Stephen King is stressing me out.
I’ve been reading his book On Writing before bed every night. I love the stories he tells about his childhood, like the one about the abusive babysitter he calls Eula-Beulah who farted on his head and got herself fired after feeding him seven eggs, then locking him in a closet where he proceeded to puke all over his mother’s shoes. As most of us know, his writing is vivid, startling and often hilarious.
I also like his advice about writing, like this:
“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.”
“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.”
Then there’s his description of his own personal Muse:
“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.
Believe me, I know.”
It’s great stuff. So why am I stressing out?
Because he goes on to tell you that to be a writer, you should be reading and writing for 4-6 hours a day. 4-6 hours a day!
He does, after all.
His personal daily word count goal is 2000. In other words, he writes every single day—including his birthday and Christmas—as much as I wrote during National Novel Writing Month, that crazy period last November when I felt like I was on a treadmill.
True, he says not everyone needs to write 2000 words (he says 1000 should suffice). And he says it’s cool to take one day off per week (but more than one, i.e. a whole weekend or three weeks at the holidays, will throw you off your rhythm).
He also says you need a room of your own in which to write. Libraries—like the Cambridge Public one where I write—don’t qualify. Coffee shops—my alternate writing space—don’t work at all. You’ve got to have your own room with a desk in it and where you can close the door and write for 4-6 hours a day.
Those words set my knees a-knockin’.
You have to read a lot, too, and that can cut into the allotted time. King estimates that he reads 80 books a year. 80 books a year! I think I read a pretty good amount, but I doubt if I manage even 20 or 25. The problem might be that I devote some of my reading time to the Times, The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly. That must count, right?! (Maybe not Entertainment Weekly. But I can’t give that up. It’s a drug. And I swear the writing is good! Hey, wait a second, Stephen King writes for Entertainment Weekly! He can’t fault me for liking to read it!)
I also tend to watch TV at night, a habit he he gets a bit snooty about. What can I say? I’m addicted to True Blood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and I’m not the slightest bit ashamed to admit So You Think You Can Dance.
I also watch movies. Hell, movies are my passion! I spent 10 years writing about them! Come on, Mr. King, can you let me off the hook for wanting—no, needing—to watch movies sometimes instead of breaking out my old Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf novels?
So maybe now you understand why the illustrious and beyond-prolific Mr. King is stressing me out. He’s setting goals for me that I feel unprepared to achieve.
But could I come close?
Could I, for example, write for two hours every day (or five days a week) and read for one? Wouldn’t that be a start? Is that a goal I could set for myself and actually achieve?
There’s one thing I’ve learned: Don’t set impossible goals for yourself.
When you are unable to achieve the goals you have set, you wind up beating yourself up and god knows I don’t need to beat myself up any more than I already do.
Mr. King, what do you think?