Review: On Writing

On Writing by Stephen King

I’ve heard of On Writing off and on throughout my life. I remember a sign in my eighth grade English class that declared one of its main tenets- if you want to write, you’d better read. A lot. As you might imagine, it had quite an effect on a voracious reader like myself.

On Writing is part autobiography, part writing manual. Stephen King relates the parts of his life that he thinks led up to his writing career, as well as parts about his writing career. He also lays down his laws of the land when it comes to the craft of writing. All his stories and thoughts are related in vignettes organized into three categories- his curriculum vitae, writing, and a postscript on life, added after his 1999 accident that nearly killed him that occurred during the writing of this book.

King opens up by praising modern memoirists, and then revealing that his memory is not good enough to write with their precision. I found that to be an excellent start. I often joke that I consider my life to have started at fourteen, mostly because any memories prior to fourteen are mostly a blur of silly hair and confusion. To find that a professional writer shares the same sort of faulty memory was instantly humanizing. He watched terrible science fiction movies at the local theater, hitchhiking rides to and from. He racked up an impressive amount of rejection slips, each carefully pinned to his bedroom walls. He wrote several novels in the laundry room of an excruciatingly tiny apartment. It’s all very mundane, in a glorious way. King’s methods are almost a lonely way to write, but a way that King is fiercely protective of, even as it dies out in the age of television and the Internet. Stephen King despises television, judging by his increasingly vicious remarks on the medium.

While I have read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, I read it far too long ago to remember how King writes. I feel like I’ve never encountered Stephen King’s writing style before, although it may be just because he’s writing about his life rather than writing a novel. He has a sour, almost vicious sense of humor that takes some getting used to. He’s quite frank about his alcoholism and drug use. Since the memoir portion of the book is only mostly linear and a little vague, we don’t have the opportunity to see those vices slowly grow to take hold of him. It can be a little shocking to stumble upon the starkly honest vignette about his vices. The memoir portion of the novel, due to its jagged nature as a series of vignettes, was perfect for picking up and reading, but not so perfect for a cohesive, coherent nonfiction work. He uses his 1999 accident to prove that writing is truly good for the soul. His sudden switch to present tense for the accident was a little jarring, but that was probably the idea in order to make it more immediate to the reader. As a whole, the postscript works a lot better than the curriculum vitae, as there’s a specific goal in the writing there.

The writing section, however, is absolutely invaluable for writers. King compares the tools of writing to an elegant and sturdy toolbox owned by his grandfather. There are the basics that ought to be absorbed and occasionally touched up, like vocabulary, grammar, and structure. He then goes on to hold forth on more intricate matters, like dialogue and story. When King declared his hate for plotting, I, a huge fan of plot, was a little miffed. However, his explanation was fairly sound. He prefers story over plot, meaning a good premise over a series of plot points characters have to hit. While I retain my love for plot, he makes a good argument. He covers everything from bad writers who can’t be helped to fairly successful writers he knows to the intricacies of editing, which I found enlightening. He also makes it very clear that writing is hard and worthy work, often granting the reader permission to make and demand time to write. It’s a remarkable resource.

I did pick up a few recommendations out of the book, two of his own books among them- Misery and The Dead Zone. This is less of a book to enjoy in one reading, but more of a resource for a writer. There’s something soothing about having the lessons of an accomplished writer available at any time.

Bottom line: Stephen King’s memoir slash lecture On Writing functions best as a resource for writers to have on hand, instead of a book enjoyed in one straight shot, especially concerning the memoir portion. Still, there’s plenty of interesting and shocking material covered in that jagged series of vignettes that constitute the memoir, and plenty to inspire other writers about the craft.

I got this book from a very nice NaNoWriMo participant at Atlanta’s first “Thank God It’s Over!” party after NaNoWriMo.

2 thoughts on “Review: On Writing

  1. I haven’t read the book, though I saw another review of it this weekend in the blogosphere. I just had to say your phrase “mostly a blur of silly hair and confusion” is fantastic.

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