This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do – not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.
—Stephen King, On Writing Well
Stephen King’s book about writing is among a handful of books whose reading has permanently changed my day to day life. This is partly because, as Stephen King says, it is a book with admirably little bullshit in it.
In this quote, for example, King points out something that is commonly overlooked: being good at doing something is no guarantee of being good at teaching or analyzing it. This applies with special force to artists. Few things are more disappointing than hearing a great artist talk about his work.
I thought about this most recently while watching a movie inspired by Bob Dylan’s life, I’m Not There. In one scene, Dylan (played by Cate Blanchett) is questioned by an intellectual from the BBC. He is asked questions about social and political issues, to which Dylan gives characteristically curt and flippant responses. The intellectual gets angry and concludes that Dylan is a poser; and Dylan, in turn, gets frustrated because the intellectual is obviously missing the point.
The inability of artists to articulate the principles or ideas embodied in their works is just one example of the distinction, made famous by Gilbert Ryle, between knowing how (knowing a skill) and knowing that (possessing knowledge). The difference between knowing how to write a protest song about racism, and knowing about the mechanics of racist institutions, is not a difference of degree, but a difference of kind; and there is no contradiction, or even irony, in somebody being able to write good protest songs without being to explain how he does it, and without having a particularly deep knowledge of what he is protesting.
Stephen King, although certainly no philosopher, is well aware of the difference between knowing how and knowing that. Learning to write is learning a skill; the knowledge is embodied in practice. Thus good writing cannot be reduced to a set of rules, maxims, and principles. And even if such rules did exist, it would not be necessary for a novelist to be able to learn and articulate the rules in order to produce good art, in the same way that it isn’t necessary for children to learn a theory of bike riding to ride a bike.
It is true that, when teaching beginners in any skill, teachers often resort to providing rules. These rules are inevitably simplifications, meant to ease the pupil’s progress. But at a certain point the pupil becomes so adept at the task that it is unnecessary—not to mention impossible, for lack of time—to consciously consult these rules during practice. Not only that, but the pupil learns (largely unconsciously) when and how to interpret the rules (because all rules need interpretation), where to apply them (which does not depend on another rule), and when to break them (because all rules can be broken). This is what it means to be an expert.
Because of this strange ineffability of expert knowledge, at a certain point the learner must resort to observation and imitation. Rather than trying to articulate rules, the learner simply watches what experts do, and tries to recreate it. This is why, as Stephen King says, the only way to become a good writer is to read, read, read, and then write, write, write. No style guide will compensate; no set of rules will suffice; no magic formula exists. Writing, like baking, basketball, and playing the banjo, is an embodied skill, and thus must be learned through imitation.
This is why Stephen King emphasizes, again and again, that aspiring writers must write daily. He advises setting yourself a minimum word count, and then making sure you write that many words, come hell or high water. King’s word count is 2,000, but that’s quite high. For a while I forced myself to write 1,000 words a day. It was very hard at first—some days it was excruciating—but it gradually became easier. Nowadays I’m more lax; 500 is enough to satisfy me. But I will be forever grateful to King for dispensing with the bullshit, for forgetting about the rules, and for encouraging me to put pen to paper.