It’s frankly impossible to overstate the influence of Stephen King on American popular culture. Sure, we all know that he’s the King of Horror and that he’s sold over 350 million books and that his work is regularly adapted into film and television and comics. His impact and influence hasn’t just been exerted on the field of horror and fantasy, but on so-called “literary” writers like Victor LaValle, Sherman Alexie, Karen Russell, and Haruki Murakami. With more than 60 novels, five non-fiction works, and over 200 short stories to his credit, it might also be impossible to select the quintessential King book. However, if you had to pick the work that says the most about King himself, it’s almost certainly On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Part origin story, part how-to manual, and part harrowing depiction of King’s recovery from a near-fatal accident, the widely praised book is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a new edition that includes contributions from his sons, the writers Joe Hill and Owen King. Now, in the week of King’s 73rd birthday, here’s a look at what makes On Writing an Entertainment Weekly New Classic, a Time Top 100 Nonfiction book, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s “best book about writing, period.”
The first major section of the book is called C.V. (the abbreviation for curriculum vitae, which is a look at one’s body of work). In this first of two extensive autobiographical passages, King deals comprehensively with his difficult youth, his discovery of his passion for writing, falling in love with wife (the novelist Tabitha King), breaking through with Carrie, his early fame, and his subsequent battle with alcoholism and substance abuse (which was extensive enough to require an intervention; King notes that he doesn’t remember writing all of Cujo). Each story is a block in the foundation of King’s voice. You gain an understanding of many of the levers that move his prodigious output. King also notes the self-involvement (or even obsession) that writers can fall prey to and relates the story of two desks that he’s used for writing, allowing it to become a metaphor for one simple idea: “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
The backbone of what you might call the instructional part of the text is the middle, with section names like “What Writing Is,” “Toolbox,” and “On Writing.” The thing that really separates On Writing from other how-to books about the field is King’s approach. While there’s a degree of “this is how you do it,” King readily admits throughout that, more or less, “this is how I do it,” noting frequently that the specifics of process change for each writer. He’s not giving you step-by-step Ikea instructions; he’s giving you a route while acknowledging that there are still many other routes that will get you to the destination. His tone is one of encouragement, but also one of caution; King believes that talent is an unteachable intangible, but he also believes in craft and improvement. That’s part of what makes the “Toolbox” section critical, in that he emphasizes the tools that all writers should have, particularly vocabulary, grammar, and style.
The middle portion of the book draws much attention from critics because of its plain-spoken approach. King simultaneously demystifies that process of writing while also attributing some of the success of it to “magic.” But King seems to impart that you don’t get to magic without knowing the tools, and that’s important. Writers need to read, they need time to form, and they need to work. King isn’t King just because of his fame or money or output, it’s because he works. Every day, the Sun comes up, babies are born, and Stephen King is writing something. There’s optimism in his instruction, almost an “if I can do it, you can do it” kind of humbleness, even as he points out that this stuff isn’t as easy as he makes it look. He’s not teaching you how to become a brand name, but he’s teaching you about the discipline.
“On Living: A Postscript” sees King dealing with the accident that nearly killed him in 1999. As he was out for a walk, King was struck by a van driven by a distracted driver. He suffered grave injuries; among them, his leg was broken in nine places, his knee was basically split, his right hip was fractured, he had four broken ribs, and his spine was “chipped in eight places.” As terrible as that sounds (and it was terrible), King somehow landed in the perfect spot after the impact threw him several feet through the air. If he had deviated in course to the left or right, he likely would have suffered fatal traumatic head injury due to rocks or railing. As it was, he was in the hospital for three weeks and went through multiple surgeries to address his injuries. King then confronted something else that was harrowing in its own right: getting back to a writing routine after that, something that Tabitha King played a crucial role in achieving. Obviously, King succeeded, but the difficulty that he had is palpable on the page.
In the anniversary edition, King’s sons offer contributions. Joe Hill has built his own bestselling brand in the horror genre with novels, comics, and short stories, while also seeing film and television adaptations of his work, notably Locke & Key and NOS4A2. Owen King is also a prolific writer of novels, short stories, and articles who in 2017 co-wrote the novel Sleeping Beauties with his father. Hill’s contribution is his transcript of a talk with his father at Porter Square Books from 2019, while Owen King’s piece reprints his article “Recording Audiobooks For My Dad, Stephen King” from the New Yorker site. Both segments add insight to the process that bring some extra color to the book overall. There’s also an updated “Reading List” from King himself, packed with books that he simply thinks that writers should read, which contains items perhaps expected (Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and unexpected (Anne Proulx’s The Shipping News, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited).
As a writer, King’s impact is immeasurable. Heavily awarded over time, King can count a National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, and a National Medal of Arts among his accolades. On Writing is certainly a departure from expectations, but it remains thoroughly King. It’s considered a high-water mark for a book of its type because articulates big ideas in a way that anyone can understand, and it offers encouragement in a discouraging profession (and world). King insists that all writers need to read; On Writing remains a great place to start.
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When I was a magazine editor, prisoners often sent me letters. Nearly all asserted they were wrongfully convicted, sometimes in way-too-colorful detail. What grabbed me, however, was that the screeds were handwritten. Passionate, personal, brimming with emotion. Lots of free-flowing anger there. But again — handwritten. Delightful.
So, who says the art of hand-penned letters is dead? Just about everyone, actually. At least until recently. Inmates are no longer among the few who put ink on paper to share their most urgent thoughts. It’s becoming a thing again to write letters and drop them into a physical mailbox. I approve. Early in my journalism career, over a period of several years, I maniacally scribbled literally thousands of letters and notes to virtually everyone who I thought could give me a break. (It worked.)
In explaining the revival of letters, Laura Stickney, contributor to Her Campus, a website for college women, observed that “part of what makes receiving a letter so special is the fact that someone took the time to actually sit down and write you a message.” Well, yeah — that’s completely, obviously it. If you love someone, or even if you’ve had a brooding beef with them, sending a handwritten message may be the most effective way to unload. Better than emails and texts, which have their place and are the reflexive go-to these digital days. But they conspicuously lack any sense of heart. No feels. It’s undeniable that when you hold a pen in hand, you will express yourself with greater honesty (if not dignity).
For those who choose to handwrite letters (question: does that make you old-fashioned or, conversely, a forward thinker?), the first decision that must be addressed concerns tools: the writing instrument, the ink, and the paper. If you’re going to commit, do it right. Experts say you will want to select pens and papers that most perfectly align with your winning personality. It may take some trial and error, plus receptivity to a little tough self-analysis.
All this prep is maybe more involved than you imagined? Of course it is. “A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure,” a New York Times writer said a few years back. “It is a deliberate act of exposure … because handwriting opens a window on the soul.”
How so? you ask, wisely. Perhaps because, according to Brett and Kate McKay, editors of the online magazine Art of Manliness, “ink from your pen touches the stationery, your fingers touch the paper, your saliva seals the envelope.” Your DNA is effectively merged into the letter. I find that both creepy and satisfying.
Now, in business correspondence, or a letter to the editor, let’s agree that evidence of your DNA is not a good thing. Too much “soul.” In a personal letter, particularly a love letter, sure. Why not?
One more thing to bear in mind: Some handwritten letters — hard as they may be to decipher if your cursive is a blizzard of weird strokes — may one day have monetary value. Especially if you are a VIP or, heaven forbid, the victim of a historic calamity. Collectors seek those. For example, a letter written by a Titanic passenger just before the ship sank recently sold for $166,000. What mattered was not penmanship, but rather that someone composed a sweet, detailed letter to a family member during his final voyage. As such documents go, one can hardly find another that so powerfully evokes true-life heartache — and thus perfectly captures the import that only a handwritten letter can embody.
In the last issue, Cable Neuhaus wrote about the smartwatch.
This article is featured in the July/August 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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Each year at the start of November, thousands of writers — popular and unknown, experienced and amateur — set a goal of penning an entire 50,000-word novel in 30 days to mark National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Invariably, they each learn or are reminded of one simple truth: As Mary Robert Rinehart put it in 1939, “Writing is work. Only a part of it is done at a desk.”
For Rinehart, known by some as “America’s Agatha Christie” (though she was publishing mysteries for nearly a decade before Christie’s first novel), the demands of writing and rewriting on top of the responsibilities society placed upon her gender — wife, mother, cook, and housekeeper — were so rigorous that her health suffered. But even sickness could not deter her. She could not simply stop writing; it was a habit, a need, even when it made her physically ill.
Writers, according to Rinehart, “speak with loathing of their job, but few of the professionals really stop. For one thing, the early urge to write, in time, becomes the habit of writing. We are often miserable at our desks or typewriters, but not happy away from them.”
So she kept going. She kept writing: four dozen novels and plays, numerous short stories and serials — including the Tish Carberry series first published in The Saturday Evening Post — essays, and travelogues. She even served as a war correspondent for the Post during World War I. Her work earned her fame and fortune, led to her receiving an Honorary Doctorate in Literature from George Washington University in 1923, and allowed her to help her sons found the publishing house Farrar and Rinehart.
Even in success, though, she was not immune to the discouragement and self-doubt that sometimes strike authors at any level. “My own personal discouragement,” she writes, “is so keen that it reaches the point of neurosis, and I have never failed to have it. At some time during any given piece of work it overtakes me. The story seems pointless, the writing bad. I am overwhelmed by a sense of futility. I want desperately to quit, and I have a sense of actual nausea at the sight of my desk. But eventually I carry on.”
Writers who dream of a career as a novelist can find words of both encouragement and warning in Rinehart’s “Writing Is Work,” first published in the Post on March 11, 1939. Above all, though, her message is one of perseverance. Writing is not easy, but you must carry on because, ultimately, “this is writing. A world passing by, and someone with a pen or a typewriter trying to put a bit of it on paper.”
For would-be and have-been novelists around the world, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a time of excitement and self-discovery on one hand, but struggle and self-doubt on the other. Can I tell this story all the way through? Will people like it? Am I even telling the right story?
If you’re a writer and you find yourself struggling with your story, take heart: It happens to all authors all the time. No matter how great a writer you are, wonderful works of fiction don’t just fall from your pen.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of the greatest American storytellers of the 1920s and ’30s, and even his process of creating fiction was fraught with starts and stops, second-guesses, and outright failures. He writes, “It is the six-page, ten-page, thirty-page globs of paper that grieve me professionally, like unsuccessful oil shafts; they represent my false starts.”
Not getting the story right the first time is not a sign of failure as a writer. Perhaps you just haven’t dug into your experiences deeply enough to find the right story to tell. And according to Fitzgerald, your choices are actually quite limited: “Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves — that’s the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives … and we tell our two or three stories — each time in a new disguise — maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.”
Whether or not you agree with Fitzgerald’s estimation of the depth of a storyteller’s well of ideas, his success in the field is undeniable. On March 4, 1933, the Post published his “One Hundred False Starts,” offering readers a glimpse into how he collected story ideas and attempted — and often enough failed — to turn them into fiction he was proud of.