Monday, July 29, 2013

Book Review: On Writing by Stephen King

If there is a single genre of written literature I avoid, it would be horror. I just can't get into the blood and guts and scaring-myself-for-entertainment thing at all. And if you were asked to name the quintessential horror writer of our modern times, Stephen King would, of course, be at the top of the list. In fact, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is the first and only Stephen King book I've read. While I still don't plan to pick up any of his others, due to the aforementioned aversion to horror, I found this memoir focusing on his writing life both helpful and surprisingly moving.

Mr. King starts out with a series of vignettes - "snapshots" he calls them, "most out of focus" - from his childhood, youth, and young adulthood, each of which adds a piece to the puzzle of his writing career. He talks about his earliest memories of imagining to be someone else, his childhood illnesses, the first time it occurred to him that he could write his own original stories. "I remember an immense feeling of possibility at the idea, as if I had been ushered into a vast building filled with closed doors and had been given leave to open any I liked. There were more doors than one person could ever open in a lifetime, I thought (and still think)."

He continues chronicling writing influences. His family didn't own a television until he was 11 years old, and he started submitting stories to magazines when he was 13, collecting pink rejection slips by impaling them on a nail in his bedroom wall. He watched horror movies and science fiction flicks, wrote a serial story for his brother's neighborhood newspaper, became the editor of his school paper, and got detention for The Village Vomit, a satirical take-down of various teachers and staff. The local paper hired him to cover sports, and the editor there, John Gould, "taught me more than any [of my high school or college composition classes], and in no more than ten minutes." Mr. King is not at all shy about giving praise and credit where it is due.

And then this hardened authority on horror actually got downright mushy when he started talking about meeting and marrying his wife. "Tabby never voiced a single doubt...Her support was a constant, one of the few good things I could take as a given...Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference." I was so drawn in to their relationship that I cried happy tears right along with his wife when he described the day he got the phone call from his publisher that the paperback rights to Carrie, his first novel, sold for four hundred thousand dollars, a lot of money for a high school teacher barely scraping by.

The second section of the book focuses more on mechanics: characterization, theme, plot, symbolism. Quite a bit of this isn't new for anyone who has read about writing before. Avoid the passive tense. The adverb is not your friend. "If you want to be a writer, read a lot and write a lot." "Try anything you like. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, toss it."

Having just recently read another book about writing, I found it interesting how frequently Mr. King's process diverged from Rachel Aaron's. For example, she likes to start her first rewrite within a day or so of finishing a book. Mr. King suggests waiting a minimum of six weeks and preferably more. Ms. Aaron outlines her plot and characters in detail before she begins writing and refers back to her outlines frequently. Mr. King likes to start with a situation and characters "always flat and unfeatured, to begin with." He sets this group "in some sort of predicament and then watch[es] them try to work themselves free." To each his or her own, I suppose, and the only way to know which works for you would be to try it out and see.

In 1999, Mr. King was hit by a van while out on a walk near his home in Maine. The final twenty pages of On Writing provide details of the accident and his recovery. While my car accident was not nearly as traumatic as his, there were enough similarities that my heart rate rose and tears came to my eyes while I was reading his story. This section of the book, which has the least to do with writing, was by far the most memorable and moving to me. He spoke of returning to writing almost two months after the accident, when it was still excruciatingly painful to sit in the same position for any period of time. "The scariest moment," he said, "is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better."

Based on his reputation as a master of horror, I have to admit that I was not expecting as much humor as I found in this book. Mr. King skillfully highlighted the absurd in every story he told and lightened the dark with the amusing. For example, during his painful recovery from the accident, he had to relearn how to walk and shared this brief scene that made me laugh out loud:
A day or two after those initial steps [his first after the accident], I started physical therapy.
During my first session I managed ten steps in a downstairs corridor, lurching along with the help of a walker. One other patient was learning to walk again at the same time, a wispy eighty-year-old woman named Alice who was recovering from a stroke. We cheered each other on when we had enough breath to do so. On our third day in the downstairs hall, I told Alice that her slip was showing.
"Your ass is showing, sonnyboy," she wheezed, and kept going.
And then there's this passage, which I'm going to print out and stick just above my keyboard for when I need this reminder: "Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy."


On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
by Stephen King
ISBN: 9780684853529
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, hardcover, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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