On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King


Review by Gabriel

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

When I was a kid, probably around 9 or 10, I was obsessed with the telemovie of Stephen King’s It.  I recorded it straight from TV, with my thumb poised over the pause button so I could cut out all the ads.  I watched the tape so many times that the whole movie looked like it took place in a snowstorm, especially the scene where Bill Denborough slingshots a silver marble into Pennywise the Clown’s head.  At school, I made an It club, and suddenly thought stutters and Ventolin puffers were cool.  I don’t know what it says about me that I was obsessed with a movie about an evil shape-shifting clown that killed children, but that’s how it was.

To become the school/world authority on all things It, I also bought the 1000 plus page monster of a novel.  I gave it my best shot, but there were just too many descriptions and boring stuff about adults for me to make it much further than twenty pages.

It wasn’t until a good ten years later that I finally got around to reading the novel.  It was a little different from my beloved childhood telemovie.  The basic plot was the same, but there were also astral tongue biting duels, kids having group sex and a cosmic turtle.  I remember finding it readable and enjoyable, but not being overly impressed.  Around the same time, I read The Stand, another King epic.  Now, I generally like the idea of apocalyptic novels, but The Stand turned me off with its overt religiousness and its bland, cliché interpretation of evil.

All of which is a long-winded, self indulgent way of saying I have a long history with King, but I’m not a big fan of his fiction.  I am, however, a huge fan of this book, On Writing.

For the first hundred pages of so, King tells us about his life, and how writing has shaped it.  He writes well, honestly, and with a lot of humour.  So much humour, in fact, that you almost don’t realise how hard his life must have been.

King and his brother were abandoned by their father at a young age, and they were raised by a single mother, although he occasionally refers to a string of figures that he calls “Daddy guy”.  They moved around a lot and lived close to the poverty line.  Still, it is obvious that he was well cared for, loved, and prodigiously smart.

The encouragement King’s mother provided is almost undoubtedly the reason he became a writer.  When he was around 10, King wrote his first original story.  It was about “four magic animals who rode around in an old car, helping out little kids.  Their leader was a large white bunny called Mr Rabbit Trick.”  He recounts how, after showing it to his mother, “She said it was good enough to be in a book.  Nothing anyone has said to me since has made me feel any happier.”

His open, unpretentious style lets the events speak for themselves.  His account of the death of his mother could stand against any piece of writing by authors considered more literary.

“We could hear the pause after each rasping breath she drew growing longer and longer.  Finally there were no more breaths and it was all pause.” 

And he’s just so damn likable.  Despite being one of the bestselling authors in the world, he is very down to earth, recognisable as the nerdy kid who was selling copies of stories at school for a quarter, and still self-conscious about writing what his teachers termed “trash”.  In his writing, you can almost hear his friendly drawl, full of colloquialisms like “man oh man” and “super duper”, and references to the golden age of American pop culture.  Probably the most likable thing about him, though, is how much he loves writing.

Its surprising that someone who is famous for writing horror and science fiction advocates the journalistic tradition – simple language, minimalist descriptions, “avoid unnecessary words”.  Yep, Strunk and White is practically his bible.  He believes in having a modest vocabulary, a firm grasp of grammar, active sentences and the complete, merciless eradication of adverbs.

In a simile that I liked, King likens writing to excavating a fossil: the idea for the story is the fossil, something that just appears out of nowhere, like talent; writing is excavating, careful sustained work that requires the right tools.

His number one rule is to read and write at least four to six hours a day.  A big ask if you’ve got a full time job, but something he managed to do while living in a trailer with a wife and two kids while working not one, but two jobs.  His advice isn’t just confined to writing style, but practical advice for finding an agent and getting published, as well as drafting techniques and getting feedback.

King ends the book by telling how, in 1999, halfway through writing this memoir, he was struck by a van and nearly killed.  His leg was broken in nine places, his hip was fractured, he spine was chipped in eight places, four of his ribs were broken and he needed thirty stitches in his head.  His account of the accident and his recovery is a brilliant piece of writing, because every part of it rings true.  He doesn’t depict himself as brave or inspirational, although he was both of these things.  He just tells you how scared he was when he though he was going to die, and what he said, and what it took for him to sit down at his desk and start writing again.

If you’re a wanna-be writer, or an actual writer, I’d highly recommend this book.  It was good enough to make me want to give his novels another shot, if only to see his beliefs put into practice.  Maybe I’ll give It a go again.  Or Misery, I quite like the sound of that.

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