On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

Pocket, 2000, 297 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-5596-7

If you are a Stephen King fan, there is only one thing you need to know about this book: It’s essential reading. Go get it. Now. Shoo. Come back whenever you’ve read it. I’ll wait. It won’t take a long time, trust me.

For everyone else, it’s important to place On Writing in the proper context of Stephen King’s life and times. In King’s nearly thirty-year-long career (Carrie was published in 1974, though King wouldn’t become a mega-selling author until after the de Palma and Kubrick adaptations of, respectively, Carrie and The Shining in the late seventies.) King has never been shy about either talking about himself or the craft of writing. (For proof, see, oh, the “Constant Reader” forewords, interviews and non-fiction pieces in places like Writer’s Digest.)

But until now, though he had published non-fiction before (his book-length exploration of horror fiction, Danse Macabre, is a must-read for every serious student of the form), King had never tackled a sustained autobiography, nor a lengthier piece on the act of writing.

Well, no more. On Writing is on shelves, and it’s definitely worth reading. Part confessional autobiography, part inspirational advice, part reflection on the techniques of writing, On Writing is of most interest to existing fans of King’s work, but should reach a much larger public by sheer virtue of honesty. The big surprise, in light of the massive length of some of King’s novel, is how On Writing comes out as an easy, short and snappy book, just long enough to leave us wanting more.

The first section is a collection of thirty-eight memories, anecdotes and vignettes of his life, from the infant Stephen King to the seasoned best-selling writer. Though I’m no literary scholar, the level of honesty exhibited here by King is commendable. From an unremarkable childhood in a single-parent family to his first forays in writing, King gives us a glimpse in the formative experiences of the writer he has become. Future King specialists will read this in awe; the rest of us won’t be any less fascinated. King occasionally shocks (On his addiction problems: “I wrote The Tommyknockers, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.” [P.90]) but follows up with some good advice (in this case, that the myth of the gloriously addicted writer is a false and dangerous one; “Hemingway and Fitzgerald drank because that’s what alkies are wired to do.” [P.92]) King also describes the fascinating process by which several of his best-known books were written. He doesn’t even remember writing entire novels, but what he does remember is sobering.

He follows this confessional with writing advice that occasionally takes up more of an inspirational quality than a strictly didactic one. It also helps that this is a book about writing from someone who knows how to write and loves doing it. A random selection of King’s fiction shows an uncommon fascination with writers and the writing process (One title: Misery), and this fascination is entirely organic to his own writing process. It would be hard to imagine his best-selling colleagues (say, Tom Clancy or Danielle Steele) being able and willing to write a similar book. (Audaciously enough, King also takes the time to criticize some of his colleagues)

The book closes on more autobiographical material, this time a lengthy description of his 1999 accident (in which he was hit by a drunk driver) and his rehabilitation. Seasoned horror readers might find themselves cringing with sympathy as King spares no details in recounting how difficult the experience was. At this stage in the book, it comes as no surprise if starting to write again has been a key element in his recovery.

At this stage of his career, it’s widely acknowledged that King is well on his way to become the representative popular writer of the late twentieth century. On Writing shows the qualities that will make him a Dickens for our time in years to come. His dedication to craft and his knowledge of what he is doing are unequalled in the best-selling arena. There are undoubtedly better writers out there, but few have been able to marry popular success with literary quality like he has been able to do. We are lucky that he’s been so willing to set down his advice and his memories in such a book.

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