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On Writing
A Memoir of the Craft

Stephen King

ARJ2 Chapter: Writing
Published by Simon & Schuster/NY in 2000
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2016


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What brought me to this book was a quotation from it about the overuse of adverbs. I could have written it this way, "What quickly brought me to this book" and used an unnecessary adverb. Yes, I know that I came quickly to this book, but who else cares? Quickly was an unnecessary adverb. I got his point that good writing rarely needs adverbs and decided it was time for me to read my first book by Stephen King.

In his C.V. section, King reveals the horror story of his early life, incidents that sound like stories from his novels. His baby-sitter story, e. g., should help any writer to cope with abusive critics. She was a big fat sixteen year old named either Beulah or Eula.

[page 20, 21] Was she as hard on my brother David as she was on me? I don't know. He's not in any of these pictures. Besides, he would have been less at risk from Hurricane Eula-Beulah's dangerous winds; at six, he would have been in the first grade and off the gunnery range for most of the day.
       Eula-Beulah would be on the phone, laughing with someone, and beckon me over. She would hug me, tickle me, get me laughing, and then, still laughing, go upside my head hard enough to knock me down. Then she would tickle me with her bare feet until we were both laughing again.
       Eula-Beulah was prone to farts — the kind that are both loud and smelly. Sometimes when she was so afflicted, she would throw me on the couch, drop her wool-skirted butt on my face, and let loose. "Pow!" she'd cry in high glee. It was like being buried in marsh-gas fireworks. I remember the dark, the sense that I was suffocating, and I remember laughing. Because, while what was happening was sort of horrible, it was also sort of funny. In many ways, Eula-Beulah prepared me for literary criticism. After having a two-hundred-pound babysitter fart on your face and yell Pow!, The Village Voice holds few terrors.

While his babysitter prepared Stephen for his future critics, his mother prepared him to deal with people dying. Around age six he asked his mom if she had ever seen anyone die. She said she had seen one and heard one. The first one was a drowning girl caught in a rip tide, screaming for help. The second one was a sailor who jumped to his death and landed in the street.

[page 23] "He splattered," my mother said in her most matter-of-fact tone. She paused, then added, "The stuff that came out of him was green. I have never forgotten it."
       That makes two of us, Mom.

Then he had measles which led into strep throat which required multiple ear drum lancings, all of which taught him about excruciating pain, of a type he would encounter much later after he is run over by a van as a mature adult.

His mother was also the first buyer of his stories. Stephen sold her four short stories about Mr, Rabbit Trick and she paid a quarter each. "That was the first buck I made in this business." (Page 29)

Sometimes you can have so much fun thinking about doing something, you don't have to do it. That has been my life-time rule once I realized that practical jokes hurt other people, and I could enjoy the thought of them without hurting anyone. King's mom inspired the first story he submitted for publication, "Happy Stamps." She was licking S&H Green Stamps to put into a book to get a lamp for her sister for Christmas. At one point, she stuck her tongue out at Stephen, and it was the color of S&H green. He thought how someone might counterfeit such stamps and could buy anything with them, and wrote that up. In his rejection slip from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, there was a personal note, "Don't staple manuscripts." No sale, but useful advice. A good start.

Stephen wrote a satirical magazine called The Village Vomit in school and was sent to the principal's office several times for hurting people's feelings. One day the guidance counselor sent him to see John Gould who needed a sports reporter for his weekly newspaper, the Lisbon Weekly Enterprise. From Gould, Stephen received the following great advice.

[page 57] "When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story," he said. "When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story."
       Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.

For me, the door becomes open when I publish it to the Internet. As soon as it goes to the remote site where anyone can read it, my juices start flowing to re-read it as folks out there are reading it. I make sure I remove those glitches, fix typos, put in missing words, and generally polish off my finished piece so I can be proud of it sitting on the bookshelf for the world to read. My best editing gets done about three days after I finish the writing and copy-editing phases. I call this "playing with sentences" from a question Annie Dillard once gave a wannabee writer, "Do you like sentences?" I like sentences, and when I come back after three days to my own writing, I have fun reading my sentences, and if anything strikes a sour note, I change the sentence. Sometimes, after only three days, I'll read a sentence and wonder what I meant by that. I knew what I meant when I wrote it, when it was hot from my pen, but now it's cold, and its meaning escapes me. So . . . its meaning will escape my readers, too, and it must be reshaped, cleaned up, and polished before I put it back on the shelf for others to read.

When the local Worumbo Mill shut down, Stephen volunteered for the time-and-a-half clean up job, but luckily the jobs were gone by the time they got to the high school kids. What Stephen did get was a great idea from one of the dyehouse men, "The rats down in the basement were big as cats, some of them, goddam if they weren't big as dogs." (Page 60) The idea went into his story, "Graveyard Shift."

When my second child came, I was working offshore in the oil field and they called on the radio saying they were sending a copter for me. When Stephen's second child was born, he was working too, attending a Memorial Day Triple at a local drive-in, featuring three horror films. He and his friend were on the third movie (The Corpse Grinders) and their second sixpack when the loudspeaker on the stand outside their car blared, "STEVE KING, PLEASE GO HOME! YOUR WIFE'S IN LABOR!" (Page 66)

Stephen was hired to move furniture for a schoolmate's mom in her trailer home. Here's how he described the crucifix there.

[page 78] Dominating the trailer's living room was a nearly life-sized crucified Jesus, eyes turned up, mouth turned down, blood dribbling from beneath the crown of thorns on his head. He was naked except for a rag twisted around his hips and loins. Above this bit of breechclout were the hollowed belly and the jutting ribs of a concentration-camp inmate.

This is a common sight in Catholic Churches in South Louisiana, but it may have been the first time Stephen had seen one. He can be forgiven for mistaking the body of Jesus portrayed on the cross for the Christ Spirit that Jesus was carrying to the Cross to save all of humanity. When his friend's mother asked if he'd been saved, Stephen answered, mistaking the bodily vessel for the spiritual Savior it carried.

[page 79] I hastened to tell her I was saved as saved could be, although I didn't think you could ever be good enough to have that version of Jesus intervene on your behalf. The pain had driven him out of his mind. You could see it on his face. If that guy came back, he probably wouldn't be in a saving mood.

The above comment comes from a writer who had his character John Coffey (J. C.) in The Green Mile save the life of the warden's wife by exorcizing her demons in a rather dramatic fashion. Did the Christ Spirit enter John Coffey when he performed his miracles? Stephen says he writes 'em, not explains 'em. "Mostly I don't see stuff like that until the story's done." (Page 197)

Stephen grew up with kids who lived in one of his horror movies, wearing the same clothes for the first year and a half of high school.

[page 80] I went to school with kids who wore the same neckdirt for months, kids whose skin festered with sores and rashes, kids with the eerie dried-apple-doll faces that result from untreated burns, kids who were sent to school with stones in their dinnerbuckets, and nothing but air in Thermoses. It wasn't Arcadia; for the most part it was Dogpatch with no sense of humor.

In his own personal horror story of addiction, his wife Tabby, his family and friends intervened; telling him to get into rehab or get out of the house, that none of them wanted to watch him kill himself. What did Stephen do?

[page 98] I bargained, because that's what addicts do. I was charming, because that's what addicts are. In the end I got two weeks to think about it. In retrospect, this seems to summarize all the insanity of that time.

Guy is standing on top of a burning building. Helicopter arrives, hovers, drops a rope ladder. Climb up! the man leaning out of the helicopter's door shouts. Guy on top of the burning building responds, Give me two weeks to think about it.

Stephen was afraid he couldn't write anymore without his chemical crutches. Somehow he summoned enough neurons together to make a decision.

[page 98] I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging, but I decided (again, so far as I was able to decide anything in my distraught and depressed state of mind) that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up. If it came to that.

Well, he survived rehab and was soon able to write again. He had broken through the "pop-intellectual myth" that one had to drink or do drugs to be creative. No matter if creative people are more likely to become addicts, he thought to himself, "We all look pretty much the same when we're puking in the gutter."

His describes returning home after rehab as someone returning home from a long vacation.

[page 99, 100] Little by little I found the beat again, and after that I found the joy again. I came back to my family with gratitude, and back to my work with relief — I came back to it the way folks come back to a summer cottage after a long winter, checking first to make sure nothing has been stolen or broken during the cold season. Nothing had been. It was still all there, still all whole. Once the pipes were thawed out and the electricity was turned back on, everything worked fine.

One thing had to be changed, that huge desk, behind which he sat for six years mostly drunk or drugged, had to go. It was his dream desk, but it was like a huge ship whose "captain was in charge of a voyage to nowhere." (Page 100) He needed a smaller desk with a corner of its own. I'm sitting here in a corner of my own. My workstation is a L-shaped desk and my chair facing the corner of the room. There are few distractions when I'm writing, although I sometimes feel I need a sign for the back of my head which says "BRAIN AT WORK".

[page 100, 101] A year or two after I sobered up, I got rid of that monstrosity and put in a living-room suite where it had been, picking out the pieces and a nice Turkish rug with my wife's help. In the early nineties, before they moved on to their own lives, my kids sometimes came up in the evening to watch a basketball game or a movie and eat pizza. They usually left a boxful of crusts behind when they moved on, but I didn't care. They came, they seemed to enjoy being with me, and I know I enjoyed being with them. I got another desk — it's handmade, beautiful, and half the size of the T. rex desk. I put it at the far west end of the office, in a corner under the eave. That eave is very like the one I slept under in Durham, but there are no rats in the walls and no senile grandmother downstairs yelling for someone to feed Dick the horse. I'm sitting under it now, a fifty-three-year-old man with bad eyes, a gimp leg, and no hangover. I'm doing what I know how to do, and as well as I know how to do it. I came through all the stuff I told you about (and plenty more that I didn't), and now I'm going to tell you as much as I can about the job. As promised, it won't take long.

Here's the advice he gives to writers after he found it out the hard way.

[page 101] It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support-system for art. It's the other way around.

He tells us "Writing is telepathy". By this he means that writing is transferring what is in your brain as writer to the brain of your reader. You may be sitting in a corner writing as I am, and your reader may be sitting on a porch swing as I was when I was reading this chapter. He explains that he always carries a book with him when he's spending time in purgatory, you know, those waits in line in the grocery store, the pharmacy, the DMV, etc.

He tells us, "Look — here's a table covered with a red cloth." There's a cage on the tablecloth with a number 8 on its back. And in our minds, we create our own shade of red, maybe an old-fashioned red plaid as diners use to have. It's his words, our tablecloth, but each of our cages has the number 8 on it. That's how the telepathy between writer and reader works. If we describe too much detail, our work becomes an instruction manual, too little and we lose our reader.

[page 106] This is what we're looking at, and we all see it. I didn't tell you. You didn't ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We're not even in the same year together, let alone the same room . . . except we are together. We're close.

That is telepathy. Communication between two people without speaking a word aloud, two people separated perhaps by thousands of miles and thousands of years. Telepathy pales in comparison to writing. Take Stephen's advice when you prepare to write: "Do not come lightly to the blank page."

[page 107] 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.

On page 113, King gives us a wonderful metaphor about the "big'un" toolbox which any craftsman should always carry with him. Young Stephen asked his Uncle Oren why he carried the large toolbox around the house when all he needed was a screwdriver.

[page 114] "Yeah, but Stevie," he said, bending to grasp the handles, "I didn't know what else I might find to do once I got out here, did I? It's best to have your tools with you. If you don't, you're apt to find something you didn't expect and get discouraged."

This is great advice for writers. For myself, I have several toolboxes and a shelf full of miscellaneous parts. I strive to complete some minor repair job using the tools I planned to use and have carried with me, and count it as a Handyman Hole-in-One if I do. The next level is to complete the job using only parts I have around the house, or raw materials which I can shape into the missing part. Completing a job without a trip to the hardware store is like a Tennis Ace. Extra trips to get an additional tool, I count as a golfer might count the exercise he gets walking to his ball for a second or third shot to the green. Par for the course.

I love King's selection of writing tools, especially this one: "Remember the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful." (Page 118) Trust your unconscious to provide some lively words and don't second guess yourself or your internal censor will squeeze the life out of your sentence.

Grammar is another important tool.

[page 121] Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it's the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking. Besides, all those simple sentences worked for Hemingway, didn't they? Even when he was drunk on his ass, he was a fucking genius.

Now for the adverb, the quotation about its overuse which brought this book to my attention. "Aren't adverbs necessary?" you may be thinking. Yes, but they can be deadly for writers of fiction who use them to describe abstractly what is better shown directly.

[page 124] The other piece of advice I want to give you before moving on to the next level of the toolbox is this: The adverb is not your friend."
       Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They're the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoepolish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy's high heels.

King reminds us of the Tom Swift novels which were filled with sentences with adverbial dialogue attributions, so many that it led to a parlor game in which people created "Swifties" with witty double-meanings, like: "Hurry up," Tom said swiftly. King gives us three sentences to inspect (Page 125):

       "Put it down!" she shouted.
       "Give it back," he pleaded, "it's mine."
       "Don't be a fool, Jekyll," Utterson said.

Note how "shouted" and "pleaded" could be replaced by "said" without losing any coherency. The exclamation point indicates that she shouted. And the very sentence's content indicates he was pleading. Want to make it worse? Add adverbs of dialogue attribution like this rewrite on Page 126:

       "Put it down!" she shouted menacingly.
       "Give it back," he pleaded abjectly, "it's mine."
       "Don't be a fool, Jekyll," Utterson said contemptuously.

King advises would-be writers, "I suggest you ask yourself if you really want to write the sort of prose that might wind up in a party game." (Page 26) And sums it up cleverly on page 128: "All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine."

No one's perfect, King, tells us, "there are lots of bad writers."

[page 141] Some have scribbled their way to homes in the Caribbean, leaving a trail of pulsing adverbs, wooden characters, and vile passive-voice constructions behind them.

Clearly Stephen King is not one of those writers. Plus his muse is a cigar-chewing bum in the basement. Go figure.

[page 144, 145] He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he's on duty), but he's got the inspiration. It's right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There's stuff in there than change your life.
       Believe me, I know.

What is the secret of Stephen King's success? His short answer is: A healthy body and a stable relationship.

[page 154, 155] It's a good answer because it makes the question go away, and because there is an element of truth in it. The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible. And I believe the converse is true: that my writing and the pleasure I take in it has contributed to the stability of my health and my home life.

Amen! Well said and well done, Stephen. My health and my wife are crucial to my writing. We both eat healthy and exercise. She is my Ideal Reader. I eagerly await her comments when she reads my latest piece of writing. At times we confront each other in what we call "Loud Learning Opportunities". And we give each other space to do our individual work and enjoy our time together with family and friends.

Literary Viagra — that's what King calls the process of judicious cutting between the first and second drafts of a work, the scrapping parts of the writing that are not parts of the story. In his senior year in high school, someone gave him this comment, "Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%. Good luck." (Page 222)

[page 223] The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing — literary Viagra. You'll feel it and your I. R. [Ideal Reader] will, too.

A good place to find cuts is in the back story. Stephen took out two or three pages from Bag of Bones, when his wife Tabby complained. He resisted removing it (all writers hate removing pieces of their hard work), saying about the character's writing block, "This block goes on for a year, maybe more. He has to do something in all that time, doesn't he?" "I guess so," Tabby said, "but you don't have to bore me with it, do you?"

[page 226] Ouch. Game, set, and match. Like most good I.R.'s, Tabby can be ruthless when she's right.

King received about four thousands letters about Bag of Bones and he says no one ever asked what Mike was doing for community service work in the year he had writer's block.

Do you need a writing class or a book on writing? I did. I could write, but my writing was mostly technical manuals for new computers and scientific articles for Datamation Magazine. I needed help getting free from the carping critic in my head, and I found help in Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers. He told me to write for ten minutes without stopping or lifting my pen from the page. Fill up two pages of writing every day. Use any content which comes to mind, even if it's only, "I can't think what to write next". After several weeks of this, my carping critic packed his carpetbags and drove off without waving goodbye. I could write without criticizing myself as I wrote. This was a breath of freedom in my world.

It was how I got started reviewing every book I read. One day as I sat down to do my daily writing exercise I realized that I had just finished reading a book earlier that morning. CONTENT! I thought, and began writing about the book I had just read. Some 360-plus reviews later, I had written an entire book of essays which I published as A Reader's Journal. Shortly this review of On Writing will be added to the on-line extended version of my book. My advice to all wannabee writers is: Start Writing Now. If you think it's something you'll do later when you get to it, you'll never get to it. If you're not sure if you can be a writer, I offer you Annie Dillard's question, "Do you enjoy sentences?" If you do, you can be a writer. And the sentences you write can become the ones you love most.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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