On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King is part mini-biography, part “how to” on writing. Ironically, I have never read a Stephen King novel. I found this book in the reference section at my favorite B&N down the street from my house. I don’t live under a rock. Of course, I knew who Stephen King was. I also knew that his genre of preference was the furthest from my own. Psychotic episodes, gore and guts, mystery and suspense are not the kinds of things I consider enjoyable when reading; much less when watching something. You will never catch me intentionally watching a scary movie. I feel enough anxiety at work every day; don’t need a scary movie to pile it on, thank you very much.
Any book that starts off with not one, not two but three forewards simply has to be either pretty good or overindulgent. Even though the three forewards turned out to be more enjoyable than overindulgent, the real reason why this book had any real chance of coming home with me was because of the first couple of sentences in chapter one. “I was stunned by Mary Karr’s memoir…she is a woman that remembers everything about her early years. I’m not that way.” Neither am I, Mr. King. I hardly remember anything at all about my earlier life. And there you have it. That’s how Mr. King and I first connected.
Having never read any of his books, I didn’t have an understanding of the quality of his writing. But I figured anyone who has written more than sixty-five books and adapted more than five of them into movies must know a little something about writing. My other dilemma was that I wasn’t entirely sure I was “allowed” to read this instructional book since I had never read any of his other books. It seemed somewhat hypocritical of me. “Who’s cares?” I thought. Then I snapped out of it when I realized the foolishness of my concern. It’s not like there are literary policemen watching over my shoulder forbidding me from taking instruction from a renowned author whose books I’ve never read. So off I went back home with this fine book in hand.
Like Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, On Writing by Stephen King is one of those books that felt to me like reading a letter from an old friend. I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. He is blunt, unapologetic and intrepid. “As all sophomoric humorists must be, I was totally blown away by my own wit. What a funny fellow I was! A regular mill-town H.L. Mencken! I simply must take the Vomit to school and show all my friends! They would bust a collective gut!” Ha! I love the confidence. And he was right, they did collectively bust a gut. However, it landed him in the principle’s office since the Vomit poked fun of the school’s faculty. With the exception of one teacher, the rest of the faculty thought it equally entertaining (including the principle).
In the first half of the book, Mr. King writes briefly about his life and his talent. He realized at a fairly early age that he had a real knack for writing. He was a sickly child who suffered often from acute ear infections which all started from a mild case of the measles which later progressively worsened. He spent nine months in bed. Then he had to have his tonsils removed shortly thereafter. He had missed too much of the school year so he was pulled out. During the time he was sick in bed all he could do was read. Mr. King read voraciously. He would copy comics verbatim until one day his mother suggested he write his own. “Those Combat Casey funny books are just junk – he’s always knocking someone’s teeth out. I bet you could do better. Write one of your own.”
Mr. King took her words to heart and the rest, as they say, is history.
The second half of the book is the instructional part. So much of it, if not all of it, is very good advice on writing. His most important piece of advice for becoming a better writer is by becoming an avid reader. “You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own as you do so…If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” He explains his advice in detail even providing plenty of examples from his own work which makes it all the more useful for the reader. He warns about the dangers of spending too much time watching television. He emphasizes the absolute need to learn how to accurately describe things, people, and situations. Descriptions are imperative for a good narrative. He gives useful advice on how to correct one’s own work through working on more than one draft. He makes it abundantly clear that he’s not a fan of writing workshops. He advises us to find an “Ideal Reader” (IR) to critique one’s manuscript.
On Writing is a wonderfully written unconventional reference book. It doesn’t bore the reader to death with “how to” and “what not to do” instruction. Mr. King shares with the reader several stories about his life and his writing while he instructs the reader on how something should be accomplished. As I mentioned previously, I’ve never read any of his novels but if you’re a true Stephen King fan looking to learn how to improve your writing then you’ll absolutely love this book. I was able to keep up with some of his references such as the mention of The Shining and IT. I may have recalled another one or two but can’t remember right now.
But above all, my favorite piece of advice is to write for yourself and to be proud to be a writer. “I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given-talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.” “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”
Mr. King can be quite judgmental of other authors and the excessive use of expletives was unnecessary. Other than that, I thought the book was fantastic so I gave it a five (5) on Goodreads. As always, I’d love to know whether you get a chance to read it! Looking forward to hearing from you. 🙂