A lot has been written about the creative processes of famous people. For the same reasons that How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie was an instant bestseller, people interested in creative pursuits have made books like The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp and Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke their bibles. We like to poke around in people’s studios, dig through their pasts for clues of their genius, and hear about the day when it all clicked. We’re secretly hoping some of that creative brilliance will rub off on us.
Basically, it’s self-help for people who snub their noses at self-help. And nobody snubs self-help better than literary types, which is why I believe there are so many books written by writers about writing. Most of these books have black and white covers with unceremonious (and decidedly un-self-help-y) titles like titles like Writing and The Writing Life and A Writer’s Diary.
I’ve read and enjoyed all of those books, by the way, but the one I’ve found the most helpful is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. King’s book is both an instructive guide to honing one’s writing skills and the fascinating life story of a man who drew inspiration for Carrie while working as a high school janitor and then went on to become one of the bestselling authors of all time.
Right after I finished On Writing I talked about it with a friend of mine who’s a writer, and she brought up a good point: the writing process of one famous author won’t necessarily work for the reader, who—if he or she really wants to write—should figure out a writing process of his or her own. In other words, the time that I’d spent reading about writing and talking about reading about writing, I could have spent actually writing, and I’ll never be Annie Dillard or Virginia Woolf or Stephen King merely by emulating their routines.
I agree with that. But one of the things that I find so great about King’s book is that he emphasizes almost exhaustively the importance of finding the type of writing that you are good at and sticking to it. He uses his career as an example and reflects on the writing life in general, but he’s very up front about how much practice it requires, and he definitely doesn’t entertain any fantasies about becoming your favorite literary great. King writes, “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.” I find that genuinely encouraging.
The book is full of little gems like that, written in King’s tell-it-like-it-is style and peppered with what he terms “colorful” language. I’m sharing a few choice pieces of advice below, but you should still read the book in its entirety for the entertaining dispatches from the life of Stephen King. And for lines like “timid writers like [passive verbs] for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”
- “Some writers have enormous vocabularies; these are the folks who’d know if there really is such a thing as an insalubrious dithyramb or a cozening raconteur…other writers use smaller, simpler vocabularies…Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.”
- “[Your writing] space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested) and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”
- “Can I be blunt on the subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
- “Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.”
- “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one in your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.”
“Nothing I have ever read about the writing life has moved or inspired me more. Whether or not you are a King fan, whether you are a professional writer or have never written a word, this is essential reading on the art of writing and the art of life.”