On Stephen King’s On WritingA Memoir of the Craft

By Jane McCabe

book jacket

Sometime something, maybe something someone said a long time ago, so sticks in your mind that years later, when given the proper stimuli, it returns. So it with me whenever I see the colors green and purple together, and I remember how much a fashion design instructor I had at the University of Washington so hated them together that I too wince when I see them.

And now, so, it will probably be whenever I encounter an adverb: I’ll remember Stephen King disdain for them. He writes that “The adverb is not your friend. Most of them are unnecessary and awkward.”

Actually, I don’t dislike them as much as Mr. King, as I think they have their place and sometime a well-placed adverb is a mot juste, as, for instance in this sentence: It would be a blessedly busy day.

The prolific Stephen King has written one of the most entertaining books on writing ever written. My favorite parts of his 2001 book are the memoir sections, like when he tells of his wife retrieving the manuscript for his novel Carrie (also made into a well-received movie) from the waste paper basket where he had chucked it. Less favorite were his writing instructions, perhaps because the idea that one must write a least 1000 words every day I now find exhausting.

Perhaps I want to write my own book on writing. During the years that I taught English grammar in New York City I put together a little booklet on grammar, which I called Dr. Jones Bare Bones of Good English Grammar. Sometime I would suggest to students, if they wanted to find out just how ignorant the common man is of the mechanics of English grammar, that they turn to someone sitting next to them on the subway and ask cheerily (now there’s a well-placed adverb), “Do you know what a participle (or gerund) is?”

Having said that, I admit that I still have trouble remembering that the subject of direct object phrase is nominative. (I bet I got you there.J)

Yes, it’s generally good advice to writer to tell them to avoid the passive case, is in, “The corpse was carried out of the room.”

Without a doubt the best book ever written on style is the famously succinct The Elements of Style by William Shrunk and E.B. White, both writers for The New Yorker. (E. B. White is the author of the wonderful children’s story, Charlotte’s Web.) No writer should be without this little book on his or her bookshelves.

Another of my adages is, “Editing is half of writing.”

Students do not underwrite. They overwrite copiously (another well-placed adverb), so much that their text become heavy with unnecessary phrases, repetitions, and poorly organized thought sequences. Editing is like pruning a bush so that it will bear more fruit or cutting away the access so that the text can sing. Once something is properly edited it usually shrinks to two-thirds its former size.

According to Mr. King, “Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the element of style.)” Most good writers prize words. When a new one is found, particularly a word that particularly apt, they act as though they have just hit the jackpot at a slot machine in Vegas.

The second thing he says is, “While it is impossible to make a competent writer out 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 a merely competent one.”

After working at the craft for 35 years I consider myself a competent writer, but then some of the writers we revere, like Thomas Wolfe and Theodore Dreiser, writers whose books were often over 700 pages, probably couldn’t get published in today’s cut-throat, efficient world.

I couldn’t agree more with Mr. King more when he says, “Read a lot. Write a lot. There are no shortcuts.” That many young people aren’t interested in reading just breaks my heart.

Years ago, actually in 1984, I remember because it was for me an Orwellian year, I rented an attic apartment in the hinterlands of Brooklyn. It was just my luck that the tenant below me was a little Irish American lady named Mrs. Jackson. She wasn’t a well-known writer but she knew the craft of writing. Furthermore, she understood the craft of editing. I can’t tell you just how afraid I was, afraid that I couldn’t learn how to edit my own work, but with patience, Mrs. Jackson showed me how it is done, so that I finally realized that editing is nearly a mechanical skill.

Mrs. Jackson and I heartily (notice the use of yet another adverb) that when writing prose—fiction or non-fiction—the story is everything. If you have a good story to tell, a good yarn to spin, chances are you will write an interesting piece of writing, and if you have a good story to tell, then it’s only a matter of deciding the best way to tell it.

During the time we lived in close proximity Mrs. Jackson and I often shared books. If I read one with a good story, I would give it to her to read. When she had completed it, we would compare notes.

Mrs. Jackson died in the early 1990’s—I missed her funeral because at the time I was in California, so, wherever she is now, I hope she realizes the invaluable service she rendered me.

But, now let’s go back to Mr. King:

You may or may not know that in 1999 Stephen King was hit by a van driving erratically down the wrong side of the highway where he was walking. The collision almost cost him his life--his right leg was shattered into many parts, his hip was likewise smashed, and he suffered other injuries. His recovery was lengthy and painful. On Writing was the first book he wrote after this accident, when he still was in enough pain to deter most writers. But, writing for Stephen King had become a necessity, and now it was also a salvation. We are the beneficiaries of his obsession with writing.

I must confess that until now I had not been a fan of his work. I figured his genre was not my cup of tea, but now that I’ve read On Writing, I plan to read selected works. Oh hell, I just might read them all.

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