‘On Writing’ and ‘Why I Write’
In the year 2000, the horror fiction writer Stephen King came out with a different kind of book, a nonfiction book that he entitled, “On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft.” He begins with a series of scenes from his childhood, and explains how he launched his career of writing popular fiction.
King uses a metaphor, that of a toolbox, to describe how he works when he writes. At the bottom of the toolbox lie the fundamentals: appropriate vocabulary, sticking with accepted grammar, the use of active verbs rather than passive, and avoiding adverbs.
The toolbox’s second layer contains distinct styles: light, thin, and airy fluff; or serious and detailed information. Often the reading audience determines an appropriate style. King points out that dense and packed paragraphs are for scholars, but thin, underweighted paragraphs make reading easier.
King offers an opinion. “The paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing.” In other words, he urges writers to write a functional paragraph—one with a topic sentence and a number of supporting sentences—rather than a series of sentences strung together without reason.
Winston Churchill once glared at a dessert, and shouted, “Take away this pudding. It has no theme.”
The toolbox’s third and top layer contains wisdom and good judgment; in other words, selecting the right tool for the job. A hammer will nail down a screw, but a screwdriver works better.
For example, leave out humor, satire, and ridicule when describing a crime or battle scene, and steer clear of a hostile, strident, or even angry tone. Leave that for the zealots and demagogues.
Stephen King advises all want-to-be writers to “Read a lot, and write a lot.” He says to read all kinds, good or even excellent written works, as well as mediocre and rotten, just to gain the experience of knowing what sparkles and what shines dim.
He says that he “reads seventy to eighty books every year, mostly fiction.” Because he writes for several hours every morning, he reads every afternoon.
King remains infatuated with Strunk and White’s small text of 78 pages, “The Elements of Style,” a standard for College Freshman composition classes. Although some writers have jettisoned this classic work, King believes that the list of 21 suggestions at the book’s end points writers in a good direction.
“1. Place yourself in the background. 2. Write in a way that comes naturally. 3. Work from a suitable design. 4. Write with nouns and verbs. 5. Revise and rewrite. 6. Do not overwrite. 7. Do not overstate. And, 21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat. ie. Steer clear of the eccentricities in language.”
Stephen King’s advice to writers holds merit, but not all enjoy his horror fiction. Others may prefer non-fiction: an essay, an opinion column, a history, a memoir, a sketch of an event, or a biography. Yet, King’s tool box remains, for the most part, the same for both fiction and non-fiction writers.
In 1946, a British author named George Orwell wrote an essay that he entitled, “Why I Write.” He gave four reasons: sheer egoism, a desire to seem clever; aesthetic enthusiasm, the beauty in words and phrases; historical impulse, a wish to identify “true facts and store them up for posterity’s use.”
His fourth reason, political purpose, is “a desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”
Orwell wrote in the mid-twentieth century, a time when the democracies of the world were under attack, when totalitarian governments were on the rise, when the outcome of the conflict was unknown.
He said, “The Spanish war and other events in 1936-7 turned the scale. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written against totalitarianism and for a democratic” form of government. “It seems nonsense to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”
Toward the end of the essay, Orwell underscores Strunk and White’s first suggestion. He writes, “And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” In other words, he wants to “place himself in the background.”
Orwell then finishes the essay, with a startling sentence.
“And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives, and humbug generally.”
Orwell believed that he wrote his best pieces when he wrote with a political purpose, when he tried, “to push the world in a certain direction, to alter people’s idea about the proper society,” to suggest a better path for a government and its people to follow. Courageous he was.
Although Stephen King wanted to entertain, and George Orwell wanted to change the way people thought about political issues, yet each relied upon tools from similar toolboxes.
One final thought, writing well requires years of diligent effort. Chaucer said, “Not years enough, in life so short, to learn a craft so long.”
Bill Benson, of Sterling, is a dedicated historian.