"On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" by Stephen King
by Rachel Baruch Yackley
Devotees of his often graphic fictional stories may not be lining up to read this newest work by Stephen King, but if you admire the writer, and if, by chance, you have aspirations toward the same dream, then this is a book for you.
Prefacing the first half of the book is a captivating forward (titled “First Forward,” as it is followed by “Second Forward” and “Third Forward”), which provides the reader with a brief glimpse into King’s heart and what makes this creative man tick.
Have you heard of the rock-and-roll band who called themselves “The Rock Bottom Remainders,” aka “The Remainders,” aka “Raymond Burr’s Legs?” This musical menagerie originally consisted of Dave Barry on lead guitar, Ridley Pearson on bass, Barbara Kingsolver on keyboard (who was later replaced by Mitch Albom), Robert Fulghum on mandolin, and King on rhythm guitar. The back-up singers consisted of Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Tad Bartimus, and Amy Tan.
It is Tan to whom “On Writing” is dedicated, who King credits with helping him see that this particular book was okay to write.
What fills the first half of the book is King’s own story of how he came into his craft.
“This is not an autobiography,” writes King. “It is, rather, a kind of curiculum vitae-my attempt to show how one writer was formed.”
Memories of his childhood draw us through this writing, with wonderfully supportive statements for writers woven through King’s enjoyable storytelling style. My own copy is dog-eared wherever I ran across comments such as, “There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky.”
King does share how some of his works came about, and spends much of this part of the book reflecting on the development of “Carrie.” His descriptions of the struggles of unpopular high school girls is compelling enough in itself to make me want to read the book again. But this time I would pay particular attention to the heart of the main character, as King has now made me care so much more about her.
Through the descriptions of himself and how he evolved as a writer, King teaches us that it is work, it is art, and it is magic.
“Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”
The second half of the book, aptly titled “On Writing,” is filled with extremely useful advice for all writers, professional, amateur, and those who are still in the fantasy stage. Throughout this section, “read a lot and write a lot” emerge as the mantra King most wants to pass on to each of us.
This is a 288 page quick read. As a freelance writer, a teacher, and a mother, I don’t have much consistent time to read, but I managed to tear through this book in just three days. King’s comments on writing will be welcomed and easily incorporated into any writer’s process. Some of the ones I’ve also dog-eared are:
“Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story.”
“When a simile or metaphor doesn’t work, the results are sometimes funny and sometimes embarrassing.”
“Not all agents are good agents.”
“You must begin as your own advocate.”
As far as practical advice, there’s plenty, from where to write, how to edit your work, things to avoid (accompanied by often hilarious examples), and how to get published. King even takes on the roll of English teacher in this book as he provides a reader with two printings of a story: the first in its raw form, and the second covered with his own editorial marks, followed by reasons for the changes.
Being a person who actually does seem to practice what he preaches, King has included a three page book list. As he has been inspired and entertained by every book he has ever gotten his hands on, he includes many of his favorites, which resulted in a list of easily accessible books for every reader and writer.