My (sort of) interview with Stephen King Part I
Writers can improve their skills by learning from other successful writers. The best approach would be to ask them for an interview, but alas, when you are a little fish in the big sea, it can be hard to get that opportunity. Before you go cry in your closet, your tears smearing the ink of all your hopes and dreams, there is another option.
All you have to do is sit down, read what they wrote, and look for something you can apply to your own writing.
For example, to support you in your efforts to free the writer by reading, I’ve compiled some of the knowledge I gleaned from Stephen King’s On Writing. King is known for his New York Times bestselling horror and fantasy novels like Carrie, The Shining, and IT. Whether you like his style or not, you have to admit, the guy has written a ton of books and built a successful career; we would do well to learn from him.
Just for fun, I organized the information into an interview format (hey, a girl can dream). You can easily skip around to the stuff you want to know. So without further ado, let’s dive into the first part of my (sort of) interview with Stephen King.
I’ve recently read your book On Writing, and I’m curious, what motivated you to write it?
“If I was going to be presumptuous enough to tell people how to write, I felt there had to be a better reason than my popular success...What follows is an attempt to put down, briefly and simply, how I came to the craft, what I know about it now, and how it’s done. It’s about the day job; it’s about the language...This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.”
How did you become a writer?
“I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe that, writing a book like this would be a waste of time...This is how it was for me, that’s all--a disjointed process in which ambition, desire, luck, and a little talent all played a part.”
What was the first story you ever wrote and what inspired it?
Health issues caused me to miss “too much of the first grade and I was pulled out of school entirely...Most of that year I spent either in bed or housebound. I read my way through approximately six tons of comic books, progressed to Tom Swift and Dave Dawson…, then moved on to Jack London’s bloodcurdling animal tales. At some point I began to write my own stories. Imitation preceded creation; I would copy Combat Casey comics word for word in my Blue Horse tablet, sometimes adding my own descriptions where they seemed appropriate.
“Eventually I showed one of these copycat hybrids to my mother, and she was charmed...She asked me if I had made the story up myself, and I was forced to admit that I had copied most of it out of a funny-book. She seemed disappointed, and that drained away much of my pleasure. At last she handed back my tablet. ‘Write one of your own, Stevie,’ she said. ‘Those Combat Casey funny-books are just junk...I bet you could do better. Write one of your own.’
“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. There were more doors than one person could ever open in a lifetime, I thought (and still think).
“I eventually wrote a story about four magic animals who rode around in an old car, helping out little kids. Their leader was a large white bunny named Mr. Rabbit Trick…[My mother] said it was good enough to be in a book. Nothing anyone has said to me since has made me feel any happier.”
Where do you get all of your ideas?
“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is not 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: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
What was the first piece of advice you received from submitting a story?
“After a long time spent studying the markets in my beat-up Writer’s Digest, I sent ‘Happy Stamps’ off to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. It came back three weeks later with a from rejection slip attached. The slip bore Alfred Hitchcock’s unmistakable profile in red ink and wished me good luck with my story. At the bottom was an unsigned jotted message, the only personal response I got from AHMM over eight years of periodic submissions. ‘Don’t staple manuscripts,’ the postscript read. ‘Loose pages plus paperclip equal correct way to submit copy.’ This was pretty cold advice, I thought, but useful in its way. I have never stapled a manuscript since.”
How did you handle the initial rejection?
“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 replace 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 paper clips…[like] “This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.”
Did you experience any pushback due to the subject matter of your stories?
When I started selling copies of my stories at my high school, “I was summoned to the principal’s office, where I was told I couldn’t turn the school into a marketplace, especially not, Miss Hisler said, to sell such trash as The Pit and the Pendulum…’What I don’t understand, Stevie,’ she said, ‘is why you’d write junk like this in the first place. You’re talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?’...I had no answer to give. 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...someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”
What was one of the best pieces of writing advice you ever received?
“I took...my fair share of composition, fiction, and poetry classes in college, but [my high school internship editor] John Gould taught me more than any of them, and in no more than ten minutes… ‘When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not in the story.’”
He also taught me to “write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then 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. Or criticize it.”
Did you ever doubt yourself? If so, how did you overcome it?
“I had four problems with what I’d written” in my first draft of Carrie. “The story didn’t move me emotionally...I didn’t much like the lead character…[I did] not feel at home with either the surroundings or my all-girl cast of supporting characters…[and I knew] the story wouldn’t pay off unless it was pretty long...I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell. So I threw it away.
“The next night, when I came home from school, [my wife] Tabby had the pages. She’d spied them while emptying my waste-basket, had shaken the cigarette ashes off the crumpled balls of paper, smoothed them out, and sat down to read them...She wanted to know the rest of the story…‘You’ve got something here,’ she said. ‘I really think you do.’
“My wife made a crucial difference...If she had suggested that the time I spent writing stories on the front porch of our rented house on Pond Street or in the laundry room of our rented trailer on Klatt Road in Hermon was wasted time, I think a lot of the heart would have gone out of me. Tabby never voiced a single doubt, however. Her support was a constant, one of the few good things I could take as a given. And whenever I see a first novel dedicated to a wife (or a husband), I smile and think, There’s someone who knows. Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in your makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”
What did writing Carrie teach you?
“Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
You’ve openly discussed your battle with alcoholism and drug addiction. What did you learn from your experiences?
“I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging, but I decided...that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up. If it came to that. It didn’t, of course...The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time….Substance-abusing writers are just substance abusers--common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit...I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.”
What was your road to recovery like?
“At the start of the road back I just tried to believe the people who said that things would get better if I gave them time to do so. And I never stopped writing. Some of the stuff that came out was tentative and flat, but at least it was there. I buried those unhappy, lackluster pages in the bottom drawer of my desk and got on to the next project. Little by little, I found the beat again, and after that I found the joy again. I came back to my family with gratitude, and back to my work with relief--I came back to it the way folks come back to a summer cottage after a long winter, checking first to make sure nothing had been stolen or broken during the cold season. Nothing had been. It was still all there, still all whole. Once the pipes were thawed out and the electricity was turned back on, everything worked fine.”
How do you define writing?
“Telepathy, of course...All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”
For example, “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 up on 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. There will be necessary variations of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet...The more interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room...except we are together. We’re close. We’re having a meeting of the minds.”
Is there a wrong way to approach writing?
“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair--the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”
10 Free the Writer takeaways:
Although writers aren’t made, many people come with talent that can be sharpened.
Focus more on recognizing ideas than seeking ideas.
Rejection is a part of the process; don’t let it keep you from writing.
Writers need support; listen to those that believe in you.
Expect resistance. All writers experience opposition.
The first draft is you telling yourself the story. Revision is taking out all the parts of that draft that are not the story.
Write with the door closed (the story belongs to you). Rewrite with the door open (the story belongs to readers).
Don’t stop working just because it is hard; work when you don’t feel like it.
Drugs and alcohol should not be necessary to tap into creativity. If you’ve been relying on substances, there is a way out: own your issues and get on the road to recovery.
You can come to the blank page for many reasons, but never approach the blank page lightly.
As a little bonus treat, I’m including the comic version of a story Stephen King shared in his book by Gavin Aun Than (Check out the original article here).
Isn’t Stephen King great? I love his no nonsense approach to writing and life. He owns his crap and expects you to do the same. Otherwise, you’ll get in your own way. I encourage you to take at least one thing you learned, make it into a goal, and apply it.
Feel free to share your writing goal with us in the comments below so we can support you.
Now go free the writer!