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What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Stephen King, Redux

Greetings, fair and gentle readers! Some months ago, if you recall (or even if you don’t), I shared with you my inspirations after reading Stephen King’s Blaze. In that article, I mentioned in passing his how-to book On Writing — A Memoir of the Craft. Today, we’re going to delve deeper than “in passing.” Today, we’re gonna stop and take a close look.

Biblical Proportions

Those of you who know me in person have probably heard me refer to King’s book as my “writer’s bible.” I say it tongue-in-cheek, but, as my dad always used to tell me, in every joke is embedded a kernel of truth. Of all the books I’ve read about the craft of writing, King’s book has so far struck me as the most insightful and inspiring. He goes further than presenting nuts and bolts: He delivers his writing experience and advice as a narrative, which lets the reader (i.e. the student writer) see the big, epic picture of what this craft is all about.

I won’t limit myself — or you, dear inklings — by claiming that King’s book is the definitive end-all-be-all of writing manuals. But it’s certainly the most entertaining one I’ve ever read, and it fell into my hands once-upon-a-time when I needed exactly King’s approach and advice. His lessons have stayed with me ever since that first reading, and I refer back to them at least mentally, if not by taking the book to hand, every time I sit down to write.

The Importance of Being Messy

If writing is a craft, as King says, then we writers are craftsmen. And, as we all know, a craftsman must have a toolbox. If we go at writing with nothing but our fingers, we might have a glorious time getting our hands dirty, but we probably won’t accomplish a whole lot. At most, we might end up with a gloppy mess of a story.

And yes, I can hear some of you saying, “But a story is a story, right? And haven’t you told us to have at it with gusto, throw caution to the wind, laugh in the face of danger, and write with devil-may-care abandon?”

All good points, you sweet, smart-alecky naysayers. I have said those things, and I do stand by them. Above all, the first draft of a story is meant to be an icky, gloopy mess. And when you’ve completed it, you do, indeed, have an honest-to-gobstoppers jen-yoo-ine story on your hands.

But. You still need to shape that amorphous blob of words into something approachable, not to mention digestible, for anyone else. And that is where your toolbox comes in.

Top o’ the Toolbox, Gov’nah!

Toolboxes contain layers of nifty tray thingies you can lift out and rummage around in. What fun! And according to Mr. King, that topmost tray thingy contains the most basic of writing tools: your vocabulary. As we discovered a few weeks ago, my dear inklings, your words matter, and you would do well to choose them wisely. King’s assertion concerning words is that you would also do well to use the words you already have.

Well duh, you might say. How could one use words if one doesn’t have them already? King’s point is that we shouldn’t go looking for highfalutin’ words to bolster our writing, thinking that it doesn’t sound intellectual or frilly enough. Instead, we need to stick with what we’ve got; the KISS principle should guide our word choices.

King provides examples of some well-known authors who use simpler vocabularies:

He came to the river. The river was there.
–Ernest Hemingway, Big Two-Hearted River

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold.
–John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

This is what happened.
–Douglas Fairbairn, Shoot

King points out the Steinbeck quote in particular, because it is a fifty-word sentence in which none of the words contain more than two syllables. I would issue you the challenge, dear readers, to write a piece (of indeterminate length) made up of nothing but one- and two-syllable words — except that I would have to take on that challenge myself, and I’m honestly not sure I’m up to it!

Let’s Not Embarrass Ourselves

King writes,

Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. (You’ll be doing that as you read, of course…but that comes later.) One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip”…

My interpretation of that: We should eschew obfuscation whenever possible, by which I mean…

…keep it simple. And that’s WILAWriTWe!

(Click the On Writing link above, buy anything within the same browser session, and I might get some money out of it. Simple enough, ain’t it?)

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

2 Responses to “What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Stephen King, Redux”

  1. Carlos Velez says:

    Bravo! I always enjoy your posts Courtney, but this one in particular made me laugh aloud many times (and almost spit coffee on my netbook).

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      Carlos, crafting spit-worthy, written art is practically the point of my existence. I’m quite glad to hear I elicited such a reaction — though I’m sorry your netbook nearly suffered as a result. I’ll be more careful next time. 😉