This book did something pretty fantastic to me: it re-invigorated my drive to work on my book.
Maybe it seems tacky to mention your own (unpublished) work in a book review, but given the subject matter of On Writing, I think it can be excused this time. Like the title implies, Stephen King’s book is about writing – about the craft, the habits to hone in pursuit of it, and the hurdles you face in publishing. Snapshots of King’s life, ranging from childhood to the car accident that nearly killed him, are sprinkled throughout On Writing, giving readers a peek into the life of a man who has become one of the most successful authors of our time.
Needless to say, it’s easy to be inspired by an example like King’s.
My own experience with writing has been a long and winding road, less direct than I would have liked. I wrote little stories as a kid, plagiarized an author I admired (go easy on me, I was pretty young), reveled in the publications I made online. I loved my high school English courses, particularly when we focused on Greek mythology. The Greek gods were a morally-decrepit bunch that put TV dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and House of Cards to shame. Even as a kid, I dreamed of writing books.
But I was afraid – I wouldn’t be able to make a living – I would disappoint people if I hung my hat on writing. So, I chose a biology degree in college and stuck with it. I have a deep respect for science, and I thought that would be enough to sustain me.
I’ve struggled with this decision for the past four years. I’ve bounced from career path to career path, shadowed many talented individuals, and explored maybe a dozen avenues of healthcare and science. All have their merits, no doubt. Each one can be vastly rewarding if you know it’s the path for you, as I’ve been very privileged to witness. But there’s always a corner of my mind chattering away, hoarding story ideas and turns of phrase like a crow collecting shiny baubles. Oh, that’d make a cool story. That word is perfect for this scene. And so on.
I came across a quote in On Writing that perfectly encapsulated my thoughts. “If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?”
The tips and tricks presented in On Writing are all helpful, of course: try to avoid too many alternatives to “said,” avoid adverbs, avoid the passive voice, et cetera. These are all tools an aspiring writer should keep at hand. But the true value of On Writing comes from its ability to inspire. Regardless of your opinions on King’s work – I loved Full Dark, No Stars and detested IT – you can’t deny his achievements. It’s difficult to turn up your nose at advice from an author who, according to Wikipedia, has sold over 350 million copies of his work.
On Writing had a powerful effect on me because it addressed my passion in a simple, straightforward way. It emphasized that everything I do should improve my writing, rather than divert me from it. And it drives home the point that success isn’t guaranteed – or withheld – from anyone, regardless of their circumstances. King was struggling to get by with his wife and kids in a shitty four-room apartment when he made it big with Carrie. Even after becoming a successful author, King struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction. His life is a far cry from the rosy vision many aspiring authors entertain: instant publication, instant and widespread success, maybe with an MFA thrown in for kicks.
On Writing stresses that, sometimes, struggling and success go hand-in-hand. The obstacles King faced – and eventually surmounted – make On Writing all the more inspiring. In addition to being a manual on the craft, it is also a memoir about overcoming your demons and elevating yourself with what you love.
*Picture is of Molly, aka The Thing of Evil. Reference photo taken from Google.