Haunting Composition

I love the idea of Stephen King teaching high school English. The very image makes me smile.

Before King became a successful author, he taught at Hampden Academy in Hampden, Maine. King was there for two years, finishing up Carrie and writing to support his young family.

Web accounts describe King as a good teacher. I would wager so. After reading his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I picture him as a really strong teacher. He is passionate about reading, writing, and clear communication. He takes people seriously – and I believe that he took his students very seriously.

King wrote On Writing over a long stretch of time. The first section was written before a near-death accident when he was hit by a speeding van. The second section came later. He is honest throughout, but after the accident, his tone and perspective are different. King comes across a little wiser, a little more humble, and even more aware. He has grown and is a grown-up in the best sense of the word.

On Writing is memoir and guide. The autobiographical section is a frank account of his childhood. King grew up in tough circumstances. They were poor and had limited choices. His mom raised him and his brother with little money. King neither sugarcoats or romanticizes it. His eye for detail is amazing throughout – describing his environment and himself. He explains his love of reading, of movies, and of alcohol. He writes less about the years after he “made it” but he does go into depth about his drinking history.

King is candid about his addictions. He is fortunate to have a loving family, an exceptionally smart, caring wife, and healthy instincts to combat the destructive ones. This part of the book would be compelling to anyone interested in addiction.

What engaged me most was his writing about writing. The first course I ever taught was English 102. I was not a good teacher. I tried to engage the students, to make them excited about composition. I was enthusiastic about the readings – even when they were not inspiring – and I read the students’ work with care and attention. What I was not good at was helping them become better writers. King’s book could do this. In the hands of a good English teacher, it could make a real difference.

Reading, King explains, is the foundation for any good writing. He stresses several times that you have to read, read, and read more if you are going to become a good writer. He includes a solid reading list, too, that ranges from Harry Potter to Love and Peace. King reads across the spectrum. I will be adding his suggestions to my Christmas list.

King does not belabor grammar. He describes it as a tool. Using a tool well is a good step toward success. Sometimes, though, you have to hammer a nail with a hard object when a hammer just won’t do.

He focuses on intentionality. Knowing what one wants to say is essential to good writing. When teaching, he would circle back to his students’ intent. Say it and write it to make it clear. That practice aligns with his admiration for Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I am not a massive fan, but I subscribe to their advice about eliminating unnecessary words. King is a master at this. I can picture him editing his students’ papers, trimming and making them concise. He provides an example of a marked up draft in the book.

King has suggestions for practical matters. Reading On Writing gives a good sense of King’s creative process. Few of us will follow it, but it works for him. He describes his routine and explains how and why he writes. He writes because that is what he is supposed to do. Few of us have so clear an understanding of ourselves.

The writing throughout is direct. King calls is telepathy – from his mind to the readers. He does this very well. He also does it with few adverbs. Turns out that King hates adverbs. Who knew? We all have our idiosyncrasies. The talented can make us laugh about them.

King spells out his “rules” with humor and humility. Now that I have spent decades in education and have listened to many faculty explain their teaching, I think that King would slot in well. His classes would fill – with or without the reputation – and his students’ writing would improve. If I were to teach writing again, I would assign King’s book in a heartbeat.

On Writing may be hard to categorize, but it most definitely should be among Steven King’s best sellers. I hope, too, that it is finding its way to high schools and college writing courses.

David Potash

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