'The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger --- nothing ever comes out for the poor.' - Pope Francis
Published: Apr 22, 2014
Reader Review: ‘I got this book for an airplane read. Sat next to the window and started in. That book had me laughing so hard that tears were pouring down my face. I did my best not to make any noise, but wasn’t completely successful. The woman sitting next to me thought I was distraught and in the midst of a total breakdown.’
“On Writing” is two books, both excellent, for the price of one.
The first is a memoir, maybe the closest to an autobiography we’ll ever get from Stephen King.
It’s also a lesson in writing.
From paragraph two: “I lived an odd, herky-jerky childhood, raised by a single parent who moved around a lot in my earliest years and who — I am not completely sure of this — may have farmed my brother and me out to one of her sisters for awhile because she was economically or emotionally unable to cope with us. 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.”
Lesson one: Tell the truth. And skip the charm if none belongs.
At six, Stephen wrote a story. Or, rather, copied it. His mother praised it. Stephen was forced to admit it wasn’t original. “Write one of your own, Stevie,” his mother said. “I bet you could do better.” He did. His mother praised it.
“Nothing anyone has said to me since has made me feel any happier.”
The young writer was launched.
His high school newspaper adviser was his next big influence.
“When you write, you’re telling yourself the story,” he told King. “When you rewrite, your job is taking out all the things that are not in the story.”
I underlined that; you should too.
King married. Two kids in three years. On a teacher’s salary. Meanwhile, he wrote and wrote. Men’s magazines paid for his kids’ medicines. Two novels made not much of a dent in the book world. His wife never wavered: she believed. His third novel was “Carrie.” It sold to a hardcover publisher for $2,500 — King had no agent; what did he know about advances? — and then to a paperback house for $400,000. He got the call on Mother’s Day; $200,000 of that advance was his. He looked around his dumpy apartment and cried. Then, in a Maine town where you really couldn’t find anything to splurge on, he went out and bought his wife a hair-dryer. [To buy the paperback of 'On Writing' from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
How do you follow a story like that? Well, if you’re Stephen King, you go right on to this: ‘I got drunk for the first time in 1966.’ And to where that leads. Alcoholism. His mother dies, sadly, badly. Cocaine addiction follows. His family intervenes. He cleans up. And now — after a hundred inspiring and brutal pages — he’s ready for Part II, which is his book about writing.
Subject, verb, object: that’s one “secret.” Verbs are active, not passive. “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Want to be a good writer? Read! A lot! And then write! A lot! And write fast: The first draft of a novel should take no longer than three months. Rewriting: If you haven’t removed 10% of your previous draft, you haven’t done it.
What’s great is that King doesn’t sit back on his throne in the pantheon and hurl thunderbolts of advice, he offers great examples. Takes you through his own errors. Shows you how you can fix yours. Oh, what a friend we have in Stephen!
As the book ends, Stephen King takes us through his late-life trauma — getting hit by a careless driver as he walks along a Maine highway. His recovery is long. And painful. The idea of writing seems very distant.
One day, his wife helps him to his desk. He lasts an hour and forty minutes. He writes 500 words. When he stops, he’s dripping with sweat and howling with pain.
But none of that is the point. The point is that he did it. And, the next day, did it again, a little longer. And, eventually, finished his book — which is this book.
“The scariest moment is always just before you start,” he tells us.
You could do a lot worse than learn to write from Stephen King.
I could say I had to leave before the Q&A with Lou Howe, the writer and director of “Gabriel,” because it was late and I had some writing to finish. But if I had no deadline, if it had been daylight, I still would have had to leave — “Gabriel” is that overwhelming.
Disclosure: Lou Howe is married to my stepdaughter. But the Lou Howe who made the film I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival isn’t the sane, stable man I know. This Lou Howe created a character who’s out-of-his-mind delusional, this Lou Howe has a deep-to-the-marrow understanding of what it’s like to be hopelessly lost.
“Gabriel” is so devastating because it’s a character piece that works on the audience like a thriller. Gabriel has been institutionalized for some time, but he’s been taking his meds and playing nice, so he’s earned the right to visit his mother and his brother. For his family, that’s progress. For Gabriel, it’s just an excuse to get free so he can carry out Plan B.
At a certain point, a knife appears.
What’s at stake here? Suicide? Murder? Whatever, it’s trouble.
The movie stands or falls on the credibility of one actor, and as Gabriel, Rory Culkin is remarkable. When you first see him, he’s charming. He quickly becomes annoying. What’s his problem? Why is he such a fuckup? Can’t he see that he’s on a path that will hurt everyone who loves him?
Then it clicks. He’s not a loser, he’s sick, seriously sick — and your heart goes out to him. You want someone to take that knife from him, to hug him and make it better. In a Lifetime movie that would happen. In this uncompromisingly grown-up movie, all you can do is look at the distance between Gabriel and sanity and let your emotions cascade.
Stunning script. Flawless direction. A performance you’ll never forget. I can’t remember when I’ve had a painful movie experience that I liked so much.
From Paul Zengilowski
My children will turn 19 and 21 in a few weeks and the birthday gift choice falls to me. My wife and I bought them books by the bushel when they were young — some they chose, more often though, we exercised our parental prerogative. That stopped as they entered their mid-teens and felt more confident in their choices than in ours.
I’ve not bought them books in years — with two exceptions. The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, by Andrew Tobias, was a high school graduation gift. Knowing that having the money talk with them would be fruitless, I passed on to them my financial bible. I’d read it when it was first issued and it has served to keep me mostly on the financial straight and narrow over the last 30 years.
The second exception is their birthday present for this year: The 100 Essentials.
Should they read only those two books, I’m confident they’ll enter adulthood with important and foundational knowledge that will serve them well. Of course, I couldn’t help but thumb through the books when they arrived today and landed on the review of Hard Bargain by Emmylou Harris and your interview with her. What a remarkable woman and a great conversation — incredibly well done on your part.
I’m confident that between here and when we deliver the books in a couple weeks, I’ll have read one copy cover to cover and discovered or rediscovered a treasure of music, movies and books myself. I’m so glad you put this together – thanks for the assist with introducing my children to your great work and especially “The 100 Essentials.”
You recommended Queen’s Gambit to me about six weeks ago when I asked for the most grabable book you could think of. I loved it. It’s difficult to articulate precisely what the dark magic of that book is, but I found it fascinating — the characters, all of them, were like no others I’ve encountered. The relationship between Beth and her adopted mother was so subtle. I love that Tevis never capitulates to cliché or sentimentality. Elegant. Thank you for urging me to read it.
The band is Future Islands. Mesmerizing at the start, eye-popping at the end — watching Sam Herring is like watching the young Brando. On tour now. April 30 in New York already sold out. It’s like that. So… full screen. Maximum volume.
One reason our daughter writes “I am awesome” on snow-covered cars in winter is because Opal Campbell was her caregiver for her first five years. Opal is loving but firm, full of plans and adventures that kids love, steady, honest — we have nothing but praise for her. She’s now looking for full or part-time work, ideally in Manhattan. Write me or call her at 917-533-3487.
Obligatory Blog Roll
- Andrew Tobias
- Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Charles Pierce
- Letters of Note
- James Fallows
- Dominique Browning
- Andrew Romano
- Lux Lotus
- The New Yorker
- Jeffrey Rubin