Those of you who have kept an eye on my Reading List know that I am working my way through Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.” The book is part memoir, part love letter to his wife, and part father-child talk…
…if that father was the recovering alcoholic, back-from-the-front father with the sort of pragmatic juju that says, “Aim your magic at his knees, son,” and whose wisdom is the scare-the-bones-out-of-you sort, because that’s the only kind that’s worth a damn, and because it’s hard to tattoo bones while they’re still in your body. You know, attached.
Oh, yes. The book has also been called “…a master class” on the craft of writing. And that’s what I wanted to talk about.
King opens with a prologue that tells the story of how he came to write the book. Those interested in the whole story can find a copy for themselves, and I certainly encourage any aspiring writer to do so. For our purposes just now, the end of that story is what matters. While in a band with a few other authors, he asks one of them, Amy Tan, a question: what was the one question she wished she had been asked during an interview or by a fan at an event? She replied, “No one ever asks about the language.”
In other words, no one ever asks a “popular” writer about the language; they reserve that sort of stuffiness for the stuffy writers. As King relates the story, the answer gave him “permission” of a sort to go ahead and write an instructional book on the craft of writing (something he had been considering for a while by then). The prologue closes:
“This book is dedicated to Amy Tan, who told me in a very direct and simple way that it’s okay to write it.”
Can I borrow you for an existential moment? Yeah? Good. Lean in here close. Would you ever wait on permission from someone else before writing? Absolutely not. And on a meta-craft level, why would you ever wait on permission from someone else before you thought you had something to say about writing?
Wait, wait, I know what you’re going to say. Not everyone has something worthwhile to say. Not everyone can say it well. Not everyone is able to construct a perspective that will help others. I agree with all of those statements (though they aren’t the point). There are enough gifted writers in the field who are spinning deeper and more profound lessons than I could hope to. Sometimes I think that the addition of my voice to the mix will be the thing to collapse the whole structure, one ant too many on the hill.
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t write this blog thinking that I am moving the masses. I write this blog knowing that I am moving myself. My “instructional” posts here are simply meditations on the craft of writing. For me. They are a venue where I can consider mechanics, tendencies, or language. I write them hoping they are worthwhile for others, and I do my best to write them well. By considering my own writing from the perspective of instruction–forcing myself to answer questions like, “how would I teach that to someone, if I had to?”–I think I am adding tools to my writing toolbox (a metaphor King, himself, uses in his book).
Those who know me well know that I taught a martial art called aikido. Being an instructor was different from just being a student. The burden of instruction made me think about the art in new and different ways. I made new connections, found philosophical through-lines, and came to an understanding that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m sure that my insights were not particularly profound in the grand scheme of things, but they were fresh with my perspective, and they helped me to better learn the art.
The same holds true for writing. Don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing that you should silence the creative voice within you. Look at the tag-line of this blog: Art is in the Doing. You are a writer. Get writing. Don’t let anything stop that, and definitely not some inner-professor struggling to formulate a lesson plan while you’re hammering out a battle scene. But you want to get better, and getting better means working on your writing all the time, thinking about craft. And learning. What is it they say? “You never really know something until you can teach it to someone else.”
You may not have a crowd clamoring for your thoughts. You may not have a classroom of students waiting to learn what you would show them. You may not even have very much to say, yet. In time, you might. But you’ll make connections you might not otherwise, and you’ll find things out about your writing that you might not have realized before.
Oh, one more thing. Don’t pretend that you don’t do this sort of thing already. If you’re a member of any writers’ group, or have been involved in critiquing someone else’s writing, you are doing this very thing already.
I’m just… giving you permission.