#210 Stephen King On Writing A Memoir of the Craft



In this revealing conversation, Stephen King delves deep into the essence of writing, likening it to telepathy and a form of magic that offers an escape from everyday mundanity. King, reflecting on his craft, shares the profound connection between reader and writer, transcending both time and space. He emphasizes the importance of a disciplined approach to writing, advocating for a rigorous routine of reading and writing as non-negotiable for success. King's personal journey from desperation to literary fame is underscored by his candid admission of struggles with addiction and the life-changing moment of selling his novel "Carrie." His narrative is a testament to the power of perseverance, the significance of a supportive partner, and the transformative impact of recognizing and seizing one's unique talents. Through his experiences, King offers not only a masterclass in the writer's craft but also an intimate glimpse into the trials and triumphs of a storied life dedicated to storytelling.

Summary Notes

Writing as Telepathy

  • Stephen King describes writing as a form of telepathy between the writer and the reader.
  • Writing allows the transfer of thoughts over time and space, connecting individuals across different periods.
  • Books are described as a "uniquely portable magic" that provide an escape and can be enjoyed anywhere.
  • King emphasizes the intimate connection between the author transmitting and the reader receiving, despite the separation in time.

"What is writing? Telepathy, of course."

This quote highlights King's view of writing as a means of transmitting thoughts and ideas directly from the author's mind to the reader's, regardless of the temporal gap.

The Magic of Books

  • Books are seen as a bridge that connects people across time and cultures.
  • Carl Sagan's quote about books is mentioned, emphasizing their ability to allow communication with minds from the past.
  • King and Sagan share the belief in the timeless and magical quality of books.

"Books are a uniquely portable magic."

This quote illustrates the power of books to transport readers to different places and times, providing an "escape hatch" from reality.

Stephen King on Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

  • The book is described as a guide not only for writers but for anyone engaged in creative or difficult work.
  • It is a combination of a memoir and a masterclass, offering insights into King's experiences and writing process.
  • The book is praised for its practical advice and revelations about the craft of writing.

"This special edition of Stephen King's critically lauded million copy bestseller shares the experiences, habits and convictions that have shaped him and his work."

The quote summarizes the essence of King's book, which is to share the wisdom and practices that have contributed to his success as a writer.

The Writing Process: One Word at a Time

  • King's advice on writing is to take it one word at a time, similar to building a great wall.
  • This approach emphasizes persistence and the accumulation of small efforts over time.
  • King's writing routine and consistency are credited for his prolific output.

"When asked, how do you write? I invariably answer, one word at a time."

King's quote simplifies the writing process to its most basic element, encouraging writers to focus on the immediate task rather than the overwhelming whole.

The Entrepreneurial Emotional Roller Coaster

  • King discusses the emotional challenges of creative work, including self-doubt and the importance of perseverance.
  • He compares the experience of writing to the entrepreneurial journey, filled with ups and downs.
  • The quote from King's interview in the 20th-anniversary edition of his book is used to illustrate this point.

"Every time I sit down, it's like the first time I battle doubts all the time."

This quote reveals that even successful creatives like King continue to face self-doubt and must push through it to continue their work.

Stephen King's Early Life and Childhood

  • King's early life was marked by economic struggles and a nomadic lifestyle.
  • His love for writing began early, with him initially copying comic books and later creating his own stories.
  • King's mother encouraged his writing, which led to a lifelong passion.

"I remember an immense feeling of possibility at the idea, as if I had been ushered into a vast building filled with closed doors and had been given leave to open any I liked."

This quote captures the sense of endless potential King felt when he first considered writing his own stories, a feeling that has stayed with him throughout his career.

Imitation Precedes Creation

  • King's early writing efforts involved imitating existing works, which is a common starting point for many creatives.
  • His mother's encouragement to write his own story was a pivotal moment in his development as a writer.
  • The concept that imitation is a step toward developing one's own creative voice is explored.

"Imitation preceded creation."

This quote succinctly states the idea that learning through imitation is often the first step in the creative process before original work emerges.

The Origin of Ideas

  • King believes that good story ideas come unexpectedly, combining unrelated concepts into something new.
  • The writer's job is to recognize these ideas when they appear.
  • King references Albert Einstein's belief that new ideas are the result of previous intellectual experiences.

"Your job isn't to find these ideas, but to recognize them when they show up."

The quote emphasizes the writer's role in being open and attentive to ideas rather than actively searching for them.

Early Rejections and Persistence

  • King shares his experience with rejection in his early writing career, using it as motivation to continue.
  • He explains how he used a spike to hold his growing collection of rejection slips, symbolizing his determination.
  • The story illustrates the importance of resilience in the face of criticism and failure.

"By the time I was 14, the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it."

This quote shows King's early encounters with rejection and his persistent attitude, which would later contribute to his success.

Influences and First Success

  • King's influences include comic books, mystery magazines, and movies.
  • He discusses his first successful writing venture, a story inspired by a movie, which he sold at school.
  • The anecdote demonstrates King's early entrepreneurial spirit and his willingness to turn inspiration into action.

"I had a wonderful idea. I would turn the pit and the pendulum into a book."

This quote reflects King's ability to draw inspiration from other media and his initiative to create and sell his own work, even as a teenager.

Stephen King's Writing Lessons from John Gould

  • John Gould's editing of Stephen King's work taught him more about writing than his formal education.
  • Gould's technique involved removing unnecessary parts of the writing that did not advance the story.
  • Stephen King experienced a revelation about writing concisely through Gould's editing.

"John Gould taught me more than any of them. And in no more than 10 minutes." "When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story, he said. When you rewrite your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story."

  • Gould's advice emphasizes the importance of rewriting to remove superfluous elements, focusing on the essence of the story.
  • The quote captures the essence of the lesson: storytelling is about distillation to the core narrative.

The Power of Storytelling

  • Storytelling is crucial for entrepreneurs, investors, and creatives as it is the most powerful tool for setting visions and values.
  • Steve Jobs highlighted the importance of storytelling in business and marketing.

"The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda for an entire generation that is to come."

  • Jobs believed that storytelling shapes the future and is a key skill for founders and leaders.
  • The quote from Jobs underlines the transformative power of storytelling in influencing and leading people and ideas.

Dr. Seuss's Writing Lessons from Frank Capra

  • Dr. Seuss learned to write concisely from film director Frank Capra.
  • Capra emphasized the importance of advancing the story in writing and would underline only the parts that did so.

"Capra taught me conciseness. I learned a lot about the juxtaposition of words and visual images."

  • Capra's influence was formative in shaping Dr. Seuss's ability to tell stories tightly and effectively.
  • The quote reflects the impact of Capra's mentorship on Dr. Seuss's approach to writing and storytelling.

The Concept of No Speed Limit

  • Derek Sivers's story illustrates that learning and achievement are not bound by conventional pace or expectations.
  • Sivers learned multiple semesters' worth of music theory in just a few lessons due to his teacher's high expectations.

"I bet you I can teach you two years of theory and arranging in only a few lessons. I suspect you can graduate in two years if you understand there's no speed limit."

  • The anecdote demonstrates that with the right guidance and motivation, one can accomplish goals much faster than the norm.
  • The quote conveys the idea that traditional educational pacing can be transcended with dedication and an exceptional teacher.

Stephen King's Work Ethic

  • Stephen King's high school schedule was grueling due to his family's financial situation, yet he continued to write.
  • King's first significant sale of a story was inspired by a real-life experience he had while working at a mill.

"I woke up at seven... punch out at 11:00 at night, get home around a quarter of twelve, eat a bowl of cereal, fall into bed, get up the next morning and do it all again."

  • King's disciplined schedule and commitment to writing despite hardships contributed to his later success.
  • The quote illustrates King's relentless work ethic and how he managed to balance work, school, and his passion for writing.

Stephen King's Ideal Reader Concept

  • Stephen King writes with his wife as the ideal reader in mind, focusing on writing for one person.
  • This concept is likened to creating a product with a specific audience or oneself in mind.

"He talks about the ideal reader, IR, and he's saying, like, if you're creating something, you should create for one person in mind."

  • King's strategy of writing for an ideal reader ensures clarity and direction in his storytelling.
  • The quote explains the concept of the ideal reader and how it guides the writing process by focusing on a specific target audience.

Meeting Tabitha Spruce and Marriage

  • Stephen King met his wife, Tabitha Spruce, in college and they have remained married for many years.
  • Their marriage has outlasted many of the world's leaders.
  • The key to their long-lasting marriage is communication, arguing, making love, and shared activities like dancing to the Ramones.

"One day in late June of that summer, a bunch of us library guys had lunch on the grass behind the university bookstore. Sitting between Paolo Silva and Eddie Marsh was a trim girl with a raucous laugh, red tinted hair, and the prettiest legs I've ever seen... We got married. A year and a half later, we're still married. It worked. Our marriage has outlasted all of the world's leaders, except for Castro."

This quote describes the beginning of Stephen King's relationship with his wife, highlighting the memorable and rapid development of their relationship and the enduring nature of their marriage.

Work Ethic in Writing

  • Stephen King emphasizes a strong work ethic in writing, comparing it to everyday tasks like sweeping the floor.
  • King believes in showing up every day and putting in the work, which in turn brings inspiration, rather than waiting for inspiration to strike.
  • This approach is likened to that of other professionals, such as the musician Eminem, who works on a strict schedule.

"There was also a work ethic in that poem that I liked, something that suggested that writing poems, our stories, our essays, or I would add anything else, had as much in common with sweeping the floor as with mythy moments of revelation."

The quote reflects King's belief that writing requires discipline and regular effort, similar to routine tasks, and is not solely reliant on moments of creative inspiration.

Stephen King's Daily Routine

  • Stephen King has a structured daily routine that includes writing six pages a day, which allows him to produce a new book approximately every 60 days.
  • He follows a set schedule that includes writing in the morning, taking a nap, answering letters, having dinner with family, and leisure activities.
  • This disciplined approach to writing and time management has contributed to his prolific output as an author.

"The first thing I do in the morning, I set aside. I'm uninterrupted for many hours of time, and I write six pages a day, and I do that every day. And in 60 days, I have 360 pages, and that's another book."

This quote outlines King's methodical writing process and daily commitment to his craft, which has enabled him to write numerous books.

Early Struggles and Perseverance

  • Stephen King and his wife faced significant financial struggles early in their lives, living in a trailer and working low-paying jobs.
  • Despite the hardships, King continued to write and sell stories to men's magazines for small amounts of money.
  • The support from his wife, Tabitha, was crucial during this time, as she never doubted his potential as a writer.

"From a financial point of view, two kids were probably too many for college grads working in a laundry and the second shift at Dunkin' Donuts, I wrote after work. I would sometimes write a little on my lunch break, too."

The quote illustrates the challenging circumstances under which King wrote, balancing work, family, and his passion for writing.

Breakthrough with "Carrie"

  • Stephen King's novel "Carrie" was initially thrown in the trash by him but was retrieved by his wife, who encouraged him to finish it.
  • "Carrie" became King's first major success, selling well and being adapted into a successful movie.
  • The novel's sale, particularly the paperback rights, marked a turning point in King's financial situation and career.

"The paperback rights to Carrie went to Signet Books for $400,000... I stood there in the doorway, casting the same shadow as always, but I couldn't talk."

The quote captures the life-changing moment when King learns of the substantial sum earned from the sale of "Carrie," which provided financial security and affirmed his career as a writer.

Overcoming Substance Abuse

  • Stephen King battled with alcoholism and drug addiction, which threatened his personal life and career.
  • He does not remember writing certain books, such as "Cujo," due to being under the influence during the writing process.
  • An intervention by his family led to his sobriety, which he has maintained since.

"Telling an alcoholic to control his drinking is like telling a guy suffering from the world's most cataclysmic case of diarrhea to control his shitting."

The quote conveys the uncontrollable nature of addiction, emphasizing the difficulty of overcoming substance abuse without intervention and support.

The Importance of Work-Life Balance

  • Stephen King emphasizes the need to put work in its proper place.
  • He narrates his experience with his massive oak desk and how it symbolized his work-centric life.
  • After sobering up, he replaced the large desk with a smaller one and reconfigured his workspace to prioritize family and life.

"For six years, I sat behind that desk, either drunk or wrecked out of my mind, like a ship's captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere."

This quote highlights the period in King's life where work and his desk symbolized a destructive lifestyle.

"Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around."

King stresses that art (or work) should support life, not dominate it. This quote encapsulates the theme of balancing work with personal life.

Approach to Work

  • Writing is a serious endeavor that requires a certain attitude and seriousness.
  • King advises against coming to the act of writing lightly, emphasizing the importance of dedication.
  • He believes that writing is not just a job but a craft that demands respect and effort.

"You must not come lightly to the blank page."

This quote emphasizes the gravity with which one should approach writing, treating it with the respect it deserves.

"If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can't or won't, it's time for you to close the book and do something else."

King sets a high bar for those who wish to write, indicating that it requires a serious commitment.

Reading and Writing as Foundations for Writers

  • King underscores the necessity of both reading and writing extensively to become a good writer.
  • He reads not just to study the craft but because he enjoys it, which contributes to learning.
  • The idea that work should feel like play is reiterated, emphasizing that one should be passionate about their craft.

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: Read a lot and write a lot."

This quote is a clear directive for aspiring writers, underlining the two most crucial activities for their development.

"Actions express priority."

King points out that one's true priorities are revealed by their actions, not their words.

The Role of Talent and Enjoyment in Work

  • King discusses the concept of talent and enjoyment in relation to work, using his son's experience with playing the saxophone as an example.
  • He believes that work should not feel like constant rehearsal but should include joy and play.
  • The idea that strenuous work does not feel strenuous when one has an aptitude and enjoyment for it is highlighted.

"If there's no joy in it, it's just no good."

This quote reflects King's belief that without enjoyment, work is unfulfilling and one should seek out areas where they have both talent and joy.

The Struggle and Loneliness of Writing

  • Writing is described as a solitary and often difficult job, akin to crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.
  • King shares his struggles with writing, including the difficulty he faced when writing his nonfiction book.
  • He advises writers to take breaks and allow for boredom to help overcome creative jams.

"The scariest moment is always just before you start."

King acknowledges the fear and hesitation that can come before beginning a writing project.

Understanding One's Motivations

  • King advises writers to reflect on their reasons for writing and to ensure they understand their motivations.
  • He suggests using personal experiences and individuality to enrich one's work.
  • Understanding the 'why' behind one's work is essential for maintaining motivation and direction.

"I've never hesitated to ask myself, either before starting the second draft of a book or while stuck for an idea in the first draft, just what it is I'm writing about."

This quote shows King's practice of self-reflection to maintain clarity about his work's purpose.

The Personal Nature of Writing

  • King discusses how personal experiences and individuality should be used in writing.
  • He touches on the idea that companies often reflect the personality of their founders, suggesting that personal work should do the same.
  • Writers are encouraged to embrace their unique perspectives and experiences in their work.

"You should use them in your work."

This quote encourages writers to incorporate their personal experiences into their writing to create unique and authentic work.

The Process and Difficulty of Writing

  • King shares his own struggles with writing, showing that even successful authors face difficulties.
  • He discusses the importance of solitude in the creative process and the need for time alone with one's thoughts.
  • The book underscores the continuous learning process in writing, which often happens in private.

"These lessons almost always occur when the study door is closed."

King points out that the most valuable lessons in writing often come during solitary work.

Final Thoughts on Writing

  • King concludes with the notion that writing is not about external rewards but about enriching lives, including the writer's own.
  • He gives readers a 'permission slip' to write, encouraging them to start if they are brave enough.
  • The book serves as both a guide and an inspiration for aspiring writers.

"Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work and enriching your own life as well."

This quote captures the essence of King's perspective on the purpose of writing.

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