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Last night I discovered a shoe box in my office closet. Tucked high up on a corner shelf, its lid covered in a thick layer of dust, the box contained about five years’ worth of written correspondence — school notes passed from friend to friend, college acceptance letters, greeting cards for every occasion, some from one-time BFFs I now barely remember.
I pulled the box out and perused its contents, wondering why the hell I kept so much old stuff, while simultaneously refusing to throw any of it away.
Then I saw it, there at the bottom: a letter from Marsha DeFilippo, Assistant to Stephen King.
I was a 16-year-old high school student living in Dorchester, Massachusetts when I wrote a letter to Mr. King. And although I have no recollection of what my missive said, it undoubtedly mentioned that I was his biggest fan (though not in an Annie Wilkes kind of way) and requested his advice on becoming an author.
Months later, I received a reply:
I never responded in any way (that I remember) to Ms. DeFilippo’s letter. I do recall that I was indeed disappointed not to receive a personal response from Stephen King. I remember tearing open the envelope with King’s name typed in the upper left-hand corner, in awe that he took the time to write me — ME, a girl from Dot — a letter! But then…no. It was from Marsha. Hmph.
Now that I’m a 42-year-old working mother who can barely keep up with email let alone complete a tome along the lines of IT* or The Stand*, I can’t exactly hold it against Mr. King for not responding personally to every piece of fan mail. I also must thank Ms. DeFilippo for responding at all. I worked as a personal assistant to a celebrity once, about a decade after receiving her letter, and I know now how much work it is to manage the business and personal affairs of someone else’s life.
Enclosed with her reply were two of Stephen King’s articles — “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully — in Ten Minutes,” published in The Writer in July 1986, and an untitled piece from The Writer, published in June 1975 (just about three months before I was born).
I vaguely remember reading both pieces and then…nothing. I put them away. Stuffed them back into the envelope from which they came and then into a shoe box, where they remained, forgotten, for over 26 years. Reading them now, they’re mini-Master Classes on writing; maybe if I’d paid more attention to their content all those years ago I’d be a few published novels in, and not just starting my career.
This time, I read through them, highlighting and jotting notes along the way. A few nuggets of King’s wisdom that jumped out me:
“When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.”
Having nearly given myself a UTI (TMI?) from holding it in while trying to complete a short story, I think I have this one covered.
“It’s lonely out there in the cold, but there are encouraging voices.”
This I’ve found to be very, very true. I have yet to receive a personal note on a rejection slip, so my fiction hasn’t quite made it to the level at which King is speaking. But here on Medium, my work has received enormously generous feedback from fellow writers and readers, and that alone has encouraged me to continue.
“Don’t write your novel with best-seller lists or movie companies or rich paperback houses in mind. Don’t, in fact, even write it with publication in mind. Write it for yourself.”
This was initially a tough one for me. When I began writing I couldn’t help but hold myself up to every bestselling writer I’ve read and wonder if my work would ever reach that level of success. But once I realized and accepted that writing is a profession like any other — one that requires dedication, perseverance, and hard work — I was able to focus on the words on the screen and not concern myself with the accolades (or criticisms) of the future.
“Even a dead novel can provide a writer with valuable experience to take on to the next one. If nothing else, he’s not a beginner anymore when he sits down to write that second book.”
I decided just a few months ago that I wanted to pursue writing as a career, and in the past three months have completed four short stories and eight blog posts on Medium. On top of that, I have multiple stories and posts saved in various drafts. Does this mean I’m no longer a beginner? I don’t know. But I do know I feel just a teensy bit more experienced with each subsequent piece.
In addition to the above, in his June 1975 piece King recommended a few books for further learning:
- The Postman Always Rings Twice* by James M. Cain and First Blood* by David Morrell, short novels that “use lots of dialogue that advances the story but seems as natural as oral speech”;
- Whipple’s Castle by Thomas Williams, “a nearly perfect novel”; and
- Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, now available online, in which “the fine writers of our time discuss their trials, tribulations, aims and work habits.”
With that, I want to thank Marsha DeFilippo for taking the time out to write to 16-year-old me those many years ago. I didn’t appreciate all the great advice back then, but I certainly do now. Finding Marsha’s envelope at this time in my life was serendipitous, and from here on out it will live on my desk, and not in a dusty shoe box.
“So write. One page at a time, or one word at a time. And consider: If you can turn out two pages a day for two years, you will have written 1,460 pages, a manuscript the length of Gone with the Wind. It may be a lousy 1,460-page manuscript, of course. … But you will have surmounted that hurdle that so many who are trying to do the same job stumble on: You will have filled the white space.” — Stephen King
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