In 'On Writing' Stephen King reflects on his life, his writing, and his craft
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King
Published 2000, 320 pages
First, I am of reader of many of King’s books - not all of them are great, of course, but I’ve read some really good ones. This was a terrific read and I highly recommend it. You don’t have to be a fledgling writer or want to write books to enjoy this book. You might think this subject matter would be dry reading, but it’s not. (I was going to write it’s “absolutely” not, but after reading this book and about King’s aversion to adverbs, it stopped me. (see below where this is discussed)
King starts by relaying various stories of his early life that show why and how he became a writer. He talks about working on a school newspaper, which he didn’t like, and receiving rejections for short stories he submitted. He loved the horror movies of the late 50s, early 60s:
“At thirteen I wanted monsters that ate whole cities, radioactive corpses that came out of the ocean and ate surfers, and girls in black bras who looked like trailer trash.”
It’s not surprising that when he began writing it was horror stories; those were the kinds of stories he was drawn to. He’d been writing and selling the occasional story to magazines for a couple hundred dollars, but he and his wife Tabitha (Tabby) were really struggling. With two young kids, they were unable to even have a phone because they couldn’t afford the payments. He often talks about his wife in the book and I enjoyed those insights to her and their life.
“Tabby never voiced a single doubt (in his writing), however. Her support was a constant, one of the few things I could take as a given.”
“My mental version of Tabby is rarely as prickly as my real-life wife can be; in my daydreams she usually applauds and urges me ever onward with shining eyes.”
King also candidly discusses his alcohol and drug abuse which got so bad that he couldn’t remember writing an entire book! Thanks to an intervention from family and friends, he got clean.
Some comments he made about writing are:
“I have my own dislikes – I believe that anyone using the phrase “That’s so cool” should have to stand in the corner and that those using the far more odious phrases “at this point in time” and “at the end of the day” should be sent to bed without supper.”
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” (words usually ending in ly – firmly, completely, totally, happily)
He discusses books by other authors that were plot-driven and ones that weren’t. It was fun reading his thoughts on them. King doesn’t work from a plot, his books start with an idea and evolve organically, often turning out differently than he initially expected because he lets the characters determine the arc of the story (Misery). He says, 'remember, there is a huge difference between plot and story'. He starts with a situation, as in What if a young mother and her son become trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog. (Cujo) He breaks down several of his books and explains how they changed as he was writing, which I found fascinating.
“I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible…I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.”
He believes you need to read a lot to be a good writer. He reiterates this numerous times. “Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot.” He goes on to say you don’t want to over describe or under describe, you need to find a happy medium. “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Which is why he doesn’t like to describe too much what the characters look like or what they wear. King states that when people are bored reading a book, usually it’s because there’s too much description - get on with the story. I agree with that statement - too much description almost always bores me.
He names other authors and their books, talks about their style of writing, even quotes some passages. He talks about what he admires or doesn’t like.
When discussing topics such as plot, grammar, or style, he would write a sentence, then rewrite it to show how it can be improved, which I found very informative and interesting.
His last chapters tells about the time in 1999 when he was hit by a van. If you don’t already know the story, it’s quite harrowing. In closing he lists some of his favorite books he read in the couple year priors to writing this memoir. This was a book I’m very glad I read!
Are you a Stephen King fan? Have you read this yet? Let's talk about Stephen King in the comments!
photo by Suzy Hazelwood, pexels; King bookstack Sadie Hartmann