Book Review: On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft
by Stephen King

My latest case of book lust has been quenched by books about writing. I know I should be writing more, but I consider this little stretch of books a warm up before the main event.

On Writing was recommended to me a while ago by T-Bone. We talk writing. We share poetry. We give each other recommendations. We love writing. We appreciate it. Appreciating good writing is something that Uncle Stevie recommends highly. This is one of the many glorious writing tidbits snuggled up with entertaining anecdotes jammed into this book. The stories he shares are vivid. Sometimes they are horrifying. Sometimes funny. They are always well told.

King's 2000 nonfiction release was one of my favorite writing books for many reasons. First, it gave me an in-depth look at King's development as a writer. It was great. I loved his candor throughout the book. The tone was that of a conversation with a mentor in his study. Those who claim King is a hack are totally nuts. I will never agree with that. In fact, after reading this book, I'm ready to get back on the Stephen King reading path. I must continue on to the Dark Tower. It calls to me like it called to Roland. And, even though it's a bazillion pages long, I'm going to read The Stand.

Initially, I didn't know why I loved On Writing, which made me feel ashamed. If you can't describe why you think something is good or bad, King advises another career path. After a solid minute of thinking, the reasons to read this book started flooding my mind. King instructs to read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. I'm still working on it, but it's brilliant. That tiny book is brilliant from the start of the introduction. I'm embarrassed that I have only recently picked it up. I probably should have been reading it annually since high school.

I tried to take notes, but I loved pouring through the pages, much like all the Dark Tower books I've finished. I can't review those yet because I'm not done with the journey. King's nonfiction has stories so perfectly spun that the book stays glued to your palms. I did manage to collect a few favorite passages, nonetheless.

King's approach to writing was very revealing. He considered the reader/writer relationship a form of telepathy. Later in the book he called the relationship a miracle. Clearly this sheds light on why he is so passionate about his craft. King was also humble and unafraid to talk about his writing struggles.

King was adamant about the story being the foundation for one's writing. He writes a story much like Michelangelo sculpted. King put his characters into a situation and watched them work their way out of it, just as Michelangelo chiseled his subjects out of stone. King observed and recorded his characters' progress. He believes the story always tells itself. This is an interesting notion, though I'm not sure if I am ready to adopt that as belief just yet.

An interesting part of the book was the advice on sharing your first completed novel. King discussed how long you should stay completely away from it; he recommended a minimum of six weeks. He also said that once you pass your first draft to the first reader, who he calls the Ideal Reader, you should notify them of how long you'd like to wait to talk about their thoughts.

At the end of the book the reader learns how important writing is to King. He turned to the craft in a time of great hardship. On Writing was halfway done when he was severely injured in a car accident in June 1999. He was going on a walk and a van blasted him 14 feet into the air and then deposited him on the side of the road in a crumpled heap. The injuries he endured made my bones ache with each word. It's incredible that he lived. His family and his writing helped him heal. He compared writing to water. Both are free and both quench their respective thirsts.

There's a pattern I've seen develop in all these writing books. Basically, they all say that if you're a poor or merely tolerable writer, there's not too much hope of being a great writer. You can become a better writer, but for the most part the good writers are those that become great writers. This is the only bummer in King's book, but I've read the same message time and time again. I can see how someone that isn't very good to start could be discouraged by various writing guides that echo this sentiment.

Great book for fiction writers, though. It was a delight and Stephen King has definitely got my attention. Some of Mr. King's knowledge:
"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." (p. 50)

"Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops." (p. 125)

"Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing - of being flattered, in fact - is part of every writers necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you." (p. 146)

"Reading at meals is considered rude impolite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be second-to-last of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway." (p. 148)

"All this suggested to me that violence as a solution is woven through human nature like a damning red thread. That became the theme of the stand." (p. 205)

"Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it's like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub." (p. 209)

"(I hate and mistrust pronouns, every one of them as slippery as a fly-by-night personal-injury lawyer)" (p. 214)

"Writer's are needy." (p. 220)

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