Blogging from A-Z – Book review: ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “O.” (I’m blogging the alphabet in April. Read the details at Suzy & Spice here or the Blogging from A-Z page here.)


flanery-dont-know-what-i-thinkI’ve written before about my early-ish love of Stephen King fiction. (I discovered him in 10th grade, when I read his third novel, The Shining.)

In those years, I read a lot of his books, stopping somewhere in the mid-1980s with Misery. (Don’t ask me why I stopped; I guess I just outgrew the horror genre.)

Recently, after a shift in focus on my blog – new purpose, new goals – I was talking to an author friend about writing (now that he has published two successful novels, I refer to him as “my author friend”), and he suggested King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It had been on my To Be Read list for years and, coincidentally, I had just been inquiring online about getting a copy.

This seemed to be the perfect time; I downloaded it.

I forgot what a wicked sense of humor King has. He infused this piece of nonfiction with as much creative juice as he has in any of his bestselling novels. Now I’m not only a fan of his fiction but of his nonfiction.

Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” 1980.

King ought to know about writing; he has sold in excess of 350 million books, including more than 50 novels, at least five works of nonfiction and a couple dozen other collections of fiction (200 short stories among them).

The first section of On Writing is autobiographical, although he points out that it is not an autobiography:

“It is, rather, a kind of curriculum vitae – my attempt to show how one writer was formed.”

He tells tales of boyhood (second son of a single mom moving from place to place, paycheck to paycheck), illness, outdoor adventures with his brother (the poison ivy story is a horror tale in itself), his first attempts at writing, at publishing, his early career as a starving artist supporting a wife and two kids, and more.

To be sure, each author has a unique approach to the craft, but there are basic elements that normally can’t be argued with. (At least if you want to get people to read your work.)

King has his own brand of advice about the art and craft of writing, and it’s hard-won.

He starts with his first attempts at storytelling when he was 6, although this consisted of copying comic-book tales word for word, “sometimes adding my own descriptions where they seemed appropriate.” After reading one of the copied stories, his mother urged him, “I bet you could do better. Write one of your own, Stevie.” He did, and his mother paid him a quarter apiece for them, a dollar total – his first paying gig.

The King household didn’t get television until 1958, when Stevie was 11, and he considers himself fortunate.

“I am, when you stop to think of it, a member of a fairly select group: the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of video bull—-. This might not be important. On the other hand, if you’re just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television’s electric plug-wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far.

“Just an idea.”

King got a lot of his ideas from horror movies – namely, ripoffs of Edgar Allan Poe titles (yes, titles, not the actual stories). The first one, when he was about 14, was his “novel version” of one of those movies.

“I ran off about forty copies of The Pit and the Pendulum, blissfully unaware that I was in violation of every plagiarism and copyright statute in the history of the world.”

It was his first bestseller. By lunchtime the next day, he had sold three dozen copies to his schoolmates. (That the principal made him return everyone’s money did not deter him; come summer vacation, he sold about 40 copies of a new story, an original called The Invasion of the Star-Creatures.)

And then there was the night he got bored while working on his high school newspaper and came up with a rag of his own: The Village Vomit.

“That piece of dimwit humor got me into the only real trouble of my high school career,” he writes. “It also led me to the most useful writing lesson I ever got.” (I’ll let you read the story for yourself.)

King has a softer heart than you might imagine from a horror novelist (evidence: contrition at hurting a schoolteacher’s feelings with a story; sympathy for misfit classmates who were made fun of – the prototypes for Carrie; the tender way he speaks of his wife, Tabitha), but he’s practical in his advice about where good stories come from.

His unique spin goes something like this:

“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”


He illustrates this point with the story of “Happy Stamps,” the genesis of which came from his mother, whose tongue turned the color of S&H Green Stamps (remember those?) after she licked a few books of them. King sent the story to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which promptly rejected it, although the notice arrived with a personal note from the great horror master himself, offering this helpful advice: “Don’t staple manuscripts. Loose pages plus paperclip equal correct way to submit copy.” Lesson learned.

If you’ve read a Stephen King novel (or seen one of the movie adaptations), you know he has a twisted way of looking at the world, right?

In On Writing, he talks about his love of movies. One of the two movie houses in his hometown Lewiston, Maine, showed Disney pictures, Bible epics and musicals when he was a teenager.

“They were boringly wholesome. They were predictable. During The Parent Trap, I kept hoping Hayley Mills would run into Vic Morrow from The Blackboard Jungle. That would have livened things up a little. … I felt that one look at Vic’s switchblade and gimlet gaze would have put Hayley’s piddling domestic problems in some kind of reasonable perspective.”

Perspective, eh? Gotta love him.

Sissy Spacek in "Carrie," 1976.
Sissy Spacek in “Carrie,” 1976.

Crediting his wife with digging the discarded first draft of Carrie out of the trash, King tells of his disbelief at selling the paperback rights to his first really successful piece of fiction.

“You’ve got something here,” Tabby said. “I really think you do.

She was right. Since its first printing in 1974, Carrie has sold millions of copies and spawned three films (including a sequel and a remake), a TV movie and a Broadway musical.

Just before he begins the section on “what writing is,” King talks openly of his alcoholism (including the fact that he was drunk when he gave his mother’s eulogy) and his drug addiction.

Some of his characters came out of an attempt to make sense of his alcoholism (although he didn’t realize it at the time), but that’s as far as it went. He doesn’t claim to have been helped creatively by the substance use; on the contrary, the clarity gained through his characters helped him give up the booze and the drugs.

“The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.”

He says he barely remembers writing Cujo.

“Substance-abusing writers are just substance abusers – common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drug and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bull—-. We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter.”

That sums up Part 1. There is so much to tell about this book, and I’m just getting to the part on “What Writing Is.” It includes the chapter in his life after the 1999 accident in which he was hit by a car. I’m saving those stories for Part 2. Come back in May (after the A-Z challenge is over), and I’ll tell you that tale.


Tomorrow: P is for peace.

Follow me on Twitter: @OakleySuzyT

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Blogging from A-Z – ready or not, here it comes

A2Z-BADGE-000 [2015] - Life is Good
“Who’s Tina?” you ask? I have no idea.

I’m about to start another blogging challenge. This time, instead of seven days, it will be a month long. (Yikes!) For the seven-day challenge I completed in January, I had about three days’ notice before it began, and it was a tough (albeit rewarding) week. This time I’ve had three weeks to prepare – but I’ve also been working on my taxes, starting a business and creating a blog for that (plus trying to get a little sleep – oh, yeah, and working at my day job), so my topic list isn’t as full as I would like it.

This time, the challenge is to blog from A-Z during 26 days in April. (We get Sundays off for good behavior.) Here’s how it’s supposed to play out:

“On April 1, blog about a topic that begins with the letter ‘A.’ April 2 is ‘B,’ April 3 is ‘C,’ and so on. No posts on Sundays and we finish with Z on April 30. You can use a theme for the month or go random – just as long as it matches the letter of the alphabet for the day.”

I chose to “go random.” I just couldn’t think of a theme that would cover all 26 days. Maybe next year. 🙂

I have half of my topics tentatively picked out, but I have slots open in case you want to make suggestions. Here’s what I’ve got so far (subject to change – for instance, Thursday’s is supposed to a book review, and I’m only about halfway finished with the book):

A-Z Blogging Challenge - April 2015 rev03-27-15

So there you have it. Expect a post from me every day in April except Sundays (if I survive the challenge). And if you have a topic you think might be interesting, feel free make a suggestion in the comment area below. You are also welcome to ask me for more information on something I’ve listed on the calendar. Such as, “Fearless? What do you mean by that?” I might even have an answer for you before I actually sit down to write the post. 🙂

The beauty (and maybe the horror) of this is that it will keep me on my toes. The perfectionist in me wanted to have all 26 topics lined out before I started. But I don’t. Not even close. So that is the beauty and the wonder and the lesson. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next 30 days.

So bear with me, people. They don’t call it a challenge for nothin’.

See you tomorrow.

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Weekly Wrap-up – Feb. 7, 2015

Words that came to mind as I read through this week’s posts.

I continue to be inspired by folks I’ve met online via the Your Turn Challenge.

A few of us (two dozen, maybe?) are regulars on the Facebook page that was set up during the challenge, and many of them continue to “ship” every day. Every single day. They have caught the bug!

I’ve been a member of another blogger group for a while, but most of those writers are Southern chicks (whom I love), and, while each one offers a fresh perspective not only on what it means to be a woman living in the South (or a Southern woman living elsewhere) but on what it means to be a part of the human race, I wasn’t expecting this new perspective. For these Southern women and their blogs I’m grateful; they bring me joy and inspiration.

But this new group – this “tribe” from the YT Challenge – was an unexpected source of joy and inspiration, too. These writers inspire me from all over the world, all sorts of backgrounds (writers, musicians, martial artists, glassblowers, teachers, scientists, marketing gurus, attorneys, Renaissance men, feminists, home-schoolers … and some of those even come in the same package!), every age and level of life experience. Just … gosh!

So, for the past couple of weeks, those guys are the ones I’ve been reading online. And until some of them get tired of posting every day (not all of us can keep it up indefinitely), I’ll be reading them and sharing some of their posts with you, along with other discoveries that make me laugh, smile, think or do.

Here’s the Weekly Wrap-up for Feb. 7, 2015.

At my monthly reading group this week, I learned three things of note:

  • LyonCollegeSpringEvents2015.JPGI wasn’t the only one who couldn’t get into the February book, Swimming by Nicola Keegan. In fact, only one of us read the entire book before Tuesday’s meeting. (I do plan to read it all. Eventually.)
  • Our March meeting will be a field trip! Southern novelist and Heasley Prize winner Tom Franklin will be in town on our usual meeting night (March 3), so we’re going to hear him at Lyon College. I might even take a super-early lunch break that day and attend the “public interview” with Franklin. And I definitely plan to try out his books (two are available at our county library), as I’d never heard of him until Tuesday. Here’s his Amazon page.

Bonus points if you can tell me where the phrase Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (the title of Franklin’s 2010 novel) came from. (If your mama is from the South, as mine is, you learned this as a child.)

  • Harper Lee’s first novel, “Go Set A Watchman” (the story that she rewrote that became the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my top 3 favorites), will be released July 14. How in the heck did I miss that? Preorders have already reached No. 1 on Amazon, and Mockingbird orders had reached No. 1 as of Friday. According to The Wall Street Journal article, the news of this long-forgotten manuscript’s release “has captivated and shocked the literary world.” Well, yeah.

EricRovnerGraphicSpeaking of reading, I was happy to see YTC tribe member Eric’s admonition, Never Stop Reading. In the past year, through my book group and the great suggestions of an author friend, I’ve rediscovered the joys of fiction, although nonfiction continues to maintain its tight grasp on me. But whatever reading you do, keep doing it – and if you’re a parent, teach your kids the importance of reading (teach them to love it by reading to them when they’re young). Eric even offers a suggestion that takes away the excuse, “I don’t have time to read.”

ElissaJoyWattsGraphicI linked to Elissa’s blog last week, and after reading just a few posts, I can already tell I’ll be sharing her with you again. Not only does she express herself beautifully, she writes about things I like to read about (even things I didn’t know I was interested in!). Win-win! This time she asked me (and you, too, by proxy) if I want to get vulnerable, take a risk and join her in a new adventure. Read what she means by Who Wants to Get Naked? I said yes.

RandallHartmanGraphicRandy wants to inspire the over-50 crowd that it’s not too late to make a difference. As a 52-year-old (who still feels like a 26-year-old, except for those days when my body creaks like it’s 104), I applaud him for dedicating himself to proving that we’re still vital members of the human race and have wisdom, insights and the ability to act on our convictions. From Randy’s About page:

“My goal is to provide a place where we assemble a tribe that invades and conquers life after 50. This is more than surviving. This is about exploring, thriving and conquering.” YES!

LivingTheWhatIfLifeGraphicThe Incognito Blogger finds stories that inspire her (and us) to “Prepare, Go Hard and Don’t Quit.” In this post she asks, What are you willing to go through in order to reach your goals? The words in the graphic at the top of my post are largely the words that popped into my head when I read these stories, and especially when I viewed the short video of James Robertson. Be sure to watch that; it really is short. (And I have a feeling it would inspire Randy Hartman.)

I wish I could share every single good thing I’ve read this week, because there is much, much more (I said that last week, didn’t I?). There are just so many good things out there, if you know where to find them. The Weekly Wrap-up is my way of helping you find them. I hope you enjoy the list.




What have you been reading?

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All is well

This is my final post (Day 7) for the Your Turn Challenge Blog. The challenge was to publish a blog post every day for a week. Here’s a link to all seven of my posts.


When the question came up on the Your Turn Challenge Facebook page, “What have you learned about yourself during this challenge?” I didn’t think I had learned much.

Then I realized I had learned at least one big thing.

I’ve been blogging for more than seven years, and it’s no secret that my faith is a huge part of who I am. I’m not afraid to throw out a scripture reference, talk about my blessings or say “Thank you, Jesus,” when the spirit moves. God has given me much, and I’m so grateful for who I am, how far I’ve come and who He continues to mold me into. It’s all because of His grace, mercy and sacrifice for me (and you).

My blog audience is small; I know every single one of my subscribers.

But as I prepare to launch a small business (wellness coaching) next week, I’ve pondered this: Should I cut out the “Jesus references” so that no one will feel excluded? I’m not so worried about offending people with my faith – I don’t pound people over the head with it, and if someone is offended by my rather tame references, I can’t help that. I don’t go out of my way to be offensive, but the Bible says, “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18, New International Version). As long as I’m being loving and respectful, working to keep others’ best interests at heart, I can’t help when they’re offended.

It’s just that I don’t want to drive people away with my faith talk – to make them feel as though they could never fit in here. Jesus was into including folks, not excluding.

One aspect of my coaching business will be evident through my blog. I’ll post educational and motivational materials in the hopes that others will be inspired. In fact, I’ve already been doing that for a few years, only informally. I’ve written several “if I can do it, you can” posts in the hopes that I might inspire people to take a chance on themselves, to do the hard work it takes to change.

As I decided on the name for the business, To Well With You (my husband came up with it), I first thought the name was too “out there” – too irreverent. It might offend certain people. Then I decided that I like it – no, I love it! – because it says I don’t take myself too seriously; you don’t have to be afraid to approach me. (Even Jesus freaks can have a sense of humor!)

I realize that picking a name can be a large part of a business’ success (or failure), and I certainly don’t want to offend. But as a small-business owner, I’ll have to get used to uncertainties, weigh the pros and cons and be OK with the decisions I make.

And one of those pro/con balancing acts involves the way I communicate.

Being a follower of Jesus Christ is what makes me Suzy Taylor Oakley. Without Him, who knows what my life would be like? (I think I would be more self-centered and not the least bit interested in helping people find “wellness.” And I certainly wouldn’t want to take the journey “to well” with them.)

Part of what will make me a good coach is remembering how far I’ve come in my own journey to wellness – to wholeness. One of my strengths (which I used to consider a weakness) is that I’m flawed, imperfect and in daily need of grace, and that I’m ever aware of my smallness, my need for Him.

My foibles and failures are what make me relatable, and I hope I can be transparent and vulnerable enough to remain human while assuring folks I have at least a little bit of valuable life experience and wisdom to help them move in a positive direction. (Another balancing act, no?)

Figuring out what each individual needs – that’s the challenge.

We’re all different, and not everyone will agree with me about God’s role in the world and in our individual lives.

But here’s what I’ve learned this week: I can’t seem to talk about things that are important to me – about things that make me who I am and that will make me a good coach – without talking about God.

I hope you agree, but it’s OK if you don’t.

To well with you.

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The Your Turn Challenge: Days 1 and 2

This is a big week for my psyche.

I accepted a challenge to blog every day for a week. Marketing guru Seth Godin (whose daily blog I subscribe to) issued the challenge in conjunction with his book What To Do When It’s Your Turn. (I’ll write a review of the book, but not during this week’s challenge. That would be too easy.)

Seth put a special-projects coordinator in charge of rounding up folks for the blogging challenge:

“She’s running a mutual support sprint to help people get on track (or back on track) with their habit of shipping [producing]. Here’s how it works: Participants commit to posting 1 blog post every day for 7 days. The goal is to practice shipping with a like-minded community and to push yourself to simply start.”

My intention with this wasn’t so much to push myself to start, as this is an extremely busy month for me and I already blog fairly regularly (although not as often as I’d like). My true motive was to get my writing “out there” – in front of people who don’t know me. Folks who might not like me.

I want to improve my writing by risking critique.

My first topic? Nothing much controversial – just racism.

Read my Day 1 post here:

On Day 2, one full of meetings and work and fatigue and a near-copout, I was desperate for a topic. It was already past my bedtime (and I should have submitted a post that morning or the night before), but I had committed to this thing, and how could I wimp out on the second day?

Throughout the day, I had pondered a dozen ideas, including poetry. (The only real “rule” of the challenge is that you have to “share a perspective.” In other words, no “What I Had for Lunch Today” drivel. Unless you can make your lunch mean something.)

This writing challenge, this likemindedness with other bloggers, if only for 7 days, has so engaged my mind and my heart that I wrote – partly out of Day 2 desperation and partly out of a need to risk looking stupid – my first poem since 1980 (senior year of high school). I won’t even make you click for it:

taking the leap

By Suzy Taylor Oakley @oakleysuzyt

so many world changers in this space
are they trying to change everyone’s world,
or just their own?

we are of all stripes
all colors, all tongues.

we want to know and be known

there’s security in being a tribe member,
safety in numbers.

but many shun the illusion of safety –
after all, this exercise, this challenge
was meant to jolt us, shake us loose,
force us to take our turn.

for some, this may be the last turn they take –
too scary, this shaking loose
from our cocoons of obscurity.

for others, the last hope,
a lifeline beyond their imagining
until they opened their eyes,
their hearts, their minds

to what’s possible

when you jump.

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