In 2003, to much controversy, Stephen King was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award. Ever since, I’ve returned again and again to his acceptance speech for guidance and inspiration (much as I often turn to his book On Writing).
I highly recommend that anyone interested in issues of genre, writing, reading, and literary politics read the entire speech (c’mon guys, it’s not that long and it’s a freakin’ fantastic speech), but I’ve highlighted here a few of my favorite parts/ideas/inspirations for your initial consideration:
- Don’t Give Up – Dedication to Craft is King: King begins his speech by paying tribute to his wife, Tabitha, who supported him in his writing even when it wasn’t paying. King’s circumstances early in his writing career are uniquely…sticky, difficult, trying, and a whole slew of other adjectives. But despite these, King kept writing — and when Tabitha, his Ideal Reader, told him to keep going, he listened.
- Tell the Truth & Get the Job Done: Don’t pussyfoot around with things that don’t hit straight to the heartwood. Even if you write about things you don’t know well or things you’re actively learning about, you can still use your instincts, your past, your fears, your loves, your you to inform and bring down the hard-hammerin’ Truth. To this end, King refers to Frank Norris: “I never truckled. I never took off the hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. I told them the truth. They liked it or they didn’t like it. What had that to do with me? I told them the truth.” — McTeague
- Don’t Chicken Out: Related closely to #2, the truth isn’t easy to tell, even with the added mask of fiction. But it’s vital that — when it comes to telling the truth in fiction, in writing in general — you don’t half-ass it. Go whole-hog or don’t go at all, because if you tiptoe toward the truth only to give up on it at the last moment, then not only will you will know it, but so will your readers, and your story/writing will suffer.
Keep Growing: Improve yourself and your craft with every word you write, but don’t let it become an obsession that keeps you from moving forward from one project to the next. Strive for growth, not perfection.
Don’t Dismiss Possibilities Due to Genre: This is one of the largest and, arguably, most important points that King makes here. There is (and has long been) a great rift between “popular fiction” and “literary fiction,” and it often serves little purpose (at least in my humble opinion) beyond extending petty prejudices, buffering old insecurities, and drawing arbitrary lines in the sand. What value this distinction once had, it seems to me, has been greatly diminished in recent decades. (I won’t go into this point further here, as I can’t discuss it more thoughtfully than King does — definitely check it out.)