Book Review: Stephen King "On Writing"

I read Stephen King’s “On Writing” last month.  I know – Stephen King, right?!  I’ve never been a fan of his genre of writing but I loved reading his story, hearing about his struggles, and thinking about the creative process through his eyes.  I’m not a writer – at least not the kind that Stephen King is primarily addressing in the book – but I do preach.  And the two crafts have a lot of overlap.  As I read the book, I would mentally replace “write” or “writer” with “preach” or “preacher” and found it to be rich with insight for my preaching life.  If I read this book a couple of decades ago it would have made a big difference in my preaching life. 

I was encouraged by King’s insistence that writing (preaching) is about telling the truth.  Telling it, even when it is uncomfortable or difficult.  He writes, “The least [of your concerns] should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”  The power of a good story, of a good sermon, of a good song, of any good work of art is in its ability to tell the truth.  King says, “The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish your feelings - words shrink things that seem timeless when they are in your head to no more than living size when they are brought out.”

Stephen King is not talking about truth in some abstract sense.  Truth in both writing and preaching is that existential experience that we feel deep in our gut, “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you” King reminds his readers. 

After 23 years of preaching about 45 times a year, the section that I wish I knew when I started had to do with the hard work of preaching:

Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ‘til noon. or seven ‘til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.

Preaching and writing are hard work.  There is no shortcut around it.  King reiterates “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”  The difference between writing and preaching is that the deadlines come much quicker (every seven days) in preaching.  There is no time to wait for anyone, much less a muse.  Stephen King works the muse metaphor more by writing:

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.

It’s a well written book that really is memoir with really great advice about life in general.  It gave me a deep appreciation for Stephen King even though I’m not a huge fan of his books.  Here are some of the other notes I took from the book:

 

  • “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.”
  • “It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written.”
  • “Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity.”
Dana Hicks