On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

04Dec08

Full disclosure: I adore Stephen King. I have read nearly everything he has written, and I own most of what I have read. He is an intelligent, thoughtful writer. According to John D. MacDonald (a prolific writer himself), a good writer is one who makes the reader forget they are reading a story. MacDonald cautions against writers using awkward phrases like, “His eyes slid down her dress.” When you read something like that, he says, you realized you are in the clutches of a bad writer. And Stephen King is not a bad writer. I would say he is an excellent writer.

Most of the bad press surrounding Stephen King is ignorant. Many people who pan Stephen King have never read anything of his, and don’t intend to. This is stupid. If you are going to criticize someone, you need to know them intimately. I plan on praising Stephen King.

On Writing is part-memoir, part-writing manual, part-fan guide. The first section of the book chronicles the process King went through to become a writer; namely, his life. He recalls humorous anecdotes that shaped his mindset and writing style (I especially liked the one where he “yarked” all over his mother’s shoes).
The second section is a sort of writer’s guide where King informs the reader on how he thinks good writing happens. He isn’t pushy, he isn’t pretentious, and he isn’t preachy. He writes the writer’s guide like he writes his fiction: clearly and to the point. Since I wasn’t really reading the book for the instructional aspect of it, I appreciated this.
The fan guide sort of encompasses the whole work. It is a peek inside a great mind; King would probably hate that phrase. That’s alright. I loved this book because it showed me more of my favorite writer, who I think of as a kind, smart, genuine person. King even invites the reader to complete a writing exercise and email it to him at StephenKing.com. That is very cool.
The scariest part of this book was the section called “On Living: A Postscript.” It details the car accident that sent King to the hospital in 1999 and nearly killed him. I had no idea he had been that close to death. It’s an emotional chapter, particularly if you feel the way I do about Stephen King.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who has the slightest interest in writing. It’s a useful tool and a great read.

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2 Responses to “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King”

  1. 1 Werner

    It’s a good book. I’m not quite the Stephen King junkie you are (this was, in fact, my first King book aside from Cujo, which I read in High School and disliked). That said, I picked this up with reservation, but not necessarily hesitation.Sure, Stephen King is the world’s most popular (I’d guess richest, too) novelist, but it’s all crap, right? I mean, I read Cujo when I was a freshman and it (not to be confused with It, as I haven’t read that one yet) was pretty bad. And he’s just too popular to know anything about anything. It’d be like The Eagles writing a book about music or Spielberg writing a book about movies.Wait, you like some Eagles songs? Joe Walsh rules? And Spielberg kicked all sorts of ass with Jaws and Indian Jones? Oh, that’s right, I forgot.Perhaps I took the long way to get to my point, but the fact of the matter is that even though Stephen King wrote Maximum Overdrive and Dreamcatcher (and Cujo), he also wrote The Shining, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” and The Stand. Of course, if you’re a competent writer–and King is, regardless of taste–and you write two books a year(ish) for 30 years, you’re bound to have some good ones and maybe even a few great ones. And of a bunch of shit, too. But hey, he wrote “The Body”, and that’s what Stand By Me is based off of, so he’s all right by me. Hell, Joyce Carol Oates wrote way more bad than good and she’s supposed to be a genius. I’d say her track record is no better than King’s.So is it luck that King is popular? Is it just a matter of prolificness (not a word) surging past brilliance? Well, yes and no. King says that before his accident in the late 90s, he would write 2000 words a day. Every. Single. Day. That’s four 180,000 word novels every year (King does short fiction, too, so it’s not like he’s just pumping out shitty alien books nonstop. He takes the time to pump out shitty alien short stories, too). That’s a lot of writing, and anyone who does that for a few years with the intent of getting better is going to get better. Narrative craft is a craft. It can be learned. King was already inclined towards writing anyways, as some people are. He just happened to be sufficient and willing to learn. He got better.This may seem like a big rant on King’s career, but when a writer does a book on writing, what are they doing if they’re not saying “This worked for me. Here’s the deal.”? That pretty much exactly what King does, in a really killer informal tone that makes it seem like you’re sitting down with him, drinking a Pepsi (he’s been clean from everything since some point in the 80s, as we learn in the memoir section of the book) and shooting the shit about writing.Obviously I don’t agree with him on everything. He’s not keen on writing workshops, but I see his point. There are a lot of morons that attend workshops with the intent of using it as a shortcut as opposed to part of the revision process. He underplays the importance of theme and symbolism and everything else that enriches fiction beyond being “just a story”. King writes stories, and he says repeatedly that the story is the most important thing. Of course, he’s correct. However, he puts everything else at such a distant second, third, and fourth that it doesn’t sit well with me.Does this book stand on its own as a handbook on writing? Maybe, as it champions the use of freewriting and a strict, loving dedication to writing (and reading!), which are two of the most important things a writer should know: just fucking do it, man (and read it!).I’m a sucker. I bought this book not because I need another book on craft–I always need another book on craft, which isn’t the point–but because Stephen King wrote it and I wanted to see if he was full of shit. He’s not always right, but he’s certainly not full of shit. I suggest this for fans of King who are interested in his life and the source of his approach to writing. I also suggest it for writers, because even if you think King sucks, he’s more popular than you. I know that I’m retrograded to the point of youthful idealism, but I think everyone kind of wants to read the popular kid’s diary. This one just happens to be well-written, funny, and by the guy who gave us the opportunity to see Sissy Spacek wax a bunch of motherfuckers in the high school gym.The memoir section gives a nice perspective, and certainly puts his opinion about craft into the type of context that reveals just how much of writing is opinion: all of it. Writers shouldn’t be made to read this in the same way that writers should read Carver and Kerouac and Hemingway, but writers should still read it.

  2. 2 painted lady

    I definitely only read this book because it was by Stephen King… and I think a lot of his longer stuff is sort of crappy. I didn’t really like Dolores Claiborne that much, nor did I really like Rose Madder–but then again, not many people did. I really liked On Writing because it gave me an inner view of someone I admire at work. This is why I love reading King’s introductions and afterwords. He is aware of the reader and of the reader’s expectations of him. He also makes the reader feel welcome, which is important. There’s nothing I hate more than an author/writer who thinks they are above having “fans.”


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