On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

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Stephen King’s fiction is, to be perfectly honest, not my favorite kind. His style relies on effacing the author, and creating the perfect narrative illusion. It is indisputable that he is a master of the craft, though, and one of the most successful storytellers alive; enough reason to have a look at the book in which he talks about the craft. King starts off with the story of how he grew up to become a writer. One of two sons of a single mother, he fell in love with fantasy and science-fiction through comics, magazines of the 60s and cinema. He started submitting stories to the same magazines he read after getting encouragement from his mother, and eventually managed to get them published. Following King’s journey of becoming a novelist gives one the chance to eavesdrop on the advice he gets on the way, such as when, on his first paid writing job as a sports reporter for the local newspaper, the editor tells him that “the first time you tell a story, you tell it to yourself. When you rewrite, you should take out everything that’s not part of the story” (p. 57). If advice like this is what shaped his writing positively, some of the literature discussed while King was studying English in college is what he did not want his literature to be: Unexamined outpourings that are to be interpreted by everyone other than the author itself. The contrast with the college literary atmosphere as King tells it highlights how, in his character, “a kind of wildness and deep conservatism are wound together like hair in a braid” (p. 53). In this book, Stephen King sounds like this curious mixture of a political Democrat but in certain areas (especially in literary issues) rather Conservative. A decent amount of the book is concerned with health issues, for example, and one episode involves how, despite he and his wife working a total of three jobs, not having enough money to buy antibiotics for their daughter. This rather enraging state of affairs is not further discussed by him, and accepted as a normal situation.

What Stephen King has to say on writing is a mixture of experience and advice, and frequently both. He covers every relevant topic, from where to get ideas, to how to look for an agent once you are done. To King, the ideas come as a combination of different remarkable events and figures. The core of Carrie, for example, is conceived when King sees, while working as a janitor, the sanitary dispensers in girls’ bathrooms in school, and imagines a girl getting her first period in the high school bathroom and being pelted by others with tampons. The main character is a combination of the loneliest girls he knew in high school. Turning such an idea into a good novel requires what King compares to a carpenter’s toolbox of skills, and the adamant desire to improve yourself as a writer. The skills part is relatively straightforward, as it concerns things like vocabulary, grammar, and Strunk & White’s elements. King still has witty and interesting things to say about these, and beautiful examples to underline them. Becoming a better writer, on the other hand, requires reading and writing a lot, and avoiding certain shortcuts that might seem like a good idea, but violate what king holds to be the most important virtue of the writer, his honesty.

Honesty has to be directed to the story, and to truth. The story, according to King, is a “relic, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world” (p. 163). The writer should stay true to its rules and how it behaves when probed by him/her. Part of this honesty is refraining from plot, because plot is extrenous to our lived life, and it distracts the writer and the reader from the more central thing, the story. As far as I can understand, the behavior of the characters is part of the story too; King refers in a few places to how a character challenged his initial plans for him, and the novel turned out a different way. An example is how the author character in Misery turned out to be more resourceful than he thought, and put up a good fight against his captor. Another part of the writer’s honesty is writing about what he/she knows, not a topic picked because it’s sexy or popular. Only by honesty, according to King, is it possible to write a book that captures the reader’s interest and give back his/her moneys’ worth.

On Writing is full of great ideas and stories on how to stay honest to the story, and turn it into a good novel. It is also, strange enough for a book that is on such an individual and lonely topic, very corporeal. As King talks about where he grew up, how he became a writer, and in the last chapter, how he nearly died after a careless van driver hit him, you find yourself right next to him. That is, you can see his writing tips at work, like an engineer explaining his construction as it is being built in front of you. This is a book not only for wanna-be writers, but anyone who enjoys literature, no matter what kind.