Some of the best writing-related advice I’ve ever received is printed on a bookmark. One side lists out the class syllabus for our reading of Romeo and Juliet, interrupted only by a week set aside for our school’s Writers Week (when I received this bookmark, I had yet to discover all the joy that week could bring, but that’s another story). On the other side, two identical pictures of my freshman year English teacher making a face sit opposite each other. It’s possible that he’s screaming, because the words surrounding those images proclaim “READ! or DIE!” and “WRITE! or DIE!” The images and the words mirror each other, perhaps indicating the sort of balance necessary between the two, and I always make sure to hang this bookmark advice-side out, somewhere visible in my daily routine.
Aside from the importance of both reading and writing, routine is something Stephen King mentions several times in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Now I’ve only read one other book by King (a recent one, too, 11/22/63, and I enjoyed it very much), but I know enough about him and his writing to respect what he has to say about the craft. Deciding, I suppose, that not everyone will pick up his book with this kind of trust, the first section of On Writing is an autobiographical C.V. of King’s life as a writer. He stresses the importance of regular writing, diffuses the myth that one must have a brilliant idea to get started, and shows us the life of a dedicated writer—despite a nail full of rejection slips. In giving these personal accounts, King shows us that being a writer takes a lot of work, but he also speaks to the magic that can happen when one puts pen to paper. In one of my favorite parts, he talks about finding a topic to write about: “There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
The second section of the book is where King really gets down to writing. I’d say he gets technical, but the narrative voice remains as he works his way through his vendetta against adverbs and other more specific tips on writing and the writing process. It is here that King shares his insight on revision, discusses extraneous qualifiers, and shows us how “he said” can be more powerful than “he exclaimed.” Not everything King says made me happy, mostly because his suggestions challenged me to change my writing. The changes were positive, but change is rarely easy, especially when it comes to writing. The second section, then, is King’s challenge—challenge to commit to the craft, to consciously make decisions while writing. Writing is, after all, thinking on paper, and King gives his readers plenty to think about, dispensing advice and thoughts on writing that made me glad I picked up his book.
While the first two sections are strictly writing-centered, the third is a personal anecdote, one that speaks to the power writing has to heal, and to comfort, and to help us survive. I won’t give that part away, but it just might prove that, in a metaphorical way at least, we die without writing.