I was reading Stephen King’s On Writing and he wrote something that at first enraged me, “Let me repeat my basic premise: if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one. If you’re good and want to be great… fuhgeddaboudit.” To start with, that’s pandering; everyone reading a book on writing already thinks they are a good writer. I am still offended by that. But at first, I thought he was totally wrong that a bad writer could never become a good writer. I give you as evidence myself.
Now I’m not actually a good writer. I have my moments. But I’m a competent writer, and King states earlier in the book that a competent writer can be made into a good writer. And as our friend Aristotle would tell you, that means that King is saying a bad writer can’t be made into a good writer. Or maybe not. The truth is the book is self-indulgent at times. Those two sentences are good examples. What does “no one can help you” mean? Does he mean you have to do it yourself? I really don’t know. Nor do I really care. My question is whether I might not be a good example of someone who learned how to write.
Becoming a Writer
For the longest time, I just didn’t write. I was in all the idiot English classes in grammar and primary school. In college English, I barely escaped with a C-. If I learned to write, it was quite suddenly. In order to graduate college, I had to take an upper-division writing class. I took the same instructor who had given me the C-. I liked the guy, even if, as a teacher, he was kind of a jerk. Anyway, the first assignment was to write a five page analysis of a single comic strip.
I picked a Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin was complaining to Hobbes about how disappointing the future was. “Where are the jet-packs?!” And that’s when I got it. Writing was just thinking on the page. You were just telling a story. I got an A- on it, because my teacher was incapable of giving anyone an A on their first paper. But more important, I loved the process. Of course, I had always loved telling stories.
I remember when I was in the fifth grade, we did a unit on tall tales. And everyone had to stand up in class and tell everyone a tall tale of their liking. Everyone picked one of the stories we had studied. I, as usual, was not prepared. As I got up, I didn’t really know which of the many stories I was going to tell. But in the time it took me to walk to the front of the class, it occurred to me that James and the Giant Peach was, in fact, a tall tale. And I wasted ten minutes of the class’ time recounting the entire novel.
Becoming a Good Writer
So maybe I am hardwired to tell stories. And maybe other people aren’t. But that Calvin and Hobbes essay wasn’t that different from my fifth grade triumph — except that in my last year of college I had something original to say.
Just the same, maybe there is something that changed. In the couple of years before, I started reading — a lot. It was mostly 19th century British literature — especially the women: Austen, Eliot, the Brontës. Reading is critical to learning to write. So I guess ultimately, I both agree and disagree with King. If you don’t love communicating — telling stories made-up or true — you will never learn to write. But if you care, can become quite a good writer — if you work on it. You much care to be able to do the work.