I never read books. I don’t have the attention span. It’s difficult for things to catch my interest. I can’t find the time. I have a million more excuses on why I never read, and a million more for why I can’t find time to write more. I’m very good at avoiding it.
So it’s very ironic that the book to break that pattern for me was, literally, On Writing.
I finished On Writing on Saturday, John Darnielle’s fascinating Master of Reality later that afternoon, Animal Farm yesterday and Audition a couple hours ago. That’s a total of four books in five days. This is something of a sea-change for me, it’s wild. For the last decade, reading has been serious labour: I’d catch myself counting the pages, checking margins, waiting every moment for the book to just end so I could move on. I’m not certain, but I imagine that grudge has something to do with my time in University, and the compulsory reading there. Not that I minded all the reading at the time – I was an English student on purpose, after all – but I think the relative density of the works combined with the endless deadlines put a real strain on my relationship to books. For years after finishing my degree I’d joke that I studied English so that I would never have to read a book again, the way I’ll never use Beowulf-ian Old English again, or, shudder, my deep knowledge of Spinoza.
It was as if reading and writing had some kind of finish line, past which I could just claim mastery and be done with it while somehow remaining a good writer. I was kidding of course, but there was a grain of truth to it. I was just -over- reading.
Over time, my joke-answer mutated into a genuine aversion to anything long-form at all. Though I spent an astonishing time reading content online (which counts in a different way), I took about a seven-year break from books. I had nurtured a toxic relationship with reading, and then with my own aversion to reading, and then that anxiety funneled itself back into itself. This resulted in my reading basically nothing.
I got too anxious about not reading anything, so I read nothing at all. Funny how so many things in my life seem to work this way.
It’s not that I hated the act of reading, not exactly. More that I never felt I had the time, or couldn’t make the commitment, or more often simply felt there was far too much I had to read, and I would get to it at some nebulous ‘later’ time. ‘Later’ would never come, and that guilt would reinforce the negative feedback loop. My problem simply got worse and worse. I don’t think I’m alone in this – there are parallel experiences in a lot of artistic endeavors. Guilt and frustration are powerful negative motivators.
There was an element of pride to it, too. Ridiculously, I imagined myself a writer who conveniently never had to find time to read. You know, like how the best baseball players never watch baseball. Or how singers don’t listen to albums. Like how Paul McCartney and St. Vincent don’t read sheet music, I would just abstain from books. My novel will emerge magically and all at once. Intuitively and spontaneously. What a great plan.
It’s an issue that stayed in place more or less all the way into Spring of 2020, meaning Quarantine, meaning I very-literally have all the time in the world to catch up on all that reading I’ve been missing. Hooray! No more guilt! And so I immediately began four video games, two tv series and installed a Digital Audio Workstation. This is how my brain works. My aversion to reading remained firmly in place until last week when I, finally collapsing under the guilt of my own unhealthy relationship to my (former) love of reading, I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing.
Here, to be extremely reductive, is the thesis of On Writing: the one and only key to writing better, is reading more. And then writing more. That’s the book. There is no moonlit, magic place where novels come from: the job is work. It’s as OSHA-approved an approach to writing as you’re ever going to witness: do the thing to get better at the thing, and anything else is an excuse. Surprise. And Stephen King in 1999, having very barely survived a gruesome car accident, had exactly zero time for excuses.
The first third of On Writing is a scattered biography, touching on major moments in King’s artistic life (and conveniently demonstrating writing principles along the way). The back two-thirds is a series of specific pieces of instruction catered to the creative and editorial process (no passive voice! no adverbs!). King suggests writing first for yourself and then for an audience, recommending you finish a draft before obsessing over minor edits or input. The segment on where and how to schedule your writing is particularly illuminating: he calls for a regular, work-like routine to demystify the creative process. Occasionally, he philosophizes about the power of writing, the way it feels like a form of telepathy, or its therapeutic properties. He touches on the role fear can play in producing bad writing, and its relationship to the use of passive voice. It’s largely concrete, instructive advice if you’re interested in the finer points of the creative process, but you’ll find the best, most humble lesson at almost the exact center of the book: reading is training for writing, and writing is labour.
That simple statement broke through a decade of pretension and posturing. How on earth can I hope to be a writer when I don’t read? When I don’t work the muscle? Why am I weakening my own craft on purpose?
This is as blue-collar as writing advice gets, and it struck a chord. Fair criticism aside, I’m an admirer of King’s work for the way he makes the mundane seem uncomfortably, intimately familiar – and then often shocks that familiarity with an injection of magical realism. Or sometimes a murder. Whatever the subject, King’s writing feels honest. He takes his time when he writes, and it lends integrity and believability to the lives of his characters – even when he’s writing about himself. He’s frequently less of a Horror writer than a very bizarre, perverse slice-of-life-er. It’s because he puts in the work to make his worlds so totally lived-in that the horror, when it inevitably shows up, makes sense. It feels earned and real. Similarly lovingly detailed work like Solanin or Twin Peaks or Joyland, for example, succeed for the same reason – they work because their worlds are nuanced and alive. And they feel alive because of an empathetic commitment to the everyday grunt-work of daily life. Those lives have weight. It’s no surprise that King’s writing advice embodies the same working-class mentality as his novels: the job is work, and work is labour. Put in the time to give your work integrity. Read and do your research. It’s as easy as that.
To a lazy writer coasting by without putting in the time to read, On Writing‘s 288 pages is easily Stephen King’s most frightening book. It lit a fire under my ass. Reading would make me a better writer, and I’d played enough Persona to know what I should do next.
I’ve started reading again. I’ve rediscovered why I loved it. Four books in five days later, On Writing clearly had an effect.
I think it’s probably a very good book indeed.
One more thing: It’s quite the coincidence that I’d be reading Stephen King of all people this week, huh? I saw the thing where King retweeted J.K. Rowling, and then Rowling freaked out and got all excited, and then King tweeted “Trans Women Are Women” and she retracted her praise because she’s a TERF. I’m glad he issued the reply/correction, it was the right move. I also hope he’s just keeping her initial tweet there for… posterity? For history’s sake, so that we know what he accidentally supported and then retracted his support for? I’m assuming the best here. I’m not totally sure what King’s game is here, and he’d do well to comment further. Typically when you accidentally support an asshole, you make it very clear that you do not.
Regardless, Trans Women Are Women and J.K. Rowling is a ghoul who embarrasses herself and her one-time fans more and more with every passing day.
I just wanted to make that clear.