On Writing by Stephen King

on-writingThis book is required reading for all Stephen King fans, whether they aspire to be writers or no.

On Writing takes an interesting format. This is a “craft” book – instruction for writers – and the first of that category that I’m reading for the semester (though not the first I’ve read). But it’s not all craft; or at least not explicitly. Mine is a 2010 edition of a 2000 book, and it contains sections: first the First, Second, and Third Forewords; then a C.V., which is a sort of memoir but only about the writing or storytelling parts of King’s life. This spans some 80 pages and includes some writing advice along the way (including a little bit of marked-up early work). Next, “What Writing Is” (“telepathy, of course”) and “Toolbox” (as in, the writer’s, but with a nice metaphor referring to a real one). Now we get to the section called “On Writing,” which begins on page 141.

King’s rules are relatively simple: things like “read a lot, write a lot,” and some thoughts on how to separate writing from editing (get it all down on paper as quickly as possible, then leave it alone for a while til you can come back with an objective eye). He despises adverbs as much as the next wise reader/writer, especially when tied to speech tags. He touches on dialog and theme. Language is very important to King: this book is dedicated to Amy Tan, who told him it was okay to concentrate on that aspect of craft. (Some of us are thinking, duh.)

Even this writing-advice section is (perhaps necessarily) filled with details from King’s personal life, and his personal work style. This is why I say this book is an excellent read for anyone who loves King, whether they wish to write or not: it’s filled with the man, and the writer, himself, not to mention his characteristic storytelling style, even when giving advice. He writes characters, and the details of character and scene, so richly it’s almost multimedia; and yet we never realize we’re reading (yawn) exposition.

The next section of the book is “On Living: A Postscript,” and if you are indeed a King fan, you’ll notice that this book’s original pub date in 2000 immediately follows a certain 1999 event, when he was hit by a van while walking the back roads of Maine and nearly died. He relates this incident and his recovery in some detail here, and it makes a riveting story, of course, even though his reader knows the general outcome beforehand (the writer lives to write about it). The point here – though not belabored – is that living is an important part of writing. And, “Writing did not save my life–Dr. David Brown’s skill and my wife’s loving care did that–but it has continued to do what it always has done: it makes my life a brighter and more pleasant place.”

There are three “Furthermore” sections, to match the three forewords that started the book. These appendix-type bits are an example of a story before and after editing; a recommended reading list (totally unscientific, just what King has enjoyed reading), and a second reading list as addendum in this 2010 edition.

I haven’t even mentioned some of the writing advice I found most helpful here; for example, the concept of a piece of work as a found thing, a fossil, which then needs just excavation and polish, is especially applicable I think to nonfiction. (King admittedly concentrates on fiction – his genre – throughout, but that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty here for other writers.) And I loved his reverse of the gun rule:

There’s an old rule of theater that goes, “If there’s a gun on the mantel in Act I, it must go off in Act III.” The reverse is also true; if the main character’s lucky Hawaiian shirt plays a part at the end of a story, it must be introduced early. Otherwise it looks like a deus ex machina (which of course it is).

The best of Stephen King is here, and with some good writing advice to boot. Don’t miss this one.


Rating: 9 Very Important Books.

The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, letters between Leslie Marmon Silko & James Wright, ed. by Anne Wright

the delicacy and strength of laceAs I wrote in my beginning, I enjoyed this book more than I expected to. I struggle with poetry, and the snippets included here out of context (it seemed to me) challenged me. I was not familiar with the protagonists. But quickly their voices and personalities revealed themselves; and the story of James Wright’s death, and the introduction to this book by his wife, add a poignancy. There’s something about knowing the sad ending to a story before you read it.

I found many lovely lines (naturally) and scraps of wisdom here. My instinct is to just begin sharing those with you.

I enjoyed Wright’s lines,

I hope you don’t mind post cards. They are a way of sharing something, some place or other delight, and they can also, when written and sent truly, offer small wavelets, so to speak, to the rhythm of a correspondence.

and perhaps even more, that he wrote so instructively, so consciously of this – that he felt the need, and the meta-quality of explaining one’s correspondence. They were still kind of new to each other, you see.

From Silko,

I always resented Shakespeare’s use of the delayed messenger in Romeo and Juliet, maybe because such things are so ordinary and so possible, and so much can be lost for two people that way.

which is both amusing, and profound, and a little confusing – why resent the use of something ordinary and enormous, and isn’t that what we do as writers? Hm.

And then,

I believe more than ever that it is in sharing the stories of our grief that we somehow can make sense out – no, not make sense out of these things… But through stories from each other we can feel that we are not alone, that we are not the first and the last to confront losses such as these.

and I think of the impulse we all seem to share to tell our stories in response to one another. This can be selfish. One person shares something personal and painful, and the response is “well I…” or “my…” as if to turn it back to the speaker every time. But Silko has a point, that there is a function to this return-to-me, and that in the right setting & relationship it’s how we perform empathy. I think about this in conversation sometimes, the effort to not always “me” everything. But it can be well done.

And very pertinently to nonfiction writers in particular, Silko again –

Memory is tricky – memory for certain facts or details is probably more imaginative than anything, but the important this is to keep the feeling the story has. I never forget that: the feeling one has of the story is what you must strive to bring forth faithfully.

This is the trick, or the puzzle, and the much-discussed central problem, with creative nonfiction or with memoir: the tension between strict “fact” (which is what, exactly?) and the richness of imaginative memory. See also Sejal H. Patel’s “Think Different” in issue 58 of Creative Nonfiction (I reviewed here), where she and other memoirists explore the use of technologies to aid memory.

Finally, and perhaps most centrally to the question of correspondence in general and especially between writers:

With you to write to, I go through the day with a certain attention I might not always have. I look for things you might want to see for yourself, but I can’t seem to get them into a letter.


I enjoyed reading this slim epistolary collection, and I think I got a lot out of it. But what was I supposed to get out of it? Despite a few classes taken early this year, I feel rusty at reading literature with a class in mind, and I am so curious about what the seminar that assigned this book will hold. Most of all, I’m excited. So thank you, school and world, for that.


Rating: 8 roosters.

book beginnings on Friday: The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

And so begins graduate school: with advanced reading to prepare for the winter residency I’ll be attending in West Virginia in just a few weeks. I chose to begin with this collection of letters, which will inform a seminar entitled “Another Voice at the End of the Line: Correspondence Between Writers.”

Here’s a confession: I’ve never read any Silko or Wright before.

the delicacy and strength of laceWe begin:

Misquamicut
Rhode Island
August 28, 1978

Dear Mrs. Silko,
I trust you won’t mind hearing from a stranger.

And so began a strong friendship. I’ve really been enjoying this, actually, although I wasn’t sure at first that there would be enough to grasp onto, between two writers I was not familiar with. I’m also looking forward very much to this seminar, which I think speaks to some of the challenges of being a writer, let alone in a low-residency program; and it is taught by a faculty member I very much enjoyed meeting last summer, Doug Van Gundy. Plenty to go on there.

Happy Friday, friends.

The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction by Christopher Bram

A succinct survey of history in both fiction and nonfiction offers advice for writers and readers.

the art of history

Christopher Bram takes on the broad subject of what history has to offer literature–and vice versa–with The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction.

Beginning with memories of a high school English teacher, Bram celebrates the interest and value of reading and writing history. His thesis is that history need not be written in dry, textbook form: in both fiction and nonfiction, a talent for storytelling and a keen eye for just the right details, in the right quantity, can render the near and distant past in enthralling fashion. “Details,” he says, “are the raisins in the raisin bread.” He examines works including Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and topics ranging through war, slavery in the United States, comedic perspectives and the blending of lines between fiction and nonfiction. An author in both disciplines, Bram does not claim objectivity: he is clear about his love for Toni Morrison’s Beloved and his disregard for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, among others.

Books in “The Art of” series inspect craft from a perspective seemingly for writers and critics, and Bram offers good advice: “In both fiction and nonfiction, writing well means knowing what to leave out.” But The Art of History works for readers as well, as in an appendix of Bram’s recommended reading. Exploration, appreciation and instruction combine in this slim, accessible study of literary history and historical literature.


This review originally ran in the July 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 details.

The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore

This expanded second edition of the popular title about writing from a Buddhist perspective is a small book with big ideas.

mindful writer

Dinty W. Moore (Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy) is often asked to explain how Buddhism influences his writing practice. In struggling to answer this question articulately, he found himself shaping “The Four Noble Truths of the Writing Life.” From these musings was born 2012’s The Mindful Writer, a slim volume of very short, koan-like chapters offering writing advice and formed from quotations by other writers.

In its expanded second edition, The Mindful Writer offers a new introduction and for the first time includes writing prompts that follow the same concepts and quotations as its chapters. Words of wisdom from William Faulkner, Gustave Flaubert, Dorothy Parker, Stephen King and many more pose opportunities to ruminate on how to see and observe, how to work, how to think and live like a writer. Moore examines the sources of creativity as well as the plain hard work of writing, and “the freedom and importance of lousy first drafts.” Refreshingly, he reminds his reader that his advice “should be taken in the spirit of suggestion, not edict… it is not a good idea to cling too fiercely to the advice of others.” Moore is, as usual, funny but also takes his subject seriously. Its short chapters and encouraging prompts make this a guide to keep close at hand, for regular reference.

Its neatly packaged bits of wisdom mean that writers from beginners to experts equally will find inspiration and new perspectives in Moore’s unassuming manual of writerly mindfulness.


This review originally ran in the June 21, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 moments.

Teaser Tuesdays reprise: The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

mindful writerI know, I know: we just had a teaser from this book last week. I couldn’t help myself. Anyway, these are not Dinty Moore’s words, precisely. They are words chosen by him.

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in (every) sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist.

From Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, as quoted by The Mindful Writer, in suggesting mindfulness and the awareness of connections, seeing past the surface of things. And a lovely image & concept to keep in mind, I think.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

mindful writerI always enjoy reading Dinty W. Moore. This is a re-release of a 2012 book, with a new introduction and writing prompts. I love its super-brief-chapter format, and its wisdom.

What a strange world where people will snicker at you for wanting to work on your writing for four hours but will often be totally accepting if you tell them you are planning to spend an entire day watching football on television.

Ah, Dinty. Truth.

Bonus: this observation follows a perceptive Harry Crews quotation. I still want to get around to reading Harry Crews.

This is a slim little book, but a powerful one.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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