The Most Important Lesson From Stephen King Is Not One About Writing

In the early 70s, Stephen King had just graduated college with a teacher’s degree. He was recently married, had two kids, and no money. Unable to find a teaching job in small town Maine, he worked at New Franklin Laundry. In On Writing, part memoir, part writing advice, he shares what it was like:

“The greater part of what I loaded and pulled were motel sheets from Maine’s coastal towns and table linen from Maine’s coastal restaurants. The table linen was desperately nasty. When tourists go out to dinner in Maine, they usually want clams and lobster. Mostly lobster.

By the time the tablecloths upon which these delicacies had been served reached me, they stank to high heaven and were often boiling with maggots. The maggots would try to crawl up your arms as you loaded the washers; it was as if the little fuckers knew you were planning to cook them.

I thought I’d get used to them in time but I never did. The maggots were bad; the smell of decomposing clams and lobster-meat was even worse. Why are people such slobs? I would wonder, loading feverish linens from Testa’s of Bar Harbor into my machines. Why are people such fucking slobs?”

I’m lucky. I never worked at New Franklin Laundry. But I often ask myself the same thing: Why are people such fucking slobs? Every day, there are dozens of opportunities to practice common courtesy for each of us. And every day, I’m baffled by the number of people who abandon them.

All of the following take ten seconds:

  • Rinsing a dish before leaving it on the counter.
  • Cleaning the sink of your hairs with two splashes of water.
  • Closing the door gently when you enter.
  • Closing the door gently when you leave.
  • Setting your shoes aside after taking them off.
  • Putting a lid on a cooling pot with food in it.
  • Wiping crumbs, dust, and other dirt off the desk before you leave.
  • Throwing used paper towels into the trash can, not near it.
  • Picking said paper towels up if you miss.

…and, of course, the sublime art of using the goddamn toilet brush.

These ten seconds are all it takes to leave a place in the state you found it in, and, often, a better one.

That’s how we make the world better. Not with million dollar donations, but with ten-second efforts that feel almost meaningless.

Whenever someone tells me about all the great things they will do, I begin to watch if they do these little things first. Because if you don’t care about the next person using the sink, how in hell are you going to care enough about your customers, your audience, or your followers to do something big? It’s easy to brush this aside and brand it as forgetfulness. It’s not. It’s laziness.

Ironically, I think this has impacted Stephen King’s career much more than any particular writing gimmick. Long before he became big, he chose to do whatever menial task he had in diligent ways. Stephen King knew that laziness is a choice.

And in some cases, it’s literally disgusting.

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