Every week I read at least one book during my commute to San Francisco while I'm riding BART. Since I'm doing all that reading, and I love writing about what I read, I'm starting a new feature here on my blog where I'll write up little informal reviews of the books that I read, focusing on what I liked about each book and the lessons I learned from it. I'm excited to kick off this series with one of the most amazing books ever written, by one of my favorite writers of all time!
Stephen King's On Writing is one of the greatest books I've ever read. It's a beautiful, wise, and humbling guide to writing and to living an authentic life. It's one of those books that I'll be reading again and again throughout my life, and it gave me the ass-kicking I needed to get my head straight about how I approach writing.
The first part of the book is King's own autobiography. I rarely expect a book on writing to contain an autobiography of the author, and it was hard at first to understand why an autobiography might belong in a book on writing, but when I finished the first half of the book, I got it. One of the (not-so-great) things I've noticed about myself is that when I read the autobiographies (or biographies) of great people, I'm often fishing for habits or personas to adopt as my own, thinking that maybe it's the things that they do that make them great. When I finished reading King's autobiographical notes, I walked away not with a list of habits or personas to adopt, but a courage and determination to be myself, to dictate for myself who *I* am as a writer. I got a well-deserved (and much-needed) ass-kicking, I felt inspired, I felt strengthened, and I felt determined to pave my own way, to stay true and sincere to what matters to me in life, and to let my writing come straight from my heart. That's one of the things that makes this book so brilliant and great: it cuts through all the bullshit usually associated with writing, and speaks directly to the reader's heart, encouraging the reader to be nothing less than their true and authentic self.
The latter half of the book walks through King's advice on writing - what to do, what not to do, how to structure your writing, and how to cut bullshit out of your approach to writing. There are several things that really stuck with me after reading. The first is to be disciplined when you write. King forces himself to write 2,000 words every day (even on weekends and holidays), regardless of whether he feels like writing or has any inspiration. This inspired me - I've been requiring myself to write 1,000 words each day since I began my book earlier this year, but I know that I can up my daily word count to 2,000 and be even more productive.
The second thing I took away was to always tell the truth in my writing. When King advises that, I don't think he's saying "don't lie", because that would exclude many people from writing fiction. Rather, I think he's advising the reader to tell the truth about the world they are writing about, to tell the truth about the story they see in their minds when they are writing. This is a really powerful lesson, and it's one that I'm going to try to learn and remember every day when I sit down to write. It's what will help me cut the bullshit out of my writing, what will prevent me from falling into traps and patterns like "oh, the reader may want x, so I'll put that in just in case", or "oh, all the famous writers do this or write like this", or "if I write this the way so-and-so wrote that-one-book, then everyone will love it". From now on, whether I'm writing a novel or a book on software architecture, I'm going to approach it with a strong determination to tell the truth about it.
The third thing that really stuck with me is how much our approach to writing reflects on who we are at a very deep level. King's approach to writing is practical, it's pragmatic, it's real, and it's honest - a very different approach from that of, say, Rilke. Even though Rilke is one of my favorite poets, and his poetry has changed my life in many ways, his Letters to a Young Poet contains probably the worst advice you could ever give a young writer; Rilke wrote the correspondence when he was young, and the letters reflect that self-important, naive, insecure, and somewhat deluded view of writing that is so popular amongst young people and in literary circles. King takes a very different approach: there is no suffering for your "art", there is no magical inspiration from the heavens calling you to write (his description of his muse made me laugh so much), there is nothing special about you as a writer. While the Rilkes of the world have always been running around saying "we are so special and different and misunderstood, and we suffer for our art!", King is telling writers what they really need to hear: get your head out of your ass, be disciplined, and tell the truth. It was a message that I needed to hear, and I wish that I'd read King's book when I was fifteen instead of the advice of the Rilkes of the world.
I was a bit reluctant to write a review of this week's book, because I can't do King's book justice. I can't explain how wonderful it is and how much it will change your life (and kick your ass), because it's just beginning to shape mine. Just read it. I promise you it'll be worth it.
I'm always looking for new books to read on my commute. If you have any recommendations, or would like me to read and review your book, send me an email!