Founders Podcast Reads Stephen King’s On Writing

On the Founders podcast, host David Senra distills stories and lessons from Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. 

Link (with transcript):

The following are my notes. They are bits that stand out to me and not a summary. They are for my future reference and of course, shared for anyone else who cares.

Encouragement at the right time

When King was 6, true to his belief that imitation precedes creation, he creates a comic book that’s mostly a copy of one of his favorites. His mother praises him and when he admits it was mostly a copy, somewhat disappointed, she encourages him “Write one of your own. I bet you could do better.”

The feeling this unlocked for him remains to this day:

“I remember an immense feeling of possibility at the idea as if I had been ushered into a vast building filled with closed doors and had been given leave to open any I liked. There were more doors than one person could ever open in a lifetime, I thought, and I still think that.”

No Speed Limits

Capra taught Dr. Seuss to cut all non-essential words. John Gould did the same for Stephen King. All of these people could tell a big story in a single paragraph. But what is especially interesting is that despite formal writing education, they learned this skill from Capra and Gould respectively directly and quickly.

This is my favorite part of the episode because of how he ties this to Derek Sivers’ revelation that there are “no speed limits”. When Sivers was at Berklee College of Music, he meets an alumni, Kimo Williams, who accomplishes what Sivers thinks is impossible — he teaches him 2 years of theory in a few lessons! Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected:

“Kimo’s high expectations set a new pace for me. He taught me that the standard pace is for chumps, that the system is designed so anyone can keep up. If you’re more driven than most people, you can do way more than anyone expects. And this principle applies to all of life, not just school. Before I met Kimo, I was just a kid who wanted to be a musician doing it casually. Ever since our five lessons, I’ve had no speed limit. I owe every great thing that’s happened in my life to Kimo’s raised expectations. A random meeting and five music lessons showed me that I can do way more than the norm.”

Your job is to recognize when ideas meet

“There is no idea dump, no story central, no island of the buried best sellers. 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.”

On criticism

“If you write or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, someone will try to make you feel lousy about it. That’s all. I’m not editorializing. I’m just trying to give you the facts as I see them.”

Senra: This is going to echo this thing you and I have talked about over and over again, just sometimes critics are right, sometimes they’re wrong. It doesn’t matter. They’re constant.

Good storytelling

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story, he said. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

Work precedes inspiration

We get the causation backwards. [This echoes what Jack White says]. I’m going to show up every day. And if I show up every day and I put in the work, the inspiration comes. Akon learned the same lesson from Eminem who works on a schedule. He punches the clock at 5pm even if he’s in the middle of a verse! His approach to creativity was to treat it like a job and to show up every day.

Consistency Over Intensity

How does King write so many books?

“Well, the first thing I do in the morning, I set aside, I’m uninterrupted for many hours at times and I write six pages a day. And I do that every day. And in 60 days, I have 360 pages and that’s about — that’s another book…”It might take me five, six hours whatever time it is, but I do it every day, seven days a week, then in the afternoon”

He has a very set schedule. He writes in the morning. Then he takes a nap. He has lunch, takes a nap. I think he answers letters, stuff like that in the afternoons. Has dinner with his wife, spends time with his family, watches a baseball game, that kind of thing. That’s Stephen King’s schedule.

“Writing — the act of writing poems, stories, essays has a lot more in common with sweeping the floor than you think it does.”

Writing Tips

  • “Put your desk in the corner and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

  • If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of. There’s no shortcut. I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through 70 or 80 books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft. I read because I like to read, yet there is a learning process going on… If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write. It’s simple as that.”

  • Just because it’s the right work for you doesn’t mean it’s easy but you have to want to do it.
    “For me, not working is the real work….ust because I like doing it, it doesn’t mean it comes easily to me.” He gives us advice, “If you’re stuck, take a break, go get bored…When I’m stuck, I have long periods where I do nothing. I go ride a bike. I listen to music, I go for walks, I don’t work. And then I get this flood from my subconscious that actually helps me solve the problem I’m stuck on.

    “Boredom can be a very good thing for someone in a creative jam. For weeks, I got exactly nowhere in my thinking. It all seemed too hard, too fucking complex. I had run out of too many plotlines and they were in danger of becoming snarled. I circled the problem, again and again, beat my fists on it, knocking my head against it and then one day when I was thinking of nothing, the answer came to me.”

  • Being a writer is a lonely job. Any time you’re doing something difficult, it’s to some degree lonely. You have to be a little off to want to do this. Like, why don’t you just go get a normal job? Like, you’re kind of crazy to want to do something different. “It’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.”

    Senra: Formidable are people built in solitude.

    Reminds me of Paul Millerd:

    You’re doing the thing everyone does at the beginning of a solo path — you’re looking to be saved. No company, no other person’s playbook, or metric of success will save you. The only thing that matters is coming back to the thing you are meant to do. You must do it on your terms. Men waste years trying to avoid this.

A closing thought

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work and enriching your own life as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Some of this book, perhaps too much, has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it and perhaps the best of it is a permission slip. You can, you should. And if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”

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