I don’t read Stephen King. Not out of some high-literary disdain for someone who’s written so much and sells so well to the general Joes. Not because he’s not a good writer. But precisely because he is.
King has proved himself time and again throughout his 50-something books that he can create an intensely believable world, grip you, and then terrify your pants off. Me? I’m easily pants-off terrified.
Two films dominated the sleepovers of my youth. One was Child’s Play (the original, although I’m aware there are more tenuously linked, money-milking, spin-off sequels than in even the current Saw series). The second film was Stephen King’s It, and I am now pathologically afraid of clowns (which I’d previously thought to be friendly critters) and stormwater rains.
All the other kids seemed to revel in being scared witless. Me? I considered—consider—it a form of torture. I am an ashamed but incurable scaredy cat with a vivid and uncontrollable imagination.
I’ve steered clear of scary books and movies every since those sleepovers where wussing out would have seen me tumble down the schoolyard social order. The exception has been Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth, but I was fooled because it was sold to me as a zombie romance that was written by a fellow wuss. I thought it was about zombies giving up their quest for brains and falling in love. I thought I was in safe, scaredy-cat hands.
I am almost too embarrassed to admit that I have to run the zombie gauntlet back from the bathroom in the middle of the night and jump the zombie moat which occupies the one-metre perimeter around my bed (The jumping on the bed went down a treat with my now ex-boyfriend, I can tell you).
The point of this long-winded background is to explain why I’d, until recently, never read King’s On Writing. I figured it would scare the bejeepers out of me, and I need to cure my irrational, zombie-gauntlet-running, bed-moat-jumping fears, not acquire new ones.
But I picked On Writing up this week, a time when I was feeling flattest about my own (lack of) talent and dim career prospects—can anyone truly make a decent living out of this difficult craft? The book’s been a revelation. I don’t for a moment consider myself in the league of this bestselling master crafter, but what King conveys through his book is that bestselling author or emerging one, we’re all facing the same struggles.
A memoir of his own writing journey (just writing that sounds naff, but sorry, I’m sticking with it), On Writing outlines King’s career and inspirations and influences. How the seeds of ideas were shaped into hits like Carrie, The Tommyknockers, or The Shining. On Writing is a stellar read—King writes so well it makes me wish I could read his other work.
The books mirrors many (in fact, most) of my own experiences, from the first stories shamelessly borrowed from what he was reading at the time to the volume of rejection letters to the first taste of success to the flow-on effects of a little success—once you’ve ‘proved’ yourself through a few quality publications, it’s amazing how other publications, which had previously rebuffed you, are willing to take you on. There isn’t, King explains, a magical writing process, and there’s a lot of hard slog, refinement, more slog, perseverance, and a bit of luck.
I ate up this touchstone of a book and dog-eared almost every second page because I wanted to remember and refer back to the many, many gems of wisdom, inspiration, and encouragement contained within them (Please spare me the anti-dog-earing emails—I dog-ear books I love; it’s a compliment; it’s my thing).
On Writing is perhaps a book for aspiring writers, and for emerging and mid-career ones too. I’m not in the realm of King and am unlikely to ever be there, both because I don’t have his talent and I’m completely terrified of anything scary like a zombie. But I am heartened that when you strip away the number of books published and the vast readership he has, our writing processes and experiences are similar. That ideas comes from anywhere and everywhere and fit together Tetris-like and surprising when they don’t at first appear to fit at all. That writing is as much about taking words out, keeping the words left in simple.
I might not be able to read his other books, but I will often revisit or simply dip into this dog-eared and now completely revered one. King fan or not, I recommend you do too.