So in case you missed it, I’m working on a project to read through ten popular books on creative writing to learn whether and how they talk about the role of research in the creative writing process.
The books I chose came from a list on Goodreads. On Writing by Stephen King is pretty consistently at the top of that list which is no surprise, considering King’s massive popularity. What aspiring writer wouldn’t want to know what one of the most successful authors of all time (if not THE most successful author) has to say about his craft?
Personally, I would describe myself as a casual Stephen King fan. I’ve read a few of his books here and there and sometimes return to my old favorites (The Stand, The Drawing of the Three). This was my first time returning to On Writing since first reading it as a teenager. I had no memory of whether King addresses the role of research at all. I did, however, remember the thing about adverbs.
Below are some thoughts.
Thoughts of a young writer
I originally read On Writing when I was about fifteen and madly in love with Eddie Dean, a character from King’s Dark Tower series. I was also pretty confident in my developing talent as a fiction writer and convinced I would one day be a bestselling author (spoiler alert: hasn’t happened). I was eager for King’s advice. I wanted reassurance that I was on the right path. That I was doing the right thing. I imagine that’s how a lot of people approach this book and others like it.
On Writing was not what I was expecting. Back then, I had difficulty finding value in the first half of the book, which is a memoir that gives context to King’s life as a writer. When I finally got to the writing advice portion of the book, I was disappointed by King’s fussiness about grammar and alarmed by my inability to produce thousands of words a day like he did. To me, On Writing was more of a horror story than anything I had read by him up to that point.
I understand now that at that age I had not yet developed the critical eye needed to recognize that all writing advice should be taken with a grain of salt. King basically says as much early on and reiterates the point in a few places throughout the book but for some reason this didn’t register with my younger self. Being older and reading with that in mind made the experience much more enjoyable this time around.
The writing routine of a successful author
King spends some time talking about his writing routine which, at the time the book was written, consisted of sitting down in the morning, writing a few thousand words, and then spending the rest of the day answering letters and reading books. This seems pretty standard for someone who writes for a living and is successful enough to be able to support himself and his family with the work he does. Obviously it worked well for him.
But as cool as it is to learn about the writing routine of a bestselling author, the more interesting stuff for me is when King talks about how he wrote Carrie, his first novel, while basically locked in the laundry room with his typewriter balanced on his knees because that was the only place in the house he could get away from his small, rowdy children. This isn’t something he spends a lot of time on. It’s really more a brief mention here and there. But it’s nice to know that, like a lot of writers, he too once had to fit his writing in around job and parenting responsibilities. It’s also nice that when he does talk about it, he takes the time to give credit to Tabitha King* for the role she played in all this, both her contributions to the creative process and in putting in extra work so that he would have the time and space to do his writing back then.
If you only know one thing about On Writing, it’s probably the thing about the adverbs. (If you know two things, the second thing is probably that in order to write a lot, you need to read a lot: see below.)
If you don’t know the thing about adverbs, then suffice to say: Mr. King is not a fan. While I don’t necessarily agree with his feelings on the subject, his rather impassioned rant against adverbs alone is worth the price of admission for this book. Trust me.
You are writing a novel, not a research paper
So it turns out that (spoiler alert) King is one of the only writers on my list who talks about research directly. In fact, he devotes a whole page and a half to the topic and if that doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that the best you can hope for from most of the other books are allusions at best.
What’s interesting about this section of the book is that King doesn’t talk so much about how he does research but rather when in the writing process he feels research is most appropriate…which apparently is never, if you can possibly help it. Throughout the book, King advocates strongly for writing with the door closed, at least in the early stages. Not doing research is a way of keeping the door closed. It’s only when he starts sharing his work with others and they spot mistakes that he feels research might be needed. In other words, research is to fix mistakes you’ve already made, not to avoid making them in the first place.
As a librarian and researcher, part of me can’t help but feel very WTF about this stance. To me, this is like the student who always comes up to the reference desk and says, “I already wrote the paper, I just need some sources to cite so the professor won’t take points off my grade.” (Which is a thing that happens a lot. Ask any librarian who’s ever sat at a reference desk. Go ahead. I’ll wait.)
On the other hand, I think I get what King is saying. Actually, this reminds me a lot of the Great Debate over whether it’s necessary to outline a story before you write it. Some writers are huge advocates of having a detailed map of where the story is going before they sit down to write. Others feel like outlines ruin the magic and creativity of writing, especially in the initial stages. Still others use outlining as a form of procrastination. It could be the same with research.
To write a lot, you need to read a lot
This is a theme that’s going to come up a lot in the books on this list: reading a lot as a way to study the craft of writing. King is a big advocate of this, saying that in his own experience, imitation came before creation.
I said before that King devotes a page and a half of his book to the topic of research. But in reading this book and others which share similar ideas about the importance of reading to the writing process, I’ve had to ask myself if reading in order to study the craft of writing also counts as a form of research, albeit different from the type of research I wanted to learn about when I started this project. I think it does and I’ll explain why in more detail in a future post.
So that’s On Writing. We’re going in order here, so next up: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
*I almost wrote “his wife,” then I remembered .