On Writing by Stephen King
Almost anyone who knows I’m an actor and a writer also knows I’m an avid reader, particularly when it comes to Stephen King. There’s something about the way he writes that draws me in every time (even when I don’t like the plot). I think it started with Misery but grew stronger through tomes like The Stand, The Dark Tower series, Bag of Bones and collections like Different Seasons.
Until recently, however, I’d only read his fiction works and the introductions or afterwards (particularly those in his short story collections).While I was staying with my family I noticed On Writing sitting in the bookshelf and decided now was the time to finally read it.
Now I’m not the kind of reader that needs to know everything about the author but I am the kind of writer that likes to find out how other writers work. I’m the kind of artist who likes to constantly try new things, whether it is for my writing, acting or some other creative venture and I approached On Writing with this perspective in mind.
What impressed me about this book is that King writes it knowing his is just one of the many perspectives on how stories are created. There is no right way to create.
Having said that, the section on grammar and style – elements that make up what King calls the writers “toolbox” – is fantastic. It made me realise how powerful a noun-verb combination is (eg glass shatters) and how easy it is to slip into the passive voice when writing. Passive is safe but active is engaging, or as King puts it:
“With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen.”
I like that last line a lot. I’m not the kind of person who just lets things happen, I like to be involved, and thinking of the subject of a sentence as having that same right makes it a lot easier to stay in the active voice. I still use the passive voice, partly because it feels safe (or, to give an example “it can feel safe to write in the passive voice) but also because it lends a conversational tone to the writing. The lifestyle and finance articles I write for work often need that casual tone to them, so I mix it up with a combination of active and passive sentences but I still like to remind myself not to just let things happen all the time.
But On Writing is not just a book about how to write, it’s also about King’s life and talent. His views on talent and, by extension, passion are refreshing and motivating:
“When you find something at which you are talented, you do it…until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy.”
From that point on (around halfway through the book) I began to read On Writing not as a book for writers but as one for creators. I found it applicable to acting as much (sometimes more) as to writing, because he is write. You want to do something because you love it or you’re good at it and you get that buzz out of doing it.
Making money from writing or acting or singing or dancing or anything else that someone loves might be the surface layer of what creative people want, but isn’t the actual creation the important part? Isn’t the real key to find a sustainable way to keep creating (which is why many of us want to make money out of our talent in the first place)?
What On Writing reminded me was that it doesn’t always matter how, or where or even why I act or write, but just that I am doing things that I love because I want to and I always will.