Stephen King came into the world 67 years ago today on September 21, 1947. The former English teacher from Portland, Maine sold his first novel, the classic Carrie, in 1973. After Carrie’s success, he turned to writing full-time. Most recently, his ideas were part of the television series Under the Dome, which is based on a Stephen King novel.
Earlier this month, King spoke with The Atlantic about writing. Focused on King’s recommendations for how to teach writing, interviewer Jessica Lahey anchored her discussion in King’s own memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. She identified the volume as being particularly helpful for her own work teaching students.
When asked how he tells writers which words to keep and which to delete, King gave a practical explanation.
“Always ask the student writer, ‘What do you want to say?’ Every sentence that answers that question is part of the essay or story. Every sentence that does not needs to go. I don’t think it’s the words per se, it’s the sentences. I used to give them a choice, sometimes: either write 400 words on ‘My Mother is Horrible’ or ‘My Mother is Wonderful.’ Make every sentence about your choice. That means leaving your dad and your snotty little brother out of it.”
That kind of straightforward explanation is emblematic of King’s approach to teaching writing. He told Lahey teaching success means getting the students’ attention and then teaching that grammar rules are simple. He employs a motto he said he learned in Alcoholics Anonymous: Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS).
When asked how to encourage students to write without fear of making mistakes, King recommends telling students to write the truth. “The truth is always eloquent,” said King.
Responding to Lahey’s question about whether full-time teachers can also be successful writers, he was discouraging. At a minimum, he claimed finding the energy to do both is difficult.
“Many writers have to teach in order to put bread on the table. But I have no doubt teaching sucks away the creative juices and slows production. ‘Doomed proposition’ is too strong, but it’s hard, Jessica. Even when you have the time, it’s hard to find the old N-R-G.”
Alison Flood, writing in The Guardian, said she enthusiastically read Lahey’s interview with King. She was worried when she got to the question about what words or phrases King particularly dislikes, fearing she had used some. Thankfully, none had entered her writing. King’s annoyances included “text speak” phrases and others.
“‘Some people say,’ or ‘Many believe,’ or ‘The consensus is.’ That kind of lazy attribution makes me want to kick something. Also, IMHO, YOLO, and LOL.”
When asked whether teaching is a craft or an art, King says, “It’s both. The best teachers are artists.”
[Stephen King Image: Marc Andrew Deley/Getty Images]