Rachel Totten Keith
If Stephen King can’t get you excited about writing, I don’t think anybody can. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is the perfect antidote for someone who is apprehensive about taking an upper level writing course. King covers just about every facet of the writing process, from using the active voice to developing real dialogue. King’s advice about the active and passive verbs is the most relevant to my writing experience (123-25). While my formal education taught me to write in the active voice, my professional career has conditioned me to adopt a more timid (AKA feminine) tone, using the passive verbs and mild language. This was especially true throughout my career in the military. I recall in one of many specific incidents, I had sent an email regarding some shoddy equipment we had received from another military unit. I reached out to the supply tech in that unit and sent him a professional email stating the problem and how I expected the situation to be rectified. My email was completely professional and appropriate coming from a training manager, such as myself. The recipient of my email, however, felt that my straight forward and concise style of communication was offensive and made it known to others throughout our circles that I was a bitch and bossy. I alerted my supervisor that there might be a complaint on me coming down the pipes and I showed him the email in question, just in case. He shook his head and agreed there was absolutely nothing wrong with the email. This is, of course, a drop in the bucket, and I quickly learned that I must speak and write in a softer tone so that men feel more comfortable working with a woman or having a woman in a position of authority. For example, I also learned men were more likely to follow orders or listen to my ideas if I suggested they did something, rather than told them to do something and if I said “how about this” instead of “we must do this,” no matter the mission at hand. Although I am (recently) retired, I still speak and write passively, so this will be a bit of a struggle for me to break that habit of using the passive verbs and tone. I don’t want to appear timid and acquiescing; I want to sound confident and secure in my capabilities in person and on paper.
One of my favorite aspects about On Writing is King’s prolific use of, ahem, “honest” language. His voice, his style, and his sense of humor really make this book stand out from other how-to-write texts. I enjoyed his statement, “[n]ot a week goes by that I don’t receive at least one pissed-off letter (most weeks there are more) accusing me of being foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic, murderous, frivolous, or downright psychopathic” (p 185). I believe that if you aren’t offending someone, you are not being honest with people because for every opinion or statement you make, there is someone out there that will get offended. You cannot please everyone… unless you’re lying to someone. And with the case of fiction dialogue, if you want your characters to be believable, they must be real in their speech. No one talks as if they’re reading the gawd-damned Bible.
King also says to read and write a lot (145). If King doesn’t make you want to put down this book and start writing now, then you probably will not ever want to write. I love to read and I always wanted to really learn how to write instead of second-guessing myself. I often wonder, “am I writing well enough so that maybe someone could read this without wanting those 3 minutes of their life back?” King says “that writing offers the purest distillation” (103) of telepathy, but I will argue that thanks to blog sites and free-lance (unemployed) journalists, everyone thinks they can write. But, I promise you, the drivel that is passed off as news reporting has never been seen by any copy editor and/or has been reviewed only by the grammar/spell check function prior to publishing. So, now that I have been completely inspired by Mr. King, I started my own blog where I can practice using some of my new tools. My blog can be found at http://rtkeith.org. I am looking forward to this semester!
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000. Paperback.