9 Reflections on Preaching from Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’
Over the summer one of my holidays books was Stephen King’s On Writing.
To be honest, I’ve never read a King novel in my life, but On Writing always seems to come up when writers are listing their favourite works on the craft. Though some turn their nose up at his ‘modern horror’, it’s hard to argue with 350 million copies sold. King’s ability to tell a story is undoubted, and given On Writing has been described as ‘part memoir, part master class’, I’d been meaning to get round to it for a while.
I enjoy writing and it plays a big part in what I do. Most stuff that I say in any vaguely formal ministry setting has already been shaped in some way by putting words down on a page/screen. That’s probably the nature of being an external processor (which is why I first started blogging here – and why I’m writing this post!).
As I devoured On Writing, there were countless times where I felt King’s wisdom could apply particularly to preachers crafting talks or sermons. Of course, we should always filter the ‘wisdom of the world’ through the wisdom of God’s word, but here are 9 reflections for preachers from On Writing:
1. Don’t Put Your Desk in the Middle of the Room
Early on in King’s career, he would dream of owning a massive oak slab desk and having it loom large in the middle of his room. But when the paychecks were finally big enough for him to afford said desk, he found its dominance was actually surprisingly unhelpful. He alludes to it almost overwhelming him and leading to an unhealthy and obsessive view of his writing, perhaps even causing the neglect of those dear to him. For King, the size and location of the place where he did the bulk of his writing were symbolic indicators of how he was perceiving his work in relation to the rest of his life.
He sold it and replaced it with a living room suite. As such, his ‘writing room’ became much more of a communal space. His children would come in and watch a baseball game there or enjoy a pizza and leave a pile of crumbs. But he says he learned a profound lesson from the process: ‘Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way round.’
For those of us who believe in the authority of God’s word, preaching is understandably important. But it made me wonder whether sometimes I can drift into thinking that ministry or church is a support system for my preaching? As King learnt, it’s the other way around. We serve a greater end: God’s people growing in faith and love to the glory of God. Sermons and sermon prep and even studies/offices shouldn’t consume us.
2. Writers read.
You’ll hear this advice repeated by many ‘professional’ writers: if you want to write well, you need to read lots.
Essentially this is saying we develop by absorbing others who do it well. Applying it more widely to the preacher – which obviously isn’t technically a written form – we could say that there’s great value in communicators consuming communication. As those who are seeking to herald and persuade in a verbal form, why not seek to consume as much verbal media as possible?
And yet it’s also worth asking ourselves why we’re doing this. King would say there’s not much point if we’re just doing this just to learn to write: ‘I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read… Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lessons.’
3. Learn from the bad ones.
When it then comes to reading, King remarks, ‘quite often the bad books have more to teach you than the good ones’.
I think that puts into words a helpful point. Often we think of learning from those sermons and preachers that we are inspired or challenged by. But of course we’ll also each hear sermons that don’t leave us particularly inspired – perhaps our own!
But rather than leaving it there, we should then ask ‘why?’ Why wasn’t that sermon all it could have been? Of course, this is something we probably should process internally! And by all means, let’s be generous. We all have off-days/months/series! And let’s take on feedback from our own sermons too. But rather than rushing past a sermon that doesn’t really connect, why not see these as part of the learning process? King puts it more dryly that we probably would, ‘What could be more encouraging to the struggling winter than to realise his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone else?’
I guess context is king here, but King wittily urges: ‘put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it… [Doing so] is a bit like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be ever more embarrassed’.
Later he puts it another way: ‘Use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colourful’. Hesitation and cogitation will see us come up with other words, but most probably they’ll not be better words.
It goes without saying that writing will always fall short and only ever be representative of what it describes – how much more so of that which speaks of God! – but chances are that the word we thought of first is a better fit than the ones that came to mind after we thought too much about it.
5. The object of [writing] isn’t grammatical correctness, but to make the reader/listener welcome and then tell a story…
This connects to King’s philosophy on vocabulary, above, but it extends to the form of our writing. He reckons that sometimes writers feel the pressure to craft endless ‘grammatically proper’ sentences, when actually the result is that meaning and effect become stiffened. Instead, more fragmented prose will create cleaner images and tension and variation. As King says, ‘language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes’. The point is to relax about the way we grammatically craft our sermons, so long as they’re being effective.
Interestingly, King argues that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the ‘basic unit of writing’. A paragraph is where ‘coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words’. For those of us who do write sermons as whole scripts, we’d probably do well to think in terms of what a whole paragraph communicates, rather than worrying about each sentence being full and proper in itself. Presumably those of us who preach from notes rather than a script, or at least more conversationally/colloquially, will already be subconsciously doing this.
6. Write one word at a time.
King gives this line as a pithy answer at one of his first press interviews. He’s asked, ‘So, how do you write?’. Presumably the journalist was hoping King would unpack some magical method.
But instead he dryly replies: ‘One word at a time’.
The interviewer apparently laughed, but of course King was deadly serious. He meant it. Whatever the genre, whatever the size of the work, ‘the work is always accomplished one word at a time’.
I couldn’t help think that about how King would put this now, in a world dominated by social media (On Writing was published back in 2000). I don’t imagine King would be particularly sympathetic to the budding writer – and thus preacher – who finds themselves frittering away hours on Facebook or the BBC news website. Maybe he’d say something like, ‘Sorry, I thought you said you wanted to write. Tell me again, why did you say you got Twitter?’
His advice on how to make this happen is simple: ‘You need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door.’ A schedule for writing is ‘in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream, just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night.’
Ok, this is open to theological misinterpretation, but I think King is onto something profound.
He criticises those writers who believe their success is due to the literary merit of their work, labelling such thinking ridiculous, ‘a product of vanity and insecurity’. What is that book-buyers really want? Well, basically: ‘a good story to take with them on an airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages.’
And, for me, here’s the insight: ‘This happens, I think, when readers recognise the people in a book, their behaviours, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story’. For King, this is ‘telling the truth as we know it’.
Obviously as Bible preachers, we care about ‘big T truth’. We don’t pick and choose truth based on our own feelings. God’s Word is what we’re called to preach. But hearing King’s point, I think there’s a way of speaking ‘big T truth’ in a ‘little t truth’ way. In other words, a way that rings true with real life. A way that is earthed. A way that understands life in this fallen world, with its challenges and temptations. You might call this preaching with empathy or plausibility or wisdom. Can your listeners recognise themselves in the discipleship we uphold?
8. Seriously consider The Formula
When King was just a high school student he submitted a manuscript and got back a scribbled comment from an editor that completely transformed his approach. It simply said: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft -10%. Good luck.’
King names this The Formula and from there on in everything he writes goes through it.
I know for myself that most of my writing could be put through The Formula – including this! Every sermon is collapsible. It has to be.
Sometimes we’ll be asked to re-give a sermon in another setting with a shorter time limit, and so we have to collapse it. And it’s painful. But King’s point is that often we’d do well to inflict that pain on ourselves before being asked to give the sermon a second time! We’d do well to apply The Formula the first time around. ‘Not bad, but Puffy.’
9. Beware the allure of the Writers’ Retreat
This kind of brings us full circle. King remembers seeing a writers’ retreat being advertised and being sold on the idea. It involved all heading to some idyllic spot where each writer had their own pristine log cabin for working and at lunchtime a concierge would quietly drop off a ready-to-eat food parcel at each cabin door without disturbing the occupant!. The writers then came together in the evening to share their work. At one level it sounds like a life of luxury. And we might think if only we had the equivalent conditions each week to prepare our sermons.
And yet King hated it. After a few days he couldn’t get over how artificial and disconnected from real life it was. And to top it all, when people shared their work each evening, the feedback was often just pretentious waffle. It just seem an entirely self-indulgent exercise.
This challenged me, because I know I am drawn to the same fantasy of some idealised sermon preparation haven. I can easily think that to write the perfect sermon I need a week free of distractions and optimum conditions.
Now, I’m not dismissing the importance of focused preparation time, nor the centrality of God’s word preached in the gathering of God’s people. But the joke about the preacher who wants a passage built from their study to the pulpit rings true because sometimes some of us can view the ‘rest of life’ as being a disturbance and intrusion to the ‘real work’ we’re called to do. And yet what if the ‘rest of life’ actually provided opportunity to give extra substance and earthiness to our sermons? What if each conversation and ‘distraction’ actually was a chance to talk with others about how God’s word might be more applied and connected to the ‘stuff’ of life – all to the benefit of Sunday’s sermon?
What do you think about King’s advice? I’d love to hear your thoughts and observations!