I’m nearing my 100th review, and it occurs to me, I haven’t looked at a single book by Stephen King, yet. Time to remedy the situation.
Stephen King – On Writing (2000)
As a horror fan, it should come as no surprise that I enjoy reading King’s novels. However, the book I’m looking at today is (I assume MOSTLY) non-fiction. This was my third time reading On Writing, and I enjoyed it as much this time as I did when I first read it.
For those who have never read this work, it’s equal parts autobiography, snarky humor, and solid, practical advice on getting words onto paper, by a guy who certainly knows how to put words onto paper! King starts with an attempt at chronicling some of his earliest memories, and as I get nearer to 50 years of age, I understand how difficult piecing together these early memories can be. Many of the experiences, places, and situations that he remembers became fodder for his stories. A field that he and his brother played in became the Barrens in It. A story of giant rats encountered while cleaning out a warehouse, with some tweaking, became “Graveyard Shift,” and memories of the “poor kid” in class fed the story of a tortured girl named Carrie.
More than building on memories, though, King suggests two VERY SPECIFIC things that would-be writers must do in order to become “REAL” writers—his MAGIC FORMULA: King says, unequivocally, that writers have to READ, and they have to WRITE. (This sounds pretty simple, but I think you’d be surprised how many people forget these essential elements of the writing life.) You read to learn how other people have put words onto paper (or into a machine), and you write to learn how YOU put words onto paper.
What I like about this book is King’s voice. He seems to be chatting, casually, with us, as readers. His language is direct and seems honest. He is open about personal experiences that are both painful and possibly embarrassing. He is confiding in us—his intimate buddies. It’s a great illusion, and one that I buy completely while reading this book. He isn’t STEPHEN KING “SUPERSTAR.” He’s just Steve… The normal guy who put in the work and got lucky… In addition to his down-to-earth tone, I also believe that his ADVICE is excellent.
He does, however, make a few points that I don’t agree with, such as his suggestion that some writers are inherently BETTER than others, and that some WORKS are more worthy than “lesser” works. I, for one, LOVE “bad writing,” and often find it much more entertaining that “GREAT” writing. Awful writing can sometimes be endlessly fun, whereas some “classics” can often be tedious and damn near impossible for me to get through. I also know that I am in a minority in rejecting the belief that some works are inherently “GREAT.” I’m not talking about bad spelling or improper grammar, and I don’t think King is either (these types of issues can easily by overcome with the help of an editor), but I FIRMLY believe that SMALL voices, rarely heard, unread by the masses—PERSONAL STORIES—are just as valuable, perhaps MORE valuable, than polished, editorially accepted, standardized, “mass market” works. I BELIEVE in the folk voice. The little story.
King isn’t saying that there is no place for “bad” writers, he believes many of them make a decent living selling their work. What he does suggest is that there exists an inherent (essentially elitist) value to certain works. Critics and academics KNOW that some books are brilliant, beyond normal human fare. (But critics and academics are also full of shit—and I’m speaking as a person who WORKED in academics for nearly ten years. They are just people expressing “their” opinions—as long as their opinions get them a publication credit.) It is my belief that all voices, all stories, are equally valuable to the proper audience.
Here is what King says about the value of certain writers, “…if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one. If you’re good and want to be great…fuhgeddaboudit” (p. 144.) The reasons for this are simple: it’s DESTINY. Here he explains why his son didn’t become a great saxophone player, “God had not given him that particular talent” (p. 149). To me, it just seemed like his son got bored. It wasn’t some great cosmic judgment, he just didn’t click at that time with that instrument. God doesn’t factor into it.*
If one is interested in becoming a writer, according to King, and works hard and takes classes and learns all the rules of grammar and reads and writes and loves what they do—it still might not be enough, if God doesn’t have plans for you. (Enough for WHAT? This is my sticking point. A writer writes. If they are lucky, they find an audience. If they are INCREDIBLY lucky, they make some money. If they never find an audience, nor make a penny, but they’ve gotten their PERSONAL story, however uncommercial or unconventional or “bad” it may seem to most, if they’ve gotten that story DOWN, that writer has SUCCEEDED.)
With that unpleasantness out of the way, I really do want to say that I love this book. It’s incredibly inspirational. The last time I read this book, I wrote the longest piece that I have as yet completed (Allen Tombes at 37,000 words,) and I’m certain that I wouldn’t have written it if it hadn’t been for On Writing.
A few words of warning, King likes to indulge in “colorful” language. If you’ve read any of his novels, you’ll know he is free with the cuss words, and he doesn’t shy away from sexual content. In addition, King gets extremely graphic when describing the details of injuries, like when he was struck by a van during a walk, which he discusses in detail in one of the final sections of this book. Now I for one LOVE a good monster, and I have a high tolerance for fictional horrors, but I am definitely squeamish when it comes to REAL horrors…and King (being a master of the gruesome detail) doesn’t pull a single punch either in that section OR in another section, early in the book, when describing a childhood trauma. (In some cases, he’s almost TOO good!)
For those who are curious about where Stephen King gets his ideas, this book is great. For those who are aspiring writers (or even EXPERIENCED writers,) this book is MAGIC. If you follow his advice, you CAN improve your writing—your ability to put words onto paper AND your confidence that those words are worthwhile. I am with King, whole-heartedly, when he says that reading and writing (every day—at least a little bit) are HOW a writer grows. King knows this, and instead of keeping the “secret” all to himself, he’s sharing it with everyone, in a book that is funny and moving and worth reading. I’ve read it three times already, as I mentioned above, and I WILL read it again.
*(“God,” as an external agent controlling a person’s destiny NEVER factors into it, if you ask me… However, “the gods,” whichever gods these might be, as internal inspiration or as the foci for concentration and contemplation MIGHT be a major contributing factor in the creative lives of some folks, even the BIG “G,” if these deities are part of the MINDSET of the writer or sculptor or painter or dramatist… Internal (psychological) creative inspiration vs external agent of destiny… Right, Alan Moore? Trying to grapple with the infinite or converse with the cosmic can produce some fascinating work! But this method ain’t for everyone…)
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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i’d love to read this, thanks for sharing your thoughts
I hope my comments weren’t too negative. It really is an excellent, entertaining book, and it pops up, used, for pretty cheap all the time!