If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. (Stephen King)
If there was ever a finer book on writing, it would have to be Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It is King’s childhood, journey and illustration of a map, an answer to the question: How did you learn to write?
To be honest, I haven’t read a single Stephen King book. I picked up this copy back in 2012 because just like any amateur writer does (I think), I was hungry for the secret, the magical potion that rendered writers of their equally magical capabilities of pumping out word after word, of creating worlds for their readers. The reviews also bolstered the purchase; I was confident that this book contained the mythical how-to’s of successful writers.
Of course I was wrong. There is no secret, no magical potion. What I learned from King is that you have to arm yourself with four important things if you want to write: discipline, the writer’s toolkit, a big appetite for reading, and most of all, courage.
One could come up with a thousand excuses for not writing: of not having the right writing tools, of not having enough time, of not being inspired enough. I’m guilty of all of these, and I never cultivated the discipline needed for my writing. What King offers is a call to the essential, in its simplest and most honest form:
…you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well. The longer you keep to the basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don’t wait for the muse.
Writing is a solitary endeavor, a turn away from the urgency and atmosphere normalized by social media. This book was published in the early 2000, when the Internet was just beginning to make itself known. When King wrote this book, he was wary of the television. I am wary of the television to this day too, but also of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
In her book Quiet, Susan Cain explores the power of introverts “in a world that can’t stop talking.” She writes that over time, we’ve evolved to glorify the “Culture of Personality” over the “Culture of Character” with extroversion as an ideal. Our society now values teamwork and collaboration even more, things that are not always primary to a writer.
Faced with these challenges, I think it is even more important to nurture and create means for oneself as a writer, to keep getting rid of the world as King insisted, because you are creating your own worlds and eventually, worlds for your readers.
The next thing he wrote about is the writer’s toolkit wherein upon mention, my eyes suddenly got big (there I was again, sold to the myth of the mystical writer). Far from a treasure chest that I envisioned, the toolkit contains practical tips that every writer should adhere to: vocabulary, grammar, elements of style, dialogue, description.
I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.
This portion for me goes deep into the nuts and bolts of the craft: avoiding dressing up one’s vocabulary and using the first word that comes to mind (if appropriate), never writing in the passive voice (and no, it does not lend one’s work with authority or majesty as King warns), remembering that the road to hell is paved with adverbs, that “good description consists of a few well-chosen details” that stand out, and the kind of honesty needed to write good dialogue.
These are all essential, King writes, because the writer can never fool the reader.
Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel: book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep turning the pages.
I’ve read books that I never hesitated to put down in spite of only reading ten pages. There were some that I knew were just not for me, and there were some recommendations from folks that I wanted to throw across the room.
One, I wanted to chuck out the window.
A theme among those books: connecting to the text was impossible, for a number of reasons that I want to be mindful of when I’m writing.
In spite of these missed connections, I am always reading something. I mean, this is the whole premise of this blog. As a writer, King is adamant about reading as well:
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books — of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john.
For a long time, I kept reading books about writing and perusing copies of Poets & Writers and the Writer’s Digest. I also read the biographies of my favorite writers (Baldwin, Lorde) to figure out the elusive how, even attempting to capture their daily routines. I realized that I was reading so much about writing instead of doing the act itself.
I could be soft on myself and say that all of that reading was preparation, as King continues to merits its importance:
The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mindset, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.
Still, there is a difference between reading for preparation as opposed to reading while to delay the inevitable act, the revered, the writing itself. I felt like I wasn’t prepared enough, I didn’t know much about the craft in order to do the writing. Masking the preparation, all those books and magazines on writing was a stronger emotion that was taking hold of me: fear. It wasn’t until the nth issue of Poets & Writers, stacked in a corner of my room, an empty notepad that it hit me — I needed to do away with fear, face myself, get to work right away.
At the recent Oakland Book Festival, Pico Iyer spoke to the the audience one different lines of work. Someone from the audience asked if he worked with others, if he engaged in collaboration because writing seemed to be a “lonely and unattractive” practice. Pico answered, in perhaps the most insightful and truthful way: that it is the isolation that he likes so he can focus on his work. Moving to Japan (he’s been living there since 1992) provided him the quiet and isolation needed to distill his thoughts and experiences on paper.
It is in these moments, he said, that we are able to face what we run away from, of being able to draw out the material we need to convey to ourselves and the readers. Finding the courage to write is a hard task, but it yields the kind of work that the world needs.
I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild — timidity is the word I’ve used here.
The fear never completely goes away, but you struggle with it anyway, everyday. King’s words reverberate in your mind, a gentle reminder, a prod here and there: one word at a time. You choose the right words, craft the sentences you need to, form the paragraphs that he says can quicken and begin to breathe.
You commit to writing because in spite of the fear, the joy it gives you is greater. And you know you can live off of that joy forever.
That search for the secret, the magic potion of writing well I was looking for throughout the years led me to King’s On Writing, which made me understood that it is writing itself after all, that is magic.
Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.