Three Books on Writing: On Writing

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June 2, 2014 by carlywont

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Somehow, I made it 26 years on Planet Earth without ever reading, owning, or even cracking open a Stephen King book. On Writing is the first one I’ve read and for that, I’m pretty grateful.

I actually really, really enjoyed this book, much to my surprise. As I wrote earlier, I was definitely harboring some unwarranted snottiness/snobbiness toward King without knowing a single thing about him or his works (other than the fact that he produces a lot of them, which I admittedly found pretty suspicious). But now I’m totally open to King. I even put Misery on my library queue and have my eye on11/22/63.

On Writing is split into three distinct sections. The book begins with a sort of piecemeal memoir chronicling how King became a writer, moves into straight-up writing advice, and finishes with another memoir section on his infamous car accident.

I started the first memoir section thinking it was a little gratuitous but actually it was pretty fascinating to read about King’s early struggles with writing and his first big hit with Carrie.

The tone of the writing advice section was refreshingly different from both Writing Down the Bones and Bird by Bird. King opens the section by admonishing his readers to take this shit seriously.

He writes:

“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. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

I’m not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly; I’m not asking you to be politically correct or cast aside your sense of humor (please God you have one). This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s not the moral Olympics, and it’s not church. But it’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.

Wash the car, maybe.”

Like damn, dude! But also, like, word dude. Right?

Lamott and Goldberg tended more toward the easygoing, “go ahead and write total shit because it’s not that big of a deal” advice (which I think also has importance), but I found King’s to be a little more motivating.

I liked that King had strong opinions throughout On Writing, some of which meshed with my own including:

1. That you can’t make a “competent writer out of a bad writer” or a “great writer out of a good one” but you most certainly CAN make a “good writer out of a merely competent one.” Unyielding MFA critics be damned!

2. That, if you want to be a writer, “you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I have the first thing locked down. Working on the second.

3. That you need to “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” This one’s a doozy but true.

There are many more great quotes I could include here from the book, but I’ll stop myself before you’re just reading a really, really long transcription of the entire book.

So, my official recommendation: If you fancy yourself a writer at all—even a teeny, tiny bit—grab a copy of On Writing and underline the hell out of it.

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