Good Reads, Slow Thinking, Storytelling

Publicity vs. Privacy: Stephen King’s manifesto-like autobiography »On Writing«

4 min read

I had read the odd Stephen King book when I was a teenager, yet stumbled over his autobiography only last year, in Mason Currey’s “Daily Rituals” (which had influenced me deeply – making me realise that there was something wrong with my daily work day and, amongst other key moments, got me to resign from my job as managing director). 

First, I listened to “On Writing” on Audible while driving – absolutely hilarious as it’s read by the author himself. But whenever I listen to a really good audio book, I have to read it again as paper back – for getting a three-dimensional idea of the content, for making my notes, and for future reference.

Judge a book by its cover

I love how the paperback edition of “On Writing” comes across; despite the saying you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and while publishing houses do their best in wrapping the wisest content in the most distracting book covers with 80s typography on top, with this one, the cover does actually fit with the spirit of the book. It’s humble. It’s black and white. It shows a snapshot of the author at his desk in a crammed office corner in his house, nonchalantly with his feet on the desk, writing in his sketchbook; a monster of an old school computer in the background and his dog under the table. That’s the other, the practical side of Steve; because what is known of him usually are his success number: 400 million books sold worldwide, and his more than 50 novels and 100 short stories translated into 50 languages.

Hundred ways of reading a book

There’s a lot to say about the book. It’s deep, and as with so many deep books, there are dozens of ways and layers of reading it: When you want to hear an experienced, wise voice about the craft of writing, read this book to become inspired. When you have blogged for a while and are waiting for the hundreds and thousands of readers flocking in, read this book to become humble. When you a disheartened in your creative process because somebody brought you down, read this book to be comforted. Regarding this, Stephen talks about of how he had written his first horror novel as a teenager, printed a little edition and sold it in school for a couple of pennies. Thus he was summoned to the rector’s office, told off and forced to undo the whole transaction. This kind of experience, he says, is a typical one for anyone creating something: “I was ashamed. I have spent a good many years since – too many, I think – being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”

Private and public writing

Another important lesson to take from the book for anyone involved in creative processes has to do with who you write for at different stages of the process. The secret lies in the careful line you have to draw between your own privacy and the public while writing. I’ve been thinking about this contradiction of privacy and publicity in writing quite a lot, particularly because we live in the digital age of constant publicity on the web and on social media. People (including me) tend to publish too early (that’s the whole point of blogs and social media); it’s hard to save the time and a private space for your ideas to grow.

Regarding this Steve also has a wise word for us and tells us the story of his first jobs as a junior editor of a local newspaper, writing a reportage about a local sports game. His editor-in-chief makes some amendments to his text, leaving him with one of the most important advices of his life as a writer: “Write with your door closed. Then rewrite with your door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right – as right as you can, anyway – it belongs to anyone who wants to read it.”

There’s a period in your process when you have to write just what’s in your head (“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky (…). Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”). Your job is simply to protect your idea and let it grow. That’s the “door closed” part of the process. Yet that then comes a phase when you have to open up and start communicating with the reader in mind. That’s the “door open” part. Steve says you need an “ideal reader” (“IR”) to open up, somebody you can think of while telling him your story; somebody you trust and you are not afraid of. Steve’s IR is and has always been his wife Tabby by the way. 

Writing is telepathy

But you connect with the reader in some other way, as well. Steve answers the question, what writing really is with “Telepathy, of course”, and describes writing as the purest distillation of all arts. The writer is describing a picture, and plants it right into the readers brain. They are connected through the story, the story is a “meeting of the minds”. Want to try? Here’s a test picture he describes. “Look – here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8. Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do.” How fantastic is that.