“Rereading Stephen King on the Eve of my MFA” by Steph Grossman

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.

By the time my Panera Bread sweetheart pulled up, I’d decided I wanted to read more of what King had to say about writing. About publishing. About genre and literariness. About what he had to say concerning anything, really.

I was lucky. He’d already written an entire book on those things: On Writing.

The next day, Tuesday, I begged my dad to take me to Barnes & Noble once he came home from work. I had the less than idyllic experience of growing up on a small cul-de-sac located right off a highway, so walking or riding a bike to the bookstore was impossible. My dad relented. He was starting to get used to my sudden demands for book-buying sprees each spring. Something about the springtime, maybe the damp winds, maybe the violent downpours, maybe the flowers blooming in misty air, hydrated my imagination. It still does. Some years, at least.

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.

Once I allowed myself to get going that Wednesday during the thunderstorm, I was ecstatic to find that On Writing had not one, but three forewords from King, the second of which contained the word “bullshit”—as in, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.”

I was all fucking in.

One of the first things I remember about the experience was learning that King’s one exception to his rule that all writing books (including his own) are bullshit is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Part of the reason he defers to this book—and demands that all aspiring writers read it—is its streamlined approach to grammar and good writing. (In the years to come, I’d win a $25 Barnes & Noble gift card for a writing contest, and I would go on to use the money to buy an illustrated version of The Elements of Style that still sits, unread, on my shelf.)

In On Writing, King makes an openly reluctant attempt to cover the basics for a few chapters, demanding that we:

  • Avoid passive voice. (I think we all know this one.)
  • Avoid adverbs—the -ly words.
  • For dialogue attribution, just use “said.” Use descriptions before and after the dialogue, as well as the dialogue itself, to emphasize emotion.
  • Don’t use a thesaurus. Read more instead. That way, your vocabulary is always building.
  • For possessives, always use ‘s, unless you’re putting a possessive on something that’s already plural. Names of individual people and things that end in s are still singular nouns. A person named Hans Williams is one person, so you’d say Hans Williams’s bike, not Hans Williams’ bike.

Other things I remember from that formative first read of On Writing: laughing way too hard at King referring to high school as a “textbook loonybin;” finding out about his grueling writing schedule; and learning about the importance of literary magazine submissions.

According to On Writing, King averages 2,000 words a day, preferably in the morning so that the rest of the day can be used for walks, reading, family time, and watching sports. His reasoning for this is that he’s got to show up every day so that the muse (who he memorably describes as an overweight, cigar-smoking middle-aged man) knows where to find him. When I got to this part of On Writing, I thought, “2,000 words a day? That’s like four pages, right? Piece of cake.” I pictured myself sitting outside in my backyard at sunset every day, scratching out novel drafts on legal pads with a No. 2 pencil. But I soon discovered it’s not so easy to do 2,000 words a day—or any number of words a day—when you have other obligations like schoolwork or a full-time job.

As for his advice on literary magazines, King’s first personal rejection came from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. It was pretty stark. It said, “Don’t staple manuscripts. Loose pages + paper clip = correct way to submit copy.” Before I read On Writing, I had no idea what a literary magazine even was. In school, we’d focused on novels. Short story reading assignments were rare. And my family members, none of whom write, weren’t exactly in the know about lit mags either. Still, after finding out about the paper clip mandate, I went to Staples and bought a box of those zebra-colored ones that were so popular in the early aughts. It was kind of a pointless purchase though, because I wouldn’t start submitting to magazines until after 2011 anyway—and by then, most places had online submission systems. The few times I have submitted physical manuscripts, I’ve used a normal (i.e. non-zebra) paper clip.

In On Writing, there’s one bit of “homework” King assigns: He asks readers to write a story about an ex-wife who has escaped from prison and is now stalking her husband. It’s supposed to be an exercise in narration, and King invites readers to send him their drafts at stephenking.com. I tried my hand at it that year (and still cringe at the memory of making the husband bludgeon his homicidal wife to death with a dictionary), but when I went to King’s website so I could send it to him, I found this disclaimer on the FAQ page: “Sorry, but we are no longer accepting submissions for the writing exercise given in On Writing. We have asked that the offer to make submissions through the website be deleted from future printings. When he came up with that idea, Stephen wasn’t thinking about the fact that someone would months or years later read his offer and want to participate.”

In truth, my favorite parts of On Writing weren’t the writing tips and tricks, but the personal stories King shares. Especially the ones about his own formation as a young writer. About how he went from little Stevie King to the Stephen King. About how he wrote Carrie in the sweaty laundry room of his double-wide trailer home, then dumped the manuscript in the trash. About how his wife Tabby fished it out and told him he had something special there, and how when he got the call that paperback rights for Carrie had sold for $400,000, he had no idea what to do with himself so he went out and bought Tabby a hairdryer.

Another story that stayed with me: the one about mouthwash. In his chapter on struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, King says his ultimate low point was swallowing Scope to get high. Since then, with every bottle of mouthwash I see, every swig of the stuff I gargle and spit out, I think of Stephen King.

As a teenager, I was often surrounded by peers, family members, and even teachers who romanticized drugs and alcohol in relation to creative genius. For much of King’s early life it seems he too bought into that thinking. But then he wrote Misery and realized that, just as Annie Wilkes had taken Paul Sheldon hostage, coke had taken him hostage. He decided to quit for himself and for his family, even if that meant not being able to write anymore.

He soon found, though, that of course he could still write—if anything, writing was what kept him going in the dark days of detox.

Luckily I don’t seem to have a predisposition to addiction, and I might have already been the type of kid who would grow up to steer clear of hard drugs anyway, but King’s insistence that substances aren’t necessary in order to write well stuck: “The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. The four twentieth-century writers whose work is most responsible for it are probably Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and the poet Dylan Thomas. They are the writers who largely formed our vision of an existential English-speaking wasteland where people have been cut off from one another and live in an atmosphere of emotional strangulation and despair. … Any claims that drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.”

I have no idea if the snowplow driver part is actually true or if it’s just a tall-tale King likes to tell in order to make a point. But either way, this part of On Writing had an especially lasting impact on me, an almost-seventeen-year-old kid figuring out my identity.

Coming back to On Writing

Thirteen years later, after majoring in English and working at publishing houses in New York City, I decided to apply to creative writing MFA programs so I could get the time and space to focus on my own stuff. I ended up with a fully-funded offer at Texas State University, where the staff includes Tim O’Brien (whose The Things They Carried, King says, is one of the finest books ever written) and Karen Russell (one of my favorite writers, and a self-professed Stephen King fan).

In preparation for making the move from New York to Texas, from spare-time-writer to full-time-writing-student, I went back to On Writing. Back to the book that got me started.

To some, it might sound a little strange for an MFA student to love Stephen King. MFA programs are often stereotyped as being places full of pretension, populated by people who are hostile toward genre writing, popular authors, and anything with the semblance of a plot. To an extent, I guess that can be true, though that hasn’t been my experience at Texas State, nor has it been the experience of anyone else I know who’s attended an MFA lately. I think that’s because MFA programs are changing due to the recent influx of writers who grew up on Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Goosebumps, and Stephen King. In fact, many people I meet in the MFA realm are secret Stephen King fans.

King would be the first to say he’s not a “literary” writer. In On Writing, he categorizes himself as a popular novelist, even jokingly calls himself a “prole.” But I’ve always believed he’s much more complex than that. Coming back to On Writing this time around cemented that belief for me. King cares about literary craft in his own “humble” way (his words, not mine). He only sets out to write character-driven work and says the key to doing so is treating every character as if they feel they are the main character of the story, even when they’re not. He seldom writes with a plot in mind, just with an idea and with characters who are dealing with that idea. The writers he admires, all listed in his multiple suggested reading lists at the end of On Writing, include Tim O’Brien (whom I mentioned earlier), Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon, Mary Karr, Cormac McCarthy, Barbara Kingsolver, and Annie Proulx. His intentions, his style rules, and his tastes are much more in line with literary fiction than one might expect.

When I say “literary fiction,” I mean: for me, fiction exists on a continuum, with realistic fiction (fiction that adheres to the constraints of life as we know it) on one end and speculative fiction (fiction that breaks those boundaries in any number of ways) on the other. “Literary” is a stylistic sensibility, not a genre—an elevated prose style and depth of character that can be applied to realistic fiction, speculative fiction, and everything in between.

Coming back to On Writing as an adult, I couldn’t help but compare it to the idealized version I’d developed in my head over the years. For the most part, the book holds up—aside from King’s strong contempt for television (clearly the current golden age of TV wasn’t upon us yet), several jokes that haven’t aged well, and his many references to floppy disks.

One section that needs updating, though, is the one about landing an agent. This is probably because King had already been out of the unsolicited submission game for a while (Carrie was published in 1974; On Writing was published in 2000). He’s right that any serious author who wants to be traditionally published will need an agent. And he’s right that agents who charge authors for their services are “unscrupulous fucks” (his words, not mine—though I wish they were mine). But in the agent section, King includes a parable about how a writer named Frank—a composite character made up of three promising young writers he knows—gets an agent. Based on what I know from working in publishing, the advice King gives is just wrong.

He applauds Frank for sending a physical query letter to an agent in the mail on special, thick paper (all completely unnecessary today). The sample query letter King provides is also out of touch. It’s very casual, the bulk of it being about having published a few short stories and how much the magazines paid for them (“‘The Lady in the Trunk,’ Kingsnake, Winter 1996 [$25 plus copies]”). There’s a short paragraph at the end of the letter about a novel that Frank is currently working on, but it’s very much an afterthought, with one line of description and no mention of a working title: “It’s a suspense story about a man who gets arrested for a series of murders which occurred in his little town twenty years before.” Then it’s followed with, “The first eighty pages or so are in pretty good shape.”

From what I know, a writer early on in their career should only ever query an agent when their manuscript is finished and polished. The query letter should also be focused on the book itself, providing specific information like title, word count, and genre, as well as a 100-200 word “hook” that touches on the (named) characters, and gets deeper into the story, in the way that jacket copy would. Mentioning prior publications is important, but those mentions belong in an author bio section. Also, a query letter is definitely not the place to share publication payment history (especially since most literary magazines don’t pay writers these days).

Obviously, things have changed a lot since 2000. My hope is that aspiring writers today will know that they should take the query letter template in On Writing with a huge grain of salt.

This recent reread was the first time I’d gone back to On Writing since high school. I did page through it once, about six years ago, when I was twenty-four and in the midst of breaking up with the Panera Bread boyfriend (whom I had been with, steadily, for eight years at that point). I tried to keep reading and writing during the breakup, tried so hard to act like everything was normal, like it wasn’t basically a divorce, but after eight years, it kind of was a divorce. In an effort to inspire myself to write through it all, I opened up On Writing and came across this line: “When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’…I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy…and I stayed married.” I closed the book, my anxiety rising. Had Stephen King had just told me, from the year 2000, that ending my relationship was going to affect my writing?

He was right though. Aside from impassioned journal entries, writing during that time felt impossible. It took me two years to get back on track.

Something I didn’t realize when I was younger but that feels obvious to me now is this: the first time I read On Writing—the catalyst for the onset of my writer puberty—I had been dating the Panera Bread boyfriend for six months. Being in my first serious relationship had been more than just a teenage rite of passage. It had also given me back to myself. What I mean is, I could finally relax and embrace the other parts of my personality that had nothing to do with dating; those other parts of me that had become so hazy and hushed when the hectic pace of real puberty had hit me. From around ages twelve to sixteen, I stopped reading much, and I hardly wrote. Boy-craziness took over. For that span of time, I cared more about whether I was hot (or, god forbid, “just cute”), whether someone “liked me liked me,” and whether we were going to still be talking in a month—which was about the average lifespan of these “relationships.” But with my first serious long-term boyfriend? Well, here was someone who wasn’t going to dump me in the foreseeable future, whom I actually liked, whom I wasn’t getting sick of, whom I could trust to not spread rumors about me once we went past first base, and whom I could hang out with in my basement late at night while we watched movies, played video games, and daydreamed.

That stability made it much easier to start becoming a writer.

I’m not saying people should stay in relationships that aren’t working for them. Clearly, I didn’t. Life is long. Needs change. Desires shift. I think the key takeaway from King’s perspective on relationships, though, is that stability—be it romantic, mental, or physical—is good for actually getting “the work” done. And we all have to accept that there will be times in our lives when that stability will be disrupted (sometimes dramatically) and writing will be more difficult than it already is. We like to romanticize heartache and suffering, tragedy and tumult, and it’s true that drama can be a wonderful creative muse, but it’s a horrible coach. King seems to credit much of his productivity with keeping the ups-and-downs at a minimum. For him, that meant tackling his mental health issues and overcoming drug addiction, and it meant staying married to Tabby.

Speaking of Tabby, this reread reminded me that King’s wife is a writer too. And that King truly admires her work. They met in a poetry workshop at the University of Maine, and in chapter twenty-three, King reprints the poem Tabby wrote for that class—the poem that made him fall in love with her. He also mentions two of her novels (one of which is still unpublished) in his recommended reading lists. Information about Tabby’s publishing career is limited, but I’m fascinated to read something by her, the woman Stephen King seems to owe everything to.

* * *

What was, and still is, the best part about reading Stephen King is his unabashed, intoxicating wonder for fiction. His books (and tweets) aren’t always perfect, but he’s a powerhouse of writerly passion and creativity.

King got his big break writing a novel about a girl with telekinesis and telepathy, but in On Writing, he tells us that writing holds the real telepathy. In a chapter called “What Writing Is” he writes: “My name is Stephen King. I’m writing the first draft of this part at my desk (the one under the eave) on a snowy morning in December 1997. …You are somewhere downstream on the timeline from me. …I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room…except we are together.”

King gave me, a kid he’d never met, permission to be who I was, and to identify as a writer. He encouraged me, from miles away—from years away—to write.

And so, I did.

Steph Grossman’s fiction has appeared in Hobart and Joyland, and her narrative nonfiction has appeared in Paste Magazine. She’s worked in publishing at Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, and JSTOR, and currently lives in the Austin area, where she’s pursuing an MFA at Texas State University. She plays The Sims way too much, and has a cat named Oryx that walks on a leash. Follow Steph on Twitter and Instagram at @stephygrossman.


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