Saturday, June 22, 2013

On Writing, by Stephen King

Last week I finished reading Stephen King's autobiography, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. There are a lot of good anecdotes and pieces of advice here, and not just for aspiring writers.

Stephen King makes it clear that he is not a genius, nor did he just get lucky. He got where he is through relentless practice of his craft. I would add, even though he doesn't address this directly, one more reason: He had a pretty good idea from when he was young that he was going to be a writer; a pop fiction writer at that. By "going to be" I mean more than "wanted to be." Not only is writing what he loved to do, but it's what he was comparatively best at, as well. Sure, he worked in mill and was an English teacher for a while, but it was all to support his writing habit. Writing was always his goal. Even the anecdotes that are meant to display adversity in youth, like a disapproving teacher, went like this: Teacher acknowledges Stephen's writing talent, but teacher wants Stephen to stop writing trash.

This autobiography highlights one of the aspects of the modern economy that works so well for some: extreme specialization is rewarded. Stephen's older brother, David was very smart, good at most things, and interested in many things. We haven't heard of David King, but Stephen King hit it big.

On the one hand, it's so much easier when it's clear what you should do with your life; it's almost like there's a defined path that's laid out before you.  All you have to do is follow it. Seeing the path to success is easy: Do only that one thing, and do it well. Practice, practice, and practice harder. Always be driving to that goal. Always be improving. The "other hand" is pretty obvious, too: following that path is hard. You have to know what that path is and follow it at the expense of everything else.

Stephen King practiced, practiced, practiced from age 13 onward:
When I got the rejection slip from AHMM, I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor, wrote "Happy Stamps" on the rejection slip, and poked it onto the nail.... By the time I was fourteen... the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen, I'd begun to get rejection slips with handwritten notes a little more encouraging than the advice to stop using staples and start using paperclips. 
His first real monetary success was Carrie at age 26. Up until then, he could not support himself or his family by writing.

Anyone would be glad to meet success at age 26, and that shows the benefit of specializing early: age 26 was after 13 years of relentless, deliberate practice! He didn't just sit down at 26 after partying his way through college and luck into a best seller having not written anything in his life.

He didn't get a break after he got his first novel deal, either. In fact, Stephen's main advice to aspiring writer is to read and write a lot. All the time, actually (extreme specialization is serious business). Here's an excerpt:
I used to tell interviewers that I wrote every day except for Christmas, the Fourth of July, and my birthday. That was a lie.... The truth is that when I'm writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not. That includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday.
Sometimes its hard to believe it when people say they work all the time. All the time? You mean 40 hours a week with only two weeks vacation? No. All the time means all the time. I can back King up on this one.

One other piece of advice that stands out goes hand in hand with read and write all the time: Don't watch TV.
[I]f you're just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television's electric plug-wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far" (pages 34-35).
The worst thing about TV is that it is so time consuming. It takes away time from doing productive things, which in Stephen's case is more reading and writing. But for anyone looking to be an extreme specialist, TV time is time wasted. All the time means all the time.

In this respect, Stephen King is no different from many other superstars. From Tiger Woods to the top publishers in academia, it's not the raw talent that puts them at the top (but talent helps), it's the work ethic and extreme specialization.

There's a lot of work and sacrifice that goes into success.

[HT: I picked up the book based on this blog post by Study Hacks.  He has a lot of good material on deliberate practice, if you are interested.]

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