12 December 2011

On Writing

Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.  Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sort of writing as "good" and other sorts as "bad", is fearful behavior.  Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.  No writer is entirely without sin in these matters. All I ask is that you do as well as you can. 

No matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can't lie and say there are no bad writers.  Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.  Some are on-staff at your local newspaper, usually reviewing little-theatre productions or pontificating about the local sports teams.  Some have scribbled their way to homes in the Caribbean, leaving a trail of pulsing adverbs, wooden characters, and vile passive-voice constructions behind them.  Others hold forth at open-mike poetry slams, wearing black turtlenecks and wrinkled khaki pants; they spout doggerel about "my angry lesbian breasts" and "the tilted alley where I cried my mother's name."

Writers form themselves into the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent and human creativity.  At the bottom are the bad ones.  Above them is a group which is slightly smaller but still large and welcoming; these are the competent writers.  They may also be found on the staff of your local newspaper, on the racks at your local bookstore, and at poetry readings on Open Mike Night.  These are folks who somehow understand that although a lesbian may be angry, her breasts will remain breasts.

The next level is much smaller.  These are the really good writers.  Above them -- above almost all of us -- are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws and Eudora Welty.  They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain.

There are two theses, both simple.  The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments.  The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it  is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

from "On Writing" by Stephen King

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