Confession: I’m one of the few who has yet to read a Stephen King novel, though I know I have read one of his short stories a long time ago. This very good and uber-successful author writes horror stories. I don’t read horror. Ah, the horror!
But I got a strong recommendation to read his book on writing, and it turned out to be a delight. The writing advice is solid if standard fare, but the memoire parts are a testament to why he is the Stephen King— a vivid story teller of the first order.
Mr. King puts members of his profession into four categories. He sees this classification much like the government’s food pyramid, with the bottom having a larger mass than the pinnacle top.
At the bottom are the Bad Writers. Mr. King hints that a few are commercially so successful they live a life of luxury in the Caribbean. (Who could he be talking about? I have my list)
Above them, in smaller numbers, are Competent writers, who comprise much of the work-for-hire, journalistic, and other pretty decent writing we encounter. Competent writers have the ear for cogent expression, but their stories lack wings.
Above the competent are the Good writers, and Mr. king suggests he is in that layer. Good writers have solid technique and tell good stories.
At the very top are The GREATS. Think Shakespeare, Yeats, Faulkner, or Eudora Welty.
Mr. King believes that no amount of teaching will turn a bad writer into a competent one. They lack the ear, or they wouldn’t have been bad to begin with. He insists that no how-to course or mentoring will make a good writer into a GREAT. The Greats are divine accidents.
The teaching and coaching have a place in the middle of the pyramid. There, the competent, who, if they listen well, try hard, and work at it, could become good.
I tend to agree. I see this in all fields, though it’s most pronounced in artistic pursuits. It fits with a certain perception, one divergent from Malcolm Gladwell’s and his ten-thousand hours of work to any expertise.
But then I wonder: how wise or true is it to have rigid classifications? It organizes the mind, and is fun in its way, but how deeply true?
Here is my other confession for today: I really don’t know, and I know that I don’t. Organization and classification (like these pyramids) make for easy, comprehendible and jauntier stories.
I don’t know about the substance of King’s notions, but trusting some of the best readers I’ve known, Stephen King is nothing if not a Great storyteller. Maybe his system is just another one of his stories, cooked for easy digestibility.