‘Stopping a piece of work because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.’
As I’m not a religious man the closest thing I have to a holy text would be Stephen King’s On Writing. And if that sounds blasphemous, that’s only because you haven’t read it. Not only is On Writing one of those rare books that I return to regularly, always coming away from it enlightened, inspired and entertained; and not only does it contain some of the most solid writing advice you will ever encounter (which it does); but it is also the very definition of what King calls ‘the uniquely portable magic’ of books. I defy anyone reading it not to be seduced by the book’s tone, and the eerie feeling that King is right there in the room, talking to you – and only you.
But first, a confession: I was something of a King obsessive in my teens, during a period that began with my GCSEs and ended with my A-levels. I vividly remember being 15, and reading IT over the course of a month – one of those shining instances of becoming totally lost in a book at an age when I didn’t have anything else to worry about. Afterwards, every piece of fiction I wrote in English Lit class was set in the small town of Raven Rock (an obvious homage to King’s own Castle Rock), where nasty things happened and evil lurked just below the surface…
I’ve read more of King’s work since then, although not everything he’s produced. For someone so prolific his output has – to my taste anyway – been somewhat uneven (I’d like the fortnight I spent on Insomnia back, please). But given the heights he hit in The Dead Zone and Misery, I’m willing to let him off with a caution. The latter would stroll onto my list of all-time favourite novels any day of the week, and again is one of the few books I’ve willingly read at least five or six times.
Misery’s claustrophobia and intensity unnerved the hell out of me when I first read it; how writer Paul Sheldon finds himself at the mercy of his ‘number one fan’ (and psychotic former nurse) Annie Wilkes, and yet finds not only redemption through his writing but also a means of escape (both imaginative and literal). When I later learned (in On Writing, as a matter of fact) that King was battling his own drug and alcohol addictions whilst writing Misery, the book took on a wholly new, even more disturbing dimension. Pet writer locked away from the world and fed painkillers to keep him docile? Oh Stevie, where do you get your ideas?
For anyone interested in the landscape of modern popular fiction King is impossible to ignore. But for me his true achievement lies in his non-fiction work and the voice he brings to it. These books are arguably more powerful than his novels, which returns us to On Writing. Here is a book the exemplifies the magic trick, the voodoo that is creative writing – there are passages within it where, reading them for the first (and, indeed, the second and third) time, I literally (not figuratively, literally) forgot I was holding a book – the covers seemed to disappear from my hands and I was listening to words that flowed effortlessly across the page. Early on in the book King calls writing telepathy, and he’s right – but it’s rare that I’ve heard an author’s voice in my head as strongly as I have with On Writing.
I don’t know how quickly this easy tone came to King, although as with anything that looks simple I suspect it wasn’t. Towards the end of the book King comments that he found it difficult to write, and not just because of the near fatal car accident he suffered at that time. ‘Writing fiction was almost as much fun as it had ever been, but every word of the non-fiction book was a kind of torture.’ It’s to King’s credit that this agony is never on show; and the fact that he did finish On Writing is testament to just how passionate and driven he was to write it.
And what a remarkable book it is. Even if you’re not thinking of writing yourself (and who isn’t? Every day, my Facebook and Twitter feeds suggest there’s nobody left in the world who isn’t working on a novel or a short story, or who isn’t trying to get me to buy one they’ve already written) it’s a wonderful read, full of personality and honesty and truth – about how King came to be the man and the writer he is, and packed full of good advice for anyone engaged in any kind of creative endeavour.