The photo to the right was taken during a sweet moment cuddling on the couch during our family vacation.
It was a blissfully low-key, fun-filled week after what seems like months of one crisis after another.
My husband Doug professes that his favorite vacations are all about “reading and eating,” and although I love vacations that take us on far-flung adventures (as recent trips to Guatemala and the Greek Islands attest), I have to admit he’s on to something. And I’m very happy to share that I’ve read some amazing novels this summer.
I just finished a very notable one—LaRose by Louise Erdrich. It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time, but my current read—Barkskins by Annie Proulx—is giving it a serious run for its money.
Suffice to say I’m a prolific reader, so it’s kind of funny that I’ve never read any of the novels of one of our most prolific writers—Stephen King. I have, however, read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
I picked it up expecting to get some good pointers about writing, but I was surprised to find how much good sense King—whose grim visions aren’t always the most cheerful things to encounter on the page—had to offer about life, and how much of what he had to say about the process of writing was also good for other undertakings.
Here are the top five lessons I learned from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
#1 Construct your own toolbox:
King tells the story of the toolbox his grandfather constructed for himself. It was massive—4 levels filled with every tool imaginable—and very heavy.
He writes, “I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscles so you can carry it with you. Instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.”
Just as writing requires skills that King wants aspiring writers to master, living requires a set of skills—not taking things personally, looking for meanings, and taking care of yourself, to name a few—that will expand your life and help you make fewer mistakes. And they’re not things you have to learn entirely on your own, either.
King recommends Strunk and White’s Elements of Style for writers who want to master grammar. For people who want to get better at living I recommend Byron Katie, among others. And you probably have your own mentors.
Whether they’re present in your life or just on your bookshelf, you must recognize their wisdom and get used to identifying the tools they have to offer.
#2 Messes are a part of the process:
We don’t have TV and there’s only one show I watch, when I can get my hands on the DVDs—Project Runway, a program that shows fashion designers competing to make the winning creation by the end of each episode.
I’m one of the least “fashionable” people I know, but I love Project Runway because it spends the bulk of the hour showing the “messiness” of the creative process.
Over half of the show is spent in the workroom, with fabric, trim and assorted notions flying every which way. But somehow (after freaking out a bit) the designers always manage, in the inimitable words of mentor Tim Gunn, to “make it work” and pull together a cohesive outfit.
I’ve seen a number of clients, however, who won’t allow themselves to let the fabric fly. They’re unwilling to disturb their ordered but unfulfilling lives, and no matter what waits for them on the other side of disorder, they’re afraid of creative messes.
Demolishing a house to make room for a new house is messy. Heck, just cleaning a house usually requires some sort of disorder in the process. So recognize that messes are part of the process—an unavoidable part—and lose your fear of wading in and raising some dust.
#3 Do Something:
On Writing is a slim volume and King explains why. “I’ll be brief…the hours we spend talking about writing is…time we don’t spend doing it.”
Why do we tend to spend so much more time thinking or talking about something, rather than doing the thing itself? Are we so afraid of doing the wrong thing that we don’t do anything at all?
The Project Runway designers may not create the most attractive or well-executed garment in the timeframe they have, but it’s always done. Even though many designers doubt themselves and their ability to finish on time, no one has ever sent a naked model down the runway.
I think it helps that they have a finite amount of time to produce a work. I try to establish deadlines for myself, even if it’s what I call the “15-minute sprint”—if I’m feeling particularly blocked and despondent, I’ll set my timer for 15 minutes and write, even if it’s what writer Anne Lamott lovingly refers to as the “shitty first draft.”
Obviously, doing something goes hand in hand with not being afraid to make a mess, though it’s possible a mess isn’t required.
But you’ll never find out what the process does require unless you actually start the process. I guarantee you that doing is a lot easier, once you get started, than just thinking.
#4 Murder your darlings.
Getting something on the page seems to reassure that part of my psyche that says, “You’ll never work in this town again!” Luckily I’ve been working in this town long enough to know that even if I don’t produce something stellar, there will always be more work.
Getting something on the page gives you the way forward. King quotes Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who once said, “Murder your darlings.” Writing the shitty first draft gives you a jumping off point to start negotiations about which line takes a bullet first.
If something’s not working in your life—no matter how attractive it seemed when you took it on—get rid of it. It may seem unpleasant, but that’s simply the way the creative process (and life) works. It seems best to acknowledge this and then get on with it.
#5 Participate in the miracle.
So—what if, after a bit of unpleasantness, the reward for assembling your toolbox, making a mess, getting started and murdering your darlings were nothing short of a miracle? Makes the choice a little clearer, and motivation a little easier to find, right?
In On Writing, King explains how, when a writer hits her target—when she connects with her readers—she delights us much the way we’re delighted when we meet an old friend in a crowd of strangers.
When that happens, King says, “I think writer and reader are participating in a kind of miracle. Maybe that’s drawing it a little strong, but yeah—it’s what I believe.”
Which reminds me of something Albert Einstein once said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
If you get your tools ready, get started, and understand that whatever comes, the important thing is to do something and keep doing something, you’ll have a good shot at seeing the miracle in everything—and seeing the miracle in your own life.
Yeah—that’s what I believe.