I recently finished my first read of Stephen King’s “On Writing.” I say first, because now that I’ve made one lap I’ve grown convinced this needs to be a part of my annual agenda. Maybe I’ll make it a consistent tradition for my wayward summers. Like I have anything better to do.
Well, I suppose actually writing would be a better thing to do. Hmm.
Anyways, with this installment I’m going to outline a couple of passages or ideas King details in his book. These are only a few of the things which glared out and demanded attention. I promise there were more, but I can’t go and reproduce the entire thing for you. That, my friends, is cheating, and I’d be stealing a wonderful opportunity from you to read these words in their original, glorious context.
First is the concept of “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open” and it’s pretty clear-cut. In short, we are easily distracted during the first draft of a manuscript, not only by environmental stimuli, but our desire to have others read the material. Resist this urge. The first draft is for you, it’s so you may explore yourself and your story. You are trying to fulfill your story and characters as thoroughly as possible alongside yourself. Only once the first draft is done should the door be thrown open to welcome readers and critics alike. This is the editing stage. Exploration is over. Now it’s just about the grind.
Second, and I am choosing to quote this one directly as I lack the forwardness to extrapolate correctly, is King on the subject of our temperament when approaching the craft of writing:
“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 you 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. 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.”
Third is a matter of profanity in the craft. Quoting British television’s Downtown Abbey: “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.” Authors of all walks and moral standings have gone back and forth on the topic of how much (or how aggressive) profanity should be in their works. If you’ve ever read a King novel or heard him speak, you know this is not a man who shirks away from dropping a couple bombs when he sees fit. However, when it comes to writing he has a strong philosophy to back his usage of curse words and otherwise derogatory terms.
According to his mother, profanity was the “language of the ignorant.” However, there were holes in her own constitution about this matter. A sharp stab of pain might prompt an “oh, shit” or what have you. Likewise, few people have an idle tongue when their kid is about to accidentally hurt themselves or when you drop a huge pot of spaghetti sauce onto the carpet. Chances are, if only by gut reaction, most people are going to swear when these things happen.
“The Legion of Decency” as King calls it, might not like the word damn, and you might not, either, but sometimes you really aren’t given any other choice? Why? Because to use a softer word, in certain contexts, is both dishonest and disrespectful to the intelligence and maturity of your audience. Slam a hammer on your thumb and you stand a better chance of hurling some choice words than substituting it with “Blast it!” No. Few people are going to have so mild a response. Not that it’s impossible obviously, just not common. If you substitute “Blast it!” with “Damn it!” because you wish to avoid the wrath of the Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract between writer and reader. You have promised to express the truth through your characters and how people act.
To do otherwise because of the judgment of a few is both cowardly and intellectually dishonest. If you want to get away with books with no vulgarity, you either must write-in some extraneous reasons to the story as to why, or consider a career in middle-grade writing (Not a condescension, an actual recommendation).
Fourth and finally, King writes about how he once heard that all novels written are actually letters aimed at one particular person. Each writer has a specific individual in mind when they write their stories. King even mentions how he’d met a man who wrote for their friend who’d been gone for over fifteen years. King considers people like that the exception rather than the rule, as most people write for a spouse, friend, or, you know, someone else who is actually alive and breathing. I just found this an interesting concept considering the promise I made to Christina two months ago. Glad I’m not the only one who is writing for somebody no longer with us.
Those are the four points I wanted to unpack. If you want to read more about each of them, refer to the source material of On Writing by Stephen King. There’s all of this and much more to be found within those pages for both the aspiring writer and somebody who simply enjoys reading in general.
God bless and have a good day.