Some Thoughts on On Writing

Tabitha and Stephen King

Some Thoughts on On Writing

I was built with a love of the night and the unquiet coffin, that’s all. If you disapprove, I only shrug my shoulders. It’s what I have.

Stephen King (158)

Kurt Vonnegut joked that critics often mistake the Science Fiction genre for a urinal. But Science Fiction is certainly several notches above Horror in the Hierarchy of Serious Literature. Science Fiction writers such as H. G. Wells, Ursula Le Guin and Ray Bradbury are taken seriously by Serious Literary Types. With the notable exception of Edgar Alan Poe, however, Horror writers rarely receive such literary love.

Stephen King is the undisputed master of a genre which barely elicits as much respect as Romance Novels in the Academy and among Serious Critics. Although we wouldn’t expect someone who has enough money to buy up and pulp every edition of every negative review he has ever received to worry about such things, Stephen King is obviously irked by critics who look down their noses at a particular type of literature. (King is also irked by inelegant adverbs, and he would probably deem that “obviously” superfluous.)

King’s passionate defense of Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled mysteries tells us a lot about how he sees his own detractors:

a good deal of literary criticism serves only to reinforce a caste system which is as old as the intellectual snobbery which nurtured it. Raymond Chandler may be recognized now as an important figure in twentieth-century American literature, an early voice describing the anomie of urban life in the years after World War II, but there are plenty of critics who will reject such a judgement out of hand. He’s a hack! they cry indignantly. A hack with pretensions! The worst kind! The kind who thinks he can pass for one of us (143).

When King was in eighth grade, he wrote, published and sold his first bestseller, a novelization of the Roger Corman movie The Pit and the Pendulum. King made the mistake of selling his work at school. The book was confiscated and Stephen was brought before the authorities, his principal Miss Hisler, who accused the young writer of wasting his talent by writing “junk.” This left a wound which took years to heal, if it ever really did:

I was ashamed. I have spent a good many years since–too many, I think–being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it (50).

Knowing how much Americans love a good Horatio Alger Story, King is quick to point out his humble origins. He explains how he and his brother

lived an odd, herky-jerky childhood, raised by a single parent who moved around a lot in my earliest years….Perhaps she was only chasing our father, who piled up all sorts of bills and then did a runout when I was two and my brother David was four (17).

On Writing is a testament to the virtues of hard work. Before achieving astounding success with his first published novel Carrie, King worked various demanding manual labor jobs, including a stint at an industrial laundry where “maggots would try to crawl up your arms as you loaded the washers” (68). King’s commitment to the American Work Ethic was already evident in his teenage years:

During my final weeks at Lisbon High, my schedule looked like this: up at seven, off to school at seven thirty, last bell at two o’clock, punch in on the third floor at Worumbo at 2:58, bag loose fabric for eight hours, punch out at 11:02, get home around at quarter to twelve, eat a bowl of cereal, fall into bed, get up the next morning, do it all again (59).

King suggests that the good work habits he developed in order to surmount his humble origins have served him well as a writer because

while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of 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 of a merely competent one (142).

Above all, On Writing is a Love Story. When asked how he was able to achieve such a remarkable output–forty-nine novels, including such tomes as IT, which is suitable for bench pressing–King says that the two keys were staying healthy (up until he had an accident which actually occrred while he was writing this memoir) and maintaining “a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible”(155).

Steven King met his wife Tabitha when they were undergraduates at the University of Maine. As King sees it

“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough”(74).

In addition to being his life partner and “ideal reader,” Tabitha was also responsible for the major break of King’s career when she rescued the first draft of the novel Carrie from a wastebasket and convinced him to finish the story:

Tabby had the pages. She’d spied them while emptying my wastebasket, had shaken the cigarette ashes off the crumpled balls of paper, smoothed them out, and sat down to read them. She wanted me to go on with it, she said. She wanted to know the rest of the story” (77).

The rest, as they say, is publishing History.

Love literally saved King’s life when his wife and children decided they could no longer tolerate his ferocious addictions. So they staged an intervention wherein Tabby unloaded:

a trashbag full of stuff from my office out on the rug: beercans, cigarette butts, cocaine in gram bottles and cocaine in plastic Baggies, coke spoons caked with snot and blood, Valium, Xanax, bottles of Robitussin cough syrup and NyQuil cold medicine, even bottles of mouthwash (97).

King’s stubbornly succumbed only when the mother of his children laid down the law: “Tabby said I had my choice: I could get help at the rehab or I could get the hell out of the house” (97).

The bottle (and other addictions) has done damage to an extremely high percentage of American writers. But King recognizes that “Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around” (101). King wisely (another superfluous adverb) refutiates what he calls the Hemingway Defense, which some employ in order to justify the ways if the dipsomaniacal scrivener:

I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give into their sensitivities. Only sissy-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can (94).

(As usual, I left out so much. Particularly the author’s witty and clever musings on the craft of writing which alone are worth the price of admission.)

I’ll leave the last word to Mr. King, describing his feelings for Tabitha:

Our marriage has outlasted all of the world’s leaders except Castro, and if we keep talking, arguing, making love, and dancing to the Romones–gabba-gabba-hey–it’ll probably keep working (61).

by Richard W. Bray

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3 Responses to “Some Thoughts on On Writing”

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