Stephen King was born in 1947 in Portland, Maine, and raised in Maine, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Connecticut. He has authored dozens of novels of horror, suspense, and science fiction, nine collections’ worth of short stories, and five books of nonfiction; many of his novels and stories have been made into films, including Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980), Stand by Me (1986), Misery (1990), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and The Green Mile (1999). While often thought of as a genre writer—someone who writes the kinds of popular stories (like horror or science fiction, in his case) that are not quite considered literary fiction—his work has increasingly been met with critical praise.
“Reading to Write” is taken from King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000). In it, this amazingly prolific writer gives advice about writing that ends up being as much about how to use one’s time as it is about specific recommended activities. As you read, see if you can extract an underlying philosophy of life from King’s essay.
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.
I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.
When I was in the eighth grade, I happened upon a paperback novel by Murray Leinster, a science fiction pulp writer who did most of his work during the forties and fifties, when magazines like Amazing Stories paid a penny a word. I had read other books by Mr. Leinster, enough to know that the quality of his writing was uneven. This particular tale, which was about mining in the asteroid belt, was one of his less successful efforts. Only that’s too kind. It was terrible, actually, a story populated by paper-thin characters and driven by outlandish plot developments. Worst of all (or so it seemed to me at the time), Leinster had fallen in love with the word zestful. Characters watched the approach of ore-bearing asteroids with zestful smiles. Characters sat down to supper aboard their mining ship with zestful anticipation. Near the end of the book, the hero swept the large-breasted, blonde heroine into a zestful embrace. For me, it was the literary equivalent of a smallpox vaccination: I have never, so far as I know, used the word zestful in a novel or a story. God willing, I never will.
Asteroid Miners (which wasn’t the title, but that’s close enough) was an important book in my life as a reader. Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this, Hell, I am doing better than this! What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff?
One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose—one novel like Asteroid Miners (or Valley of the Dolls, Flowers in the Attic, and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few) is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.
Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy—“I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand”—but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing—of being flattened, in fact—is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.
So we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles.
You may find yourself adopting a style you find particularly exciting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradbury—everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hard-boiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine. I wrote stories in my teenage years where all these styles merged, creating a kind of hilarious stew. This sort of stylistic blending is a necessary part of developing one’s own style, but it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? 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. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books—of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution. Of the books I read each year, anywhere from six to a dozen are on tape. As for all the wonderful radio you will be missing, come on—how many times can you listen to Deep Purple sing “Highway Star”?
Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.
Where else can you read? There’s always the treadmill, or whatever you use down at the local health club to get aerobic. I try to spend an hour doing that every day, and I think I’d go mad without a good novel to keep me company. Most exercise facilities (at home as well as outside it) are now equipped with TVs, but TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs. If you feel you must have the news analyst blowhards on CNN while you exercise, or the stock market blowhards on MSNBC, or the sports blowhards on ESPN, it’s time for you to question how serious you really are about becoming a writer. You must be prepared to do some serious turning inward toward the life of the imagination, and that means, I’m afraid, that Geraldo, Keith Olbermann, and Jay Leno must go. Reading takes time, and the glass teat takes too much of it.
Once weaned from the ephemeral craving for TV, most people will find they enjoy the time they spend reading. I’d like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing. And how much of a sacrifice are we talking about here? How many Frasier and ER reruns does it take to make one American life complete? How many Richard Simmons infomercials? How many whiteboy/fatboy Beltway insiders on CNN? Oh man, don’t get me started. Jerry-Springer-Dr.-Dre-Judge-Judy-Jerry-Falwell-Donny-and-Marie, I rest my case.
When my son Owen was seven or so, he fell in love with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, particularly with Clarence Clemons, the band’s burly sax player. Owen decided he wanted to learn to play like Clarence. My wife and I were amused and delighted by this ambition. We were also hopeful, as any parent would be, that our kid would turn out to be talented, perhaps even some sort of prodigy. We got Owen a tenor saxophone for Christmas and lessons with Gordon Bowie, one of the local music men. Then we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
Seven months later I suggested to my wife that it was time to discontinue the sax lessons, if Owen concurred. Owen did, and with palpable relief—he hadn’t wanted to say it himself, especially not after asking for the sax in the first place, but seven months had been long enough for him to realize that, while he might love Clarence Clemons’s big sound, the saxophone was simply not for him—God had not given him that particular talent.
I knew, not because Owen stopped practicing, but because he was practicing only during the periods Mr. Bowie had set for him: half an hour after school four days a week, plus an hour on the weekends. Owen mastered the scales and the notes—nothing wrong with his memory, his lungs, or his eye-hand coordination—but we never heard him taking off, surprising himself with something new, blissing himself out. And as soon as his practice time was over, it was back into the case with the horn, and there it stayed until the next lesson or practice time. What this suggested to me was that when it came to the sax and my son, there was never going to be any real playtime; it was all going to be rehearsal. That’s no good. If there’s no joy in it, it’s just no good. It’s best to go on to some other area, where the deposits of talent may be richer and the fun quotient higher.
Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate—four to six hours a day, every day—will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them; in fact, you may be following such a program already. If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your little heart desires, however, consider it hereby granted by yours truly.
The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.