and feedback.
Now it may, of course, be a waste of time for some to write if there are other things they do with more skill, ease, and pleasure. Which, is maybe Kings larger point when he refers to the the immutably bad writer?
In any case, King’s ideas about genius and bad writers were the only major problems I had with On Writing. This problem sticks out, because King’s idea of what kinds of writers can (or can’t) improve is how he opens the first few pages of On Writing. But, I don’t fault King too much for these questionable ideas because King is always at pains to remind the reader that he’s not certain his way of writing or seeing how to write is “the right way.”
King is just sharing what’s worked for him and, if it doesn’t work for us, he’d probably remind us he warned us in the foreword that his writing advice may be all bullshit. And while his ideas about genius and bad writers may be, the rest of the book isn’t.
It is King’s gentle but persistent and respectful tone, his willingness to share his life and his flaws, combined with his idea that good writing is a kind of seductive telepathy that endeared me to his writing advice.
Thanks for reading.
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