A story about James Joyce:
A friend came to visit him one day and found Joyce sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair. “James, what’s wrong?” the friend asked. “Is it the work?”
Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?
“How many words did you get today?” the friend pursued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): “Seven.”
“Seven? But James … that’s good, at least for you!”
“Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is … but I don’t know what order they go in!”
– From Stephen King’s On Writing
Writing is hard.
This is something you won’t often hear from those of us who spend our days stringing words together, but it’s true, and there are a lot of books filled with writing advice to prove it.
Stephen King’s On Writing is as entertaining as it is illuminating. Like many other well-known writers’ handbooks (Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird springs to mind here, too), King’s work of prescriptive genius is a combination of sage advice and memoir.
I approached On Writing with some trepidation. For one, I don’t write fiction. Specifically, I don’t write – or even really read – horror stories (they get too much in my head). But I admire Stephen King for his daring, and for his commitment to truth, and for the ways his wacky ideas fall so gracefully on the page. He is a master of storytelling.
This last fact proved to be no less true in On Writing than it was in It, or Carrie or The Shining. Even readers with little interest in learning how to write would enjoy King’s savvy rendering of writing as a tale worth telling. His love of language springs up amid the antics of his bizarre childhood (fueled by his bizarre imagination) and the drama of his alcoholism and recovery. Throughout, King writes of a dogged, joyful, no-B.S. commitment to his work that is, at once, clarifying, fear-inducing and inspiring.
A few words of Kingian wisdom:
Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around. (p. 101)
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair – the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. (106)
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. (164)
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. If there’s no joy in it, it’s just no good. It’s best to go on to some other area, where the deposits of talent may be richer and the fun quotient higher. (150)