What do a lightbulb and writing have in common?
(It’s not a bad joke, promise.)
For novelist Stephen King, it’s the making of a memoir.
Let me explain.
As I dove into King’s autobiography On Writing, my reading light went out. After rummaging for a 60-watt bulb – the lamp tag’s recommendation – I decided to be bold.
I went with 100.
Moments later, reading about King’s childhood experiment that blew out the electricity in his apartment, I felt shallow. After all, it was just a lamp. Not a wire-coiled magnetized spike plugged into an outlet, otherwise known as the ’Super-Duper Electromagnet.’
I’ll spoil the fun if I share all the details — and it’s his story, not mine – but anecdotes like this are the gateway to King’s memoir. He calls it his ‘CV.’ I call it brilliance for showing how life lessons made him the writer he is today. Showing, not telling, is a cardinal rule of writing well.
And, it’s brilliant because he doesn’t bore us with his entire past. As William Zinsser argues, “Memoir isn’t just a summary of a life; it’s a window into a life. ” If the Cleveland Plain Dealer called it “The best book on writing, ever,” it’s got to do more than yammer dates and details. It needs to tell a story.
Like how the plot for his first best-seller, Carrie, came about as he scrubbed rust stains from a locker room shower stall during a summer janitorial job. Throw in some telekinesis and adolescent cruelty with the backdrop of high school prom, and you’re ready to launch a career.
[Actually, it wasn’t that easy. King would have skipped the whole project, had not his wife dug out his crumpled-up first drafts and convinced him to keep going.]
Years later, King shared the valuable lesson he learned about the writing process itself:
“… 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: 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.”
Now, confession – I’ve never read Carrie, or any other King title. Horror isn’t my thing. Even Pride and Prejudice with Zombies goes beyond my taste.
But when a colleague insisted I read On Writing, I gave in.
And I’m so glad I did, because I had just finished William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.
Even though Zinsser writes non-fiction, the path to producing good writing — whether it informs or horrifies — often looks the same.
For starters, it’s hard.
I don’t know a single writer whose thoughts come out perfectly first try. This post certainly didn’t. It’d be much easier to spill endless words on screen, but no one wants to read an incoherent pottage of lazy sentences. Writing well means re-writing, lest you alienate readers who succumb to TLDR [Too Long, Didn’t Read].
Writing, Zinsser says, is thinking on paper. And while good writers are good thinkers, not all good thinkers are good writers. It doesn’t matter how many brilliant ideas you have if you can’t keep readers engaged. A writer, Zinsser suggests, should “pull them along without them noticing the tug.” Both you and your reader know when a sentence comes out right.
Likewise, good writers read. A lot.
I’ll let King explain:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.”
For those who think they don’t have time to read, King suggests “small sips and long swallows.” Books don’t have to be read in one or two sittings; they can be picked up and put down whenever and wherever reading time can happen. Grocery lines, bus stops…or even, ahem, the throne room.
Along those lines, it seems fitting to conclude with Zinsser’s ‘small sips’ of advice:
“Never say anything you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.”
(Long, obtuse words are great for Balderdash, but not if you want to attract readers)
“Don’t become the prisoner of preconceived plans.”
(If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!)
“Writing is not a contest; the race in writing is not to the swift, but to the original.”
(Fast food provides instant gratification, but can’t compete with a home-cooked meal)
“The adjective that exists solely as a decoration is an indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.” (As King says, “Kill your darlings.”)
“Good writing is like a watch; it should run smoothly and have no extra parts.”
After all, as I once read in a fortune cookie — the pinnacle of pithy parables — good writing is “clear thinking made visible.”
And that’s something to appreciate whether your bulb is 40, 60, or 100.
Magnet not included.