On Writing. A memoir of the craft by Stephen King

Stephan King pic
American writer Stephan King. “Nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare.”

Outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria in the centre of old Florence is the statue of David by Michelangelo. Actually it’s a statue of David by someone else. It’s a copy. The original is in the Galleria dell’Accademia not far away. Michelangelo’s David is truely remarkable but what is more revealing are the accompanying statues of slaves; unfinished statues. The figures seem to be emerging out of the stone; or to put it another way, they were always in the stone; Michelangelo just had to remove the marble from around them to reveal them in all their glory. Music is like that. The Clarinet Concerto always existed; Mozart just wrote it down so now it’s called Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Stories are like that too.

I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves … Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.

or, in other words; stories have always existed, writers just have to write them down as accurately as they can.

If you hear a writer say “…Oh, it just wrote itself, really,” this is what they are talking about without really understanding anything about it.

Plotting is way down on King’s list of what’s important. For him it’s narration – to move the story along; description – to create a sensory reality; and dialogue – to bring characters to life.

I’ve never plotted any more than I ‘d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible …. plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. 

I’ve heard, and read, many times that Stephan King is a writer’s writer. It’s a good line, although I’m not sure what it means. I took it to mean that I should read him. I’ve been planning to but as his work is not my preferred type (hate the word ‘genre’) other books kept preempting my plan. And then this one came along: a Christmas gift from my sister.

King calls it a memoir, and it certainly is. His chapter on his early struggles – menial jobs – many rejections, a family to support – is particularly honest and heart-warming. Yet, his chapter on being an alcoholic is electric. Talk about ‘being honest.’ It’s an insider’s view, the view of an alcoholic looking out with all the denials, justifications, and excuses that are virtually the ‘brand’ of all alcoholics but while he’s being one, seem particularly applicable to him and him alone.

But the life story doesn’t take long and soon he’s into the advice: the reason for reading it. I was heartened to read that his first piece of wisdom is, if you want to write, you must read. Phew! Good. I do that. His next piece of advice was to wage war on adverbs, especially attributive adverbs in dialogue: he said dismissively, she blithely said. His argument against adverbs like these was particularly convincing. I got up and opened my computer to the writing I had done that day and erased all my attributive adverbs, well, most of them. I had to make a few other adjustments to follow his advice: it should be perfectly clear how a line of dialogue should be said from the words themselves and, of course, the accumulated tension, tone, and information. Don’t be scared of oft repeating, he said, she said.

All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.

And vocabulary? “As the whore said to the bashful sailor, ‘It ain’t how much you’ve got it’s how you use it.” And if you have to run to the thesaurus to find the right word, it’s probably not the right word. He quotes Earnest Hemingway to seal the point.

“He came to the river. The river was there.”

He’s equally honest and up-front about narrative, description, dialogue and a myriad of other implements from his literary toolbox. I am very happy to now know that I share his belief in dialogue as one of the best ways to built character. There are some writers who avoid dialogue. What a missed opportunity!

However, I was, at times, at a disadvantage reading this book because he often makes his point by referring, in detail, to his own work and decisions he had to make, and why. I have never read anything by King so I found these passages redundant. Not his fault, but mine.

For a new writer like me (I can’t use the adjective ‘young’ any more), who’s grappling with the second draft of a major work that at the moment is a broad, messy, and a wooly thing, reading King’s On Writing now is the most serendipitous and useful coincidence.

All writers, especially new ones, and most readers would get a lot out of his insights into the writing process, the hazards and joys of writing for a living, and the more profound elements of imagination, fiction making, and self-fulfilment.  Highly recommended.


I have a gripe with Mr King. He’s down on adverbs, but he’s also down on pronouns. And so he should be; he uses them so clumsily (Yes, I now its an adverb but its necessary here.)

Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing him/her out.

The phrase ‘him or her’ is bad enough, but ‘him/her’? Unforgivable! He uses ‘he and she’ and even ‘he/she’ – but thank god, not ‘s/he’!

This is one of the English language’s greatest failings: there is no gender-neutral singular pronoun. For centuries it has been common practice to use the masculine ‘he, him, and his’ to refer to both genders. Today, this is not acceptable. But, there is a solution. What’s wrong with using the gender-neutral plural pronoun? Nothing. This has been around for a few hundred years, from the 16th century in fact* (It’s also been a solution for Jane Austin, Bernard Shaw, and Barak Obama). Yes, it’s breaking a fundamental rule of subject-pronoun agreement which maybe a small problem for some but it fixes a much bigger problem. Hence King could’ve and should’ve written,

Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing them out.

Much simpler, easier, cleaner, and no confusion, despite the broken rule.

He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.

– J Fisher Wayes to Perfect Religion (before 1535)

You can find the Kindle edition, as well as other formats, here.

The Blue Touch Paper by David Hare

British screenwriter and playwright, David Hare

Any child who has stumbled through childhood surrounded by unanswered questions, where adults were too occupied with their own demons to take notice; where one parent was largely absent in body and/or interest, and the other so shackled to society’s norms and buffeted uncomplainingly by the stings and shallows of the life they thought they had to lead, will relate to David Hare’s childhood in this, his 2015 memoir. David Hare’s father, Clifford Hare, a merchant sailor, was absent most of the time, while his mother, Agnes, conformed to the norms of the town of Bexhill, “a parody of suburbia”, between Eastbourne and Hastings on the Channel coast; a town described by James Agate as ‘bleak and purse-proud’ and used by the director Alfonso Cuarón as the location for those surviving Armageddon in his film Children of Men.

“Childhood is like going into the jungle without knowing what animals you will meet there.”

Saved from a fate he so easily saw on his horizon by cinema, the local theatre repertory companies, and his natural intelligence he weathered his upbringing and won a scholarship to Cambridge. Hare writes in a self-deprecating tone, which is endearing, but at the same time there is a feeling that he has done this to hide a sense of self-importance, as if his success and intellectual rise was inevitable. He wants to be liked. And steps in his making did seem to come easily and letter writing was one of his most successful modes of advancement: a holiday job in Los Angeles, a visit by Alfred Hitchcock, and a meeting with Peter Hall which had formidable repercussions.

It was at Cambridge in the 1960, ‘all wasps and no honey’ so said Kenneth Tynan, in a “self-deluded Britain” that Hare began his theatre-making, as both performer, director, and then as playwright.

“The very over-sensitivity which equips you to be a writer also makes being a writer agony.”

In 1969 while leading his Portable Theatre Company, Hare and co-founder Tony Bicât, had the idea of presenting, in their second season a play based on the history of evil and asked their new friend Howard Brenton, at the time working in the Royal Mint, to take it on. He eschewed the ‘history’ but kept the ‘evil’ in the character of serial killer John Reginald Christie, and set it in a pen made of chicken wire filled with old newspaper. Christie in Love “plays with the controversial notion that when Christie practised necrophilia, assaulting his dead women, he was, in his own eyes, expressing a kind of love.” Hare had only written one short play to fill in a gap in the previous program but Brenton’s “brilliant” play, directed by Hare, set Portable, and Hare, on a path of creating and presenting new plays.

“…my most important discovery about playwriting … Every line on dialogue, every exit and entry, every development of the story, every deliberate change of mood on the stage pleases or displeases the author for reasons they would be at a loss to explain. The mystery of style is exactly that: a mystery. Yes, of course, I could clean the play up. I could redraft. I could, if necessary, make the action more deft. I was perfectly capable of saying. ‘That scene’s working, but that one isn’t. That joke’s working, but that one isn’t.’ But to the basic question ‘Why is the play the way it is?’ I had no answer at all.” No matter what you WANT to write,  “ultimately you are at the mercy of your imagination – what ever that might be”; a bit like Christie.

There are moments in everyone’s life when the wanting of something is far more powerful than the getting of it; and there are many times when our bodies and our imagination are at odds; the latter taking over from the former and causing a positive, or negative, but involuntary, outcome. A man knows when his body betrays his will with an unnecessary erection; a woman once was so attracted to Ted Hughes, she vomited, something she did not want to do; Marcel Proust wrote at the age of 18 that ‘Desire makes all things flourish, possession withers them’; and David Hare separates his wanting to write a play, from his imagination that finally finishes it. In this sense we are all victims of our imagination, which can give our lives succor, as in a creative individual like Hare, or destroy it, as in another individual like Christie.

Theatre “is about people, it is not about types. Shakespeare did not intend Macbeth to be an indictment of Scottish monarchy. Nor is the characterisation of Lady M misogynist.” Recently in the London Review of Books review of The Girl on the Train; the writer, a woman, was horrified that the novelist, a women, seemed to her, to hate women. Yes, the female characters are in turn, liars, drunks, traitors, and lay-abouts, but the story is about these women, not all women. Hare derides this “idiotic language of role models” as a symptom of the late 1988s but it continues today. He says, “…with the rising tide of programmatic wordsoup which would threaten the vigour and authenticity of theatre in the new century, I would have no patience. Work, when fully achieved, seemed to me a more powerful manifesto than manifestos.”

David Hare, now Sir David Hare, is a very British writer for stage and film with an impressive list of work over many decades: they include Knuckle (1974), Fanshen (1975), Teeth ‘n’ Smiles (1975), Plenty (1978), The Blue Room (1998), The Judas Kiss (1998), Stuff Happens (2004), South Downs (2011), The Moderate Soprano (2015). His Skylight (1995) play was presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company earlier this year. He also penned the screenplay for the 2002 film The Hours, among many others.

The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano


French writer and 2015 Nobel Prize Laureate, Patrick Moldano.

When you watch a movie it is important to understand, not only that decisions have been made about every thing in every frame: the glare from the wet tarmac, the broken zinnia in the vase of otherwise perfect flowers, or the dreadful yellow hat on the third boy from the right, but that even if something is missed, like the broken flower; if someone has not done his or her job well, or even if simply there was not time or money to re-shoot the scene or re-dress the set – so we will just have to live with the little boy putting his fingers in his ears moments before Eva Marie Saint ‘shoots’ Cary Grant in that now famous blooper from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest – we have to acknowledge that what we see is what is meant, and the person ultimately responsible for this is the director, because he or she has allowed his or her name to be put on it.  Just like a name on the bottom of a painting: the person is taking responsibility for what you see. It says, I did this; what you see is what I want you to see.

What the viewer thinks it ‘means’ is something completely different and has nothing to do with the creator but everything to do with the viewer.

Similarly with a book of fiction: what we read is what the writer wants us to read and the writer employs various techniques – tricks – to make us think – believe – in a particular way. Most writing is about wanting the reader to believe that what is written is true; and just like ‘the suspension of disbelief’ that audiences in the theatre and cinema have to do to become emotionally involved is what they are watching, so too does a reader: a young girl is fleeing her convent school and suffering the dangers of occupied France. This is what the writer wants us to believe is true, but it is only the appearance of truth, and there’s a glorious word for that: verisimilitude; but what is really true is that I’m sitting in a nice chair with good light and a cup of ginger tea.

This particular ability to mentally put ourselves in a description of something (using words, paint, dance, light, stone, sound) made by someone else is a wonderfully human characteristic and is the sole reason we have something called art.

One of the tricks writers use to make us believe that what is written is true is detail, and ironically, unknown detail (“I don’t know what the figures 20998 and 15/24 stand for”) makes that belief stronger: writers, creators, don’t usually use words or numbers that have no known meaning. Why does he tell us this? Because it is true; so goes the logic.

The Search Warrant, or as it was originally published in France, Dora Bruder, is the 1997 novel from this year’s recipient of The Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick Modiano. The story is sparked, so he tells us, from a missing-person ad in the magazine, Paris Soir, dated 31 December 1941, which reads,


Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15, height 1.55m, oval-shaped face, grey-brown eyes, grey sports jacket, maroon pullover, navy blue skirt and hat, brown gym shoes. Address all information to M. and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.”

 As a reader, one accepts this. I can comfortably say that no reader is going to spend the time and effort researching copies of Paris Soir, and in particular the issue from New Years Eve 1941, to verify if this ad is true. It does not matter if it is true or not; in the world that Modiano creates between the covers of this fiction, it is true; we believe this, and to assist us in this belief Modiano includes a footnote (footnotes are also very useful in creating verisimilitude), giving the title of the column in which the ad appeared (“D’hier a aujourd’hui” – “From Day to Day”).

Modiano is obsessed with the past, and in particular, the German occupation of France and the French resistance during World War II even though (or because of it) he was born the year the war ended, 1945. “The plot too is the recognisable one [all Modiano’s plots are markably the same] as a search into the past of a first-person narrator.”*. It is a work (some, like Kawakani, say not a novel) that infuses memoir, (auto) biography, detection, and memory. The reader finds out much more about the narrator (the writer?) than he does about Dora Bruder. The narrator knows the address of the parents, 41 Boulevard Ornano; it is next door to a cinema he visited as a child. He, like Dora, and his father, like Dora’s father, Emile, are French jews and subject to the whims and prejudices of the German occupying forces that involve lists, registers, travel documents, curfews, identification badges, suspicion, and intimidation. There are many questions in this book, almost every chapter begins with one; questions about Dora Bruder that Modiano cannot answer, so he answers with details of others; police reports, timetables, journal entries, and memories of writers of the period; and if one of these writers once slept in the same room as he, or Dora, all the more reason for including it. These glimpses of many lives still add up to the shattering truth of Dora’s; at least one which Modiano wants us to believe.

The autobiographic detail is fascinating – what a surreal time and place to be in where what authorities think you are can cause alienation, deportation, imprisonment, death – and the mystery of Dora pulls you along, but memory as we all know can be treacherous.

(I have a friend, let me call her Gillian. Every time I poach tamarillos I have a vivid memory of Gillian showing me how, in the kitchen of someone else, let me call him Harry. Gillian, however, has no recollection of this, not of ever eating poached tamarillos, before I fed her some on a recent visit, or of ever being in Harry’s kitchen. Did this event happen? I believe it did. She believes it did not. What is true?)

As I’ve said before, somewhere**, fiction is all about truth, but to make it clear, one has to lie about it a little.

On his Italian father’s side he is descended from Sephardic Jews from northern Greece; his mother, was a Flemish actress, “a pretty girl with an arid heart“; Flemish is Modiano’s first language as he was raised by his maternal grandparents: his father, a black-marketeer,  was interned, his mother on tour. His younger brother Rudi died at the age of 9. Moldano wrote a memoir about his childhood and called it Un Pedigree: I couldn’t write an autobiography, that’s why I called it a ‘pedigree’: it’s a book less on what I did than on what others, mainly my parents, did to me.” He is married with two daughters.

 He writes about “the pull of the past, the threat of disappearance, the blurring of moral boundaries, the dark side of the soul“*** ; his art “is the art of speculation“****.

Whatever this book is it is a fascinating way (‘postmodern!’ I hear someone screaming) to tell a story. His novels are only now starting to appear in English, spurred on, no doubt, by the Nobel Prize. Search them out and let me know what you think.


*Kawakani, Akane; 2000, A Self-conscious Art: Patrick Modiano’s Postmodern Fictions, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool

**In a soon to be published autobiographical fiction called Johnny William & the Cameraman.

***Schwartz, Alexandra, The New Yorker Oct 9 2014

****Schwartz, Alexandra, The New Yorker Oct 5 2015





The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton

Hugo Hamilton

“When I was small I woke up in Germany… Then I got up and looked out the window and saw Ireland.” And Ireland was a place where people spoke English, a language his father ferociously banned in his house. Hamilton said later, “The prohibition against English made me see that language as a challenge. Even as a child I spoke to the walls in English and secretly rehearsed dialogue I heard outside.”

Primarily, Hugo Hamilton’s intriguing memoir, The Speckled People, is about this: a language war.

“We lived in an imaginary place that my [German] mother had created in her stories,” Hugo Hamilton told an audience in the South Lounge on the Lincoln Center campus in February 2011. “As a child, I knew exactly how to get from my mother’s house where she grew up to the bakery, though I’d never been to Kempen, where she came from. And then there was also this imaginary place that my father had, which was a vision of Ireland as an Irish-speaking country.”

“We are the new Irish. Partly from Ireland and partly from somewhere else, half Irish and half German. We’re the speckled people…homemade Irish bread with German raisins.”

The Speckled People is like no other book I’ve ever read. Firstly it is told, in the first person, not surprising as this is a memoir, but by the author of about 8 years old, and to a person of such a young age whose world is that created by his parents there are things he perceives and understands but there are things he perceives and does not understand. His thoughts are usually long, bumpy, and windy but sometimes short and pithy.

“My mother makes everything better with cakes and stories and hugs that crack your bones. When everybody is good, my father buys pencil cases with six coloured pencils inside, all sharpened to a point …My father also likes to slam the front door from time to time. He sends a message to the world depending who knocked. If it’s the old woman who says, ‘God bless you Mister’, and promises to pray for him and all his family, if it’s the man who sharpens the garden shears on a big wheel or if it’s someone collecting for the missions, then he gives them money and closes the door gently. If it’s people selling carpets he shakes his head and closes the door firmly. If it’s the two men in suits with Bibles then he slams it shut to make sure that not even one of their words enters into the hall. And if it’s one of the people selling poppies, then he slams it shut so fast the whole street shakes.”

And like a child’s idea of what and when things happened different tenses are mixed, matched, and juxtaposed carefully constructed to give the impression of a child’s mind making sense of the world, juggling memory and present action to create an unusual but gratifying picture of a childhood marred by confusion, paternal foolery but maternal strength and self-acceptance.

Secondly, there is very little dialogue; the text is dense but accessible, and the narrative is reduced to chapters like vignettes; riffs on a common theme: a young boy’s memory of how and why he is what he is.

This may give the impression of monotone, both linguistically and metaphorically, but the patches of storytelling are fascinating as children seem to see things, and collate things, that adults either miss, discount, or deny; but given this format, like snap-shots, there is still an over-riding arc of passing-time which sees his father lose the language-wars and die before seeing his Ireland completely Anglicised and lost to his romantic and nationalistic idea of it; and yet his mother, as with everything, anchors the final image of widow and children lost on a family outing, watching the day disappear, vainly searching “to find things”, memories of her past in a new land…

“My mother took out a cigarette because she was free to smoke after my father died. We stood on the road and watched her face lighting up with a match. We smelled the new smoke in the clean air and waited. She said she didn‘t know where to go from here. We were lost, but she laughed and it didn’t matter.”

Hugo Hamilton, born in 1953, lives in Dublin and is well regarded in Germany where his contemporaries tell him he speaks German, softly, like it used to be spoken. So successful was The Speckled People that he continued the memoir in The Sailor in the Wardrobe which was published in 2006, as well as turning the former volume into a stage play that premiered at The Gate Theatre, Dublin, in 2011.

In 2008 Hugo Hamilton took fellow writer and friend, Nuala O’Faolain – also represented on my 2015 ‘to read’ list – to Berlin for a few days. O’Faolain was sixty eight, wheel-chair bound, doped up on Xanax, and in the last stages of metastatic cancer for which she refused treatment. She died 10 days after the journey. Hamilton fictionalised the experience in his 2014 novel, Every Single Minute, another must-read.

The Specked People is certainly not the Irish memoir of poverty and victimhood so universally popularised by Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and its ilk. This is unusual, bold and stimulating, profound and entertaining. Everything a memoir should be but satisfying in ways I didn’t expect.