Natalie Reid made me aware of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft in her academic writing class. I was reminded of it when Cal Newport reported that he re-reads On Writing every few years in order to reorient himself to the reality of becoming better at creative endavours.
I force myself to take an interest in writing as writing is ultimately what I do for a living (I do a lot of other things, like programming, reading, and thinking, but in the end I always have to write it down). I hoped reading On Writing would be a useful investment.
In the introduction, King reiterates one of Strunk and White‘s rules for good writing: Omit needless words. Unfortunately, I find a lot of needless words in King’s book. But he should get the benefit of the doubt; he never set out to write a book about writing in general, useful for all writers (I presume). He writes a memoir of his life as a writer, what shaped him in the early years, and how he goes about it now (or then: On Writing was published in 2000). If I were to put the blame anywhere, it would rest with Natalie Reid, who mentioned it in her class. By doing that, she effectively suggested it for those in the audience who want to push further than suffering through her lectures (I usually suffer in lectures). Perhaps I read too much into her mentioning the book, but she emphsized again and again that she could only cover so much in her lectures and that her book containted so much more. When she then, after obviously leaving out a lot of valuable material, still chose to mention King, one can only take it as a strong suggestion to read King’s book. The problem is, I find King’s book of almost no value as an academic writer (and Reid’s class was aimed at academic writing). If I were a King fan, I would certainly enjoy the biographic material and all the references to his own work, how it came to him, and how he worked with it. Also, if I had aspirations to write fiction I could perhaps benefit from King’s book. Alas, I am only an academic writer (and an amateur blogger in the dark corners of my spare time), and, again, King has little to offer.
It is strange though. After King finishes his autobiographical part about how he grew up and all that, he pretends to write a textbook about fiction writing, at least a textbook about King-fiction-writing. He is very serious (apart from the somewhat informal language), discusses one issue at the time, and, I imagine, presentes a comprehensive treatment of King-fiction-writing. But, he fails to make his part-autobiography-part-textbook usable. The book is divided into separate parts. The first part is autobiographical and consists of 38 numbered sections dispersed over approximately 100 pages. (How he conceives or puts into the thirty seven breaks is illusive to me, but not really important.) Then follows a part called What Writing Is, which is an interesting section where King discusses what he thinks writing really is (he thinks of writing as telepathy). What Writing Is consist of only one part and is only a few pages long. Next is a section called Toolbox that again consists of several numbered parts. And here is where the logic of the part-textbook breaks down. For a textbook to be useful, it should be possible to re-locate a particular section one remembers reading but cannot fully recall. But unless one writes down a content list upon the first reading, it is impossible to relocate any section without risking to skim much of the book. There isn’t even an index (nor a crude content list) in King’s book. Now, while I disagree with a lot of what King writes about writing, I find it almost provoking to read his textbookish prose when I know his book does not function as a textbook.
Cal Newport emphasizes how King went through a lot of deliberate practice; he wrote a lot, before his eventual breakthrough. Deliberate practice is part of Newport’s recipe for success. While not directly in conflict with Newport, I find King’s metaphor for how he comes up with his stories somewhat at odds with Newport’s ideas. King considers his stories as fossils buried in the (metaphorical) ground, which he excavates and liberates through his writing. King uses the metaphor repeatedly and it seems to be fixed and clear in his mind. I forgot to mark off where (turns out I didn’t: on page 163 he writes “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.”), but I am sure King suggests somewhere that the story (the fossil) exists outside and independent of himself, like a real fossil in an unreal world. King at least hints towards the idea here:
When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it […] is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around [p. 159*].
While I think it an odd metaphor, I also find it difficult to reconcile with the Newport-idea of deliberate practice. Perhaps you can train at metaphorical excavation; not sure how. The excavation of stories metaphor reminds me of a book by the Norwegian author Dag Solstad. The book, hardly called a novel, is called Armand V. Footnotes to an unexcavated novel (my translation). It contains footnotes to an unwritten novel. The format of it certainly makes it a disturbing read. One of the footnotes are over fifty pages long, if memory serves me right. Whether Solstad has ever read King’s On Writing, I don’t know, but he certainly could have; Armand V. was published in 2006.
My review is already overly long, but I’d like to discuss some of King’s writing advice. On vocabulary, he writes:
[T]he basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to you mind, if it is appropriate and colorful [p. 118, his italics].
But what if it is not appropriate or, most likely, not colorful? King says little on it.
While Newport entertains the idea that practice is really what counts and that talent has relatively little to do about success, King seems to disagree, and this is part of why I find Newport’s endorsement puzzling. King puts writers into four categories (I think), from bad, through competent and good to great, and the classification is seemingly well-defined and mostly outside our control:
[M]y basic premise: if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one. If you’re good and want to be great … [forget about it] [p. 144].
Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate-four to six hours a day, every day-will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them [p. 150, his italics].
Newport would not agree, and neither to I. To become a virtuoso, for example, one has to go through hundreds if not thousands of hours of technical and repetitive training that I doubt is particularly fun before you really master it; perhaps years down the road.
Another thing I do not like about King’s textbook approach is lack of clarity. After a section where he discusses usage of different tools, symbolism in particular, he starts the next section in the following way: “The same things are true of theme” (p. 200). What things? All the things he went over in the previous section? The things he went over in the last paragraph? What if the reader had a break in the reading between the two sections such that the things discussed in the previous section are unclear in the reader’s mind? This example is but one out of many cases where King, who ought to advocate clear writing, fails to deliver the necessary clarity of a textbook.
Another example of where King fails to be clear, where he lets his creativity get the better of him, is when he discusses when you are ready to re-read the first draft of a novel:
When you come to the correct evening […], take your manuscript out of the drawer. If it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk-shop or yard sale where you can hardly remember stopping, you’re ready [p. 212].
But what if it doesn’t look like an alien relic? What if it looks like a pile of paper? What if it doesn’t really look like anything because it is kept in electronic form? This particular advice on when to re-read the first draft is nothing but useless. Useless. (UPDATE: I know it is just a metaphor for foreign and perhaps the advice is not completely useless, but what about omitting those needless words, King?)
Well, shame is on me. King almost died when he wrote On Writing, and to criticize him is, I am sure, next to blasphemy. He was run over by a car and wrote the second half of the book while recovering. King goes on about the accident and his recovery at length after he finishes his textbook-part of the book. I am sure no one had the heart to tell King the truth about his book after what happened, and I probably shouldn’t either. But, I am a useless and heartless you-know-what, I’m sorry.
* Page numbers refer to the 2010 paperback edition.
UPDATE 2: It struck me that the stories as fossils metaphor suggests that inspiration happens by divine intervention and has little to do with practice. Either the fossil is there or it isn’t. King writes nothing to suggest otherwise, at least. King does emphasize practice through extensive reading and writing, but more in order to command the technical part of writing; controlling the language, tone, perspective vocabulary–stuff covered in the textbook part of King’s book. How Newport embraces King’s book when inspiration depends on divine intervention is another thing I find difficult to understand.