I recently downloaded a digital edition of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craftafter reading the hardcover more than a decade ago. I planned on skimming my ebook edition, looking for a few pointers, but I was immediately drawn in by Big Steve’s affable style, and I wound up re-reading the book in its entirety.
The first thing On Writing reveals is that King’s easy-going narrative style is the product of a master craftsman. It takes years of relentless effort to make the flow of language sound effortless.
King admits on Page One that most writing books are “filled with bullshit,” with the only exception being Strunk and White‘s The Elements of Style. This may be the best piece of practical writing advice in On Writing. All writers should own a copy of The Elements of Style and treat its words as gospel.
That’s not to say King doesn’t offer plenty of writing advice of his own in On Writing. The book is packed with good advice and interesting anecdotes. My favorite writing tip is a simple editing formula:
“2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%”
Other pearls of writing wisdom include:
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
“Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.”
Is there anything in On Writing to interest non-King fans or aspiring writers? I think so, but then, I’m a diehard King fan.
The lengthy essay about King’s near-fatal accident (he was hit by a van while walking along a Maine country road in June 1999) and his long recovery — with a return to writing at the endpoint — is powerful and insightful. But then, I’m a diehard fan. Did I mention that?
Just in time for the summer swimming season, here’s a story about how I almost drowned in a friend’s pool a few years ago.
“Catch me, Daddy! Catch me!”
“Okay. I’m ready”
I thought I was, too, treading water a couple of feet from the end of the diving board. I lifted my arms up out of the water and my four-year-old daughter jumped.
I caught her okay. But the weight of her pushed me down under the water. I sank until my feet touched bottom. How deep was this pool? Eight feet? Nine? It felt like I was 20,000 leagues under the sea.
My first instinct was to get my daughter up and out of the water. I put my hand up under her butt and lifted her straight up. Some subtle change in pressure told me I had succeeded, her head was above water.
But mine wasn’t.
I tried to kick off the bottom and swim up, but I was still holding my daughter above my head, and I didn’t get very far. I sank back down, tried to walk along the bottom until I got to the edge of the pool. But my feet slipped out from beneath me, and I was getting turned around in the water, disoriented. I couldn’t remember where the edge of the pool was.
Meanwhile, I really needed to take a breath. The feeling in my chest had gone from discomfort to straight up pain. I cursed every cigarette I ever smoked and the diminished lung capacity that came with it. I was in trouble here.
It’s Your Funeral, Fool
I won’t say my life flashed before my eyes, but my death did. I imaged my funeral service where tearful mourners would whisper things like, “he sacrificed himself for his daughter” while in the back room the funeral director (and perhaps a few of my close friends) were having a good laugh.
“He drowned teaching his daughter to swim! Ha! What a tool!”
I couldn’t have it. Panic kicked in along with my survival instinct. Clearly the problem was my daughter — I couldn’t go anywhere as long as I was holding her up. So I pushed her as hard as I could toward where I imagined the edge of the pool was and kicked for the surface.
I broke the surface and exhaled a plume of water and air that would have made a humpback whale proud. I immediately sank back underwater before I had a chance to breathe in. I kicked up toward the surface again. My arms and legs felt like lead. When did they get so heavy? I pumped my arms and legs harder and I broke the surface, taking in a great sucking gasp of air.
I quickly turned to see where my daughter was, and immediately saw my foolishness. She was wearing her inflatable swimmies around her arms, of course; had been the whole time. She bobbed toward the edge of the pool, laughing. She was in no danger, never had been. All my heroics had been for nothing.
I sank under water again, but at least now my brain had some oxygen and I could think clearly. My arms and legs still felt like lead, though. And my chest still hurt. Bad. I half doggy-paddled, half-lunged toward the edge of the pool. It still seemed really far away. I turned over and half-floated, half-backstroked until I felt the edge of the pool bump my head. Then I turned and hung on for dear life.
Near Death, No Problem
“Daddy! Catch me again!”
“Ur…” I said. It wasn’t a conscious word. It was the sound of my lungs filling up again. “Gaa. Ur. Blaa…”
“Yeah,” I sputtered. There was snot running out of my nose, tears streaming from my eyes. How awkward – this was a friend’s pool. “Daddy…needs…a…minute…hon.”
My wife noticed something amiss in my strange slumped over position.
“Rob, you okay?” she called from across the pool.
My entire near-death experience had gone unnoticed. No reason to bring attention to it now. I gave her the thumbs up sign. No problem here.
“Daddy, I want to jump again. Catch me!”
I stalled for a few minutes until my breath was back. The chest pain was gone. My heart was still beating fast, but it wasn’t racing. My arms and legs were tingling, but otherwise felt strong. In fact, in some weird way I had never felt more alive.
“Okay,” I said, pushing out into the deep water again. “I’m ready.”