|Title:||On Writing: Memoirs of the Craft|
|Publisher:||Scribner/Simon & Schuster|
In the year 1999 when the world was panicking about Y2K and the end of technology as we know it, Stephen King was recuperating at home after being struck by a vehicle in his own neighborhood. The accident was almost fatal, and the Master of Horror was determined to keep doing the thing he loved the most: writing. This non-fiction book (the only one of its kind in King’s catalogue) was a work in progress, and all of a sudden it was pulled out of hiding, dusted off and given a life. Boy are we Constant Readers pleased that he gave this masterpiece a life! It is more than simply a book on the subject of writing. It is everything we love about writing, and the feelings we get when we put pen to paper, or our hands on a keyboard. Somehow King has managed something that very few writers have managed in the past: to make you love what you love to do even more.
He does this and more in the most Kinglike way: with no bullshit! I kid you not! In the Second Foreword (there was a First of course) he states the following little gem; “this is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit”. If you include the list of novels King kindly leaves with the reader at the end, this book on writing is a mere 280 pages. As you read each glorious page through to the end the journey is not as short as the pages it’s printed on.
This is a journey for people who want to improve their writing first and foremost. King makes it very clear from the beginning that if you ain’t got it then this book will not magically make you find it. By ‘it’ I am of course referring to the ability to write. This is not a ‘how to’ manual in any shape, way or form. The book itself serves as a memoir of sorts with some glorious insight into the man we have come to perceive as rather illusive and enigmatic over the decades of seeing his paperbacks fill bookshelves of bookstores and homes since Carrie. In the first few chapters we are treated to the beginnings of King’s writing career, and in doing so King teaches us the valuable lessons of what ‘not’ to do. Some of these great lessons include NOT creating a high school newspaper that basically ridicules all your teachers under assumed names like Cow Man and Old Raw Diehl. A valid point.
Despite his own rocky start as a writer, the important thing to take notice of is that Stephen King always wanted to write. He wanted to write and so he did, though he does make it very clear that there were divine forces at work in the form of teachers that helped him through his ‘difficult’ stages and got him working on a local newspaper. In King they recognized a writer.
King discusses his family with a casual sense of caution. He gives us some insight and a few snippets into his childhood home. We learn about his alcoholism and drug addiction that nearly cost him his family, and his career (he famously has no memory of writing the 1981 best-seller Cujo), and we also learn that “life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Being a book ‘on writing’ there are of course lessons as such, which make up the bulk of the work. Comparing our writing abilities to that of a toolbox filled with different levels may seem straight forward cheese, but it isn’t. King is very aware that without the most crucial tools in your tool box the likeliness of becoming a writer are not very plausible. This writing game is a tricky one and does not simply work without a few tricks in the bag or box (so to speak), and in explaining these layers or levels is where King truly shines (pun intended).
Without giving away too many nuggets I will say this: Read lots. Write lots. Stephen King is adamant that in order to become a GREAT writer you need to read. A lot. One of the greatest pieces of advice I pulled from this extraordinary book, other than the art of being ruthless with your words, is that one should always read at any and every opportunity. Basically those days of feeling that reading at the dinner table are rude, are over. In so many ways the writer will always be the one who breaks social conventions, and often it can be argued that a writer was the one who wrote that same rule.
King’s advice does not end there as he continues to discuss the temperamental issues of finding agents, creating writing spaces, sticking to writing routines and finding just the right people to read your first drafts. These are all as important as vocabulary and grammar (which interestingly enough he believes to be fairly fluid, within reason), research and dialogue. The layers of King’s tool box analogy are not intimidating, nor are they unreachable, but they are real and they are without “bullshit”. They are there just like any other piece of advice, and they can only truly work if you put in the effort as you take heed of King’s permission slip at the end:
“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up”.