My daughter got me Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ For Christmas. I started right after the evening news, and finished before ten o’clock. (Mama put me in a speed reading course years ago which is how I wound up in medical school.) Now I plan to go back and digest it. It is worthy of more than one cruise through. As I read back through again I’ll tell you much more about his book.
In medicine, we say things come in threes. Before I read this I had two writer books I considered essential. One was ‘The Elements of Style.’ The other was ‘Self Editing for Fiction Writers,’ which my agent made me do a book report on before he would agree to take me on. Now I have three.
‘On Writing’ is not a ‘how to become a rich and famous writer’ self-help book. It could not be that because Mr. King writes the truth, and insists we do the same. Instead it is a detailed story of the process he went through to learn his craft. It was so similar to my own saga it was eerie. I bet the same holds true for every writer ever published.
Not long ago I watched a documentary on Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s. Mr. Thomas didn’t learn his profession to become rich. He just wanted to be his best. He started out as a teenager and got his first job because he impressed a restaurant owner he would start with the basics and learn it from the bus boy position on up. He never forgot the fundamentals. If you cook a lousy hamburger no one will buy it. If you write a lousy story no one will read it.
When I started med school, I was determined to learn every possible nuance of the profession and be my best at that too. Getting rich never was part of the equation. (I also made that goal and didn’t get rich.) Like Mr. Thomas and Mr. King, I stuck with the basics. To this day I try to hear out every patient’s story. If I don’t understand it 100% then I try to find them some more help.
Who’d want a doc that looked at it any other way? I’m proud to say I don’t consider my patient as a financial opportunity. If I ever do, I’ll quit and pray for forgiveness right away. I’d be scared I might die before I settled up on the score and wind up in hell for such a sin.
I want you to know I don’t consider my reader a financial opportunity either, although I hope enough of you buy my book to where they’ll let me write another one. I view my reader as someone to bounce ideas off of; someone to laugh and cry with and try to make some sense out of this crazy a^^ world. Mr. King talks in ‘On Writing’ about the IR, or ‘Ideal Reader.’ As he writes he tries to envision how some passages might bring tears to the IR while other words bring hope. He wonders if his work will resonate with the IR and if they cry at the same places in the story he does as he writes it. I wonder the same thing. Like the doc gig, it ain’t about money, it’s about communication. I hope I did my job. If I didn’t, I’ll work some more.
Mr. King has made a bunch of money but in his book he says not a single word was written with that as his motive. I believe him. His story rings too true for it to be otherwise.
In music we have a phenomenon called cross-over appeal. It is a great thing to have a fine bluegrass record, but if the project has the potential to attract other genres, then there is always an extra buzz at the record label. “Hey dude, this one is special. I can hear it on public radio and Sirius, but also commercial country, Americana, and gospel. Who are these guys?”
Of course, Mr. King is no unknown, but his book has a similar cross-over appeal for other disciplines. Not only is it a good book for writers, but the same lessons are applicable for flipping hamburgers or the doctor life. I suspect they hold true in most artistic endeavors, and many business ones. I know it applies to the music biz.
I came away from my first read encouraged. Other than some fifty best sellers and millions of dollars, I’m not one bit different from Mr. King. I can see myself in every milestone of his journey even though I’m still only a step past the stack of rejection letters he used to keep on a spike by his bed.
Even though I finished his book, in real life I’d say I’m only about half way through the process, but I’ll get there. I ain’t Stephen King. I’m only Tommy Bibey, but like Mr. King I have a story I have to tell, and there is no way I could ever stop.
Mr. King’s book does show the process takes a lot of time. I consider myself lucky. I’ve got a day job as a doc I love, so I don’t figure I’ll be flipping burgers any time soon, though Mr. Thomas showed there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I suspect Mr. Thomas did better than me and Mr. King put together. I’m certain he dispensed a whole heap more burgers than I did medical advice. That’s okay, and I’m not jealous or envious. We all gotta be what we are and I got to be me the whole way. I wasn’t perfect but I liked me okay.
I’ve reached the stage in life where all I do is walk around and be Dr. B, and at the end of the month someone sends a check. I’m that way with my music too. I’ll do the same with my writing and see what happens. It’s like my Dad told me. “Son, don’t get into anything for the money, but because you love it.” I better stick with the doctor gig, picking my mandolin, and physician bluegrass fiction. Old Dad was right, I love that life.
Besides, it is all I know. Mr. King said what you know was the best thing to write about, at least if you are a novice like me. My agent told me the same thing. As Jerry Clower said, “if you hear it twice it’s scripture.”
So there you go. Mr. King says it is true, and so does Jerry Clower. My agent agrees with them. If it’s scripture it can be traced back to the King James and the King James is the bedrock of Southern Literature; my agent told me that too.
A good Southern boy will never go against the Bible, so I better keep on writing. But for now on this Monday morning it’s back to doctoring. Gotta write about what I know, and the doc gig is a big part of it.