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Recently, as I’m in full swing of a painting at the moment, with one completed and framed, another a good quarter of the way through, I’ve been listening to some audio books, letting my Led Zep and Beck discography’s slip to the wayside for a while.

I got hold of IT, by Stephen King, as I enjoyed the film, with its tour de force performance by Tim Curry as the stories truly disturbing protagonist. I got to the second from last chapter and thought I’d save the climatic ending and listen to Stephen Kings audio version of On Writing, as to be honest, despite liking some of the adaptations of his books, Salem’s Lot, (both the Rob Lowe and David Soul versions) being one of my favourites, I haven’t ever actually read any of his books. But I was interested to see what such a successful author thought about writing itself. I have self published two novels, 145,000 words on average each, and while not considering myself a prodigy at the art of writing, I do consider myself to have an exceptional imagination. That may seem like a boast, or just out and out ego, but it’s true. However, I am not so in awe of myself to think that simply having ideas automatically makes you a good writer.

It does not.

If you cannot communicate those ideas to another, they are simply self indulgence, personal wank fantasies that relieve only yourself. But the books I have produced, though ultimately flawed, were good attempts, and have received nothing but good responses or supportive and helpful criticism from those who have read them. In a couple of cases, they even appealed to people who both didn’t know me personally and people who had never read fantasy before in their lives, which I took as a compliment.

However, listening to Stephen Kings On Writing (I prefer audio books simply because I can paint at the same time) has been a bit of a roller-coaster for me. Emotionally I have been drawn along, from the screaming heights inspiration, to the twists and turns of interest, all the way down to stomach churning gulfs of frustration and uncontrollable rebuttal.   

Pretty good for such a modest sized book, and probably more emotive than one of his novels might be to me. You see, I like to write. The stuff I’ve done has been fairly effective in terms of narrative and character development, not to mention creatively and descriptively interesting.

But listening to On Writing at points made me very aware of my blood pressure increasing to a point that I could feel wisps of steam escaping from my ears at some of Mr Kings opinions on the writing process. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s lots I agree with, more than most of the points he raises in fact. But some seem to come from such a privileged position, that they seem to be coming from someone else, someone other than King himself.

The section on grammar I found uncomfortable. I personally, couldn’t tell you what most of the terms used in formal grammar are. I wouldn’t know what a adverbial clause, or a bare infinitive, or even the genitive case were if they ran me over on a well lit street. Hell, I had to type into Google ‘terms used in grammar’, just to include them in this blog entry! So does that make me unable to write?

Personally I didn’t do much schooling back in the day. I left school, in body at least, around the third year of high school, preferring to spend my time talking on the CB radio, smoking dope and listening to heavy metal. My vocab was ultimately a result of spending a record amount of time in school detentions where the teacher would randomly pick a page of the English dictionary and tell us to copy out everything from there on until we were allowed to leave an hour or two later. I also played a lot of RPG’s back then and so learnt to write stories and narrate them to the other players. I turned up to school for one exam, English. I wrote three essays, each six to seven pages long, in the hour and a half we were given, and then noticed that the object of the exam was to choose one of three topics. I had written one for each. I never got a grade at the end. Well, I might have, but I never went back again to find out so who knows.

I can’t recall writing lots as a child, though I must have, tending to spend long periods in my bedroom. It couldn’t have all been checking my balls for traces of hair and listening to The Wombles!

I must have certainly drawn a lot because art has always been with me ever since, but at the age of 11 or 12, my step mother decided that I spent way too much time in the house, where she didn’t want me to be, so gave all my toys away and any writing or artwork had ended up in the trash. So unlike so many writers of note, I don’t still have those early signs of creativity, no indications of childhood artistic promise.

My life has remained that way, with a tendency to give my work away, rather than keep it for posterity. Somewhere out there I know there are hundreds of pictures and paintings of mine, in cupboards and attics, gathering dust. I have a handful from around my mid twenties that I can put my hands on personally, but otherwise that period in my creative life is an undiscovered country. Keeping things has never been important to me. Creating things is.

So Mr Kings musings on grammar just…well…infuriated me. I got my A levels at age 26, with grades of B, which I considered, after over a decade of total absence from any form of academic practice, was pretty good. The sad thing was at such an advanced age, I was too old to get onto any of the courses I wanted, film making and animation.

My career as a psychiatric nurse is predominantly word and language based. I have helped many people by listening and supporting them with words, while in written form, I have contributed to the swaying of professional tribunals to allow patients who had been restrained and restricted by the British Mental Health Act for literally decades, to be free of it and have a chance at some element of freedom and autonomy. Fair enough it was frowned upon, but the outcome was good for the patient, if not for my reputation as a nurse.

All this without any basic understanding of formal grammar. If I have it, it is something I have learned in the process of living.stephen_king_web

Another gripe regarding On Writing is issues relating to where to write, of having your own space. If you have read the book, you will remember the section. This I see as the attitude of a privileged few, and in Kings case, something containing a notable lack of personal recall. As the story goes, when he got his break with Carrie, he was living in a shit hole of an apartment, with a wife, kids and struggling to get by as a teacher. But he managed to write something that ended up getting him $200.000 when the paperback rights were sold. A massive sum for the time, and for a first successful novel. You cannot tell me he had a nice setup somewhere with a cozy chair, a good desk and the time to read and write to his heart’s content, so telling others this is a necessity is simply not fair. Who the hell has that luxury except a successful author who is worth a million and can afford such things?

People seeking this book out for inspiration at the beginning of a hopeful career in writing will simply think they don’t stand a chance. I feel that if an individual really has talent, and really wants to write, they will, because that is their gift, and they will get it done, even if they are living in a cardboard box and writing on the back of torn down advertising posters with a stolen pencil. The words are out there and you don’t have to be secure and privileged to let them use you to come out.

It’s the same with art.

I did some of my best drawings in recent years, backpacking around India, moving from hostel to hostel, restaurant to restaurant, with no real security. I have never, ever had an environment that was permanent. By nature I’m a bit of a nomad and have always lived in one rented place or another, with few possessions and a willingness to embrace the temporary. Don’t get me wrong, I would love such a thing, a perfect studio environment with good light, and the few things about me that I need to engage in the act of creating things. It would be bliss.

But its absence has never stopped me and this demonstrates how truly unnecessary such things really are in the act of creating something. The process goes on regardless.

His section on reading also caused me some discomfort.

I don’t read…much. Like I mentioned, I listen to audio books simply because I then have my hands free. My preferred method of falling asleep, when I’m alone, is to listen to HP Lovecraft stories on my MP3 player.

I read on the bog, because, well, there’s not much else to do there really and of all the places I have drawn, the toilet isn’t one I feel comfortable with, but reading is fine. The last book I absorbed in such an environment was Heart of Darkness, but I tend to leave the book there once the toilet paper ritual is over, so my reading is episodic at best. If I am in the process of serious writing, I never read, because as King points out, some people have a tendency to write like what they read. This I don’t want. I feel that reading a book while writing pollutes what I’m writing. My first book was exactly that. I had been reading Mervyn Peake’s beautiful Gormenghast trilogy, plus a favorite of the time, a book called Phantasia by the artist Alan Aldridge, and so A Hero Called Tim, came out in a combination of those two influences. Baroque might be a good description. A charming story too heavy with long words and use of a thesaurus. Something that King would read a couple of pages of before throwing across the room and then heading off in search of something suitably heavy to finish it off with.

I can understand the idea of reading as important, I just think there’s a time and a place, and don’t want it to influence the way I write, because it does, for good or ill. Yes, you can only understand writing by reading the writing of others, but Kings idea seems to be a mixture of both a love of reading and a lack of having something else to do. I doubt he reads to learn how to write, because, from listening to On Writing, he already has an established canon of what he feels is important in the art. Shit, its worked for him for decades, so what’s left to learn right?

At this point however, I’d just like to sing his praises though for the Dark Tower books. I haven’t listened to them yet, I’ve got Robert Jordan lined up, but I have nothing but admiration for a successful author, known for a certain type of book, who says fuck it all, and heads off in a different direction. Screw the critics!

As I say, theres lots I don’t like about Kings opinion of the writing process, and lots that I do.

Obviously On Writing is one mans opinion of course. But this is a man who has sold possibly billions of books, to billions of people. He is successful and has been so for decades. So, purely on those grounds his opinion on the process of writing is valid.

The one question I would like to ask other successful authors, Kings peer group so to speak is this…

‘Do you feel that you conform to the outlines that King lays out in On writing. Or is it just him, his idea of how it should be done and given that you (the other successful authors) are also popular, does this mean that there isnt just Kings way of doing things?

Stephen King


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