My mom used to read Stephen King’s horror stories, and I already knew who he was by the time I was learning to read sentences like, “The boys run. The girls see the boys.” I remember one evening when my dad was working second shift and my mom called me into the living room to watch The Creep Show with her on HBO. When “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” came on, she told me, “Look, Tony. That’s Stephen King.” I thought that he looked kinda funny.
A few years later, I had not only learned how to read, but I loved reading. What’s more, my third grade teacher was giving our class regular creative writing assignments. I enjoyed these assignments so much that I started writing my own stories.
On one particular evening, my dad called me into the dining room and had me sit at the table, my mom seated at his left. He held up several pages of sloppy third-grader handwriting torn from a yellow legal pad. “What is this all about?” he asked. I had left the story on the table, and he and Mom had read it. This particular masterpiece was my first attempt at writing horror. It was about a deformed monster who lived in the woods and killed people with a knife that some hunter had forgotten. I was picturing my dad’s military issue bolt knife when I wrote it.
I endured Dad’s lecture about how sick and wrong it was to write stories about violence and murder, and then after he left me ashamed and crying, my mom said to me, “You write like Stephen King.” I didn’t realize it until much later, but she had said it with pride and meant it as a compliment.
Years later, that I actually began reading my first Stephen King book. It was The Shining, a birthday gift from my best friend Eric. From the beginning of the book I was fascinated by the way small details made the characters so believable. It felt like King understood the things about people that we prefer to keep hidden. I never got to finish the book, though. My dad came into my room and confiscated it, handing me a Bible in its place.
My next attempt was ‘Salem’s Lot, which I had the good sense to read in secret. It is, to this day, the only story I’ve ever read about vampires that actually scared me. As with just about every Stephen King story I’ve ever read, I was drawn in by the characters and the way he wrote. Everything seemed real and believable, even though I know vampires aren’t real. (They’re not, are they?)
After that, I read as much King as I could. I got his short story collections, The Stand, The Eyes of the Dragon, and several others. I regret that it took me a while to start The Dark Tower books. Friends had been telling me for years, “You’ve got to read this. You’ve got to read this.” Dusty Old West stories had never interested me, so I was surprised when the series changed my life forever, ruining all other books for me.
But it’s more than just Stephen King’s books that I admire. I just finished rereading On Writing. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may remember me telling my story of how I stopped writing (and started again). One of the things that got me writing again was reading On Writing.
The book is as much an autobiography (though he denies it in one of the forewords) as it is a manual for writing. The first part talks about how King began, going from his first stories as a child all the way up to establishing his career as a writer, and then he ends shortly after he talks about breaking his ties with substance abuse. The part about him quitting drinking was a bit of a surprise to me. I had just figured that all artists (writers included) were tortured addicts who needed the sauce to fuel their creativity. It turns out that Stephen King quit all of it, and it doesn’t seem to have affected his creativity.
There are plenty of fascinating anecdotes and useful tips that can guide an aspiring writer throughout the later chapters of On Writing. Up until this most recent read of it, I had forgotten how many lessons I had taken from the book before. King covers everything from when and where to write, how story ideas come to him, editing, and even how to break into the business. (This latter part predates the rise of social media, but the principles are still the same.) One of the best bits of advice (in my opinion) is on editing: get rid of unnecessary words, and try to cut your first draft down by 10%. Also, another great bit of advice is read a lot and write a lot. I repeat that advice to any poor sucker who thinks I know anything about writing, and now I remember where I got it.
In the last part of On Writing, King talks about his brush with death when he was struck by a van. He also wrote the van incident into a scene in the last book of The Dark Tower.
Oh, right. Did I mention, he made himself a character in one of his own books . . . and it wasn’t terrible. Actually, it was genius! When I saw that he put himself into Song of Susannah, and again in The Dark Tower, I thought, “This is going to be ridiculous. Authors shouldn’t write about themselves as characters!” But when I saw how he pulled it off, I was impressed. In both books, King makes fun of himself, depicting himself as a bumbling, cowardly fool. As the author, he shows no ego about being the creator of his fictional universe; he is merely the one who discovered a story that was already there. In On Writing he makes it clear that that’s how he feels about all of his stories.
There’s a lot about Stephen King for a person–especially a writer–to look up to. Whether it’s his talent and success as an author, or his strength to take back his life from booze and drugs, or simply that he survived getting hit by a van and then came back to write more amazing stories–Stephen King is pretty much my writer hero, and I want to be him when I grow up.