On the top of my computer armoire is a stack of writing books. One of my favorites is Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s part memoir, part “toolkit,” as King calls it. The horror master reveals his tricks of the trade, and talks about how the love of writing gripped him as a child.
But my favorite anecdote in this beautifully-written book?
It’s the story of how King began the book Carrie. He was dead broke, married with a few kids, and working as a schoolteacher. He wrote in every spare second, like a lot of us do. The idea for his novel about a teenager girl who had the power of telekinesis came to him, and he typed up a few pages – before realizing they were awful. In frustration, he crumpled them up and threw them in his overflowing trash can.
Later his wife, Tabitha, spotted the pages. She brushed off the cigarette ash, smoothed them out, and began to read. Then she handed them back to King. “You’ve got something here,” she told him. “I really think you do.”
Carrie launched King’s career and proved that wives really do know best. Er, I mean that before trashing a work in progress, it’s always a good idea for a writer to get a second set of eyeballs on the page.
In my second novel, Skipping a Beat, my main character, Julia Dunhill, sees bits of her life in scenes from the world’s great operas. One is Cavalleria Rusticana. The backstory to the tale of tenor Turiddu and his love Lola is just as fascinating for me as the actual opera. Composer Pietro Mascagni was a dirt-poor piano teacher when he wrote it for an opera competition, hoping a win would reverse his fortunes. Like so many artists, he was incredibly self-critical, and he ended up despairing of his work. But his wife believed in him, and she secretly mailed it to the judges (again the wife!) He won, and just like that, in the snap of a finger, his life turned around.
The moral is clear: Don’t trash your work. Set is aside. Re-read it another day, or better yet, ask Stephen King’s wife to read it for you. Sure, the work might belong in the trash can. But you also might be sitting on something pretty spectacular.