In today’s New Voices, we’re excited to share with you this essay from Steph Grossman, “Rereading Stephen King on the Eve of My MFA.” Steph, an MFA student at Texas State University, reflects on the valuable experience of reading King’s On Writing for the first time, during a period she calls her “writer puberty.”
The night I got On Writing, I didn’t let myself read it. I didn’t even flip through. Instead, I made myself do my chemistry and history homework, and wait. Maybe I waited because I knew it was going to change everything for me.
I remember the moment I began going through writer puberty.
It was one of those humid April days in the suburbs of New York that make your forearm creases sticky. A spring thunderstorm had just begun, and I was on my bed with my legs crossed under me, my back slouched forward, and Stephen King’s On Writing open in my lap. It was a Wednesday, I was almost seventeen, and I was reading in a young, carefree way that I don’t think I’m capable of anymore.
Earlier that week, on Monday, my English teacher had passed out paperback copies of King’s novella collection, Different Seasons, so we could read “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” the story that the acclaimed film The Shawshank Redemption is based on. It was one of the few times in high school that I’d been assigned to read something contemporary and commercial. Perhaps it was even one of the few times I’d been assigned to read something by a living author. Apparently being in honors English meant we deserved the fun stuff.
I was excited, of course, for those reasons. And because I already had an on-again off-again life goal to read everything that King had ever written. Family lore had it that one of my aunts had read his entire oeuvre many times over, and I was inspired to uphold this family tradition—though it was something I could only make headway on in the summer, when school was out and far, far away from my consciousness.
At the point that my English teacher handed me Different Seasons, I’d only read Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, Skeleton Crew (“The Mist,” swoon), and It. I had seen both versions of The Shining (the made-for-TV one that King loves, and the Kubrick one that he hates), It (the Tim Curry one), and Stand By Me (the only one). I also had vivid childhood memories of lounging on a king-sized hotel bed with my parents and brother—all of us pooped from a long day at Disney World—watching Pet Sematary through the slots of my fingers. And of watching Dolores Claiborne and eating Oreo O’s cereal one morning while on another family trip. (Clearly my parents were not the censoring type, something I’m forever grateful for.)
That Monday, after being handed Different Seasons, I waited near the front doors of my high school to get a ride home from my first-ever serious boyfriend, whom I’d met through my part-time job at Panera Bread. He was running late, so I decided to page through the book and start at the end, with the afterword.
In a casual, chummy tone—a signature component of King’s writing, but especially his nonfiction—he wrote about the publishing industry’s tortoise-like publication pace, about being warned that writing dark stuff was going to get him typed, and about the difficulty of getting a novella published. He touched on the literary vs. genre debate. He used a footnote. He cursed! A lot.
Somehow, via prose, I felt as if I were being treated like an adult for the first time. King didn’t know me at all, but he used the words “you” and “your,” and so to me, it felt like he’d come to the page with the assumption that I personally was on the inside of things. That I just…got it.
I’d never read anything like it before.