Stephen King came to my house and kicked my ass. Yeah, you probably think I mean this in some sort of metaphorical way … as in, his books are so much better than mine they put me to shame. But nope.
Let me backtrack a little. My nights, as you may know, are filled with angst. When the wife and kids are huddled in their beds asleep, I sit frozen on the couch in a state of anxiety, occasionally browsing my phone, reading over old posts to look for typos. I’d like to hit the sheets early so I can get an early start on my chapter, but my stupid brain has other plans. Sometimes, I wander the neighborhood looking for hope, a plan of escape from this life of drudgery. You see, for the past thirty-five years, I have worked as a restauranteur. I didn’t choose it. When I was born, my father planned my life in advance, like a Queen Bee choosing the fates of her workers, so now when my hairdresser asks what I do for a living I have to tell her I make pizza. Last week, we broke our all-time sales record, and I am confident that plenty of Chopped contestants would love to wear my apron. I am basically living the dream, except it has never been *my* dream. To put it bluntly: I do NOT belong in the restaurant business. I don’t care one bit about cooking, inventing new dishes, or handling customers. Gordan Ramsay would say I’ve lost my passion, except I never had any, and … irony of ironies, I wouldn’t even need his advice because we’re raking in the dough, enough dough to live the all-American middle-class lifestyle. The only joy I ever felt from the biz was making the menus and writing the employee handbook, because my only passion is for the written word.
This is when, with my thoughts weighed by my failures, I hear a knock at my door. It was a lot like Poe’s The Raven.
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door—
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
But it wasn’t a raven that showed up that night (or darkness, if we’re to be pedantic) but the face of author Stephen King. You can imagine my surprise and, well, my horror … seeing his distinct face in my doorway.
Now, this really made no sense. King doesn’t know who I am. I’ve never written to him nor given him my address, and I am sure he hasn’t read any of my stuff. And even if he did know me, why in the heck would he be showing up at my house at 2:00 am? You’d think he would have shot me an email or given me a call first. Clearly, I had to be dreaming, hallucinating, or experiencing some sort of clever metaphor …
But I didn’t have time to ponder this Twilight Zone situation, so I greeted my strange guest, did the Greek thing and offered him coffee and cookies. He didn’t partake, only wanting to get down to business, the business of writing. King, or should I call him Steve? was aware of my nightly torments and wanted to hash things out. Sure. OK. So I shared with him my long sob story, about how I’ve wanted to write since I was six but now I’m forty-seven and stuck in a restaurant. I told him how I’d written hundreds of stories since childhood, even showed off my drawer with my old fiction-filled ring-binders. My first full-length novel, I said, I finished in high school, and I have another two books—count them TWO!!!—that I am selling through Amazon, with a third on the way!
Steve couldn’t have looked less impressed. He told me, straight out, “Some people just aren’t cut out for this job.” I was also quite taken aback, when he added, “Bad writers can never learn to be good ones, but decent writers can become better.” What category did I fall into, I wondered?
I tried to defend myself then, telling him about work and family, that I just didn’t have the time to do more. His reply? “How often do you write, Nick?”
The question stunned me and I stammered to give an answer. “Well, sometimes, on a good week, I might get in about eight hours. Other weeks, well, not so much.”
“I write four hours, minimum, EVERY DAY,” he said. “I write on weekends and holidays. I write on my birthday and on Christmas. When I got hit by a truck, most of my bones were broken, and I was transported by helicopter to a different hospital than the one they put me in. I very nearly died. Do you know what I did when I was finally released?”
I knew the answer already, so didn’t bother asking.
He sighed. “You don’t have reasons for failure, Nick, you have excuses. If you want to find success in this business, you’ve just got to put in the work. Writing isn’t about social media. It isn’t in blogging or getting views on YouTube. Writing is in writing.”
As I sat there on the couch, feeling ashamed, reassessing the thousands of hours I’d wasted wondering why I am not as popular as Daniel Greene, or why I could never get more Twitter followers, the apparition of Stephen King started to fade. Was I dreaming? Going mad? No, it was all in his book, On Writing.
While I don’t agree with everything King has to say about fiction (I’ll never agree to not plotting things out in advance) you can’t argue with his results. He’s worth 450 million dollars and he’s published over 60+ novels. Even if a few of those aren’t the greatest works of literature, who cares? It’s far better than what I’ve managed to accomplish, sulking in the night over the two books—count ’em two!!!—that’ve been failing to wow the masses. I needed to break free of this routine.
King started off in worse places, writing in a doublewide trailer, often working at menial tasks like cleaning blood from hospital sheets. His wife worked at Dunkin’ Donuts and they also had two kids, and at one point couldn’t afford a hairdryer. He also produced a stack of books nobody wanted to buy before hitting it big with Carrie, a story he actually tossed in the garbage because he didn’t think it was any good. Alcohol addiction, cocaine addiction, even nearly getting killed by a truck couldn’t keep the man from his keyboard. No excuses. King did the work and made it happen.
I can’t help but feel that King’s book on writing, On Writing, is a kind of vetting process for aspiring writers, a weeding out of the not-so-serious. Too often, wannabes send me emails asking how they, too, can become famous authors, even though I have yet to make it myself. This sorta thing infuriates me. Why in God’s name do people think this job is so easy? Do people email Olympic athletes asking how to win gold medals? I am positive King receives the same kind of inane queries and gets just as annoyed. So, when he says not everyone can succeed in this biz; that you have to put in four to six hours a day, everyday; when he says you’re better off throwing out your TV because things like TV (and now smartphones) are just a distraction; when he says you probably should be reading a book every week; I think he means to discourage the majority who haven’t the faintest idea what it is they are asking to achieve. As for me? I can think of nothing better than writing all afternoon. Challenge accepted.
Stephen King kicked my ass, and it was the ass-whoopin’ I so desperately needed.
I’ve read On Writing twice and listened to the audiobook in addition to that. I may need to listen to it again as motivation.
I was at the 1995 Pike’s Peak Writers Conference and saw Nora Roberts give one of the best writer-motivation speeches I have ever heard. I wish I had a recording of it. Sometimes, you just need to hear those who have made it talk about it to get you going…
I get what you’re saying, but I personally have never had trouble getting myself “going.” I never have writer’s block and I never want to do anything other than write. I’ve also read plenty of motivational-type books, like “The Writer’s Book of Hope,” by Ralph Keyes, for all the good that did me . . .
What I needed was a drill sergeant to kick my ass. Stephen King doesn’t pull any punches in his memoir. He doesn’t coddle you and tell you everything is going to be OK, because there’s a good chance it isn’t. And that’s PRECISELY what I love about him and his book. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear but what you need to hear. I imagine he never told his kids everything they wrote was a masterpiece and thank goodness for that.
The opening line to “On Writing” is “Most books about writing are bullshit,” and, in truth, I think they are. Becoming great at the craft is a lifetime commitment, and very few people are committed enough to make that sacrifice. I am selling my rather profitable business and risking a lifetime of poverty, just to write, so there’s that.