Sit back, if ya like, because I’m going to going off the wall about how great a book On Writing is for prospective, new, and seasoned writers. Stevie, you keep on doing this to us. Cheers mate.
Two summers ago, I watched a video on YouTube where Stevie visited UMass Lowell. Then, I had been on a watch-Stephen-King-interview&readings craze, just like I am sometimes with Jo Rowling. When watching this video, not only did I hear the premiere of a brilliant new short story, I got to know an author, clinging to his every word. His friend, the Dept. of English head, mentioned a recent memoir Stevie published and even read the last paragraphs. I listened carefully to the title of the novel and sought to buy it. I was thoroughly and forever changed by what I read in On Writing.
Just as I clung to his words during that conversation, I read fervently and with great care what Stevie had to say in On Writing. With pen and highlighter (I went through two) in hand, I set to the study of Stevie’s wisdom, what he had to say with regards to composition, doubt, and the making of a writer’s lifestyle. In fact, you can’t go far when flipping through my copy without finding streaks of green or orange highlighter over Stevie’s language. So much is there to find there.
Some particular favorite quotes of mine are:
“Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt” (209). — thank you. Like I’ve said before, doubt is okay, natural, but you can’t let it keep you down for long.
“You should have an agent, and if your work is salable, you will have a moderate amount of trouble finding one. You’ll probably be able to find one even if your work isn’t salable, as long as it shows promise” 238-39). — see! I know there’s a lot to be said about indie/self-publishing, I know some people who have done very well with it, but I prefer the old fashioned way. For me, it’s like an extra pat on the back for doing a good job. We writers do need that outside source of approval.
“And whenever I see a first novel dedicated to a wife (or a husband), I smile and think, There’s someone who knows. Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough” (74). — you spouses, friends, girlfriends/boyfriends of writers, y’all are great. You honestly don’t know where we’d be without you. It may suck when your special writer has shut himself or herself into their space to create, but when they’re ready, they’ll give you all the attention you want. They’ll want some human contact too, trust me.
And these were just three quotes I came upon while flipping at random.
Aside from inspirational anecdotes and advice, Stevie gives us a great instruction manual on the kinds of things writers should have in their toolbox, a compilation of vocabulary and grammar with other components of composition: care of using tenses, verb usage, and the toxicity of adverbs. He tells us how it’s good to mimic other writers we aspire to be like but then find our own voice, our own language and vocabulary. And I’ll say the same to you myself. Mimic to start, then dare to invent yourself.
Other than that, he talks about the drafting process, when it’s prudent to involve outside readers, writing for ‘your ideal reader,’ how practice and persistence will show who you truly are, the caution one should take when in college creative writing classes, and useful tips on cover letters and approaching agents.
For me, whenever I read this, and I find myself looking back on pages at random whenever I need a reassuring boost, I always feel like he’s talking right to me. Like we’re having a beer at a bar like the Inklings did, and we’re sharing our experiences, woes, and ideas. The way he’s written this book makes a slow reader, me, breeze through this novel in a week with time to spare to go back and ponder what you’ve just read. There are many people who will tell you to read a book to help you with your writing ambition, but there are few books worthy of our time, books that really get at the heart of writing and make you understand what you always knew all along about yourself and your talent. So get out and read this book with all the eagerness you would when writing your own story.
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up” (270).