Confession: I have never read a Stephen King novel in my life. I have never read a Stephen King novella. I have never read a Stephen King short story.
So what exactly inspired me to spend 25 cents on his memoir/writing guide at a book fair this spring, I’ll never know. Even further, what inspired me to pick it up and read it is beyond me.
The fact of it is, I like books about writing. I like books about writers. Back in the day when I used to fancy myself a writer, I spent much more time thinking about writing and the craft of writing than I actually did writing.
But Stephen King?
I found myself extremely impressed by this book, and when I stopped to think about it, I decided that there are three main things make On Writing work. (Well, admittedly there are more than three but these are the three that stood out to me.)
1) King starts off the first third of the book with his journey as a writer in a vignette-based flashback of moments that brought him to where he is today. He says his memory of his adolescence is spotty, and the way he describes his misadventures — as dreams, almost, with vivid details and some that have been forgotten — conveys this well. For someone like me, who could have maybe named three Stephen King novels before reading this book, the fact that he takes the time to establish who he is and where he comes from gives him added credibility. For someone who’s been a fan for years, this section would likely be fascinating glimpses into the mind and experience of a master storyteller. And there is the crux of it: he’s not just a guy who talks about writing, but in this section he calls his C.V., he proves that he is that master storyteller, that he can weave an interesting story in an interesting way.
2) He lays down his rules of writing, and admits when he breaks them. Some of the rules of writing are fairly basic, the same that we’ve all been instructed to follow ever since Strunk taught White. Eliminate your adverbs, excise excess words, find an honest reader, etc. — and when you break a rule, be ready to justify it. You don’t just write 40 novels and make millions of dollars as a writer by accident. There’s a process to it, a process that makes a good writer better, and he sketches it out clearly in his discussion of writing. Though one might think a discussion of rules of writing might be dry, boring or repetitive, King once again shows that he can even make “the boring part” interesting. His style is conversational and direct: he embodies his rules as he divulges them.
3) He’s honest. He is upfront about becoming sober after years of alcoholism, about the terrifying experience of being hit by a van and facing your own mortality and fragility, about the frustrating world of trying to get published. He is clear that there are bad writers, good writers and great writers, and try as you might, you can make a good writer better but you will never make a bad writer good. He’s also forthcoming about the simple fact: he loves to write. You can tell that even though this guy is a millionaire and a household name, he hasn’t forgotten that life happens, that people have baggage, that we are a product of our surroundings and experience, that passion often dictates happiness. Unlike the sterile world of writer’s workshops and the ideal “room of one’s own,” his lingering point is that you have to deal with your world to write in it — so deal with it, and write in it.
I enjoyed every page of this book. And it almost — almost — makes me think that I should perhaps pick something up by this man that wasn’t created solely for the pages of Entertainment Weekly.