On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Published in 2000
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
“I was stunned by Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liar’s Club.”
It is difficult to find a more well-known contemporary writer than Stephen King; often seen as either the king of horror (pun slightly intended) or the harbinger of the demise of “true literature” (whatever that is), King can be polarizing, but it is difficult to argue he doesn’t know his stuff. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is his attempt to put to paper what he knows about the craft, what formed him as a writer, and other advice to aspiring authors in one volume that is as illuminating in its content as it is refreshing in its execution.
This is the memoir portion of the book and, as one might expect, it begins with King’s childhood recollections. He states almost immediately that this is not an autobiography; it is an attempt to show how he was formed as a writer. King was a sickly child and, while bed ridden, he consumed comic books and horror movies compulsively. After copying the comics, he began writing his own stories with his mother’s encouragement, though he seemed to be cursed to write for newspapers as a high school student. King describes meeting his wife, Tabitha, in college and the devoted love he feels toward her permeates the page. The couple have two kids and are barely scraping by when he begins to write what would become his first published novel, Carrie. However, this almost didn’t happen since he threw out the manuscript; lucky for him, it was fished out of the trash by his wife, who pushed him to finish the novel. Before moving on to the next section, King also discusses substance abuse and debunks the myth that altered states of mind are necessary to be a great writer.
What Writing Is
In this short section, King argues that writing is telepathy over space and time between writer and reader. This is where the “Books are a uniquely portable magic” quote that is famous among the literature-inclined comes from. He also warns writers not to come lightly to the page; you are there to work and should treat it as such.
This section brings elements of craft into play as King uses the metaphor of his grandfather’s toolbox. He says that every writer should have a toolbox with various layers that they can use according to what the story demands. The top of a writer’s toolbox is filled with common tools, or your vocabulary. He warns against dressing up your words or trying to improve them actively; this will come about naturally as you read more. The next level is grammar; much like vocabulary, the basics are picked up naturally as a speaker of a language, but it behooves oneself to refresh their understanding of the rules if necessary. The final level as consists of paragraph form and spacing before going into his own personal pet peeves: passive voice and adverbs
King argues that there are bad, competent, good, and genius writers. You cannot make a good writer out of a bad one, but you can make a good writer out of a competent one. According to King, there are two necessities to become a good writer: read a lot and write a lot. In order to learn and perfect the craft, it is necessary to read and write every day in a place where you can close the door with zero distractions.
Contrary to the old adage of “write what you know”, King says “don’t write what you know; write what you like.” He uses the metaphor of writing stories like excavating a fossil; it is all there, but the writer needs to discover it. King developed this idea from writing mainly from situations rather plot. He also goes on to discuss revisions; his rule of thumb is two drafts and a final clean copy. He wraps up this section by sharing some advice on getting published and finding an agent, but many of these methods are outdated (the book was in the process of being written 20 years ago).
On Living – A Postscript
King returns to the personal aspect to describe the accident that nearly killed him in 1999; he was hit by a blue van while walking along the side of a road. He goes into detail about the extent of his injuries, the physical therapy, and how difficult it was to begin writing again. King writes that though some days are worse than others, it continues to improve and he is hopeful and thankful for the work. In a sort of secondary postscript, he gives a long example of how he edits and provides two recommended reading lists, the second of which was added in the 2010 reprint of the book.
This is a singular book in that, though it combines both the seemingly incongruent genres of memoir and instructional writing, King sprinkles his advice in each story and every excerpt has a reason and intention behind its inclusion. There isn’t a page wasted to frivolous introspection or unnecessary stories that detract from the central subject of the book. King’s tone is very conversational without losing credibility and makes for a smooth reading experience. Love him or hate him, Stephen King proves in On Writing that he truly cares about the craft and wants to share it with those who feel the same.
Verdict: 5 insightful writing tips out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of Stephen King, aspiring writers, English majors, those looking for some insight into the mind of one of the most famous American authors of the late 20th century, authors who want to learn about the craft of writing, and you!
Not recommended for: People who dislike Stephen King, authors who think they have it all figured out, or advocates of adverbs and passive tense.