Onyx reviews: On
Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
The cover shows an inviting scene, a country house with a warm light glowing
in the living room window, a set of double doors leading down to the cellar, the
house lined with pink and white flowers. "Come on in," the picture
seems to say. "I have a story to tell."
It generally takes Stephen King about three months to finish the first draft
of a book. He began On Writing at the end of 1997, but put it aside a few
months later, unsure how to finish it. Over a year later, in mid-1999, King
decided to spend the summer "finishing the damn writing book."
The events of late-June, 1999 interfered with those plans. King spent three
weeks in the hospital after he was struck by a van. In late July he decided it
was time to start writing again, and it was On Writing that he chose for
his return to work. The finished product, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
will be released by Scribner in early October, 2000.
It was a discussion with Amy Tan while on tour with the Rock Bottom
Remainders that inspired King to write this book. "No one ever asks about
the language," Tan said in response to King's query about the sorts of
questions that she doesn't get at author appearances. "Serious"
authors get asked that but they don't ask the popular novelists who, he says
"care about language in our humble way, and care passionately about the art
and craft of telling stories on paper."
King opens with a lengthy memoir that "attempted to show some of the
incidents and life-situations which made me into the sort of writer I turned out
to be." He calls this section "C.V," as in "curriculum
vitae," his list of accomplishments and job skills. Some of the story is
familiar, though many of the details are new. He works his way through his
stages as a writer from childhood to novice to apprentice to worldwide success.
For the first time in any detail, King addresses his battle with alcohol and
drug abuse, when it started, how it evolved and how he eventually was forced to
confront his problem. He reveals that he has little memory of writing Cujo
("I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the
page"), that he hadn't realized that when he was writing The Shining
he was writing about himself, and how Annie Wilkes in Misery could well
be seen as a symbol for coke and alcohol. "I decided I was tired of being
Annie's pet writer," King says.
King is more revealing of his life in this book than ever before. He is frank
in discussing the merits and deficiencies of many of his books. Of Rose
Madder and Insomnia he says: "These are (much as I hate to admit
it) stiff, trying-too-hard novels." He talks about how he reached a point
in The Stand where he had to set the novel aside for several weeks until
he could figure out how to go on. If he had written a couple of hundred pages
less at that point he probably would have abandoned the book completely. Also
described in some depth are the issues he had to deal with in writing Carrie,
The Dead Zone and The Green Mile" He spends some time
relating an event that inspired him to write the upcoming novel From
a Buick Eight and the research required for the second draft that had to be
deferred after his accident—a couple of weeks riding with the Pennsylvania
"But I'm not a writer," the prospective reader of On Writing
might cry. "Why should I want to read this book?" While a substantial
section of the book is about writing, King's approach to it and his advice to
writers at all levels of the art, there is much here for the non-writer as well.
King's success has made him a high-profile personality, more so than many other
authors, and the level of public interest in his life is easily demonstrated by
the overwhelming number of requests for updates on his condition received by his
office and official web site in the weeks following his accident. Here is the
opportunity to read King on King, and on his books. He describes the symbolism
in many of his novels, rarely planted intentionally on the first draft but
uncovered, as an archaeologist uncovers a ruin, during the writing of the second
For writers, though, the book is chock full of advice, some of it common
sense, some of it uniquely King's. His taboos of writing: adverbs (especially
those in dialog attributes) and the passive voice. His description of the
writer's toolbox: Common tools on the top shelf (vocabulary and grammar),
elements of grammar and style on the second level, along with an understanding
of the paragraph as the basic element in fiction, and a synthesis of all of
these along with innate and developed skills at the bottom.
"If you want to be a writer," King says, "you must do two
things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." King calls reading
the creative center of a writer's life. He advocates reading in small sips as
well as long drinks—in waiting rooms, in line at the theater, in the checkout
line at the grocery store, on the treadmill at the gym and in the john.
When it comes to writing, though, King is more selective. "We do best in
a place of our own," he advises. The most important feature of this place:
a door that you can and are willing to shut. No TV, no phone and no video games.
Curtains closed. Write first with the door closed. Write for yourself without
worry about theme, symbolism or accuracy of details. Those are for the second
draft, which is usually written with the door open, after he has sent the book
to a select group of critical readers.
King includes examples of both good and bad writing, sometimes taken from his
own work, sometimes taken from such writers as Elmore Leonard and John
Katzenbach. The final chapter of the book is an annotated rewrite of his first
draft of the opening section of "1408," one of the three stories in
the recent Blood and Smoke audio release. This section should
silence critics who suggest that King doesn't rewrite his work. It is an
interesting look at the creative process and what an author should look for when
editing his or her own material.
He also describes his approach to research. It's all about back story, he
says. "What I'm looking for is nothing but a touch of verisimilitude, like
the handful of spices you chuck into a really good spaghetti sauce to really
finish her off."
Toward the end of the book, King tackles the subject of his accident. This
section, called "On Living," is partly a bully platform for him to get
his version of the story down, as well as his opinion about how the legal system
handled the case of driver Bryan Smith. It also describes how an otherwise ideal
day went wrong, the minute details of his injuries and some of the challenges of
his recovery process. "Life isn't a support system for art—it's the other
way around," he concludes.
Throughout the book, but especially in this chapter, King pays tribute to
wife, Tabitha. She is King's "Ideal Reader," the person for whom he
writes all of his books, the one who he wants to make laugh or cry through his
writing. His love and admiration for her shines through, from a touching scene
in their early courtship where he sits at her feet as she reads her poetry in a
workshop, his hand on her calf, to her organization of a group intervention to
make him confront his addiction problems, and all the way through to her support
and encouragement of him during his convalescence.
At the end, King includes a list of nearly a hundred novels that he considers
the best that he's read in the last three or four years. "A good many of
these might show you some new ways of doing your work. Even if they don't,
they're apt to entertain you," he concludes.
The same might be said of On Writing.
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