I’ve just finished Stephen King’s On Writing – A memoir of the craft. As the title suggests, it’s part memoir and part practical advice for aspiring writers. I’ve seen it recommended for new writers many times, and agree that if you’re someone who is toying with the idea of writing a novel, then it’s full of useful information. Stephen King has written over forty novels – he knows what he’s talking about!
I’m yet to attempt to write a novel. I started writing fiction about two years ago, while sitting in a dentist’s waiting room, and have so far written about a hundred short stories (that’s just a guess). I write because I need to. If I don’t write, then it’s because I’m too tired most of the time, but I still need to – and should. Stephen King is very firm on this point – a writer should write. A writer needs to find a solitary place with a desk, and at the same time each day, sit at that desk and not move until they’ve done at least one thousand words.
I often have ideas for stories at work, while there are no customers, or just after something strange or funny has happened, but mostly I’ve forgotten them by the time I get home. Any occupation which brings you into contact with the public, is bound to result in bizarre conversations or amusing mishaps. This week, I went to investigate the source of a thudding noise, to find a tiny elderly woman about to disappear under a stack of knitting patterns. Her walking stick was trapped inside a folder and its contents were bursting out all over the place, as she wrestled with a big pile of these heavy, green folders. “Why didn’t you shout ‘help!’?” I asked her. British reserve, I suppose. Anyway, that moment will pop up in story one day, possibly just the feeling of it – the way that embarrassment prevents you asking for help when you need it – or perhaps just as physical comedy. I love a bit of slapstick.
I enjoyed the ‘CV’ part of On Writing most of all. Stephen King is full of anecdotes, but there was a sense of struggle and sadness there too. I was particularly intrigued by one story. As a boy, Stephen had to endure having his eardrums perforated with a needle, during weekly visits to a specialist. This was extremely painful, and, although the way he describes it is amusing, was obviously traumatic. Roald Dahl’s memoirs also include stories of painful and shocking encounters with doctors; especially having his tonsils removed without anaesthetic. It made me wonder about the incidents which shape us, and if you’re a writer, how they crop up in your work.
The other thing you have to do, if you’re a writer, is read.
As a child, I lived in a virtually bookless house. I owned Little Women and the complete collection of Narnia stories. When I reached the end of the last page of ‘The Last Battle’, I would start again at the beginning of ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ and read them all the way through again. This reading cycle was interspersed with trips to the library and, of course, the books we were made to read at school.
At middle school, I remember the shame of bursting into tears in front of the whole class, while reading Kes, by Barry Hines. I’ve never been able to read it since, though obviously need to as it touched a very painful nerve. By this time, I’d read all of the children’s books I considered worthy of my attention at the library; Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Mallory Towers and Noel Streatfield’s books about girls studying to be ballerinas were my favourites. These were pure escapism for someone growing up deprived of any pleasure, beauty or culture, in a grim industrial town.
When I was eleven, downstairs, in the living room of my home, was a bookshelf containing about a dozen adult books – mostly Reader’s Digest collections, which seemed very boring. Nestled amongst them was Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’. I was not under any circumstances allowed to read this book, my mum said. And so, every time she left me alone to go to the supermarket, or wherever it was she went, I would read a few pages more. I read with my hands shaking and heart pounding: the intentional suspense of the novel, mingled with my fear of being caught reading it. When I reached the part where the woman in room 237 gets out of the bathtub – I peed my pants. If the wet patch next to the bookcase gave me away, I can’t remember, but I had to wait until my teens to finish it.