On Writing – Stephen King
First published in 2000.
Perhaps I should start by saying that I am not a Stephen King fan. But this isn’t the case because I don’t like Stephen King’s writing. Quite the contrary. The reason I’m not a fan is because I’m chicken. Let’s face it, Stephen King isn’t considered to be one of the best ever writers of horror, suspense and fantasy for nothing. And I’m simply too chicken to read most of it. As it happens, the only book of his that I’ve read is Pet Sematary. And despite being terrified throughout, I couldn’t bring myself to put the damn thing down. I stayed terrified for over six months after that – becoming instantly frantic anytime I was alone in our apartment and heard some strange noise. Never mind that I was living in Paris at the time, in a fifth floor apartment which couldn’t be further away from Steve’s Micmac burial ground in the backwoods of Maine. It was as if I’d find his creepy two-year-old zombie kid lurking in one of my closets, waiting to get me, scalpel in hand. You’ve got to be one hell of good writer to be able do that, in a book. This isn’t campfire story-telling, where you play on suspense with tone, and pace, and ambiance or a movie, where visuals and sound go such a long way in making everything seem real. It’s a book for Pete sakes. The only thing that’s holding you, mesmerized, onto the page, are Stephen King’s written words. We are light years from academic writing, where the only grip the stuff we write has on people is fear of not getting tenure. Where the hard part is picking the stuff up, not putting it down. (Ok, I may be exaggerating slightly, but let’s be honest, it’s only because we are truly passionate about our subjects that we can will ourselves to read a large chunk of the journal articles that are out there. The stuff we read and write can be pretty darn dry.)
So is there anything we academics can learn from Stephen King that might help us improve our writing? Given that his book pops up regularly on top-ten lists of “the best books on writing ever,” and several people in my immediate circle suggested it was a “must read”, I decided to dive in.
Like Bird by Bird (Ann Lamont), On Writing is part memoir, part handbook. Reading about the tidbits of Stephen King’s life that shaped the writer he has become is fun, mainly because Steve’s in-your-face, tell-it-like-it-is style is both engaging and funny. He uses the most outrageous analogies, but gets away with it because they’re just so… well, Stephen Kingish. Here’s an example:
“Maybe it’s the first really good paragraph you ever wrote, something so fragile and yet full of possibility that you are frightened. You feel as Victor Frankenstein must have when the dead conglomeration of sewn-together spare parts suddenly opened its watery yellow eyes.” (p. 135)
I think the best anyone other than Stephen King could expect to get out of using an analogy like that are raised eyebrows. But I digress.
I’ve read this book twice now, and there are definitely several gems in there. My favorite is Stephen’s suggestion that some of our writing needs to be done with the door shut, and some with the door open:
“With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly on the page, I write as fast as I can (…) Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the ocean in a bathtub (sound familiar??) There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind (…) I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” (p. 209)
It’s only once you’re past this that it is time to open the door, a crack, and let a few people of confidence have a look at what you’ve written. Later still, you can open the door wider still:
“Once you know what the story is and get it right – as right as you can, anyway – it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.” (p. 57)
But not before! As academics, I think we have a strong tendency to write with our audience (our reviewers, whether real or fictional, as well as our peers) in mind. Ours is a pretty small world, so it isn’t unusual for us to even have specific people in mind when we write. Sometimes this is necessary and important (as when you’re responding to an R&R), but more often than not, as Stephen King suggests, it can be paralyzing. There are moments when you’ve just got to focus on getting the ideas you’ve been knocking around in your head written down on paper. Write them down and worry about the inconsistencies, and the incoherencies, and the “what-will-the-reviewers-think” later. You’ve got to write with the door shut. Quite often, I’ll get totally bogged down worrying whether a sentence I’m writing “works” – Can I say this? Can I say it this way? Has anyone else said this? Did I cover all the references? Will I offend anyone if I say it this way? (Academic egos can be quite fragile, as we all know, so we’re always extra careful about the way we present our “unique” contribution to scholarship…) So much so, that I lose my train of thought. The idea behind “writing with the door shut” is that you forget about all that. You just write stuff down, and worry about the details later. In other words, Stephen King is telling us – it’s ok to write crap! Just dive in, if it’s appalling, you can always clean it up later and no one ever needs to know!
Another bit I found interesting is the way Stephen King describes how he creates his stories. In doing so, he questions “the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around” (p. 159). According to him, he doesn’t actually create stories, he finds them. He sees himself as a kind of bona fide archeologist (or forensic anthropologist?) literally digging for his stories. He suggests that when we write, we should:
“Dig for the bones and see what they look like” (p. 170)
“My basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).” (p. 163)
Part of what we do as qualitative researchers is just that – we dive into existing theory and into our data looking for an interesting story to tell, one that will (hopefully) contribute to theory building in our field. I like the idea of “digging” and “letting a story make itself” – which to me means believing, totally and wholeheartedly, that buried in all that data is an interesting story, and all you have to do is patiently dig it out. Just keep chipping away at that rock and you’ll find something interesting to talk about.
In addition to digging, Stephen King also talk about “scouting.” How cool is that? I mean, isn’t that what fieldwork is all about?
“What you know makes you unique in some other way. Be brave. Map the enemy’s positions, come back, tell us what you saw.” (p. 162)
Scouting out for interesting stuff, making connections, it’s our job, is it not?
“Two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize when they show up.” (p. 37)
And finally, there’s the writing-is-hard-work bit, which of course is not exactly an earth shattering revelation but what I liked about Stephen King’s take on it is his insistence that work and inspiration go together. That inspiration doesn’t just come; it comes because you help it along through long hours spent grinding that axe:
“If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well. (…) There is a muse, but he’ s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station” (p. 144)
“The longer you keep to the basics, the easier the act of writing will come. (…) Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ‘til noon or seven ‘til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.” (p. 157).
But also to keep faith, because we really aren’t our own best critics:
“the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all your managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position” (another one of Steve’s colorful analogies!) (p. 77-78)
Is this book a revelation? If you’ve been writing for a while, probably not. Is it worth investing a couple of hours to read it? Absolutely. On Writing is a fun, easy and inspiring read. Something to recharge your batteries when they’ve been running on low for awhile. And who can say no to that?
Reviewed by Charlotte Cloutier.