Bad Writers to Good — or at Least Competent

Stephen King - Good WriterI 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.

9 thoughts on “Bad Writers to Good — or at Least Competent

  1. Well it isn’t like he could just say “read a shit ton of good literature and then write as much as you can as often as you can.”

    Because that only took up one sentence. A long sentence yes but still only one.

    • A lot of the book is biographical. And it is a short book. But he fully admits that he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. He compared Shakespeare (I disagree, but you see what he’s getting at) to runway models: just freaks of nature born to be perfect at this one thing they do.

      • So basically he agreed to write a book about writing for reasons unknown and was like “Crap, I don’t know anything about it. Time to fake it.”

        Unlike say with businessmen who assume they know everything because they are good with business.

        • Sounds to me like he was penning a mini-memoir. And anyone who’s worked hard at improving some skill enjoys talking about the process they went through. Or if you solved a problem in your life/job; it’s natural to want to share that with others.

          • Which is probably why I bored the crap out of Frank tonight with my endless discussion of some long dead lawyer he found mildly interesting. This stuff is interesting to me and I like to discuss it.

            We all have things we are passionate about and good at that we like to go on and on and on about.

            • God, I do it with my friends all the time . . . luckily they are patient people, and I sense FM is, too. (But tired, I’m sure!)

              I don’t think we bore people if we’re sharing our passion for a subject. I think what bores people is when blowhards go on and on to prove to how smart they are about a subject. Hearing someone say “I just started this job, and it’s fascinating all the new stuff I never knew went on in industry X” isn’t boring. Hearing someone say “yeah, I’m the best at job Y, and here’s an example of how I proved I was better than some co-worker” — you beg for a meteor to obliterate the planet.

        • I was thinking about that. And I think King writes books for the same reason I write this blog. He just loves writing.

          I think it is easiest to see with musicians. When you first learn an instrument, it is hard — and painful. But once you master it, you just want to do it all the time.

          Oh, have you seen this:


          Stephen King, rhythm guitar
          Matt Groening, cowbell
          Dave Barry, co-lead guitar
          Amy Tan, Remainderette
          Scott Turow, vocals
          Mitch Albom, keyboards
          Ridley Pearson, bass
          Greg Iles, co-lead guitar
          Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Remainderette
          Roy Blount, Jr, vocals
          James McBride, sax

          They aren’t bad. And they’ve been playing together for years. It’s not all of them. I don’t think Scott Turow is a regular. But King, Tan, and Barry are. And what I like about them is that they don’t make a big deal about it. They’re just having fun. They didn’t release an pitch-corrected CDs or anything. They did, however, write a book about it, Mid-life Confidential: The Rock Bottom Remainders Tour America with Three Chords and an Attitude.

  2. I know I was terrible and got better through reading & practice. But maybe he’s talking about crafting fiction, which is different than just creating decent sentences. Fiction really is something I don’t feel I can ever “get.” And King’s clearly a whiz at it. Even his earlier books, which had much shallower characterizations, had hooky, compelling plots. Woman terrorized by crazy dog while trapped in car. It’s like he could come up with that stuff without even trying. And later he worked on improving other aspects of his writing.

    One of my favorite bits of writing advice was by George RR Martin: start with short stories. I don’t know if that works or not! But it’s encouraging. If you have been frustrated trying to write at novel length, short stories can be a less time-intensive way of honing your skills. And any good teacher/trainer knows, you never discourage people from trying. Even if you don’t think someone can do something, you help them believe they can. And sometimes the people who have the least “knack” for a skill end up being the best at it. Precisely because they had such a tough time picking it up; they might perceive things differently than the “naturals.”

    • It’s interesting. He says one of his great regrets about his alcoholism is that he has no memory of writing Cujo — which is a novel of his that he’s rather proud of.

      That’s how I wrote my first novel. I just wrote a short story. And I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t let go of those characters.

      But you may be onto something about writing fiction. There is this horrible question that people ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” Well, I probably don’t have very good ideas. King talks about it like it is magic. To me there are just so many ideas. It’s all “what if?” Carrie started with the idea of what if a girl in the high school shower got her first period, had no idea what it was, and was taunted by the other girls. It would never occur to me to take that where King took it, which is what’s so amazing about him.

      But writing a novel really isn’t hard. You write sentences to create paragraphs and then put the paragraphs together to make the novel. And that is pretty much what King says. Anyone can write a novel. Few can write a good one.

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