A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
Reviewed by Grace M. Cho
One of the first adult books I remember reading when I was a kid was Stephen King’s Night Shift. It captivated my ten-year-old imagination so much that I was inspired to try my hand at writing a horror story about a grave-robbing ghoul. I entered it in a sixth-grade literary contest, and to my disappointment, it did not earn me any accolades at all. It took me a while to bounce back from the rejection and start writing again, but by the time I graduated from high school, I had nurtured aspirations to become a writer. During my first year of college, however, I was rejected from every creative writing class I tried to enroll in. Convinced that I lacked talent, I hung up my creative desires at the age of 19 and focused my energies on more pragmatic pursuits, like teaching.
Twelve years passed before I made any effort to write creatively again. By that time, I had become part of the academy, whose writing style favored polysyllabic jargon over language that was either clear or evocative. My attempts at creativity were often punished.
Fast forward another nine years. With the weight of tenure off my shoulders, I started writing a memoir. Twenty years after I failed to get accepted into a college writing class, I began my career in creative writing. I joined BIW, and during my first month, won Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It was a good omen.
Among the many things I appreciated about reading this book was the book’s fundamental premise that successful writing is based on practice rather than merely talent. Yes, there are some people with a real gift for writing, but most writers out there fall into the category of “competent”. 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”.
King does not offer a single recipe for success, but he does emphasize some crucial ingredients. A writer must have his or her toolbox stocked with a good, though not necessarily flashy, command of vocabulary and grammar. King warns against trying to show off with vocabulary words that feel unnatural and suggests using the first word that comes to mind. Likewise, he shuns the conventional wisdom that complex sentences make for better writing. He says that the basic unit of writing is the paragraph, not the sentence.
He then goes into more advanced writing techniques, the “bells and whistles”, but again reminds us that these are not necessary because “the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations”.
Once you have got the basics down, you have to do it every day (or at least, regularly). Not everyone has the luxury that Stephen King has to read and write for 4 to 6 hours a day and finish a draft of a book in three months, but much of his advice applies to you no matter your day job. Here are a few tips I will leave you with:
- “If you want to be a good writer, you must… read a lot and write a lot”.
- Once you finish a draft, put it away for six weeks before revising. Sometimes we are too in love with what we have just written to be able to look at it with a critical eye.
- Designate a place where you will write, preferably a room with a door. I love this advice, but choose to interpret it loosely. King discourages writing in coffee shops, but I find that as long as the other people in the room are strangers, I can imagine a virtual door.
- Write with the door closed. This sends the message that you are serious about your work and invite neither distraction nor premature feedback. When you are ready to revise, write with it open.
- Finally, when you are ready to send out submissions, remember that it takes patience and persistence to get published. Like King, you might get a big stack of rejection letters before you get a hit.
On Writing is a delightful and inspiring read. Though King writes with a healthy dose of humor, he is serious about writing and urges his readers to be serious, too.