Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

There's an old maxim: Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.

If there's any validity to that statement, it's most obvious regarding writers.

Check on Amazon for 'writing guides' and you'll see literally thousands of books about 'How to Write That Bestseller!' or 'Writing Fiction that Sells!' The irony? The books in question could themselves be classed as 'fiction'.

Most books on writing are written by, at best, moderately successful writers. Certainly, none of them are household names. If these writers failed to sell their bestsellers, what makes them qualified to tell you how to sell yours?

That's what makes On Writing an entirely different kettle of fish.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a book about successful fiction writing by one of the most successful fiction writers in recent history. Stephen King has written over fifty novels and sold millions of books. He's probably one of the best known names in populist literature and I vehemently argue that he is the singly most important American writer of the past fifty years.

Critics may scoff, but screw 'em. Stephen King is legendary - so there is nobody better qualified to teach the art of good fiction writing than he is.

That declaration out of the way - does On Writing live up to the hype I've just given it?

The book is split into roughly three sections. The first is biographical, giving an earnest account of Stephen King's formative years and the path he took to become a successful writer. It's as amusing and entertaining as any biography you're apt to read - penned with King's trademark observations of living in lower middle-class Americana, while brutally honest about his shortcomings and successes as a writer, husband and father.

The second part is purely about the art of writing - about the words themselves, and how to craft successful fiction. Stephen King has always had a rather unique vision of writing. He's vehemently opposed to pre-plotting or planning novels in advance - preferring to consider himself the 'first reader' of a preexisting story he's merely channeling onto the paper.

The final part is the most fascinating, yet most disjointed. The manuscript of On Writing was only two-thirds finished when Stephen King was hit and nearly killed by a reckless driver on the side of a remote stretch of Maine blacktop.

He uses the final section of his book to outline his injury and recovery and put it in terms of his writing. It's tangibly creepy. During the middle section of On Writing, Stephen King referenced an unfinished book (From a Buick Eight) which I remember featuring a character dying in a roadside accident (one that eerily mirrored his own experience a few months later.)

Even creepier, a year after hitting and nearly killing him, the man who knocked King down died on Stephen King's birthday.... Creepy little details that prove the old adage 'truth is stranger (and scarier) than fiction.'

So it's a storming read - but is it useful for aspiring writers?

On Writing is certainly filled with helpful tips and advice for budding writers, but I think the major benefit of this brilliantly written book is attitude. Stephen King explains his motivation for writing, which appears to be more of a compulsion than anything else.

Despite being one of the most well-paid writers in America, he freely admits that he'd have kept writing even if he'd never sold a thing, simply because he had to.

That compulsion for storytelling is obvious: On Writing becomes a window into the mind and machinations of the real Stephen King. That in itself is fascinating.

In many ways, after devouring so many of their books, we readers sometimes imagine we understand and 'know' a writer. After reading On Writing, I realize I didn't know Stephen King at all. I still don't, but now I believe I know him a little better.

In On Writing, King's tone hovers between arrogance and self-deprecation. He was more than willing to cut down other writers and their style (naming and shaming quite a few), yet never above putting his own bad writing under an unflattering microscope. He both acknowledged his success, yet also seemed to be slightly embarrassed about it. He scoffed at critics who'd written him off as a 'schlockmeister' or purveyor of populist pap, yet sometimes wore that mantle with a certain amount of disdainful pride.

To me, it just magnified the mystique of Stephen King.

Stephen King's books have always had an important place in my mental bookshelf. His magnum opus, the Dark Tower chronicles, featured a gunslinger called 'Roland' on an inexorable quest which I paralleled with my own determined mission to live within reach of my own 'dark tower' (The Empire State Building.)

'Bag of Bones' was the book I read when I first returned to America in 2006, and King's crisp observations on rural American life strangely mirrored my experiences as I spent a week in the woods and farmland of sub(un)urban New Jersey.

Because of the appreciation I have for Stephen King, I found On Writing to be a fascinating peek into the inner workings of the man who who invented the modern American fairytale.

As a writer, On Writing has certainly given me some solid techniques and tips on improving my writing, but as a Stephen King fan, it's also enriched the experience of reading and enjoying books from this prolific writer's ever-expanding library.

For anybody interested in writing, or Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a must-read.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is available from Amazon for $7.99 and up.


paisley penguin said...

I'll have to check it out. One of my goals this year is to get my book written.

Amalthea said...

I just finished reading The Dark Tower series for the 2nd time all the way through. I sometimes think my life would be better if I was constantly creating my own wheel of ka by simple re-reading them all over and over again. I get so much out of some of his novels.... I'd love to read this at some point, I find him and his work so fascinating.

Brit' Gal Sarah said...

Gonna have to get this one after your excellent review Roland. I agree with part two, I am not a pre-planner either, I enjoy just reading my won story as I write it.

kirstygreenwood said...

This is the book that everyone says you should get if you want to finish a novel. I haven't got it yet, so that's probably why I haven't finished mine.
Either that or the fact that I'm just a procrastinating cow!