I’m reading Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and wanted to talk about one of the several passages that got me thinking:
“… while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
He explains that sometimes this can be a matter of reputation, but the gist of what he means is that for everyone there is a point in which we all plateau. Basically he says that the only movement up this hierarchy is from competent to good. It’s unlikely a bad writer will get competent, and impossible for a good writer to get great.
While On Writing has been spectacular so far (I’m about 2/3rds done as of this writing) I have some problems with the hierarchy assertion. For one, it’s a direct contradiction to the theme of his book: Good writing is hard work. He goes into great detail about what a bad writer he was before he put in the work necessary to become a good writer. (To his credit he retains a sense of humbleness through the book, never putting himself on a pedestal and often actively trying to get down from the one others have placed him on.)
We all start off as bad writers. Many don’t recognize that they’re bad – I sure as hell didn’t until my mid-20s – and that might be part of the problem. If you don’t recognize something as bad how can you change it? What separates bad from competent, or even bad from good in a lot of cases, is a work ethic invisible to the public at large. Stephen King became a successful novelist in his mid-20s, but he had been writing and experimenting and reading since he was a child. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 when he was 30, but had spent literally his entire life preparing for it with short stories and time spent in the library “studying.” I would wager that with few exceptions every single popular author worked and studied and wrote and read and faced constant rejection before honing their craft to a point where it was ready to break through. They may not have even realized they were doing it, but they were. In other words, it’s completely possible to break free of being a “bad writer” if you’re willing to put the work into it. I’ve had to put a lot of work into being a better writer and I’d wager that I’m still straddling the line between “bad” and “competent.”
“Good” to “great” is a bit murkier of a line. There is a big part of me that believes either you’re born with greatness and you bring it out through hard work, or you’re not. I can’t imagine being able to use language like Fitzgerald, or enthrall like Bradbury, or communicate so much with so little like Hemingway, or reach for the gut and hold it in my hands like McCarthy. There is something special in those writers that I’m not sure is available to the public at large.
I don’t believe there is a plateau, though. Not unless you’re comfortable with one. When working out I used to hear people that lifted often worry about plateauing on their weight. I’ve had it happen to me. You’re going along great, making gains week to week, and then
You’ve seemingly reached your limit and won’t be able to lift more than what you currently are without serious changes. I think this is an apt metaphor for what King is talking about. So, following that logic, can’t a similar strategy be used to break a writing plateau as a lifting plateau? Whenever a weight-lifter plateaus they change up their routine. Try new exercises. Look for other ways to build strength. I think a writer should do the same. Switch genres. If you only write prose, try poetry. Write at night instead of the morning. Anything to make yourself a little uncomfortable and build new muscles. If there is no more room to grow, I think you should create room.
In that sense I’m not so sure greatness is unreachable. It might take longer for some than others, it might be a hell of a lot more work, but with the right focus, experimentation, and effort it might be possible. That’s what I’d like to believe, anyway.
The moral of all of this is that any type of writing except for bad writing takes a lot of effort. There is no question about that. But to say once a “bad” writer always a “bad” writer sounds hopeless and cynical. If a writer is willing to put the work into getting better they will get better. Every successful writer in the history of literature is evidence of that.