Why I hate writing, Part 8: The craft

Stephen King image courtesy of photobucket.com

If you’ve been following along at home, you may have realized by now that I don’t really hate writing. I mostly just hate bad writing, which technically would include much of my own. But I’m not very technical. Or humble. So my writing doesn’t count. Snort!

I guess there are several ways to define what constitutes good writing from bad, and what I consider great writing you might consider very lacking indeed. Stephen King has been poo-pooed in many literary circles. Personally, I think he’s a genius, and I’d be willing to bet that many of his harshest critics have never even bothered to read any of his books or simply suffer from professional jealousy. For those who think he’s sold out and writes¬†formulaic novels and short stories to pad his bank account, again I would encourage you to read at least three of his books, and if you’ve read his books and come away thinking they’re only horror stories, I don’t suppose there’s anything I could say to you to convince you otherwise. You just don’t get it. Despite being taken lightly by the literary world, Mr. King takes the craft of writing very seriously. I love his approach to writing, and I love what he says about the craft in the Afterword of Full Dark, No Stars. The following excerpts are just a few highlights from the Great One:

When people ask me about my work, I have developed a habit of skirting the subject with jokes and humorous personal anecdotes (which you can’t quite trust; never trust anything a fiction writer says about himself). It’s a form of deflection and a little more diplomatic than the way my Yankee forebears might have answered such questions: It’s none of your business, chummy. But beneath the jokes, I take what I do very seriously, and have since I wrote my first novel, The Long Walk, at the age of eighteen.

I have little patience with writers who don’t take the job of writing seriously, and none at all with those who see the art of story-fiction as essentially worn out. It’s not worn out, and it’s not a literary game. It’s one of the vital ways in which we try to make sense of our lives, and the often terrible world we see around us. It’s the way we answer the, How can such things be? Stories that sometimes–not always, but sometimes–there’s a reason.

From the start…I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal…if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book set aside (sometimes with relief)…

Here’s something else I believe: if you’re going into a very dark place…then you should take a bright light, and shine it on everything. If you don’t want to see, why in God’s name would you dare the dark at all? The great naturalist writer Frank Norris has always been one of my literary idols, and I’ve kept what he said on this subject in mind for over 40 years: “I never truckled; I never took off my hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth.”

But Steve, you say, you’ve made a great many pennies during your career, and as for truth…that’s variable, isn’t it? Yes, I’ve made a good amount of money writing my stories, but the money was a side effect, never the goal. Writing fiction for money is a mug’s game. And sure, truth is in the eye of the beholder. But when it comes to fiction, the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart. It won’t always be the reader’s truth, or the critic’s truth, but as long as it’s the writer’s truth–as long as he or she doesn’t truckle, or hold out his or her hat to Fashion–all is well. For writers who knowingly lie, for those who substitute unbelievable human behavior for the way people really act, I have nothing but contempt. Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do–to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.

~ Stephen King, Bangor, Maine, December 23 2009

There is a vunerability in King’s writing which, for me, all great writers must possess. Or as another one of my favorite writers would say, you have to be willing to write naked. Do that and you’ll have at least one loyal fan of your writing, and many more I suspect.

What say you? How do you define great writing? Do you know why you think it’s great, or do you just know?

Editor’s Note: If you haven’t read Full Dark, No Stars and are considering reading it after this post, fair warning: It is very dark. Probably some of the darkest stories I’ve read from King, and that’s saying something. But like he said, “If you don’t want to see, why in God’s name would you dare the dark at all?”

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